French program expanding but losing accent
A program that has been bringing native French speakers into local schools to teach children since 2005 will end this year due to lack of funding.
Cècile d'Agaro of Bougival, France, served as one of these teaching assistants for the Thomaston, St. George and Cushing primary schools in 2010.
“The best moment of the day is not when (the children) learn the future tense or how to spell 'croissant,'” she said, “but when I see smiles on their faces that shows a desire to experience what I just said."
D'Agaro said having a native teacher is a critical component in learning another language.
"I have mostly taught French abroad and I know the students and I enjoy what we can share. It could be a joke about my country or the people there, a way my family and I have a ritual of doing or eating something.”
She said a favorite memory from her teaching experience was when a second-grade student told her, “Cècile, I will see you again in Bougival or in Paris. I will see you there because I want to travel the world just like you.”
"The little kids, they can't say much in French yet, but what they can say is perfect; you wouldn't know it wasn't a French child," said Kit Harrison, the Thomaston Grammar and St. George School French teacher. "This facility for picking up a correct accent decreases with age and depends on exposure to native speech. You can't get that except at that age and with that source."
The schools have been hosting French foreign language teaching assistants in cooperation with the Institute for International Education. However, the partnership will end this year due to lack of funding. The French Commission is no longer funding primary school programs, citing the weak economy. Exchange programs will now only operate at the university level.
About 20 years ago, representatives from the Penobscot School met with School Administrative District 50 administrators to discuss a world language program in the schools. The meeting stressed the importance of native speakers in the classroom, and pointed out the existence of the Institute for International Education. Before the program's inception, students in the former SAD 50 were offered foreign language courses beginning in ninth grade.
RSU 13 Interim Superintendent Neal Guyer said the district is planning to expand the reach of its elementary world language program so all students within the RSU have access to French instruction. Until now, this has been the case in all schools with the exception of grades K-3 at South School, Gilford Butler, and the Owls Head. The hope was to recruit an additional foreign teaching assistant, but as the program is losing funding, the RSU 13 budget will provide resources for an additional elementary French teacher.
Following approval of the budget, school principals will collaborate to hire a French teacher and begin curriculum development.
With this shift, students will have fewer instructional minutes per week, but all elementary schools will receive French courses. Three teachers will staff the French program for the district: Kit Harrison, Megan Thill and the soon-to-be-hired teacher.
K-4 is slated to receive 30 minutes of French instruction a week, down from the current 50 minutes. Middle school students will have 60 minutes a week, down from 85 minutes two years ago.
Harrison has been training the visiting teaching assistants for seven years. "The strength of the program in the primary grades has been that it combined the best of two worlds — a local American teacher who could provide a cohesive curriculum and familiarity with the American education system and a native French speaker who could bring her accent, her idiomatic language usage, her youth, enthusiasm, and culture."
Harrison is excited to provide French instruction to all schools in the district. "I hope we can give our students a sophisticated understanding of the world beyond the Midcoast, and I think this program is a good means for doing this. In service of this goal, my opinion is that we should have a native speaker in the primary years. If it were up to me, I would sacrifice the stability of the permanent local teacher for visiting but talented native speakers."
Harrison said there are programs that place talented native speakers in schools. Such programs include the Amity Institute.
"It's not just the language; it's the enthusiasm for learning about the world and a positive association about people from other places, which these kids have developed very early. You can't really give that to people through talking about it. It's much more effective if you get to know somebody and you love them."
The foreign teaching assistant program has recruited native French speakers from all over the world, including the 2011 assistant Jennifer Albaret from La Rèunion, an island off the east coast of Africa.
Leatrice Falla, a second-grade teacher at St. George School, said the assistants serve as a model for the students. "The students see the French teacher speaks English, but their native language is French. This makes students realize they can learn a language the same way, and they are always excited every year about who the assistant will be."
Speaking about Anne Gourion, the 2012 assistant in the classroom, Falla said, "She was just speaking this beautiful French, and you could have heard a pin drop. You just can't replicate it, and it's a shame we're losing it." Falla added Harrison has worked hard to create the program and help visiting assistants acclimate to the classroom and Maine.
"When I was teaching in Maine, I felt like I was bringing so much to the children but they were teaching me at the same time,” said d'Agaro. “I was teaching in three different schools and have most of the best memories of my life there. I know the students felt comfortable trying to speak in French because they obviously noticed I had an accent and that I was learning a language as well. I have incredible memories of my time as a teacher in Maine. The experience made me discover a new country, a new language and new friends I will keep for life.”
"The first year, the assistant got a lot of questions like, 'are you from Mars, are you from outer space?' from young students,” said Harrison. “That has decreased over the years, which to me says that our children are becoming a little more worldly. Although some of the younger students may still believe the teaching assistants go home at night to France to sleep, it’s brought an awareness.”
Harrison said developing a program to reach all children effectively in a district is necessarily going to be very difficult and believes it is possible to create an exemplary K-12 program. She added, "Our children deserve such a program. They are fantastic children.”
Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached by phone at 594-4401 ext. 118 or by email at JLaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com.