Classroom of the Week | Ils parlent fran ais at Berkshire Country Day School

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STOCKBRIDGE — Un, deux, trois, quatre. Even the stairs that lead up to Mary Daire's classroom at Berkshire Country Day School are labeled in French to reinforce counting numbers. Once inside the room, signs of English are minimal.

The sign above the whiteboard says "bienvenue" to welcome students, and there are posters and books and magazines spread around, also all in French. But there are a few posters displayed to remind the class that learning another language is an act of practice, not always perfection.

Reads one: "You don't have to translate word for word. Work with what you know."

The introduction to non-English languages at BCD begin at the preschool level, and instruction continues up through Grade 8. The upper grades include opportunities to study French, Spanish and Latin.

"Everyone is getting some form of language education: songs, movement and sensory activities to grammar and literature," said Daire.

But French is her forte. Now in her second year of teaching at the school, she's happy to share that passion with her students.

"This is a skill that I know and care so much about," she said. "It's such a tool for children and students to have to go out into the world. I really wanted to help foster that."

To do so, Daire packs classes with interactive activities. The students' desks are arranged in a semicircle so they can converse with one another and hear each other in practice. To warm up, students in her combined fourth- and fifth-grade class roll a cube with a different action for the user to try, whether it's greeting a classmate or describing the day's weather — in French, of course.

"Sometimes it's hard," said class member Ellie Dowd.

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"But it's good to know [French] when you travel so you know what you're doing and how to communicate with other people," said student Lena Smith.

Students regularly submit poems and other works to "Je Bouquine," a French magazine for youth. One recent challenge was to write a poem about dandelions, or pissenlits, which were proudly displayed on a school bulletin board. Older students also get to compete in a French poetry slam.

Currently the fourth- and fifth-grade group has been writing to pen pals who go to a Montessori School in Uz s, a small town in southern France. Despite speaking and writing in different languages, students soon discovered common interests between them, from favorite foods to colors to pets.

This group also reads short stories and does word games and crossword puzzles in French, and has been rehearsing a song for a May 31 concert. That performance will also include an interpretive dance to a classic French children's song, performed by the school's kindergartners.

On Thursday, Daire's seventh- and eighth-graders participated in a French Fair, which included a video broadcast of "BCD News in French" and a short skit performance.

"It gets you out of your comfort zone," said Daire.

But once students get comfortable with the language, they become eager to learn more.

"I enjoyed the way it kind of hit my ear at the time so I thought I'd learn it," eight-grader Jack Ballinger said of the language. When the choice came whether to continue French or explore Spanish or Latin, Ballinger chose to stay with French.

"You start to pick up more vocabulary and new things, and it's exciting," he said.

Classmate Sam Creelan, who also studies Latin, suggests for any student interested in or currently studying a language different from their native tongue, "The key is to try, as much as possible ... that matters more than if you succeed."


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