Wow, where to start about what a full day we’ve had today! We started off meeting at our MS school and then headed off for a 15 minute walk to the tram which would take us to downtown Montpellier. All along the way, Mark and myself were rushing the kiddos just a bit to make sure that we made our tram on time, but alas, we rolled up to the station just in time to see the tram and wave goodbye! Mark and I took the moment with the kids to visit the idea of cultural norms, timeliness and how our expectations of how things can and should go, are going to be very different on this trip. We wanted to impress early upon the kids, the importance of being aware of one’s surroundings and observing the way that people in another culture interact in order to prepare our learners to attend classes at the MS later in the afternoon (which went swimmingly well).
After arriving downtown, we started off on our guided tour of the city. Students learned about The Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried. Many follow its routes as a form of spiritual path or retreat for their spiritual growth and its markers can be seen through the city of Montpellier (photo). We also studied the architecture of the city, and noted how most of the buildings were constructed from limestone, as Montpellier was/is an important port on the Mediterranean from which many resources are still derived. Many of the shops we saw were at one time houses, but as the city grew, buildings got higher and higher. The shops remained downstairs but housing was made above and some the lowest levels of buildings date back from the Middle Ages!
We visited an old building, maybe one of the oldest in the city, I didn’t catch that part, where we saw the Gargoyles on the front of the house which were designed to represent the head of the family. We visited the well inside the house where our kiddos learned that well water was more for washing and not drinking back in those days, and that because of this, people drank more wine and beer than anything else, which is how both of those things came to be important parts in the French culture. In addition, we also noted that it was difficult to find storage for goods, and perishables were kept fish with the aid of salt! There are many, many salt marshes south of Montpellier.
We talked about how Montpellier became the meeting point from whence the French king would collect taxes so the facades and staircases of buildings were altered to show off. In fact, silks fabrics were even dyed with Rouge de Montpellier, worms crushed from oak trees to make red dye! We all got a bit squeamish about that! After finishing our tour up with a view from the top of the l’Arc de Triomphe, we headed down to give the kids some free time in the town. Some headed off to exchange money, others for a meander around town, and then we headed back to Jacou for a soccer pause and afternoon classes.
Attending classes was easily mine and all of the other adults’ favorite part of the day. Before even being allowed to attend classes, the principal of the school came and gave a speech about the school itself (which I translated for the kiddos) and the information they received was shocking to some. Our kids were surprised to learn that in this MS, drinking, eating and using cellphones is strictly prohibited, to the point where if any of those infractions occur, a parent needs to come to school for a meeting with the administration. They learned that students have two hours of classes followed by a ten minute recération, then two more hours, followed by an hour pause for lunch, then two more hours, followed by a fifteen minute recréation, and then the final two hours of the day. At Jacou, students are only allowed to use the restroom and talk to other students during recréation, they are not allowed to leave campus without an adult to accompany them, and the rules of discipline are strictly enforced by a vie scolaire, or student life, administration. They had so many good questions and in particular about about laïcité, or the separation of church and state. In France, not observing or making space for and representation of religion in school, is part of the daily norm. Their ears really perked up at this, and they immediately began asking questions such as, “what if a student is Muslim and they want to wear a hijab,” “what if a teacher is,” “what if a student needs to leave for prayers on Friday afternoon, then what?” This was the moment at which I was most proud of our students, seeing the emphasis they placed on respecting the values of other traditions made me feel like we’re really doing something right as a community. However, they were shocked to find, that from the French perspective, not observing any religious holidays or codes, was, from their point of view, also representative of equality. It’s a conversation we continued to have long into the meeting, but alas, they had to leave for afternoon classes!
Students were divided into groups of two or three, per French class regulations, and they attended two periods of afternoon class. Before attending the classes they also visited several other classes in session, so they could see what was expected of them in terms of behavior. In France, comportment is managed in a much more extreme fashion; students do not regularly talk in class, they do not work in groups. Class is often lecture based and the students take notes, listen and follow the instructions of the professor, usually situated at the front of the class. This was quite an about-face for our kids who are used to dialoguing, working with others, interacting in 1-to-1 exchanges with teachers, and being able to advocate their points of view. We didn’t have a lot of time to discuss any of this following their visit because they were all so eager to depart school with their correspondants.
The bell rang for the end of the day and Mark and I were hard pressed to get all of them together for a quick debrief for tomorrow as they were all eagerly surrounded by their French peers and vibrating to take off for another evening in the country side. Today has been such a joy from and educational and cultural perspective, can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings! Gros bisous! – Sarah