Making French Come Alive: Speaks with Sue Harsa

By Megan Driscoll

sue harsa, golden apple awards What inspired you to become a teacher, and how did you end up at Saint Francis High School?

Sue Harsa: I've wanted to be a teacher since I can remember, but my biggest problem was that I couldn't focus on one particular area. When I began college, I focused on elementary education; I had been encouraged to avoid teaching high school because I'm very short. But after taking some courses, I realized that my temperament was much more geared to older kids, so I decided to switch.

Then I had to decide what I wanted to teach. I switched my major and my minor quite a few times, but those I settled on have been directly influenced by my high school and college teachers.

My favorite teacher in high school was Mrs. Crawford. She taught me English, and because of that, I loved English, and that was my minor. And my favorite teacher in college was my French teacher, who was a Catholic nun. She encouraged me and told me I had great potential in foreign languages, so I majored in French.

It's simply the result of those teachers that I'm teaching what I am today. And it was a wonderful, wonderful choice on my part. I've loved every minute of it. How did you know that teaching French was right for you?

SH: When you start teaching a foreign language, you need to have an inherent curiosity about other cultures and people in the world. And you must have an open view; it's not about wanting to make others like we are, but to learn who they are and appreciate their uniqueness. I definitely had these qualities.

I also love the excitement of traveling and taking my students to France. It allows me to make the education that I give them out of the book come to life. You received a 2010 Golden Apple Award for your work as a French teacher. What was it like to receive this recognition?

SH: I can remember vividly, a year ago November, the principle came to me and said, 'Sue, we had a meeting, the administrative board meeting. And we have an opportunity to nominate a teacher for a Golden Apple, and we voted on you.'

And actually my response was, 'You know, I am very, very honored, but I really think that there are younger teachers than I am that would be much more deserving than I.' And she said, 'Sue, this is what we've decided. This is what we've chosen. If you don't accept then we're not going to offer it to anybody else.'

After I accepted the nomination, Golden Apple evaluators visited my classroom and interviewed me, my students and the administration. And then later on in May, program officials arrived and put a basket in my hands as they were taking pictures, and said, 'You are a Golden Apple award winner.' It was very exciting, and a first at our school. The award comes with a sabbatical that allows you to take classes at Northwestern. Do you know what you want to study?

SH: I'm not sure yet, but one highly recommend class is called 'Storytelling'; in my field, I can use storytelling a lot in the upper levels. I'll be taking a group course with the other award winners, and I'd like to take a French conversation course as well.

I'm also going to spend part of my sabbatical relaxing in a tiny town in the Provence region of France. Please describe your philosophy of teaching and the roles that excitement and wonder play in your classroom.

SH: I love to see the kids get physically involved. For example, when teaching time vocabulary in French 1, I have students use their bodies; their arms are the hours that they're telling time with. I love to see them laugh. To me, humor is a very big part of having them enjoy the language and making them feel at ease, not embarrassed for anything that's incorrect.

I also have students interview each other. If there's vocab, they have to pick it up, lift it, describe it, ask each other about it, give opinions about it. I frequently partner students up, but sometimes I'll divide them into conversation groups in which one student must listen and take notes on who is speaking. Group members take turns in this recording role.

And I act a lot. That's why the storytelling class appeals to me; I act out vocabulary words and situations from novels or short stories. I even dress up if I want to.

Ultimately, I just try to make everything alive. In class, one idea begets another idea which begets another idea. The creativity and ideas flow between me and the students, and once you start on a creative idea it just keeps flowing from there. Your bio notes that you integrate seven different learning styles into your classroom. Can you outline what those styles are and how you incorporate them for our readers?

SH: Well, you have everything from the visual learner to the kinesthetic learner, the learner that likes to read, the learner that likes to get up and move around, the artistic learner, the musical learner, etc. People learn in all these different ways.

I try to use teaching styles that will access all these different ways of learning. For example, I may have an artist or kinesthetic learner draw an interpretation of a chapter in a book. I also use songs and rhythm like the 'subjunctive rap' for musical learners. What do you find most challenging about teaching a foreign language? Most rewarding?

SH: The most challenging, by far, is the fact that when I first started in education the teacher was, basically, the locus of control. There was interaction, but the interaction was between me and the student, not between the students themselves. And the students of today, their attention span really only lasts for about 10-12 minutes, so during a class period, you have to change gears about seven or eight times.

One thing that's very rewarding these days is learning about new technology. My kids, for example, are doing voice threads. So today I took them into the computer lab to scan covers of the different novels they're reading so they can look at the pictures, then record themselves discussing what they're looking at on the voice threads. It activates their different senses and gives them a chance to hear themselves speak.

Also, the relationships with students are their own reward. Having students write back and tell me that during their time at St. Francis they didn't say thank you, but they really, really wanted to say thank you now, even though it was years past, and how they appreciated the fact that I had faith in them maybe when somebody else didn't. Or telling me that they've had a chance to go to France, and how much they fell in love with it, and they went there because of something that I taught them.

Really, the rewards of teaching are great in number because we are lucky to be in situations where somewhere along the line you may end up getting thanked. What advice would you give someone who's just starting out in a career teaching high school foreign language?

SH: I do a lot of mentoring, so this is near and dear to my heart. First of all, you have to realize that teaching is a tremendous amount of work, but it is in direct correlation to the amount of reward you get back. So it is just simply a labor of love. And you have to keep a sense of humor. You always have to find ways not to burn out because that can happen very quickly if you don't watch for it.

In fact, it's in that middle bracket where you've got some experience already when I think teachers really have to challenge themselves to go outside of their comfort zones and try new things. You don't have to accomplish everything, but you always have to keep challenging yourself to try something new and different. And don't let your lesson plans be the same year after year because that is something that creates mediocrity, and mediocrity is simply not good enough for teachers.

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