A long, boring post about French and education and all that stuff nobody cares about.
June 25, 2014

A couple weeks ago, Charlotte concluded her second year at the French preschool nearby.  It was bittersweet.

On the one hand, I remember the day we dropped her off at preschool for the very first time.  I was enormously pregnant with Evelyn and terrified of leaving Charlotte behind.  What if this?  What if that?  What if the other thing?  I fretted for four hours straight.  Then I went to the school to pick her up and she did not want to leave.  She fell asleep in the car on the way home and woke up asking to go back.

And so started a really wonderful relationship.  Charlotte has had two teachers at preschool - one French, one Canadian - and we have adored them both.  More importantly, Charlotte has loved them both.  She has been with the same group of children for two consecutive years and we have watched in awe as they have all grown.

Watching her walk down to the aisle to her promotion ceremony, I was filled with joy.  It is hard to believe how far she has come.  Charlotte is as confident in French as she is in English.  She frequently asks me to translate ideas for her back and forth between the two languages and we hear her babbling about in French as much as we do in English when she plays.  It is saddening to think that she has grown so much (where does the time go?!), but I am so proud of her accomplishments these last two years.  We are so grateful to the school and its community for helping us realize our goal of raising our children fluent in French and so excited to see what opportunities we have ahead of us in language learning.

Speaking of opportunities, the end of Charlotte’s second year of preschool has landed us in an interesting place in terms of education.

For a long time, we planned on sending Charlotte to the preschool for three years.  The first year her class was called les chenilles, the caterpillars.  This year her class was called les papillons, the butterflies.  We have never put Charlotte in school for more than two days a week, so we thought we would repeat the butterfly year when she was five.  More recently, however, we have realized that this might not be the best choice for her.

In France, the education system is divided into cycles.  As best I can understand, the first section is divided into three parts: petite section (PS), moyenne section (MS) and grande section (GS).  The second cycle is divided into five parts: cours preparatoire (CP), cours elementaire niveau 1 (CE1), cours elementaire niveau 2 (CE2), cours moyen 1 (CM1), and cours moyen 2 (CM2).  At the French school, the first year of preschool in the caterpillar classroom covers the work of petite section.  The second year of preschool in the butterfly classroom covers the work of moyenne section.  Both years of preschool can be done a la carte - you can choose to attend mornings or afternoons, half-days or full-days, once a week or five times a week.  The kindergarten, which includes several hours of English languages arts instruction, covers the work of grande section.  The first grade covers the work of CP.

Charlotte has indicated some lack of satisfaction with the work done in MS for the last few months.  After awhile, we brought it up with her teacher to get a more complete idea of what the problem was and how we could support Charlotte at home.  The teacher and the school’s administrator told us Charlotte craved more challenging intellectual work.  Over the past year, Charlotte has taught herself how to read at a beginner’s level in English and has started sounding out words in French.  As such, the French school encouraged us to consider placing Charlotte in the kindergarten next year.

Unfortunately, the kindergarten at the French school is full-time.  It runs seven hours daily all week long.  As certain as Donald and I are that she could handle the academics in the kindergarten, we aren’t comfortable with full-time schooling at this stage.  Additionally, it would be very difficult for us to afford the monthly tuition.

Our choices at the French school are these: we can repeat a year of preschool or we can enroll in kindergarten.  If we choose preschool she will be part-time which suits our family and will be in a setting that is socially appropriate for her development level.  Of course, she would also be bored with the work and very upset when she found out that her friends were all in kindergarten.  If we choose kindergarten she will be with her friends and will be academically challenged, but it will be expensive and full-time which we don’t like.

Our other choice is to jump into full-time home-education now, a year earlier than anticipated.  We would need to find native speakers to help us maintain her bilingualism in the home, would have to seek out social opportunities with her friends during after-school hours and on weekends, and would need to find French curriculum materials.

To this end, we recently hired two native French speakers - one from Cameroon and the other from Paris - to spend a few hours with us each week.  Their job is to provide academic support (mostly reading and writing) and keep up Charlotte’s conversational level.  We also recently purchased curriculum materials, downloaded free resources, began building a series of rough monthly plans, and collected the information we need to set up Francophone playdates and weekly French language instruction with other bilingual children.

We are giving it a try this summer to see how she likes it, how we adjust to having a structured daily homeschool environment, whether or not it is feasible to provide the social opportunities she needs in conjunction with the academic challenges she needs in both English and French, and if homeschooling is a good fit for our family. We thought, hey, if it works out then we have the materials to last us a couple years.  Once she has a solid base in reading and writing, we will look into purchasing the CNED (the French government’s national distance learning program) by subject or as a complete curriculum.  If it doesn’t work, we can put her in the CP/first grade level at school and she should catch up with her peers in a few weeks.  If it goes horribly, who knows?  Charlotte might end up in the kindergarten this year after all.

Going into this, I feel very much like I did the day we first dropped Charlotte off at preschool.  What if this?  What if that?  What if the other thing?  Here’s hoping that the pay off is just as delicious.


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  1. By Lynda M Otvos on June 25, 2014

    Good luck with the decision-making process, Sarah, none of these choices are easy and all we can do is make the best choice at the time we have the best info.

    Thinking of you and holding you up to the Universe.

    Lynda O

  2. By on June 27, 2014

    It is very lovely that you have a French school near you!

    I live in Canada but my area is not very bilingual. The soonest I can get my daughter into French schooling is Grade 5 and she’d have to take a 40 minute bus ride.
    I’m hoping to find out about some secret French pre-school or day care that we can send her to a couple days a week to boost her French. She’s only 1 year old but we speak a bit of French to her and she likes when I read French books to her so it’s a start! (She also understands when I tell her, in French, to say Please or Thank You and will sign it properly! Yay!)

  3. By Sarah Christensen on June 27, 2014

    Lisa, we’re definitely lucky!  There are a few very large and very well-respected French schools in this area (there’s apparently a big French Canadian expat population, who knew?), but we could never in a million years afford them.  Our school is tiny and less than half the price.  It’s just dumb luck that we happen to live so close to it.  They used to be in a location that was farther away and we wouldn’t have been able to make it work there, so it’s luck x luck x luck all the way around.  I can’t imagine a 40 minute bus ride to school - I’d be looking for a secret home preschool too!!  Good luck!  I hope you find something that works for your family!

    That’s so sweet that your daughter understands a bit of French already at such a young age!  I’m sure you guys will come along beautifully.  I worry a lot, but to be honest, I think the best thing we ever did was put as much French as we could in the home.  We listen to a lot (!!!) of music and radio broadcasts and audio books in French, we watch little French cartoons and sing-alongs, we read French books and magazines, etc.  If it’s musical, though, Charlotte just absorbs it like a sponge, it’s amazing.  You’re so smart to have started your daughter early!  I’m sure it will work out wonderfully =)

  4. By on June 28, 2014

    Perfect timing!  I’m just coming out of that newborn fog and searching for French programs for my daughter.  They all seem so expensive!  Another layer of luck, is that you KNOW some French.  Part of my desire for my baby to start early is how painfully hard it was for me to learn a second language and I want it to be easier for her.  I’d love to hear more about your home study program.  I thought your pumpkin lesson that you posted a couple years ago was brilliant and I’d love to see how you bring French home for your girls.  Especially, I’d love links to the free resources you’ve found and the rough monthly plans, if you’re willing to share.  Thank you Sarah.  Hearing about how you mother inspires me to be a better parent.

  5. By on June 29, 2014

    Hi Sarah,
    You’ve perfectly summed up my thought processes about whether to begin homeschooling my Charlotte - ‘what if this? What if that? What if the other thing? is permanently wheeling round my head.  Good luck to you all in this process!

  6. By on June 30, 2014

    When I was younger, my family moved a good bit. I hopped from school district to school district while all my friends continued on to the next grade together. I can’t say I was ever particularly bothered by it as a child, but when I had kids, I decided that was not for us. I appreciate the idea of a school being a community. Kids growing together within, working with other families over the years, etc. For that reason, I was adamant about finding the perfect schooling solution for my family and determined to have it all figured out. As our son entered preschool, we had decided on a preschool, were on the waiting list for a hands-on non-traditional school and were at peace with our decisions.

    Then came the time to actually enroll him in the school. We were faced with similar hurdles. Financial. Does he need 5 full days. Etc. Our decisions and plans were turned upside down. We talked exstensively about which aspects of his education mattered most to us, how we could uphold those values and still be able to financially achieve our other goals in life (school not included), and ended with a much different plan than we original had (keeping him in a half day K at his preschool, then homeschooling for a couple years… Or incorporating him in the other school at 1st grade). I’ve come to realize that it was naive to assume that at 3 years old we were able to make decisions regarding the educational growth of our children over the course of the next 12+ years. We have no idea what their futures hold. How their personalities will blossom. What types of learning styles suit them best, etc. I now feel much more at ease. Making these types of decisions on an as needed basis. Knowing what our options are and how we can access them.

    It sounds like you’re in a similar spot. You’re aware of your options. You’re aware of charlottes needs, the parts of her education that are most important and how to access them. I’m sure in the end, everything will come together.

  7. By Sarah Christensen on July 01, 2014

    Alicia and Kate - EXACTLY!  It’s amazing how many things change as the years pass and how many new ideas and concerns take root as we see our kids’ needs changing and developing.

    Julien, first things first: CONGRATULATIONS on your new baby!!  I hope the birth and recovery have gone well and that you’re enjoying your time with the little one =)

    Secondly, I’ll do my best!  I promised to put up our homeschool PDFs in the past and never got around to it, sooooo I’ll work on it, but please know that if I don’t, I’m not trying to ignore you, I’m just…behind.

    Always behind.

    At any rate, I’m going to try to get a few resources typed up right now and will paste them into a comment asap!

  8. By Sarah Christensen on July 05, 2014

    Okay, Julien, I’m not going to get a consolidated block of time to do this so I’m just going to keep coming back here and posting links as I have little pockets here and there =)

    Free French resources for education include:

    Academie-en-ligne.fr http://www.academie-en-ligne.fr/default.aspx It’s the free version of the French government’s national program.  Obviously without evaluations or anything, though.

    Manuels Anciens http://manuelsanciens.blogspot.com/ has tons of old readers, pedagogy manuals, books, and so on.  For example, we’re using http://manuelsanciens.blogspot.com/2012/05/grosgurin-gs-fichier-bouton-dor.html this and it’s counterparts for graphisme and handwriting, the free Boscher and Mico Mon Petit Ourson as well as a couple other readers for syllabic reinforcement (we paid for the Leo et Lea series and the Lila et Noe series at home because we’re familiar with them, so the readers are just extra supplementation).  Also, you can click on all of those sidebar links to end up in free websites that have resources for science, art lessons, etc.

    Tete a Modeler http://www.teteamodeler.com/ has tons of activities and worksheets for kids.  I’m not crazy about a lot of them, but it also has lots of ideas for projects and even though you can find most of them in English as well it helps to see the French vocabulary imo.

    Libraire Interactive http://www.librairie-interactive.com/ is pretty great, lots of PDFs to download with lesson plans.  We’re using their time-telling worksheets, for example.  We’re also using Kumon in English and just saying everything in French, and I think the two are pretty similar.

    Youtube Comptines https://www.youtube.com/user/comptines is an excellent collection of sing-along nursery rhymes.  It’s where I started with Charlotte when she was a baby.

    Fiches Maternelle http://www.fiche-maternelle.com/ Preschool worksheets.

    Les Coccinelles http://www.les-coccinelles.fr/ more preschool/early elementary worksheets.  We love this sight, we’re using all of their phonology worksheets in conjunction with two purchases of our own: Jolly Phonique and Vers La Phono Moyenne Section (they have a Grande Section too, but I thought it was best to start out lower level since we’re non-native)

    Web Instit.fr http://www.webinstit.net/index_fr.htm
    More worksheets and resources.  We have a bunch of their printed alphabet stuff.

    And don’t forget homeschooling blogs in French!  France and Canada both allow homeschooling and there are tons of expats in a variety of Francophone countries around the world who home educate as well, so there are plenty of homeschooling blogs.  You can look up “programmation” (curriculum) for specific age levels to see what people use and like.  For example, our local school uses Lexibul which is very pricey, so I looked up reviews on homeschool blogs before making a decision about whether or not to buy it.

  9. By Sarah Christensen on July 05, 2014

    Another one!  We downloaded the free summer cahiers from Editions Rosace here: http://www.editions-rosace.fr/Cahiers-de-vacances-gratuit-à-imprimer.html

    Charlotte’s been working on her graphisme and cursive a bit every morning from those.

  10. By Meg on July 05, 2014

    We homeschool and love it! We’re starting pre-k4 (more like kindergarten) for our daughter and prek-3 for our son. We’re homeschooling because the public school system isn’t the best place for black children in America and because the school system in general doesn’t promote healthy imagination and true learning.

    I’m excited to read about your journey!

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  12. By Abby on July 22, 2014

    Interesting post and I would disagree that “no one cares” about the issues you raise in this post. As a parent of a bilingual child myself, I appreciate that you went into so much detail about your problems and solutions.

    We chose a different solution for a similar problem, and like you, we don’t know how it will play out. A month ago we moved from Israel back to America. Our 4.5 year old is biliingual in Hebrew and English although his level of Hebrew expression has never been on par with his English. We actually opted for full time kindergarten in the fall (he’s a little young, but there is a pre-K cohort in the class), specifically to get him into a program with a Hebrew component, however beginner it may be. There are so few Hebrew speakers in our part of the country that I can’t marshal enough resources on my own (there are other factors too).

    It may turn out to be a mistake because a full day of school will suck up all the time he has for Hebrew activities that I could do with him that actually meet his level. Or, it could be a wonderful thing because it’s a small school and they can be flexible to give him what he needs during the school day. There’s a new headmaster this year, so we’re not sure what to expect.

    When you speak to Charlotte in French, does she answer you in French? My main problem is that my son learned all of his Hebrew in Israel, where his main exposure to English for a year and a half was in the home. As a result, he just can’t speak to me in Hebrew (though his English is very sophisticated with only minor word-order errors); the prior conditioning is too strong. If we are talking about a Hebrew book or song, he’ll speak to me in Hebrew, but then it’s back to English. We have a new baby on the way and maybe if I speak to the new baby in Hebrew, it will become more of a “home” language than it currently is.

    I wonder if Charlotte and her friends from the French school will play in French or in English when they are outside of the environment of the school. If you truly have a clearly-delineated French-speaking community, they might play in French. Otherwise I suspect they will play in English unless you have set up a context that encourages pretend play in French.

    You are on the right track with hiring adults to support you with implementing your curriculum. The important thing at this point will be to get beyond simple conversations and into learning the content areas such as science through French. Otherwise, as she matures and learns new and complicated concepts (5 is such a great age), she will find her French inadequate to describe complicated ideas. If that’s not already the case, then I’m very impressed by your success so far.

    Actually, I’m impressed in any case. It takes great dedication to homeschool, and it takes great dedication to raise a child that is truly bilingual (including speaking, reading, and writing). It sounds like you know what the challenges are and are setting yourself up for success.

  13. By Sarah Christensen on July 24, 2014

    Hi Abby!  Thank you for such a thoughtful comment =)

    I’m really sorry to hear that you’re having trouble finding adequate language support for Hebrew bilingualism in your part of the country.  That’s really rough.

    To answer your curiosity, Charlotte and her friends from the French school interact in French outside of the school environment UNLESS we parents allow English to creep in.  For example, one of the families lives quite close to us and speaks exclusively English at home.  We see them frequently, so Charlotte has a tendency to speak to the child and about the child in English outside of the school environment.  Most of the time, though, she’s pretty good about sticking to French and so are the other kids.  I honestly think this is a little bit of brainwashing gone right (when we are going to playdates with fellow parents, I frequently switch to French a couple hours beforehand so that she’s already in French mode and we talk about the news she can share with her friends in French, etc.)...but mostly it’s just dumb luck.  The school was the first time that Charlotte consistently played in a large group of kids - and it took her about a year to realize that not all groups of children at play spoke French.  For awhile there, we would go to a birthday party in English and she would run in and speak French until she realized everyone else didn’t understand her.  More recently, Charlotte has noticed that speaking French earns her a bit of street cred with older kids in the neighborhood - it’s her ticket to older kids thinking she’s cute and spending more time playing with her, so she’s more inclined to think of it in a positive light.  To help out with this, earlier this week I started a local Francophone family playgroup.  It might flop, but it might also work out, so here’s hoping!  Additionally, to keep this up, although we are not re-enrolling Charlotte in the French preschool or kindergarten in the fall, we are going to be enrolling her in the afterschool program a couple days a week.  It’s basically just playing with friends in a French environment, no academics or anything.

    Even so, we do struggle with French in the home and with French with other children.  First of all, Charlotte is aware that I am a non-native speaker.  I have always been super honest with her about this - I explain what my shortcomings are, why it is important for her to learn a language young, how her brain has more synapses, how much trouble I have pronouncing different sounds (this is a source of endless amusement for her lol), and so on.  As a result, there are times when she does not have any interest in speaking French with me.  The way that I’ve gotten around this is by making it sort of unavoidable and fun.  For example, if she wants to watch a movie, it’s in French, and we don’t just watch a movie in this house, we always talk about it afterwards and act it out for a few days - all in French.  We also play board games in French, journal together in French, read lots of cool books in French (our French book collection exceeds our English collection anymore), found a penpal, cook/bake “special” recipes in French (i.e. this week we made flan aux poires), listen to audio books and stories together, and spend just an obscene amount of time singing nursery rhymes.  I mean, seriously, it’s obscene.  It’s at least half an hour a day of just nursery rhymes, AT LEAST, it’s ridiculous.  On top of all of that, we have the “unavoidable” part, which is this: for 1-2 hours a day, we do homeschooling work and it is 90% in French.  We split up our field trips so that half are in French (she gets to pick which half), and we don’t get to do the fun game parts of homeschool that she loves (connecting dots, mazes, and color-by-numbers) until we’ve finished the rest of our homeschool work.  Now that we’re in a good rhythm, it’s working out well, but it is going to take some more work before our homeschool is running smoothly - I’m just not fluent enough, so I stumble over new ideas and concepts all the time, and I think that’s very frustrating to her.  This is where the tutoring comes in handy!

    So anyway, that’s the long answer.  The short answer is that yes, most of the time when I speak to her in French she will respond to me in French, but not always.  If we are homeschooling, YES.  If we are playing games or making believe or talking about movies, YES.  If we’re at the store and I just say something in French, eh, not so much.  If we’re at her grandparents’ house, eh, not so much.  I’m really really hoping that as her sisters become bilingual the kids will be able to explore French amongst themselves, but I don’t really see that happening at this point.

  14. By on July 26, 2014

    The comments section of your blog has the most interesting and thoughtful conversations.  Thank you for your detailed response!  I read it a couple weeks ago and then got sucked down the rabbit hole of work and have just started to be able to catch up with home-stuff and reply.  I love Youtube Comptines!  We have been enjoying those.  I have been using the app Duolingo https://www.duolingo.com/ myself for the past two years, and your abilities might beyond its scope, but I love how it integrates spelling, grammar, verb conjugation,  vocab… I feel like it covers all the bases for someone who’s just starting out.  I wonder if either of us (my baby or myself) will ever get to the point that Abby referenced here:
    “The important thing at this point will be to get beyond simple conversations and into learning the content areas such as science through French. Otherwise, as she matures and learns new and complicated concepts (5 is such a great age), she will find her French inadequate to describe complicated ideas. If that’s not already the case, then I’m very impressed by your success so far.“

    It seems so far away.

  15. By Abby on July 26, 2014

    Sarah - Thanks for the ideas! I knew I needed to up my game when it came to structured activities; just hearing the nitty-gritty of your daily routine kind of gives me a concrete picture of what that means.

  16. By Sarah Christensen on July 27, 2014

    Abby, we just threw Charlotte’s birthday party yesterday and I thought about you and your comment a million times during the course of the afternoon!

    The birthday party was composed as follows: about 1/2 relatives, about 1/4 English-speaking friends and neighbors, and about 1/4 French-speaking friends.

    Among the Francophones, there were two children who speak exclusively French.  Their family is Canadian.  There were a couple kids who speak French (from an European country) in the home.  Everyone else comes from Anglophone homes but attended the same preschool that Charlotte did.

    When Charlotte interacted with the Canadian kids, she spoke exclusively French and used Canadian terminology.  When she spoke with the French and Belgian kids, she spoke exclusively French and used French terminology (I think, I wouldn’t honestly know if I heard any Belgian words creep in).  When she spoke with the Anglophone French-speakers, the kids mixed it up about 50/50.  When one of the Francophone kids joined in, they’d default to French, when the neighbor’s kids came over, they defaulted to English, etc.  The exclusively English speaking and exclusively French speaking mingled pretty well too under about the age of eight or nine, goodness only knows how.

    So I might need to re-assess how much French she speaks with other speakers - yesterday, it seemed that she needed more reinforcement to speak in French with fellow children from Anglophone homes (or homes with non-native Francophones like ours) but immediately recognized when a child needed her to speak in French - and which variety.

    I found the latter very interesting.  I really had no idea that the kids had soaked up the difference between the different varieties and accents of French, but all of the children did this, they all used Canadian words with the Canadian kids and French words with the French kids, etc.

  17. By on March 10, 2015

    How is the schooling going at home?  Would love an update!!

  18. By Sarah Christensen on March 18, 2015

    Monique - The schooling has gone very well this year.  I definitely should update this soon!

    First of all, Charlotte has really enjoyed homeschooling.  She was upset in the fall that she was not attending school with her buddies, so we started setting up independent play-dates and picking up her closest friends from school 1-2x/week.  We also coordinated her sports activities with school friends.  We joined two active homeschool co-ops in our local area as well and she has benefited from seeing that she is not alone.  More recently we decided to enroll Charlotte in a Spanish immersion public school nearby next year.  We did this for one reason: we think it is in the best long-term interest of Polliwog.  Her birth family speaks Spanish, so neither she nor our biological children can connect with them without Spanish.  Additionally, it is the best way we can think of to ensure that Polliwog gains access to a population that shares her heritage, to role models who look like her, and to a fundamental level of cultural competency that we cannot provide with context.  Charlotte is excited about attending the school, but she spent half a day as a guest in class while I was filling out paperwork in the office the other day and she was pretty bummed out by how much less time there is to play in school than at home lol.

    Secondly, homeschooling has turned out to be much easier than I had anticipated.  It takes us 1-2 hours/day to cover the same material covered by school in a week - and I rarely resort to worksheets and other busy work.  It’s nice to have so much time to do fun things with the kids together and to watch their sibling relationships really blossom.

    Thirdly, teaching in French was not as terrifying as I thought it would be.  We hired a tutor for a few hours a week, which helped immensely, and have stuck to a few really excellent French resources.  For example, to teach Charlotte to read in French, I used a book called Leo et Lea.  It cost me around $20 and it took a few months for us to get through together, but it has been invaluable.  I also found a children’s dictionary for her in French and she’s been using that on her own as she becomes a more independent reader.

    Overall, it’s been a very positive experience for the entire family.  There were some growing pains, naturally, and there have been some total failures along the way, but Charlotte has enjoyed the time with family and the open play time, her sisters and I have enjoyed having her around full-time, and it’s been really great for her to have the power to explore her interests as much as she has.  I can only hope that whatever supplementary education we provide outside of the Spanish program next year will continue to be as enriching and enjoyable.

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