My units were always defined by the chapters of the text book. This was an embarrassment to me because I knew I could do better. In fact, when talking to teachers at my grade level who taught other subjects, I found myself saying the “unit” we are currently studying while I silently berated myself that I should just say it for what it was, the “chapter we are currently using from the text book”.
What does 7th and 8th grade curriculum look like if it isn’t chapters 1 through 12? Culture can be the overarching theme to the unit, it can be the topic that brings it all together. As we know from Laura Terrill, it is most engaging and leads to the best retention, when framed as an essential question. For example, “How does where I live define what I eat?”, “How do I contribute to my community?” or “What is a family?” Questions as sophisticated as these set up units which get students to think.
Are you surprised that this is what I mean by culture? Let me give you a little background. Defining culture has preoccupied language teachers for decades. We have talked with colleagues about culture with a big and little c, we have wanted to share our own travel and living experiences with our students and we have all taught extensively on monuments and holidays. Though I have done it all, my latest understanding of the term comes directly from the National Standards of Foreign Language Education, first published in 1996. The Culture strand advocates that students gain an understanding of the relationship between the practices and perspectives as well as the products and perspectives of the culture studied.
In my unit on “What is a family?”, with my 7th grade students I instruct on the relationship between the practices and perspectives of French-speaking people. We start by learning the terms for family members in French and we even learn grammar concepts by using word “my” to talk about our own family members. It is appropriate that students begin by speaking about their own families. In a program where many students start in 7th grade and continue on into high school, as a 7th grade teacher it is not my responsibility alone to give them a deep understanding of the topic. I give them a start by helping them talk about their own family. Then we dig a little deeper with listening to, watching and reading authentic documents and doing Interpretive Communication tasks. With a fairy tale “Mon papa le roi” and a pop song “Papaoutai” by Belgian singer Stromae, absent parents are addressed. We read the poem “Toute la famille” by Pierre Lozère and students think about which family members live under a roof together. Students listen to “Elle me dit” by Mika think of parental pressures and read a short comic strip “Père et fils” thinking about family pride. In order to stay in the target language I don’t address all these themes in depth with the students, but they are there as the students’ first exposure to the concepts even if I am only using them in a very basic way to learn new vocabulary. Beginning language students in 7th grade don’t have extensive L2 vocabularies, but they have 12 year old thinking skills. Using authentic documents, I can’t even guess at all the cultural observations my students will make as every authentic document is loaded with information about culture.