The student is the teacher: David Flaxman parle français

Some of the most exciting and personal academic work at Moses Brown has emerged from the faculty cohort plan, a professional development and evaluation program. In a year of transformational study, a cohort of veteran teachers sets goals, serves as resources for one another’s evaluations and shares professional development plans at year’s end. At the heart of the program are cohort projects, each teacher’s big idea for personal research to be shared in the classroom. The benefit to students is clear: teachers continuously deepen their expertise, refine their curriculum, and bring the latest research back to the classroom to improve the learning experience.

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Monsieur Flaxman and l’Arc de Triomphe

It’s Friday afternoon in French 1. Conversation is a mix of French and English, with encouragement from teacher Karim Sow. The sixth and seventh graders struggle to stay on-topic as the weekend approaches, but one student is all business. What is it that makes him more mature than the others? For starters, David Flaxman is 40-something. What’s he doing in French 1?

Spanish teacher David Flaxman is head of the upper school’s World Languages department. “My faculty cohort project is to explore and learn,” he explains. “Studying French, I’m putting myself in the shoes of a level 1 language student. By feeling viscerally what it’s like to be a novice language student again, I have a new appreciation for the challenges my students face in the classroom.” David joins Karim Sow’s French 1 class as often as he can, and studies independently with textbooks. “I’ll take the final in June,” he says, without a trace of panic in his voice.

“I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve been talking about ‘picking up’ another language for at least two decades,” David reflects. “If the purpose of the faculty cohort program is to give an educator a small push forward to accomplish a long-delayed goal, then – mission accomplished!” he laughs. “What better professional development could there be for me? What better example could I set for my students?”

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Monsieur Flaxman, Hana ’16, Alex ’14, Paris

Without a doubt, this experience benefits David’s Spanish students. “Gaining a novice student’s perspective has prompted so much reflection,” he says, “on my teaching methods, my pace and demeanor in my classroom.” In the big picture, students’ enthusiasm builds on their teachers’ enthusiasm. ”Students respond to teachers who keep pushing themselves to learn, stoking that passion for their disciplines that led them to teach in the first place. A teacher who taps into his inner student is a teacher who’ll thrive in the classroom.”

Does he feel like an old dog, learning new tricks? “Learning a foreign language is HARD!” David says. “I recall my struggles to master Spanish, to hear the words, to speak with some semblance of flow and fluidity… it was stunningly frustrating. When I achieved a decent level of fluency in the real world, it felt like summiting Mt. Everest after years of missteps and failed attempts. I know I can get to the mountaintop!” He tested his new skills on a family trip to Paris, on spring break. “In Paris, I studied French each morning for two hours, then went out to try to put what I was learning into action,” he says. “I walked for miles through the streets, visiting museums, eating crepes and croissants, and taking tons of photos.  It was an amazing experience to discover the wealth of cultural sights and art in Paris, but also humbling to realize how challenging understanding and speaking French can be!”

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