Learning French While Dancing? Students Make the Leap with Panache

Article excerpt

It's 9 a.m., and two Bennington College students, Sasha Cuccinciello and Margaret Eisenberg, begin walking across a room, their arms carving imaginary waves, heads bobbing. Suddenly they flop to the floor, "swimming" (crawling) on their bellies.

As they go, the two chant: "J'aime les fleurs qui nagent avec les poissons," or in English: "I like flowers swimming with fish."

If this all sounds a bit unusual, it is. Even out here on higher education's high frontier, the notion of simultaneous dance and French instruction for students with disparate backgrounds is an audacious leap into the blue - one of the most radical experiments in cross-disciplinary teaching in the United States. But its creators also say it represents hope for the millions who trudge through standard language training struggling to conjugate and memorize verbs - and who, in the end, can barely speak a few sentences. It is also a new frontier for cross-disciplinary instruction in college, which came into its own in the mid-1980s and exists in some form at hundreds of schools nationwide. It's not unusual today for a computer-engineering class, say, to involve professors from both electrical engineering and computer science. Yet Bennington is one of only a few colleges with a reputation for pushing the envelope to blend disciplines. And even here it is unusual to cross the yawning chasm between the humanities (French) and the fine arts (dance), as this class seeks to do. The official course title is: "Moving From Words, Speaking Through Movements - and Learning French." But the students just call it "Dancing in French," an elliptical phrase that defies easy classification as either a dance or a language class. Both Ms. Cuccinciello and Ms. Eisenberg are theater majors who had taken dance before, but who knew little French prior to this nothing- but-French-spoken-here dance class. The class also includes those who speak French, but have had no dance training. At their early morning session, teacher Agnes Benoit rallies her charges. "All right, let's break up into groups and dance the sentences we've been thinking about," she says in her native French. Making language fun The course does not attempt to turn novices into instant masters of either dance or French. Instead, it's about making learning a language fun and intellectually appealing to the students, says Isabelle Kaplan, director of Bennington's Regional Center for Languages and Cultures and co-developer of the experimental class. "It's learning through listening, based on the simple way a child learns through motor activity and making connections," she says. She would like students to enjoy the class so much that they are powerfully motivated to "take responsibility" for learning the language and thereby become more engaged and active in regular language course work. …