LOOKING from the front of the classroom at bored stares while listening to children recite the same rudimentary French vocabulary, the teacher realized something needed to change.
Wendy Maxwell had been a French immersion teacher at an inner-city school in Ontario, but it wasn't until she began teaching French at a private school in Toronto that she realized the ineffectiveness of the standard lesson plan.
"I was shocked at the lack of language development," she said. "It was pitiful, the hours they were spending and not learning."
From that point in the early '90s, Maxwell began developing a teaching program she called Accelerated Integrative Methodology.
The first step in the program is talking with your hands.
"I attached a gesture to every single word," Maxwell said.
Some gestures are simple, such as putting your hand to your ear to signal listening, while others might rely on the spelling of the word, but Maxwell said there are now 2,000 gestures used in A.I.M.
The idea is that instead of simply repeating a new vocabulary word, the students respond physically by copying the gesture, and the vocabulary becomes part of their muscle memory.
Besides incorporating gestures, Maxwell examined which words would be most useful for students.
"The students didn't have the vocabulary they needed to communicate," she said.
Instead of avoiding verbs that were difficult to conjugate, Maxwell said she began looking for highfrequency language.
As the students learned the more practical vocabulary, Maxwell decided there should be drama.
"I started to write plays," she said.
At the end of each unit of French, the students would perform a play, and along with the plays came songs and student-penned French hip hop.
Maxwell's theatrical approach began to gain recognition, and it wasn't long before other teachers followed suit.
Monique Terrillon teaches grades three to seven at West Bay elementary in West Vancouver, and she's familiar with the traditional method of teaching French.
"It's like flogging a dead horse," she said.
After about 18 months of studying Maxwell's system, Terrillon said she became proficient in A.I.M. and the difference in her students was startling.
"Night and day," she said, describing the change. "The kids could speak French and it wasn't forced, it was spontaneous."
Terrillon said she's using the same system to teach English to English as a second language students.
"This program is unique in that students are genuinely engaged in story," said Ellen Keiser, a French teacher at Collingwood private school for the past nine years.
Besides teaching in West Vancouver, Keiser also traveled to Melbourne, Australia to help teachers incorporate the approach in their schools.
Students might sing a French song about the trials and tribulations of the Three Little Pigs, but the emphasis is on immersing the students in French opposed to focusing on translating English.
"As soon as the students see the teachers they immediately switch gears and start speaking French," she said.