Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

11.20.16Simply Brilliant: Barry’s Smith’s Magical French Class at Michaela School


Un professeur arrrilliant

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a series of posts about my visit to London’s Michaela School.  I wrote about: their marking policy and how it could in some cases reduce teacher workload; the power of the school’s emphasis on gratitudeand the decisions we all get to make on whether to judge or ‘steal’ from the school.


Now, after a bit of a hiatus, I want to share on one last shining moment from my visit: Barry Smiths French class.


Some background: During my visit, I asked my two tour guides (Kavit and Hayley) what their favorite class was. They debated this question briefly yet cordially, and then rushed me to French. I chose the word ‘rushed’ intentionally—they couldn’t get me there fast enough and their faces beamed with joy at the thought that I was going to have the chance to see French class!


And what I saw there was in fact remarkable. Kids were speaking, really speaking, in their second year of study. I was especially struck by Barry’s teaching. It was simple, eminently logical, hugely engaging and utterly different from almost any MFL class I’d seen. It featured almost constant practice at production rather than recognition and constant engagement with syntax and vocabulary. Every child answered (in his or her mind) every question. He basically developed short topical scripts or stories and had students practice in two ways:

First, as a group via Call and Response;

Then Barry begins to wander and asks individuals to translate small pieces of the scripts in sequence, mostly via Cold Call, though he will occasionally take a hand.


One thing that struck me was how carefully Barry listens, especially to the Call and Response. In Teach Like a Champion 2.0, I advised teachers that Call and Response was not effective as a tool for Checking for Understanding, but Barry’s class has caused me to question that. In a foreign language setting, he appears to use it quite effectively for that purpose as you will see in the first video.


Another thing that struck me was the joy and pride students felt in their French. The class was as demanding as any I’ve seen, and students were enthusiastically engaged because they could see (hear, really) themselves succeeding. They were coming to believe in their own capacity to learn. It recalled for me a conversation I’d had with Katie Yezzi about founding Troy Prep Elementary School. For her arts program, she chose to do music for every student in every grade specifically because she wanted students to have the experience of practicing and via practice seeing themselves master something complex. She wanted music for its own sake, and she wanted music as a proof point of the power of practice and growth mindset.

Anyway, people will tell you that the best way to learn a language is to go to a country where they speak it. When you are immersed, you learn. There’s an immersion type approach in Barry’s class that was so good I got out my iPhone and taped the snippets in this post. Honestly these weren’t Barry’s best moments, but they give you a general sense for his remarkable approach.


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