Fighting for Freedom

Natasha E. Feghali believes that student autonomy requires strong leadership

What could leadership look like in a world language classroom? Can we conceptualize a self-run program where students are completely autonomous to learn and create within their own capacities? Can we mirror what other schools internationally are doing? In a deeper, more philosophical sense, can we help students in an second-language (L2) environment become the engines of their own learning? I have some thoughts.

In some cases, my role as a French second language (FSL) educator goes beyond the classroom. I educate in a multicultural community of students from Canadian-born and newcomer families. Working at Eastwood Public School in Windsor, Ontario, for the last three years has given me the opportunity to incorporate different aspects of the French language and culture into my classroom. When I began at this school, the students loathed learning a second language. However, I have facilitated an environment that asks students to transform their once-negative beliefs and embrace culture, FSL literacy, and a second language — while taking on their school community, their peers, and most importantly a new mindset.

Parents and educators alike could agree that providing a collaborative space for students to build and transform themselves into positive global citizens, growing past passive membership in society, promotes the craving for knowledge, culture, and multiple-language acquisition. We want our students to become well-rounded global citizens. Students simply showing interest in diversity displays leadership and a desire to create a classroom that transcends and embraces one’s community and even the language being learned.

Teaching a second language can be difficult in the face of socioeconomic issues, behavioral and learning disabilities, and the other challenges students may face before attending a second-language lesson. Because learning a language takes persistence, time, and patience, it may seem a daunting task, for both student and educator — especially when the factors above are at play. To help diminish these issues and create a harmonious classroom that fosters leadership and individuality, direction must be cultivated in the hearts and minds of the students.

The work is not all complex, however. In some ways, teaching second-language literacy is actually as simple as helping students experience the authenticity of the language being taught or discovered by the students, (in this case, French) helps students witness the world through the windows of their classroom. To become a second-language educator, one needs personal tolerance and flexibility, and one must be a supporter of collaborative learning. The kind of collaborative learning and inquiry-based tasks one must create within an L2 classroom need to emphasize leadership and community and promote school-wide participation in that second language.

As an educator, I have witnessed many students completely transform their thinking from ignorance and hesitation toward a mindset of acceptance, role-model leadership, and school and community building for their peers. For some students, the change has been astounding. This shift within my classroom (and whole school) has lifted my FSL program to new heights. The student body has both adapted to and embraced the thinking around the unique yet high-level learning I ask of them daily. When my students come to class, they understand that we will engage in effective protocols, embedded daily practice, FSL literacy, collaboration, and self-reflection. I believe this is a prescription for leadership and can change the way teaching and learning a second language is perceived.

One theory that I have been working on all year in my intermediate FSL class is leadership through independent learning. The intermediate students (grades seven and eight) are fully engaged, self-aware, and totally autonomous; however, they are highly motivated. In our classroom, change is desired and strongly valued as intermediate FSL learners engage in self-directed yet collaborative acquisition of the French language and FSL literacy. In these grades, we have been using a biweekly learning cycle where students engage in intensive differentiated FSL curricula followed by autonomous yet organized creativity. The language of “autonomous yet organized creativity” stems from allowing students to learn and create their own language acquisition.

At the beginning of the school year, as the educator, I lay the groundwork for a future gradual release of responsibility. The ideas and modeling shared with students involved school norms, the significance of interpersonal relationships, student and peer learning, and school-wide leadership when being creative autonomously. By watching me continuously modelling these ideals, my intermediate students have become self-sufficient and eager to learn on their own. As an educator, I provide the frame of reference while the students plan, create, and demonstrate their learning for our school and community to see. Students are learning independently without being dependent on both me and each other; however, collaboration ensues.

As an educator, I allow students to create their learning in a safe space of exploration, cultural diversity, and positive growth around self-awareness for differentiated independence. For example, in a recent project titled “The French Lesson,” students worked autonomously to create a lesson in French they would teach to a primary grade. Students were given a framework to follow; however, the bulk of the assignment came from their own criteria for success and student leadership with our youngest learners.

My ideology has been to create a leadership model where students become the owners and creators of their second language. At times, it seems scary to give students free rein over their learning, and the themes they want to discover, and the autonomy to work independently. At one point, I even questioned myself; however, I have learned that facilitating the idea of what they are going to research and study can become the catalyst for their embracing French literacy, language, and culture. In other words, I give the topic or project idea and students work autonomously within a framework to create the learning. They come to own that organized creativity. Students learn at their own creative and differentiated paces as they suit their unique needs. As an educator, I act only to facilitate and sustain the classroom learning community. In many ways, this process exemplifies a strong and effective gradual release of responsibility.

Learning through independence can build strong leadership with students in any subject matters as long as these students are engaged and attached to their learning and their school environment. This attitude toward learning demonstrates a belief that student development takes differentiated learning forms that suit and meet students’ second-language classroom needs. The progressive role of forward-thinking second language educators is to create a class climate receptive to individual students. That facilitates productive teamwork, diverse learning needs and styles, and a gradual release of responsibility that strategically moves students toward second-language independence. In such authentic learning, students take creative control of their learning and work harmoniously with peers and educators alike: the possibilities are endless. Although the subject matter is FSL, the classroom beliefs revolvev around leadership, community building, peer mentoring, and sustainable changes around teaching and deeply learning a second language.

Natasha E. Feghali is an artistic French second language specialist educator in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. She currently teaches FSL at Eastwood PS and is also a DELF/DALF formatrice with the CIEP Paris, France and an AIM educator. She has created well-received workshops which have helped many educators yield encouraging results in their second-language classrooms. She is fluent in French, Lebanese, and Croatian.

She is also an award winning free-lance journalist for the last 12 years with experience in arts, lifestyle and fashion journalism and most recently educational pedagogy. Feghali was born in Canada, lived in Bordeaux France and is a devout world traveler with a taste for the savoir faire of cosmopolitan living. Feghali’s passion for language, music and literature ( has encouraged her pursuit in life.