Every year at this time, the first-year French pupils at Eastbank Academy in Glasgow drop their facade of indifference to French lessons and take to the topic of animals with a passion.
Earlier, when questioned in French about their brothers and sisters, the 11 and 12-year-olds restricted their responses to a grunt or shrug. Now they respond with refreshing enthusiasm when asked to talk about their beloved pets. And those who have no animals of their own are happy to come into class brandishing photos of their Granny's dog or neighbour's cat.
I use the topic of "As-tu un animal?" to show off my own animals too, and I love the reception they give to their PowerPoint photos, chosen for their cuteness.
After revising our animal vocabulary, I flash my own dog and cats on to the screen, along with a parrot from Paris, and a local Glasgow squirrel. The only written information is the noun for each animal. Although they already know chien (dog), chat (cat) and oiseau (bird), the more specific perroquet (parrot) and the noun ecureuil (squirrel) are new.
They pale into insignificance, however, compared with the vocabulary needed when pupils start to talk about their own animals in the follow-up lesson. We have to refer to sophisticated dictionaries, and even online encyclopaedias, to translate the words for every known lizard, spider, rodent and turtle.
I used to be phased by terms such as water dragon and sea monkey, but the French Google site has proved invaluable here, even if it does offer a last-ditch franglais translation for the latter, with singe de mer.
The class is split into groups after viewing the slides, and each group has a more detailed sheet, with a photo and information in French about the animal. This includes name, age, home area, likesdislikes and miscellaneous information. We know most of this vocabulary, but I put new words up on the screen to help with comprehension.
The groups then spend about 10 minutes discussing and noting in English what they have found out about their animal. My three-legged cat provokes animated discussion (I have been asked by pupils several years later if my cat still has only three legs), and they think that the parrot is nothing short of a genius when told that not only is he bavard (a chatterbox) but bavard en francais.
The groups become animated and I can tell things are going well, but it is essential to rein pupils back in when the noise levels rise beyond bearable and the conversation is more about football than about the animal worksheets.
The groups then report back in French, with each member sharing bits of information about the animal with the class, so that everyone is encouraged to speak. The other class members complete an information grid in their jotters, and we correct it on the screen. This prepares them to write a paragraph about one of the animals, which pupils swap with partners.
In consecutive lessons we develop the topic, acquiring more vocabulary and producing wall displays. Usually, as part of the animal unit, we adopt an animal for the class to share. In the past, this has been a horse or donkey. This year, in light of the global warming crisis, we have adopted a polar bear. Its photo and life story will soon be joining those of the class pets on the wall, and its plight should help to raise awareness of some important environmental issues, and provoke interesting French vocabulary lessons.
Carolyn McInnes teaches French at Eastbank Academy in Glasgow.