What's the Secret Phrase?



Over the summer, a few of my colleagues got me in on a practice that has been going on for some time now, but which was new to me.  The practice is using a password which students must utter in the target language before entering the classroom each day.  One of my colleagues even lent me a book by Bryce Hedstrom entitled What's the Password?  Requiring a Password to Enter Spanish Class:  The Exclusionary Practice That Builds Inclusionary Community (phew!  That's a long title!).  Even though the book caters to Spanish teachers, there is plenty of information in it of benefit teachers of other languages.  The benefits of using a password in a language class, as enumerated in Hedstrom's book and in conversations with colleagues, are that it creates a sense of community, it gets students speaking the target language as soon as they walk in the door, it allows the teacher to ensure contact with every student and the ability to assess how they're doing that day, and it provides an opportunity to reinforce additional vocabulary.  There are certainly even more benefits than that, but those are the ones I've found to be the most prominent.  In this post, I'll share some information about how I've been using passwords in class this year (which we call la phrase secrète, or secret phrase).


Every Friday, I teach my students the phrase secrète for the following week at the beginning of class.  Although I try to keep my instruction 90% in French, this is usually done in English, because there's usually some cultural background I like to explain along with it.  I often instruct students that they must make some sort of gesture or inflection with the phrase to show they know what it means.  For example, when uttering, "C'est la vie," or "That's life," they had to shrug their shoulders as if resigning themselves to something.  I also write the expression on a whiteboard which is displayed at the front of the room for the week to help.

On Mondays, I stand outside the classroom with the whiteboard to help students remember what to say.  The rest of the week, I expect them to remember it, but they can peek inside at the whiteboard or listen to a classmate say it first.  Sometimes I just tell them what it is and they repeat it back to me.  It's not meant to be a high-stakes situation, so it's not the end of the world if the student forgets.  They have a lot to remember in a language class!  At the beginning of class on Monday I usually recap what the phrase secrète is and what it means because some students will have forgotten over the weekend or have been absent on Friday.

If for some reason I am not able to be at the door when students are arriving in class (had to take a phone call, talking with a student from the previous class, etc.), students are expected to wait out in the hall until I can greet them.  I foresaw this being an issue and a stressor when I first planned to use passwords, but in practice, it happens so infrequently, it's rarely an issue.  On the ultra-rare occasion where the bell has rung and you've got 20 students waiting in line to give you the phrase, I say "tous ensemble" (all together) and they say it in unison.  I think this has only happened once because I keep the passwords short and sweet so that it doesn't cut into class time too much.

Speaking of short and sweet, my personal preference is to not make my passwords long and complicated or require a lot of forethought from students.  For one thing, I teach first year students and that's a lot to ask of them, but also I don't want to lose instructional time because I am waiting for students to say the password.  If you teach upper level students, or see this as a good opportunity to challenge them, you'll just have to budget some class time in for that.

When I first explained this concept to students, I actually had them go out in the hall to practice it.  We all remember things better if we've actually done them!

When a student is late, even if they have a pass, they must say "Je regrette, Mademoiselle" (I'm sorry, Mademoiselle).  I explained that even if they have a pass, it's still the polite thing to say when entering a classroom late, so they are practicing good manners.  They've also started saying this when they forget their homework, so it has become a very useful phrase!  I was worried that shy students would be too timid to say this in front of the whole class, but everyone has complied so far, and I don't have a problem if they say it to me in a quiet voice, as long as they are making the effort.

Hedstrom's book has all sorts of ideas for different types of passwords you can use with your students, but the ones I usually choose are either related to what we are learning (but not absolutely essential vocabulary) or super important expressions that don't really fit in anywhere else.  See below for a list of passwords I've used this year.  Sometimes the passwords aren't really appropriate as greetings (for example "Bonne journée" or "Have a nice day"), but once they've been used as a password, students start using them a lot more.

As I just mentioned, if you want to see a particular word or phrase used more by students, make it a password.  After saying it every day for a week, you will see a huge uptick in how often students use it in their daily conversation.

Here's a list of passwords I've used or will be using shortly this year:

-Bonjour, Mademoiselle (Hello Mademoiselle) - some students still say this before they say the current password
-Student:  Merci mille fois ! (Thank you so much), Teacher:  Je t'en prie ! (You're welcome) - Some students actually say "Merci mille fois" to me at the end of class!
-J'ai mon ordinateur (I have my computer) - Students must hold up their device or point to it
-Bonne journée ! (Have a nice day) - Obviously not a greeting, but students now say it every day as they leave the classroom so it stuck!
-Teacher:  Comment vas-tu ? (How are you), Student:  Je vais bien (I'm doing well)
-Teacher:  Qui est-ce ? (Who is it?), Student:  C'est moi ! (It's me)
-Aujourd'hui c'est lundi, mardi, etc. (Today is Monday, Tuesday, etc.)
-MDR (French version of LOL) - Students had to laugh as they said it
-C'est la vie (That's life) - Students had to shrug their shoulders as they said it.  We've been saying this one a lot in our daily conversations!
-Bonnes vacances ! (Have a nice vacation)
-Bonne année ! (Happy New Year)



Do you use passwords in your classroom?  How do you use them?
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1 comment:

  1. Quelle bonne idée! I love that it establishes a routine and gets them speaking! There never seems to be enough time to offer practice of all of those common, essential phrases, so this takes care of that!

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