La belle ville au beau province, avec une équipe formidable

What did you do with your summer holidays? The beach? Mountain biking? Europe? The pool? Me? I did something I’d promised myself I’d do (again) over a decade ago: I went to Québec and did a French immersion program, UBC@Québec. Masochist much?

No, not really. Like many Canadians I limped through high school French as a second language (FSL), achieving a marginal ability to read the language. Write? Speak? Understand? No, not really. Thus, when I was in grad skool I availed myself of Explore (it was called the Summer Language Bursary Programme when I did it in 1999). After five weeks in Trois Pistoles (the lower St. Lawrence, 2 hours East of Québec City) I understood French reasonably well (well…not joual, the argot of Montréal) and could express myself reasonably well. It underscored for me the power of a well-designed immersive experience–and I promised myself I’d do it again someday. Fast forward a decade and I learn that: 1.) UBC runs a program for educators, and 2.) I can use my UBC tuition waiver to cover a significant portion of the costs.

Why do another immersion, if I live and work in an English-speaking context? Well, it’s simple: my unit collaborates with universities all around the world–anglophone universities. We do little with universities whose teaching is in another language, including the excellent francophone universities in Québec and Europe. That’s roughly 30% of the universities in Canada. Quite frankly that’s unacceptable to me…and it’s unfair to always place the burden of bridging the linguistic divide on the shoulders of francophones.

How it worked

I arrived in Québec City late on a Monday evening. Having identified someone else here for the programme whilst awaiting our luggage, we jumped into a taxi and were at the residence within 30 minutes. Our hosts greeted up with «Salut! Bienvenue à Quebec!» and a cold beverage. After a bit of confusion we got keys to our accomodation: 4 bedroom apartments with a large eat-in kitchen, full bath and spartanly furnished lounge.

In the roommate (colocs, or colocataires) lottery I think I won. Aside from bald fat gay higher education me, we were:

  • Patrick: a high school teacher from Burnaby
  • Keymo: a high school teacher from Vancouver
  • Will: a middle school French immersion teacher from Prince Rupert

I would say the first 30 minutes set the tone for the entire coloc experience. We three didn’t switch into English at all (except to explain the odd word to one another) for probably 3 or 4 days. Those who spoke English as much and whenever possible had a very different experience.

The next morning we were up for orientation and our “interviews”–oral placement exams, really–followed by lunch and group grocery shopping (with delivery arranged in advance!). The next day we started in our classes, with me in the intermediate group. K and W, clever lads, were in the advanced; P in the second level beginners (first beginners had little or no French). I decided in advance not to try and prep for the placement exam, which served me well in the end.

La classe, les ateliers, les profs et le Féstivale

We had two class sessions each day, with two instructors splitting themselves between two levels. Stéphanie comes from the south of France, has her doctorate in linguistics and is a kickboxer. Suffice to say I behaved myself. Myriam comes from Québec (pur laine), has her masters in French linguistic and is an expert on pronunciation. Their styles were both polished and professional: I would say Myriam was more sage on the stage and Stéphanie more guide on the side. We covered a fair bit of grammar (good, but not why I was there) and a range of applied communicative learning activities designed to improve our ability to express ourselves and understand others in French. We only had one tool in our class, which is amazing (besides me).

We also had a workshop (atelier) or group learning activity. The workshops were geared towards those teaching French. Each of the instructors in the programme–Myriam and Stéphanie, plus Marie and Carl, who taught the beginner 1 and 2 classes–plus Andrew, the admin coordinator for the programme. These were all interesting and well-designed, if not necessarily workshops (I work in educational development: I’m a stickler for workshop versus lecture). Our other learning activities were mostly tours of historical sites around town, and some experiences with folkloric music and dance. And we started each morning with a song!  The cultural piece was particularly rewarding.

And then there was Le Féstivale d’été, the summer festival. Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, LMFAO, Sarah McLachlan for the anglos; Ariane Moffat, Isabelle Boulay, Jean LeLoup, Marie May, Zachary Richard, and Johnny Halliday for the francos. Suffice to say I stuck with the latter. Scheduling the programme during the Féstivale–where a laisser passer all access wristband is only $70 for ALL shows over 10 days–gave the programme a whole other layer. It also meant most of us were zombies running on 6 hours of sleep each night.

Why it worked

This programme’s underlying design laid the foundation for its success. A broad range of learning styles, learning activities, and formative assessment strategies were implemented. Often such programmes lack continuity and internal logic: this programme was deceptively consumable for learners. As well, it was exceedingly well-delivered by a team of teaching masters, each of whom worked according to their own orientation to teaching and learning. No one used a cookie-cutter approach; never did I think “Oh no, we’re doing X again.” It was engaging, as well as inspiring.

Finally, it was exceedingly well organized, in terms of operations and logistics. Things started and ended on time. The pieces all fit together. Answers were ready for most questions and found out for others in short order. With few exceptions, the folks involved were good humoured and warm. There were 60 students from across Canada and the US, most of whom were educators. Teaching teachers is not an easy gig. Total WIN.

Pis maintenant

It’s been almost 48 hours since I got home. The laundry is done, I’ve leveraged my kettle and bath numerous times and it’s great to be back in the arms of Himself. Tomorrow it’s back to the office and already (throughout the trip, in fact) it’s been back to the (online) classroom.  I’ll try to work through the photos this week…try.

And I’ll try to listen to Radio Canada as much as possible. Radio-Canada est le reseau auquel je voudrais ecouter une fois ou plus chaque semaine.

About John P Egan

Learning technology professional.
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