Harriet Abdo: Teaching a Language of Love
On the first day of school each year, Harriet Abdo’s kindergarten students file into the well-decorated classroom at Normandale Elementary. Their eyes scan the room and they recognize many familiar props: the tables, chairs, teacher’s desk, glue, pencils and multi-colored crayons. But what they might not recognize is the alphabet, or the names on the ruby red paper apples that dot the bulletin board. And with probably as much apprehension as excitement, they muster the courage to continue.
“Bonjour,” Harriet will say as her face spreads into a wide, welcoming smile. She will introduce herself in French and maybe shake a small hand or two. There will be songs, roleplaying and games.
And they will probably look at her as if, well, she’s speaking another language; the truth is, she will be.
These students are all part of Edina Public School’s French Immersion Program, a 600-student program that encompasses Kindergarten-fifth grade. Day-in and day-out they will hear French, see French words, sing French songs and learn about all things France. They will, for all intents and purposes, become miniature Francophiles in training.
But this immersion into another language, another culture, is difficult. And no one understands how that feels more than Madame Abdo.
Growing up in a small village in Lebanon in the 1970s, Harriet’s parents recognized the importance of language and education, and made sure their children received good helpings of both.
“Even though they didn’t have much money, they sent us to Catholic schools where we learned Arabic and French,” says Harriet, who reveals her father was in the Lebanese army and taught himself Arabic, and her mother was a homemaker.
In 1975 her country became embroiled in what would become a 15-year bloody and catastrophic civil war that often sent young Harriet and her siblings scrambling for cover.
“I remember the wars going on from such a young age,” says Harriet. “It’s a beautiful, but troubled country. It’s full of history and culture and different religions, and everybody wants it.”
Sometimes when they thought the planes were far enough away, Harriet and her sister would scurry up to the flat roof of their two-story home that was covered in thick grape vines for shade, and watch as the Israeli and Lebanese warplanes volleyed missiles back and forth. She vividly remembers a plane being struck, watching the flames that quickly followed, and then catching glimpse of the pilot as he parachuted to the embattled ground.
“I remember my mom yelling at us to come down and get to safety,” she says. “It is an image that will never leave my mind.”
In an effort to find a better life in 1983, when Harriet was 16, she and her mother left the country to join her eldest brother who had come to the United States earlier. They moved to Minnesota and opened a small restaurant in Mankato.
“I didn’t know a word of English,” she says.
In her job as busgirl, she picked up plates, cups, cutlery and unfinished bits of food, and listened, studied and remembered the odd-sounding words people spoke.
She studied the menu and noticed the signs. She listened to the radio and watched the television, understanding little to nothing, but learning nonetheless. It was a language immersion program in its purest form.
Soon she could recognize words, understand sentences and even write.
With her newfound language acumen that grew over time, Harriet enrolled in, and eventually earned a degree in, Elementary Education and French from Mankato State University. She met and married the love of her life, Jim, and had two beautiful sons, Joe and Jimmy, now 12 and 6, respectively.
After spending six years teaching at the International School, she procured a job in the Edina School’s French Immersion program in 2003. Madame Gerry Lukaska, principal of Normandale Elementary, has nothing but praise for Harriet’s experiential learning and teaching.
“Harriet’s firsthand experience with second language learning directly benefits her students,” says Mme. Lukaska. “She has an acute sense of how children learn optimally, and a gift for keeping them all engaged. She is definitely one of those teachers that principals would love to have many of.”
And so when those wide-eyed students walk into her classroom that first day, unsure of it all, Harriet will know exactly how they feel.
“I always tell the students and their parents, ‘I’ve been there, I’ve done this. I know what it’s like to not understand,’” she says. “I also tell them what a wonderful opportunity it is to learn another language, and I am proof of that; look how far my languages have taken me.”
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