Maine French Heritage Language Program

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The MHC awarded a $5,000 Major Grant to this project to support consulting fees for teachers, cultural associates, and evaluation work as the program expanded in 2012-2013.

If you spend time talking with a member of one of Maine’s Franco-American families, you’re likely to hear a story of past cultural loss. Depending on the generation and the family, that person may have grown up speaking French but learned to be ashamed of it. If they’re younger, they may not have learned the language at all—their parents or grandparents tried to smooth their way in life by wiping out this distinction.

Going back half a century in Maine’s history, speaking French may have gotten you in trouble in school, or held you back in your career. Even where French was valued, some thought the Franco-Americans didn’t speak the right French, with the proper accent. It’s no wonder the language and the culture it supported have faded with time.

Dr. Chelsea Ray, an assistant professor of French and comparative literature at University of Maine Augusta (UMA), was motivated after hearing her adult students talk about wanting to connect with the language their parents and grandparents spoke at home. The Maine French Heritage Language Program is designed to be a way to bridge that gap, though all children who want to learn the language are welcome.

In 2010, the four Augusta elementary schools’ French program was eliminated in budget cuts. Dr. Ray began working with elementary teachers to compensate for this loss. An afterschool program was developed for K-6 grade students, which UMA and the Franco-American Heritage Center expanded into the Maine French Heritage Language Program (MFHLP) in 2012. This project is the fruit of a partnership with the nationally recognized French Heritage Language Program of the French American Cultural Exchange.

The pilot program in Augusta proved that many people value language education; it filled to capacity on the first night and had a waiting list for the following year. The program consisted of two sessions per week, taught 80-90 percent in French. Language lessons were supplemented with an infusion of literature, arts/crafts, music, dance, film, and theater from Franco-American and other cultures. Visiting writers and artists ranged from Grace Gakuba, who introduced students to her native Rwanda and led them in a map puzzle activity, to Mme. Veilleux, the grandmother of two Lincoln School students, who shared stories of her life.

Children danced traditional dances to traditional live music, recorded interviews with their grandparents, cooked French foods, and sang songs in nursing homes, all while steadily working towards proficiency with the French language. The thoughtfulness, time, and effort that went into creating this interdisciplinary experience was remarkable—from the recent immigrants who came in to speak with the children to the Bates College student who spent her free time playing fiddle tunes for dances.

One of the program’s visitors was Anne Miller, the Cultural Attaché from Boston, assigned to the Consulate General of France. The children welcomed her with the folk song “Allouette” when she traveled to the P. Hussey Elementary School in Augusta. “We’re here to support children who want to learn French because we see the program as a way of healing the past while preparing for the future,” she said.

The project’s case statement described it as “a program built by the community for the community,” citing the rich collaboration of scholars and other professionals with Franco-American and Acadian leaders. “The Augusta and L-A communities have many families who cannot afford to bring music, art, and other enrichment into their children’s lives.” This low-cost afterschool program gave children the chance to develop a strong humanities foundation that they may otherwise have lacked.

Sample lessons and implementation guides were created and hosted online by UMA, with the goal of seeing the program replicated in other cities in Maine and throughout New England. In 2013, the MFHLP was thriving in its second year at Sherwood Heights and Fairview schools in Auburn, and the Hussy and Lincoln schools in Augusta.

The hard work continues to pay off. Doris Bonneau, a leader and teacher in the program through the Franco-American Heritage Center, checked back in with the MHC in May 2015 to share the ongoing importance of the Maine French Heritage Language Project, which she describes as “an important catalyst to the resurgence of French in Maine.”

Doris Bonneau and Chelsea Ray were both named chevaliers de l’ordre des palmes académiques, a distinction from the French Government for teachers in France and abroad who are committed to the teaching and learning of Francophone cultures. Dr. Ray also received the William Richardson Leadership Award from the Foreign Language Association, and Ms. Bonneau was inducted into the Maine Franco American Hall of Fame.

“These recognitions would not have been possible without the support of the Maine Humanities Council,” Bonneau says. “Your trust in our work was the catalyst that permitted us to develop, implement and institutionalize the curriculum.”

Doris Bonneau describes her ability to speak French as the reason she is now able to appreciate different cultures—including her own. Her bilingual upbringing was a blessing to her.

“I’m a little French girl from Lewiston-Auburn who worked summers in the mill and who was the first in my family to achieve several college degrees,” Bonneau said in her award speech. “I recall being criticized for talking with my hands, for working too hard, for going too fast, for being determined, even stubborn. But I just did not know how to work or grow or improve any other way.”

The program has recently been expanded in Augusta through Le Calumet Club and the Bureau of Augusta Recreation. Diane Pelletier, the co- coordinator of the Maine French Heritage Language Program, teaches the curriculum at St. Michaels School in Augusta. In Lewiston, the Franco-American Center is integrating heritage into its activities.

“The twin cities have become multicultural and diverse,” Bonneau said of her home in Lewiston-Auburn, “Let’s be proud together.”