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Parlez-vous chocolate?: Immersive lessons bring hands-on element to language class

ANDOVER — Students rushed to their seats Tuesday morning in Katherine McGonagle’s French class.

It was truffle day.

McGonagle’s class cooks a dish from a French-speaking country once a month. Tuesday they learned about Switzerland and the chocolate truffles the country is so known for.

She started the monthly cooking sessions during the pandemic to keep students engaged while at home and to give them what seems like a break from French class, but in reality are immersive lessons. Coming back to the classroom full-time she wanted to keep up the highly anticipated lessons, and was able to do so with a Teacher Innovation Fund grant from the Andover Coalition for Education.

The Andover-based nonprofit awards small grants to teachers, including McGonagle, to help them provide students with different learning opportunities. The organization gave out about $15,000 in grants this fall to Andover teachers and are currently accepting applications for the spring grant round, said Jennifer Srivastava, director of the organization.

“It makes a more real experience (for students) that sticks with them instead of just reading about it,” McGonagle said. “It’s also teaching them life skills.”

Like how to hold a knife and cut, which students learned while cooking plantains and learning about Haiti.

“These (lessons) are a good way for us to learn about the culture, not just French culture, but culture everywhere,” Jai Kalwani, an eighth-grader, said.

Coming back to classes this year, McGonagle wanted to keep up the classes that typically drew about 85 students a month onto Zoom while they were home on Wednesdays last year. However, the cost of ingredients and materials quickly mounted. The grant helped her buy induction stove tops and the foods, she said. Every one of her classes gets the opportunity to cook once a month.

The grant “makes you feel a little more empowered — and not just for your own curriculum — but gives them life skills as well,” McGonagle said.

Sixth-graders are learning words like “cup” and “knife” before they would typically because of the “hidden lessons” on the cooking days, she said.

The only English she spoke during the class was a reminder, “careful not to spill.” All other instructions were in French.

“The students who might not normally be engaged also really like it, they show up on time and are attentive,” McGonagle said.

It also helps students like eighth-grader Lindsey Desfusse learn better.

“It’s great to have something different to do in class,” Desfusse said. “I learn more by doing stuff with my hands.”

The communication and “opportunity to learn stuff in the real world, which I can make anytime,” is helpful, said eighth-grader Jessie Wang.

“This has been a great way for us to really support our teachers and helping them bring their creative ways they want to engage their students to a new level,” Srivastava said. “Hopefully teachers like Ms. McGonagle feel supported and continue to practice their skills.”

Applications for TIF grants are due by March 1. ACE expects to give out about $15,000 for new programs by the end of March, Srivastava said.

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