By Lettie Stratton
Four years ago, fourth and fifth graders in Shelburne Community School’s (SCS) French Club began writing to children of the same age in a small village of about 800 residents in the southern Alps called Lus-la-croix-haute.
Carole Chamberlain, director of SCS’s French Club, said students start writing their pen pals in fourth grade. The Club includes kindergarten-fifth graders, but it’s the fifth graders who have the opportunity to travel to France. Over the course of the four years that this program has existed, a strong relationship has developed between the Shelburne students and their French pen pals.
This year, Peter Antanozzi, Lila Ouelette, and Camille Bartsch traveled to France. “It takes a lot of courage for these kids to make the trip,” Chamberlain said. “Even to spend the day in a French school is quite overwhelming.”
Lila Ouelette echoed those sentiments. “It was really overwhelming,” she said, “but it was also worth it.” Of the transition from being scared to feeling like the entire experience was worth the initial struggles, Lila said, “I thought it was really interesting to be able to communicate with someone without words. We used our bodies a lot.”
When words failed to translate, students on the trip bonded and communicated through shared experiences. Camille Bartsch cited a horseback riding trip as a moment where she found a universal language with her French friends. “A horse is a horse,” she said, no matter what country you are in or what language you speak.
Students write their pen pals during the school year because they need help and guidance constructing sentences in their non-native languages, but both Lila and Camille said they try to keep up contact with their pen pals during the summer as well. “I’ve learned to just sit down and focus,” Camille said.
As far as cultural differences go, Camille said that while she was in France, she was often asked directly about her political views, which is something she is not accustomed to in Vermont. Lila said that after being a student at SCS, she was surprised upon entering the French school to see that it had only three classrooms and a simple blacktop playground.
According to Chamberlain, it’s not unusual for her students to return from their cross-cultural experiences with a new found confidence in the classroom. Camille said she returned from France feeling like she could do anything. She also spoke of an appreciation for the luxuries she has in Shelburne and America at large. “You see what you don’t need,” she said.
Chamberlain said the experience her students have on their trip is authentically French. “It’s a very rural area,” she said. “We are not tourists. Real friendships are created.” Chamberlain explained that there is a mutual desire between the American and French students to learn the other’s language. “The French students adore Americans,” she said. “They are not the stereotype. They want to build a relationship with us.”