Tuesday, September 6, 2011

la Rentrée

September arrives in Paris and the days are still long and light. Parisians have returned from their summer holidays and the cafés and boulangeries are reopening. It's la Rentrée - school starts, people go back to work tanned and relaxed after a month of off. September also is the hyped rentrée littéraire when some of the biggest books of the year are released in France - 654 novels to be exact.
Freedom is in bookshops with Jonathan Franzen fever hitting, there are new titles by Philip Roth, David Vann and French writers Marie Darrieussecq, Emmanuel Carrère and Amélie Nothomb - but perhaps the most talked about novel in Paris is Haruki Murakami's 1Q84. They'll have to wait another month for the English edition but there's an extract Town of Cats in The New Yorker.
Dominique Strauss Kahn - DSK - has also rentrée'd to Paris. Reporters, newsteams clog the 17th century square of Place des Vosges outside #13 his home. Distressing to me is this photo, it feels so American and unFrench and more obtrusive than I've ever seen. Not that I defend or sanction DSK but it looks like the NY paparazzi and that is not the French way which is to let private lives stay private.
A big part of la rentree is back to school. The head of the Education ministry is the Minister of National Education, one of the highest-ranking officials in the cabinet, named Luc Chatel. Minister Chatel has his own bodyguard, a former bodyguard of Chirac, named Joe who I met a few months ago. Joe says he's the busiest and one of the most powerful ministers in France. And he gets tired. Joe showed me a photo of Luc, snapped on his iPhone, asleep in his chauferred car en route to a round of meetings after an all night meeting at the ministry. Luc wields incredible power since he 'employs' the largest workforce in France. The teachers in public primary and secondary schools are all state civil servants, making the ministère the largest employer in the country. Professors and researchers in France's universities are also employed by the state.
At the primary and secondary levels, the curriculum is the same for all French students in any given grade, which includes public, semi-public and subsidised institutions. So Luc knows, after he's caught a few winks in the limo and off to another meeting, that in Bourdeaux students are learning the same geography lesson that the class is in Marseilles.

Madeleine, the 6 year old daughter of my friend Anne, who stayed chez nous this summer, started back at school in Paris today. Her school is two blocks from her house. According to the system Madeleine would be in the Grande Section -GS or Kindergarten in Ecole Maternelle
Ecole Maternelle (pre-K and Kindergarten)
Age Grade Abbreviation
3 -> 4 Petite section PS
4 -> 5 Moyenne section MS
5 -> 6 Grande section GS
École élémentaire (Primary school)
Age Grade Abbreviation
6 -> 7 Cours préparatoire CP / 11ème
7 -> 8 Cours élémentaire première année CE1 / 10ème
8 -> 9 Cours élémentaire deuxième année CE2 / 9ème
9 -> 10 Cours moyen première année CM1 / 8ème
10 -> 11 Cours moyen deuxième année CM2 / 7ème

However Madeleine's teacher recommended she skip a grade to Cours préparatiore because last year the teacher discovered Madeleine was READING on her own. In the French educational system skipping a grade like (from Ecole Maternelle to Ecole Elementaire) this is frowned upon and rarely done or encouraged. It's all about egalité no special or AP classes. Matter of fact, my friend Anne said it was all the teacher's doing and the teacher had to bypass a rigid supervisor to get other teacher's opinions. Anne hesitated because of maturity issues for Madeleine who has a December birthday but she didn't want Madeline to be bored while her classmates were learning to read. Anne couldn't believe our system here about AP. Or that parents volunteered and participated in the classroom...MON DIEU, she said, we're not allowed in Paris...quel differance!
Addendum - the University of Rouen workshop I did in November still hasn't paid me - aargh - I need to wake Luc up maybe?
Cara - Tuesday


  1. Double promotions are very rare in Massachusetts and, I assume, the rest of the US. The issue is, of course, maturity and that often doesn't become a problem for the child until high school.

    There are always a few kids who can read when they are younger than six. Very often, that has less to do with intellectual ability than it does with the development of muscles and with coordination. To follow a line across the page from left to right requires that the muscles be developed enough to cross the midline and that midline is not on the page but on the body.

    The brain-body connection is so complicated. One example of crossing the midline is something we take for granted. If we want to get someone's attention in a crowd, a person we know for example, most people make a large gesture to attract attention. We bring our right hand up to our left shoulder and we move the hand back to the right in an arc. That's crossing the midline and we start to develop that ability when we learn to crawl.

    Then, to make things interesting, some kids can read before they have the coordination to cross the midline. My oldest didn't crawl until the day before she walked on her own. She was 10 months old so she didn't have the spatial awareness that comes at 12 months. She couldn't walk through a door way without banging her head. She read before she was five but that spatial awareness still hasn't kicked in. She has absolutely no sense of direction.

    Having a child skip a grade may be a good thing for some, but frequently the differences in physical and social maturation create problems when they are in high school or in college. The daughter of a friend of a friend, a girl much older than my kids, was given a double-promotion because her parents were afraid of the boredom factor. But as she moved through the grades it became more difficult for her to have friends; her interests were different, in line with her chronological age. She left college after two weeks. She was at least a year younger than everyone else and she looked two or three years younger. She didn't return to college until she was in her twenties.

    Early reading is a mixed blessing. I did't teach my children how to read. I didn't know the oldest could read until she brought me a newspaper article she had found interesting. What she didn't have were the skills that come with learning phonics and the tools that allow readers to figure out the ways in which words are created. In first grade, she stayed with her class for reading so she could learn the basics and she also went to the fourth grade for book reading stuff (literature doesn't seem an appropriate word).

    Your little friend will do fine as long as her parents don't allow teachers or other people to lose sight of her actual age. My daughter hated the children's librarian. Maura would cruise the aisles and choose her books carefully but sometimes when she went to have the books checked out, the librarian would give me a signal that the topic was too old for her. I would remove the book and Maura would rant all the way home.

    The United States can never have an educational system like that in France. Here, the requirements of education are determined by each state.

    I know of a sure-fire way of knowing if a child is old enough to attend school. Ask the child to take a hand and reach across the head to touch the ear on the opposite side. If they can do it, they are old enough for school. When European nuns went to Africa to set up schools, generally the kids didn't have birth certificates. Someone who had spent a life time with little children noticed that disparity between four and five year old children and this became the manner by which they knew who was old enough for school and who wasn't.

  2. I even enjoyed the paintings! Reminds me of my days in school when we were tested on recognizing artists from untitled flashcards of their paintings. At least here I get to keep my guesses to myself.:)


  3. Yes, back to school here in London this week too. Thank God! I love the kids but there's nothing like waving them off to school after a long holiday...

    The practice of moving kids up a year/grade has been almost abandoned in the UK for reasons Beth cites. It was thought it affected the children socially, being moved out of their peer group, and so nullified any academic benefits. i know a few people who were moved up and all but one had a very miserable time of it. Unable to fit in with the older kids, but no longer part of their original group. I'm sure your friends daughter will be fine though. Done early, as in this case, and the child can adapt.

  4. Beth you make a good point. Madeleine was moved up one grade, not two and I'm anxious to hear about her first week at school. I think my friend was quite conflicted about her moving up and though hard about it. She said unless the teacher had recommended and pursued this she wouldn't have. At least the école primaire and maternelle share the same playground so she'll have her friends at recess. Dan, enjoy a quiet house! Cara