22 July 2016

GUEST POST: Take Language out of the Classroom - immersion weekend

Each week of the ASU Summer Institute 2016, I'll be featuring ideas from amigos I met through Summer Institute in years past. This week, Jeff Pageau helps answer the question, "How do I develop a student immersion weekend?"

In spite of our efforts to create authentic language experiences to engage our students, the fact of the matter is that these situations are often contrived and often do not resemble real life. If we're being honest, even in the best developed speaking activities modeled after culturally appropriate contexts, the variables are still controlled in the classroom environment. The students aren't generally exposed to the “surprises” that naturally occur in a truly authentic conversation in the target culture.

So, how can we provide authentic situations for our students to develop their language skills naturally and in a way that more closely resembles real life?

Consider developing an immersion weekend with your students. It's easier than you think!
Jeff and Franca Gilbert cooking up
authentic experiences for their students!
I am a French teacher at a public high school in rural northeast North Carolina. Three years ago, my friend and colleague, Franca Gilbert, and I were looking at ways to promote French, provide authentic language experiences for students, and collaborate with teachers who typically are working in isolation. As study abroad gains more prominence among high school students (which is great news!), the reality is that these experiences are often limited to those students whose parents have deep pockets. We all would like for our students to be able to spend time in the target cultures developing their language proficiency, but this, too, is often not realistic for many of our students who are from economically disadvantaged communities.

The immersion weekend addresses all of these goals.

We began our program with three high schools. This past year, our program grew to include 9 high schools and 2 middle schools. Here's how we did it.



The first thing that you will want to do is to consider just how many days that you want to have your event. We have always held our immersion weekend starting Friday evening at 5:00 and end Sunday morning around 10:00. If that sounds too ambitious for your first attempt, you could scale it back to an overnight event, but I would encourage you to consider a full two days. Doing so will maximize language opportunities for your students.


Next, you will need to secure a location. For us, this was our greatest challenge. We needed a location that had suitable housing for high school students and that had a kitchen. After much searching, we discovered a location that was ideal. It is a retreat center operated by the Archdiocese of Raleigh. It is located about a 1.5 hours drive for the three schools and it offered a meal program! I do strongly recommend that you choose a location that offers a meal program. If you and your colleagues are stuck in the kitchen preparing 3 meals a day, it takes away time from your role as the language facilitator.


Once we had our team assembled and a location secured, the real fun began! We needed to secure funding. While we had the academic support of our schools for the project, we did not receive any financial support. Fundraising will be of vital importance if your school is unable to fund the project for you.

Fortunately, Franca is a fundraising guru. We wanted to make this program as affordable as possible for students, and through Franca’s efforts, we were able to keep the student cost limited to the affordable fee of just over $100.

She reached out to local businesses, French-owned companies in the Raleigh area, and her school's parent organization. We also reached out to our state chapter of the AATF and our state language association (Foreign Language Association of North Carolina) who offered us grants.

For my part, I relied to the power social media fundraising services such as GoFundMe. I wanted to assure that my entire AP class attend this year. I created a GoFundMe account with the hope of raising $1000. Within 3 weeks, I had raised the full amount.

Effectively using social media to promote your program and thanking those individuals publicly in your social media who financially support you is a surefire way to raise funds. When you tag your donors in your post, it shows up in their feed. I was able to generate many new donations outside of my own Facebook network with this approach.


With the location secured and finances in order, we moved to the planning stages. As the program grew and more teachers wanted to participate, we had to set some ground rules that I strongly encourage everyone to establish. You are not offering a babysitting service, so you must insist on full participation for collaborating teachers. This includes coming to planning meetings and attending the weekend.


Setting the tone

The program now runs like a well-oiled machine. After the students are settled in their dorms Friday evening, we assemble in the general meeting room. We provide an overview of the weekend in English and our expectations. The students sign a pledge to communicate only in French the entire weekend. Then, before their peers, they publicly swear the oath.

From that point forward, no English is allowed.

We have students from all levels. Some students only have a few months of French and others were in AP or IB French classes. We divide to students up by proficiency levels, following the ACTFL model. The teachers are divided up among the various levels to serve as the facilitator for that group during the weekend.

Breaking the ice

We then proceed to the dining hall and require that students not sit with students from their own school. We do this for obvious reasons: we want to encourage conversation. And, you know what happens? They speak French! Advanced students are quickly aware if their table mates are beginners and instinctively adjust their conversation accordingly. The teachers sit among the students to 1) make sure no one is speaking English and 2) to encourage conversation and support beginning students who might be feeling anxious.

Building the group dynamic with speed dating before breaking into groups by
proficiency level.

After dinner, we do a variety of ice breaker speaking activities. We do these as a whole group and do not divide the students by proficiency level. The teachers model the activities, which are based on basic conversation skills (greetings, introductions, likes/dislikes, etc), so that beginners can better understand what is about to happen. These short ice breaker activities are important to building confidence and supporting the group dynamic.

Fun and culture

After dinner, we do an authentic cooking demonstration. We have always made crêpes because they are easy to make and the students love them! We do the cooking demonstration, explain what we're making, where they come from, etc. Then, we let the students do the actual cooking.

After the crêpes, we have our French film of the weekend. Use the same discretion in selecting your film that you would in the classroom. We typically choose not to play the film with subtitles. Films we have played are Petit Nicolas, Les choristes, Un monstre à Paris, and Le petit prince.

Activities by proficiency level

Saturday is a full day. The students are up fairly early (breakfast is at 8:00) and then the day's itinerary is underway. Saturday is when the students are divided by proficiency levels. The students are essentially doing the same activities, but they are scaffolded to their proficiency level.

For example, we do a scavenger hunt. For the beginners, they have a list of items to find. For the advanced students, they have riddles to solve that describe the item we are looking for them to find.

Another popular activity is the improv. The students are given a paper bag with 4 random items inside. They must incorporate the 4 items (and the bag) into the sketch that they collaborate to rehearse and present.

Students have fun with improv games in their proficiency level groups!

Weather permitting, we also organize sport activities as well, such as soccer, basketball, and volleyball (we are fortunate that our retreat center has these activities on its property). We teach them the relevant vocabulary prior to the game so that they can effectively play in French.

Whole group fun

As for whole group activities on Saturday, we teach a traditional folk dance and this year tried yoga! The students were very receptive to yoga! In the evening after dinner, we teach traditional folk songs to sing at the bonfire. Another popular group activity has been karaoke to French pop music. The key to a successful weekend is to be well-planned and have the students doing something always.


Euros from Teacher's Discovery
to spend in le magasin
Throughout the weekend, we reward students who we hear speaking French or helping other students to communicate. We have a stack of euros we purchased from Teacher's Discovery. We “pay” the students when we hear good things happening. On Saturday evening, we open our magasin francophone where the students can go shopping. We purchase things like baguette shaped pens, candies/chocolates from France, mini Eiffel towers, and the like. Our store is always a popular event that returning students report looking forward to each year.

On Sunday morning, the teachers get together at breakfast and choose students who we feel really made the most of the weekend and fully committed himself or herself to the program goals. Franca secures prizes from area businesses that we give away on Sunday. Our most sought after prize is the first place prize: a gift certificate for lunch for two at a French restaurant in Raleigh.


I know there may be some skeptics reading this blog saying, “this sounds very nice, but I doubt the students really are speaking French the entire time.” Let me assure you, they do. The students typically police each other to stay in the target language. They want to speak French. They want to improve. Even behind closed doors, my students have reported that French happens even in the dorm rooms when teachers aren't around.

At the end of the weekend, our students have shared how much their confidence in speaking French has increased in just two days. They realize that they have the ability to have unscripted conversations in French in real life situations. They realize that they have the skills to handle themselves in unfamiliar contexts where their vocabulary might be limited. The students leave the weekend feeling so empowered by their own abilities to communicate in French. It builds their confidence to return to French class for the remainder of the year with an entirely different outlook.

In closing, I will leave you with this thought. Planning for an immersion weekend is a tremendous undertaking, but the end results that you will see in your students are worth every minute of it.

Jeff Pageau is a French teacher at Roanoke Rapids High School since 2004. His work in curriculum writing has been recognized by the AATF as the 2012 winner of the Concours Pédagogique. In 2013, he was named  the Foreign Language Teacher of the Year by the Foreign Language Association of North Carolina (FLANC). He has a passion for traveling and learning about new cultures.

Connect with @Jeff_Pageau on Twitter for more help setting up your own immersion weekend!

Stay tuned for more great ideas from Appalachian Summer Institute alums 

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