Bonjour friends! How was your weekend? Did you adventure? Did you step out of your comfort zone? Did you embrace those precious moments with the ones you love? Yes, yes and yes! Just say yes! Today I want to “say yes” to the kids experience in the French public school system and give you an update on what we have learned thus far. This post is going to be filled with some whats? and some whats! and maybe even some cools! Learning takes place in many forms when we allow ourselves to experience a different normal. Let me tell you, these kids are doing some serious cultural learning here in France, stuff that will stay with them forever.
*This is our experience, in our town. I am by no means saying this is how it is in every school in France.
~ No climbing structures. I have climbers! Both kids have been surprised to see that neither school has anything to climb on, swing from or hang on. I am not sure if this is typical in France or just at their schools. Frankly we have seen very few playground in general here. Most grassy areas are restricted from play, they are meant to be looked at and not used. The kids have a lot of recess (yeah) in France and long lunch breaks (another yeah), but Largo has decided he wants to come home for lunch. He wants to be able to climb, play legos and do what interests him since recess options are so limited.
~ Lunch. Or should I say LUNCH! Both kids adamantly agree that the lunch at school is the best they have ever had at any school they have attended, by a landslide. Apparently they have numerous courses, a dessert each day and well made meals. Will and I like the meals because it gives the kids a chance to try foods they are not used to eating. Unfortunately, both kids have decided to come home for lunch several days a week because of the lack of recess options after the lunch. I guess we can’t have it all. We love having them home and it gives them time to engage in other activities they like, but they miss out on some meals.
Another lunch observation which we all think is cool is the community approach to eating and the independence. At Largo’s level each child is expected to take a turn with the serving spoon. Also, they have a pitcher of water on the table and the person who empties it is expected to refill it. In addition, they are all expected to stay seated and have lunch conversation until the last person finishes their meal. This is a stark contrast to any other school they have attended. Usually a server (employee of the school) decides how much food they get and then the drinks are prepackaged and individual, once they are done eating they are free to exit the table. I think the French style has so many positives. Their commitment to meal time and the art of conversation is definitely something we can learn from. I have noticed that as a family we are starting to linger at the dinner table longer and enjoy more chats about our day.
~ The schedule is the schedule. I have learned that the school schedule for classes is pretty much set in stone, whether or not a class is too hard or easy for a child is not considered. There is a black and white style to the process and no room for grey areas. For example, Avalon has English. The kids in her class are just beginning to learn English. This class is clearly not suited for her. I tried to get her out of the class so she could take Italian, but I was told that they all have to take English regardless of their level. In addition, she is required to take FSL (French as a Second Language) even though she is fluent. Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a fabulous service for kids who need it, but she does not. It is two hours on Friday which makes her day last until 5:30. Apparently any child who moves here and comes from a non-French speaking country has to take it. She takes the minimum of two hours a week (some kids have seven hours), but it is still not necessary. However, this is an amazing program for kids who move to this community and don’t speak any French.
~ Half days on Wednesdays. We all LOVE this! On Wednesday we have a long lunch together, visit the library and the kids have hours to create, read and do whatever they fancy. Largo is out at 11:30 and Avalon 12:30. The school days are long here so the Wednesday half day really breaks up the week and rejuvenates them for the final two days. Many kids fit in other activities like karate, art and piano on Wednesday afternoons, it is challenging to do any activities on the other days of the week.
~ Recess. Both children have a lot of recess and outside play. As mentioned previously there is not a lot to do during this time, but at lease it gives them the opportunity to get away from their desks and outside.
~ Lots of vacation. The system gives the kids two weeks off approximately every six weeks. Folks, this is super cool. Unfortunately, they do go to school until July 1st because of this. I am not too excited about the school year lasting so long, but we do love these pockets of time to rest and explore France as a family.
~ Teachers and absences. I can only speak for Avalon on this one since she is the one changing classes. Avalon has one to two teachers absent each week and they don’t do substitutes. It is not uncommon for her to come home and say, “I watched a movie in xyz class because the teacher was absent.” I have tried to get more information on this and I will continue to update you on this topic as I learn more. I did find out that the teachers use school days if they have any professional development, seminars or conferences they want to attend. There are no designated development days where the kids stay home and the teachers learn. I am still trying to find out why they don’t have substitute teachers.
~ No water fountains. Yes, you read that correct. Imagine this in the US? Ha! The kids are expected to go into the restrooms, cup their hands and get a drink from the faucet. Both of my kids say they drink less water because of this. Not because they are opposed to drinking out the faucets, but because the fountains are more convenient when they are running from class to class. I like this idea because I believe it teaches them to be resourceful, self monitor and take advantage of liquids when they have them. We have practiced this a lot in our travel life and I have seen great results in the kids from it. However, my kids are big water drinkers so I feel for them.
~ Repeating grades. I recently learned that 57% of French students will repeat at least one grade. I plan to investigate this further, this seems like a very high number, but I believe it is accurate.
~ Middle school details. Avalon has grades 6-9 in her school. She is allowed to leave campus on her own if a class is cancelled or if she is sick, as long as I signed the authorization form. Most days she has school from 8:00 am until 3:30, but on Thursday she goes until 4:30 and Fridays until 5:30. She recently had a schedule change and now two days a week she does not start until 9:00 am and she has the half day Wednesday as well. She switches classes every hour, but she stays with the same students for the entire year. This might explain why it is difficult to remove a child from one class (i.e. English) and substitute another. She has a locker, but she must share it with one other kid. They are small and most days she ends up carrying all of her books to and from school.
~ Elementary school details. Largo has grades 1-5 in his school. He is not allowed to leave campus without me, however it is not heavily monitored. I do not need to show an ID to pick him up, as we did in previous schools. He starts school at 8:30 am each day and ends a 4:30 pm, except on half day Wednesdays. His teacher teaches almost every subject, including art and music and English once a week. Largo writes with a pen (I know) and it is amazing how good the kids handwriting has gotten. Who would have thought it considering how bad mine and Wills is.
~ Communication. I have no idea what is going on in Avalon’s school, beyond what she has told me. There is very little communication with the parents from what I can see, however they have an efficient online system for the kids which shows them all their grades, overall grade, homework and much more. Avalon is older so it does not bother me that I have very little communication with the school. Actually I quite like it because I am not a helicopter parent and I believe this is great for her time management skills, accountability and independent thinking. She is doing fabulous. She takes ownership and manages her own time.
As for Largo, there has been an open communication with his teacher from day one, but we did make an appointment with him to see if we were doing what he should be doing with Largo at home, dictée (spelling), etc. After our experience with one of his teachers in Ecuador, who was content to let him fail without telling us he had not been doing his homework, I felt it necessary to see if this was consistent for all French teachers. Luckily it was not. And the moral of this story is that each teacher and situation is different and to generalize all French teachers into one type of teaching style would be unfair.
~ Grades. I had heard about the public shaming and I can confirm it does happen at Avalon’s level. It is not as aggressive and as insulting as I had heard, but they do announce the kids grades to the class. There is no further commentary or shaming, but isn’t the process of doing that shameful enough? I don’t like it at all because it puts an intense focus on grades and not the learning process and joy of learning. Plus, it pits kids against each other, rather than offering assistance to those who are struggling.
~ Birthday parties. The kids have been to several already. They are mostly at someones home, intimate, sweet and charming. They don’t do the big, over the top, mine is bigger than yours thing like you see in the US. As a traveling family birthday parties are a great way for us to meet the community. We usually do something like a party where we invite the families and start our community building.
~ Don’t sit. Avalon has to wait for the teacher to tell her when she can sit down in several of her classes. I am sure you can imagine she is not a fan of this, frankly none of us are, but this is how they do it here so we learn from it. As I stated above there would be some what? moments. This is one of them, but what I love is the conversations these moments create around our table. Avalon said it makes her feel like a baby. It also makes her feel inferior and controlled. We talked about how the teacher could get the attention and respect of the class in other ways. They both offered their suggestions. Learning moments and creative thinking are everywhere if we just listen. I remember Avalon had a teacher for part of 2nd grade that used to yell and then ring a bell. It was so obnoxious and stressful for the kids, lucky she did not last.
~ Whole child approach. We are still pretty new (three months) to this system, but overall it is not as bad as we were warned. When I say bad I don’t mean academically, but I mean in terms of a whole child approach that puts focus on kindness, independent thinking and questioning. Overall the child is expected to memorize and regurgitate, yes, which we are not a fan of, however there is so much to learn from this process. I would not want the entirety of their education to be in this form, but for a year or two it is fine. So far they have both learned so much about what they don’t want in life. Neither one of them like being told how they should feel and think about topics. They like to be able to question and problem solve, rather than just absorb. This experience has taught them a lot about who they are, what they want and it has given them the confidence to know that they can question the systems in life when they don’t agree with them. This experience is clearly affecting Avalon more because she is older and seeing it more prominently.
~ Welcoming. Both schools have been great about communication. In addition they have welcomed us and our lifestyle choice fully. Again, I cannot say the same for our experience in Ecuador (there will be a post eventually). Our lifestyle choice was continually negatively addressed in the academic setting there.
~ Academics. For Avalon it is a bit easy. She had an academically challenging homeschool/worldschool program the last two years and she says that she is often bored and learning stuff she has already learned before. I tried to bump her up a grade, but they said no, it is just not done. However, she is learning some new areas, like French history and Latin. In her Spanish and English classes both teachers have recognized that she is fluent and they make an effort to give her harder work and projects, plus she is a bit of a teachers helper which is great for her confidence.
According to Largo’s teacher he is doing well, too much singing to himself in class, but overall very well. Largo did not have the best teacher experience in Ecuador. He had one teacher that was more of a dictator than an inspiration to the kids. It was commonly known amongst the parents that she got results, but at what cost to the childs emotional state. Luckily Largo is one thick-skinned kid. His teacher now loves what he does and it shows, these kids are inspired to learn. I heard him tell one of the moms this, “I am not here to rule the kids. I am here to teach them.”
Many Americans have complaints about the French system because they don’t believe it educates for a whole child approach. I definitely agree, however there is so much to be learned from this system. A child who is dropped into this situation (especially coming from an American education) will learn a lot about themselves, their learning style and what they want out of life. I could not see us staying in a system like this forever, however the kids have gained a lot thus far and we definitely don’t regret it.
Do you have any other questions about the French system? Have you ever put your kids in a school in a foreign country? Did you have any surprises? What did you love?