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Language Learning/Teaching History

Jessica S. Smith

University of Southern Mississippi


I was very fortunate that I grew up during a time when foreign language education was

highly valued and well-funded in Iowa. Starting in the first grade in Ankeny, we had French for

half of the year and Spanish for the other half of the year on a six-day rotation that included

music, art, PE, and guidance. It was during this time that I learned about the Eiffel Tower, tried

different cheeses, ate my first huevos rancheros, and fell in love with language learning. I also

learned how to greet people, count, and say my colors. I’m sure I learned other things, but mostly

what I took away from the experience was an uncontrollable desire to read all of the French and

Spanish product labels that I could find out loud even though it often pained my mother.

During sixth and seventh grade, I took exploratory French and Spanish. It was required,

but I also loved it. In sixth grade, we learned a lot about the geography and cultures of the

Spanish-speaking and francophone world. In seventh grade, we learned the alphabet, more

numbers, and were able to describe ourselves and our families. We listened to songs, we ate

more food, and we learned about the monuments of Paris. It became my life’s mission to climb

to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

At the end of seventh grade, we had to choose between taking French and Spanish during

eighth grade. French was an easy choice for me. I was completely in love with the beautiful

sounds of the language, the food, and the breath-taking sites of France. However, I did not give

up on Spanish, and I started taking it in ninth grade as soon as I was allowed to enroll in more

than one language. By the time I graduated high school, I had completed Spanish IV and French

V, and I had earned community college credits for my foreign language courses through Des

Moines Area Community College (DMACC).


After graduating high school in 2002, I continued on at DMACC and earned my

associates degree. From there, I was a little conflicted. I knew that I wanted to use foreign

language in whatever I did and I was leaning towards teaching. Unfortunately, my family was

not supportive of that choice. For that reason, when I transferred to Drake, I chose international

relations as my major instead of education. I was very naïve to think that international relations

would be a good choice for a woman who started fall semester in her ninth month of pregnancy.

Drake did not have a traditional foreign language program with a major. Instead, they had

what was called the Drake University Language Acquisition Program (DULAP). For three hours

a week, we met with a native speaker who was also a student on campus and followed a book or

a curriculum that guided our discussions. For one hour a week, we took a class on language

learning strategies with all of the students enrolled in the language program. Even though we

spent four hours a week in class, the program was considered to be an independent study

program so we also spent several hours a week creating an interactive portfolio demonstrating

our progress on the World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages.

It was during my time at Drake that I completed my life’s mission. I spent the summer of

2006 in an immersion program at the American University of Paris. My husband, my eight-

month-old daughter, my mother, and I all climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower together during

my two week break from classes. We also traveled through Normandy and Brittany visiting the

D-Day beaches, Mont Saint Michele, Saint Malo, and many other stops along the way. My

French history teacher mapped out a wonderfully planned journey for us that included a trip to

his favorite restaurant that had earned two Michelin stars and set us back nearly $300 for lunch.

While we loved almost every minute of the time we spent in France, we were more than thrilled

to return home at the end of our journey.

After we returned home, I realized how hard it would really be traveling with a baby if I

were to get a job in my field. I also got to feel some mild pangs of homesickness that made me

question if my career choice was the right one for me. I had also completed my one real life goal

so I was left a bit directionless. I decided to finish my program and enroll in the MBA program at

Drake University as recommended by my advisor. During the summer of 2008, I found myself

half-way through a program that I enjoyed for the most part. However, my ethics and corporate

governance classes consisted of our teachers telling us the laws and what we were supposed to

do; and, then, what we actually needed to do if we wanted to keep our jobs and not end up

blacklisted. This was very stressful for me as I barely survived the trouble that was caused when

I mentioned that we were selling expired meat to a co-worker when I worked at an unnamed

store during my first year of college. I could not handle the stress of dishonestly, half-truths, or

looking the other way that I was assured would happen in the business world. Furthermore, I

always really wanted to teach and that I was going to pursue my dream despite the criticism I

received from others.


In the fall of 2008, I enrolled at Simpson College where I majored in French and minored

in secondary education. During the summer of 2009, I returned to France for another study

abroad experience with Minnesota State University: Mankato. This time, I went without my

family. It was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. I had no idea how hard it would

be to be separated from my three-year-old daughter for two months. The program was wonderful

and ultimately ended up being one of the best experiences of my life. We spent a little over two

weeks in Paris taking a course in religious architecture where we toured famous cathedrals, saw

religious relics, and took several day trips to places like Versailles, Vaux-le-Vicomte,

Fontainebleau, and the Champagne region. Once we left Paris, we continued our journey west

until we got to La Rochelle. We visited Monet’s home and gardens at Giverny. We once again

visited Mont Saint Michele and the beaches of Normandy. We stopped at the cathedrals in

Chartres, Bayeux, Lisieux and countless other places along the way. To this day, I know words

for parts of churches in French that I do not know in English. In La Rochelle, we went to the

University of La Rochelle where we participated in their language immersion program.

In La Rochelle, I stayed with an older woman named Sergine whose kids had all grown,

moved out, and had kids of their own. She had “un ami” who stayed over often and they fought

like an old married couple though they were not. One of my most memorable moments with

them was when we went to the Marais Poitevin which was basically a beautiful canal system

known as “Green Venice” that was surrounded by grass and foliage. My host mom and her male

friend could not paddle our little canoe in sync and ended up in a very intense fight. We drove an

hour home in complete silence and they did not talk for two days. When I told the story to my

teacher Frederique, she said that the Marais Poitevin is known as a great relationship test and that

going there is something that they joke that people should have to do before marriage to test how

they will handle stress.

Sergine’s father lived on l’Ile d’Orléans, one of the three islands off of the coast of La

Rochelle. He survived World War II and was even forced to fight in the German army during the

occupation. We visited her father and had a long, traditional Sunday lunch, followed by a rather

awkward “sieste.” I was prepared for most of what I would consider culture shock; however, I

was not prepared to have to sleep in a very strange place with people I didn’t know in the middle

of the day. As a result, there was no sleeping. While on a shopping journey in town, my host

mother picked up a book at a local “librerie” and flipped through it showing me several pictures

of her father from when he was younger. The homestay experience really made my second trip, it

allowed me to become comfortable enough with my host family that I was able to speak with

them and increase my fluency significantly. Since I am shy in unfamiliar situations, this

experience was extremely beneficial to me and I hope that I one day have another opportunity to

have such an experience.

In spring of 2010, I completed my student teaching experience at Roosevelt High School

in Des Moines, Iowa. I taught French I and French III. French I was an introductory course and

almost all of the students were ninth graders who had never had French before. French III was an

immersion style course where no one (including me) was permitted to use English while in the

classroom. My student teaching placement lasted sixteen weeks. My mentor, Ms. Romans, was

pregnant at the time and it was the first year using a new curriculum so I was able to get an

authentic taste for what teaching was really like. The semester I was student teaching, there were

an abundance of French teaching jobs in the state. Many schools were scrambling to figure out

how they would fill them. By the end of the semester; however, our governor announced budget

cuts that caused over three hundred teachers to be pink slipped. Many foreign language programs

did not survive the transition and finding a job became very difficult.


Since I was unable to find a job as a full time French teacher in the fall, I started working

as a substitute teacher in both Des Moines and Ankeny. I didn’t limit myself to French so I

gained experience in many different subjects and many different types of classrooms. I kept a

notebook of the things that I found interesting that I saw in other teachers’ rooms and made notes

of activities that I found useful.

In 2012, I was extremely fortunate to receive a phone call from a principal at Parkview

Middle School in Ankeny asking me to be a long-term sub for the entire spring semester teaching

sixth grade Exploratory French. It was during this experience that I fell in love with teaching

middle schoolers and made several connections that led to my current position. The position that

they were hiring for was a Spanish and French position so the principal and my co-workers

strongly encouraged me to get my Spanish endorsement.

After leaving my long-term sub position, I continued to substitute, but I also returned to

school. In the fall of 2012, I started taking classes at DMACC and Grand View University where

I first completed my 5-12 World History endorsement followed by my 5-12 Spanish and my 5-

12 All Social Sciences endorsements in 2014. After four years as a substitute teacher and nine

years in the classroom as a student, I was offered my first full-time teaching job in Ankeny,



It was perfect luck that I finished my Spanish endorsement at the same time that my high

school French teacher had retired. After transfers had taken place, there was a position available

that was split between Parkview and Prairie Ridge Middle School in Ankeny. I was hired to

teach Exploratory French and Spanish to sixth and seventh graders. I would spend first semester

at Parkview teaching and then I would travel to Prairie Ridge the second half of the year to teach

there. Teaching at two buildings has been a struggle, but it also has been good for me in that I

have been exposed to multiple philosophies of language teaching and different administration

styles. I have learned how to keep my own style as a teacher and build relationships with my

students while still meeting varying department, and building requirements. Next year, I will

begin my first year teaching entirely at Prairie Ridge. I am very excited for the stability and the

additional time I will have to better meet the needs of my students.

Over this past year, I have really felt my management improve. I am able to develop

close relationships with most of my students while still maintaining order in the classroom (with

the exception of full moons or a sudden shift in the weather). This year, I completed a Teacher

Quality Book Study on the book Teaching Behavior (2017) by Terrance M. Scott. This really

helped me combine the theories of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports with the realties

that middle school teachers encounter in the classroom.

While challenging, teaching middle school students is incredibly rewarding. Since we are

exploratory, I consider my number one job to be to make students fall in love with a language.

Just like I had to pick one language at the end of seventh grade, my students will have to make

that decision as well. One of the best things about our program is that all three of the modern

language teachers at Prairie Ridge teach both French and Spanish so we get to keep the same

students for the entire semester. This gives students the opportunity to choose a language based

on the connections they have made to the language and the culture instead of the connections that

they made to the teacher.

While my main goal as a teacher is to help students develop a passion for language

learning, it does not mean that the exploratory program is without rigor or language

development. By the end of sixth grade, students are able to greet one another, discuss their age

and dates using numbers, identify classroom objects, follow simple commands, talk about their

house and families, and make comparisons and connections between the cultures we study and

their own lives. By the end of seventh grade, students are able to talk about likes and dislikes,

animals, food, body, clothing, the weather, make connections between Hispanic artists and their

lives, and compare the monuments of Paris to elements of their culture.


Even though I have been teaching in Ankeny for three years now, I still feel like there is

so much I do not know and so much more that I could be doing to improve myself as a teacher

and as a French and Spanish speaker. In 2016, I decided to further my education by enrolling in

the Master of Arts in the Teaching of Languages program at the University of Southern

Mississippi. I am currently working on my French emphasis which means that eighteen of my

credits are in French and the other fifteen are essentially very detailed language teaching courses.

The courses are completed online and most of them use a webcam which allows us to get to

know each other and practice our French-speaking skills with one another. I am really happy that

I chose this program as I feel that it is put together very well and is very balanced in how it

focuses on all of the areas that are important to us as language teachers in addition to the


In the future, I hope to further my education in Spanish and become more comfortable

with speaking the language. Since I only completed the twenty-four credits required to get the

teaching endorsement, I feel I would struggle teaching more advanced levels. I would also like to

spend more time traveling so that I am able to add to the experiences I share with my students.