Fifth-graders at St. Matthews Elementary School recently learned about ordering food in French. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

The arms of fifth-graders at St. Matthews Elementary shot up when teacher Kasey Fields asked them — in French — whether they might want to order some “cuisses de grenouille” or “une salade.”

The photo of the cuisses de grenouille (frog legs) that had been projected on a screen looked a little suspect to some, and many students opted for the salad — though some were willing to go for some more adventurous main dishes, such as crevette (shrimp) or lapin (rabbit.)

After decades without French classes, St. Matthews Elementary began instructing students in French again this school year, thanks in part to a budding partnership with education and government officials from Quebec. Principal Scottie Collier hopes the program allows allow the school to draw more students because it offers something many others, especially private schools, do not.

Meanwhile, Fields hopes the partnership will enable local students to interact — via text, Skype and eventual visits — with some French-speaking counterparts who are closer in physical distance and time zone than students in Europe.

The fifth-graders in Fields’ class had learned Spanish in previous years, and though it was their first year of French, they already were using some advanced skills, such as past tense, without knowing it.

In small groups, the students role-played as restaurant servers and patrons, with servers asking “Avez-vous choisi?” (Have you chosen?) and patrons answering something along the lines of “Je voudrais la soupe à l’oignon.” (I would like the onion soup.)

Fields said that she teaches by immersion, meaning she speaks with her students mostly in French, and they learn their second language much as they did their first, by speaking, repeating and learning by doing, rather than memorizing irregular verbs and grammar structure.

Jean-Claude Lauzon and Lise Thériault.

The Quebec officials, including Deputy Premier Lise Thériault and Delegate General Jean-Claude Lauzon, recently stopped by St. Matthews and duPont Manual High School for the second time as part of a trade and cultural exchange visit to Kentucky. Canada is the commonwealth’s largest export partner. Quebec is Canada’s second-most populous province, with about 8.2 million inhabitants.

The Canadian officials told Insider that they hoped the partnerships with the schools helped strengthen the cultural ties between the province and the commonwealth. They presented the schools with some books, posters and other items to enhance the French-learning experience.

Fields said the visit of the Québécois helped the students linguistically as they had short conversations with native French speakers and it aided their understanding of the real-world applications of language learning.

It gets students thinking and wondering about how they can use their French skills to meet new people, to visit new places and even to advance their careers, given the significant trading partnerships between Quebec and Kentucky, Fields and Collier said.

St. Matthews is establishing a sister school relationship with Mountainview Elementary in Montreal, and Fields hopes to soon enable students to Skype with their French-speaking counterparts in Quebec, something that is impossible with schools in France because of the time difference.

Eventually, Fields said, she hopes that small groups of students and parents from both places can visit each other to strengthen the ties.

High school, UofL

Denee Walsh, French teacher at Manual, has similar plans as she establishes a partner school relationship with École secondaire Jeanne-Mance in Drummondville.

“It’s really nice to have these connections,” she said.

Walsh said that whether through letters, Skyping, social media or visits, enabling students to communicate one-on-one with people their age builds their language skills and their understanding of the world.

“It makes it more real for the kids,” she said.

Walsh said she hoped that the school could send some students to Quebec for a multiday visit sometime in the next school year.

Students at duPont Manual High School pose for a photo during a visit from Quebec officials. | Courtesy of duPont Manual.
Scottie Collier

Collier, the St. Matthews principal, said that offering French allowed St. Matthews to differentiate itself from other schools, especially private competitors. Parents have many options as to where to send their kids, he said.

“I want parents to think about public education,” Collier said.

All of the school’s 560 students take French. By the time they graduate from elementary school, many will be able to test out of several years of high school French.

Wendy Yoder, who teaches French at the University of Louisville, said the Canadian officials reached out to the university as well to foster the creation of a relationship with an institution of higher learning in Quebec.

Yoder, who also is co-director of the Sister Cities Committee for Montpellier, France, said she always was looking for new opportunities for UofL students during their studies and after graduation.

Given that many Kentucky companies do business in Quebec and many Quebec companies have established a presence in the commonwealth, stronger ties on the university level make sense.

“I want to try to help my students (see) what opportunities are available to them with a French degree,” she said.

Although discussions are preliminary, Yoder said she was “very encouraged” by the talks with the Canadian leaders.

Government relations

The Québécois told Insider that they also had asked Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer to visit the French-speaking province in the summer and to invite the city to join The Francophone and Francophile Cities Network, which aims to collaborate to improve its members’ tourism, culture, heritage and economy.

Jean Porter, a spokeswoman for Fischer, told Insider via email that “A decision to join the network of French heritage cities has not been made yet, but the mayor certainly looks forward to strengthening ties with Quebec.”

Correction: The story was updated to reflect that St. Matthews used to offer French but had not for a long time.

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.