Students with disabilities often miss out on opportunities their peers take for granted, like learning a foreign language.
That's why Shawnee Mission West French teacher Katie Bogart works hard to accommodate all different kinds of learners in her classroom.
“They struggle more with some of the grammar that we do, a lot of the written work,” Bogart says. “That can be a little bit more challenging.”
But she takes seriously her duty to provide a free and appropriate public education. And word’s starting to get out that Madame Bogart is really willing to work with students with disabilities.
A barnyard whodunit
On Thursday in late spring, a few weeks before school ended for the year, Bogart was preparing to send her students on a wild goose chase.
No, that’s really the name of the scavenger hunt app her students will be using to find the clues Bogart taped up around the school.
But first, she tells them a little story because a vocabulary unit on French farm animals is a lot more fun as a barnyard whodunit.
“Hier soir – last night,” Bogart translates, “il y avait un crime à la ferme des Fermier Jacques. There was a crime at Farmer Jacques’ farm. Doesn’t that sound so French?”
Bogart reminds her students not to run in the halls as they rush out of the classroom. She gets a notification on her computer whenever a group snaps a photo of a clue, and she can communicate with her students in real time through an app if they get lost or stuck. Bogart says that happens sometimes, and it’s OK – they’re all learning French together.
“Just by the nature of teaching foreign language since everybody especially at the lower levels is a bit confused at the beginning,” Bogart says. “‘Oh, she’s speaking a language I don’t totally understand. What are we doing? What do we need to get out? What’s expected of us?’ I do a lot of gestures and acting out what I’m trying to say.”
Bogart also circles the room constantly, having quick, one-on-one conversations to check for comprehension. Her teaching style ensures that students get the individualized attention they need.
Students with special needs
Federal student privacy law prevents Bogart from talking about specific students and their disabilities. But over the course of several semesters she’s taught students with attention deficit disorder, autism, even language-based learning disabilities.
And her students who learn differently are often the most enthusiastic and engaged. Last year, the best speaker in any of Bogart’s classes was a student with a learning disability.
“That was simply because he came in every day and greeted me in French, greeted his classmates in French, the people next to him, and he took advantage of all the speaking activities,” she says.
In the three years Bogart’s been at Shawnee Mission West, more students with learning disabilities have expressed an interest in learning a foreign language. But because French is an elective, those students don’t get the same supports they’d be entitled to in a required class.
That means Bogart’s figuring out how to differentiate for those students without the help of a paraprofessional. It’s rarely easy, but she tries to make French accessible to everyone.
Her students seem to appreciate her efforts.
“Bonjour,” says freshman Adarian Thompson. “She does do a great job of making the French easy. I do struggle a bit on it myself, but she does help a lot, and it’s really fun.”
Freshman Bria Johnson says Bogart makes sure no one in their French II class falls behind.
“The grammar, it’s hard sometimes, but she explains it so we understand it. She doesn’t let us not learn it. She’ll actually get with us individually if we’re ever in need of it,” Johnson says.
English language learners
As a French teacher, Bogart says she spends a lot of time on the basic literacy skills most students have forgotten learning by the time they get to high school, things like context clues and sentence structure.
“So like when we’re learning to read in French and you really don’t know what’s going on, what are the keywords, what are the subjects of the sentences, where are those verbs, what are the things we really need to look up, we can’t look up every single word,” she says.
It’s a teaching strategy that helps all students, but one group in particular – English language learners. About a fifth of Bogart’s students this past school year were considered ELL, but even more speak languages other than English at home.
Aryanna Nino-Favela’s family speaks Spanish, but when she took Spanish in eighth grade, she didn’t get to do any of fun activities her classmates did.
“Like I would just grade papers, which wasn’t really interesting,” Nino-Favela says.
So Nino-Favela decided to take French. She says Bogart makes it fun, even when she’s trying to keep three language straight in her head.
“I liked the game we did where she called out the fruit and stuff in French, and we had to run up there and grab it,” Nino-Favela says. “It was just like a race, a relay thing.”
Bogart says students take more of an interest in her class when it’s not just about the vocabulary and grammar. She tries to get her students interested in French culture by playing French music and watching French cartoons. She has them pretend they’re ordering food in a Parisian cafe. She teaches them about other Francophone nations.
And she tells them all the time that interacting with them is the best part of her job.
“It’s been really neat to see that more students of all different learning styles have chosen foreign language as one of their electives,” she says.
When they sign up to take another year of French, Bogart knows she’s succeeded.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.