French

From JRPS to Josephine Baker: A Meridian Senior Reflects on a Self-Designed Interdisciplinary Class

By 12th grader Celine

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A lot can be done in a school year, especially in a class of one. When I found out I was going to have an entire French class to myself, I was excited to work with our teacher Sonja to create a curriculum.
At Meridian, seniors are allowed to choose whether or not they would like to pursue a personalized interdisciplinary course or continue taking a language class. For me, I was in the position where I could combine the two options.
My main goal for the interdisciplinary course was to work on my Junior Research Project Seminar (JRPS) from last year, in which I interviewed about 15 organizations relating to prison reentry and created a website called the PROMIS Project, where I displayed my findings. This year, I was able to interview five more organizations, with each interview lasting about one hour. Each week, Sonja gave me some time in class to transcribe these recordings so that I could update my website. I have also been working on a page where I can post recent articles, podcasts, or videos that I come across on my own or with the help of teachers. (If you find anything interesting pertaining to prison reentry or the criminal justice system, please send them my way at thepromisproject@gmail.com.)
During classes when I am not working on the PROMIS Project, I continued taking a language class by diving into the social aspects of French history and learning about the racial, religious, and cultural ties that led France to be what it has become today. Since these topics were rather broad, and there wasn’t a whole lot of time for me to do thorough research, my trimesters were split into three parts: Francophone outreach, racial identity in France, and the life of Josephine Baker. Some of these subunits intertwined with each other throughout the year, so whenever Exhibitions rolled around, explaining the overall unit of French D became a bit challenging. But, here is what I would generally say:
We started the first semester watching the documentary Trop Noire d’être Francais, directed by Isabelle Bon-Claverie, in which Bon-Claverie described her upbringing as a black middle-class French woman. What she gradually noticed as she got older was the daily oppression black people faced due to the power structures implemented since the African slave trade. The lack of concern she sees in the French government regarding race and religion was demonstrated through the insensitive jokes made by higher officials, the lack of acknowledgment that racism continues in France, and the absence of conversation even when protests were in session.
After watching the documentary, I wanted to see whether contemporary students in France were thinking about the racial inequalities that Bon-Claverie faced at a young age. Were these conversations taking place more or less frequently than in the U.S.? In an attempt to answer these questions, Sonja and I decided to create two surveys – one in French and another in English – asking French students about their high school experience. We emailed four to five schools in France and distributed the email to as many people as we could.
Unfortunately, the results were not as diverse as I would have hoped. Many of those who answered the survey were majority white from an older generation where religion, gender, sexuality, and race was not generally spoken or thought about in school.
In the second trimester, Sonja and I watched and analyzed two movies, La Noire de…, directed by Ousmane Sembene, and La Haine, directed by Mathieu Kassovitz.
La Noire de…  takes place in 1966 and follows a Senegalese woman, Diouana, who is flown to France from Dakar after being hired as a caretaker by a French white bourgeois family. What sadly follows thereafter is the progression of Diouana’s depression as she becomes a domestic slave more than anything else. La Noire de… in English is “Black Girl.” The “de” in the title is lost in translation because it can indicate that she is owned by someone or something (so a more accurate translation would be “The Black Girl of...” instead of “Black Girl”). This speaks to the question of not only determining the power dynamics and racial identity in a postcolonial society, but what it means to be objectified as a form of ownership. After watching the film, I wrote a reflection and analyzed symbolic scenes with Sonja. Surprisingly, she later told me that the points we brought up during discussion was similar to a conversation a class at Brown University had after watching the same film.
La Haine was also an amazing film. With directed shots similar to that of Spike Lee, Kassovitz tells the story of three friends, Vinz (Jewish), Said (Arab Maghrebi), and Hubert (Afro-French), who live in a suburban housing project in France. Their mutual friend, Abdel Ichaha, is killed by police during a riot, thus ingraining hatred towards the police in Vinz early on in the film. The three young men live aimlessly around the neighborhood, almost in a state of limbo, until Vinz comes across a lost gun from a police officer in the prior riot.
Suddenly, an adventure progresses revolving around the gun. The prolonged scenes that took place in the beginning of the film became quick paced and intense after the friends’ lives are on the line. There was a lot to analyze in the film, but my main takeaway was the role that youth play in society. If the younger generation is treated as though there is no future for them – that they are given a place to survive, but not to prosper – then this cycle of hatred will persist.
In the third trimester, Sonja and I finished reading a 500-page comic book on the life of Josephine Baker. Baker, who lived from 1906 to 1975, was the first African-American woman to become an international dancer, the first American woman to receive the Croix de Guerre (she was recruited a spy as a part of the French Resistance during World War II), and the only female speaker in the March on Washington. Baker also adopted 12 children from different countries and ethnicities – including Finland, Japan, France, Belgium, and Venezuela – whom she called her “Rainbow Tribe.” Near the end of the year, I was able to watch the movie she starred in called Zou Zou.
We read Josephine Baker throughout the whole school year, and Sonja and I took turns reading aloud. Sometimes, I would be assigned to read pages on my own for homework and explain the chapter to Sonja during the beginning of the next class. I found this type of exercise not only fun – because I was learning about the life of Josephine Baker – but also effective, because I was able to tackle areas of French that I had found especially challenging. Subsequently, I am now able to digest French words more quickly, speak with a more understandable accent, and write more proficiently than before.
This combination of my continued JRPS work and an in-depth study of French culture made for an eventful year. Sonja structured my classes so that I could pursue the PROMIS Project, reach out to people I might’ve not spoken to before, and learn about the different perspectives and ideologies in France about which I had been completely unfamiliar. Thank you, Sonja!

Je me souviens...notre séjour à Québec

By 10th grade student Ally and class of 2017 alumnus Twyla

Ally:

When I woke up the morning of the Québec trip, I had very little time for anything except a snack and saying goodbye to my dog. I was half-asleep until I got to Meridian, which is when I saw some other students outside, piling stuff into the surprisingly small trunk of the eight person van I would spend far too much time in. Of course, Leisa, one of the teachers coming with us on the trip, gets the passenger seat next to Sonja, our French teacher, leaving the back seat and the “basically it’s the trunk” seats to the students. After a relatively short and tired debate, Theo and I are seated in the far back, with Luke and Clary in front of us.

The trip was long, but enjoyable. Starting off with discussions about what will happen in Québec, dumb coloring games on my phone, and a word game called “Contact,” we left the area and made our way to our first stop: a coffee shop. Sonja, as we all realized on this trip, cannot survive more than three hours without it.

Things were smooth until we get to border patrol, where a man horribly mispronounces as many names as he can while eyeing the six half-asleep students in the back of the van. Unlike other trips, though, we got through without any trouble.

This led us to our next stop, a Tim Hortons, where we would speak the first French to fluent French speakers of the trip. It was simple -- order food -- but apparently everyone forgot we were in Canada, and no one got their Canadian money from their bag. A good start.

Now, other than the GPS telling us to drive into a couple of rivers, we made it to the Airbnb we would call home. It was much smaller than advertised, and does not comfortably fit the amount of people it claimed. In fact, there were six beds, and seven people. We made the best out of the situation by creating a pillow bed in a small hallway, which I ended up staying in.

Once we’d recuperated from the eight-hour journey, we drove to Old Québec and enjoyed an amazing meal at a crêpe place that I now crave every day. After, we stopped by a supermarket to grab things for our breakfast. This, of course, did not go so well, considering the recipe required ingredients we’ve never heard of in English, let alone French (thanks, Clary).

In the morning we attempted to cook quiche with the ingredients from the night before, but the severe lack of ventilation was a bit of a setback. In the end it turned out well, and we left the house with full stomachs.

Sonja was very insistent we check out the train station, as it apparently had beautiful architecture and history, so we went along with it. Arriving there ready to see the beauty it held, we were surprised by something -- someone -- else. Twyla, alumnus, class 0f 2017, and a previous French student, was waiting for us to get there.

Twyla:

Surprising the group of Meridianites was amazing! It had been incredibly fortunate that the Quebec trip had coincided with my reading week, because it allowed me to share in some really great experiences with the group. After a lunch of pastries and coffee, we got to visit one of my favorite museums of all time: La musée de la civilisation (Museum of Civilization)! No two trips there have been the same for me, as the museum rotates their exhibits impressively frequently, and what was a gallery of mythology-themed ancient Egyptian artifacts two years ago was now a crazy, funky collection of bizarre objects representing humanity’s progress through time -- or at least, that was my takeaway. The exhibit on brains and cerebral function and development was also quite engaging; the whole group spent a lot of time on an interactive piece that showed how touching a plate of alternating warm and cool bars could trick your brain into thinking it was being burned.

Later that afternoon, we visited the classic sightseeing stop: the Funicular! The rides on the old, cable supported elevator overlooking the river (fleuve!) were breathtaking for some and scary for others. The next classic we visited was the Chateau Frontenac, which was as stunning as always. Every time I see it, it refreshes my goal of staying in a room there one day. And that evening: the Remparts game! I’m generally not one for watching sports games, but live hockey is always a blast. Especially in Canada. Between the front row seats, the Timbits half-time game (in which numerous very small children held a very exciting demo match of their own), and the fantastic last names (one player’s jersey boasted the French term for ‘the raspberry’), it was an awesome night.

The next day, we packed everything up, got breakfast, and then visited the oldest market in North America, Épicerie J.A. Moisan. There, we bought cool gifts and souvenirs for people back home (and snacks for ourselves, of course). And at that point, I had to leave to catch a flight home, so I said my goodbyes, entrusted a jar of jam I had just purchased to Sonja to drive across the border, and got into my Uber.

Ally:

After Twyla left, the next stop was a restaurant that students are taken to every Québec trip: Frites Alors. This small restaurant was packed full of the most amazing fries I’ve ever had. Along with this, they made burgers, grilled cheese, and sandwiches, but the main events were the fries and their homemade dipping sauces. These sauces came in many different flavors, and all of us loved them. By the end, Luke and I were basically asleep because of the food, and, according to him, he will never feel full again unless he eats at Frites Alors.

Once we arrived back at the van, we made our way home, saying goodbye to Québec. The trip was less energized but still amusing. I spent the whole ride playing Plants vs Zombies and occasionally chiming in to conversations. We arrived home around eleven, thus ending the journey.