Cultural diversions;Modern languages

18th June 1999 at 01:00
Geography lessons about an Indian Ocean island prompted primary pupils in Harrogateto learn French, writes Alison Thomas

It is a blustery autumn day, but the Year 5 and 6 children seated on the mat are oblivious to it as they take off on their imaginary flight to La Reunion.

"What do you expect to find when we get there?" asks pilot-cum-class teacher Martin Bee.

As the plane touches down, he produces some photos, giving his passengers their first glimpse of what life is really like in a French departement in the Indian Ocean, thousands of miles away from Western County primary school in Harrogate.

That was nine months ago. Since then the children have done map work, handled pieces of volcanic rock, and learned about local weather, climate, crops and employment. The cultural diversity of the island's inhabitants has given rise to discussions on immigration. A CD of local traditional music has introduced them to an unfamiliar musical style and provided the opportunity for some language practice.

"It's ideal for reinforcing instructions," says Mr Bee. "Expressions like arrete, avec un partenaire, a gauche, a droite."

The materials he has used for his cross-curricular approach were put together by the College of Ripon and St John, one of the few institutes in England to train primary teachers specialising in French. "The idea grew from discussions between myself and a colleague who has linked foreign languages and global awareness at secondary level," says Ann Gregory, senior tutor responsible for the college's French programme.

"Key stage 2 geography involves the study of a distant location, and we already had an Erasmus link with the University of La Reunion.

"When I discovered that another colleague - a brilliant photographer - was about to visit the island, the opportunity was too good to miss."

The result is a pack of maps, artefacts, music and compelling photos reflecting every aspect of life on the island.

"It's a tremendous melting pot of different cultures from Asia, India, the African continent and mainland Europe," says Mrs Gregory.

"Yet it is also very French. Everyone speaks French, the school children behave just as their counterparts do in mainland France - but against a background of a volcano and coconut palms. It's a very exciting place educationally and culturally."

The materials double up as a stimulus for discussion in English and a focus for target language practice. Many of the photos make ideal flash cards, but they have an impact no graphics can achieve. These are real children with real names, the houses are their homes, and photos show them doing what they normally do.

"There's a wonderful picture of the market," says Mr Bee. "We had done the vocabulary for fruit and colours, but this brought it to life. The children started asking how they would order food in French. It really got their attention with its display of unfamiliar fruits, like lychees and mangoes."

Another resource that excited their interest was a video prepared by the pupils of the school that participated in the project. Phrases such as salut, je m'appelle and nous aimons l'histoire proved readily accessible and the Harrogate children were delighted to discover they could follow quite a lot.

"It boosted their confidence enormously and they insisted on making a video of their own in return," says Mr Bee.

"They wanted to do as much as possible in French, so we prepared short presentations on topics like hobbies and school. None of this was planned. It was in direct response to their enthusiasm."

The class is now preparing to follow this up by sending their friends a shoebox full of objects depicting life in Harrogate. The list has already been drawn up and it's an eclectic mix, including photos of snow and a visit from the Queen.

Martin Bee, a graduate of the College of Ripon and York St John, benefited from his knowledge of the island, which he visited as a student. But this year Ann Gregory is trying out her materials on a teacher who has no such personal insight, and she hopes eventually to prepare a pack for publication.

For further information from AnnGregory call 01765 602691

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