These kids…

I always knew that going to visit the middle school here in France was going to be my favorite day, because it’s the day where the kids get the biggest taste of the differences in our two worlds outside of their experience in their host family. They arrived at school yesterday morning, and after a quick briefing from myself and Mr. Isakson, they were sent into classes in groups of two, three, and in some cases just one student on their own. They observed two hours of classes, so two different classes, some French classes, some PE classes, some history classes, some science classes. I was thrilled to hear from most of the teachers in the break between the two classes, that a great number of our students readily participated in the lessons, and even tried to speak French, and those need a Francophones were trying to help their non-native friends understand and participate as well.

In between classes in France, kids have a 15 minute break in an area called la récré, where they can relax, use their phones, and talk to their friends. This is also the only moment of the day when they can use the restroom, a big difference for our students as they’re used to being able to be at liberty and all of their classes. The 15 minute pause between classes, was also a huge shock for them, as there used to the hustle and bustle of three minute class changes at home.

After classes, we headed to the cafeteria for my favorite moment of the day, French lunch! Seeing our kids faces light up at the offerings of what they had to eat, being able to choose between a caramel cream for a fresh piece of fruit, fish or fried chicken, potatoes au gratin and salad, having to go fill up a pitcher of water to bring to the table so they could all serve you all together, and even having a sauce station for their food was just too much! They had so much to say about that!

After lunch we did a debriefing in our American style, in which the kids were in a circle and passed talking piece around while another student noted the conversation on the board. The commentary on diversity, teacher-student relationships, the willingness of students, the pedagogy of how students learn, which is incredibly different from our stylet BHS by the way, were incredibly thought provoking and astute for students their age. After our discussion, the principal and vice principal came in to give a discussion on the school, the expectations of student behavior, and the separation of church and state that exists in France. 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?” One student also asked the most pertinent question marking the lack of diversity in the school, and wanted to know how the admissions process worked and why there weren’t very many students of color. 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 after the meeting.

We then took a nice 25 minute jaunt to the tram and headed in to Montpiliar for our walking tour of the town. We allowed the kids about an hour and a half of free time to explore, buy souvenirs, buy ice cream, and just be in France on their own. We situated ourselves at a central location and had a great time watching them run back-and-forth and figure out how to do things on their own. We then proceeded to our walking tour, which ended with a trip up to the top of the Arc de Triomphe in Montpilier which had fantastic views of the entire town. We also learned that this arc was actually the original that the arc we saw in Paris was modeled after. It made those two days in Paris seem all worth it all over again. We left them at host families for the night and most of them are off already on their activities for the day.

Tomorrow we’ve given the option to come into town and do brunch with myself and Mr. Isakson, but we also left the option open to spend the day and families since we missed the first two days. I’ve been thrilled to see, as I am now a member of the French parents WhatsApp, parent messages everywhere in every language :), that most of them will be staying in their French families tomorrow. It just makes me that much more proud of the work that we’ve done and the way that that we’ve prepared them that they’re not only willing but excited to spend another day in an exchange family without their friends or their teachers. I am so proud of them and so proud of the work that we do in this program, thank you for all that you give us and them and for believing in this project. It’s the reason why we do what we do. Have a great day everyone!



The best day

After a GLORIOUS 8 hours of sleep we were up and off to meet our Frenchies for the day to head down to Nîmes and les Salins d’Aigues-Mortes for a fabulous day of history and science!

Nîmes, a city in the Occitanie region of southern France, was an important outpost of the Roman Empire and is known for  Roman monuments. Yesterday we visited the Arena of Nîmes, a double-tiered circa-70 A.D. amphitheater still in use for concerts and bullfights and the Maison Carrée, a white limestone Roman temple around 2,000 years old.

Phillipe, one of the French chaperones and Art Teacher, is a super fan of history, as is yours truly, so he had already prepared a whole walking tour with historical stops. We spent the morning ambling around visiting sites. We learned that The city derives its name from that of a spring in the Roman village. The contemporary coat of arms of the city of Nîmes includes a crocodile chained to a palm tree with the inscription COL NEM, for Colonia Nemausus, meaning the “colony” or “settlement” of Nemausus, the local Celtic god of the Volcae Arecomici. Veterans of the Roman legions who had served Julius Caesar in his Nile campaigns, at the end of fifteen years of soldiering, were given plots of land to cultivate on the plain of Nîmes. In order to cultivate culture and ensure the Roman longevity of the city, the arena was erected for games and sporting events. The reason why such monuments still stand, is because they have stood the test of time and been able to evolve their purpose over time. The Maison Carrée for example, has served as the seat of government, the city archives, a housing facility and now a museum on the history of Nîmes. In addition, Nîmes is known for it’s sports. Many students were enticed by the history of the Gladiators. We finally arrived at our lunch destination, Jardins de la Fontaine. Below is pictured Les Quais de la Fontaine, the embankments of the spring that provided water for the city, the first civic gardens of France, were laid out in 1738–55.

After lunch, we hopped back on the bus to head down to Les Salins of Aigues-Morte. In 791, Charlemagne erected the main tower in the city center (photo below) amid the swamps for the safety of fishermen and salt workers. The purpose of this tower was part of the war plan and spiritual plan which Charlemagne granted at the Benedictine abbey. At that time, the people lived in reed huts and made their living from fishing, hunting, and salt production from several small salt marshes along the sea shore. In 1240, Louis IX, who wanted to get rid of the influence of the Italian navy for transporting troops to the Crusades, focused on the strategic position of his kingdom. He wanted direct access to the Mediterranean Sea. He obtained the town and the surrounding lands by exchange of properties with the monks of the abbey. Residents were exempt from the salt tax which was previously levied so that they can now take the salt unconstrained. The walls around the city are incredibly well preserved and the land surrounding Aigues-Mortes are the salt marshes from which sel de mer balaine ( a salt we all know and love, comes from.

Our next stop, was a tour of said lovely salt marshes in a fantastic white train that drove around the entire property for an hour, well a little more than because a particular student dropped their iPhone on the trail along the way and a we needed to wait for another train to go pick it up!! Luckily, it was found and we headed on to the museum. We learned that fleur de sel, flower of salt, is a salt that forms as a thin, delicate crust on the surface of seawater as it evaporates. It has  been collected since ancient times and is used as a finishing salt to flavor and garnish food. The name comes from the flower-like patterns of crystals in the salt crust. It can only be collected when it is very sunny, dry, and with slow, steady winds and is thus produced in small quantities. Because of this and the labor-intensive way in which it is harvested, it is the most expensive of salts. We got to see the fleur de sel up close and the marshes around Aigues-Morte are particularly stunning in that because of how pink they are! Pink salt marshes are more common than you would think, but this one was particularly special because it has pink flamingos wading in the water and they match in color!

Tired, salty and ready for dinner. We headed back home on the bus to be greeted by our host families. I find such joy in seeing our kids run to greet their French parents or walk off into the sunset with their correspondents. All the awkwardness of the beginning of both weeks simply faded away and everyone heading off in their own directions as if it was something they had done for years before. The joy of the exchange is seeing how one they get over the hump, our kids can learn to find common ground despite language barriers, despite intercultural differences, and still bring joy, laughter and light to all those around them. This blog doesn’t really suffice to explain all the tiny moments spent with individual small groups talking about life and the world around us, to me, that’s what weighs the most, and it’s what they’ll take with them after we go.

Have a great night all!



We did it! Hallelujah! Landed, finally and reunited with our French correspondents. After two days of Paris, we were up and off yesterday morning at 3:30 am. I must say, I was so impressed with all our young persons, walking downstairs off the elevator to see most of their shining faces ready to eat at 4am, was incredible. We’ve really put them through the ringer this week and they have come through with flying colors. While I know it’s been less than ideal for them to feel so exhausted, the conversations we have had surrounding fatigue, exhaustion, working through, adversity, responsibility and stepping up have all had a lasting effect on them. They haven’t really been “exchanging” with other people until today, but they’ve been ingesting so much more about life and it’s curveballs and how to handle what gets thrown at you. Bravo to them and many thanks to all of you for supporting us. I believe Mark said yesterday that it’s been like having our own cheerleading section across the ocean, and it really does feel like that. All of your messages, notes and jokes have been what has powered us through the last three days. So again, from the bottom of our sleep-deprived hearts, thank you!

After leaving the hotel, we proceeded over the footbridge to Orly Sud where we needed to catch a shuttle to Orly Ouest – a large source of my anxiety for the morning, I knew catching that shuttle on time was the decider if we’d make it on the plane or not. As we were coming down the bridge, lo and behold, the bus was rolling right up. I bellowed for everyone to “allez allez allez” and they followed in kind, little legs and suitcases wheeling away. I knew this was the sign from whatever place that everything was going to be ok yesterday, and I was right! Checked in at the airport, boarded and taken off on time, we were met by a small army of parents in cars who quickly whisked us off to the collège. Were were greeted by our correspondents standing at the school windows cheering because we were walking up. Again, having some French cheerleaders over here felt amazing. Everyone was so happy to see us, so many hugs, so many smiling parents and young people, it was like crossing the finish line at a marathon.

Once arrive, our sister school had prepared a petit breakfast of cakes and juice. We were welcomed by the Principal and Vice Principal of the school who gave a quick welcome speech, translated by a tired yours truly, and then we started to change for the day to set off to Lac du Crès. Putting our heads together as teachers, parents and administration, we decided the best idea for the day seeing the state of our kids, was to send some home immediately to sleep, to spend the morning with the rest of them doing exchange games to facilitate “getting to know you” again, and then to all head home for a nap before dinner. It was great to see how we started off with a French and an American side of the room and before 10 minutes, they were already playing games and laughing together. We set off with Madame Martinez, one of their physical education teachers, who had prepared our scavenger hunt.

We took a nice 30 minute nature walk to the local park called Lac du Crès, which is a nearby village to Jacou. Mme Martinez had arranged for our kiddos to do a sort of team building activity in which they had 40 minutes to run around the beautiful lake pictured below, and find 20 different “bornes” or stations which had different hole punches at each one. Once the kiddos were able to locate the bornes with their topographic maps, they had to match the corresponding number on the hole punch to the corresponding box on their paper and make a mark. They worked in pairs with their correspondants which made for some great exchange time and navigating of linguistic barriers. Despite the fatigue, all of the kids really seemed to enjoy the activity which then had a second and third “épreuve,” or challenge.

For the second challenge, the kids had to respond to 5 questions in French, however, the responses had to be written in English. This made for a lot of great gesturing for us to watch on our end as teachers. Finally, after completing that challenge, students had to run around the lake to find three objects, the feather of a duck, a sprig of thyme, and a branch from an olive tree (as they were surrounding the entire area).

The highlight of the day was post activity however, just watching them play together in the playground. AT on moment, all the adults looked around to remark the fact that every single group, with the exception of one small group of Americans, was mixed. French and English were flying left and right, children were shrieking with joy and having fun. It seemed to make all of the last two days fade into memory and remind me of why we do what we do. It’s been so nice to be “home” and finally get started on this journey of a million miles. Everyone headed home after for sleep, some for trampolining and others for lounging in the sun. We met back up for our family dinner, some having just woken up and ready already to go back to bed. We had a short but sweet exchange and most headed directly back home. Most decided the FISE would be too much for them and opted to possibly go another day during family time. I’ll post an updated schedule of our next few days here this evening.

We’re off to Nimes and les Salins today. Yay!

Photos to follow tonight!

Day 2 in Paris…

After a much needed sleep, we were off to the races this morning. Battle gear on, Mark managed to secure us a hotel, lunch, dinner and breakfast for today and tomorrow morning. Company move down to Orly sud. For those of you unfamiliar with Paris geography, Orly Sud is a good 45 min car ride, 1 h 15 bus ride. Some *cough* kids took advantage of their down time at the airport this morning to work on their school work, others also slept. It was like we had our own little BHS hovel in a corner of CDG. Taking it all in stride, we unloaded at the hotel, quickly switched gears and jumped on the Orly Bus for Paris proper. I particularly enjoyed this portion of the trip, since I needed to buy 30 tickets for a bus all at once and the kids all paid me and lined up to board the bus in seconds. No small feat to purchase tickets and load 30 of us onto a bus in a 4 minute turn around, I think we might be getting good at this air strike thing!

Once in Paris, we took a jaunt up to Jardin de Luxembourg – located in the 6th arrondissement of Paris, France. It was created beginning in 1612 by Marie de’ Medici, the widow of King Henry IV of France, for a new residence she constructed, the Luxembourg Palace. The garden today is owned by the French Senate, which meets in the Palace. It covers 23 hectares and is known for its lawns, tree-lined promenades, flowerbeds, model sailboats on its circular basin, and picturesque Medici Fountain, built in 1620. After a bit of free time, hot dogs and ice cream, we headed up to Ile de la Cité and Notre Dame. 

The Île de la Cité is one of two remaining natural islands in the Seine within the city of Paris and is the centre of Paris known as “old Paris” it is the location where the location where the medieval city was refounded. Home to Notre Dame, I was crushed to see how many of our young ones weren’t familiar with Quasi Modo, please make them watch the Hunchback of Notre Dame some time soon, it will put our minds at ease 🙂 We gave the kids some free time on the island, most taking advantage to buy souvenirs and post cards, some just taking it all in and observing the fête du pain, festival of bread, also taking place on the island. What could be more French than air strikes, rail strikes and a bread festival, seriously, can’t make it up.

Up for the painfully early call of 3:30am, 4am breakfast and shuttle to Orly Ouest for our 7am flight. Clearly taking no chances here, Paris you’re great, but we’re tired of you. Landing around 8:15am local time where a small army of parents have gathered to collect us. I was so touched when Mylene told me they had actually even offered to drive to Marseilles (way further south) to pick us up if we could get a flight there. They’re thrilled we’re coming and we can’t wait either. Drop of bags at school and off to Lac du Crès for our scavenger hunt and much awaited soccer match. Correspondents will head back to school and parents will collect suitcases while we head downtown for gelato and the start of le FISE – fésitval international des sports EXTRÊMES. This will no doubt be a big highlight for a lot of our young ones. We have correspondents dinner already tomorrow and then, much though we love them, will be happily sending your little ones home to their host families for the evening and getting some much needed shut eye.

See you right back here tomorrow!




Ici, on fait la grève…

What. A. Day.

Well, we made it! After an uneventful first flight, we landed in CDG around 5:45 am local time. Mark and Martine set off with the kiddos to be fed and collect bags, while I set off to do battle for hotel rooms, per diem and shuttles.

2.5 hours later…

We were on the shuttle bus to our hotel. Bags dropped in the conference room, as it was still about 10am local time and rooms weren’t ready and we promptly turned right back around, baggy eyes and all, on our first experience of the RATP (French MTA) system while also on strike, fun! Thankfully, we had very uneventful travel, mostly due to the fact that half our kids zonked out on the RER train to downtown Paris. Had some lovely conversations about social cultural norms and differences we were noticing already…

“Ms. Brooks, they have to open their own metro doors???”

“Mr. Isakson, there’s a menu to order food from on the plane???”

“What is that horrific noise, why is there no air conditioning…”

They weren’t all complaints I assure you, but some great observations about how people interact with one another and speak to one another in public spaces. All in all, it was a lot to ask of our young people on a day when they were incredibly exhausted and they did beautifully! We got to visit la Tour Eiffel, buy a couple cheap key chain souvenirs (suffice it to say, those hustling souvenirs on the street have “no game” in comparison to our NYC street vendors according to the kids), have a bit of free time around the tower, eat an ice cream, meet Laszlo’s extended family, walk to the l’Arch de Triomphe and made it back to the hotel to check in, take showers and gorge ourselves on French buffet hotel food. I was so thrilled they had gratin dauphinois that I made everyone next to me try it.

Tomorrow marks another day of sightseeing in Lutèce, the city of lights, hopefully with a trip to Versailles, the palace of Louis the XIV, Roi de Soleil, and one of my all time personal favorites. I’ve already regaled Lelani, Sarah and Jayleen with my favorite highlights of the palace, they politely obliged me, but then made a beeline for the dessert station:)

We do, unfortunately, need to change hotels again tomorrow, as our next outbound flight is from Paris Orly, and not Paris CDG. More adventure on the transit system awaits! We miss you all and are so grateful for all your support on this improvised first part of our journey.

Bonne Nuit!