Visit a School, Part 3: The French Immersion School

“Bonjour, ma chère, ca va?”

Over and over I heard this phrase as students poured into the hallways from the chilly, windy morning outside. Teachers greeted their students in French, which is normal since almost all instruction, lessons, and communication in general is done in French at the Immersion School.

The FIS (French Immersion School) is a public charter school located in downtown St. Louis. They share the building with the Spanish Immersion School, so it was not uncommon to hear Spanish being spoken throughout the day also as students and teachers of the different schools passed each other. At this point, they only offer kindergarten through third grade, but hope to add grades as their school expands.

As I walked in the doors, nothing struck me as being much different from other elementary schools: parents dropping children off, kids being told not to run in the halls, the tangle of backpacks and coats and lunch-boxes, lots of noise from cars and buses. But as I entered the classroom area, the similarity to a regular public school changed as French became the primary language spoken by adults. The children still chattered to each other in high-pitched English, since the vast majority of them come from English-speaking households, but even their familiar words began to disappear as classes started their morning routines.

A teacher led me on a tour of the classrooms, stopping briefly in each. The two second grade classrooms were playing a game or singing a song in French. The four kindergarten classrooms and four first grade classrooms had interactions such as sharing, singing, announcements, and learning about the weather, temperature, date, etc. all of which provided vital practice with basic vocabulary and phrases in French.

One of the most striking things about FIS was the amount of student artwork everywhere. Empty wall space was the exception rather than the norm throughout the hallways, walls, and rooms. Also, whether they were diagrams of the human nervous and digestive systems, portraits of famous African-Americans, favorite quotes, drawings of trees, illustrations of St. Louis landmarks, or demonstrations of food groups, the colorful pictures all had writing in French on them.  The profuse artwork in many creative mediums transformed what could have been a sterile environment into a much more friendly, welcoming place.

Besides normal classes, students also take P.E., music, and art several times a week. Every class is in French, of course, although occasionally a teacher would switch to English for a moment if a student needed further explanation of an assignment, a reprimand for misbehavior, etc. It was amazing to see that even the youngest children could understand basic French spoken to them. The five, six, and seven year old students tend to respond to their teachers in English; I heard the teachers often tell students the correct response or word in French so that the children could repeat it back to them properly. The students in higher grades were more verbal in the second language. I could almost see the wheels in their seven and eight year old minds turning as they constructed questions or statements in French.

As a side note, I should say that though I cannot speak French, I did have some experience with the language in college and have several friends who speak it, so the language is at least slightly familiar. It helps to be a very auditory learner, which means that I can quickly comprehend languages, but have an extremely difficult time speaking them. I could understand about 90% of what was being said in French during my visit to the school, unless the teacher was speaking too quickly, then my comprehension definitely dropped. Most of the children asked me if I spoke English, although the eight year olds politely addressed me in French when I was introduced.

I spent a while in the third grade classroom observing their morning circle. Students lounged comfortably on the floor, at ease with each other and the teacher. The atmosphere was much more pleasant here than in the other classrooms, and I quickly realized that it was because the space was lit with house lamps placed all around the room, rather than the harsh lights installed in the ceiling. The soft lamplight was so peaceful! What a great idea. After daily announcements and a discussion about an upcoming fundraiser, show-and-tell began. Children brought a new book, a bag of colorful plastic beads, a stuffed animal, and several other things. The teacher described and spoke about all the items, asking questions of the children in French, and sometimes asking them to respond back in French. Afterwards, they sat down at low tables (no single desks) to work on a math lesson. The teacher switched briefly to English while explaining a few concepts about shapes that would have been too confusing in French, but by and large the children all seemed to understand. The directions for their math problems were in English, I noticed. When he noticed me perusing the bookshelf, the teacher told me that the children were reading books in French and English of equal difficulty. The students at FIS begin formal study of English grammar in third grade; all their grammar and vocabulary before this grade is focused completely on French.

Later I sat in one of the kindergarten classrooms as they had story-time. The teacher spoke slowly to them in French as she described new concepts such as the illustrator, author, and title of the book, “La Petite Poule Rousse”, or “The Little Red Hen”. There were a few interruptions by students who were causing distractions to others, but these were dispelled by the teacher’s corrections or the order to remove themselves from the group until they were able to return and pay attention. Students who were reprimanded this way would go sit away from the group for a few minutes, moping and kicking their legs idly, but soon returned on their own volition to hear the rest of the story.

This method of discipline accounted for several students I had seen in the hallways standing just outside their classrooms. If a student was too disruptive or had a bad attitude, they were asked by the teacher (usually calmly, from what I saw) to leave the class until they could change their behavior/attitude. This was effective for most students. They would loiter around the doorway, not wandering too far, and by pacing, looking at the art on the walls, sometimes talking to a teacher’s assistant, and being allowed space to calm themselves down, would often feel ready to return after two to five minutes. I saw four students over the course of the morning who were screaming or crying uncontrollably, and for each of these situations a faculty member would be with the student in the hallway as they either tried to quietly soothe the child or stayed close by to make sure the child was safe until he/she was ready to communicate.

Back in the kindergarten room, the class finished hearing the story of “Le Petit Poule Rousse” read aloud. The students sat at low tables and began practicing their writing in personal notebooks by copying the date and book title from the whiteboard, then drawing a picture of the story underneath it. Some of the youngest children had difficulties writing even those few simple words, so the teacher and assistant helped them along.

I admired a large house built in a corner of the room from milk cartons and held together by tape, so the teacher told me about their themed study of houses around the world. Each of the kindergarten classrooms had chosen a different kind of house to build (the class next door had constructed an igloo), so her students had worked on creating what would be a version of a brick house from St. Louis, then all the classes had joined together for a demonstration and description of the various houses and the cultures and climates where they might be built. The final step was for each of the students to construct a small version of their favorite house with materials such as cardboard, paper, and other craft items. I looked at the progress of these small houses and enjoyed seeing the creativity and thoughtfulness that the children obviously used in building them. The teacher said that all the students had been very enthusiastic about the house theme!

Soon it was lunchtime. I ate with the kindergarten class in the cafeteria, which was already crowded and noisy with most of the other classes already eating. Many of the children brought lunches, though I did see a considerable number of children get the lunch provided by the cafeteria. My vague memory of school lunches prepared me for something nasty to arrive on their trays, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a fresh pear, boiled carrot circles, and a chicken tortilla wrap with lettuce and a tasty-smelling sauce, with milk as a drink (there may have been dessert too, but I didn’t look quickly enough to see, since dessert usually disappears first with hungry kids). Re-usable cups were set out, with water poured by the teachers for their individual class table; cloth napkins were also handed out to each child. I was told by both students and adults that most of the food at the school was actually very good, since FIS had recently switched food providers; the children’s obvious enjoyment of the lunches confirmed their approval!

I chatted with the teacher’s assistant while we ate and also asked and answered questions with the children sitting around me. Many of the kids told me that their favorite class was either art or recess. As lunchtime ended, children were expected to dispose of their own trash and put their lunch-boxes in a large bin that would be taken back up to their classroom, since they were about to go outside for recess. Several children collected the cups, made sure that anything recyclable was put in a different box than the trash, put all the dirty cloth napkins in a to-be-washed bin, and made sure that any food scraps and forgotten trash were picked up from their table. Then they lined up by the door for a final count by the teacher before joyfully flying outside to stretch their legs and play.

After lunch I went to the art room. The teacher was preparing for one of the second grade classes to arrive soon. They had recently completed a rather difficult project that had taken a lot of time, so they were going to work on something easier that day. I heard the class tromp raucously down the hall and stop outside the art room door, still talking loudly and making quite a noise. The art teacher went to the door and poked her head out, spoke quietly to the class in French, then came back in and shut the door. I was confused as to why they weren’t coming in the classroom, and she told me she had informed them that when they were ready to be quiet so they could focus on art, then they could come in. In two minutes, she looked out the door again. I could see the children’s expectant faces turn towards her as their chatter ceased and they stood up straight, hoping to come in this time. The art teacher smiled and welcomed them in. None of the students appeared resentful; they all eagerly took their seats at the tables, many of them greeting me cheerfully in French as they passed by my chair or wondering aloud what they would be making today.

The teacher showed the students cut-out paper chains of people, fish, spiders, fleur-de-lis, hearts, and flowers, then gave a detailed demonstration on how to make them. The children were enthralled. They quickly began drawing rough drafts of their designs before cutting them out. Some students didn’t fold their paper correctly or cut in the right places, so their shapes fell apart; this caused a few tears, but they usually disappeared as the teacher helped them figure out how to do it the right way. Students also asked each other for help. Talking wasn’t forbidden, as long as the children spoke in low voices and didn’t shout. They moved between tables, frustrated students seeking assistance from those who were more adept at the craft.  This was a noticeable advantage to the group desks, rather than having students isolated as individuals in their own space, although any student who wanted to work alone was certainly able to do so.

The next class that entered the art room was one of the first grades. They were continuing to work on masks that they had made and painted on a previous day. The children loved selecting brightly colored feathers, yarn, and sequins to decorate their masks after receiving suggestions and being shown a few examples of what they could do with the materials. They laughed at the art teacher’s jokes in French as she talked to them about their projects.

Sadly, I had to leave in the middle of this class to get back home in time for my own job. I said goodbye to the children, to which they responded with a chorus of, “Au revoir, Madame Alyssa”!

There were many good things I saw at the French Immersion School:

~ Kind, compassionate teachers who sincerely cared for their students’ well-being, not just their academic progress. This was demonstrated in the many small interactions I saw take place throughout the day.

~ Lack of absolute strictness. Students were given much more freedom than I have seen in other public schools. In the second and third grades at FIS, students can leave on their own to go to the bathroom or get a drink by writing their names on a whiteboard by the door and taking a small wooden “permission key” with them; there is no fuss made over the children taking care of their needs. Plenty of adults are around the hallways, since the school is still relatively small, but the children are not constantly chided or harassed for not being in their classrooms at all times. Even within the classrooms, children are not scolded for letting their attention temporarily wander, as children’s attention tends to do. Students who wished to sit at the edge of the group and daydream occasionally did so. Disruption or distracting one’s neighbor was not allowed, but I saw several children in different classes quietly lost in their own world, without a teacher rudely jolting their focus back to the lesson. Maybe this seems like a silly thing to some people, but as a daydreamer myself, I appreciated it.

~ Children are encouraged to help the teacher, their class, and one another. It was very obvious that the children loved assisting in any way they could. This is true of most children everywhere, and it always amazes me when adults do not allow a child to be of service to someone simply because it might not be as quiet or quick as the adult would like. I silently applauded the teachers at FIS for their recognition of the children’s desire to help out.

The things I wish could be different aren’t really a reflection on the French Immersion School in particular, but rather on families and the public education system in general. These observations have been on my mind before, but were brought to my notice again by my visit to the school:

~ Children need, first and foremost, to feel loved. When children do not have families who care for their needs, then no matter how kind a teacher is or how inviting the school environment may be, these children will not be able to focus on their education because their basic need for love is not being met. Children who come from abusive homes, or who may not know if they will be able to get food anywhere except school, or who don’t sleep more than a few hours each night because of neglectful parents, will not be concerned with learning to read or write. Thankfully, I saw teachers at FIS dealing compassionately with children who come from these backgrounds, but there is only so much that a teacher can do. The teachers, even those who sincerely want to help these poor children, have limited time, resources, and power to positively change a suffering life, which is why social services may need to intervene. This is a whole different complex subject, though, so I’ll leave it here.

~ Children need more recess periods outdoors. This is my biggest complaint with any formal education system, public or private. Much of the time spent in teaching young children anything is consumed by trying to give directions they can comprehend, making sure that everyone heard and understood what was said, trying to help children follow through the directions, and correct the mistakes of those who weren’t really listening all along. Why? Because little children aren’t made to sit still for hours at a time! Even if a teacher realizes that her students need more physically active occupations because they can’t seem to sit still, the teacher is limited by the academic standards that schools are forced to meet. Standardized testing is the looming ogre behind every semester, compelling teachers to push forward with curriculum which follows mandated educational guidelines. This means that the students must spend the majority of their school hours sitting still in a classroom, when at that age (kindergarten through third grade, and even beyond that) they would like nothing better than to run around outside, free to explore, play, expend energy, and grow! I’ve seen firsthand that children who have had plenty of outdoor time to themselves are much more able to focus on school subjects. If schools would give extra recesses to their classes, then everyone would benefit.

In conclusion, I was happy to explore the French Immersion School, thanks to one of my friends who works there and was able to get me permission to visit! The students there are experiencing a unique education with teachers who are working hard to provide the children with an outward-focused, thoughtful vision of their world.

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