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Pedagogical Approaches I: French through Songs User’s Guide

Prevots, Aaron. Southwestern University, Georgetown, TX. November 2006.

The following reprises site information to introduce students and teachers alike to French through Songs and Singing, a multimedia educational site for learning and teaching language, culture and literature through music.

Initial Goals
An initial goal was to facilitate online and for a broad audience the sing-alongs that have been popular in my Southwestern University courses. Through funding from ACS and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, I selected and recorded a first set of fifty songs to post. One unusual feature is the songs that I wrote or adapted, such as “Je ne veux pas,” “Qu’est-ce que tu aimes, Madeleine,” and “Une vieille bonne femme,” based on “London Bridge is Falling Down,” “Jenny Jenkins” and “I Know an Old Lady” respectively. “Le blues d’être,” meant to help students internalize irregular verb patterns, introduces more of a rock feel, while “Je t’aimerais mieux, mon mari” contains traditional lyrics adapted to a Cajun style and “Les menteries” presents the folk art of playful exaggeration.

Cultural diversity was also foregrounded, as for example with the French-Canadian tunes “Ah ! si mon moine voulait danser,” “L’arbre est dans ses feuilles” and “Le festin de campagne.” Authentic Cajun material is gradually playing a part, as with “Aux Natchitoches” and “Les clefs de la prison” by the Southern Louisiana bands Feufollet and Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys. This is in addition to the usual favorites from France, such as “Ah ! vous dirai-je maman” and “Chevaliers de la table ronde.”

An innovative feature is the twenty songs to date offered in two versions — one regular, one slow, with the slower version appearing in a second Flash Player below a song’s text and vocabulary. This aspect is flagged at the home page, in the project goals that serve as a long-term mission statement:

1. To promote French and Francophone cultures
2. To encourage sing-alongs in the classroom
3. To offer fast and slow versions of some songs
4. To remain faithful to traditions and also innovate
5. To provide a resource bank that can grow over time

Sections and Strategies
The Links and Articles sections allow easy access to a broad array of material. Instead of heading to a handful of scattered music links, it is now easier to be guided to specific points of interest through one main portal. In other words, when beginning this project I was able to locate few other sites that bring together a wide range of educational resources on French and Francophone music, culture and pedagogy while also featuring the music itself. I am continually adding teaching tools which as a group often can be found only through serendipitous searching.

A primary strategy of mine has been to mate at least one song to each chapter of our textbook and thus enhance grammatical progressions. In French I, for example, “Bonjour ! Comment ça va ?” and “Les ABC” work well as course openers; “L’arbre est dans ses feuilles” presents the expression “il y a”; “Le petit train” emphasizes the verb “avoir”; and “Une vieille bonne femme” highlights the past tense. In a third-year upper intermediate course on culture, we sang songs as they related to topics, including “J’aurai le vin” regarding sociability and “Au clair de la lune” for added insights on mores.

When I bring my guitar with me, I usually present vocabulary first and then one verse and chorus by myself. I also begin songs slowly. With Flash Player, this same modeling can in most cases be done without an instrument. For the “Comment dit-on blues,” I let the MP3 provide the ‘call’ lines to which students respond. I typically include references to songs within the syllabus and assign a first listening as homework. In recordings, I made sure to sing slowly and clearly, and often counted off a tune or gave musical cues for starting a verse.

I envision using “Savez-vous planter les choux” as a tie-in to Agnès Varda’s much-loved film Les glaneurs et la glaneuse and “Le petit mari,” representative of a specific type of French song narrated by a woman who is poorly married, for a course on gender and identity. One could also examine more troubling or comical aspects of everyday life through the undertones of “Il était une bergère” or “C’est la mère Michel.” Parallels to poetry can be especially interesting, in terms of how folk traditions likewise function as cultural artifacts.

The lyrics downloads should enable classroom use. The option of downloading lyrics with chords enables students to learn material on their own or share it with friends. The article “Pedagogical Approaches: Selected Ideas for Using Songs” provides a brief overview regarding music in the foreign-language classroom. An excellent resource in this area is Murphey, Tim, Music and Song, Oxford Resource Books for Teachers series (New York: Oxford UP, 1992).

Collaborative Aspects
One collaborative aspect that has fallen nicely into place is soliciting contributions from recording artists, including “Le p’tit cordonnier” by Les Chauffeurs à pieds; “I.C.U.” and “J’essaye d’arrêter” by Damien; “Aux Natchitoches” by Feufollet; “Les clefs de la prison” by Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys; and “Gérard Depardieu” and “L’invitation au voyage” by Jacques Yvart, with songs by Sandra Le Couteur coming soon. In this way, the site is expanding into rap, reggae, varied traditional styles and even poetry (see “L’invitation au voyage,” based on a famous text by Charles Baudelaire).

Also important to making this project a collaborative educational space has been inviting scholarly contributions and thus incorporating material by outside specialists. One invaluable recent addition was the “Learn About Quebec Project,” by Dr. Matthew Shaftel of Florida State University and Pascale Shaftel of Maclay School, Tallahassee. Information on politically oriented songs from Quebec is on its way. An ongoing call appears at the home page, and listserves have been helpful as well. If you use music in a class and would like to add to the site, let me know via the contact information at the home page.

The current materials adapt well to community outreach, for example in teacher-training courses or service programs. If you are a student reading this, keep in mind that it empowers you to learn a bit more on your own and also to teach others through music should you feel so inclined. Another collaborative aspect to be implemented soon is posting students’ critical analyses of CDs by contemporary Francophone artists, based on albums of their choice from our school library. To me, this assignment goes somewhat beyond a blog in that the fact of having an international audience — recent positive feedback from colleagues in numerous countries — should offer greater motivation for crafting strong arguments and fine-tuning one’s French prose.

Conclusions
French through Songs and Singing provides many authentic songs, background information, ideas for implementation and broad cultural connections. It is dynamic in that further MP3s and articles can be smoothly integrated. Because it draws on a vast public domain repertoire, it can grow as an archive. Its WordPress software allows for eventual inclusion of metadata tags and a search engine. Video is on its way, and information on other areas within Francophonie is likewise on the horizon. I hope you enjoy this valuable teaching resource.