Tuesday, 29 January 2013

MLK as seen by French first graders

Who's this?

Obama !
Le président des Etats Unis !
Le président de l'Afrique !

who's this?

Le frère d'Obama!
Le président de l'Afrique!
Un chauffeur de bus!

who's this?

Une prisonnière!
La femme d'Obama!

why is she a prisonner?
Elle a tué quelqu'un!

And what's this?

bus ! (they knew this word in English from the previous week's lesson)

This is how I began the lesson on MLK in Suzanne's CP (French 1st grade) class. I went on to explain (in French) that Rosa Parks was put in prison because she wanted to ride the bus, but didn't want to give up her seat to a white man (I simplified the whole thing a lot). I was floored by the next thing I heard :

C'est pas juste! That's not fair !

The kids were up in arms and really had trouble understanding that someone would be put in prison because of the color of their skin.

I explained to the kids that MLK wanted liberté (freedom), égalité (equality)...and maybe he also wanted fraternité (brotherhood) as the kid in the back said, but that wasn't his main goal. (the French motto is liberté, égalité, fraternité, something the kids learned about in their civics lessons).

I explained to them that the black people of Montgomery didn't take the bus for over a year; they walked everywhere: to school, to work, to church. Pourquoi ils n'ont pas pris de voitures? I explained that they didn't have cars.

I told them that when Suzanne's grandparents were kids, some places didn't allow black and white kids to go to school together or to be friends. And MLK changed all that. He spoke to millions of people. They asked if Suzanne's grandmother met MLK. I told them that she didn't, but that she heard him speak along with millions of other people. He said, j'ai un rève que mes quatres enfants habiteront un jour une nation où ils seront jugés non pas par la couleur de leur peau, mais par le contenu de leur caractère.  I have to admit, it felt a bit strange quoting MLK in French. Madame B, the teacher, then got the kids to discuss what caractère was.

I ended the lesson with a tribute to my elementary school music teacher, Mrs. Chilsholm, who taught us "We Shall Overcome." I explained the words to the kids and asked what they wanted to overcome? Ils veulent égalité. As I played the CD, I looked around and saw the kids snickering at Joan Baez's high pitch tone. And as I scanned the class, I saw one of the kids, Mireille, swaying her head as she sang along. I was overcome with pride. 

What impressed me the most about the lesson was how the kids just could not comprehend that someone would be judged by the color of their skin. As an American, I didn't realize that other people aren't brought up talking about the evils of racism. But in France, they don't because race isn't an issue (and once again, I'm not saying that there aren't racist French people). What I'm saying is that in France, the "code" brings people up to see other people. If you ask a French kid to describe one of their friend's they may describe her hair color, eye color, the shoes she wears, but they will never talk about the skin or ethnicity. In the US, I'll bet that's the first thing a kid would start with.

It was eye opening for me. And I can's begin to say how touched I was by those kids.


Tallulah@Bilingual Babes said...

What a wonderful lesson for the kids, it almost seems a shame for them to lose their innocence on this subject! Sadly it seems that at some point skin colour, or at least racism, does become a huge issue in France, given the popularity of the NF and the 2005 riots. Lessons like this will help turn things around.

Reb said...

It was a wonderful lesson, I think...what struck me the most was how ever present race was in my upbringing, in a positive way. I was ultra-aware that racism was bad. whereas these kids were saying stuff like, "is he black? he doesn't look black!" Then a kid who has an African mother and white father said, "oh so she's métisse like me." It was so innocent and so very cool.

cmoi said...

Just a note: our Normandy town just renamed one of its Collèges two years ago, and changed it to Rosa Parks! How funny for my boys to be going to a school across the ocean from home, named after an American! Unfortunately, many people (parents, and therefore children) in our hick town definately notice skin color and look down at the neighborhood the Malian population lives in. Its great that you get the anti-racism message out to young children , and try to change attitudes one generation at a time. I think I'll offer my services on MLK day next year in English class - you have inspired me!

Reb said...

Cmoi, I actually think some of the parents (or at least one of them) was shocked by the discussion...and I was shocked that they were shocked ! In another generation, people will look back on the segregation in the US and say "they were crazy". But I don't think we're there yet.

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