Even if they’ve had a solid year of French, the first “Tu t’apelle comment?” can catch the kids off-guard.
Granted, “What’s your name?” is practically the first sentence you learn to say in French. But the thick, authentic accents of the Concordia Language Villages staff at Lac du Bois in the North Woods can make those words sound a lot different than your kindly French teacher’s slow annunciation: “Too-taaa-pelll como?”
Of course, after 30 years of bringing students for weekend trips to the language camp, St. Peter French teacher Mary Behrends knows that the total “immersion” is a huge part of the educational benefit. All weekend they hear French, they speak French, and they experience French culture.
A lot of Minnesota schools take students to Concordia Language Villages. What makes Behrends unique is the size of her groups, the inclusion of so many elementary-age kids who haven’t taken French yet, and the number of years she’s been participating in the camps. Recently, Behrends was honored by Concordia for participating in the camps for 30 years.
For the middle and high school group in the spring, she’ll take about 50 kids. Last weekend she brought 21 students in grades 4-6 from North Intermediate school.
“It’s a chance to try something new,” she said, adding that hopefully the experience will lead the younger kids to take French classes later.
Behrends first started bringing students to Lac du Bois in 1982 when she taught at Loyola High School. The principal even let her use his family’s van to drive the students. Over the next few years she took students about three times to the camp.
“I had a lot of really nice students, and I thought, ‘Here’s a fun thing to try,’” she said.
In 1990, Behrends began teaching in St. Peter and took her first group to Concordia in 1992. The trips to the language camp have grown ever since.
In more recent years, a Spanish teacher at St. Peter also started taking groups to Concordia.
Behrends said the students have a blast, despite the fact they’re learning the whole time.
“It really is immersion. That can be pretty disorienting to kids. They hear lots of French,” she said.
The kids are given pretend passports, they exchange their U.S. money for Euros, they choose a French name for the weekend, and they are encouraged to speak as much French as possible.
A full schedule of activities includes eating French foods, playing games, creating skits, singing songs, doing cultural arts and crafts, and taking part in scavenger hunts.
“It’s pretty exhausting. There’s a lot that goes on,” Behrends said. “A lot of care goes into creating really great things for kids to try.”
Ninth-grader Lexie Ellerbeck has attended three of the weekend camps and one summer camp. Her first Lac du Bois experience was in sixth grade, before she’d had any French.
“It was hard at first. But I mean, I guess it just also made me want to take French class in seventh grade (so I could understand more),” she said. “I just loved the atmosphere of it. The food was great. The people that went were very friendly and nice.”
With two full years of French class behind her, Ellerbeck plans to continue on with the language all through high school and maybe college, she said. She also hopes to return to Concordia Language Villages as a counselor.
Concordia offers programs in 14 languages that range from day camps to summer-length programs for all ages and families. For more information, visit http://www.concordialanguagevillages.org.
Scholarship fund accepting donations Behrends started a scholarship fund a couple of years ago in honor of a former French student, David Rosoff, who died in a car accident in 2004. The program benefits students from North Intermediate School by providing 20 of the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students with $50 scholarships toward weekend camp tuition, which is $155. The scholarships are awarded to the first 20 students who sign up. Anyone who wants to donate to the fund can call Behrends at 507-934-4210, ext. 435.