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After-school program aims to instill French language skills in Caribou youth

CARIBOU, Maine — Like many children at Caribou Community School’s Power Hour after school program, 10-year-old Benson Belanger is on a mission to learn French and forge stronger cultural connections with his family.

“I want to talk to my grandparents more fluently [in French],” Belanger said. “I like learning words like ‘Bonjour’ [Hello], stuff like that.”

Belanger is one of 11 students who have been taking French lessons from Caribou High School teacher Jonna Boure and several of her students throughout this month. 

A longtime advocate for French immersion programs in Aroostook, Boure sees Power Hour as an opportunity to bring the language back to elementary students. Currently, there are no French classes being taught at the elementary level and the middle school lost its French program several years ago.

Boure said she has already seen the students, all of whom are in grades 3 to 5, pick up words and pronunciations quickly, which shows how much more easily they can learn the language at younger ages.

“It’s important that they learn French early on,” said Boure, who also teaches Spanish at CHS. “Even after just three weeks, there are certain words and pronunciations they remember without hesitation.”

Through hands-on games and activities like play acting, coloring books and Simon Says, Boure’s students have learned basic French words and conversational skills. Boure has also told stories about French Acadian history and culture and invited her French Honor Society members to teach lessons.

This past Thursday, the Power Hour students enjoyed eating ployes while listening to CHS senior Chloe Sleeper play Acadian music on her violin. The children learned how early Acadian settlers in the St. John Valley made ployes out of buckwheat flour due to the lack of ingredients needed to make crepes, which originated in their home country of France.

Sleeper also read from her French language play “Le Chat et La Lune” (“The Cat and the Moon”) while students acted out the parts. Like many of her students, Sleeper learned French to communicate with the Acadian members of her family.

“It’s cool to see how much they’ve learned already,” said Sleeper, who has taken French classes since seventh grade. “Some of them have been practicing at home, and it shows how important it is to teach them while they’re young.”

Her classmates Michael Cyr and Michaela Spooner have also studied French since middle school. Both students noted that teaching French is one way to ensure that Acadian culture stays alive in northern Maine.

“Seeing them learn the language reminds me of when I started learning and that makes me excited,” Cyr said. 

Spooner said that she remembers feeling motivated to learn French to better communicate with older, more fluent speakers in her family.

“I grew up hearing my grandmother speak French,” Spooner said. “It’s a language that I would like to see be saved.”

Though the current session of Power Hour will end in February, Boure hopes to continue French lessons after school or on Saturdays. The children have enjoyed learning from the high school students, she said, and would benefit from more language practice.

One of her students, 10-year-old Isabella Goodwin, has taken to the language so much that she has borrowed Boure’s copy of a French-language book on Legos and seeks out French names in her favorite books, including “Harry Potter.”

“It’s cool to learn another language and learn about different cultures,” Goodwin said. “I like teaching French to my brother and sister. My sister knows some of the words.”

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