In our small village square just before nine a.m. on weekday mornings there’s a rattling, rumbling noise: the sound of dozens of children’s wheelie backpacks rolling over paving stones. For almost two weeks now, Conrad has been there with the rest of the children, pulling his own, already much-loved ninja-themed cartable on his way to the Ecole Elementaire.
In fact, three of our children are now off to school each morning. France has state-funded pre-schools, and both Roman (just turned 5) and Victoria (3) are enrolled in the Ecole Maternelle.
It was surprisingly straightforward to get them all registered. I had to fill out forms at the village Mairie, provide a letter from our landlady confirming that we’re staying in the village, and make copies of the children’s passports and birth certificates.
(Normally instead of birth certificates we’d have provided the French livret de famille. It’s a small booklet that French couples are given when they get married, or at the birth of a first child if they’re unmarried, and which serves as a register for future births, separation or death. Interestingly, the books were introduced in 1877 shortly after the socialist anarchists of the Paris Commune burned down public buildings in Paris, destroying the civil registers).
The Mairie sent on the documents to the schools the same morning, and everyone was ready to go!
All three children have done an amazing job of adjusting to school – especially bearing in mind that they understand barely a word that’s spoken in the classrooms.
That first morning we still had no car here, and just as I’d loaded everyone into the double stroller to walk the ten minutes to school the skies opened. Even before we’d crossed the courtyard, the two seated children were soaked down to their underwear and the two others were very, very wet. We quickly changed all their clothes, and our kind landlady drove us to the town square. By then we were so late that I took the younger children to the nursery school, and our landlady walked Conrad to his school gate. Yep, on Conrad’s first day at a French school I handed him over to a near-stranger and rushed off in the other direction.
Pre-school/ Nursery school
Victoria is in the morning-only petits/moyens class of 27 children. They all take slippers to wear in school, and they change their shoes by the coat-hooks and stash them in little bags printed with their name and photograph.
It’s similar to our early preschool in the USA, with some exposure to the alphabet as well as colors, shapes, art, learning songs, and so on. The pre-school has a little garden at the back, where the children grow vegetables in the spring. At the end of Victoria’s first day I asked what they’d done. They’d painted owls, and one of the little boys hadn’t wanted to share the toy farm animals. (Based on my past experience of trying to find out what has happened at preschool, this was quite a detailed response!)
Since then Victoria has made a friend in class. “They play together, and I see them talking”, her teacher told me yesterday. “Different languages, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem!”
Roman is in the grandes class of 29 children. Back when we were filling out forms at the Mairie Roman really, really wanted to know the French words for “Will you be my friend?” He asked the same question outside school on his first day. Sweet Roman.
Roman’s teacher is a little formidable: when one of the boys was crying at drop-off, she pointed a stern finger and said “we do NOT cry in this class”. The boy abruptly stopped. At first, Roman wasn’t sure that he likes his teacher, but now he says he does like her a bit. (Apparently she has been helping him with his coat zip).
His class is practicing printing letters, but interestingly the children are also exposed to cursive styles of letters right from the start. Not only that, but it’s the very flowery French-style cursive.
They’re also working on simple math, lots of art, stories and songs. For him it’s a full day of preschool (on the same schedule as Conrad’s school): 9am-12pm, home for lunch, and the afternoon from 2-4/4.30pm (there’s a slightly later finish time for two days of the week – I have no idea why). Wednesday is a half day for everyone. In the past there was no school on Wednesdays in France, and here this only changed recently.
Conrad’s school is next to the village church. He’s in a class with 28 other children, all five and six years old.
There are three children with special learning needs in his class, and a couple of the other parents have since told me that there was some reticence about adding a non-French speaking child to the mix. Of course, they hadn’t met super-diligent student Conrad! (He is often ‘spirited’ at home, but it’s a different story at school).
Conrad’s biggest frustration on the first day was that two of his classmates didn’t understand the rules of soccer, and that the playground goal wasn’t properly marked.
He’s been learning a few new French words every day. Within a week he’d switched to writing numbers in the French style: “1” more like a “7”, and a curly “9”.
I’ve enjoyed seeing how his class practices penmanship with cut-out copies of famous artwork. He’s been learning about syllables, and they’re working on phonics. It’s been a little confusing explaining that “ch” is pronounced “sh” for French words, or that the French “i” is more typically an “ee” sound, but he seems perfectly able to grasp that the rules are slightly different.
The class has memorized a French poem, which is more challenging! But we’ve tried with the first lines anyway. (Plus I like the fact that the subject is about using your ‘quiet voice’ so as not to disturb other people).
Every child starts the week with ten “points” on bits of paper, which they keep inside their desk in one of the circular, wooden Camembert cheese boxes. They can lose or win points based on behavior, and if they have ten at the end of the week they can choose a reward card. Now Conrad has two dinosaur cards, which are much treasured. (Apparently, naughty children also have to sit with their hands on their heads).
In the playground Conrad plays tag/”it” and soccer with the other kids. For a while he couldn’t understand why two of the girls kept following him around repeatedly saying “hi”, but we figured out that they’d been asked by the teacher to take care of him. Now all the kids like to come and say “hello” to practice their English. He’s made a friend called ‘Thibault’. One girl still likes to follow Conrad and try to tickle him.
One funny moment at the end of Conrad’s first day… We’d stayed behind for a few minutes to look around his classroom and get the list of school supplies, and at the gate his teacher presented her cheek for a kiss. Conrad looked totally shocked. I had to explain that the French often use kisses in greeting.
All in all, it’s going really well. I’m optimistic that the children will learn some helpful academics. For sure, they’ll end up being aware that there are many other people in the world who speak different languages and have different traditions, and that you can still make a connection even if you can’t understand each other’s words.