When we first arrived in Paris, I couldn’t wait to enroll my kids in French public school. They were still very young — just three and five — so starting them in our local maternelle seemed like a no brainer.
Language immersion was guaranteed, the school was just a stone’s throw from our apartment and, best of all, it was free! Plus, who knew what kind of students they would prove to be? Only time would tell. Within a week of our arrival, my two little Americans began their French education.
Turns out, it was an education for me, too. One that led us to make some very different choices and enroll our petits Parisiens in private schools this Fall. Here are a few lessons from my family’s journey in French schooling.
The Napoleonic Dream. Almost anyone will tell you that French schools are tough. Their approach to teaching and learning is rigid, based upon rote memorization and intense competition. By age 11, kids are often given a class rank and their test scores are routinely announced before their peers. Kids whose learning style requires a different approach — hands-on, cooperative, or more creative — can quickly get the idea that they’re “not good enough” and even be publicly ridiculed for their work. More than a few teary afternoons and expressions of self-doubt from my son convinced me that he needed a more innovative, child-centered pedagogy than the one Napoleon had in mind. I knew he needed an alternative kind of school, but did it exist in Paris? And if so, could we get him in?
Nature & nurture. With just a week to go before la rentrée, I heard about a small, progressive school in the 14eme that followed the French curriculum but employed very different teaching methods. With nothing to lose, I fired off an email. I understood that openings were very rare, I wrote, but would they, by chance, consider an eight-year-old bilingual boy with a deeply curious mind and tender heart of gold? By some miracle, I got the response: yes, a current family was moving; there just might be one spot for my son. Could we come the next morning (the day before classes were set to begin) for a tour and interview? Lucky for us, it turned out to be perfect: a small, private school where instilling self-esteem and love of learning are valued just as highly as flawless dictées and recitations of Rimbaud. And they even offer English (with trained native speakers) three times a week. Bonus!
Budding bilingualism. After two years in French school, my daughter was indeed a pint-sized Parisienne. French songs filled her repertoire, Mortelle Adele was her literary hero and she’d begun to proclaim museums were ennuyeux. She was also routinely mixing French and English as in, “Mommy, a boy at school is embetting (annoying) me.” I started to worry. Despite speaking English at home, would she grow up not knowing proper grammar? Would she need tutoring to read, write and even speak like a native? What if we moved back to the States? Would she be completely perdue? When her aunt detected a French accent in her English pronunciation, I realized it was time to explore our options.
Private school, here we come. Competition for spots at Paris’s top bilingual schools can be fierce. I’d heard the horror stories about scary interviews, book-length questionnaires and bad odds of admission. But our little one was proving to be a capable student and eager learner. We felt the rigorous environment would suit her. Why not give it a shot? We persevered and in the end, got lucky. She was entering CP, a common entry point when schools often have more open spots. (Word to the wise: The younger you apply, the better your chances.) After a group interview (where my daughter pitched a world class fit and almost refused to attend), letters of recommendation and language testing, she was admitted to a great school right here in our neighborhood. Happy day.
Parents welcome! At our public school, there were limited roles for parents aside from accompanying classes on the occasional field trip. Parent-teacher conferences were nonexistent (and only granted upon request, sometimes not even then) and parents were not allowed to enter classrooms except by explicit appointment with the teacher. I felt shut out and often at a loss to know how my kids were faring. What a difference a year makes. Now, parental involvement is considered de rigeur (and can even be a tad overwhelming.) There are committees to join, events and meetings to attend, and lots of requests for classroom help. Note to self: Be careful what you wish for…
Looking back on our early days at the local school, I have no regrets. My kids learned to speak beautiful French, made friends in our neighborhood and developed a grounding sense of community. So did their Mom. School was just across the street and did I mention it was free?
Now, as we board the bus each morning for the commute to school, I must say, I miss it a little. But our daughter is now learning to read and write at a fast clip. Next year, she’ll start Mandarin. And when I see the renewed light in my son’s eyes as he shows me a drawing or tells me about a collaborative class project, I know we made the right decision. One experience was free but the other, priceless.
- Don’t miss reading Paige’s first post for the HiP Paris Blog about her kids starting French school in Paris
- Thinking about studying French in Paris? Read Paris in Four Months’ post about her experience learning French at Accord
- David Lebovitz’s post about cooking schools in Paris is a must read for anyone thinking about studying cooking in the City of Light