School Update

Our school year is winding down here in France, so I thought it would be fun to write up another little update on our kids’ experience in the local schools. I hope you enjoy it!

The first thing I wanted to mention was handwriting. I snapped the photo of the chart below in the 6-year-old’s classroom at my kids’ school. Having good handwriting is a big deal here! And seems to be a universal skill. Even at the village market, all the signs for fruit and veggies are hand written in beautiful script.

Ralph says when he first arrived, his math teacher picked up one of his worksheets and publicly started scolding him. (This is awful! I can’t read it at all!!) Ralph was so embarrassed! He has since started working hard on his penmanship, and has vastly improved.

Script is the main form they learn to write in — even the littlest kids. I don’t think I’ve ever seen kids use basic print on their school work or even notes to friends.

Along with good handwriting, instead of mostly using pencils in school, they write with pens only. In fact, all of my kids agree that in French schools, pencils are exclusively for art and geometry. No exceptions!

From the moment they start learning to write the alphabet, at around age 5, they use refillable ink fountain pens. But. They also have pen erasers — a separate tool from the pen itself.

Something else that seems so different is athletics. Sports seem to play a less influential role overall in the schools here, compared to our experience in New York and Colorado. Maude says there are still jocks — they’re the kids that are good at soccer. But that being good at sports isn’t really what makes you popular, and that even the athletes feel like school work is the most important.

Sport shorts are short! For both girls and boys. And no one would ever wear athletic clothes or sport shots as school clothes. Athletic clothes are reserved for gym only. The same holds true for adults — I have never seen an adult running errands in workout clothes or yoga pants. Never even once!

Here are the sports that have been covered in my kids’ gym classes: Badminton (this is big here!), handball, inline-skating, swimming, ping pong, kayaking, rugby, cricket and soccer (which, of course, is called football here). They’ve also had a section on baseball, but Olive says it’s not quite the same — for example, they hold the bat with one hand!

Lastly, one thing my kids have noticed that’s really different from American schools, is the public criticism. Similar to the story of Ralph’s handwriting above, the teachers announce each student’s grade on every test and assignment publicly. And they’ll scold (sometimes even mock?) students who didn’t score well — right in front of the rest of the classmates. My kids report that the French kids don’t seem to notice, it’s just the way it’s always been. But you can bet my kids are always relieved when they get a good score!

I’d love to hear what you think! Would your kids thrive in a French school? Do you have an opinion on good penmanship?

P.S. — You can find earlier reports about school and my kids learning French here, here, and here. The very first report is here.

105 thoughts on “School Update”

  1. Aaahhh… the joys of “ecriture” and the blunt feedback in French schools. Recently I was sorting thru’ my son’s old cahiers from grade 1 (By the way, do you keep all of your kids’ old school notebooks? I have 2 kids and have already filled 5 boxes – what to do?!!!) and he got his share of screaming red pen comments – “too slow”, “too messy” (actually it was even blunter in French) etc. I used to feel deflated by these comments but my son seems to have survived. He’s now a straight A student which leads me to my next point…the grade announcement.
    My son was singled out and bullied badly by a gang of (under-achieving) boys in his class. Thankfully the principal was able to resolve this and the bullies have backed off – but guess what – they actually ‘fessed up to the principal and said that they targeted my son bec he was the smartest in class. I did ask his teacher if she could stop the grade announcement, but her reply was even if she didn’t announce the grades, they’d know that my son was very smart anyway. Sigh. I didn’t know what to say to that.
    One of the posters above asked how the French system copes with learning disabilities – they don’t. (At least not in my kids’ school). It’s sink or swim. Over the years, I’ve seen some parents either seek help outside the school or just give up and transfer their kids to the more forgiving anglo-saxon system. As one of the French mums at school said to me – in the French system, the students are only measured in terms of academic success so kids who are not academic have fewer opportunities to derive any satisfaction or sense of accomplishment – perhaps this then explains the bullying behaviour of the under-achiveing gang of kids?

  2. This was very interesting to read. When my super sensitive first born was 4 he took French on Saturdays and did a French camp at the local International school (all French operated). He was wounded by the harsh criticism that was so second nature in that school and says he never wants to do French again. It makes me sad that he had such a bad experience because I love the language. I am glad your kids were able to handle it and thrive.

    We live in America but are also amazed by the ridiculous emphasis on sports in many schools. Luckily, the school my kids attend (American but private) is small and places all emphasis on academics and the arts. I teach Kindergarten at the school and though we use pencils, handwriting is very important and my students are graded on it even in Kinder. There are even handwriting competitions in the older grades.

  3. Now I know why my European friends have such beautiful handwriting. It’s not a bad idea to only teach cursive. I’m just happy to hear there is a focus on penmanship. Having taught elementary school, handwriting has been replaced with other studies. I guess the assumption is that they’ll all type when they grow up. At least we know in Europe, beautiful handwriting won’t be a lost art!

  4. Loved reading about the schools. I had excellent and massive training in pen-man ship and cursive writing in 3rd and 4th grade. Then it all dissolved with the typewriter. I believe pen-man-ship is an art form. I swear that Chinese are all artists and amazingly good at details because they spend so long learning to write Chinese Characters perfectly when they’re very young.
    There’s much to be said about accuracy, details, art, imagination etc. Much
    for me to think about. Millions of thanks!

  5. I would die!!! I never even showed my friends what results I got in any test! Oh dear!

    Thanks for sharing this! I’m learning French at the moment, and hope to live there one day, so I love hearing your stories about the different things.

    Sydney Australia

  6. I enjoy your blog so much…thanks for everything you share ;) You and your husband are giving your children such a wonderful gift! You are amazing!

    Jill from California p.s. I also love reading Jordan’s blog. I live in the Bay Area and she is giving me so many great ideas of places to visit in San Fran!

  7. I lived in Paris as a teenager but went to the American school. Even there, the French teachers had the same style you describe. And they would call on you for answers in class and if you didn’t have the right answer – boy, were you in trouble. It was always so terrifying lol.
    I also vividly remember sitting in class one day watching a movie and out of nowhere – BAM – full on frontal nudity. Hello! Pretty sure that would NEVER be allowed in the states. It was rather scarring to my young mind.

  8. I just had to leave a comment about your last post. I moved here to Colorado from Australia where in the 3rd grade we get our “pen licence” and get to use pens instead of pencils. There is certainly a huge focus there on pen manship and I think it is becoming a lost art. My husband is a computer guy and his hand writing is horrible, I can’t even read it, and I tell him this!!! I know that computers are becoming a lot more popular in schools but there is nothing more beautiful than nice hand writing. There should be pride in our hand writing, each letter a work or art. Great article.

  9. I have to have that chart! Gabrielle, do you know where French schools order their supplies? I’ve been looking for years and American educational suppliers just don’t have good cursive charts. Anyone else have any leads?

  10. Hi Gabrielle! It’s funny to read this posting since it sounds exactly like what we experience here in the Netherlands. No pencils for writing only pens are used. I was initally shocked when our son came home with completed math sheets in pen! I asked my husband (who is Dutch) what do they do when they make a mistake? His response was, ” You just cross it off and start over.” I don’t think I will ever get over the publicly annoucing grades, as an American I find this a bit abrasive but I guess the other kids don’t even notice. Our son only knows this way since he’s always gone to a Dutch school, he’s currently in first grade. Sports as we know in the States are not asssociated with the school. They do have gym once a week and this year our city is continuing swimming lessons once a week but this will stop next year and on due to government cutbacks.

  11. I’m a Belgian/American who moved to England in January and have been nannying for a local family. We live in the village so the school only has 45 kids, but I love how diverse of an education they get. On top of all the sports, arts and field trips, they also do gardening, cooking, and building projects. Whats also great is that the Infants (2-3 years) mix in with the kids in the morning, and the older kids are so much more aware of being gentle or paying attention if theres a little one around than any kids I’ve met in America. They also have a ton more play/recess time than kids in America.

    1. Sounds a bit like home school in the US—at least what I hope to provide for my kids someday: a diverse education, lots of hands-on skills and playtime, interaction with kids of all ages, etc.

  12. I think it’s quite similar in the whole Europe.
    For me (I’m from Poland) it’s just weird to write in basic print. And the script looks so much better :) When it comes to public scolding and announcing grades – it surely is awful when you’re about to get bad grade but it also motivates you to get a better one and be proud in front of the whole class. If I had to complain I would just end up with quick oral tests in front of the whole class at the beginning of each lesson (is there a proper name for this kind of checking students’ knowledge from previous lessons?) – they were just too stressful for shy me.
    And about sports – in my opinion they are rather basic for everyone and you can easily (too easily!) skip them and do nothing for the whole lesson. There are special classes and school though, where the biggest emphasis is put on sports but people tend to think that only not-smart-enough kids go there.
    And shorts are always short :) I have never ever seen a kid, teenager or young adult in long pants. Unless, it’s winter and you are forced to exercise outside in the snow/rain/blizzard ;)

  13. I attended a public kindergarten in Belgium in the early 80s. My mother saved much of my school work and I still marvel and the carefully written cursive letters. I still prefer to write in cursive as an adult. I recently read that cursive is no longer being taught in many US schools. This makes me sad as I fear that the handwritten note or letter will soon be extinct.

  14. I think the public school system has done such a disservice to children by no longer teaching them cursive. Nor are they teaching grammar, only reading and comprehension. My grandmother was an elementary school teacher and we diagrammed sentences for fun!

  15. i’m old school and value nice penmanship but no one uses it. it’s a dying art and with the electronic age, i’m not sure we’ll get it back. nice your children have a chance to work on it and use it.

  16. Legible penmanship is important but I’m quite surprised that ANY school is still teaching cursive writing that strictly. Typing seems like a much, much more importnat skill since hand writing more than a sentence or two seems to be unnecessary these days. I imagine in the future less and less school work will be done on paper at all. Hopefully they’re also teaching typing.

  17. My son (13) has the worst penmanship and I truly believe it’s because he has never been held accountable for it. Even though we use computers for everything, it’s still useful and important to be able to write legibly…if not beautifully.

    It all seems to lead back to formal vs. informal…or maybe just lazy? Why do we wear athletic clothes all the time? Well, they don’t need ironing, they are very comfortable…my daughter used to ask to wear yoga pants to school when she was in middle school. “Mom, everyone does, and they are so comfy.” My reply, “I’m not sure if you need to be that “comfy” at school….you’re not sleeping in school.” Now at 17 she would never consider wearing athletic clothes to school. She dresses appropriately and is very put together every day. Her day starts at 5:15am…no excuses.

  18. my son learned this method in kindergarten-first grade . i loved the gracefulness of the letters, then we moved and he was back to standard print. i think his writing suffered for it. i don’t believe penmanship is even a subject anymore and i think it’s sad. to me it’s another creative subject that has been bullied away by time spent on standardized test preparation.

  19. My mother is a 9th grader English teacher at a poor inner city school and uses what she calls “public humiliation” for her students’ discipline; it sounds similar to French teachers. Except my mom doesn’t do it about grades – she does it for poor behavior. She makes them stand and then asks sarcastic rhetorical questions such as, “do you really think it’s appropriate to grope your girlfriend in front of your teacher? is this where you prefer to engage in such private activities? Do you think your classmates enjoy this while trying to learn?”
    The sad fact is that so many youth have had no discipline and do not know how to behave – and no one expects anything of them. Students seem to respond well to her style, because she is also effusive about praise when they do well.

    She homeschooled me and insisted on good penmanship and doing well in all subjects, because she knew that I could. When friends asked if I could play, she had no compunction about saying “no she can’t; she is failing math because she is lazy. If she stops being lazy and does well, she can play.” This system really helped me personally, and when I then went on to attend Oxford University, I was perfectly prepared both for the work load and for the teaching style!

    But I still had to do swimming and baseball…Florida kids deal with year-round sports hell!!

  20. You have just taken me back to when I was 16 – I lived in France for 3 months as an exchange student. The refillable fountain pens and the erasers – those were awesome and when I came back to Canada I tried to continue the tradition but it just wasn’t the same. I was always more casually dressed than my classmates. And the grading system – although you haven’t mentioned it in your post – was completely different and something I had to get used to. It’s really amazing that you and your kids are getting to experience all this. I continue to talk about my French highschool experiences even now. I learned so much!

  21. This brought back memories for me too! I grew up in Sri Lanka (a british colony for 200 years). And this is truly a very parochial colonial style of emphasizing education. Hand writing, uniforms, good behavior and classroom humiliation was very much the norm. I totally lament the lack of this type of structure in the classroom. Kids are increasingly disrespectful to teachers and fellow students in the US, not to mention how they are dressed (take jailin’ baggy pants for example). I personally believe this is partly why the rest of the world is accelerating in education/economy when the US is slowing down. A lot of kids here can afford a good kick in the behind!

  22. The one handed baseball sounds a lot like rounders which I was introduced to when I moved to the UK when I was 15. I didn’t know what I was looking at the first time I did PE in school!

  23. I have to say that I appreciate the emphasis on the handwriting, as well, the clothing. Don’t get me wrong, I am not one to shy away from wearing yoga pants to the grocery. I just like the idea if keeping things simple. Carrying traditions from generation to generation. I believe that the emphasis on the handwriting teaches children a certain amount of discipline and respect. As for the scolding in the classroom, well, that is definitely some accountability. Work hard to get the good grade. As well respect for the teacher. We have lost a lot of that here in the US. (Matter of fact they are considering not teaching cursive in public schools here!!!!!!!!!!) But, boy, I hate to hear a child being embarrassed. Breaks my heart! Fine line.

    I would love to hear more about the language barrier for you, as an adult. I do believe that children adapt well but as an adult with no french, how is that?

    I loved this post. I always enjoy hearing and learning about other cultures. Really neat to hear the children’s perspective!

  24. I’ve always loved French handwriting, it’s so distinctive =) It reminds me of 2nd grade, when my teacher (Mrs. Donson!) had us write in cursive, using rulers. Not to brag (hehe okay, just a little), but I’ve had lovely handwriting ever since. And much like cursive writing, constructive criticism is definitely something we could use more of in schools here in the States. Many kids (including my generation, I admit it) have gotten so used to being praised just for showing up that they grow up with a sense of entitlement and aren’t always as hardworking as they are ambitious. (Reality television comes to mind) Being taken down a peg hurts the pride, but it sure does build character.

    (I’d love to send my future children to French school one day. It just sounds like such a great experience.)

  25. I finally got around to asking my 4th grader is she had been learning cursive yet–and apparently–they aren’t teaching it anymore in the schools around here! I am so so so sad. What a lost art, don’t you think? I mean, how are children supposed to learn how to write a signature (if the parents don’t teach them)?

  26. I am from Poland and that is the way it was through my school years all the way through college. I do not see anything wrong with it. When you think about the public announcement of grades you should think about adult life. In USA it does not happen and only here in US you have so many people in therapy and on prozac, zoloft, etc.
    I was shocked when I found out that kids in US do not do cursive and proper handwriting.

  27. My two girls attend Montessori school her in Arizona – fortunately there is an emphasis on handwriting. The intro to cursive handwriting was this great book called “Handwriting without Tears” – a really good hands on approach to learning cursive – and the kids LOVE it.

    The public announcement of grades reminds me of my Catholic school days just outside of Boston. The Monsignor would hand deliver the report cards and if he didn’t like what he saw he either reprimanded you in front of the class or took you into the hall for a private berating. Either way, the entire class knew what opinion he had of your grades.

  28. Oh Gabby. You must stop. Really. So many of us are going to move to France at this rate. : )

    I *love* that handwriting chart. I must find one. I (like others) know schools are cutting cursive from curriculums. I find it horrifying. (Heck, I took calligraphy courses for a few years!) I am determined my children will learn, even if I have to teach them at home.

    I do like the idea of publicly announced grades. Although in practice I can think of a few reasons not to. However, I’m one of those Americans who think we, as a society, have become too “soft”. Too protective. Too “everybody-wins!” The real world will not be so kind to our children. We better teach them how to stand up for themselves and work hard for what they want or this country will not be long for the world.

    Thank you. Thank you for sharing your taste of another culture. (Or a big tall drink of it as the case may be.) But please – stop it! My husband is sick of hearing me blather on about it! : )

  29. I adore the “font” used to teach cursive at your children’s school. My grandparents all used that lovely script and I really would like my child to learn it as well (it’s so much more attractive than what is taughtin U.S. school, IMO). Any idea where we might be able to find practice books in the States?


  30. I’m not sure of how I feel about the public announcement of grades. Essentially, discipline (or “education” as you wrote in one post) should go from least-controlling to controlling. This means that you try subtle things first and then move to something more obvious and only when it is absolutely necessary do you do things like calling a kid out by name and scolding them publicly and potentially humiliating them in front of everyone. Doing that first just seems odd to me, and obnoxious. (Basically, by calling one kid out, you distract the rest of the class, and take time away from learning.)

    As for the penmanship, I love it! I have graded so many illegible papers. I remember when I was in elementary school I worked really hard on my cursive, and my teachers told me that I would have to write papers in it someday. This never happened. By the time I was in classes that required formal essays, everyone expected things to be typed–thankfully I already knew how to type. Which brings me to another frustration… kids these days can use iPods and touch screens and they can do stuff on a computer that I haven’t even heard of, but they can’t type! This generation got rid of typing the way mine got rid of cursive, I guess…

  31. I absolutely belong here. Down with cursive! Hours wasted. That said, I love the extra curricular activities here. I love the balance of responsibility and sensitivity toward students. Adore allowing for individualism and supporting team work. Cooperative sports, school art exhibits, music performances- all wonderful. My only gripe is our reluctance to adopt metric.

  32. What a fascinating discussion this post has inspired! So interesting to hear what people’s experiences are in different countries.
    I love that kids are learning cursive! The public announcement of grades is interesting.. in one sense I think it’s sort of horrific, but in another, if that’s the way it’s always been.. talk about creating motivation to try your best! Not a bad thing, really.

  33. Any suggestions for purchasing French notebooks and fountain pens online for students practicing penmanship?

  34. In my high school in England, we had a maths teacher from Italy, and she was the only teacher who read our results in front of the whole class, and also criticised publicly. It may be a continental European thing, as British teachers rarely do this. I think French schools also display major exam results on the wall for everyone to see, whereas in England it’s given privately to the individual student. But bear in mind, education is much more important for a job in France. French employers demand a university degree much more than English employers, so French kids are groomed from a very early age for this.

  35. This was a very interesting read for me! I am fifty-three now but when I was three years old my family moved to France (Laon) and stayed until I was six. I don’t have as many memories as I would wish but I do remember the script writing. When we moved back to the states I got in trouble for using it in school! No one that age could write in cursive. So I had to revert back to print. I also remember eating the best waffles ever in French school and we had a pet hamster. OH and yes I do remember a scolding. A teacher pinned a yellow note to the front of my dress for my mom to see. I don’t remember what I did wrong but I was so humiliated and I think my mom had company that day when I got home. Also I learned to speak fluent French but completely forgot all of it at some point when we moved back home. When I took French in high school I barely made an F! That made me crazy.

  36. I am French. I went to public French schools in the 70s and spent time after that in Italian and American schools. I don’t recall any of the criticism which is a far cry for remotely being constructive; however, I do recall in the US while doing my bachelor the grades being handed out out loud in a few classes with the same intent.

    My point being, don’t generalize.

  37. The picture you took of the cursive board is exactly the one I was taught at school. (I was born and raised in France). I live in the US. I would like to teach my son the way I was. Where can I find this board or worksheet.
    Merci! :)

  38. I like the French way. I don’t like the idea of having kids in America. I have nightmares about how they may turn out. So I don’t have them yet. I’m hoping for something else. I am so disgusted by the sight of so many fat, nasty, spoiled, ignorant, selfish, greedy, aggressive, foul-mouthed American brats. And that’s just the parents! As far as public shaming, I was a victim of the “nice” American approach in school. But then comes the reckoning in exams and in life. Now I’m hard as nails and ruthless with my own self-criticism. And I plan to be the same way with my kids when I have them. If you truly care for a child, you will teach them the right way to live and not let them do whatever they feel like.

  39. Caroline Bedard

    When I studied Interior Design a few years ago, (most of us were there for a second career, many already had college degrees) my classmates from France were so ashamed if they did not do really well on tests or assignments. They said that shaming and scorn were the norm – from both classmates and teachers. Both the teachers and students tended to help people when they were struggling, which they said would never happen in France. One of these women had gotten her BA at Boston University, and was reduced to tears during our AutoCad tests and during drawing assignments. She already had a successful business doing interior design work at the time!

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