The boys started school on September 4th (Owen and Wells), and 5th (Charlie), and after the longest summer possible (they got out earlier back home than French children here- early July; and started later than the kiddos back home) it was time. Each of us felt like we had had time to adjust to life in France and now it was time to begin a new chapter, school life here in France.
All 3 boys attend Ecole Bilingue Internationale, an International school that is integrated into Ecole Massillon, a private French Catholic school which is divided into 3 sections- primary, secondary and high school. EBI was originally established to provide bilingual education to children of Michelin employees who had moved to Clermont as part of ex-patriation, but has more recently welcomed families of all backgrounds, even non-Michelin. Massillon itself is home to 1400 students, but the EBI primary school section (Owen and Wells) has 170 students.
Within each of their grades, they actually have 3 different “tracks” they are on, all of which have different teachers and require separate notebooks, homework, school supplies, etc. As Owen and Wells are students within Massillon, they are assigned to a French homeroom class, Wells’ is level CP and Owen’s level is CM1. While they do spend some time in these 100% French speaking classes (the teachers are instructed not to speak English to the children if they even speak any, most do not), they are pulled out several hours a week for both native level English speaking classes. Wells’ is referred to as Grade 1 and consists of phonics, reading fluency, grammar, spelling, writing. His teacher is British and certain parts of the curriculum follow the British system, including cursive. Wells has 11 other kids in his Grade 1, from countries such as Ireland, India, Great Britain, Romania, France and the US.
Owen has 17 children in his Grade 4 class and studies Science, World History, English (curriculum also is British) and Spelling (British). He also has students from India, France, Japan, Great Britain, and the US. Lastly, both boys are pulled out 2-3 hours a day for FLE (French as a Foreign Language), where they are taught concentrated French, along with several other non-native French speaking children. They both have the most amazing teacher (Madame Laurent) who is super loving, nurturing, encouraging and has lived in Greenville in the past; she understands the ginormous transition each of her students are in the midst of and her positivity is truly the glue that fills in the gaps for them. And at this point, so early on in their French speaking, there are a lot of gaps!
I think in general, French school can be rough. From what we’ve been told, the teachers, in general, will do a lot of yelling in the classroom; there is often much more critiquing than praise. We’ve even heard stories of children being called stupid, etc. etc. The grading scale is very difficult and it’s nearly impossible to get top scores. The mindset is “always room for improvement, you need to work harder, that’s not good enough, etc” … Obviously, this is different from the largely nurturing learning environments our 3 boys have been lucky enough to have had in school thus far back home.
In fact, just this week I read an article about how French schools could be to blame for the pessimism that is often (stereotypically) ascribed to French people. The article specifically was referring to pessimism towards “work” and “work life” and explained that because the French are taught from a young age that it is extremely difficult to achieve praise for their academic achievements or gain a sense of confidence regarding their academic performance, that this instills a negative attitude that they may carry with them through life. We chose not to warn the boys about this. We are big believers that these experiences can be character-building opportunities, but we still said many prayers that they would luck out when it came to their teachers. We have really wanted to take each day as it comes, keep an open mind and trust the system, “let the system work” as I was told by another ex-pat mom.
The first week or two were tough. There were a few tears (from the kids and me!), nervous stomachs, and I-dont-want-to-go-backs. The kids were most nervous and anxious about being spoken to (by teachers and students) but not understanding, unable to follow directions, and not knowing how to communicate. Fortunately, for both boys, they each have a few kids in their French homeroom that speak a little English and have been so sweet and helpful in translating what the teacher is saying to the class (i.e.: “get out your blue notebook and green pen…” 🙂 ) They have also learned quickly to watch what other students are doing and follow along. Owen’s teacher is very gentle and quiet. The playground is a cement school yard where they have recess twice a day, and let me just say, it is a jungle out there. Wells has come home with numerous scrapes, bruises and sadly, has been the recipient of some pretty tough bullying a few times by one boy in his class. Lucky for him, his big brother Owen happened to be standing nearby and jumped in to help, along with some other American students:) After another American student was injured by this same boy, his parents have met with teachers and we are hopeful that this will be a thing of the past.
Owen and Wells’ schedule is largely the same from day to day, except for Wednesdays, when Owen goes to school from 9-11 for Spelling only, and Wells does not go at all (until 2nd grade).
We typically leave the house around 8:10 and hoof it up a huge steep hill in order to get to school for the 8:30 bell, at which point the gates of the schoolyard close. I usually will walk back home or stop at the grocery store to grab a few things for dinner, or run a quick errand, but often by the time I get home, unload and straighten up around the house, it is time to leave again to head back to pick the boys up for lunch, which dismisses at 11:35. We walk home (Wells likes to ride his scooter) for lunch 2-3 days a week ( 1 day a week they stay for a hot, 3 course lunch at canteen). The boys have a 2 hour break before we head back to school at 1:30. I absolutely love this time with them because it gives us a chance to hang during the day, eat lunch together, play a game or watch a TV show or part of a movie. Most importantly, though, it is a time for them to rest and decompress from the rigorous long day they have. Some days we will grab ham and cheese baguettes but often it’s PB&J (it’s only recently that you can find PB here in France!!! yay!). After walking back at 1:30, they are there until 4:35, and after stopping for a snack, we often aren’t getting home until 5:00 and time for homework.
The French parents take the late afternoon snack idea very seriously, many times showing up with baguettes stuffed with chocolate bars, crepes with Nutella, cookies, cakes or fruit tarts. There are little candy shops and stands that sell these goodies to the many students mingling around at school dismissal.
Charlie is in Secondary school and his 6th grade class (also known as Sixieme) has 7 students of different nationalities- Japanese, Indian, French and American- 4 of them from Greenville!) The secondary school of EBI is English speaking primarily, the staff speak English to parents, the correspondence is all in English, etc. He does have a few classes in French- PE, Art and Music and French language (4 hours a week). Charlie’s school is a distinguished International Secondary school among others in France and supposedly the education they receive is very good; we have met some other families that moved to Clermont for the main purpose of attending EBI secondary. The professors at his school are absolutely wonderful. They do a great job of really fostering independence in these 6th thru 8th graders and seem to greatly value their input. With only 44 students in his program, there are small class sizes, the students are really able to get to know their teachers. They offer some interesting programs such as Harvard Model Congress, Debate Teams, Variety show, Persuasive Speaking classes, Spanish, etc. His classrooms are all housed in a building completely renovated last year, so everything is brand new.
Charlie’s schedule is much like high school or college in that every day varies. Some mornings he starts at 8:00 and 2 days a week, he starts at 9:00. 4 days a week he has an hour for lunch where he will either walk home for a quick bite, or will either eat out with friends, meet Chuck, or eat at the dining hall at school (canteen). On Wednesdays, all schools close 1/2 day to allow for participation in sports and other extra-curricular activities and so Charlie is out at 11:00 on Wednesdays. Because of the fact that his schedule does not jive all that well with the other 2, he is walking to and from school alone most of the time, which he seems to love. At times, he will even hop on the tram. The journey to and from school is along a pretty cobblestone street lined with art galleries, little cafes, etc, and very little vehicular traffic, so its very safe. There are many schools that are all situated in the same area and so there are students coming and going everywhere, many of them elementary school age even. Charlie has always yearned for independence since he was pint-sized and so for him, the flow here works well and he really seems to be thriving!