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Teaching French Not a Language But a Lifestyle

As a Crock-Pot of beef bourguignon simmered, high school students in Amy Wood’s class took time developing their palates for Parisian food.

With a hearty “Bon appetit!” from Wood, better known as “madame,” they dined on goat cheese, crusty baguettes, sparkling lemonade, ratatouille, French onion soup, leafy-green salad and, of course, crepes. The annual French feast in Wood’s class was a celebration of culture and the culmination of a school year spent immersed – at least for a class period each day – in French life, or “la vie française,” as students would say.

Teacher Amy Wood makes a crepe
Teacher Amy Wood makes a crepe

The authentic cuisine, served in five courses, added the joy of French cooking to the study of language, literature, history and more. In teaching French as more than just vocabulary and grammar, tantalizing tastebuds is one way Wood makes sure she gives context to everything students learn. They soon express emotion and appreciation while using French verbs correctly.

“Madame talks a lot about culture and what French people do, and she has an environment that’s all French,” said ninth-grader Kelsey Gullick.

Students raise money for the French feast by selling crepes at events, like the annual Fine Arts Celebration. Donning berets and fake mustaches, they serve the homemade crepes sprinkled with sugar or spread with Nutella.

Loving the Language

Wood’s classroom looks like a little French cafe and art gallery, withmenus printed on a cart students use to peddle crepes; artistic French street scenes are bordered with fairy lights on the walls, and Eiffel Tower sculptures dot the furniture.

“By giving my kids all these different avenues I think they can put themselves into a conversation and get more experience,” Wood said.

Valerie Martinez and Claudia Gonzalez-Castaneda try the cheese

The 17-year Wyoming teacher, who attended Grand Rapids Community College and Aquinas College, traveled four times to France during her junior year in high school, and studied abroad through Aquinas and with Wyoming students in 2001 and 2006. She hopes to offer another trip for students someday.

Her love for the French language began in high school, though she found it difficult to learn the tricky grammar. The more she studied, however, the more she embraced the linguistics.

“I soon found that I really liked learning and applying all the rules, and the comparison to English helped my understanding of our own grammar tremendously,” Wood said. “I have since discovered that another passion of mine is languages in general, and have dabbled with German, American Sign Language and soon hope to study Spanish.”

Knowing the language allowed her to learn about the country at a deeper level. That’s the level of French she wants her students to attain.

“I found the culture beautiful: the monuments, the history, the food and most of all the art. All of it was captivating,” she said. “The differences between the French culture and our own gave me new insight into the way people live, believe and act and was mind-opening.”

Victor Hugo and Cocoa

During a recent class, students appeared like young French scholars in a sidewalk cafe, reading an intense French drama while sipping hot cocoa.

“It’s like book club,” Wood said, as third- and fourth-year French students settled in with copies of the musical based on Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Miserables” on a cool morning. The reading involved theater and conversation, and Wood made sure the sweet beverage stayed true to France.

Freshman Maya Miller prepares crepes during the French feast
Freshman Maya Miller prepares crepes during the French feast

This is how authentic Madame is: “I have sugar cubes for the hot cocoa if the chocolate is too dark for your tastes,” she told students, who asked for marshmallows. “No marshmallows! That’s not French at all.”


Students studied the story of Jean Valjean and Cosette, reading the musical adaption of Hugo’s 1862 historical novel in its native tongue. Senior Mitchell Micelle read a paragraph from the musical, impressing Wood with his pronunciation. “Merci! Merci! Your accent is developing so well. Now what the heck did he say?” she asked the class, who explained the scene.

Mitchell said he loves learning French by studying its literature. “The ‘Les Mis’ unit is really teaching us about culture and the history,” he said. “We get to learn about the timeline of France’s history and where the culture comes from.”

Senior Destiny Mahon said she’s confident she will be able to someday chat on the Parisian streets.

French lemonade is perfect for a sparkling beverage
French lemonade is perfect for a sparkling beverage

“Knowing everything we learn here, I could hold a conversation with someone because I know their culture,” said Destiny, noting that Wood has helped her develop the ability to pull out the meaning of words she doesn’t know from the context surrounding them.

Students study everything from notable French people to French rap music before they enjoy the beef bourguignon, made by Wood’s husband, chef Billy Wood, on feast day.

For Wood, it’s about giving students as many experiences as possible, even if they’re not overseas.

“When I first started teaching, it was all about my love for the French language and culture, but quickly my focuschanged to the students,” she said. “I really enjoy working with the kids, helping them see how the language works and having cultural discussions, but mostly watching them grow in their appreciation for French and apply our learning over multiple years.

“Those moments when I can see in my students’ eyes that they understand and then take their knowledge to the next level, are the best of many reasons why I love my job.”


How to Make Crepes

Learn French for free with your Kent District Library card

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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