It’s about halfway through her French 1 class and Mary Beth Hills is sitting on an exercise ball – one of the few times she hasn’t been pacing around the room.
“Are you ready for the first French words you’ll be speaking in French class?” she asks her 28 students at Cedar Springs High School. “Can you handle the excitement?”
Hills herself clearly is excited as she has them repeat 16 words after her: “Bon-jour,” “bon-soir,” “a-bien-tot …”Then she projects the words on a screen to write out their meanings while giving students props for their pronunciations. “You guys are rock stars!” she says.
On one of the first days of the first week of her first year as a teacher, Hills is bursting with energy and ideas. Over an hour and 11 minutes, she mixes drills, games and high-fives to fill students with the enthusiasm she feels for French – and her chosen profession.
She begins her “freshman” year on fire to teach and make a difference in students’ lives.
“Bottom line, I’m a teacher because I want them to be successful,” says Hills, 23. “I want them to feel they can do whatever they want to do.”
A teacher since childhood
Hills grew up in East Lansing instilled with a love of learning by her parents. Books and magazines were everywhere. The oldest of three children, she taught tap and ballet as a teen, Catholic catechism at her church and little life lessons to her siblings.
“I feel like I’ve kind of been teaching my whole life, even things like how to make peanut butter and jelly, or how to tie your shoes,” she says.
She strongly connected with a high school French teacher, solidified her direction at Aquinas College and student-taught in Forest Hills Public Schools. Cedar Springs was her first job interview. A gut feeling told her it was also the best.
“I just loved everybody I met,” she says. “There’s something to be said for having a tight-knit community, for knowing the people around you.”
A product of Catholic schools, Hills strongly believes in the equalizing value of public education. “Whether (students) have no money or gobs of money, education can get you where you want to go,” she says.
Besides French, she’s teaching grammar and advising the student newspaper. Two weeks before classes began she was in her classroom, meeting with the newspaper editor and stringing her room with Christmas lights. She wants a homey feel for an active class.
“I don’t think classes should be silent,” she says. “It should be loud, people talking and making messes. That’s how learning happens.”
How do you say?
Hills greets her third-hour students as they walk in with a lusty French hello: “bon-jooor!”
“Is everyone ok? Are we surviving all right?” she asks after they’re seated. She hands out sheets informing them French is the native language of more than 24 countries and the second-most used on the Internet. Talking and walking quickly, she breaks them into groups of three to discuss why they should learn French.
“I’m going to be an architect, so I’m going to need it,” one student says. “I’m French, so I thought I’d try,” says another. Says freshman Lily Gamm, “I want to travel in Europe, maybe even live there. So I’d like to learn.”
Hills touts it as the language of international business and a valuable asset for their job prospects.
“It’s so cool, and you guys are going to know it!” she says. “How do you start? Right here in Mademoiselle Hills’ French class!”
A game called “comment dit-on?” (“how do you say?”) stretches them to pronounce words they’ve never seen before. For “Je m’appelle” (“my name is”), one student ventures, “Jah my apple.”
“That’s OK!” Hills encourages the tongue-twisted. “They’re hard to say!”
Students leave class with armfuls of handouts and a writing assignment. Hills clutches a binder of color-coded activities, her tool kit for engaging “little baby French learners.” Establishing a routine and building their confidence are key as she begins her first French class, she says.
“At the end of the day, it’s not always about the French instruction,” she says as her next class comes in. “Their development is really important to me.”