An Interview with Nicole Naditz

Acclaimed French Language Teacher

February 22, 2017
Email Interview with Nicole Naditz

Nicole Naditz is a National Board Certified Teacher of French Language and Culture at Bella Vista High School near Sacramento, California.

She is the 2012 Sacramento County Teacher of the Year, finalist for 2012 California state teacher of the year, and the 2015 American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages Teacher of the Year.

She has also been honored by several organizations, including the GRAMMY Museum, National Geographic, and most recently, PBS, which in 2016–2017 named her a LearningMedia Digital Innovator. And she is a Google Certified Innovator.

Given all the honors, awards, and recognition you have received for your teaching, I assume you use methods that many of us would find innovative and amazing. Please detail.

I don’t know if I would necessarily call my work “innovative” or “amazing.” What I am doing is simply applying principles that I believe will allow my students to best understand and speak French in a real world setting.

In other words, I want my students to use French for something other than a grade, and for or with someone other than just me.

One way that I have had my students accomplish this goal is by encouraging them to use websites such as FlipGrid and Dotstorming, websites that connect students with peers in France or elsewhere anytime.

With FlipGrid, my students can ask (or answer) questions via video and the recipients can look at the videos when it is convenient and reply (also via video.) Dotstorming has allowed us to give feedback to our peers in France when we are working on collaborative projects.

For example, our correspondents in France helped edit my students’ logos and slogans for an anti-food waste campaign that my class designed for them.

We have also made connections with people in Canada, Belgium, Guadeloupe, Haiti, and numerous countries in Western Africa.

In the desire to place authentic learning opportunities before my students, my students have also curated various museum exhibits for our local Alliance Française. They have also served as docents for the exhibits, fulfilling their roles in English or French depending on who was visiting the exhibit.

One could argue that the students should do everything in French, but actually, we are creating bilingual French-English speakers, not monolingual French speakers. This provides the students with the experience of navigating as needed between French and English, which is more indicative of how they will be using French after high school.

My students have also organized and hosted two arts-focused community events at our school, also in both French and English.

The nice thing about working with a local cultural group such as the Alliance Française is that they will also advertise our events to their members. This brings Sacramento’s somewhat unknown (and surprisingly large) French-speaking community to my students

In Africa, we are involved in the Peace Corps’ World Wise Schools Program, which connects us to a Peace Corps volunteer serving in francophone Africa. We send letters and also work to support that volunteer in his or her work in the village. In the past, we have sent school and art supplies, books, and more, But one volunteer asked for solar lanterns for the homes, schools and mosques. So my students helped write a grant funded by our local utility, learned about solar energy, created a bilingual page to teach others about solar energy, researched the best lanterns for hot, dry, and sandy conditions, and ended up ordering enough to supply the entire village. We even ended up with 100 extra lanterns and donated them to the local red cross.

My students have also created and performed “African Tales by Solar Light,” an event my students and I organized and which included groups of students performing different African folk tales in French, just after sunset at one of our local parks and as the audience and performers held solar lanterns.

What did you do to prompt both the GRAMMY Museum and National Geographic to honor you for the way you teach the French language?

In the case of the GRAMMY Museum, I answered a call to submit curricula demonstrating how teachers who are NOT music teachers use music to support their students’ achievement of their content standards.

The original description said that the goal was to create an online repository of lessons and curricula that use music to achieve content goals. This repository was intended to represent all subjects, but my experiences have shown that such resource banks typically don’t include world language.

I have been purposefully embedding music in my teaching since 1996, and was excited to share my ideas. I created a three-part curriculum guide with examples and resources called “Noteworthy Language: authentic music in the world language class.” I hoped that perhaps my submission would be considered good enough to be included in the online repository. I never dreamed that I would be awarded the Jane Ortner Educating Through Music Grand Prize for that year (its inaugural year) for my submission.

A few years later, I saw a call from National Geographic to share how teachers of all subjects infuse geo-literacy into their teaching. I completed an online form about the role of geography in my courses. Once again, I merely hoped to somehow ensure that world languages would be represented in any online resource bank that National Geographic might choose to develop. A few days after submitting the form, I received a request to be interviewed by someone from National Geographic’s education division to discuss the role of geo-literacy in my classes in more detail. To learn more about National Geographic’s Geo-Educator community, click here.

What are some good reasons why students should learn a foreign language, and in particular, why they should learn French?

There are more English speakers in China than there are in the United States! Children in Europe begin learning English in elementary school, and many learn a second or third language (in addition to their native languages) before leaving high school.

While some see this as a reason for Americans to not learn another language, it actually points to an even greater even greater need to expand foreign language programs.” One critical reason we need more Americans to not just learn, but to truly understand other languages (and the cultural perspectives of those who speak them) is so we can maximize our nation’s competitiveness in the global marketplace.

Sure, “they” speak English. In fact, they speak it so well that they successfully advertise to American markets while we struggle to advertise overseas. Our companies are more inclined to rely on translation services (online or otherwise) to try to market their products overseas. But without cultural knowledge to guide the selection of precise wording for the context, the results are often less than optimal.

While the global economic need is both obvious and clear, that, to me, is not the most important reason to learn another language. As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Americans who are monolingual speakers of English are also mono-cultural. The limit of their world is the United States.

While bilingualism is in fact the norm in most of the rest of the world, monolingual Americans are not only limited in their words, but also their cultural understanding; they only understand our products, our cultural behaviors, and our perspectives — the unseen beliefs that govern how we act and interact in every situation.

Won’t developing technology all but eliminate the need for the next generation to learn how to speak a foreign language?

No. I do not believe technology will ever completely replace human interaction in world language education, but I do believe technology will and does require educators to be more thoughtful about their role in the classroom.

The fact is that today because of technology, students don’t need us to “teach” them the words of the language; they can look them up on their phones. But online dictionaries and translation services aren’t enough to communicate.

You can know every word in the language, but still misunderstand and be misunderstood. In fact, Google Translate does know every word in the language, and yet, the sentences are often garbled….or even completely wrong. That’s because Google Translate and other online tools can’t interpret nuance or cultural perspectives.

That is the role of today’s world language teacher: to provide the necessary cultural knowledge, alongside the linguistic development, by facilitating opportunities to learn, understand and use language in meaningful contexts.

To put it another way, with technology, there has been a significant shift in how language is taught. Today, students are far less likely to be required to memorize verb charts, grammar rules, and vocabulary lists and far more likely to be required to communicate with other students in the language.

Indeed, teachers who adhere to the national standards are expected to make certain that everyone in the class — both teachers and students — are using the target language at least 90% of the time.

If California students were required to learn one foreign language other than French, what language would be best? Spanish? Chinese? Arabic? German? Some other language?

There is no one right answer to that question. The most important language is the one you need to communicate in that moment, the one whose culture you need and want to understand.

It breaks my heart when students approach me to say they wanted to take one language, but their parents required them to take another, usually due to perceived need in business and industry.

But guess what? We live and work in a nation that both drives and depends on a global economy. There are jobs in every field for every language. So students should pursue the language that calls to them. And if, later, they find they need a different language, they will have an easier time learning it because of previous experience in linguistics.

How about AP foreign language classes? Anything you want to say about that?

AP classes are a great option for students wanting to progress higher up the proficiency scale and actually receive recognition of their proficiency (via the test).

As far as the AP foreign language tests are concerned, they were updated several years ago and are much more reflective of the way we now teach languages.

Gone are the days of verb fill-ins and random paragraph completions. Now, students must show that they can understand the main ideas and some details in “authentic” texts. These are usually audio and print texts that were written by native speakers for native speakers.

Students must also reply to an email, write an essay based on three documents provided during the test, participate in a simulated phone conversation, and present a short oral presentation on a topic related to one of the six AP themes.

These tasks mesh perfectly with the skills we now seek to develop in world language classes: interpersonal communication, interpretive reading, interpretive listening, presentational writing and presentational speaking.

How do you respond to those who encourage state lawmakers to create a law requiring all public school students in California to complete at least five years of study in a language other than English . . . with this study having to take place between kindergarten and the twelfth grade as a prerequisite for earning a high school diploma?

Having worked vigorously since 2005 to advocate for students’ access to world language education, I would be thrilled if our young scholars had more opportunities to expand on the current curriculum.

Any closing thoughts/remarks?

What a great time it is to teach a foreign language and work to produce a new generation of language learners who leave high school with comprehension of real documents originally published for native speakers, who have communicated with speakers of the language in their communities and all over the world, and who have explored cultural perspectives in more depth than is possible in almost any other course in the curriculum.

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