French in the "Real World"

The ACIE Newsletter, May 2001, Vol. 4, No. 3

By Chris Holden, Dean, Valley View Middle School, and
Gerry Lukaska, 3rd Grade Teacher, Normandale French Immersion School,
Edina, Minnesota



Imagine leading a group of about 30 fifth graders through O'Hare International Airport on your way to France. This is exactly what two teachers and one parent from Normandale Elementary School in Edina, Minnesota, did in what has become known as the Back-to-Back Program. Normandale is a K-5 French immersion school with almost 600 students. In many respects, Normandale is a French island in an English ocean. It was hoped that by traveling to France with fifth graders, we could cross this ocean and provide a unique cultural and language experience for our students.

This trip grew out of a desire to put into practice what Normandale's fifth graders had learned about French culture and language over the past six years. Simply traveling to France as tourists would not have met this goal. Both parents and staff felt that "home stay" and "exchange" components should be part of any trip. Finding an exchange school and host families in France was not something either the parents or staff wanted to tackle. They therefore began the search for private organizations and companies to organize and iron out all the details of this exchange. One of the organizations that provides such a service for elementary age students is the Association des Echanges Franco-Américains (AFAC).


Normndale students at the chateau of Chantilly.

AFAC offered two things that Normandale Elementary School could not duplicate on its own: (1) contact with French schools interested in doing an exchange, and (2) liability insurance. Both of these services were necessary for an exchange. Once AFAC made the match between Normandale and Ecole St. Dominique-a school in Mortefontaine, an hour northwest of Paris, near Charles DeGaulle Airport, it was up to each school to recruit the students and host families. Each site also screened potential host families in order to avoid problems and complications with visiting students. In preparation for the visit, the Normandale parents organized activities and field trips for the French students and their U.S. counterparts. Fund-raisers were undertaken to keep the costs to the participating families down. Finally, the chaperones held monthly meetings to prepare the students for their trip overseas.

AFAC has many years of experience in arranging student and teacher exchanges each year between U.S. and French elementary students. The organization has developed an entire notebook of activities intended to prepare students to welcome their exchange buddy and to travel. AFAC also prepares a guide for the teacher chaperones and numerous follow-up checklists of do's and don'ts for a successful exchange and travel experience. The main office in Chicago was well-organized and communicated as needed to make sure that all paperwork was completed on time and that specific arrangements were well articulated to all parties as described.

Normandale was able to capitalize on this vast knowledge by modifying the preparation materials to fit our unique needs. Monthly meetings covered all preparations for the exchange, the most important being ongoing correspondence and communication between host families and teachers and chaperones. Cultural lessons focused on learning "good guest" behaviors. Part of this instruction included language lessons to remind our students that a nonverbal response in the French culture may be interpreted as impolite. AFAC also provided guidance in ways to organize and prepare the students for travel, which resulted in a smooth and enjoyable journey.

After several months of preparation on the part of the parents, students, and chaperones, it was time to welcome the French students to Edina. All the Normandale host families gathered at the airport on March 14, 2000, to welcome the exchange students. The exuberant and boisterous welcome caught the weary French travelers off guard. Because the next day was a school day, introductions were brief and luggage was recovered quickly. For the next two weeks these students would be "members" of their Back-to-Back partner's family. They would eat, sleep, and attend school with their Back-to-Back partner.

While the Normandale students continued their school day as usual, the group from Mortefontaine spent their days differently. One-third of their stay was spent on field trips in and around the Twin Cities. Another one-third of their time was spent in class with Normandale students. Finally, one-third of their stay was spent in their own classroom working on their curriculum. Some of the field trips included the Minnesota History Center, the Science Museum of Minnesota, a guided bus tour of Minneapolis including St. Anthony Falls, roller skating, and of course the Mall of America. The Normandale exchange students also attended field trips that did not occur during the school day.

For this exchange to be a success and to ensure its viability in the future, the chaperones and organizers had to integrate the Mortefontaine students into all of the Normandale classrooms. To do this, several all-school assemblies were held, including the "Spectacle," a variety show written and produced by the group from Mortefontaine. In addition, the French students participated in classroom activities with the Normandale students, who in turn served as "guides" and companions in the lunchroom and at recess. When not on field trips or participating in classroom activities with the Normandale students, the Mortefontaine students worked on schoolwork in a separate classroom.


Left to right: authors Gerry Lukaska and Chris Holden,
Mortefontaine principal Bernard, and parent chaperone
Carol Relf. At the time of the trip, Holden taught 5th Grade
at Normandale.

One month later, 29 students from Normandale Elementary School traveled to Mortefontaine, France, to live the same experience their French counterparts did in Edina. This experience included eating long meals, going to sleep late, and going to school with the Back-to-Back partners. The schedule for the Normandale students in France resembled the schedule established for the Mortefontaine students while in Edina. Field trips, classroom visits, and homework made up the bulk of the students' day. The Eiffel tower, Montmartre, a boat ride on the Seine, a day at Parc Asterix (an amusement park), a visit to a medieval village, the Chateau of Chantilly, and a boulangerie were highlights for our students.

So what's the feedback now from the students and families who participated nearly a year ago in this exchange? It is unanimous: if they could do it again, they would. When they tell their individual stories, the good experiences out-weigh the less favorable. Parents remark that their children are more self-confident. Students note that not only was it fun (and it was!) but they learned to trust their language skills - improving came more naturally and quickly in an authentic environment. The students remark how challenging, but interesting, it was to live a different "routine." Their basic fears were mostly about food. They came home appreciating the similarities and differences between two cultures. They have more confidence in and enthusiasm for learning. Their parents have an appreciation of their children's language skills and level of independence.

The teachers appreciated the opportunity to showcase an exceptional immersion program. Our students' French skills impressed the administrators and teachers in France, who had previously done many Franco-American exchanges but had never encountered the fluency of our students. The teachers also relished their three-week French pace of life.

A sense of perspective was gained by all. Some of the friendships have generated further exchanges, entire families coming to the United States, and students and teachers returning to France again this year for encore visits. The world became a smaller place on a person-to-person scale. As one fifth grader remarked, "I never thought I'd speak French with real Frenchmen. I did. I saw Paris. I traveled to Europe!"

Contact Information:

Association des Exchanges Franco-Americains (AFAC)

Associaion of French-American Classes Ltd.
125 West Naperville Road
Westmont, IL 60559
Phone: (630) 968-2800
Fax: (630) 968-1298

All general inquiries can be directed to

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