Looking Back on Paris; Looking Ahead at French Education

It’s hard to believe we’ve just celebrated two years of living in Paris. We’ve all really grown and changed — both as a family and individuals — especially the kids, who were just three and five when we landed and began our adventure. Here they are at the airport when we left Boston. Little did they know about the new world they were about to discover.

As I’ve watched them adapt to life in Paris, I’ve been struck many times by the resilience of children and how much we adults could learn from their example. As I’ve written about before, neither Cole or Adele spoke French when we arrived so learning the language was perhaps their first and greatest challenge. And yet they managed to make it look easy. Unlike adults, they seemed to learn French almost by osmosis, absorbing the new words and sounds alongside new words in English. They never had a moment of explicit instruction, just loads of play and total immersion. In fact, learning to speak was almost a Darwinian matter of survival. Unless they adapted to this foreign tongue, they would remain outside the experiences of their peers and unable to partake of the joys they saw around them. It wasn’t always easy, but I have never regretted the choice to put them directly into French school.

Now, as you may have heard, there are changes on the horizon in the French schools. For more than a century, French schools have followed an unusual four-day week with no classes held on Wednesdays. Initially, this was structured as a compromise with the Catholic church (that had, until then, directed French education) and was designed to allow for religious studies on Wednesday. Needless to say, this model has become outmoded and the new government of President Francois Hollande is committed to making some (and in my view, much-needed) reforms.

But like any sweeping (or even sometimes modest) proposed social changes in France, these have met with strong resistance. There have been two teachers’ strikes that have shut down the schools and manifestations that have drawn thousands of teachers and parents. Petitions have been circulated; meetings have been held.

The International Herald Tribune did a great story that spells out all the details. As for how I feel, I’m mixed. I agree that kids should attend school five days a week. It’s better for their rhythm of learning and I’d prefer five shorter days to the current four really long days. But there’s something pretty great about having a day “off” with the kids in the middle of the week. Their day is busy with classes and activities and it gives me some quality time with them like what we used to have when they were toddlers. I am aware, however, that this system is quite burdensome for many parents and is simply not sustainable. What do you think? If your kids are in French schools, do you support the proposed changes?

And so we’ll see what the future holds. As I’m often reminded, in life there is only one constant: change. And speaking of changes, they’re still in the works for my blog. In the meantime, thanks for sticking with me and for visiting my little corner of Paris. A bientot.

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5 thoughts on “Looking Back on Paris; Looking Ahead at French Education

  1. Bonjour Paige. Funny, I discussed kids learning French and French school in general on my blog as well, yesterday. In fact, Wednesdays weren't always the day off in French schools. When I was a child, the day off was Thursdays. It changed sometimes in the 1970s I believe. As kids, we loved our day off in the middle of the week and did not mind having to attend school on Saturday mornings. The only drawback in my family was that half of a perfectly good Thursday was “wasted” in a dentist chair (I liked candy too much apparently and my teeth needed work…) and then 1.5 at Catechism. I agree with you: Kids are amazingly adaptable. I am sure you are proud of your Frenchified American children! Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

  2. I think school days are too long for the little ones. There should be class every day, except on Saturday, and the days should be shorter. But then, this system allows the Mums to work, something other countries are thinking of copying (like Germany, where school finishes generally around 1 pm).

    There should be a lighter programme; when a youngster starts school in September at age 6, he is expected to be able to read by Christmas. The Finnish system, a model the French are very interested in as there are no “redoublants” and less children leave the system without a degree, allow 2 years to become proficient in reading. As does the German model.

    There also is too much you have to know “par coeur”, by heart, in the French lesson learning. I agree that there is no room to develop “un esprit critique”, as you do in other countries. Little time is left for spelling exercise beyond the CP (would that be 1st grade in the US?), although a significant part of pupils entering secondary school (collège) cannot properly read (not meaning deciphering but understanding what they have read) and write. Participe passé, anyone?
    I could go on and on about the French system.

    In the last 20 years there have been countless reforms that never passed the project stage.
    The sad fact is that the Education Nationale, cannot be reformed.

  3. Hi Veronique – Interesting. I hadn't realized that Thursdays had once been the day off. As you probably know, it appears that adding three hours of class time on Wednesdays is a sure thing; the question is where they will add these hours back in to the other four days so that school still lets our at 4:30. Parents and teachers (including me) definitely don't want 45 minutes added to the lunch break (that's already TWO HOURS long). They may add the 45 mins to the end of the day when classes are done. Frankly, I just wish they'd let the kids out at 3:45 but that's easy for me to say since I work freelance. Not an easy question. We'll see what happens…Thank you for commenting!

  4. Such interesting comments, thank you! I completely agree with your assessment of the system and what needs to change. It's great that the long days support working parents but I agree that the days are too long for little ones. The learning style is much too rote and doesn't inspire creative thinking and problem-solving. As for spelling, my son is in CE1 (US equivalent of second grade) and is definitely struggling with spelling. (Of course, it's hard for us to know how much of this is b/c he's a non-native speaker and how much of this could be remedied with a different teaching approach). Thank you for sharing your insights here!

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