About two years ago, Baton Rouge-based visual artist Jill Hackney began learning French in earnest. Despite some improvement, progress was slower than she’d hoped. She lacked the chance to converse regularly with fluent speakers.
The solution to her problem emerged in the form of a public elementary school, Baton Rouge Foreign Language Academic Immersion Magnet, best known by its acronym, BR FLAIM. Students there spend at least 60 percent of their day immersed in either French or Spanish starting as young as 3 years old. A satellite campus, BR FLAIM II, is five minutes south by car at Polk Elementary and offers immersion in Mandarin Chinese.
Hackney now visits the main campus at 802 Mayflower St. regularly.
This Ohio-born, New Orleans-raised painter and photographer’s French journey stretches back to 2010 when she became president of the French-heavy NUNU Arts and Culture Collective in Arnaudville. But she didn’t know how to speak French.
Her linguistic weakness hit home during a January 2012 cultural exchange trip to France. The French government provided translators, but she still felt lost.
“It was so difficult,” she recalled. “Everyone was saying everything in French. My mind was spinning. I didn’t understand what was happening.”
In spring 2013, she began studying French audio lessons. She eventually hired a tutor and, when she could, held conversations with native speakers. This past summer, she spent five weeks in an adult French language immersion program at Université Sainte-Anne, Nova Scotia.
She said she learned about BR FLAIM when she rented a room to a French woman who came to Baton Rouge to teach at the A-rated magnet school. Last year, Hackney served as judge for a student art contest there.
This summer, Hackney approached BR FLAIM Principal Cheryl Miller with a proposition: In exchange for free-of-charge use of her talents as an artist, she asked to be placed with children learning French so she could improve her own command of the language.
Miller accepted and partnered Hackney with fifth-grade teacher Bruno Paquot. The principal thought the veteran teacher would benefit by integrating arts more into his instruction. What better way than to work with an actual artist who spoke some French?
And by working with fifth-graders, Hackney would have access to the best French speakers in the school, children who had spent more than half their young lives learning la langue française, children whom Paquot describes as “near fluent.”
A month into the school year, all parties seem happy with how it’s going.
“I feel incredibly lucky and fortunate,” Hackney said.
“It’s a two-way street there because look at what we’re getting,” Miller said.
“This excites me as an educator,” Paquot said. “This is fun. Fun doesn’t mean you play all the time. Fun can be very instructional.”
The students appear to enjoy the experiment, as well.
“You get to do something with French and with art and combine it, which makes it even better,” said Zoe Holland, 10.
Holland and her best friend, Isabella Ambeau, 10, also really dig Hackney’s cool purple hair. Ambeau said she even went purple herself briefly.
“The first day I dyed it, I went to a pool for five hours and it all washed out,” she said sadly.
Hackney is carving out time in an already busy schedule, which includes being a mother of two school-age boys and preparing for shows at the Louisiana Art & Science Museum in October and at Ann Connelly Fine Art gallery in November.
“I love being in the classroom, but I have to manage it with the actual paying stuff I have to do,” Hackney said.
During her initial visits, Hackney mostly observed, but more and more, she is taking her turn leading the classroom. She will stumble at times, struggling to find the right word or switching a tense, but either the students or Paquot will jump in.
“(Paquot) will correct me in front of the class,” she said. “He’s not being condescending about it. He’s using it as teaching moments.”
She said her progress is halting but clear.
“I learn words listening to Mr. Bruno, learning them in context,” she said. “He’s saying this and pointing to that, so it must mean that.”
At present, the fifth-graders are exploring cultural history through art, specifically Mayan culture by working with its pictorial language. Paquot explained that Louisiana’s fifth-grade social studies standards call for children to learn about indigenous American cultures.
The children started by learning how to spell their names in Mayan.
William Gensler, 10, said he almost pulled it off.
“There was only one letter missing from my name and that was the second ‘l,” he recalled. “I don’t need it.”
On Thursday, Hackney took it a step further. She handed the students a glossary of Mayan glyphs along with their meanings in French. She then asked them to select two symbols and draw each one onto small hand-held, erasable white boards that each child carries.
The hope is that by combining two Mayan symbols, the students will form new ideas different from each symbol alone.
For instance, one student chose the symbol for water as well as a symbol for scattering.
“That’s a great way to talk about irrigation,” Hackney said.
Hackney said she’s been gun-shy of the classroom since she had an awful experience teaching high school in the late ’90s — “I was terrified of the kids and they ate me alive,” she said — but this go-around has been much easier and rewarding.
She also enjoys being a student herself, and the children are ideal teachers.
“They are so sweet about it,” she said. “They know I’m here to learn. They are not criticizing me. They’ve all been there themselves.”