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Sagnier introduces new language for learning

From the Sept. 18, 2006, Princeton Weekly Bulletin

Christine Sagnier came to Princeton last September with a mission: Refresh and enliven the way undergraduates learn the French language.

She started by redesigning a training course for graduate students who teach introductory French classes, penning her own textbook for them.

“I wanted the graduate students to have a theoretical framework for teaching language, not just a series of recipes on how to survive in the classroom,” said Sagnier, a senior lecturer in the Department of French and Italian and head of the French language program. The class emphasizes theories of second-language acquisition and teaches students about language-learning methodology to create a foundation for their professional development.

Sagnier gives graduate students leeway in deciding how to structure the introductory language classes they will teach. She lays out a set of learning objectives that each class has to meet each week, so the instructors can design their own approach to the material instead of being told that they need to cover, say, pages 1 through 10 in a textbook.

“Our curriculum is rigorous without being rigid,” she said. “I feel every instructor has the right to have his or her personality in the classroom. You take the joy out of teaching if you prevent people from being creative.”

Sagnier believes that understanding the dynamics of language acquisition will be useful for the graduate students as they pursue a variety of teaching careers. “Even though they will become literature professors, they will likely be teaching second-language learners,” Sagnier said.

In one year Sagnier has “re-energized the French language program,” said Marie-Hélène Huet, the Taylor Pyne Professor of French and Italian who was chair of the department last year. “She is extraordinarily dynamic and talented. She fully understands what it means to learn a language, to discover a foreign culture and to develop communicative skills that will benefit students in all their future endeavors.”

During her first year Sagnier also set to work redesigning “Beginner’s French I and II,” the introductory courses in French language taught by graduate student instructors, lecturers and assistant professors.

Her approach rejected rote learning and heavy reliance on textbooks in favor of conceptual learning and critical thinking. Textbooks are rarely used in the classroom — instead, they provide a tool for students when they study on their own. Sagnier designed the course so that while learning a new language, students also would explore cross-cultural issues, starting the first week of the semester. For example, when they are taught the two pronouns that mean “you” — the familiar “tu” or the formal “vous” — the students are led into a discussion of the social codes behind the greetings.

“I want to encourage students to think critically about language learning, to ask themselves, ‘What kind of view do I have of the world from my language?’ It’s quite different from the way most traditional courses are taught,” said Sagnier, who has a Ph.D. in applied linguistics and second-language acquisition from the Université de Franche-Comté in Besançon, France. Before coming to Princeton, she spent 16 years teaching French language and culture in France.

The graduate students thrived under Sagnier’s tutelage, which encouraged them to teach their students much more than just grammar and vocabulary, according to graduate student Eve Morisi. “The double teaching goal I keep in mind, after taking Mrs. Sagnier’s pedagogy seminar and working with her, is to make sure the students get solid linguistic foundations in French while developing — with an open mind — a true sensibility to and knowledge of the French and francophone culture,” Morisi said.

Undergraduates were receptive to the approach. “Princeton students are so intellectually curious and motivated, and this is an approach they find so much more enjoyable than ‘Repeat after me,’” Sagnier said.

Junior Amanda Mazur took the introductory French class last year; she was in the section that Sagnier taught herself. “From the very beginning, Sagnier deftly balanced high expectations for her students with remarkable patience and understanding,” Mazur said. “While ‘French 101’ is, by nature, a very grammar-focused course, Sagnier succeeded in making each class interesting and engaging by interspersing dull grammar with discussions and fun activities.”

As she starts her second academic year at Princeton, Sagnier is remodeling the intensive intermediate French courses and considering creating French writing workshops. She also is hoping to introduce a mentoring system for graduate students, so those with more teaching experience can help novice instructors. And she is working with lecturers and assistant professors who are helping identify areas in the curriculum that need improvement.

Marie-Helene Koffi-Tessio, a former graduate student in the department, said she learned a great deal about teaching from Sagnier. She plans to use much of what she learned this fall, when she will be at the blackboard at Barnard College teaching intermediate French. “I’m going to keep in touch with her,” Koffi-Tessio said. “She’s an incredible resource.”


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