Apprendre le Français: A parent volunteers to teach language

May, 2014 Posted in Arts, Culture & History
Lucie Gouin enjoys teaching French to the students at St. Mary Catholic School, including her daughter Mimi.

Lucie Gouin enjoys teaching French to the students at St. Mary Catholic School, including her daughter Mimi.

By Mary Owen

For a story about a French class, it’s only proper to begin with “Bonjour!”

This is how Lucie Gouin greets the students she has been teaching French to at her daughter Mimi’s class at St. Mary Catholic School since the fall of 2010. After four years, the students have learned the basics of the language as well as a few French traditions.

“Did you know that Father Christmas dresses in a long red robe in France?” Gouin might ask her students.

“We learn a traditional French song or rhyme every few weeks,” she said. “I like to add hand gestures to make the song and vocabulary stick. Frere Jacques is definitely a part of the repertoire, and the students sing it beautifully as a round.”

Gouin, a dual citizen of the United States and France, was raised in Brittany, France by her American mother and French father. She met her husband, Art Papathanasopoulos, while a student at Edinburgh University in Scotland. The couple lived and worked in Oxford and London before moving to Chicago in 2004, where their daughter, Mimi was born.

“After vacationing in Oregon in 2000, it had long been our dream to live in Oregon one day,” Gouin said. “It had also been our dream to work outdoors. In 2007, we moved to a farm in Scio, ready for a new phase in our lives!”

Two years later, their son, Antonio (Toto), was born on the certified-organic farm they call La Terra Vita. Now full-time farmers, Gouin and her husband raise vegetables for market and the Community Supported Agriculture coalitions in Portland and Salem.

“When Mimi started in first grade, I was amazed how much support parents were contributing in her classroom – hosting reading centers, artwork activities, seasonal parties, field trips,” Gouin said. “I was inspired!”

After getting permission, Gouin began to introduce French to the class, something she plans to continue in fifth grade “if Mimi’s teacher will have me and spare the time,” Gouin said.

“Parents have been very thankful to have this rare opportunity,” said Rick Schindler, principal at St. Mary. “The students have gained a pretty good conversational basis for understanding the spoken language, and they love their French lessons.”

Schindler said the school appreciates Gouin and the many volunteers that serve in various capacities.

“The school would not be nearly what it is without our volunteer help,” he said. “There is so much talent and willingness to give up personal time by the parents at St. Mary. It is humbling to witness.”

In each 50-minute session, Gouin tries to build on what the class has already learned.

“At the same time, making sure new students can catch up by reviewing earlier concepts,” she said. “For the first three years, I did not write anything on the board. I wanted the students to listen and hear the sounds, not ‘see’ the sounds. As a result, the students have beautiful accents. When they sing, you would not know they are not French!”

This year, Gouin started writing words in French on the board, which has allowed her, she said, “to teach some grammar a little more formally.”

“By now, the fourth graders are fluent in conjugating verbs of the first class of regular verbs in the present tense, and also a couple of irregular verbs,” she said. “Any opportunity I have, I love to remind them how much French they already know because so many words are the same or similar in French and English. I tell them to try saying the word they need in English but with a French accent. It just might be right, and if not, it’s a laugh. They’re totally game for that.”

Gouin hopes the experience will provide students a foundation for future “enjoyable language learning” no matter what language they choose to study.

“If they think it’s fun to learn languages, then they’ll be motivated to learn new languages, with an ear already formed to some foreign sounds, with a grasp of how grammar might function a little differently,” she said.

“Speaking even a smattering of a foreign language makes traveling and discovering other cultures even more exciting,” she added. “There’s no limit to how many languages one can learn. It just gets easier and more fun. I dream that when these students travel abroad, their language skills and enthusiasm will raise smiles and welcomes for them.”

Gouin gains a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction from teaching the class.

“It’s a thrill to me to hear the students sing and speak in French with such enthusiasm,” she said. “When a student shows me a map of France she’s brought home, points to Paris and says she’s going there one day, I’m ecstatic.”

Gouin’s pleasure can stem from something as simple as a game to introduce a new concept, such as asking a student to magically switch a ball under upside-down cups.

“After some shuffling, the student stops and asks, ‘Ou est la balle?’ If they wish to answer, students raise their hand, or their index as pupils do in France, to answer in French ‘a droite’ or ‘a gauche’ or ‘au milieu.’ Then we switch volunteers. There’s never a shortage of volunteers, and there’s always a flurry of hands up to answer, which makes me so happy!”

An added bonus in teaching the class for Gouin is that her daughter, Mimi, is “much more likely to keep up her French with me at home and with her grandparents and cousins in France.”

“I encourage any parent who speaks a foreign language to share their knowledge with their child’s class,” she said.

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