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OC HIGH: STUDENT NEWS AND VIEWS : A French Connection : Education: Language immersion was the goal, but seven teen-agers also got a taste of independence and international living.

October 07, 1994|LAURIE CARPER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Laurie Carper is a senior at Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton

Learning to speak French was the goal, but spending a summer in France provided more than a language education for seven Orange County teen-agers who attended Lycee Paul Valery, a three-week summer school in Menton, France.

While tasting independence and negotiating the French language, we became locals in an international school atmosphere. Menton, a border town on the French Riviera, is only 10 minutes by train to Italy. The school's location makes it ideal for international exchanges.

Language immersion classes filled the mornings, leaving the afternoons free to explore the Matisse and Chagall museums in Nice, the Jacques Cousteau Aquarium in Monaco and the tiny medieval-looking town of St. Paul de Vence. We had time to sample hazelnut ice cream, to skip down Monaco's petunia-lined streets and relax on a pebble beach watching fireworks explode and float down into the Mediterranean Sea.

Since curfew at the school was 2:30 a.m. on weekdays and 4:30 a.m. on weekends, the local discotheque beckoned. There was dancing--the music alternated between techno and American tunes--romance and a smoke-filled environment. "For us, the curfew seemed like it was really late, but it's not for French people. Things start at midnight," said Costa Mesa High School senior Susan Channels.

The opportunity for the Orange County students to attend the school and taste the culture came about after Sunny Hills High School French teacher Lynn Johnson met the French school's director, Gerard Poulet, while team-writing the new International Baccalaureate French exam.

"He knew that I was looking for a French summer school to send students to and it was just kind of out of the blue that he offered his school," Johnson said.

After a two-week tour of England and France with 23 other high school students who were part of the International Study Tours program, seven of us chose to further our studies at Lycee Paul Valery.

*

We took the bullet train to the south of France and the school, where we were the only Americans enrolled.

"I was really intimidated by the people at first," said Sunny Hills High School junior Katie Tucker. "I thought everyone knew more French than I did. I found that that wasn't the case. There were all levels and everyone was pretty friendly."

Founded in 1967, the school offers two summer sessions, each lasting three weeks. It is for students 16 and older. Most of those in attendance with us were in their 20s. Second-session enrollment totaled 70 students and represented 10 nationalities.

"The originality of the school is that we combine a serious, intensive course in the morning with a definite holiday outlook in the evening," said Poulet, who teaches French during the year at the University of Exeter in England. "Because we're small, we know everybody and there is a relaxed spirit."

On campus, four students of different nationalities shared a two-room suite. Meals were served in a central cafeteria.

Classes ran from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The school day began when Poulet clapped his hands three times each morning and hollered, "La joie par le travail," meaning "Work brings joy."

Students were placed in one of four class levels: beginner, elementary, intermediate or advanced, according to written and oral tests.

"Most clientele are people who had French in school, but didn't learn how to communicate," said Etienne Andre, a professor and native of Menton. "Our goal is to develop the speaking ability by teaching grammar, vocabulary and idioms."

"Class wasn't what I expected," said Jessica Johnson, a junior from Sunny Hills High School. "We worked on verbs and played murder mystery games--all in French. Everyone actively participated and learned lots of new vocabulary relating to how the victim died; not that we'll use those words, but it helped to play the game."

*

Time outside of class was "adventure time." One Friday afternoon, the group took the train to Vintimille, a border town in Italy. The open market buzzed with activity, resembling a swap meet.

For some of us, the true quest was food. The gelato tasted yummy, but pizza took a while to find. Restaurants close in the afternoon. We finally asked a waitress in French for pizza to go, but she had to round up an English translator to understand us.

After 35 minutes, it still had not arrived because the waitress had forgotten to pick up our order. We finally got our pizza, but missed the early train back to Menton. We sat outside the station and ate our mushroom and cheese pizza while waiting for the next train.

We took beach excursions, hiked to the Fragonard perfumery and went shopping in the old village. There were spirited volleyball and Ping-Pong tournaments, water-skiing on the Mediterranean and attempts at making giant crepes with a Belgian friend on the school's industrial-size kitchen stove.

"The staff gave us a lot of freedom and I think we handled it really well," said Melissa Birkholz, also from Sunny Hills. "My parents trust me more now."

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