A leap into life

Issue: Volume 93, Number 3

Posted: 24 February 2014
Reference #: 1H9ctn

Darfield High students strengthen ties with the French through language and gain an authentic learning opportunity in the bargain.

In this year of the 100th anniversary of the First World War, when so many New Zealanders gave their lives alongside our French allies, it is particularly timely to celebrate the deep relationship that has developed between the two countries.
One such effort to keep our young people in touch with this connection is the New Zealand France Friendship Fund.

Established by mutual agreement between our two governments in 1991, with the aim of promoting friendly relations between the two nations, the organisation seeks to “enhance and deepen the historical, constructive and vibrant relationship between France and New Zealand.”

This is achieved by providing financial assistance to projects that can lead to lasting links between our two peoples, and build understanding and friendship, especially among young people.

Darfield exchange

Kate Hargreaves of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) is one of the administrators of the fund, and she says that a perfect example of the kind of project for the fund is the student exchange programme between Darfield High School in rural Canterbury, and Lycee Felix Le Dantec (Felix Le Lantec High School) in Brittany, France.

The project came about because Marjorie Juhel, a teacher of French at Darfield High, wanted to provide a context and a point to the learning that her students were engaged in.

“I thought, ‘this is what the students need’. We need to give the learning a purpose but also to experience immersion in French, which is very difficult in New Zealand.”

Marjorie then contacted the principal of Felix Le Lantec, where she herself went to school, with a proposal that the two could set up an exchange programme, and was met with an enthusiastic response. From there she was put in touch with a teacher of English at Felix Le Lantec who had students that were enthusiastic about experiencing life in New Zealand.

Marjorie says that the Ministry here in New Zealand was supportive with permission to proceed, and pointed her toward the New Zealand France Friendship Fund, from whom she had no problem securing the funds necessary to get the venture rolling.

“This was very much a joint governmental effort, and it’s great that this initiative began as an idea between two teachers on opposite sides of the world, then from one school to the other, then finally government organisations got involved and made the whole thing possible.

“We got a really enthusiastic response from both the Ministries of Education, and we have already received approval for the group that we are about to send in March of this year.”

The Darfield High/Felix Le Lantec programme is open to senior students of the respective languages of senior age. While students can sign up in either Year 11, 12, or 13, but Marjorie says that in practice, after four years of the programme, it seems that both parents and students consider Year 12 to be optimal. This is because, says Marjorie, parents are perhaps concerned in Year 11 that their child might be too young to cope, and in Year 13, everybody is concentrating on achievement in their last year of school, with a view to university.

Marjorie says that the exchange experience is an excellent way to get students to think about their learning in an authentic manner; when students know that their language skills will be tested in the most trying environment imaginable, it provides a goal to aim at.

“The kids were almost dancing with excitement just before we left! The trip is a great motivator for our students of French, right from Year 9. They know that they can have the chance to put their language skills to the test, and there is a reason for them to pursue excellence.”

A Parisian adventure

The entire trip takes place over two months. On arrival in France, the group spends a week in Paris, long enough for at least some of the culture shock to subside. The initiative has approval from the New Zealand Ministry of Education to send up to six children on the trip, for the simple reason that Darfield is a smaller school, with small French classes.

Though there is no formal assessment aspect to the directed tasks in Paris, the students are kept busy with this first immersion, learning things like how to negotiate the notoriously labyrinthine Paris Metro.

“We make sure that we give them plenty of options. They might choose not to use public transport, so that they can use the money to treat themselves to a croissant afterwards!”

Marjorie says that as the Paris sojourn nears its end, excitement gives way to anxiety, as the reality of the next two months and the departure of the students’ minders hits home.

“They are about to meet the people that they are to live with for two months. It is always a dreadful day for them! Up to this point, they are a group of Kiwi kids from Darfield travelling together. Now they are alone with a family that doesn’t speak English – or if they do, we ask them not to.”

Young ambassadors

Darfield School asks for a high degree of maturity from the students who travel to France, not just in the sense that they are representing their school and country, but in order to cope with spending a significant amount of time among a strange family.

But, says Marjorie, the experience has taught her that the cart often comes before the horse in this situation: give them trust and they will earn it.

“They never disappoint us. It’s amazing, when you put them in a situation where they know they have to be mature, and that they are representing their country, they are well aware of the implications, and they always behave accordingly. We ask them to sign a code of conduct before they go, and well, so far so good.”

Preparation for immersion

Prior to departure for France is a time of preparation, which again helps to focus the students’ learning, says Marjorie. Everything in class is suddenly taken from the realm of the abstract, and into immediate reality.

“We go very in depth on some crucial topics, we try to prepare them for life in France. For example, we explain the school system over there. The kids don’t really understand before they go however that the differences are so huge, really there is only so much preparation they can do.

“We try also to talk about opening their mind to different ways of living than they might be used to, different kinds of family units, and that sort of thing.”

Having said that, the cultural obstacle course isn’t as hard to negotiate as might be imagined, says Marjorie, and in fact most differences are quite subtle. This could increasingly be due to the fact that French people are very much used to the presence of foreigners.

One faux pas that leaps to mind that she would rather her students be careful of is the French attention to meal etiquette.

“People in France find it extremely offensive if one doesn’t exhibit good table manners, whereas most New Zealand kids really don’t think about it these days I think! Like eating fish and chips with their fingers for example, something that is very normal in New Zealand would be horrifying for French people! And I don’t want our students to obliviously offend without meaning to.”

Student perspective

Erica Pander was a Year 12 student when she signed on for the French immersion experience last year. She confirms that as the train is leaving Paris for coastal Brittany, the group tends to get pensive. When they arrive at Lycee Felix Le Lantec, the group is greeted by those French students who attended Darfield High the year before as part of the programme. It’s a good thing that there are some familiar faces, says Erica, because every other aspect of the school couldn’t be more different.

“The first thing we saw was that the school has three storeys. We’d never really seen a school built like that, and it also didn’t really have fields or anything. There was no grass basically. And I think the students at that school would be just as amazed if they saw a New Zealand country school like Darfield, with heaps of fields.

“One of my strongest impressions was how friendly everybody at the school was. Everyone just came up and talked to us. I think we were all feeling so overwhelmed, we weren’t as talkative in French as we would have liked.”

After a wide-eyed tour of their new surrounds, it’s time to meet their host families. This was nowhere near as awkward as Erica anticipated, and she thinks that the fact that both her host ‘parents’ are teachers made it easier for her to relate to them.

Marjorie and her team stays on for the first week after the group begins classes, and act very much like teacher aides, sitting beside the Kiwi kids and supporting them to ease into French school life. But when it’s finally ‘au revoir’ time, Erica says that for the whole group, it’s sink or swim.

“At the time we were there, there were two other exchange students, one from Canada and one from Brasil, who had been there for a year, and they really helped us for the first few weeks. Their advice was ‘as long as you try to speak French, and try to listen in classes, you’ll pick it up in a couple of weeks.’

“We weren’t expecting that to happen, but it did. I guess that’s because when you have to speak another language or else not communicate with anyone around you, you learn much quicker. All the Darfield students were separated into different classes too, so there wasn’t even that to fall back on. It was either speak French or sit there silently.”

An authentic opportunity

By her own account, Erica Pander is proof that this absorption of the language and culture of another nation has been a life-changing experience at the very least.
“I can definitely say that I’ve changed as a person. I think that I’m a lot more open now. I feel happy now to just go and talk to people that I don’t know, even just asking for help or something like that. And obviously my French has improved! On our first day back at Darfield, Madame Juhel couldn’t believe that we were speaking so well.”

It’s this, says Marjorie, which is the point of the exercise. It’s an authentic opportunity for learning that is so much broader than anything to be found in the classroom and provides an opportunity for students to grow as learners and as people.

“I think one of the big reasons for putting the effort into making this experience happen is seeing the change in our students when they come back. It’s such a boost for their confidence, to know how big a challenge they have overcome. You can see it on their face, after that the sky is the limit, they can do anything.”

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 3:15 pm, 24 February 2014

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