This post is the first in a series that will highlight talented educators across the U.S. who inspire their students and colleagues each and every day to learn new languages. Each post will feature a teacher I’ve met in person or through Twitter (follow me @kellycondon) who inspires me to be better at what I do. In this post, I interview Nathan Lutz, an elementary French teacher in New Jersey. While Nathan and I have never met in person, we exchange best practices and teaching strategies online. Check out my virtual interview with Nathan below!
What and where do you teach?
I teach French to students in junior pre-K (age 3) through grade 5. Our preschool is co-ed and our school from K-12 is for girls only. I am also my school’s Global Learning Coordinator (junior pre-K through grade 12).
How long have you been teaching?
I’ve been teaching for 20 years.
How many languages do you speak and what are they?
I speak English, French, and Spanish. I’ve dabbled in German and Italian.
When did you first become interested in language learning?
I grew up in Louisiana and the babysitter I had in third grade was of Cajun descent. Her father spoke Cajun French and I was obsessed with learning how to talk like him. My mother checked out three French language learning books from the public library to help me on my quest. As you can imagine, it didn’t work out. I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to learn a second language until 8th grade – and I chose French. I fell in love with French culture and pined to travel to France.
Why do you believe it is important to learn a second language?
Language is the thing that connects people. We have a lot of turmoil in our world and the way to overcome it is to bring people together – to talk it out and to get to know one another. This could be on the kindergarten playground or at the United Nations – but it’s communication that makes things happen.
What makes a language classroom unique from other subjects?
Language is a skill that is acquired rather than a subject that is learned. It takes a long time, a lot of messy constructions, and a lot of practice before the user has refined her use of the language. Language, as a discipline, is also unique in that it transcends dimensions. Each user of a language has unique interests and needs – and the development of her vocabulary and structures is dependent on those unique factors. Students will often ask me things like “How do you say ‘narwhal’ in French?” I answer, “I don’t know. I’m not interested in them.” (I know how to say “narwhal” now!). Language learning does amazing things for a learner’s brain. Learning one second language opens up neural pathways to make other language learning possible. It stimulates parts of the brain responsible for problem solving. Learning a language makes one more empathetic to others. The cognitive and social-emotional benefits are huge!
What do you love about the language you teach?
I love the cadence of French. It has a melodic flow. It sounds corny to say this, but it really is such a poetic language. But the most compelling thing is that it is the gateway to French culture, which I love so much. Without access to the language, one cannot truly understand the culture.
How do you teach about culture in your classes?
Culture is such an important part of language. It’s what hooked me as a student. Making culture accessible for novice level learners can be overwhelming for some teachers. Instead of huge overt culturally-focused lessons, I embed cultural elements in all that we do. So if we are learning about pets, we’ll look at pet-related authentic resources from the target culture.
What in teaching are you passionate about right now?
I am really excited about all the creative ways students have for expressing themselves! When I give open-ended assignments, I look forward to the work students bring in – fancy slideshows, movies, 3D projects, you name it! But whatever the medium, they know they have to show their language proficiency.
At the end of a long day, what do you do to relax?
I like to pop open a LaCroix water and walk my three dogs. I’ll allow myself a little trashy television around dinner time, but then I always seem to have work to do in the evening as well.
How do you assess students on their proficiency levels?
In junior pre-K through Kindergarten, we do a lot of informal observation of students’ abilities to follow directions and demonstration of other comprehension-based indicators. With my older students, with obviously more developed skill sets, we assess across all the skills they develop in the course – their reading, writing, listening comprehension, and interpersonal and presentational speaking.
What is one of your goals for next year?
Next year I’d like to use more authentic resources with my younger learners. I manage fairly well with my older elementary students, but the younger ones are tricky!
Nathan is also the President of NNELL, The National Network for Early Language Learning. You can follow Nathan (@nathanlutz) on Twitter here.
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