By Jason Phillips
Janice Egan is the French Language Specialist at the Upper Elementary level at DVMS, and for the adolescent students at Strata Montessori Adolescent School. One adolescent girl describes Janice as her favourite because she is “feisty.” We couldn’t think of a better description… well, maybe smart as a whip, dedicated, and uber-reliable would work, but we’ll just stick with feisty.
I am Irish, originally, which people always laugh at because I’m this little Irish woman teaching French. I grew up in Ireland and went to school in Ireland, and my BA, actually, is in translation — French and Spanish translation — from Dublin City University; then I went on and did a Master’s in French here at McMaster University [in Hamilton/Dundas].
The interesting thing about learning a second language in Europe, where I grew up, is that typically your second — French for me was actually a third language — is that most countries already have two languages, English and a national language, so I grew up, until the age of twelve, learning English, and Irish as my second language. The tradition in most European countries is not to introduce a third or fourth language until the age of twelve, so I was not introduced to French until I was twelve-years-old and entering secondary school, which is the equivalent of grade 7, and I took Spanish at that point as well. People are always very interested in that point, that I’ve had far less schooling in French than kids here in Canada. That’s always what I try to tell parents, that their children, if they grow up in a bilingual country they have French from the time they start school, and sometimes before that, and by the time they get to me at the Upper Elementary level they have a very good foundation in French and it’s just about bringing that forward and showing the children how much they already know before adding to it.
I have three children: two daughters, and my son is the oldest. My older daughter has been schooled in French immersion, and my youngest daughter attends DVMS. It’s very nice for her; she started here half-days when I was working half-days, and then when I was hired full time she began full day school.
And you run around in the woods?
I do. I do adventure running, just to keep fit. Running is one of my passions and I volunteer with Adventure Running Kids, known as ARK, here in Hamilton; it’s run by volunteers, totally, and it runs in the fall and spring.
I love it. I go out once a week and run around in the forest. It’s all about orienteering, teaching kids to survive in the forest if they need to, to orient themselves with maps, and get exercise and pleasure.
How did you come to join the DVMS community?
Well, my neighbour, Christine, whose daughters are here at DVMS, lives across the street from me and is good friends with Tony Evans and knew that Tony was looking to broaden the French programme, and she knew I was doing my Master’s at the university and she mentioned it to me and to Tony. We set up a meeting and it all came together. At that point it was a natural progression for me, actually. I hadn’t ultimately thought that teaching was my destination, but I do have a genuine ????? for the French language, and was totally immersed in it at that point, and thought “Ooh, this a great way to continue that.” So it was a nice way to break into teaching part-time.
What does your role and position at entail?
I came to DVMS in 2011 and began, at that point, teaching the students in the adolescent program, so I was here part-time, just half-days in the mornings, and at the end of year there was a little transition. Sylvia [Marechal] had been teaching French to the Lower and Upper Elementary kids and she was interested in focusing more — having a more holistic approach to teaching French at the school — and thought that she could achieve that if she could focus only on the Lower Elementary children. I was asked if I would be interested in becoming a full-time teacher here at the school and if I would be in charge of teaching the Upper Elementary French program in the afternoons.
So, starting in September 2012, my day consisted of spending my mornings in the Strata Montessori adolescent community and teaching French, in various ways, for one hour, three days a week. I also cook lunch with the adolescents one day a week, and we do that in French, as well, and we are ultimately hoping to include more French in the program, perhaps in the humanities section where the adolescents are typically more creative.
I spend, then, the afternoons in the Upper Elementary section of the school teaching French. The French classes are divided according to grade equivalencies, so I teach all the grade 4-equivalent children together, for an hour, three times a week, and the fives and sixes are mixed together and I take them three hours a week as well.
We are trying to create a more holistic approach to French teaching at the Upper Elementary level. We’re trying to mirror what Sylvia has achieved at the Lower Elementary level, and we’re in the process of trying to have French more widely available so that it’s not… — certainly the children will come together for basic lessons, but then we would like to see the children be able to use their French again in other capacities, in their project work, perhaps, and through trying to link up what they learn in their first-language classes with their second-language classes, so their work can be developed more in their second language.
I saw this at Ottawa Montessori School when I visited in September to have a look at their French program and their approach to it, which in my estimation is a more holistic approach and ultimately what we’re trying to achieve here at DVMS.
The children there would… — it was very small groups, a limited number of children, which I feel is ultimately more beneficial because the children do all learn at their own pace and having smaller groups of children will enable some to push ahead — those who are stronger in French — and others, who need it, to take more time.
At OMS there were children who were doing theatre and dance in their second language because that was their passion and that was the way to facilitate their learning of their second language in an easier and more fun environment.
Others were being creative for Christmas, so they were singing songs and creating cards, and again, just enjoying what they were doing but all the while in their second language, there was no English used in their classes, which is what we try to do at DVMS but our groups are big right now and so the idea is that we can make it slightly more personal and tailor the course more to each individual child and more integrated into the environment.
That’s where we are at the moment, and in the two and a half years I’ve been here there has been quite a bit of change and French is becoming a much stronger part of the curriculum than it ever has been. The adolescents teach the Casa children. Part of my teaching with the adolescents is to teach them how to go down and teach the Casa children. What we’re trying to do is build the program from the Casa level up so that there is definitely that flow of French learning all through a child’s education here at DVMS. The Casa program has become much stronger as a result of that, and it also gives the adolescents an opportunity for practical application of French, which is really what we’re trying to achieve.
Sylvia has a very strong French program now, at the Lower Elementary level, which means that the children coming to me at the Upper level have very strong French. The curriculum is being tailored each year for the new influx of students because their basic French is so much more advanced each year that I see these students, and the beautiful thing about a Montessori school is that we can change the curriculum according to need and to level of French. In a few years, Sylvia and I believe that the French program here will be exceptional and extremely strong. That is what we see year-to-year in the development of the program.
Coming from a traditional schooling background, what has the process of integrating into Montessori environments been like?
I love the Montessori environment just because you can be very creative and you can adapt. Obviously, there are some very basic things in French that you need to teach the children, but there are fun ways to be able to do that, and creative ways to do that, and the Montessori environment allows for that.
I am following the curriculum of the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board [the local public education board], to some extent, because we do go to grade nine now at Strata and those students have to step out if they want to continue French at the grade 10 level, so they do need those basics in place. So, we ensure that will be an easy transition for those students that follow French to the grade 9 level here.
I always loved French as a student, but I was good at it; it was easy for me to do. What I try to focus on is that some kids are very good at it and it’s easy for them, but, for many kids, they struggle with the French language, and so my main focus at the Upper Elementary level is to keep it fun and keep it as much a natural application of the language so they’re not just learning French in isolation in a classroom. We have students travel up the hallway from Upper Elementary to Lower to do little surveys with each other, we listen to a lot of songs, we watch videos, so that they know that French is out there for the taking, and they live in a country where it is easily accessible to them. We do a lot of art and creative projects, and we learn a lot about French culture — it happens to be the time of Carnaval in Quebec, so we’ll have a look at that, and at festivals and carnivals around the world as well during the year from September to June.
Your daughter is a DVMS student, and your older children also attended Montessori programs. What originally brought you to Montessori?
My two older children are in high school, but they started out their pre-school and grade one education — we lived in the United States at the time — at the local Montessori school there and we loved it. My older daughter switched to French immersion, which she really wanted to do, but with our youngest it just seemed like the logical thing to do. We had had such a good experience with Montessori education that we always knew she would have her first stab at education in a Montessori environment. We love it; it’s the motivation to develop good work habits, to have fun doing it, to keep them stimulated, and they move at their own level so their own intelligence is being developed at the pace at which they want it to be developed, which is what we admire about Montessori education.