Tuesday, February 01, 2005

This is not the US

Today was the final straw. Those of you who know me well may wonder why it took so long for a smart person to stay in the game when it was a lose-lose situation. I have no answers. Today after 4 1/2 years, I'm officially breaking free of my American love of holidays self, and my volunteer in school to enrich the learning process self, and will not make any more offers to the teachers at school (if they ever ask, that is a different story).

Today after school:

Me: Over the next two weeks before the February holiday I'd like to bring in a craft project. I'd make clay hearts for the class and they could paint them and put magnets on the back.
Teacher: I make all the projects for the class. The last time when you brought in a project I misunderstood what you were saying (she told me to speak in English that time -- never again has she done that!).
Me: Ok. Fine. I understand. I just thought I'd ask.
Teacher: Yes, well thank you for the offer. It was very kind.
Me: Well, it was just a normal offer in the US.
Teacher: This is not the same as the US.
Me: Yes, I do understand that. Thank you.

(This from the teacher who told me this morning to bring our daughter on time in the future, because "we have a lot of work to do over the next few weeks." Yes, my daughter is FOUR.)

It was actually a fine conversation, but that was it! I know, it takes me a long time to learn an easy lesson. Just FYI... I am still going to send the kids into school with Valentine's Day cards for all the kids. I'm allowed, right?

Tomorrow is a holiday here... Le Chandeleur. Jerome and Amerloque reminded me that this is a February holiday for the kids in France. So thanks to them and to my French teacher who gave me an article on the holiday today. What is Le Chandeleur? It's a charming day where your family gathers around and makes crepes. You hold a euro in your left hand (it used to be a gold piece) and in your right hand you flip your crepe. If it lands properly, a year of prosperity is yours. I went out and bought a box of crepe mix tonight (I know I should make it from scratch but we are addicted to our mixes!) and we will be celebrating tomorrow. Here's to a successful flip...

-- said Auntie M in Paris
9:39 PM



So this means I shouldn't bother volunteering to give a spinning demonstration at Chloé's school?

# posted by Louise : 11:48 PM  

Thanks for the information about Le Chandeleur! I had read about it in the Bloom book (an excellent resource!). I, too, purchased a crêpe mix. There was a huge display at the Monoprix. I also bought a jar of Nutella only for the occasion. I don't usually have Nutella in the cupboard because I have no willpower!

# posted by Oz : 11:59 PM  

Thanks for the info... we ate a couple crepes this weekend with the beaux-parents, and I asked what significance the Chandeleur had (I mean other than "we ate crepes"), and none of them could tell me! Granted, they aren't catholic or anything, but if you're going to eat the crepes and quasi-celebrate it, it seems as though you should at least have a notion of why the day exists!

# posted by kim : 7:50 AM  

Louise, There have been other teachers at the school that have permitted (and were even happy about it) me to bring craft projects into the school. My daughter's teacher is brand new to the school and is older and I'm sure wants to play by the rules. I would always offer the spinning class... you know how much my son enjoys your lessons!
Oz, Ah... Nutella. I liked it more when we first arrived. I always have a large jar in my pantry because the kids like it so much. I have a much bigger problem with all the delicious dark chocolate bars available at the stores!
Kim, Isn't that the problem with many holidays? People enjoy the celebration but don't necessarily understand the whole meaning. I thought Le Chandeleur websites were pretty informative and interesting.

# posted by Auntie M in Paris : 10:15 AM  

My husband is all freaked out that my parents and grandma send us Valentine's cards. According to him, Valentine's day is only for people who are sleeping together... or want to.

# posted by Kate : 1:30 PM  

Bwaa haa haa! Crepe Mix! Read my food blog! farfromhomecooking.blogspot.com

Yes, my husband finds it kidna freaky that grandma sends Tootie a V-day card.

# posted by RighteousBiche : 2:49 PM  

Hi Auntie –

Ummm … I don't want to start a polémique. This is all a real cultural minefield, though … let's take a look at this rhetorically … (smile) I realize, too, that apparently the child is quite young … but the French begin the socialization process at a very, very early age.

First question/comment: would there have been an "apport pédagogique" for the class in making clay hearts "for the class" so that "they could paint them and put magnets on the back" ? Or not ? If the class were, say, crafts, or painting skills, or even general "recré", making hearts/whatever might have been a pedagogical "plus". If the class were reading or numeracy, however, a teacher would probably not have seen any pedagogical value.

Second question/comment: how would this clay heart activity fit in with the teacher's (and school's) set lesson plan ? Most classes in most schools have lesson plans. The US notion of "fun in school" is alien to the French educational universe, as is our US notion of "school spirit".

Third question/comment: if a parent (any parent) were allowed to develop and bring in, say, a Valentine project to the entire class, what is to prevent another parent of another nationality from bringing props for his/her holiday ? Paper carp for Japanese Children's Day on May 5th, for example, or Guy Fawkes effegies on November 5th, or kites on Chinese New Year on February 9, 2005 ... or even the invasive … Hallow'een ? A teacher concerned about "égalité" would have to be inclusive and non-discriminatory … and perhaps watch the class turn into something undesirable because of loss of control and undue emphasis on holidays, which, after all, are exceptional days, not the norm. My feeling is that this point is the clicher which led to the rejection, especially if, as you said later, the teacher was older and wants to play by the rules, because:

Fourth/question/comment: the notion of pedagogy in France is, quite simply, "la transmission du savoir", and most assuredly not "teaching skills to do suchandsuch" or "teaching problem solving" or "teaching learning how to learn". By substituting your activity for the teacher's activity, you are, in effect, asking the teacher to abandon her/his traditional role, the one s/he was trained for, and substitute something which s/he is ignorant of, thus diminishing her/his role in life. It's nothing to do with you personally – it's not a personal rejection.

Fifth question/comment: perhaps the teacher refused simply because of the presentation of the project ? In France, the "forme" is as important as the "fond", remember. A lot of teachers in France do not allow outsiders to invade the classes, period, for the reason(s) described above. Teachers do not like to be caught by surprise, either. When faced with a similar situation years ago in a private school (we had heard about the teacher beforehand: her rep had preceded her), when my elder child was in CP, my French wife and I decided the best thing to do would be to see the teacher at the beginning of the school year, introduce ourselves, and ask if we could input from time to time. She said yes, since we were able to work out with her just when and how she wanted parents' input (and she really didn't want any, for the reasons described above, but it was a private school and she had to be a bit more flexible). Had we broached input at the beginning of February for a holiday two weeks later, I know she would have reacted in the same fashion as "your" teacher. An alternative would be to work through the school equivalent of the PTA. In the private schools my kids went to, that was the APEL, but each school has its own system.

As to the other teacher problems … (smile) …

>>This from the teacher who told me this morning to bring
>>our daughter on time in the future, because "we have a
>>lot of work to do over the next few weeks." Yes, my
>>daughter is FOUR.)

She has probably said that to all parents within earshot. It's probably not personal to you. Teachers said it to my wife every year, and my kids were on time. Traditionally the attention span for students and pupils in France is at its lowest between "les vacances de Noel" and "les vacances de février". The press is filled with articles about it, every year, stuff like "préserver la motivation de vos enfants". In addtion, settling in and starting up any class of French students is a hassle at the best of times, and latecomers can disrupt what is already a tiring process due to lack of discipline, so the teachers make a special effort to remind the parent(s) – at least the parent(s) who show up. (smile) The teacher might even have been happy that she had a parent to remind.

>>Just FYI... I am still going to send the kids into school with Valentine's Day
>>cards for all the kids. I'm allowed, right?

You've answered it already:

>>Teacher: This is not the same as the US.
>>Me: Yes, I do understand that. Thank you.

Teachers unhappy with a child's parent(s) usually take it out on the child. This is almost a universal constant, alas (sigh)


# posted by L'Amerloque : 3:38 PM  

I think that not only should you send your kids in with Valentine's cards, you should make the heart magnets at home and have the kids give them out at school. Then, the teacher will see what a great project she missed out on.


# posted by Anonymous : 4:11 PM  

As my daughter is taking her nap I indulged in some free time to surf and found your blog and I truly enjoy it and will be back to read more. I am an American in Michigan who honeymooned in Paris.....we didn't speak the language but still had a wonderful time.

# posted by Anonymous : 5:28 PM  

I just feel bad for you. I would have been hurt and embarrased also. sheri from columbus ohio

# posted by Anonymous : 5:28 PM  

Kate, Now I really do understand the French position on this holiday. This must confirm all notions that Americans are just way too friendly.
RB, Generally, I really do like to make things from scratch. Really, I do. I mean how much longer does it take to mix flour, baking soda, and salt vs using a package mix. Not that much time, I think. Having said that I do like the occasional mix. I did check out your food website. I'll have to try one of your recipes. I look forward to a good tofu recipe.

# posted by Auntie M in Paris : 6:16 PM  

Looking back, I think my american mother had a very hard time adjusting to french culture/customs. As a child, I was just embarrassed and frustrated by her "mistakes". I mean, she would "screw up" things that were so obvious to everybody! For ex, our class used to go skiing all day once a week, and our parents therefore had to provide us with lunch. The teacher wrote a note to the parents saying we should each have a sandwich and a thermos. It was obvious to all the other mothers that the sandwich was lunch, and that the thermos should contain a beverage such as hot chocolate (as dessert and to keep us warm). My mother gave me a sandwich and a thermos full of... spaghetti. 2 lunches and nothing to drink?! I remember hiding my thermos, hoping no one would notice, but everybody caught on and had a good laugh at my expense. *sigh* OK, that story was kind of a downer, but on the other hand, she made pancakes (which no one had heard of in France at that time), and she was the only mother who would take kids to McDonalds. I had a birthday party in 1979 there! Oh, happiness!

# posted by veronique : 6:18 PM  

I think what is important to remember is that she is FOUR!!!!!!!!!!!

Definitely bring in cards!!

L'armerloque> I think it would be great if each kid brought something about their culture!
Especially at that age, it's important for kids to find their individuality! I say bring in the chinese new year, and dead of the dead....

# posted by Magabe : 6:23 PM  

ARRGGG! I feel for you AM. I would have the tendancy to take something like that personally even though, it probably wasn't intended that way.
In the US it's almost extreme the other way. When my dd was in public school, the teachers relied on the parents to help in the class room, and support the fund raisers, and be "on call" if they needed any help. The worst is if they found out you were a stay at home mom. It was almost like a job outside the house just "helping out" at the school. I'm sure this isn't every where in the US. But with the huge cuts in education, there just isn't enough paid adults to go around.
Happy Ground Hog's Day!!(I heard Phil saw a VERY big shadow this morning...sigh)

# posted by BohemianMama : 6:26 PM  

Love your blog by the way - but I moved in the opposite direction (UK to US) and it took me ages to get used to the customs here in the schools in the US. Even tho I have been here a while now and have gotten used to it somewhat I still think there is way too much time taken out of the school day for these "holidays". To me it just seems to be one long candy fest from Halloween to Easter. By the way out of interest - do you buy presents for the teachers in France at Xmas/Easter/Valentines/Teacher day etc? Another custom that I believe has gotten very out of hand here. Kill joy I know!

# posted by Anonymous : 6:58 PM  

You shouldn't feel bad, AM, about not doing things like that in your kid's school.

My mom was *always* bringing in cupcakes, crafts stuff, and other things, and it was something that I was incredibly mortified by as time went on. From the parent's point of view it's something nifty for the kids, but from the kid's point of view it's another thing altogther and will likely just end up being fodder for taunting.


# posted by Anonymous : 7:57 PM  

When my son was younger and I did such things it was always welcomed (I guess I was lucky?) and it was something that opened conversations w. my son too. Young children as I know it - love a treat and someone's mom and there is no cultural bounds to that.

I could see many, many years down the road a classmate of your daughter's hosting your daughter in their house and pulling out the valentine memory.

Go for it! - Terry in SF

# posted by Anonymous : 8:48 PM  

Hi Magabe –

>>I think it would be great if each kid brought something
>>about their culture! Especially at that age, it's important
>>for kids to find their individuality! I say bring in the
>>chinese new year, and dead of the dead....

There's nothing wrong with that, obviously. (smile) Let's continue the rhetoric:

The problem (and there _is_ a problem) comes from doing it any old way, without planning, in a somewhat anarchic manner. For example, if this concept of "finding one's individuality" is part of the school's "projet pédagoqique", then it should be handled through the institution and not exclusively through the parents. Cooperation is the key.

The French detest anarchy, i.e. the lack of organization. However, if, at the beginning of the school year, the teacher were to announce, say, "Every three weeks, one hour of class time will be devoted a holiday chosen by the pupil. Sign up now for your date and state your holiday", the activity could be – and would be - planned for the entire year. Each pupil – more importantly, each parent – would know where he/she stands and what was expected, and when.

As it stands in the present situation, if each parent were allowed to "bring in" a holiday, this would almost certainly lead to what the French call "la surenchère" ("one-upmanship", for want of a better term: financial, for starters) and – worse – "une rupture de l'égalité" and possible "exclusion". Since these are not in keeping with the French vision of the world and of themselves, they are neither desirable nor, alas, possible.

This kind of thing (the organizational aspect) might also be handled in the "carnet de correspondance" so prevalent in French schools. Depends on the school.

I'll never forget when I had to explain the particularly American concept of "Show 'n' Tell" to my French wife and my eldest, when the latter was of a "jardin d'enfants" age. (smile) At the end of my explanation, they looked at one another in perplexity. My wife looked at me (in pity, I imagine), and said (I paraphrase) "Ca n'a rien à voir avec l'instruction, ton truc de 'chaud and telle'. On se fiche de savoir ce que quelqu'un veut 'partager' ou pas." ("That has nothing to do with education, your 'show and tell' thing. No one cares a whit about what someone wants to "share" or not "share".)

When in Rome …


# posted by L'Amerloque : 9:06 PM  

I know nothing of the French educational system. That said, I think that crafts (especially at the age of FOUR) are a good way for children to utilize their creativity as well as their hand/eye coordination. Making Valentine's magnets is not imposing a culture on the rest of the students. Everyone's culture should be celebrated and valued. Of course, it is hard to find the time to do this in a class. Teachers in the States are taught to include all cultures in their classrooms. Now, we shouldn't do this just during the holidays, but all year round. I don't think every country views it that way. Therefore, Auntie M, you will probably struggle with this for a while. Good luck to you! And remember, you can always celebrate American holidays at home.

# posted by pismire : 9:12 PM  

L'A, You know, when you talk about these things it does seem reasonable. I did take it personally yesterday. I mean, I am volunteering to help out and yet I felt dirty and bad. I think that the teachers of the past four years have been willing to let me bring in a craft (never into the classroom). As I said, one year I did organize a Valentine's Day party, but that was in English class. Well I really have learned my lesson this time. I'll be happy if I can be an occasional escort on a field trip. I'd also add that at the Jeannine Manuel (a bilingual school) I'm told that they do host a show and tell class.
Jason, I'll take my little victory/defiance at this point and just bring in the cards!

# posted by Auntie M in Paris : 9:55 PM  

Paula, Welcome to the blog and thanks for commenting. My husband is from Michigan, so we visit your fine state a couple of times a year.
Sheri, Thanks for your note. I actually did feel pretty low yesterday. But at least I'm getting the idea from these responses that I shouldn't take it personally.
Veronique, Your mother sounds like she really tried to be a good mom. Actually, I thought that the French moms did put food in the thermos. I'll have to check that out. They always seem to have warm food for their kids. If I was doing something wrong, my son would tell me immediately and I'd probably change my ways quickly because I want him to fit in. For a while he told me the other kids were making fun of his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches so I stopped making them. But since he eats nothing else, he's eating them again now.
Magabe, I'm with you on the diversity thing. I'd love for the Japanese, Russian, Indonesian and French families in the class to share their holidays with my children. It's just an hour out of the day. Even if it was formalized as L'Amerloque has suggested, I think it could be a real learning experience.

# posted by Auntie M in Paris : 10:08 PM  

BM, Thanks for the Ground Hog's Day reminder. So 6 more weeks of winter. It hasn't been too bad for us here, but I feel for all of you in the states hit by the snow storms. The people who attend "american" schools here all tell tales of the amount of stuff the school asks of them. They kind of envy me. Strange, huh?
Carol, Welcome to the blog. Yes, the holiday thing has gotten a bit crazy in the US. I often wish I could live somewhere between the US and France -- culture wise. Wouldn't that be lovely? At my school there are only two times you buy presents for the teachers: Christmas and end of the year. Often the presents are a bunch of flowers.
Lawrence, Thank you for commenting. I know what you mean and I am on the look out for it.... my son being embarrassed by me. It just hasn't happened yet. He still holds my hand on the way to school (sometimes, not always) and is still happy to see me at school (like when I drop off my daughter after lunch). He actually wants me to participate in class. He thinks it's great that his mom gets involved. This will all change very soon I'm told.
Terry, You're always so positive. I really appreciate it.

# posted by Auntie M in Paris : 10:17 PM  

L'A, As usual, your comments have made me understand the French perspective better. It's helped me to not take this stuff personally.
Pismire, My husband and I do wonder... what exactly is my daughter learning for 8 hours every day. She brings home art work; surely there is some time for free play. Can her work schedule, at four years old, be that rigid?

# posted by Auntie M in Paris : 10:24 PM  

Hi pismire –

>>Making Valentine's magnets is not imposing a culture on the rest of the students.

Well … in France, it might well be considered as such, of course … let's look at it another way, with this imaginary rhetorical dialogue … from a hardliner "French" point of view:

American Parent (AP) to French School Authority Figure (FSAF): "I want the kids in my child's class to celebrate Valentine's Day along with my child."

FSAF: "What's this 'Valentine's Day' ?"

AP: It's a holiday we celebrate in the US of A. We send cards, chocolates, gifts, with hearts and cupids on them, to family, friends, colleagues."

FSAF: "But does this symbolism originally not come from, ummm, Saint Valentine ?"

AP: "Well, yes, I suppose so."

FSAF: "The Roman Catholic saint ?"

AP: Well, yes, as a matter of fact.

FSAF: "Ooooouuuulala, c'est impossible. The Law of 1905 governing the separation of church and state means that religious traditions cannot be celebrated in public schools, nor in public/political life generally. Moreover, in public schools, Muslim females cannot wear the hijab and Sikh males cannot wear the turban. Jewish yarmulkes are prohibited. Ostentatious Christian crosses are prohibited, too. Haven't you been reading the newspapers this past year and a half ?"

AP: "Well … look, we're not celebrating the religious aspect, we're celebrating the lay aspect. The non-denominational, non-religious tradition. The secular holiday."

FSAF: "Ah, you mean like Hallow'een, with its crass commercialism, designed to make people spend money for no good reason, to make people into good little consumers ?" …

See where it goes ? (sigh)

The fact that there is a "Mardi Gras" or "Carnival" or "lundi de Pâques" (Easter Monday") or "Ascension" or "Fete de l'Assomption" or "Fete de la Toussaint" (All Saints' Day) , and that these are indeed a part of public life here in France (some are even national holidays !), is occulted and are not considered relevant. The general does not determine the particular, and the particular cannot be extrapolated into the general. That is a fact of French life.

The issue before us is Valentine's Day, and not the other days mentioned above, which are traditions based on past French societal behavior. MOreover, the issue is not "Valentine's Day" everywhere in France: it's Valentine's Day in this particular school, in this particular class.

>>Teachers in the States are taught to include all cultures
>>in their classrooms. Now, we shouldn't do this just during
>>the holidays, but all year round. I don't think every
>>country views it that way.

You're certainly correct about that. This whole issue ("multicultural coexistence") is front page news throughout Europe, and has been for about two years, now.

>>And remember, you can always celebrate American holidays at home.

This is exactly the solution that we adopted – many, many years ago.

Auntie –

>>Even if it was formalized as L'Amerloque has suggested,
>>I think it could be a real learning experience.

Of course it could ! Let's not forget the French emphasis on "la forme" and "le fond". That is the Cartestian system, on which the entire country is based.

>>L'A, You know, when you talk about these things it does
>>seem reasonable. I did take it personally yesterday.

I know. I could feel it in your syntax. That's why I responded at length – and why many others have particpated – I guess they felt it, too.

>>I mean, I am volunteering to help out and yet I felt dirty and bad.

I have a much thicker "French" skin than "American" skin. It took years to develop. (smile) Don't feel like that.

A Parsee friend once told me a story of his culture, and I've kept it in mind every time I had to deal with a typically "French" situation. I summarize what he told me:

Hundreds of years ago the Parsees were forced to leave their homeland, in what was Persia. They traveled for years and were rejected wherever they went. They finally reached the Gujurat in India, by ship. They landed and found that they didn't speak the language. By dint of sign and sketch, they managed to convey to the local bigwig (Rajah, as I recall) that they would like to land, unpack and make their homes there. The Rajah didn't speak Parsee and could not find anyone who did. In order to tell the Parsees that they were unwanted, he sent a bowl filled to the brim with milk, to illustrate that there was no room for the Parsees in his country. The Parsees took a look at the bowl. They added sugar, stirred it in well, and sent the bowl back to the Rajah, with a sketch telling him to taste it.

The Parsees were admitted to the country and remain there to this day. They conveyed a positive message, with the "forme" and with the "fond".

France is indeed a country of tradition - my second round of "Chandeleur" crepes are calling !


# posted by L'Amerloque : 10:45 PM  

L'Amerloque (smile - and not a sarcastic one!),

You must admit that you have a rather privileged view of France. Yes, in some pockets of France you have this view that la maternelle is an opportunity for early socialization and a way to transfer knowledge, but for most of France la maternelle is simply state-paid daycare from age 3, and nothing more.

# posted by RighteousBiche : 4:26 AM  

Hi RighteousBiche -

>>but for most of France la maternelle is simply
>>state-paid daycare from age 3, and nothing more.

Which is why the teachers are, shall we say, frustrated and not too willing to see their role diluted even more.

Acting as a glorified babysitter is probably not quite what they had in mind when they passed the entrance exams to the Ecole Normale or enrolled in an IFM (Institut de Formation de Maitres) … (smile - and not a sarcastic one !)


# posted by L'Amerloque : 9:07 AM  

I'm with the Biche here. While there may be profound pedagogical reasons or deep cultural values or a whatever which my little non-native brain can't get around, the deepest rationale I can ever get out of my school is that "it is not done that way." Point final. For a country that is supposed to prize debate, it is amazing how abrupt the conversations are ended with a "non" and not even an "en principe, non." My child goes to a full french school and I learned long ago that it is just not possible (with the exception of one individual teacher.) I suspect that Auntie's child goes to an international school and you would think they can think at least a little more outside the box.
Educational change is coming to France -- you can see it at the highest of high education at ENA. Sooner or later it will filter down to the little ones.

# posted by Anonymous : 10:22 AM  

Wow, you certainly got a lot of comments there. When my children were small I used to go into our ecole maternelle and give Enlish lessons on Saturday mornings. I voluteered and stayed not longer than a quarter of an hour in each class. A few years later there was the hostage taking at an ecole maternelle near to Paris. After that I couldn't go back into school. We set up lessons through an association after school instead. Some of the younger teachers, I've noticed, don't want help from parents. The argument is that the parent's own children don't interact in the same way with a parent around. I know that even in the ecole maternelle they have quite a lot of work to get through. Some teachers are a lot more outgoing than others.

# posted by Anji : 11:47 AM  

Anji, I agree .. it really is more of a teacher thing than a school thing. My daughter's teacher has made her position clear.

# posted by Anonymous : 12:48 PM  

Anji, I agree .. it really is more of a teacher thing than a school thing. My daughter's teacher has made her position clear.

# posted by Anonymous : 12:48 PM  

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