Struggles in French School

March 23, 2012

“Mommy, guess what?!”  My seven-year-old Lucy bounced through the door, greeting me home for lunch.

“I said my poésie in front of the entire class today!”  She was glowing with pride.

“Well, how did it go?”

“My teacher said it was très bien!” My girl’s bright cheerfulness lit the room. She skipped away to the dining room with a happy confidence as I followed behind her with our large bowl of salad.

“When the teacher called us to say our poems, I raised my hand up as high as I could, I almost stood up on my feet! And she picked me!”

“Wow! Good for you love!” Lucy’s energy was like a breezy-sweet perfume, a bouquet of wildflowers which coloured my day with a scent of joy.

I couldn’t help but get swept up by my love for that girl. The kind of powerful Mother Love which glows shamelessly giddy with pride. Love that can’t help but shout out from the mountain tops how fabulous my baby was. My kids fill me with such a profound joy that I can’t help myself.

I know you may think it’s ridiculous of me to feel such pride for my little girl reciting a poem in front of class. In fact, children all over the world have done this very thing. There’s really nothing special or a big deal about it, right? But this certain accomplishment was a big deal, because out of all our four kids, Lucy has had the hardest time settling into French school. The first three months of the school year was difficult for my sensitive, melancholic girl.

Tears of Frustration in mid-November, 2011

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” – Helen Keller

Lucy came home in a grumpy mood. She glared at her siblings and didn’t want to be around them. All she wanted to do was be left alone at the table, brooding as she drew in her art book. My emotional, artistic child was grappling with something amidst the swirl of noise her siblings bombarded her with. From one melancholic recognizing another, I knew something was bothering her.

“How was your day, Luce?” I asked as I sat on a chair beside her.

“It was okay.” Silence and brooding.

“What’s wrong? Did something happen at school today?”

“Not really. But today I found out that I have to memorize a poésie and say it out loud in front of the class. I don’t want to do it!”

“Well, show me the poem, and maybe I can help you memorize it.”

Lucy took out her poem. There was a star marked right after stanza two, indicating that they only had to memorize the first two parts of the poem. Susan, my ten-year-old, peered at the poem from my shoulder and tried to be supportive by saying, “Oh, it’s not that bad, Lucy. I’ve had to memorize a couple songs and poems already. I even have to write it out, so this won’t be too hard for you.”

“But, I don’t even know what it means! And I can’t memorize all of that in two days!”

Susan and I tried to help Lucy by giving her pointers on how to attack the memorization. Which was memorizing one line at a time, and adding the next line to memorize.

Lucy was resistant. “I don’t even know what the poem means!”

“We’ll find out together. Do you know why you should memorize this French poem?”

“No.” Lucy whined.

“Because it will help you learn more French. Memorizing the words will not only exercise the memory part of your brain, but it will help you speak and understand it. You get to listen to yourself speaking French, and after practicing the words a number of times, you’ll start to really understand it. That’s why we’re here, right?”

So for the next half hour, we went through each line, typing it up on Google translate. Still, Lucy was not happy. She said things like, “I don’t want to do this. I can’t remember all of this.”

I was familiar with this reaction from my artistic girl. She was the child who at three years old was found hiding in the closet so frustrated to tears because she couldn’t button her shirt the right way. She was my melancholic perfectionist child who’d scream out in frustration because she wanted something just right, but couldn’t quite execute it as perfectly as she saw it in her head. I found that the best thing to do was to leave her alone for a while to deal with her feelings. It worked best for her, and when she was ready to express herself, she’d do so when she was ready.

About an hour after going off on her own to try to memorize her poem, Lucy sat close to me. I put my arm around her and kissed her tear-stained, brooding face. I knew then that she was ready to talk.

Lucy leaned into me with a sad expression on her face. She closed her eyes and tears started to fall from the sides of her long eyelashes. She whispered, “Mom, it’s hard for me at school. I don’t understand most of what my friends are saying to me. I want to talk to them, but I don’t know enough (French) words to say so they could understand me. And I’m scared to go up in front of class to say my poésie. What if I say it wrong?” I held my baby close. It was hard to see Lucy cry. My heart cried with her. I loved her so much and wished I could take all her fear and frustration away.

Up until now, Lucy had been very excited about school, commenting how friendly and welcoming her friends were, and how much she liked the French language. We felt incredibly fortunate to see the kids welcomed by their peers in school. Lucy would tell me how excited she was to be here in France, take violin and art lessons, and learn how to read ,write, and speak French in school. The situation with her poetry memorization was the first time she had expressed any fear or sadness about school; the first time she spoke of any struggles she was going through.

A pang of guilt washed over me because our decision of moving to France for the year was causing Lucy pain. I wondered if we were asking too much from our kids by having them leave home and go to school in another country.  Yet, I knew this was also very good for them. Selling our house to travel and live in a different culture and language was a conscious decision to seek challenges out of our comfort zones. We wanted to give our kids a different perspective outside the security of Edmonton and have them experience for themselves different ways of living in the world. We wanted to show them how good their life was back home and to excite in them visions of greater possibilities.

We wanted to challenge them and help them see what they were capable of. In essence, we were okay with our kids to struggle, and while they were grappling with certain challenges, we planned to be there to encourage them and show them they were capable of working through anything. Our move to France demanded that they be courageous and persevere. Through their grappling and hard work, we hoped they’d experience empowerment.

In all honesty, I was expecting this kind of struggle Lucy was going through to happen to some extent with all our kids. As a young immigrant child from the Philippines, I too began school in Canada knowing a handful of English words and phrases. I remember the anxiety and hesitancy in wanting to express myself well and be accepted by my peers. I too remember how scared and unsure I was on my first day of school. I saw the little girl I used to be, reflected in my daughter’s face.

Before school started that year, I warned the kids that the first three months would be the adjustment and settling down period. As a family, we were going through this together. Over suppers, we talked openly about why it was important for the entire family to live in France for the year, and that starting school in another language would be scary and uncomfortable at first. Fear and discomfort (especially with new and unfamiliar things) were normal and acceptable, and struggle was inevitable. But we didn’t want them to be paralyzed by this. Instead, we were asking them to be brave. To do something hard and discover the benefits of working through the challenges. Our message to them was that they were capable, strong, and hardy. And the things worth doing, the things that really mattered, would not come easily. They’d have to work hard towards their goals, and sometimes fight for it.

“This hard time will pass, and we shouldn’t give up.” I reassured Lucy that she was on the right path, because it takes at least six months to a year (and sometimes more) for a language to click when you’re immersed in it. I encouraged her to keep working on her poem, and told her that she would see the fruits of her hard work soon enough. Over time, she’d be able to converse a little more comfortably in French, and know several poems. I focused on how lucky she and her siblings were to be in a school where the children were friendly, helpful, and accepting to foreigners. Also, speaking in front of class was a good exercise of being brave.

So how did she do with her first poem?

Success! Lucy worked very hard and memorized her poem. She told me later that when she spoke in class for the very first time, her heart was pounding so much that she recited her poem really fast, but was happy that she finished it.

To date, Lucy has memorized a handful of poems, and with each one, her confidence builds. It’s no longer the question of whether or not she can do it. Now, it’s how quickly and how well she can memorize it. The video below is of my girl reciting a couple of her poems. I use her real name in the video, which is no problem because she prefers to use her real name and already does through her Gracia Rose art blog.

French Immersion Update

So how is Lucy doing in French school? She’s doing just fine! All our kids were placed in the grade according to their ages. So Lucy went into CE1 (cours élémentaire première année) with the seven to eight year-olds, which is equivalent to grade 2 in North America (her actual grade in homeschooling). She began her year learning how to read and write French with the grade below her (CP – cours préparatoire – the grade ones). It was also the first time she learned to write cursive, as all the students write in French cursive beginning in kindergarden, which by the way is different from our North American handwriting. To date, Lucy’s cursive writing has improved dramatically, and she’s advanced her reading up to her grade level. Lucy can read aloud well, but still has much more to go with her French reading comprehension.

Because we also homeschool (we’re registered with a local homeschooling board in Edmonton) during part of our 2 hour school lunch breaks and days off (school here is only 4 days a week with Wednesdays off), our kids are ahead of their peers in Math. With Lucy, math is her strong point in French school because numbers are universal. However, she still has to ask for clarification with the math problems due to her lower French comprehension. Her teacher has been very helpful with her because she can speak a little bit of English to help explain things to Lucy.

Lucy’s French speaking skills are coming along quite nicely. I personally love to listen to her speak, as her accent is quite charming. She definitely can roll her “R”s better than I can. However, her teacher has remarked that she’d like to hear Lucy speak more French in class. Her poetry recitations in front of class boosts her confidence, and her classmates are very helpful and encouraging. I think we’ve really lucked out with this local inner city school. There are many immigrant kids here (many North African, some Turks, Eastern Europeans and British), and we’ve really felt an incredible welcome from many of the teachers, kids and their families at the school. Right now, Lucy understands more French than she can speak. She can speak phrases to get by and she’s improving every day.

As I watch my girl struggle with something and persevere, I see that her struggles have helped bring out a different side of her – a stronger, more courageous, more enduring side. And has given me an assurance that she’ll do just fine in life.

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” – Anais Nin

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3 Responses to Struggles in French School

  1. Joy says:

    Very impressive! How long has you been in France? Did she speak any before you arrived? I would like my daughter to be bilingual so this is really inspiring.

    • Hi Joy,

      We’ve been living in France since last August. My daughter went to French Immersion Kindergarden back home, which was half days, Monday to Friday. She only knew of a handful of French words, but because we homeschooled during her grade 1, she lost a lot of the French she learned in Kinder. So she didn’t speak any French when she started here. She knew words like bonjour, non, oui, maman, papa, etc…very basic stuff.

      Best,
      Jenn

  2. Mellie says:

    Gracia – WOW! Ta comprehension de la langue française est magnifique! Wow. You’re French accent is so good, I could totally understand your second poem when you recited it in French. Well done. P and I have bought plane tickets and will be coming out to visit you and your family in France. J’espère qu’on pourra parler un peu en français ensemble. à bientôt.

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