The University of Alabama’s French department is growing its volunteer initiative, FLEX (French Language Exploration), at University Place Elementary School.
Mentors work weekly with students at University Place Elementary School to teach them about the French language and Francophone culture.
“At that school, one of their big goals is global citizenship, so we also work to inform them about all of the many countries that speak French,” said April Stevens, program founder and director. “Many people don’t realize that there are current estimates of over 270 million French speakers in the world.”
According to Stevens, FLEX was founded two years ago due to student interest in volunteer work and desire to enhance their French-speaking skills.
“Because we only have 30 minutes a week, we know they are not going to become fluent French speakers,” Stevens said. “The goal of our program is to get them excited about learning any language and get them excited to learn about other cultures.”
UA students in the program are provided with lesson plans made by Stevens and graduate students in the French department. Undergraduate students volunteering with the FLEX program teach the lessons. According to former FLEX volunteer Caryl Santos, the mentors utilize games, coloring sheets and videos to creatively engage the students while teaching them about French culture.
Many ideas in French culture are similar to concepts students have already been exposed to, Stevens said.
To teach kids about the diversity of French-speaking countries and regions, for example, a volunteer may read a picture book about popular French foods. Mentors also use songs to teach students the French names of colors and animals.
“I think it’s a great way for students to take their minds off of routine lessons but at the same time continue to gain knowledge in a more hands-on and engaging way,” Santos said.
The volunteers not only expose elementary school students to French and Francophone culture, they also practice their French speaking skills – a rare opportunity in Tuscaloosa, Santos said.
“Participating in this program not only benefited the students but myself as well,” Santos said. “It was a great opportunity for me to utilize what I learned in my own classes and pass the knowledge on to somebody else. The biggest thing about learning a new language is consistent practice and constant exposure to the language. This program really helped me with that.”
Now in its third year, the number of volunteer continues to grow not only in the number of volunteers, but in the number of elementary students it reaches.
“The program has grown a lot since my freshman year, and it’s been really neat to be a part of it since its beginning,” said Lillian Redding, a junior majoring in French. “We started out just teaching kindergarten and first grade classes. This year we are teaching first through fourth grade.”
This year, FLEX is expected to reach a total of 200 children between 15 different classes at University Place Elementary School.
“The kids are so sweet and curious,” Redding said. “I am always blown away by how quickly they learn. Teaching French is always a fun way to end the week.”
Students interested in volunteering with the FLEX program can contact April Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org. All French fluency levels are welcome to join.