Philippe Sutter, Consul General of France, left, stands with Duchess Park teacher Josie Nielson while addressing Nielson's Grade 11-12 core French students.

Consul General of France visits Duchess Park class

An internationally-respected member of the Government of France visited Duchess Park Secondary School on Friday, in connection with an education agreement between School District No. 57 and Académie de Martinique.

Philippe Sutter, Consul General of France, met and spoke with students in Josie Nielson’s Grade 11-12 core French class. Sutter is stationed in Vancouver and was present last October in New Westminster when School District No. 57 signed the agreement with Martinique, a region of France located in the Caribbean. Sutter had business in Prince George with Mayor Lyn Hall and took time Friday afternoon to drop in on Nielson’s class.

Sutter, whose role is to facilitate trade and friendship between France and Canada and also to protect the interests of French nationals in this country, chatted in French with the students. In a friendly and engaging manner, he spoke about his background, his role as Consul General and about the importance of the partnership between Martinique and School District No. 57.

“Thanks to teamwork, this interest in France, we had the signature of this very first agreement of cooperation between the school board of Prince George and the equivalent, the Académie de Martinique, which is a very dynamic school board in Martinique,” Sutter said afterward. “(Martinique is) very focused also in certain very important sectors like bilingualism, for example, and that’s why there is this interest of Martinique to have this cooperation with Prince George, because they have understood that bilingualism is so important.

“They know it’s important not only to speak and understand and work in French but also in English and that’s why these exchanges that we will have now between the two school boards will be so helpful, so useful, and (will) reach the students.”

The three-year education agreement is now in its second year. In a pilot-project capacity, Duchess Park and College Heights Secondary School are on the School District No. 57 side of the partnership. They are paired, respectively, with Lycée Professionnel Chateauboeuf and LPO Nord Caraïbe à Bellefontaine. The agreement is paving the way for the exchange of teaching methods and cooperative projects. The key underlying factor is that students in both countries are gaining exposure to authentic French and authentic English.

“There is big potential to implement this agreement,” Sutter said. “I know that the partners here in Prince George and of course in Martinique are very dedicated and they want really to do something with this agreement.”

Nielson and College Heights teacher Corine Masich first envisioned such a partnership while at a national language conference two and a half years ago in Edmonton. While there, they attended a session about the use of authentic French in the classroom. Two teachers from Grande Prairie led the session and spoke about their district’s agreement with a city in France.

“The students were able to communicate in French eventually and there was actually a teacher exchange involved as well – that kind of piqued our interest,” Masich said. “But for us, it was really trying to bring the language into the classroom – making it relevant.”

Nielson and Masich returned home from the conference and did the necessary legwork to help bring the agreement between School District No. 57 and Martinique to fruition. Going from concept to reality took about 18 months. The SD 57 teachers received an email from an Ottawa official in January 2018 with the news that the district had been paired with Martinique. Both Nielson and Masich were in the room with Sutter when signatures were put to paper in New Westminster.

Masich is teaching Grade 9 French this school year and her students have already reached out to their counterparts in Martinique.

“My students just sent letters to their new partners and they are going to start videoing themselves – introducing themselves and their school and their environment – and then we’ll (communicate via) Skype,” Masich said.

Masich’s Grade 9s from last year agreed in June they would document their summer vacations in video form. Now in Grade 10 French with Belen Comas, those students will share their videos with Martinique students as fuel for discussion.

Another part of the plan is for students from School District No. 57 and Académie de Martinique to go on exchange in their Grade 11 or Grade 12 years.

The Grade 11-12 Duchess Park students who met Sutter on Friday were excited to have him in their presence and a few of them conversed with him in French. Their teacher, Nielson, could hardly believe Sutter was in her classroom.

“It’s just an absolute dream for us to have this man of the world come to speak in our little classroom in our little Prince George,” Nielson said. “It’s an honour. It’s an amazing, amazing thing.”

Sutter – in Prince George for the first time – said he enjoyed interacting with the students and getting a sense of place.

“It was very important for me to come here and to see on the spot what you are doing – how passionate the staff and students are in this regard,” he said. “It’s really encouraging. You are not a capital, you are not in a big city, but it’s important in all the regions of B.C. to give the students these kinds of opportunities.”

Nielson and Masich said they hope this pilot project evolves into a full-time venture that will benefit students across School District No. 57.

“We’d like it to grow and hopefully extend,” Masich said.