The French, German, and Swiss middle and high school students chattered excitedly in three different languages despite the fact that they were huddling at a bus stop at 6 a.m. in the chilly mountain air. They were going to Paris!
The students had the opportunity to take this trip through the Comenius Project, a European Union educational exchange project. The project is sponsored primarily by the European Commission, which then affiliates with other partners, such as the French Ministry of National Education.
John Amos Comenius, born in 1592 in Moravia (in what is now the Czech Republic), was a teacher, educator, writer, and philosopher. His ideas for reforming society via education, published in his pamphlet “Universal Education,” laid the foundation for modern education.
The students from the French high school where I teach took a special English class during the school year, “Classe européene,” whose goal was in part to prepare them for this exchange with the German and Swiss schools. At one point, there had been the possibility that Turkish and Spanish schools would participate in the project as well; however due to various reasons they were obliged to cancel.
The visit to France was the first exchange in a series of exchanges. In 2015, the schools taking part in this project will visit the German partners in Berlin.
Earlier the same week, the German and Swiss students and teachers had been welcomed to the small French village where I live and work. They stayed with host families of the French high school students (lycéens) from Monday until Wednesday. Each day, project coordinators at the lycée planned cultural activities for the visiting students and teachers. There was a scavenger hunt throughout the village, a visit to the local museum, and an afternoon spent in the mountains with raquettes (snowshoes). In the mornings, students from each school gave presentations about their countries, regions, and schools.
There were nine accompagnateurs traveling to Paris with the 46 students, including myself and eight other teachers. I had been invited to join the group by project coordinators at the lycée. Since the official language of the project was English (although none of the participants spoke English as their native language), the coordinators asked me to help with written and oral translations, in addition to assisting with the supervision of the students.
The bus arrived in Paris just after 2 p.m. Being February in Paris, naturally it was raining. We weren’t going to let that deter us from following the carefully planned itinerary, however. Students and teachers spilled out of the bus to take pictures of the Arc de Triomphe. I had been to Paris three times before, but had never climbed to the top of the Arc. The view of a rainy, gray Paris was spectacular all the same.
Our next stop was to lead students on a guided walking tour through the Place de la Concorde, le Jardin des Tuileries, le Louvre, le Palais-Royal, and la Conciergerie. We shared umbrellas around and the guide stopped the group under various buildings to present the main talking points.
It was typical Paris. Gypsies hovered on the fringes of our group, hawking their cheap souvenirs or approaching students directly to try to trick them into signing a piece of paper so that they would be oblivious to a pickpocket’s sleight of hand. The metallic silver man posing on a stool captivated students’ attention as they poked their heads around a building’s pillars to get a better glimpse, then shrieked and giggled when he turned toward them.
At 6 p.m., we checked into the large hostel where students would be rooming together in groups of three. The hostel also provided breakfast, picnic lunches, and dinner. After dinner, some teachers headed down to the large common area in the basement to plan the next day’s agenda.
On day two, the first item of the day was to take a trip on the Bateaux Mouches on the Seine River. Luckily, it was a beautiful, crisp day. We arrived early, so students had a chance to gather by the nearby Tour Eiffel and take photos.
We had a picnic lunch sitting by the pyramids outside the Louvre, then students had time from 2-4 p.m. to walk through the museum, filling out worksheets about various art exhibits. They had a bit of free time to wander through the shops after seeing the museum.
Next, there was a visit to the Sénat scheduled. This was highly impressive. The visit commenced with a short video, then our guide showed us around various gilded rooms. Upon walking into the golden main hall and seeing the throne with the capital “N” (for “Napoleon,” of course), students gasped, “Oh là là! Le roi, il est où?” They came up with several good questions for our guide, including, “Do senators have another job or career outside of their political work?” The response: Most senators have already had a career, usually as a fonctionnaire de l’état. Typically, they retire, then they go on to work in the Sénat.
The group ate a late dinner at the hostel that night. Most of the students and teachers wanted to go out for a night in Paris. I stayed at the hostel with two other teachers and 12 students. The hostel manager lent us speakers so the students could play music and dance in the common area. We procured some board games. I saw one of the middle school students setting up a chess board by himself, and scrutinizing the pamphlet listing the rules. I asked if he’d like a partner to play with. He agreed, and I showed him the rules for moving the pieces, while he taught me the names of the pieces in French.
The third morning in Paris, the Swiss and German students left for their home countries. I gathered the keys from students as they left their rooms and were hustled downstairs to the bus. The French students, teachers, and I continued on to the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration for a short morning visit. Opened in 2007, this controversial museum is located in the Palais de la Porte Dorée, which used to house the Musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie. Students seemed genuinely to enjoy this museum, with its interesting stone facade of 1,130 square meters depicting scenes representing French colonies. The purpose of this museum is to pay tribute to the history of diversity in France.
There were all sorts of social and political commentaries written on the glass windows of the museum:
Overall, the exchange program was a success. The students enjoyed themselves and were in awe of Paris, since it was the first time most of them had visited the city.
We departed Paris at 11 a.m. that day. Students rocked out to Stromae’s hit songs “Tous les mêmes” and “Formidable” played on repeat on the bus’ loudspeakers on the ride back to their villages.