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Au revoir, Michigan

After pandemic delay, students embark on the district’s first trip to France

Cedar Springs — When French teacher Polly Johnson and seven of her students board a flight to Paris this weekend, it will be a monumental occasion in more than one way.

Not only is this Cedar Springs Public Schools’ very first trip to France, but it’s also a long-awaited journey, delayed significantly by the pandemic. More than two years after students began signing up, their spring break adventure is finally happening. 

“I knew we were going to go eventually; it was going to happen, but it’s been somewhat frustrating and stressful, too,” Johnson said of her efforts to plan the trip. “I’ll be very happy to just get on the plane, with all the students’ negative (COVID) tests and their masks on, and we’re headed to France. That will be a really good feeling.”

French teacher Polly Johnson loves French cuisine and encourages her classes to try new foods. Here, Avery Colombo shows off a handmade Büche de Noël, a traditional dessert the French have after their Christmas Eve dinner (courtesy)

Johnson first began planning the trip back in 2019, with the tour originally scheduled for Spring Break 2021. The district has sent Spanish classes on trips to South America and Spain before, and she wanted to give her French students the same opportunity. 

“I think (international travel) is really important in today’s world, from a perspective of kindness and learning about others — realizing not everyone’s the same,” said Johnson, Cedar Springs’ lone French instructor who teaches three classes at the high school and two at the middle school. 

“There are different ways to do things, different foods to eat, different types of education, even different cars on the street. You can talk about it and read about it in the classroom, but until they are really plopped down in the middle of it and everything’s in French, it kind of doesn’t hit home. And I really want that ‘wow factor’ for them, because it changes everything about how you see the world.”

The nine-day trip will take the students, Johnson and her husband (and fellow chaperone) to Paris, Normandy and the Loire Valley. They’ll visit castles along the Loire river, walk on the beaches where the D-Day invasion took place, tour the Palace of Versailles, explore Mont-St.-Michel and climb the Eiffel Tower. 

In addition to the trip’s emphasis on speaking French and the historical significance of many of the sites they’re seeing, Johnson plans to incorporate lessons on French culture as they venture from place to place. She also hopes students will “fall in love with French food” and is excited to introduce them to the local cuisine. 

Although enough time has passed since sign-ups began that Johnson no longer has any of the student travelers in her classes, she’s confident that their French, while rusty, will return in a flash. “I have the utmost confidence that once we’re there, they’ll be able to carry on conversations,” she said. 

Teacher Polly Johnson offers several cultural experiences in her French classes. Here, the French 2 class decorates a door with letters to Père Noël in December (courtesy)

Culture, Shopping and “Really Old Stuff”

High school senior and traveler Abbey Salisbury took the three years of French classes offered at Cedar Springs and then continued with another semester of French at Grand Rapids Community College. She first signed up for this trip when she was a sophomore and is eager to practice the language with native speakers. 

“I really wanted to travel to France someday, and I thought French was an interesting language,” Abbey said. “I know a lot of vocabulary, but I’m not great at creating sentences. French speakers talk fast, so it’s kind of difficult to catch what they’re saying. But if it’s slowed down a little bit, I can understand it easier.”

While she’s been to Canada, this will be Abbey’s first international trip across an ocean. She’s hoping to get a feel for how French families live their normal lives, see some unique buildings and — of course — do some authentic French shopping. 

“I’m excited to walk around to see the old architecture and things like that, because I know in France, they don’t really rebuild things like we do. It will be cool to see the really old stuff,” Abbey said. “Also, I know that Americans have larger meals than most countries, so it’ll be neat to see their portion sizes and, like, how they present their meals.”

“I really want that ‘wow factor’ for them, because it changes everything about how you see the world.”

— French teacher Polly Johnson

Seeing the trip finally come together, Assistant Superintendent of Academic Services Jen Haberling praised Johnson both for her perseverance and for adding a valuable opportunity to the world language curriculum. 

“She’s been so patient through all of this,” Haberling said of Johnson. “None of us could have predicted what a global pandemic would do to world travel. But she’s been so good about listening to the needs of our community and also being mindful of the rules and restrictions in other countries, following the rules and being safe.”

Haberling said she’s excited for what this opportunity will mean for current and future French students in the Cedar Springs community.

“We want to infuse our students’ lives with experiences — (travel) gives them a peek at ‘what can be’ for them,” Haberling said. “We see that many of our kids here don’t necessarily have as wide of an experience base. You could watch a video, or you could go (to another country) — those are going to give you two different levels of engagement. Being able to go visit and experience things, hands on, is a much, much richer experience for students to have.” 

Polly Johnson and her students will be providing trip updates throughout the week on Cedar Springs Public Schools’ Facebook page for family and friends to follow along. In addition, senior Abbey Salisbury will be writing about her experiences in France for School News Network; watch for her report coming after spring break.

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter (covering Cedar Springs, Grandville, Lowell and Rockford), editor, copy editor and social media manager. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to Calvin to help manage its national writing festival. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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