Valerie Nao Yoshimura, a French teacher at The Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles, is the winner of this year’s Friedel and Otto Eberspacher Award for Excellence in the Teaching of a Modern Western European Language.
Each year, CTY gives the award to an educator who inspires students to understand the world’s people and cultures. Lieselotte E. Kurth of Johns Hopkins University’s German Department established the award in 1989. It includes a $1,500 prize.
Students in grades 7-12 who participate in CTY’s humanities and writing Summer Programs courses are invited to nominate a teacher from their home school for the award. Caroline Ediger, a 10th-grader at The Archer School for Girls, nominated Yoshimura after participating in CTY’s International Politics course in Los Angeles last summer. Yoshimura is one of 74 teachers nominated for the award this year.
“Her unique approach to teaching us actual life skills along with French means that her lessons will stick even more,” Ediger said of Yoshimura.
Teacher nominees are encouraged to submit an essay discussing pivotal moments in their language education and teaching careers. A native of Chicago, Yoshimura describes the moment at age 15 when, while participating in an exchange program, she was blueberry picking in the Pyrenees and got into an argument with the host family’s daughter—in French.
“Suddenly, I had the epiphany that would change my life: I speak French!” she writes.
As an undergraduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, she took French classes. But, she writes, “I didn’t realize my studies were more than a passing fancy until I learned that I was closer to a bachelor’s degree in French than to the one in sociology I was officially pursuing.” She went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in French language and literature from the University of Michigan.
Now in her classroom at the Archer School for Girls, where she teaches standard, honors, and AP French courses to high-school students, she uses a “mathematical systems approach” to teach the patterned, grammatical, “skeleton” parts of the language. Then she layers on creative elements to help students appreciate the “flesh and blood”—the idioms, turns of phrase, and historical and cultural context of the language.
Much of this is accomplished through language immersion. Six years ago Yoshimura established an “e-Pal” program through which her students correspond regularly with a class of students in southeastern France. She and her students also read and discuss French news, in French.
She keeps stuffed animals and musical instruments in the classroom to encourage playfulness and leads her students in meditation before exams.
“Above all, I focus on clarity, and on articulating the thought processes and choices foundational to communication,” Yoshimura said. “Indeed, by making thinking visible, we gain insight and understanding into how we can use the language; we also recognize our limitations and strategize how to reroute, like water around a rock.”
She’s found the most rewarding moments happen when a student, speaking in French, perseveres when struggling to find the “right” words. “It’s fun when they have to get creative and improvise and reroute, and then after some circumlocution, they get it—they finish a complex thought—and everyone applauds,” Yoshimura said. “Those are the little victories that really matter.”
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