Maryse Héroux, Vice-Principal
Marie-Curie Elementary School, Viamonde School Board
My story began in fall 2013, when I received information from the Association canadienne d’éducation de langue française (ACELF) about its exchange program for Francophone students. The objective of the program is to allow students to explore the diversity of the Francophone reality in Canada and to help them develop their language and culture by establishing relationships and by participating in educational, linguistic and cultural activities. But in fact, it’s much more than that…
I wanted the students at my school to take part in this experience. Many of them speak French at school but do not speak it outside of school or with their families on a daily basis. Many even ask “Why should I speak French?” It was important for me to provide them with the opportunity to discover a majority Francophone environment, where French is the primary language. I wanted to show the students that it is possible to speak French at school and at home on a daily basis.
This was much more than a simple trip. The exchange with a group of students from Marie-Anne School in Rawdon, Quebec, was truly an adventure for participants, parents, chaperones, all the 6th graders, our school’s staff and part of our community—an adventure filled with ideas, meetings, discussions and discoveries…
Everyone contributed in some way to the project’s success. A number of teachers, staff and community members, along with the Viamonde School Board’s cultural activities team, supported the project by organizing a variety of activities. The week that we hosted the students from Rawdon was a success thanks to everyone’s cooperation; I could not have done it alone. The key to the success of the exchange lies in good project planning and engagement from all players.
The ACELF team played a major role by providing support and valuable advice throughout the project, from beginning to end. The ACELF is responsible for a large part of the logistic component, which includes reservations and the purchase of airline tickets.
A few weeks prior to the Rawdon students’ visit, our students held Skype and FaceTime sessions with them, to get to know them and to communicate with them in French. The first in-person visit took place on March 31, 2014, when we hosted the students from Rawdon. In just a few days, deep friendships were forged.
Approximately one month later, it was time for our students to visit the students in Rawdon and to experience living in French in their community. Parents and friends were able to follow the students’ adventures during this two-week stay through pictures and stories on our school’s Facebook page.
Activities were planned for the entire week the Rawdon students were with us. Nothing extravagant or excessive—just simple everyday activities that young people typically take part in here: a drawing contest, a kin ball match, a movie night, a trip to Pinery Provincial Park, bowling, an improv contest and a spaghetti dinner.
And this is the beauty and relevance of Francophone exchanges: the opportunity for Francophone youth from another community to experience our Francophone reality and in turn allow us to experience theirs.
Here in London, our participants weren't the only ones to feel the impact. When the students from Rawdon were with us, we invited students from local Francophone schools to take part in the activities that we had organized. All of our intermediate level students also had the opportunity to share a multicultural meal with the Rawdon students.
For us, the exchange was a wonderful way to bring our school and our community together, and it was an extraordinary tool for identity building. The exchange for Francophone students allowed us to meet our school’s mandate in the areas of education, culture, language and community all at once.
Our youth have emerged from this experience enriched and equipped with the conviction that French has a place in our country and in their hearts. Because of this exchange, some students who had been planning to attend English-language high schools realized the importance of continuing their education in French. Some parents also expressed their resolve to speak more French with their children! What a fabulous growth in awareness—the exchange opened people’s hearts and minds to the beauty and importance of French in our lives.
I strongly recommend this experience to all minority Francophone schools. Of course, the organization of this exchange required a lot of time and energy on my part; however, with the right team, good planning and task delegation, it is a tremendously worthwhile experience.
As school administrators, isn’t our role to address students’ concerns? Our youth sometimes need to realize that they can be proud to speak French in a mainly Anglophone environment, and that their identity is unique, strong and fascinating to other Francophones. The Rawdon students were enormously impressed by our community’s cultural diversity and our students’ ability to learn French at the same time as other subjects. Our students were very proud of themselves—a feeling that I believe will remain with them for the rest of their lives.