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Teachers As Scholars Explore Francophone Literature and Culture

Teachers As Scholars Explore Francophone Literature and Culture

Discussions of literature and cinema in TAS seminars at UCLA enrich K-12 instruction in French.

For me this is a perfect example of the type of program needed for life-long learning.

Over the past year, thirty Los Angeles teachers took part in intensive discussion and exploration of the richness, diversity and legacy of French language and culture in two seminars offered by the UCLA International Institute and its Africa, Europe, and Middle East Studies Centers in conjunction with the Department of French and Francophone Studies and the national Teachers As Scholars program based at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.

The courses dealt with North African and sub-Saharan francophone literature and culture, specifically with literary and cinematic works produced by diasporic communities from these regions settled in France proper. Coverage of the francophone world will be further extended in an upcoming summer workshop to include Lebanon, the Caribbean, Canada and Vietnam with their rich traditions and history and continuing affinity with France.  

"France's history is now inextricably linked to Africa, from the 'mission civilisatrice' to colonial schooling, from the texts of Jean de Brunhoff (Babar the Elephant) to 'our ancestors the Gauls,' from the war in Algeria to the 'headscarf affair,' and from the politics of Jean-Marie Le Pen to the emergence of African communities in France today," noted French and Francophone Studies faculty member Dominic Thomas who led the two seminars.

Indeed, European colonialism in Africa during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provides some of the most challenging and compelling examples of cultural, educational and religious encounters. The first seminar examined the legacy of colonial rule and African responses to the colonial project, in an attempt to locate these responses within a broader cultural, political and social framework through consideration of writings and films about Africa. The discussion was grounded in novels by two francophone African writers, Camara Laye and Mariama Bâ. Laye's L'Enfant noir explores the childhood of an African boy in the Mande region of former French Guinea during the later years of colonial rule, while Bâ's Une si longue lettre looks at polygamy and gender relations in Senegal. Participants also viewed two feature films, Sugarcane Alley (Euzhan Palcy's exploration of colonial education in the Caribbean) and Chocolat (Claire Denis's film about colonialism and racism in Africa), and considered important gender questions raised by the documentary Warrior Marks (by Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker).

French colonialism in Africa officially ended during the 1960s, and African authors have addressed its influence in their writings on oral literature, missionary activity, Islam, gender roles, traditional practices vs. Western modernity, colonial education vs. Qur'anic education, etc. These issues and divergent voices were explored in the second seminar which focused on attempts to locate their broader implications for the African diaspora in contemporary France and in francophone Africa and the Caribbean today.

In France, the primary concern remains the integrational, assimilationist drive toward that ambiguous ideal that is "Frenchness," noted Dominic Thomas, whose recent publications include Nation-Building, Propaganda, and Literature in Francophone Africa and Black France: Colonialism, Immigration, and Transnationalism. Such discourse is anchored in age-old colonial projections and stereotypes that symbiotically link diasporic Africans with what the media and certain politicians perceive as the "uncivilized" and "barbarous" practices associated with polygamy, excision and arranged marriages. These stereotypes in turn serve to justify the marginalization of these communities to the peripheries of urban centers which ironically creates the very ghettos that the French perceive as the inevitable outcome of US multicultural politics. These issues were addressed through two novels, Azouz Begag's Le gone du Châaba and Ousmane Sembene's Le docker noir, three films, Le gone du Châaba, Salut Cousin and La Haine, and Tahar Ben Jelloun's essay, Le racisme expliqué à ma fille.

"The teachers were remarkably motivated and well prepared for the seminar," said Thomas. "They all read the assigned texts and many of them had included the readings in their own curricular offerings. I think the fact that they had taught these books themselves made the seminar all the more rewarding because it provided them with the occasion to share their own interpretations while also going beyond this in dialogue with their peers. Since one of the objectives of the seminar is to bring teachers from secondary education into the Academy, this exercise was particularly fruitful." While the morning sessions focused on literary works, the afternoon sessions were organized around film screenings. "I found this a very useful pedagogic tool," observed Thomas. "It allowed participants to decompress, to apply the theoretical discussion to a visual medium, and subsequently to frame our discussion around both film and text. Many of these films are difficult to find outside of an institutional setting and we are in a position to share UCLA's extensive archives with the academic community at large."

In advance of each seminar meeting, Thomas prompted teachers to consider various issues related to the readings, for example, to think about "l'éducation coloniale" and the pedagogy delivered in the French classroom, "how colonial stereotyping has survived into the era of postcoloniality" and how it informs the "construct" of the immigrant, particularly the immigrant of Maghrebi descent in the French context. By the end of the seminar, teachers were empowered to compose an essay about the similarities and differences between the American and French contexts around questions relating to immigrants, minority communities and multiculturalism, and how such a comparative approach can foster classroom dialogue and pedagogic innovation.

"As an educator, it is crucial to maintain close contact with those responsible for training the next generation of college-bound students," said Thomas. "The interaction provided me with invaluable insight into the kind of work that is being done in high schools, while also bringing the teachers up to date with the demands and exigencies of undergraduate education today."

The enthusiastic response from the participants accentuated the objective of the Teachers As Scholars model for professional development and intellectual fulfillment. "This seminar was filled with my colleagues, my peers, whose studies and experiences surpass my own and this made the class very interesting and challenging," observed Michela Carlton from Foshay Learning Center. "I am working on a Racisme unit  for French III and now I will introduce these readings (or excerpts) as I feel confident about discussing them. Most of my students come from immigrant families so this is a very hot topic in my classroom," she added.

"Just sharing those hours with other teachers of French was a great experience," remarked Carmen Arenas from James Garfield High School. "It was a unique opportunity because I know of so many schools where there are only part-time French teachers. With this new spark I'm positive I will be able to boost my enrollment… anything to promote francophonie!"

"The seminar was informative, stimulating and thought-provoking," commented Delyna Diop from Washington Preparatory High School. "It was more valuable to me than other professional development programs as it was much more closely aligned with my interests in literature and film from a francophone West African perspective."

"For me this is a perfect example of the type of program needed for life-long learning," noted Wyn Cane from Loyola High School. "It is available, friendly, pertinent, up-to-date, and reaches into new areas of an already established curriculum." Tabitha Thigpen from King Drew Magnet High School concluded, "I really enjoyed the small group setting, the informal sharing and discussion, and the lovely surroundings of UCLA."

Mark Elinson of the Los Angeles Unified School District underscored the program's emphasis on multicultural education, academic rigor, preparation for university and the promotion of culturally relevant and responsible education. "Through the content of these seminars, teachers and by extension their students will learn to embrace the cultural diversity and multiplicity of expressions that have come to define the French language and its use in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Americas."

The UCLA Teachers As Scholars project wishes to acknowledge the collaborative vision and steadfast support of Vera Wheeler of the Center for European and Eurasian Studies, Azeb Tadesse of the African Studies Center, and Jonathan Friedlander, Outreach Director for the International Institute, in making this UCLA/USDOE-funded endeavor possible and successful. Special thanks go to the school principals and administrators who granted the participants classroom release time to attend the innovative and far-reaching seminars. For more information about the Teachers As Scholars initiative and the international studies precollegiate outreach enterprise, contact Jonathan Friedlander.

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