January 2011

On Monday, we traveled to Lycee hotelier de Guyancourt near Versailles to learn the curriculum of an explicitly targeted group of students who want to pursue a career in the culinary arts or hotel management. We were taken my our guide, Francois Armet, who explained to us the different types of special high schools that are available to teens in France. In addition to a traditional curriculum, French teens can declare a “specialty” of study, such as business, culinary arts, or technology to give them an edge in the process of choosing careers paths or pursuing a degree at university. The trip to this hospitality school, however, absolutely blew my mind.

While at this school, we were given a full tour of how fourteen-year-olds go from traditional teen to a full professional based on a curriculum that is taken from the workforce. Students are put presented to opportunities that land them into state of the art kitchens and business classes that prepare them for a real-life scenario of running a small restaurant or running a hotel. When they complete one of two tracks, they have the choice of taking an apprenticeship or moving onto an advanced program at a local university.

At the end of our tour, we were treated to a free lunch, which was of course prepared by students that are in advanced culinary classes at the lycee. For the first time ever, I tried l’escargot, which to my surprise was quite delicious. Putting aside the fact that I was eating a slug that was killed only minutes before being put on my plate, it wasn’t as enduring as I thought it would be. Next, we were given filets that were injected with cognac, with a side of zuccinni and potatoes (self explanatory–I don’t think I need to tell you to imagine how fantastic it was). We finished the day off with a little variety plate of desserts; macaroons, raspberry ice cream, a scoop of chocolate mousse, all complimented with a small coffee.

On this day in particular, I learned how French teens may choose a distinctive career path quite early in their teenage years. If they do, they have the opportunity to pursue it. Meanwhile, they take foreign language classes, continuously preparing them for a transnational career. While we have similar education in the United States (such as ed-tech, or whatever a school district may call an interdisciplinary track of study), shouldn’t it be necessary to have such opportunities for all American students, that is, to have options to pursue alternative types of education that suits them best?

Later on, we will be sitting in on a “jury” to grade French students on their English speaking skills. The more bilingual students I meet, the more essential I believe it is for American students to start taking foreign languages more seriously. From what I have observed in local schools thus far, it should be quite impressive.


I apologize for the tardiness of this post as it’s been a few days since I’ve been able to get on here and do a little bit of writing. Since last Thursday, our group has been pretty busy in terms of learning of cultural and educational differences, visiting different schools in the area as well as spending an entire weekend in Paris.

To my surprise, I’m drawing more similarities between our two cultures as opposed to distinct differences. For example, education is highly regarded as the main focus of any adolescent in France, simply because they have much to do in preparation for “le Bac”. It seems as if there is not much more of a higher priority other than school work. In the U.S., of course, most students like to balance academics with sports or an after school job, but not here. French teens may be in school for eight hour or more a day, then continue home to work on subjects for another four hours or more. After-school jobs are uncommon, as are drivers liscences and first cars. While American teens may have a different day schedule or social life than someone such as my host sister Lucie, there is still a common trait among our adolescents: a great work ethic towards achieving future success.

We also visited an amazing technological high school on Thursday, not far from Noisy-le-Roi. While there, we learned how students who excel in math and science become more fluent in their skills, meanwhile preparing for a lucrative career in the business or technology. As a French teen, you are given the opportunity to choose a “focus” (math, science, economics, literature, foreign languages, etc.) in preparation for le Bac, similar to how college students in the U.S. choose a major. So, in other words, you’re choosing a distinct path for yourself, even at a very young age.

I’m not quite sure how that would work for American teens, coming from a guy who switched his mind on careers about 200 times since the age of 10.

Apart from that, Dan Willenberg and I spent the weekend in Paris with his older brother Dave, who is an English teacher in Hamburg. We made it a priority to skip around the cliche tourist activities and truly immerse ourselves in French culture, meeting natives from the neighborhood and catching up with new friends that knew Dave from previous years. Needless to say, I feel like a gained a perspective of Paris in a way that most tourists may not–by spending it with the French.

While preparing for this trip, we were handed articles about French customs; trends and style, family and lifestyle, the do’s and don’ts of everyday social interaction. Keeping all of this in mind, I hopped into the Peugot hatchback that took myself and Dan Willenberg to College de la Quintinye, a middle school in Noisy. For the entire day, our group of student-teachers were to shadow several professeurs into understanding classroom structure, curriculum, and to also get a taste for the educational culture that exists in France. But first, of course, there had to be fresh coffee and pastries with the headmaster, Monsieur Alain Gille. Needless to say, the French know how to make an introduction.

The school itself has over 600 students, however, it looks as if it is built to hold 6,000. There are two floors to the building, each section broken off into different wings according to subject material (math, science, language, etc.).

To better understand the French public school system, here is a basic breakdown:

Primarie (ages 1-5) General studies, comparable to our pre-school students.

L’ecole (5-11) Comparable to K-5, these students focus heavily on enhancing their basic skills and begin to build on their foreign language skills as well. These years are to prepare them for the major workload that begins at le college.

Le college (11-15) Students begin to get an idea which subjects they excel in the most. They take all the general classes, however, they must prepare for specialty classes that will arise in their high school years.

Lycee (15-18) According to some teachers at Lycee Corneille la Celle St. Cloud (where we visited this past Wednesday), these “high school” years focus around two benchmark objectives: (1) declare a “focus” (similar to how we declare majors, focus areas include the sciences, mathematics, history, literature, economics, and languages; basically, these high school students are studying for a future career already) (2) take and pass le Baccalaureat, also known as le Bac. This test, similar to our ACT/SAT, determines the maturity and skill level that a student has before he or she heads on to university. If they do not pass this test after two tries, then they must repeat their final year all over again. Here is a link to Wikipedia, which has some valid content and gives specific information on le Bac.


Soon enough, it was time to nom again. 

We were then treated to an incredible lunch in the cafeteria at around noon, where we ate with many of the school’s faculty. Now, since about first grade, I have been skeptical of cafeteria food, however, I would argue that these particular French students are consuming some of the most delicious and well-prepared food that any school in the U.S. would have to offer. Once entered into “la cantine”, one is presented with a fresh fruit and salad bar (with some fruits and vegetables that are unreachable in the U.S.). Take your tray to the line of main dishes, and you can take a choice of yogurt or a slab of brie. Continue down the line and you are then given the main course, which in today’s case was strip steak with rice (are you serious?!). Then, take a whole apple and a couple of cookies, and you have yourself a well-balanced lunch in a French cafeteria.

According to French standards, cafeteria food does not involve:


-Deep frying

-Continuous thawing

-Added preservatives

 Everything is made fresh before these students’ eyes; “Why, what do YOU eat?” a teacher asked me. I just took a bite of my steak and shrugged my shoulders, not knowing how to respond.

French students, as it seems, have an incredible work ethic that I observed in multiple classrooms. On a typical school day, a student will arrive at 8 am and not leave until 4 pm. Before lycee (high school), students take many general subjects so that they can prepare to take specialty classes once arriving to a higher level of learning. The way that students build relationships with their teachers here is practically a reciprocal to how we as Americans treat our masters of nobility and knowledge. For example, when the teacher walks in, all students are at their designated spot and rise beside their desks to respect the teacher as their superior. Being in American public schools all my life, I found this occurrence to be quite the phenomenon.

 In France, teaching is a job,  having the priority to meet national standards and not much else–they must prepare these kids for le Bac. There is rarely ever time to or willingness make jokes between students, not to mention taking deep interest into their character or what activities they engage in after school. No, education is an obligation here; learning must happen for there to be any type of success, so teachers are often seen as literal authority figures who have a job to complete, not to necessarily build a close knit community of learners.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I have yet to decide.

One one hand, you have a profession that is not only well-respected, but is taken seriously by students, teachers, and the general public as a whole. A teacher in France can be seen as a disciplinarian who has an obligation to see things through. According to some teachers, many rarely ever go out of their way to ensure that a student is performing their very best; that is the student’s job. There aren’t even any parent-teacher conferences! From observing this, I have learned that French students have the opportunity to build their own work ethic and schedule, not to mention taking on a large chunk of responsibility at such a young age.

On the other, I believe that many American teachers have an upper hand to ensuring classroom success when he or she builds a true community of learners. By establishing relationships with students, a teacher is able to predict and adjust to a learner’s way of thinking and determine whether or not certain lessons are affective. To me, that is true learning; I do, however, see the validity in establishing a stern force in some elements of the class, which gives students an incentive to raise the bar on their own standards.

After school, I walked home with Dan and his host brother, Antoine. We stopped by le primarie to pick up his little sister, Roxanne. While waiting for the final bell, we stood outside the school and noticed how many parents (sometimes both of them) show up to pick up their children. They stand alongside gate, all formulating around the idea that their child has grown another day intellectually. While this isn’t any different than what happens in the U.S., I found it to be charming that so many members of the community come together at once at a particular location, all for the sake of their children and learning.

Our ecstatic group left Detroit Metro Airport at around 9:25 on New Year’s Day and faced a long puddle hop over the Atlantic Ocean to arrive at Charles de Gaule Airport in Paris at around 11 am the following day. The flight itself was unlike any that I’ve ever had before. While on board, we all sat in the same row and shared the experience of unlimited in-flight movies and an excellent dinner served with a mini bottle of wine. Oh, and we were just sitting in coach (American airlines, take note).

As we walked through the terminal, I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that I was actually in Paris. I looked out the bay windows and saw an entire city behind me, waiting to be explored and unfolded. Looking out the window of the shuttle bus, I gazed at apartment buildings and businesses that have stood for over 300 years, still standing and put to good use (we’ll get back to Paris in a couple of days–more on that soon). We met our drivers not far from the terminal, who took us into Noisy-Le-Roi and met up with our host families. Sabine, the mother, and her daughter, Marie (20 yrs), picked me up and took me into their tastefully decorated bungalow located not far from the heart of the city. I was greeted by the man of the house, Pierre, and their three other children, Anne-Sophie (23 yrs), Remi (25 yrs), and Lucie (17 yrs). Being a typical first-time tourist, I forgot that the French do the “shake and kiss” concept whenever they greet someone; imagine an awkward American lerch, who forgot this social cue and wanted to pull the typical “handshake and hello.” That’s me.

So, I have that going. Which is nice.

The Gauthes served me a small lunch of holiday goose liver (never again), assorted cheese (better) and a 2001 red wine (don’t mind if I do) and sat around the table to ask me questions about life at Albion and what I typically do for the holidays. Strangely enough, I can picture my own family doing the same thing, that is, being curious of another culture and welcoming a stranger into their home; needless to say, the French hospitality made it seem as if I wasn’t half a world away from Detroit after all. After showing me to my room and giving me a walking tour of the city, I knew that this was a trip that was going to stick with me for all of my years as a teacher and as a transnational traveler.

The city of Noisy-Le-Roi itself is full of rich history and tradition that make it a landmark in the suburbs of Paris. Some of its history dates as far back as the days of Louis XIV, whereas some documents have records as far back as 1127. The homes are very practical in size, and not every single family owns a vehicle. Many live right next to, above, or below a neighbor–either way, you have a direct connection to another person. This sort of redefines the term “blue collar” to me, especially coming from another culture, whose typical working-class family may still own a large house with three cars in the driveway.

Dinner, on the other hand, is a whole other ball game.

When it comes to eating–that is, eating to a point where I feel overindulgent–the French don’t mess around. Back home in Detroit, family dinners often revolve a main course with sides and perhaps even a salad. We pour it all on one plate, picking at different things here and there until we’re filled to the very top. In France, it’s all about the courses; the first is a main course, then followed by bread and cheese, followed by a side dish(es), followed by dessert. Sabine made two different types of quiches as the main course, and when I thought we were finished I took my plate to the sink when Anne-Sophie said, “Ohhh we’re not done yet. Don’t worry.” So I sat back down and twiddled my fingers as Sabine freshly prepared the next course.

The cheese platter was simply gargantuan. There was of course the traditional slabs of Swiss, Gouda, Feta and Brie, however, there were other choices I had never heard of and would never dare to try to pronounce. We skipped the side dish and went straight for dessert, which ranged from yogurt with honey, fresh fruit, and little sugar cookies. After we finished up, everyone had a role to ensuring that the kitchen was clean for the morning (I loaded the dishwasher and helped wipe down the table). Even as a guest in a foreign land, I’ve come to learn that the entire experience of being with others is an experience on its own. The cooking, eating, cleaning, and the conversation are all done for the same purpose–for the sake of doing it together.

My own little bungalow.