First week at French primary school

It’s the end of our second week in Quillan and the boys have survived a whole week of the final term of school at the Ecole Paulin Nicoleau.

The first week is always the hardest, and they have done an amazing job at navigating the challenges thrown at them. Even if we left now, they’d have done themselves proud.

Having registered at the local Mairie (Town Hall) last week, it was a case of turning up on Monday morning for an 8.30am start. Having talked to the principal of the school in advance, he was expecting us, so we received a warm welcome. Arriving at 8.20am, we found the teachers, including the Principal, in the central courtyard doing ‘playground duty’. We introduced ourselves and while I had a chat about arrangements, the boys stealthily observed the game plan, so they could do their best to look like they knew what was expected..

It’s interesting the differences that are immediately observable between the French and New Zealand school systems. In Wellington the boys head to school about half an hour early, and spend time playing with their mates in the school grounds before class starts, In Quillan, the school only opens at 8.20am, and the classrooms are locked until the teachers are ready to lead the children in when the bell rings at 8.30am. There is no playing in the grounds before school. The unofficial rule is that kids dump their bags outside their classroom, then just ‘hang out’ and chat in the internal courtyard, while waiting for the classrooms to open. When the bell rings, the kids line up outside their respective classrooms, and the teacher shows them in. With 80 kids in a small courtyard, there’s not much room to play, in any case.

Session times vary a bit between schools, I think. Here, morning classes run from 8.30am to 11.30am; afternoon sessions start at 1.30pm and run to 4.30pm. This takes a bit of getting used to, along with no school om Wednesdays. It’s a very different rhythm from the 9am-3pm of a New Zealand school day, but it has it’s merits. In our case, only being here for a term, and with the boys’ still learning French, it’s useful to have enforced breaks in the middle of each day and the middle of each week. Without that I think they’d possibly be too exhausted to cope.

On the first day, I had a small amount of paperwork to complete for the boys’ school registration. This consisted of an enrolment form for each boy (basic contact details), with accompanying proof of immunisations and personal insurance cover (for school outings).I had brought the boys’ health records, so this was not a problem. Again, copies of passports. We were provided with two copies of the two-page school rules, which I had to explain to the boys, and I and they had to sign and return to the school. Done.

I wasn’t sure what stationery would be required, so the boys went to school with just their pencil cases, pending advice. As it turned out, they have each been given a personal whiteboard and marker to use for drafting and rough work, and a cahier (exercise book) for other work. They each have a desk, in which they can leave these items, so they only bring home what they need to do their homework each day. They just needed to buy scissors and a glue stick. My boys’ bags are, consequently, quite light. Other children seem to have very full, heavy bags. Do they get large amounts of homework? I suspect so.

The boys had a great first day – better than we could possibly have hoped for. They survived the classroom environment, but also the playground. Ollie used his soccer skills to make friends and earn some ‘cred’. Tom brought his handball out and got a few others interested in playing a game of two on two. They came home happy. Tom was full of excitement and enthusiasm. The novelty of it all carried him through more than an hour of devoirs (homework) after the long school day, and he still had enough beans to write a long blog post that evening before bed. That first day he showed us what he is made of. Stephen asked him in a quiet moment why he thought his first day had gone so well. “I had my strength”, he quietly but confidently observed.

The rest of the week has, as expected, been more challenging, as reality, and tiredness, set in. But as the boys commence their final afternoon of the week, they can be proud of themselves. They have managed to navigate some tough obstacles and have sailed through the more routine stuff thrown at them.

Tom is in CE2 and Ollie in CM2. They each have at least one other English speaker in their class, which provides some reassurance and a bit of a safety net. In Ollie’s case this is the Australian boy who lives in the apartment above us. In Tom’s case a 9-year old girl with British-American parents, who lives across the square.

On the first couple of days I took the boys to school and met them again each morning and afternoon. As of yesterday though, they have been getting themselves to and from school quite confidently. It’s only a short walk of about 500m, past the church. Very safe. Nowhere to get lost. Most kids seem to walk or be walked to school. There is a school crossing patrol provided by teacher support staff. Some children come in a mini van from the surrounding villages, as we saw in the films Etre et Avoir and Le Tableau Noir.

Each day follows a pattern. They do maths, reading, writing, spelling, dictations. They do PE, sometimes on school grounds, sometimes at other local facilities. They manage to navigate the different activities, taking them in their stride. Tom’s class did flute yesterday. Apparently he will get a flute to use for this purpose. Each morning they and one other boy have additional French lessons on their own, with a separate teacher. They do reading comprehension and grammar exercises. It’s brilliant to be able to tap into this resource and for the Principal to willingly provide it. It will really speed up their learning and their confidence in the classroom.

They come home for the two-hour lunch break. The primary school does not have a canteen, but for those children with working parents, there is a meal ticket system, and a bus to take children over to the high school canteen for a hot 3-course lunch. It seems like a good service. Given the long break, even we are falling into the routine of having our main meal in the middle of the day. With the windows open, and the sunshine streaming in, we hear the chatter of people eating at the cafe tables below. It’s quite convivial.

Ollie seems to have cannily avoided homework, but Tom has been bringing home 3-5 different items each day, usually comprising five spelling words, a spelling or grammar exercise, a reading comprehension and some maths. I work out his homework and do it for him, then work it through with him, getting him to copy out my answers in his beautiful cursive writing (thank you Clyde Quay School!) with a little understanding of what he’s doing, in case he is asked. This can take as much as 90 minutes to complete. I don’t know about him, but I’m left exhausted! I’ve explained to his (quite strict) teacher, that, while we will endeavour to do some every day, sometimes he will not complete all his homework because I judge that he has had enough. His teacher was very amenable to that.

Hopefully the worst is over, and it will be onwards and upwards for the boys from here. By the time term finishes, their French should be impressive and we will have to work out ways to keep it active.

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One thought on “First week at French primary school

  1. Grandpa

    This is a great account. Really interesting daily routines and expectations which will long remain in the boys’ memory banks. Congratulations to all for achieving such a rewarding first French school week!

    Reply

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