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My Global Childhood: French Public Schools

exploring geography at mama smiles

For Exploring Geography today, we’re going back in time – over 20 years – to my own childhood in France. I don’t know how much the school system has changed since I was there, but it was very different back then from US schools.

French public schools

Out of the countries I was raised in, France was the one where I came closest to truly assimilating. I lived there for fourth through sixth grade. My parents enrolled us in a French public magnet-type school that taught us French more effectively than I have ever seen English taught to language learners in any American school. After one very intense “Special French” class, we were mainstreamed into the general population – and, mostly, kept up.

Our school was built around an old castle (chateau), which was still used for some classes. There were all sorts of tall tales about what had happened to the original owner of the chateau. We went to school from 9-5, with a two-hour lunch break. Most of the lunch break was spent in a paved courtyard, regardless of what the weather was like. I remember being soaked through by the end of lunch on some days, and I got really good at playing marbles.

We didn’t have lockers, and had to carry all of our books for all of our classes every day. I remember my appalled mother weighing my backpack one morning when I was twelve, and it was over thirty pounds! Our school supply lists were pages long, and extremely detailed – down to what color our notebooks and notebook covers should be, and what brands. Most of the time we used fountain pens, but we had to have ball point pens for some assignments. Some classes required a fountain pen with blue (erasable) ink, while others required black (permanent) ink. There was a lot of memorization work, dictations, and  essay writing.

In class, we copied text off of the board. Some text had to be underlined, and other text had squares drawn around it. You lost points for underlining incorrectly, and for using the wrong color of ink. I had a technology class in sixth grade where we built and soldered circuits, which I loved. For the same class, I had to use a ruler to draw perfect print letters, which was less fun.

Grades were out of twenty points. The saying was that 20 was for God, 19 for the principal, 18 for the teacher, and 17 for the teacher’s pet. My grades usually ranged from 11 to one very hard-earned 16 or 17 in sixth grade for my technology class, where I probably was the teacher’s pet. Anything above a 10 was considered reasonable, but you really wanted to get at least a 13. Starting in middle school then there were meetings where all the teachers in the school met, along with two students (who I think were nominated by the teachers), and grades for every student were discussed. The elected students would then pass on the teacher’s feedback and your grades. I can’t imagine this working in an American middle school, but I remember the elected students in my sixth grade class being very mature and quite empathetic.

We were seated by grade point average for fourth and fifth grade. I think there was more freedom in seating when you reached middle school (sixth grade). Grades were read out loud by the teacher as assignments were returned. We moved to France after the school year had started, and on my first day there was a conjugation test. I didn’t know any of the words. I remember my teacher calling out my zero, and bursting into tears. My bewildered teacher kept me in from recess to ask if I was crying “because of trouble with your family?”

There were LOTS of rules, and if you didn’t know them that was your fault. In sixth grade, we were supposed to walk to the bottom step and then stand there until we were given permission to proceed to the cafeteria. A new boy (American, I think), stepped off the bottom step, not realizing he was supposed to stop. The principal (or vice principal? I don’t remember) slapped him, hard.

I don’t miss the harshness, or the long school days, but I loved the way math was taught (we started basic algebra and geometry in fourth grade), and I drew on a lot of my memories of my Special French class when I taught high school French years later.

The photo is of me leaving for school, at some point in sixth grade. The house we lived in in France was my favorite out of all the houses we had (all provided by my dad’s employer). The roof tiles were made out of real slate, and you could write with chalk on the ones that fell off. I thought that was really cool, and we got excited when tiles fell off the roof. The walls were made out of sandstone, and if you wrote on them with chalk (or charcoal – see by the front door?) it didn’t really wash off.

What are your memories like from fourth through sixth grade?

MaryAnne lives in Silicon Valley with her Stanford professor husband Mike and their four children. She writes about parenting through education, creativity, and play. Mama Smiles - Joyful Parenting is a space to share crafts, hands on learning activities, and family outings that enrich lives and bring families together.

42 thoughts on “My Global Childhood: French Public Schools”

  1. I remember a slightly different version of the grade saying: 20 for God, 18 for the teacher, 16 for the best student. 10 or above was passing. What I appreciated about this approach (as flawed as it was in some respects) – was it felt that one was starting from 0 and earning each point, as there really wasn’t an expectation of ever getting a perfect grade on an assignment. My experience in the US school system felt more like I should be getting 100, and anything below that was a mistake.

    1. I remember hearing that version as well. I did like the fact that there was a wide range of scores that were acceptable, and that no-one was ever expected to get a perfect score.

  2. wow. What rigidity, I’m surprised you have any good memories in an environment like that. Its experiences like that, that push parents to home school.

    1. It was extremely rigid, and I have no idea how students with learning disabilities coped. I broke my hand at the start of fifth grade, and had to write left-handed. My handwriting grade dropped to the equivalent of an F, and my teacher was completely unsympathetic when I struggled to keep up during dictations and other time-constrained exercises. And that was the year I had the nicest teacher!

  3. I’m not sure what 4th to 6th grade is in the UK system, but in our 3rd year secondary school I spent a week on a French Exchange to Reims in Champaney as part of our French Studies and attended school for that week, your school sounds very much like the one I visited apart from it was a relatively new building (compared to my 1930’s/1960’s built secondary school in the UK).

  4. Wow! What an experience! I remember you also posted about when your own kiddos started school and what a learning curve it was to navigate that system. Clearly you learned at a young age to handle challenges…a great life skill!

  5. Elisa | blissfulE

    I love the idea of you being excited when tiles fell off your roof, so you could write on them. :)

    High expectations are a great thing, and one of the most positive tools I have in teaching my own children. People often ask me how my children are able to sit quietly, play nicely with each other, etc., and one of the answers is that I simply expect it. The parents asking often say, “My child could NEVER do that.” And I think, but don’t say, “exactly.”

    As for 4th-6th grade, I transitioned from a class of 12 in a Christian school to a class of 800 in a public school in a different city five weeks before the end of sixth grade. Academically I was more than prepared, but I couldn’t keep food down that entire traumatic five weeks. However, the next year-and-a-half (before another move) at that junior high school were my favourite out of my entire pre-university academic career.

  6. In 4th grade, I got my first B, which was in handwriting (we were required to write in cursive). Mainly, the teacher didn’t like my slanting one direction for some letters and switching to slanting the other direction for other letters. I also didn’t hold my pencil correctly. I was completely devastated. When given the chance in 6th grade to write print or cursive, I chose print and never looked back. My cursive still looks like it did in 5th grade. I still don’t hold my pencil “correctly,” but it’s the most efficient way for me to write fast without cramps. Is it sad, that’s what I think about when I look back on 4-6th grade?

  7. I loved reading this! So different from my U.S. education – I’ll bet your French was amazing by the end but that had to be a difficult transition for you.

    1. It was hard, but the school did work really hard to help us integrate, and that made a big difference – even if the environment was much harsher than what I was used to.

  8. So cool to get an idea of what school was like in France. Being raised abroad must’ve been interesting? Did you like getting to go to different places? Or did you wish you could just stay put?

    1. In some ways I loved going different places, and in some ways I wished I could just stay put. It’s hard to complain about getting to see the world, but I was a little envious when my husband had friends from kindergarten at our wedding – none of my friends had known me for longer than a few years, because then I was always off to a different country.

  9. So fascinating! Some of what you say reminded me of my school in the Soviet Union – I went to the same school from grade 1 to grade 10 (there were 10 grades total back then, now, I think, it’s 12 like here). Discipline was much stricter, math was way better, but I think language arts are taught better here. But I remember school as a happy place where smart kids were valued and respected both by teachers and by classmates. I thrived there :)

    1. I enjoyed most of my time in France, but one thing that continues to concern me about the system is that it seemed that there was very little room for children who struggle for legitimate reasons. I’m not sure how that has changed over the years, but it seems like it would need to, at least on some level. I would be curious to know how your school in the Soviet Union coped with learning disabilities.

      1. I just read your post, and you’re right. Children who have disabilities struggle a lot! I like my school years in France but the system is obsolete in many aspects. And it’s not going to change anytime soon… I wanted to be a Primary school teacher but failed at the “concours”, while others who were not really interested with helping children learn and sharing knowledge but more with the “job for life” part succeeded. I had wonderful teachers and also horrible ones. Some liked to point out the failures of the students in front of the others and some made us enjoy learning and writing, etc. The rules are numerous and some a bit outdated. Children do not experience much freedom in french schools like in the States or other countries. Controlled environnement and respect for the teachers are some of the main points.

  10. Wow, an experience for sure! I hope the schools have changed since you attended. I’m currently living in Belgium and trying to find a school for my 3yr old. I’ve heard many stories about the public schools here (French or Dutch), both good and bad. The private schools are great, but very spendy. They seem to start school at a younger age here, so for now my daughter is taking French classes and attending local playgroups. Thanks for sharing your story!

  11. Wow, I knew European schools have a different system and philosophy but I had no idea it was so different than here! Are the French school here similar? I think there is a Francais Lycee here in Boston but your kids have to be fluent and it mimics the French system. Also do you think French private schools are similar to French public schools?

    1. I don’t know how the private schools compare, but I would guess that the US versions are more mellow. I haven’t looked into them enough to know, though.

  12. Wow, that must have been an amazing experience! I bet your French is excellent!

    I remember in 5th grade I used to walk to school by myself even though I had a bus. It was probably just under a mile. I just loved doing it. It was so peaceful. I wonder if I would let my kids do that… Probably not!

  13. I’ve been looking forward to your writing on this kind of topic, MaryAnne. I hope you write many more of these! It’s very interesting how different school can be in two parts of the world!

  14. I’ve been looking forward to your writing these kinds of posts! I hope you write a lot more of them. It’s so easy to think that our way is the only way to do things. It is so hard to strike an appropriate balance between upholding high standards and sympathy for legitimate handicaps. Very thought-provoking. Thank you!

  15. This was really interesting and the more I read the more it seems Morocco has maintained the French education system (for private schools) even today. My kids say their French teacher is the hardest but their favorite class is French. I’m amazed at the expectations teachers have of children, from behavior to academics. While in many ways I think it’s too much, in other ways I see that the kids can and do do it so maybe we don’t expect enough at a young age in the US?

    1. That is interesting to hear that things are still very similar in Morocco! I struggle with the balance, of pushing children to achieve and giving them space to experience a carefree childhood (the piece that I did find was missing much of the time, in France – and that seems to be missing more and more in US schools). One thing I loved as a child in France was the consistency, and the very clearly stated expectations. I think that provides excellent scaffolding for children to achieve at the highest possible level.

  16. MaryAnne I don’t know if you’ll be surprised or dismayed to hear that French public school hasn’t changed much in 20 years. You could be describing my kids’ experience at primary school today in 2015! But I’m pleased to hear that despite its faults the French system was the one in which you felt most at home. My boys enjoy school here and thrive but they are both easygoing bright students. I know kids with any difficulties or special needs can struggle. I loved reading about your memories, thank you so much for linking up to #AllAboutFrance.

  17. The school sounds a lot like the Lycée international in St Germain en Laye, between the “français spécial” followed by mainstream class, the château and the cobbled courtyard. Is that where you were during this time? If so, I spent one year there before going to all French national schools until the baccalauréat. I love your memories from school and how despite the rigor of academia, you were still a child wanting to draw with chalk on the fallen tiles. Sweet memories of childhood we hope our kids grow up with too!

    1. I was at the Lycee for two years, but we lived outside their priority area and for 6eme there were too many kids living in the correct zone who wanted to go so I had to go to a different school. Some of my siblings were there for the entire time we lived in France, though.

  18. Bonjour MaryAnne – I have 2 boys in the French school system now and like Phoebe said, it has not really changed over the years. But the boys both believe that the strict rules helps maintain discipline which in turn helps the teachers to do what they are paid to do i.e. teach. Older lad is very academic so sails through but younger one does struggle a bit. In fairness though, his teachers have been supportive but he does know that on order to achieve he really does have to buckle down and work hard … not something this particular 11 year old is too pleased about. I d rather dread what might happen of he doesn’t buckle down. #AllABoutFrance

  19. Have you been back to visit a French school since? I don’t think you’d find that much had changed. Our children are in the French system, and they are getting very good at maths and memorising poetry, though they don’t do much in the way of creative writing or computing. They are happy though, and it sounds as if you were too.

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