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Le Château de la Baudonnière: an alternative to a French exchange

Published in the SATIPS Language Broadsheet

"For many years, I organised exchange trips to many different areas of France. The trips lasted between three days and two weeks and I took both boys and girls aged between nine and thirteen. The children were all paired with French children of the same age and interests and were given a real insight into French family life. I organised outings during the day, some of them for the English and French children together, others just for the English children. Each year some of the families decided to continue the exchanges and that first school trip was just the beginning of long and very happy friendships, not just between the children, but also between whole families.

At my present school there is no history of French exchanges but the Year 7 pupils have the chance to go to an activity centre in France. As these trips have been heavily subsidised by the school, the take up has been almost 100%.

Last year, I took nearly 20 boys off to an activity centre in the Mayenne; there were lots of activities to do, interesting visits and, in theory at least, the children could learn

French at the same time. All the staff at the Château were cheerful and enthusiastic but, apart from the chef, none of them were French. They all spoke some French, one or two very fluently, but for the majority of the staff it was far from natural; the children seemed to know that instinctively and they soon worked out that they did not really have to speak French that much either. After a week in France I felt that the pupils had not really been exposed to nearly enough French. The visit to the market has been good and the lady at the goat farm had given the pupils a glimpse of what real France is like but these moments were all too brief. I came away determined to find something better.

I went to the Château de la Baudonnière for an inspection visit at the start of my last summer holiday. We arrived half way through a downpour that lasted 36 hours and were immediately given a room rather than space to put up our trailer tent and were made to feel very welcome.

The next morning I joined another group’s introductory talk and tour of the grounds and I was delighted to see the easy way in which the staff explained everything simply and clearly in French. There was certainly no feeling that it was artificial or that it was ‘put-on’ for the benefit of the pupils and I decided there and then that I wanted to take a group to the Château the following February.

The Château is in a little village, not far from Villedieu-les-Poëles, within easy reach of Le Havre and Cherbourg. It has extensive grounds which offer a good range of activities. During the day we tried the assault course, archery, initiative exercises, VTT, climbing and there were French lessons, too! Canoeing is also a possible activity in the warmer months We had one day out during the week and we went to the market in Villedieu and then on to the Mont St-Michel. In the evenings there was a treasure hunt, a camp fire, a talent show and a video evening when we watched Toy Story, in French, of course!

For most of the activities at the Château the French staff take charge of the pupils and you are free to watch, take part or do anything else. On one morning I borrowed the Château car and went in to Villedieu to get to know it a bit better before taking the pupils to the market. Staff from the Château also went on the day trip and their local knowledge, particularly at the Mont Saint-Michel, was very useful.

The Château produce a very good cahier de vacances which is sent to schools a couple of months before the trip. It is full of useful vocabulary sections, short worksheets about the different activities, the market and the Mont Saint-Michel. There are also activities for the children to do on the journey and after the trip as well as a diary section to be filled in for each day. The parents really appreciated the book, too, and it certainly helped persuade some of the weaker pupils that they would able to understand more of what people said to them and help them know what to say in reply. As long, that is, as they learned it.

Before or after each of the activities during the week, there was a short classroom session on the necessary language. For the assault course, for example, there were sentences in the book to practise and complete, describing what the pupils had to do at the different obstacles. Before being allowed to tackle any obstacle, everyone had to repeat the sentence saying what they were about to do e.g. je passe à travers le pneu, je traverse la rivière avec une corde. The fact that it would have been more accurate to have said je tombe dans la rivière avec une corde served only to make it more fun for our boys, although some of the girls from another school were not quite so keen on taking a dip in the river, fully clothed, in February!

The repetition of the phrases certainly worked; all the pupils remembered the word ‘pneu’ when it came up in a CE Listening Test some weeks after the trip. At no point during the activity were they told that un pneu was a tyre or that un rondin was a log but they understood it because they saw it, heard it, repeated it and even felt it. A true example of the benefits of multi-sensory learning!

Some years ago I remember hearing some French Mothers asking each other if their children’s English penfriends were settling in to their family. The answer was almost invariably either ‘Oui, il mange bien’ or ‘Non, il veut pas manger’. Children are notoriously fussy about food and I was curious to know how they would cope with the food, particularly if they did not know what it was.

Whether deliberately or not, the staff at the Château solved this problem by presenting the meals in French and getting the children to repeat the names of the dishes. At breakfast this was carried one step further and the member of staff encouraged everyone to repeat not only what there was to eat but also un couteau, un bol, une assiette etc.

The presentation of each meal took some time; one lunch, which was not intended to be the main meal of the day, consisted of eight different courses. The unhurried nature of the meals gave frequent opportunities for practising ‘passe-moi le pain s’il te plaît’. As well as great variety in the food, there was always plenty of it, as long as one of the pupils was prepared to go to the kitchen to ask for some more bread, water, hot chocolate, squash etc., in French of course.

The obligatory dish of snails one evening was very popular with most pupils; nearly everyone tried them and some of the boys competed with each other to see who could eat the most. The number eaten seemed to increase each time the boys recounted the feat!

In case you might think I am working on a percentage of future bookings, I should perhaps sound a more critical note over one part of the programme which I feel did not really work as well as I should have liked. There is an hour set aside each afternoon for the children to write their diary and we had the use of a classroom for that hour. Unfortunately, by five o’clock in the afternoon, they were not at their most receptive and getting good quality work out of them at that time was bound to be difficult. I shall certainly try to modify the timetable next year so that our diary session is done at a different time, perhaps in the morning or before the afternoon activities.

I still believe that an individual exchange with a French family can offer more than any group activity holiday but I know that for more and more pupils and parents that sort of trip is no longer an option. The Château offers a safe environment where children can learn French in France; not quite total immersion, but perhaps as close to that as many children and parents would accept. I have already booked up for next year and I know that some of our pupils are keen to go back for a second time.
If you would like to know more about the Château there is a relatively new web site which gives you a very good idea of what is available and gives you something of a feel for how the château operates."

Mr Ian Roberts of Priory School, Banstead


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Others testimonials from teachers

We got back from our visit yesterday and would just like to a great big merci to all of you, but especially you for organising everything for us. we had a really lovely time. The chateau is brilliant and the staff so helpful and friendly. Everything was great and even the weather was kind despite the forecast, so thank you so much and I will be recommending it to everyone I can. what a great idea to do total immersion- it s the only way forward. Kathy Beaumont - Ashlyns School
I just wanted to thank you personally for a fantastic week in Chateau de la Baudonniere. I can honestly say that it was the best school trip I have been on. From the organisation of the booking in the UK to the warm welcome and family atmosphere we experienced at the chateau, everything was perfect. One of the strong points was the team of animateurs. Without exception, they were enthusiastic, friendly and accomplished in making all the activities fun for the children, all of whom have come home with fantastic memories and a renewed enthusiasm for speaking French.
Thank you for everything and I look forward to visiting the chateau with more groups in the future. Carolyn George - All Saints Catholic High School
Nous avons beacoup apprécié l'ambiance, la nourriture et l'aide de tous les animateurs. Merci. Merci à tout le monde - on s'est bien amusé on a bien mangé et on a beaucoup appris! Kathy Green & Liz Pribul, Forest School
Above all, the whole French experience was very much enjoyed by our children. After ten previous French trips this was the one the children have gained most in terms of language and confidence - and I think the one they have enjoyed most. Mr T Cooke, Deputy Headmaster, Clayesmore Preparatory
All our pupils had a wonderful time and are hoping to return. It has even motivated some to do 'A' Level French. Jacky Maggs, Head of French, The Coopers' Company & Coborn School
We were most impressed by the commitment, competence and enthusiasm of all your staff. Mrs J Longbourne, Head of Modern Languages, St Albans High School for Girls
In my twenty years of teaching I've done quite a number of French trips with children and can honestly say that this one has offered me by far the best formula so far. Brigitte Ainsworth, Grace Dieu
I am so pleased with the success of our week in France and the very positive effect that it has had on the examination work. Mr C John, Rugby School
It was wonderful to find out about the Chateau de la Baudonniere and I visited the centre during the Easter holidays with my colleague, Lynda Aguilar, to discover more. We realised immediately that our pupils would love the range of activities on offer and would all benefit from the experience of being in such a unique environment. We were, therefore, delighted when all 67 of our year 8 pupils decided to participate in the 5-day residential visit in October.
After a long journey to Normandy, we finally arrived and the fun began!
Despite fairly inclement weather, (typical of the region during October, unfortunately!) All the children thrived in the French-speaking environment and the Chateau staff were extremely skilled at enabling our pupils to feel comfortable and challenged in such an atmosphere.
Our days were filled with an amazing range of activities – including archery, bread – making, orienteering and a very muddy (and hugely popular!) assault course. Pupils spent their evenings singing French songs around a campfire, playing “le handball” and taking part in various quizzes.
It has to be said, too, that we were treated to a fabulous assortment of gastronomic delights, and both the staff and pupils enjoyed the local dishes that were on offer. Favourites for many seemed to be the frogs’ legs and snails, and the French chef complimented our pupils on being “exceptionally good eaters!” It must be our Brighton sea – air!
The trip was a huge success and I am very happy to have discovered a French residential centre of such quality. As a teacher, I know that I would love to have visited the Chateau myself when I was in year 8 and I could see pleasure, excitement and satisfaction etched in all our pupils’ faces. We shall be returning. A bientot! Zoë Thomas – Head of French
This is my sixth visit to the Chàteau with Royal Latin School, and whilst I have not led any of the trips, I am the only member of staff to have accompanied all six of them. For me the Chàteau goes from strength to strength, with increased levels of safety and greater consistency in delivering appropriate activities that meets the needs of our students. However, this year, I have been particularly impressed with the atmosphere around the chàteau: Colette is a fantastic asset and the presentation she gives in the morning is second to none. Wilfred leads activities with confidence and sensitivity.
I was really pleased to see Béné and Sophie looking well. This year, we have really felt part of the Chàteau family during our short stay - a feeling that i know is so important as it allows us to ensure that our students gain the maximum benefit from the experience. I am try to learn French myself and i know first hand how the total French immersion approach is so effective.
I know that the trip leader, andrea Savage, and the other staff have enjoyed the trip and that there is always an opportunity for feedback at the Chàteau and later on the telephone, however, I wanted to take this opportunity to write to you personally to express my own personal view of the Chàteau experience. Matthew Morgan, Senior Teacher, Royal Latin School
I have been on 27 outbound trips and this one was by far the best. The Chateau have a unique way of developing the children and should be really proud of this. Lynne, Party Leader, Kew College
For eight years now I have run various trips to the Château de la Baudonnière. Initially I would take up to 90 Year 7 students for a week in July and I remember fondly my first visit, and how impressed I was with all aspects of the Château and its fantastic staff team.
Every Easter I have continued to take Sixth Form students to the Château, and it remains an incredibly popular and integral part of the course. Students have undertaken visits to local lycées, les mairies, regional hospitals, the law courts, the university of Caen, radio stations and homeless centres. Whilst at these places they have had the opportunity to conduct questionnaires or ask specific questions applicable to their presentation work.
I have always set aside the last day of the trip for a full blown mock oral examination. With the help of the Château staff it is possible to devote anything up to an hour with individual candidates. Students would prepare for the exam just as they would for the oral proper, be examined for 15 minutes and then receive up to 45 minutes individual feedback. When we return after each successive trip I am constantly surprised how every aspect of my students’ understanding has improved – their confidence in oral work, their projects, their exam results. It is this level of proficiency in extending students’ performance which brings me back year after year. Conn Anson-O’Connell, Head of MFL, King Henry VIII

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