Myrtle Place Elementary principal Patricia Thompson and two of her teachers spent most of their summer as students honing their French skills as the school prepares to become a French immersion campus over the next few years.
In May, the School Board approved a plan to begin phasing into an immersion-only campus starting with the incoming kindergarten class. Previously, the school was a mix of French immersion and regular education classes, but the regular classes will phase out as the school becomes a campus where only French is spoken. The kindergartners zoned for the school but who are not in the French immersion program now attend either S.J. Montgomery or Broadmoor Elementary, depending on where they live.
This school year, there are eight regular educational classes in grades one through five on the campus, Thompson said. As those regular educational classes are phased out, teachers in those positions will be transferred to other schools.
Parishwide, there are about 2,000 French immersion students who learn all their courses — except English language arts — in French at various schools. The school system also offers immersion in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese.
Myrtle Place Elementary is the parish’s first immersion-only campus. Last year, Myrtle Place’s French immersion students — 229 — outnumbered the less than 200 students taking classes in English.
“I now know how my students feel when they walk into a classroom and don’t understand the language,” Thompson said of her own French immersion experience this summer. “It also helped me understand how easy it is to learn through immersion.”
Thompson and teachers Megan Bourgeois and Theodore Brode attended the summer intensive French immersion program offered by Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia. The university’s French immersion program is popular among Lafayette area residents who want to learn or become fluent in French. Thompson, who is more of a French language novice, was in a different immersion program than her teachers. Brode and Bourgeois, who both are fluent, took intensive sessions in methods of teaching the language.
Thompson and both teachers said they hope to return to the summer immersion program next summer.
“My reason for going was because I wanted to be able to communicate with my students and teachers and have a greater understanding of immersion,” Thompson said.
Bourgeois, hired in the middle of the 2014-15 school year to teach third grade, was on the displaced list but took an offer from Thompson to remain at the school by attending the summer intensive program. A graduate of Lafayette Parish School System’s French immersion program, Bourgeois returned to Myrtle Place as a French immersion kindergarten teacher. She began her own immersion studies at Myrtle Place — in the same kindergarten classroom she now teaches.
“The main difference is that you can’t speak English to them,” Bourgeois said of how she had to adapt her teaching to the French immersion program. “You use a lot of hand gestures and repetition. When you tell them something, you can’t vary the way that you say it. You have to say it the exact same way.”
During a visit on the students’ first day of kindergarten, Bourgeois repeated the phrase, “assis-toi” (sit down) frequently, as the young students adapted to classroom rules.
“Some students say, ‘I don’t understand,’ and I say, ‘OK,’ and keep speaking in French. You’ve got to stay constant,” she said.
As part of the summer immersion training, Brode and Bouregois learned more immersion teaching strategies and methods to bring back to their classrooms.
Last year, Brode taught French as an elective course to middle school students at both L.J. Alleman and Edgar Martin.
He previously taught in France as part of Escadrille Louisiane, a program offered through Centenary College to develop French teachers, and will soon complete his master’s degree in elementary education pedagogy from the college later this year. He’s now teaching math, science and social studies to fifth-grade French immersion students at Myrtle Place.
“French is the first language here on campus,” Brode said of his experience teaching at Myrtle Place. “It’s in the bathroom. It’s on the playground. These kids have taken it since kindergarten. It’s in their heads.”
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.