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!