Professional Learning

Passing Along a Love of Learning

Newbie teacher Jean Klasovsky brings French to inner-city Hispanic students and is rethinking how to engage her students.

May 26, 2009
Credit: iStock (Polaroid frames); photographs courtesy of Jean Klasovsky

Jean Klasovsky grew up in a small, leafy college town in Ohio, where most of her classmates were white and nearly everyone went on to college. Klasovsky didn't come from a wealthy family, but her ambitions couldn't have been loftier: By age 12, she'd drafted an acceptance speech for when she became the first female president of the United States. Fourteen years later, the path to the Oval Office has taken an unexpected detour.

Klasovsky teaches French in a large, mostly Hispanic high school in southwest Chicago. The graduation rate hovers just below 50 percent. Sometimes she hopes for an absent student or two so there will be enough books to go around.

Her students, by and large, will not spend a semester exploring France like she did; most are in the class just to fulfill a language requirement. But Klasovsky does not pine for Pennsylvania Avenue. On the contrary, she adores her job -- and has discovered that the students least like herself sometimes are the best learners. She spoke to Edutopia from her home in Chicago.

Redefining a Good Student

Jean Klasovsky: I never got anything but A's in high school. I was a big dork. I remember one time I'd been absent a few days and had a big AP U.S. History test the day I got back. I passed with flying colors, and I remember my teacher scolding the other students -- "Jean's been absent this past week, and she still did better than you guys!" It was really embarrassing. I was always self-conscious about my grades, but I knew I had to get a scholarship to get to a good school to make my dream of becoming president happen.

I just started teaching, so for me it's really important to go back to those memories of what my own teachers did -- what worked and what didn't, what got me interested, what got me to learn certain concepts or ideas. Since I began teaching, I've learned that some of the best teachers are those who were bad students themselves. Maybe they're more able to identify.

Me, I was such a different kind of student than a lot of the kids I have. I was a total grade grubber. And what I've found is that the students who don't care as much about their grades are often more creative, and think things through more critically.

The students who are working for a grade want to know the right answer and move on. Sometimes they'll get 100 percent on a test because I've told them this is what you need to know. But if I ask them to write a paragraph about what they did last night, they get lost. They're less willing to make mistakes, or to go outside what they think I want.

Now that I know that grades aren't as important as learning, it's hard not to see my younger self in certain students -- and not want them to miss out on the opportunity to be more creative. I say, 'This is just practice. It's OK if you're wrong.' I give partial credit.

Discovering a Passion for Creative Expression

Learning a language, it's hard not to make mistakes. If I can just get them talking, I'm excited. The students who really have a grasp of learning French are the ones willing to play around with the language to get a point across. They don't seek to be correct; they seek to be understood.

Looking back, my own high school teachers didn't always get me that interested. I remember in history class, reading from a really dry textbook. We did a lot of worksheets in that class. I loved my teacher, but the class just wasn't very engaging.

I didn't realize that history is contested, for example, that it can be really fascinating and engaging. So I've learned to liven things up and engage my students. One thing I'm excited about is this Web site called ToonDoo, where you can go online and make comics with this clip art they have. I gave the students a couple of characters and vocabulary words they have to use, and they practice sentence structure and vocabulary by making comics.

They thought it was so cool. And once they've created their comics, they can publish them online. They can embed them in their MySpace page, or publish them on the Web site, so people can leave comments.

That's one of the amazing things about the openness of the Internet: Students can produce work that's actually seen by the world, and not just do it for a grade. They're publishing their work -- that's so great. And maybe it's through making a connection to the world outside our classroom that they'll see value in learning a new language.

I've noticed that some people view French as a luxury subject -- like, it's for rich kids who might go to France one day. My students recognize this and will sometimes ask, 'What are the chances I'll ever talk to a French person?' Because some of them never really leave the neighborhood.

But that just makes it all the more exciting when they really get into something we're doing. We have these moments where it's really learning for learning's sake, and it's pretty amazing.

Urban education is very different from suburban education. You can do the same kinds of lessons, but the students and their families and the system are very different. For me, I feel like this is what I was meant to do.

I struggled for a long time not knowing what I wanted -- I never really felt passionate about anything. Then I started reading about education programs and I was like, 'I'm excited about this.' And now that I'm a teacher? All I want to read is books about education, talk about education, talk about my job. It's great.

Chris Colin writes the On the Job column for the San Francisco Chronicle and is the author of What Really Happened to the Class of '93.

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