Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Writing History in the Voice of an Other: Debyser's Immeuble at the Advanced Level

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Writing History in the Voice of an Other: Debyser's Immeuble at the Advanced Level

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article presents a writing project whose primary goal is the development of linguistic, cross-cultural, and meta-cognitive competencies through the study of a dark episode in French history-the German Occupation. Students create personas who all lived in the same building in 1939 and write their memoirs 60 years later. Following a brief description of global simulation, I present an outline of the project and student commentaries to provide empirical evidence of the value of narratives in foreign language learning to create a collaborative community of active learners.

Key words: French, curriculum, global simulation, project-based learning, writing project

Pour obtenir une vérité quelconque sur moi, il faut que je passe par l'autre. L'autre est indispensable à mon existence, aussi bien d'ailleurs qu'à la connaissance que j'ai de moi. (Jean-Paul Sartre)1

Introduction

"Congratulations! I thought you'd be happy to know that you'll be teaching the class on the Vichy régime." After the last word was uttered, my face was fixed in a grimace of fright despite the obvious symbol of promotion the news represented (the course had been taught exclusively by the same veteran teacher so far). My head was assailed by herds of monstrous images and anguished questions. How could I tell the story of a past that one still cannot get over to students who are far from mastering the French language and for whom the main criterion of motivation for a language class is spelled by three letters: F-U-N? How could I bring the students to achieve the goals as set by the department while motivating them enough to pursue their French studies when the backdrop conjured up horrifying words such as "concentration camps," "dictatorship," and "crimes against humanity"? How was I supposed to teach the dark years during which France played an instrumental role in the Holocaust without relying on gross generalities or myopic simplifications? Last but not least, how could I expect the students to understand? After all, we were just celebrating the first anniversary of the tragic event that plunged our world into the inexpressible, the unknown, the undecipherable: 9/11. I suddenly empathized with the young hero who was sent on the ho[no]rific mission to behead Medusa. I coincidently discovered that the motif of the Gorgon2 hovers over the topic of World War II and that, as mythology tells us, to behead the monster, one only needs to find a mirror . . .

The 14-week-long college course in question serves as a bridge between the intermediate and the advanced levels. It meets 4 days a week for 50 minutes. As the first content course after the language requirement, it is built around two "dossiers," as the course units are called: "France during the Occupation" and "French youth today." Eight weeks are dedicated to the first dossier and because global simulation is exclusively applied to this unit, I do not refer to the second one in this article. While there is no systematic grammatical review, the linguistic objectives for this course are to enable students to improve their writing skills by broadening their vocabulary, refining their style, learning how to use a dictionary sensibly, mastering the different tenses, and recognizing and using idiomatic expressions. Moreover, a special emphasis is put on the organization of thoughts and on the development of argumentation skills in order to prepare them for the upper-level classes. At the beginning of the semester, the typical student still struggles with the difference between the passé composé and the imparfait, swears that he or she has never heard of the plus-que-parfait, and is a stalwart defender of "beaucoup des" against the unjust, in his or her eyes, "beaucoup de." In other words, it is a student who struggles with the gray areas of the French language.

The first 2 weeks were an utter debacle. I methodically fed my students cold facts, dates, names, and lists of grammatical reviews. …

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