Tell Me Something, Françoise Vandenplas
Françoise Vandenplas can still see herself as a recent college graduate, standing in an airport telling her parents that she was coming to the U.S. but that it would only be for one year.
“I was the baby of the family and I don’t think they expected that from me,” she recalls. “At the time, there were too many teachers in Belgium. I knew fresh out of college that I would not have a full-time job.”
Vandenplas boarded the plane bound for Kansas City, Mo., and eventually found her way to Maryland. She is now in her 20th year with MCPS.
Working in America was quite the culture shock for her, having been born and raised in an international military family.
“My dad is from the Flemish side of Belgium; my mother is from the Francophone side of Belgium,” she says. Her father, a Dutch speaker, was in the Belgian military stationed in Germany. Vandenplas’ native language is French, but she is also fluent in English, German and Dutch. Her Spanish, she says, is OK.
“Living in Germany, I had to learn about another language, another culture, different traditions,” she explained. “I was raised in a very diverse community; I went to a school with a lot of students from all over the world. It was a great way to be raised. My parents were adamant that we were a part of the community.
“This was after World War II; you have to remember why the military was there … We were not always welcome. My father built friendships with lots of Germans and to this day, is still in contact with many of them.”
Growing Up with Multiple Languages
Vandenplas finished high school in Germany, and attended college in Belgium. While she was still a student, she was recruited to teach French to fifth graders in an immersion program in Kansas City. She still remembers the date she left home to come to the U.S.—Aug. 4, 1991.
“It was a very challenging job,” she said. “There was culture shock in terms of the way I had been taught to teach and what was expected here in the U.S. Curriculum wise, the system was not as well organized as MCPS. The students in the immersion program were part of a magnet, which was a desegregation attempt. It was challenging on a disciplinary level.
“Still, the immersion programs gave students an opportunity to learn about the outside world. It was a great foundation for me; it gave me insight into seeing what learning a second language can do for kids.” After four years at the elementary level, Vandenplas went to work in a middle school immersion program. She soon heard about a one-week training program on immersion at the University of Maryland; it was there she learned about MCPS.
“I thought, ‘Clearly, this is where I should be,’” said Vandenplas. In 1998, she took her first job with MCPS, as a sixth grade French immersion teacher at Maryvale Elementary School. She later taught French at Silver Spring International Middle School, and at Northwest and Blake high schools. In 2010, she became an instructional specialist, and in 2013, she was appointed to her current position as supervisor for world languages.
“I love it, but I truly miss the interaction with students,” she said. “I miss seeing kids in Level 1 not knowing a word of French and seeing them a couple years later and having a discussion with them in French.”
Vandenplas says language instruction has changed significantly since she was a student and a teacher.
“We have moved from a grammar-based memorization style to a communication-based method,” she says. “As a student in high school, I was simultaneously learning English, German, Dutch and Latin. For me, this was paradise. I could switch from one language to another without missing a beat. I remember pages and pages of conjugation, exercises and rote memorization.
“The focus was on mastery of accuracy; now, the focus is on communication. We truly want students to be able to communicate in the target language.”
Vandenplas says the World Languages department is focused on increasing student access to foreign languages.
“We train teachers and provide support to schools and support to new teachers. We do a lot of cross office collaborations, like with OHRD in screening potential candidates and with DCCAPS during magnet selections. We have partnerships with outside agencies, such as the Embassy of Italy.
“We are in good shape at the secondary level; we are now working on expanding access at the elementary level. We know that the earlier we start a language and the longer we work at it, the more proficient we become. In the 21st Century, we have to make sure our students are bilingual and biliterate. If we want them to be competitive, they have to know a second language.”
Vandenplas knows that her bilingualism is what has afforded her such wonderful career opportunities.
“Being bilingual has given me opportunities I would not have had in Belgium,” she says. “I have been very fortunate to work with phenomenal instructional leaders and principals who knew what was best for kids. Another thing I love about MCPS is that we are encouraged as professionals to continue our learning.” Vandenplas has a master’s degree in education and also holds National Board Certification.
In MCPS, there are currently seven immersion programs at the elementary level—three in Spanish, two in French and two in Chinese. At the secondary level, MCPS offers 10 languages—American Sign Language, Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Russian and Spanish. There are also Spanish courses for native Spanish speakers that focus on literacy. Every high school offers Spanish and French, and Vandenplas says she regularly fields student requests to add others.
“We know that learning a language from an early age has cognitive benefits,” she said. Knowing more than one language can “increase problem solving skills; it can offer a different way to look at things.
“It also gives us an awareness of other cultures. This is the biggest gift of all.”
Watch FYI with Francoise Vandenplas as the guest.
MCPS has also started implementing the Seal of Biliteracy on the diplomas of MCPS graduates, a point of pride for Vandenplas. “This is a game changer for us,” she says.
The Seal of Biliteracy began in California in 2011. In 2016, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Maryland Seal of Biliteracy Act. The Seal recognizes high school graduates who have attained high levels of proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing in one or more languages in addition to English. This recognition is based on proficiency tests such as Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) Language exams, or others approved by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). The Seal not only recognizes English speakers who gain proficiency in a second language, but also students who gain proficiency in English while maintaining their native or heritage language.
“Being able to function in two or more languages will truly give you an edge—an edge if you’re going to college, an edge if you’re going into the workforce or an edge in being able to function in our very global 21st Century society,” said Vandenplas.
“We have more than 1,000 students who have earned this Seal. We have some students who earned it in more than one language. That is a testimony to the quality of our courses and to the work our teachers have been doing.”
Tell Me More
Hometown: Aachen, Germany
Family: Husband Joseph
Three traits that define you: Problem solver, hard worker, passionate
If you could do another job for just one day, what would it be: I would find a cure for cancer. My sister had brain cancer. I am the only person in my family who has not had cancer.
If you could learn to do anything, what would it be: Sing
Favorite food: Belgian chocolate
First job you ever had: Babysitting
What do you do when you’re not at work: I love to read. I force myself to read in French because I want to keep up with the language. My parents send me French magazines. I like biographies and I like to read about languages, in terms of trends.
What is your favorite place to be: Somewhere close to water. Water is very calming to me.
What’s the best place you’ve traveled to and why: My husband’s hometown of Machakos, Kenya. There is no electricity and no running water. It puts things in perspective. His family has a huge farm; they grow avocados and coffee. When you’re outside, you look one way and see Mount Kilamanjaro; you look the other and see Mount Kenya and it is just breathtaking. You reflect on your own needs. You reassess your priorities. You realize you don’t need all the luxuries, that there are more important things than the Internet. People are so genuine and kind. They come together to talk and to troubleshoot problems. They help each other and support each other to a level we don’t see here.
If you could meet anyone, living or dead, who would it be: My maternal grandfather, who I never got to meet. He was a pianist and he was captured during World War II and when he came back, he was quite sick.