Parents recognize eclectic West Salem French teacher Christy Beckstrom

Christy Beckstrom reviews French grammar with senior Olivia Caudell in class on Nov. 1, 2018 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Parents, students and colleagues nominated 61 Salem-Keizer educators for Crystal Apple Awards this year. The award, given annually by the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation, recognizes staff who make a significant difference in the lives of children.

A dozen winners will be announced at an awards ceremony Thursday evening. Leading up to the event, Salem Reporter is profiling three teachers nominated by a parent or student.

Christy Beckstrom is the first to admit her classroom looks more like it should be full of kindergarteners than West Salem High School students.

Student art projects and colorful posters paper the walls. Diagrams label facial features and body parts, and the days of the week are listed in bright color.

For Beckstrom, it’s all part of a holistic approach to teaching French — incorporating songs, cooking, physical movement, even mock speed-dating. Parents and students say it encourages learning.

“Kids in the classroom, they learned in spite of themselves,” said Tom Hall, whose daughter, Madison, took four years of French with Beckstrom. He nominated her for the Crystal Apple.

Sometimes, she’ll introduce chaos as a learning strategy.

“Every so often, there’s no rhyme or reason, I change the furniture completely,” she said. Her theory is that by making their physical surroundings new, students will focus more on the part of class that’s familiar to them – the French language.

She knows many of her students won’t leave her classroom intending a lifelong love of foreign languages. But she hopes to expose them to different ways of living and thinking about the world.

“It’s so much more than just a language. It’s about learning how to be a person,” she said. Recently, she had students discuss a new law in France forbidding employees from sending work emails after work hours, a truly foreign concept for most Americans.

She adapts lessons on the fly in response to student needs. When her second-year students struggled with past tense in a recent morning class, Beckstrom assigned each student a white board and split them into groups.

French students write past tense sentences on whiteboards during Christy Beckstrom’s second-year French class on Nov 1, 2018 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

As she said a sentence in English, students wrote it out in French, holding the white board overhead when they finished. For a group to get credit, every student in the group had to have the correct answer.

Beckstrom walked around correcting spelling and reminding students about the proper gender of inanimate objects.

“No, no, no sir, it is a feminine pizza!” she said.

When many students stumbled over the same phrase, she’d take a break and explain it again, mapping out verb conjugations on the white board.

Hall’s daughter enrolled at West Salem intending to take two years of foreign language, but ended up staying with Beckstrom for four years of French because she loved it so much.

He and Madison went to France with a group of her classmates in the summer of 2016. Hall said Beckstrom had an incredible ability to manage a group of teenagers, and took the group to Omaha Beach, one venue for the D-Day invasion.

The group was in France when terrorists drove a truck into a crowd, killing 86 people in Nice. Beckstrom called families back in the U.S. to reassure them students were safe and kept everyone calm playing games at the hotel.

“She was just being Christy – ‘I’ve got this,’” Hall said.

Hall said Beckstrom is always a willing ear for her students. Madison was one of many who went to her with relationship problems or other teenage concerns.

“Although she didn’t always talk to me about it, she’d always be willing to sit down and talk to Christy,” he said.

Beckstrom said her interest in France began as a child, when her family hosted a French au pair for a year. She studied the language at South Salem High School before going on to learn some German, Arabic, Greek and Latin in college.

She said she doesn’t like to settle down and has changed jobs several times over the course of her career, working in counseling and vocational rehabilitation with stints as a teacher in Washington and Utah. 

She started at Salem-Keizer in 2008 after deciding the amount of traveling her job required wasn’t compatible with raising five boys. Her students said she can relate to them because her youngest children only recently graduated.

Once, when she asked second-year students to draw their bedrooms and label the furniture, she had a student tell her he couldn’t do the assignment. He didn’t have a bedroom, he explained. He slept under his family’s kitchen table.

She told him that was okay, but the moment stuck with her for what some of her students are dealing with outside of class.

“I went home and just sobbed,” she said. Her goal is to infuse something good in every student’s life, she said.

Christy Beckstrom helps students correct French sentences during class on Nov, 1, 2018. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Officially, West Salem has only one fourth-year French class, during first period. But seniors who have other electives or requirements that conflict can enroll in any of her classes, where she’ll coach them on more advanced material separately.

Two seniors, Olivia Caudell and Camila Martinez, sit in her second-year French class. As the rest of the group worked on past tense, Beckstrom coached them on imperative negatives, the form of verbs for telling someone not to do something.

“You did this. Yes, you did,” she said over Caudell’s objections. “You took this test.”

But when the pair couldn’t remember the correct form, she was patient.

“Okay, let’s do a mini re-teach,” she said.

Caudell said Beckstrom understands what students are going through and is flexible.

“She’s had to do that with me so many times,” she said.

Hall said Madison is now studying nursing at the University of Portland and credits his daughter’s drive, in part, to Beckstrom’s class.

He still remembers the names of his favorite teachers and has told his children stories about them. He said he thinks his daughter will do the same with Beckstrom.

“It’s almost a type of immortality for those teachers and they don’t realize it,” he said.