At Lake Region: Madame Rivard to leave the classroom

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Sally Rivard, or Madame, as her students call her, is leaving the classroom after 30 years of teaching French at Lake Region Union High School.  She will coach other teachers and help them self-reflect on their own teaching practices.  Photo by Nathalie Gagnon-Joseph
Sally Rivard, or Madame, as her students call her, is leaving the classroom after 30 years of teaching French at Lake Region Union High School. She will coach other teachers and help them self-reflect on their own teaching practices. Photo by Nathalie Gagnon-Joseph

copyright the Chronicle March 25, 2015

by Nathalie Gagnon-Joseph

When you enter classroom 213 at Lake Region Union High School, you’ll find it filled with French-related paraphernalia. Canadian, French, and Haitian flags are suspended from the ceiling, and a bilingual “unload at top only” plaque hangs on the back wall above travel posters.

“I got that one from Jay Peak,” said Sally Rivard, who has been Lake Region’s French teacher for the past 30-odd years.

This is her last year of teaching French at Lake Region. Her blue eyes sparkle and her blond, jaw-length hair swishes as she talks about her students’ curriculum, which she is obviously passionate about.

Her infectious grin makes it easy to see how she made a lasting impression on the people she worked with over the years and the students she taught.

Principal Andre Messier was a senior when Ms. Rivard, or “Madame,” as her students call her, first taught at Lake Region.

“He was only sent to the office once,” she said of her former pupil. She also said he was a good student.

“She was always dynamic and full of energy,” Mr. Messier said. “Both of my kids had the benefit of it.”

That energy explains the huge variety of activities and subjects Madame included in her curriculums.

For every quarter, students study a song, a book, a movie and have both a listening project and a cooking project.

“Oh, there’s the escargot,” Mr. Messier said when describing the types of sounds and smells that might waft down from the second floor where Madame teaches.

Her own French teacher, who died last year, inspired her.

“She approached the classroom with a sense of play,” Madame said. “That’s cool. I sort of try to honor her by doing that.”

When Ms. Rivard first moved to Barton 30 years ago, the area resembled her own hometown of Deerfield, Massachusetts, she said.

“There wasn’t any diversity,” she said.

She decided to give kids an idea of other cultures. Together they explored stereotypes and backed away from them to ask “why” and “what does that say about people?”

“I think my role is to cause other people to think about stuff,” she said. “Humanity is the common denominator.”

Mr. Messier said she has children speak, hear, and read the language through culture.

There are two types of culture, Ms. Rivard said, little “c” which includes day-to-day life and habits, and big “C,” which encompasses history, art, dance, and music.

“There’s always food,” she said, referring to techniques that get students involved. “That usually does it.”

In the French culture unit this year, students tried escargot, or snails, for the first time. Half the class loved it, some hated it and the rest felt indifferent, Ms. Rivard said.

“They’re willing to try something new and different.”

Level four students worked on the Renaissance period in France, cooking raspberry and nutella-flavored macaroons, which were created in the renaissance.

Next up, chocolate, which was imported during the Enlightenment period and was all the rage at the French court.

By picking topics that are likely to interest the kids but still have historical or cultural importance, Ms. Rivard gets the students to think backwards and make connections.

One student was interested in hunting and decided to compare practices in the United States to practices in France, discovering that people don’t hunt as much there.

Ms. Rivard said that according to the student’s research, one possible reason for that was connected to history.

“Hunting was traditionally for nobles and kings,” she said.

With restrictions on hunting land, peasants simply couldn’t hunt and the practice didn’t develop the way it did here, she said.

Some of her cultural teachings hit even closer to home, going into the students’ own cultural roots by learning how to pronounce Canadian French or Québécois using a book called Québécois for Dummies and online tutorials.

The students’ own grandparents’ accent and Québec’s media outlets made the teachings more relevant.

The people at Lake Region taught her some things about French too, Quebecois French.

“We joked about creating a dictionary of Québécois words versus Parisian words,” Mr. Messier said.

Despite her French name, Madame’s background is English.

“I can’t be a French teacher with the name Filkins,” she said, joking that she married her husband for his French name.

The French curriculum is both local and global, covering cultures from around the world that speak French.

In a unit about Haiti, students read a book about a day in the life of a Haitian child. The book was written in Creole, French and English side by side, which allowed students to see the differences and similarities between the languages, Ms. Rivard said.

They discussed political turmoil, resilience, what people value and why they go to extremes. They went into a civics discussion asking how to help raise the standard of living and whether or not it’s their place to do so.

“She has kids experience the language,” said Mr. Messier. “It’s not just textbooks.”

In fact Ms. Rivard has made sure her teachings reached further than the classroom and affected more people than just her own students.

The higher French levels did a research and community project of their choice, but the project had to have a long-lasting impact for the community, she said.

One student who loved ballet and recognized the French names of ballet positions decided to make a YouTube video explaining the positions and their names as a teaching tool for an after school class.

“That’s longevity,” Ms. Rivard said.

Lake Region welcomed kids from France on Wednesday, March 25, for a two-week visit. Ms. Rivard had to find homes for 19 kids and two chaperones.

It’s the first time Lake Region has welcomed a class from abroad during the school year, she said. The 16- and 17-year-olds will spend a day and a half in school with her students.

“It’s going to be a challenge because English is not their focus,” Ms. Rivard said about the visiting teenagers.

The students are from an agricultural and equestrian school and want to see the flora and fauna of Vermont.

While the upper French classes at Lake Region speak almost entirely in French in class, Ms. Rivard expects some communication difficulty. The goal of speaking mostly French in class is to help students not feel scared to try and speak, and to feel comfortable expressing themselves.

According to Mr. Messier, Ms. Rivard’s influence is also felt in other departments, like the Spanish department.

Ms. Rivard said she’s been working closely with the Spanish teacher to ensure students are being evaluated similarly in both programs.

Next year she will work even more with other teachers in the school since she is not actually leaving, only moving out of the classroom, she said.

“My role for next year is to be a coach,” she said.

She will observe other teachers’ courses and help them self reflect about their practices in a program tentatively called Mutually Exploring Teaching And Learning (METAL).

“I’m glad that I’ll be able to work here part-time because it would be like tearing out a part of my soul if I leave here cold turkey,” she said. “It’s been great fun. I would never have swapped this job for anything.”

contact Nathalie Gagnon-Joseph at [email protected]

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