The snails got the biggest reaction.
“Dear Hannah, How do you do?” began the letter projected on the board in Molly Gibson’s fifth-period French class at Mason Middle School.
It continued: “For Christmas dinner we eat snails, as other French people do.”
“Eww!” the eighth-grade class responded as one. But guest teacher Antona Healey chipped in quickly.
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“Actually,” she said, “we don’t all eat snails. I never do.”
The letter was a learning moment, one of the latest in a three-year pen-pal exchange between Tacoma students and those in Tacoma’s sister city, Biot, France, that’s now extended to a teacher exchange.
This week, Healey, who teaches English at Biot’s Collège de l’Eganaude middle school, is visiting Tacoma and co-teaching Gibson’s classes.
The exchange’s benefit to students? Better language skills, new friends and more open-mindedness about another culture.
“They realize there’s more that exists besides our little bubble at Mason,” said Gibson, who traveled to the Biot school in winter 2016 on exchange. “It helps them become more aware, curious, open-minded. It’s exciting. We have this connection.”
The connection comes courtesy of the Tacoma-Biot Sister City Committee, which pays for air tickets and hosts the visiting teacher in each town.
Healey arrived Saturday and will stay a week, visiting other schools, including Stadium High School, as well as seeing local landmarks and meeting Mayor Marilyn Strickland.
On Tuesday at Mason, she was kept busy answering students’ questions about herself and life in Biot.
“Do you like living in Biot?” one student asked in French — a class exercise Gibson had been coaching last week.
Actually, Healey said, she lives in Antibes (a nearby town on the French Riviera), but Biot is “super.”
“Do you have dogs or cats?”
“Neither. But I have two children, a boy and a girl,” came the response. Gibson followed it with questions to see who had understood Healey’s response in neat, quick French.
With a French mother and English father, Healey is bilingual, as are many of her students at L’Egnanaude, which has an international department for students fluent in Italian.
But all of the students need to practice their English, so after the cities made contact in 2013, Gibson and Healey’s predecessor, Sara Jane Higgins, leaped at the chance for students to exchange pen-pal letters: Tacoma students writing in French, Biot students writing in English.
This week marks the second batch of letters this year, and Gibson’s students eagerly took the sheets of paper, reading them for new information about their new friends.
“I’m really excited, because I’m not a very social person and talking to people I’ve never met is tough, but when I write, that’s awesome,” said Kailyn Ayres, 13, whose pen pal Elisa is into jazz dance and watching movies. “And my French has improved because I’m writing a whole page in French.”
Other students discovered a common passion for the “Harry Potter” series, a love of similar phone games or the fact they’d studied the same novel in school.
Just having a French person visit their classroom was an eye-opener for the Mason students.
“It’s awesome,” said Ethan Blair, 14. “You get to see the culture over there. … I can see the similarities and differences.”
The most surprising difference for Blair?
“They get a whole two hours for (school) lunch, while we just get half an hour,” he said. “They get more time to just chill.”
In turn, Healey reports that the Biot students are just as fascinated to learn about life in Tacoma.
“Here,” she said, “the students say they’re jealous of the food we get at school lunch in France — a couple of different starters, a main, a cheese course and dessert. But my students would be very jealous that here you can bring whatever food you want.”
The exchange, begun in 2013 by Tacoma committee chairwoman Catherine Sarnat and her Biot counterpart Pascale Nicol, is just part of a robust series spearheaded by Tacoma’s Sister City committees over the years.
That includes a current visit by students from Gunsan, South Korea, and to Tacoma Community College by students from Kitakyushu, Japan. Tacoma has sent visitors to George, South Africa, and Cienfuegos, Cuba.
Mayor Strickland has extended an invitation to sister city mayors to visit Tacoma during the Festival of Sails in June, and to host panel discussions on urban challenges, said Sister City Council treasurer Clare Petrich.
“Sister cities know that we create peace in the world one individual, one community at a time,” Petrich said.
More practically, the Tacoma-Biot pen-pal exchange helps students work harder: Healey notices that when homework is intended for the American pen pals, her students put in much more effort.
Gibson noted that though the incoming English letters are high quality, just noticing the mistakes and thinking them through helps her students understand language better.
On Tuesday, the Mason students were impressed at how well Biot students write English — the result, Healey said, of learning the language from around second grade.
Many students stay friends with their pen pals after middle school, with one former Mason student even visiting his on a family vacation.
More importantly, it helps students ditch stereotypes — such as all French people eating snails.
“It broadens their minds to what it’s like in a different country,” Healey said. “And they find that although there are differences, there are similarities too.”
Gibson and Healey, who has many more students looking to practice English, are talking about broadening the pen-pal exchange to include French classes at Giaudrone Middle School.
And might there one day be a student exchange, such as has happened with young glass blowers from Biot and Tacoma?
Maybe, both teachers said, if financial support can be found.
“I would definitely go,” Ayres said. “I’ve never been out of the country, and then to, like, know someone who’s out of the country and meet them, that would be amazing.”