We have made it to the end of the first school year! I can’t quite believe it as it seems to have passed in a flash. I wonder what we all have made of it ?
Rory has made it first to the goal of fluency, and I would like to stress to all readers that I am completely convinced that this milestone has been achieved thanks to three factors. The first and most important is confidence. Rory has from the outset been gregarious and enthusiastic, and never more noticeably than in the first weeks of term when his class-mates would shake him by the hand before launching themselves into a game of table-tennis before the start of classes. The second asset is musicality. In England he started playing the cornet at the age of 8, and had attained grade 3, and come third in the Lincoln music festival before we left. There is no doubting the ease which his ear has tuned into the language. His best French friend is in the Rouen Conservatoire , and I have been astounded at her ability to understand me in full speed English and her ability to reply to a question directed at my own kids. The third asset is determination, and Rory has it in spades. In fact he is a perfectionist by personality (often displayed by his frequent corrections of my accent) and now, as we approach the end of our first calendar, my french friends tell me that he has no trace of an English accent. So, in short, it can be done!
However, conversely my other children are of a very different nature. What has struck me most about this year in France is that I have discovered who my children are with a clarity not available to me in the UK. In England life is a muddy stream, early consistent friendships, habitual hobbies and clubs give us all an underlying confidence and security. It is only when those are suddenly removed that one is given a glimpse of a person’s true relationship with life. I suddenly found that stripped of existing friends, two of my children were extremely timid. In fact I was astounded, having found them positively verbose in their opinions back home. Anabel is fairly musical, but not into any particular instrument, and had the disadvantage of age and timidity against her. Not only that but girls talk rather than play at that age. Consequently she found it extremely hard to begin with, and still does to an extent today. Not only are girls self-concious, but also need to look cool. Therefore it was excessively challenging for her to open her mouth and face stumbling through a conversation. I know myself how mortifying it is to construct a sentence which ultimately no-one understands. At the end of the first year she is still quite a way from fluency of speech, but her ability to read and understand is excellent, and her accent is fabulous.
Theo, as the youngest has also stunned me by being timid. He spent the entire year refusing to speak, and declared that he wasn’t going to play with French kids. We had told him that he would be the first to fluency. We had been told he would achieve it within 3 months. Do not believe a word of it. English and French are hugely different, and French has all the complexities of gender agreements. The children who generally achieved fluency that quickly tended to be Spanish or Italian, where the construction of the language shared many more similarities. In fact, he was very angry that he didn’t achieve fluency so quickly, and there was a marked downward turn at Christmas when the novelty wore off and the target wasn’t met. With Both Anabel and Theo, I felt hugely guilty at their struggles, and it wasn’t until May, when we invited Carole’s son for lunch during school, that I suddenly realised that they were speaking French in the back of the car, and that Theo was asking question after question. He is not fluent yet, but I don’t think it will be long into the next school year that he will be. Some children simply don’t utter a word until they have unravelled the language in their heads, and then go on to amaze you by speaking full blown french after months of silence.
Angus is a different kettle of fish from the others. He is a dreamer and generally gentle and easy going. He was the first to develop a couple of good solid friendships, which have strengthened through the year. How they communicated in the early days I have no idea, but lego figures seemed to help and a good deal of pointing! I still don’t know how far off fluency he is. I think we still have a way to go. Of all the kids, whist being hugely mathematical and top of the class in mental arithmatic, he has always found literacy challenging, and writing more so. He converses and is understood, but frequently doesn’t use complete sentences. Only time will tell.
I can’t give you a difinitive view of the school except to say that it is highly regarded, and they seem to have learnt plenty and enjoyed themselves as much as kids do at school. Anabel’s class had a rowdy set of boys in it who were seen as quite disrutive by the teachers, but Anabel’s view was that they were really funny and definitely increased her enjoyment during class. There were some teachers she detested, and some classes which were excrutiatingly boring – but isn’t that always the way! If the school lacked anything it was in the field of art and design and particularly for primaire.
I had always been told that sport was lacking in French schools, but whilst St Dominique lacked outdoor facilities on campus, being a city centre school, it bussed the pupils to the city stadium for athletics, basketball, rugby and baseball: to the ice-rink and to the swimming-pool; and taught fencing and badminton on campus. All sports were taken on a 6 week rota, and Anabel, not known for her fondness of sport actually admitted that she enjoyed it here rather than in the UK.
The final aspect of French school worthy of note is communication. I am used to hopeless communication from English schools. But in France each student has a Carnet de correspondence which enables parents and teachers to send messages and book appointments. It also holds a record of late marks, black marks and detentions. It has to be with the student at all times and the measures taken if a student forgets or looses theirs are bst not mentioned.
Having valiently slowed down the number of black marks against themselves from the begining of the year,( where they were doled out for missing school books and equipment or for arriving in class too late, despite having no comprehension of what the teacher had requested the previous lesson), we arrived at the last week of term with both Anabel and Rory nine points apiece. The tenth point would result in detention, and so I made great efforts to ensure that they arrived at school on time, including driving home twice one morning when we realised that we had forgotten a PE kit. Nevertheless, the tuesday before the end of term both arrived home with their tenth point. Rory’s was logged immediately and was expected ib detention the following day. This was highly inconvenient as it was held on a wednesday afternoon at exactly the same time as a party for Theo on the other side of town. I hastily wrote a message to the teacher in the Carnet de Correspondence, and the following day we set off for the party.When we arrived home there was a message on the answer machine, which I had to listen to three times before I got the gist of the message. Essentially, missing detention, note or otherwise was a hugely bad decision. Rory’s detention was doubled and rescheduled for the first week of the holidays.
Anabel meanwhile failed to get her black marks logged, her teacher being a little less efficient. Consequently she kept her head down for the final three days of term, and encouraged by her class-mates, got away with it. It was therefore only Rory who was driven into school the first wednesday of the holidays, for a oenerous french grammar lesson followed by cleaning out of the school cupboards! When I related the story to one of my french friend she looked rather shocked at my audacity for writing the note in the first place – which had apparently been viewed by the head of the senior school, because the French view is that you cancel your holiday for detention, or raise from your death bed to get your children there. There is simply no excuse great enough to excuse you!
The final note on the subject of this blog is regarding school reports. They are quite simply brilliant – in terms of the number received, not necessarily the content! We received a shorter, subject by subject report every half-term, complete with a record of all marks for tests and homework; and also the highest, lowest and average marks for each subject for the entire class. At the end of each term we received a fuller more detailed report, which also included a precis of the classes behaviour for the term.
The most important difference between French and English school is the act of “Redoubling”. If the staff don’t feel that a student has achieved satisfactorily over the school year they are made to redouble, ie take the year again. It is not an idle threat. It really does happen. In about March an orange slip of paper comes home with options for the following year. This may present parent with the ability to register their kids on a bilingual course, or preferences for changing schools or passing to the next scchool year. We opted to give Rory Latin, in addition to German which he has now studied for a year. We opted to give Anabel Spanish. Rory’s form came back with an agreement that Rory should move up to Cinquieme and do Latin and German. Anabel’s form came back with a questionmark over the necessity to redouble. We made a concerted effort to oversee her homework and really keep on top of the maths, and on the third pass over of the orange form she too was approved for quatrieme. Theo and Angus also passed their school years which I think is a huge success and a credit to their hard work. Roll on next academic year!