Johns Hopkins University

Spring 2008
Vol. 5, No.2


>[Those Who Can, Teach] A Conversation with Claude Guillemard

[Tech Tools] The Bronze Age Goes Digital

[Classroom Encounters] Giving Voice to Stories That Matter

Great Books and Great Opera

Great Year for Student Curators

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A Conversation with Claude Guillemard

Paris native Claude Guillemard moved to the U.S. when she was in her mid-20s and at a crossroads in her life. She was pursuing a PhD in classics but had some doubts about her chosen path. After studying for a year in New Haven, she was offered a temporary position as French language coordinator at Johns Hopkins. Guillemard accepted the offer, left her classics studies, and never looked back.


Today, some 18 years later, she is the interim director of the French Language Program at Hopkins, a senior lecturer in French, and the coordinator of the exchange program with Sciences Po, the prestigious institute of political science in Paris. Guillemard is one of three faculty members from the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures piloting a foreign-language learning program this year at Guilford Elementary-Middle School in Baltimore. She was also the School of Arts and Sciences' co-winner of the 2007 Alumni Association Excellence in Teaching Award. Her students regularly praise her energy, warmth, dedication, and ability to put them at ease.

Arts & Sciences contributing writer Greg Rienzi talked with Guillemard recently about the challenges and joys of teaching foreign language.

What can students expect when they walk in the door of your classroom?

I mostly teach the Intermediate French class, so students come to me with at least one year of French, sometimes with five or six years of experience because French was not their forte and they still need a little help [laughs].

All of our classes are taught entirely in French, the target language. In order to do that, we need to train our instructors to make sure they use all the resources possible--gestures, expressions, visuals, repetition--and the right level of French. The first day of class it's important to reduce students' anxiety. If you're anxious, you're not going to work at your best. You need to make them confident and relaxed, and you start at an easy level.

Can you demonstrate?

If I say, [raises voice slightly] "Bonjour!" [gestures arms in welcome]. "Moi [points to herself], Je m'appelle Claude Guillemard. Je suis le professeur."

Then you see those who understand and those who are like, um, huh? You build from there. First you have to basically distract their attention from, "Oh my gosh, I'm in French class and I'm not going to understand," to "OK, something is happening here and I'm getting it." You don't put them on the spot too early.

What are the keys for young adults to learn a new language?

Within limits, we are trying to reproduce how a child learns a language. First of all, the child hears the language a lot before he or she can talk. Listening is fundamental. I'm going to say things that I know they are going to understand, because even if they don't understand my words, they will understand my gestures. And I will repeat. A lot.


What teaching devices do you employ?

We have access to a lot of resources. We put websites in front of our students; PowerPoint presentations; clips of a song; clips of a movie. One of my favorites is an online chat room at the Language Lab. The amount of French that students produce when they talk to each other on the computer is amazing.

But I still think the teacher is the most important element. I have energy, and even if I'm exhausted outside, once I get in class it's a different role. I've always felt that I need to give them some of that energy. The teacher's presence, to me, is what really makes the difference.

You need to be attentive to your students. I try to notice who is energetic that day, who is sleepy, who understands, who needs help. I comment on it so they are aware of it, too. Someone who is struggling can be just engaged in short answers, while I will ask another one to produce longer answers.

You seem to love teaching....

I always felt like I was a born educator. Whatever I know or learn, I enjoy showing to someone else.

Also, I grew up in France and I was exposed to the French education system, which, in my case, was not happy at all. At the age my students are now, I had been traumatized by certain classes. In a French class everything is public, such as comments about students, and grades. Humiliation is a tool of certain teachers.

As a teacher, I've tried to find a middle ground--one that is caring and interested in progress, but that also requires personal discipline [from my students].


Do you encourage students to study abroad? How important are such experiences?

I'm very happy to see a growing interest in studying abroad among our students. We always encourage it. It's not only for their linguistic progress, but also for their more nuanced assessment of another culture, with its negatives as well. France is often idealized. They come back with more critical analyses both of the other country and their own. They've also learned so much about themselves. They're transformed.