Sylvia Duckworth, OCT, is turning the classic approach to language learning on its head and seeing a spike in student success rates.
By Trish Snyder
Photos: Markian Lozowchuk; Hair & Makeup: Buffy Shields, Judy Inc.
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Sylvia Duckworth, OCT, welcomes a little noise in the hallways as long as it’s in Canada’s second official language. Before every French period at Crescent School, the Toronto independent school for boys, the Grade 3–5 French teacher warms her class up with a catchy rap about putting English in their pockets and filling their heads with français. Rather than calm the boundless energy that powers the eight- to 10-year-olds — one twirls as he sings, while another fidgets with the thick moulding that skirts the floor — she channels it into the song. But, make no mistake, this teacher runs a hardline class: once everyone crosses the ligne magique into her room, it’s French only.
In the classroom, she resembles a conductor leading a choir. The boys all speak at once while Duckworth uses her hands to make animated gestures: for quand she points brightly to her wristwatch; for manger she pretends to put food in her mouth. The way these boys are jumping up and speaking — and shouting, truth be told — you’d never know most of them started learning French just a year earlier. Her secret weapon is AIM (Accelerative Integrated Method; bit.ly/1EaxIUa) for teaching second languages, which gets students speaking French faster with gestures, keywords, music, storytelling and drama. “The louder they speak, the better,” says Duckworth proudly. “It shows how engaged they are.”
Duckworth, a 30-year education veteran, caters to boys’ kinesthetic learning styles when she asks them to retrieve iPads and laptops to transform scripts they’ve written into digital slide shows. One boy proudly shows his distinctly Canadian reinterpretation of a story they’ve been reading about animals — he replaced the mouse and lizard characters with hockey stars Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews. Another student is about to upload music for his slide show when Duckworth announces the end of class. He’s not the only one who wails, “Noooooo!”
With a radical teaching method and cutting-edge technology, Duckworth is making it easy and fun for students to flourish in French. Within a couple of years, her classes are performing in plays, writing stories and having conversations. Duckworth is a pioneering trainer in this technique. She has developed instruction materials and schooled thousands in the method, which has been adopted at boards such as the Bluewater District School Board. She’s also influencing educators around the world through social media. She has millions of views on her YouTube channel (sduckworth100), and thousands of interested followers on Twitter (@sylviaduckworth), her blog (sylviaduckworth.blogspot.com) and Google+ (+sylviaduckworth) — not bad for an ex-technophobe who once scoffed, “Why do I need a SMART Board?” Her impact on students and teachers earned her an award from the Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers in 2012, and last year’s Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence. When Sandra Boyes, OCT, head of Crescent’s Lower School, took students on a trip to Europe last year, she was struck by the boys’ eagerness to speak French. “That confidence and willingness to put themselves in a risk situation and feel comfortable working through it is a testament to the work Sylvia does,” Boyes says.
With all of her success, it’s hard to imagine that about 15 years ago, Duckworth was frustrated with the lack of fluency students were attaining with traditional methods of teaching. No matter how creatively she taught grammar, her students just couldn’t speak French. “It’s not the way language is acquired,” she says. “Have you ever heard a parent ask a child learning English to conjugate a verb?” She started experimenting with the technique after she watched the method being piloted by founder Wendy Maxwell. A former winner of the Prime Minister’s Award, Maxwell was dramatically boosting the comprehension, written and oral skills of her Core French students with this visual, auditory and kinesthetic teaching method backed by years of linguistic and brain-based research. “Participation went through the roof because the students are the ones talking,” says Duckworth. “It’s not the usual model where the teacher speaks and a student might answer one or two questions per class.”
To adopt the method, Duckworth had to learn a new langue herself: Pareddown Language. The approach simplifies French in the first year by reducing it to 300 keywords — the essentials for basic communication, according to Maxwell’s research. From day one, students learn a mix of regular and irregular verbs (avoir, être, trouver, manger, devoir, etc.) and high-frequency opposites (donne/prend, garde/laisse). They start with je, tu, on, tout le monde and la classe before learning nous and vous. Vocabulary is still taught in themes, but in association with a verb that can be gestured (such as fait … une soupe, un gâteau). Even corrections are supportive: "Est-ce que c’est un école ou une école?" Duckworth asks. The students grow accustomed to this trick: hearing the wrong answer first and the right answer last, they quickly learn how to correct themselves.
It took a couple of years for Duckworth to get comfortable using the 700 gestures (in total, there are about 1,500) that communicate meaning without resorting to English. (She talks exclusively en français at school, even while coaching teams; some students believe it’s all she speaks!) Words are always taught with the related hand movements, in the context of a complete sentence. Masculine and feminine nouns are reinforced with visual cues: mimicking a mustache versus fluffing the hair. Duckworth knows some teachers take the training but never implement it — the approach demands a complete change in mindset plus learning all the gestures (the use of hand signs drops off as the students gain fluency). “It’s very physical,” says Duckworth. “I’ve been teaching it for 14 years, and I’m exhausted by the end of the day. But the payoff is tremendous. When you see the fluency and how much the students are enjoying themselves, it makes it all worthwhile.”
Gone are the traditional word lists and verb conjugations. Now Duckworth engages her students with stories ranging from classics like Boucles Violettes (Goldilocks) to originals like the one her Grade 4s were studying (Les animaux de bayou by Wendy Maxwell). Comprehension, speaking, reading and writing come from a sequence of scaffolded language activities contained in kits, which are sold online (bit.ly/1EaxIUa). A sort of Bento box for teachers, each kit contains 50 hours of instruction materials that revolve around a play, including CDs, DVDs, a teacher’s guide and student reference books. Every activity stems from that core story, which students work with for months. Once they learn it together, they might perform the script in small groups, write their own versions or create poems. Students absorb so much from active participation that teachers who’ve visited Duckworth’s classroom from the United Kingdom, Indonesia and Australia have mistaken Crescent for a French immersion school.
“I was amazed that our boys were having so much fun and speaking so much French after just 40 minutes a day,” says Françoise Brown, a parent of two Crescent students: her older son was inspired by Mme Duckworth to take high school French (and learn Spanish!), and her younger son plans to stick with French too. Brown’s daughter studied French the old-fashioned way, then dropped it as soon as she could.
To keep the boys engaged, Duckworth has digitized her French program. To extend learning and keep it hands-on, she has students using iPads and Chromebooks (laptops loaded with the Chrome browser) to create French movies, dialogues, puppet shows and raps based on the story they’re studying. They use apps like VoiceThread (voicethread.com) to add voice-overs; iMovie (apple.co/1PMKkZV) to film each other, add music and effects; Sock Puppets (apple.co/1zfBMXG), to create animated puppet shows; and YAKiT Kids (apple.co/1DQ94If), to make inanimate objects talk. She gained even more app inspiration after being selected to attend the 2012 Google Teacher Academy in California for two days of intense professional development. Now a Google Certified Teacher, she’s also a self-described share-aholic who spends evenings uploading education resources and weekends attending conferences or running workshops to help others embrace tech. “I call Sylvia my tech guru,” says Diane Ankenmann, OCT, a French teacher at Toronto’s Havergal College, who recently began blogging after three decades of teaching French. “I’m excited about implementing what I’ve learned at one of her workshops or discovered on her websites.”
Online video conferences show Duckworth’s students the value and pleasure of learning a second language. At a Google Apps for Education conference, she and another teacher hatched a plan for a mystery Google Hangouts (think Skype): by asking yes-or-no questions, each class had to figure out where the other was located. For days Duckworth worked with her boys on questions and vocabulary. When the classes met screen-to-screen, they narrowed down the other’s city with simple questions about geography and local sports teams. Duckworth supports Information Communications Technology not as a substitution for traditional paper learning, but for learning experiences that would be virtually impossible without technology. “If I can help students develop an appreciation of French,” says Duckworth, “that’s the reward for me — and for them.”
The OCT featured in this department has been recognized with a national teaching award and exemplifies the high standards of practice to which the College holds the teaching profession.
Sylvia Duckworth, OCT, says she wouldn’t have won a Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence if it weren’t for social media. That’s how she tapped into a Professional Learning Network of teachers who aren’t shy about sharing.“I’ve gained more knowledge, inspiration and resources from connecting with educators on Twitter than from any professional development or personal research,” says Duckworth. Here’s why she considers social media her most valuable learning tool:
Duckworth has discovered dozens of apps and lesson ideas from language and tech-friendly teachers who post links to student work on Twitter. She sorts her feed by hashtags to get straight to the subjects she’s most interested in, including #aimlang, #fslchat, #langchat, #ipaded, #frimm and #gafesummit.
How do you get an iPad to recognize spoken French and then transcribe it into that same language? Duckworth posed the question on Twitter and had her answer in minutes. Go to: Settings > General > Keyboard > Keyboards > Add new keyboard > French [Canada]. When you’re back to typing, click the globe key, then toggle to the language. Select the microphone key and start speaking to see your words transcribed.
Most French teachers have a limited network in their schools. So why not leverage your online network, where you can connect with other OCTs to brainstorm, test ideas, request feedback and even collaborate. Duckworth’s famous Google Hangouts came through a teacher she was following on Twitter.
Duckworth’s digital footprint includes millions of views on YouTube (sduckworth100), thousands of followers on Twitter (@sylviaduckworth), Google+ (+sylviaduckworth) and her blog (sylviaduckworth.blogspot.com).