Francais with a flair -- a novel way to teach
Hanover, N.H. — He tosses eggs and raw meat at his students. He barrages them with rapid-fire questions, his face inches away from the subject. He blindfolds them and leads them through mazes made of stacked classroom chairs.
A nursery-school game? A therapy group? An acting course? No, a beginning French class.
Even as he describes his popular but controversial methodology, Prof. John A. Rassias is a bundle of energy - prowling about his small office at Dartmouth College, gesticulating broadly, and pouring out his enthusiasm in a deep, melodramatic voice.
''In the classroom,'' he says, there must be ''all kinds of explosive activity.'' He says this ''theatrical workshop'' approach - which is ''intensive'' in that it demands more than the usual amount of course time - aims to capture and keep students' attention. The goal: Don't just talk about a language, but show them the language and culture in operation.
Take the maze, for example. He first gives blindfolded students the basic French words for directions - forward, back, right, left, stop, go. He then has another student talk them through the obstacles - in French. The result: students retain what they have learned because they have used it.
And they are more willing to use it, says Professor Rassias, because the atmosphere of the course - taught partly by student teachers - helps remove the ''inhibitions'' many students feel when asked to pronounce foreign words.
Taking the boredom out of language teaching has become, Rassias admits, ''a major crusade.'' As the only language teacher to serve on President Carter's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies, he toured the nation and heard, he says, ''thousands of people give testimony on the plight of languages in this country.'' His conclusion: Language teaching in the United States is ''abysmal.''
The commission's report, published in November 1979, charged ''Americans' scandalous incompetence in foreign languages'' was directly related to their ''dangerously inadequate understanding of world affairs.''
By 1979, however, the Rassias method was spreading beyond Dartmouth (where all modern languages are taught that way) through teacher-training workshops run by Rassias. And the success stories were beginning to flow in:
* In 1970, Washington University in St. Louis had abandoned its language requirement. By 1977, says chairman James Jones of the romance languages department, the number of students enrolling in foreign language courses was only a third of the pre-1970 level. ''We were in abominable shape,'' he says.
That year they brought a modified version of the Rassias method to the campus. Now, for the third year, enrollments in intensive French and Spanish classes (which demand nine hours of a student's classroom time each week) exceed pre-1970 levels - even without a language requirement. The courses even have waiting lists, he says.
''The whole thing has literally reorganized the entire department,'' he says. ''It's become the most popular subject on campus.''
* In 1977, East Grand Rapids High School turned to the Rassias method when it found itself in similarly tough straits. Not only did enrollments improve in the two-hour-per-day intensive Spanish course; so did the results.
Standardized tests indicated that after one year in the intensive course, students scored slightly better than their fellow students completing the second year of a traditional program. And they were enthusiastic: After the 1980-81 year, according to a study of the program written by three instructors who worked closely with it, 96 percent of the students opted to continue their study of Spanish after the 1980-81 year - compared with 58 percent after the typical two-year course.
''We're very pleased with it,'' says East Grand Rapids principal C. E. Cleven. ''We're practically guaranteeing these kids when they elect the (one-year) course that they will be able to converse if they go to a country where Spanish is spoken.''
So far, the Rassias method has been adopted by about 100 schools and colleges in the US. This summer, says Rassias, a delegation of Japanese is coming to study with him - before he leaves in September for a month of teacher-training sessions in Australia.
But not everyone is convinced Rassias' method will turn out a nation of linguists.
Some teachers, he says, are suspicious of what they see as ''excessive media attention paid to one theatrical person'' - particularly the appearances by Professor Rassias on the Johnny Carson Show and a segment of the CBS show ''60 Minutes.''
And one staff member of a foreign language association, speaking not for attribution, noted the method is ''highly person-centered.'' ''What one person can do in the classroom not everybody else can do,'' he said, adding, ''not everybody is a born actor.''
''There are no born teachers,'' the Greek-born Rassias argues, noting that anyone can be trained in the ''dramatic talent'' necessary for the method.