By Ben Hawkins
Tucked away in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, students at East Carter County High School – in the small town of Grayson – have been learning and celebrating the language and culture of the French-speaking world for more than 20 years in unique ways.
One of those ways is an annual evening of festivities where the spotlight is placed on the vast importance of the French language and culture in our world, and even in our lives here in America. Initially called the “French Open House” when it began 21 years ago, the event is known today by the faculty, students, and community of East Carter as the “French Fest” and has become a regular tradition that is eagerly anticipated each year.
As those who have attended the French Fest in the past can attest, there are several key elements that one can expect. For example, the evening always begins with a French feast! Upon entering, attendees are greeted by table after table of fine French food prepared and provided by the students enrolled in French class. The students who bring their food project to the French Fest have their work judged for a chance to win a prize.
After opening remarks and greetings are made by the president of the East Carter Chapter of the French Honor Society, attendees are then told “bon appétit” and invited to enjoy all of the delectable delights of fine French cuisine. Attendees are then are treated to a series of special presentations, performances, and activities put on and led by me, the current French Teacher at East Carter – or “Monsieur H” as I am is known by my students – along with the officers of the East Carter French Honor Society and several of the students enrolled in French class.
The French Fest is organized around a unique theme each year as a way to connect and enhance all of the presentations, performances and activities. The theme for the French Fest for the 2015-16 school year had a rather serious, though still positive and hopeful, tone. It came out of the tragedies we all witnessed in 2015 that began with the shooting at the offices in Paris of a weekly satirical publication, “Charlie Hebdo,” which claimed the lives of 11 people.
Sadly, this was not the last wave of terrorism to hit us in 2015, nor was it even the last to hit Paris. Because of the numerous examples of terrorism experienced in the year 2015 alone, and because many of them happened in several French-speaking countries around the world, I decided it was time to respond.
The whole week after the November Paris attacks, my students and I discussed, asked questions, researched, reflected and then acted. I had seen on social media where several French teachers across the country were creating peace walls with their students as a positive way to respond with love and not hate, and to show their support for the French people. So, that’s what my students and I did as well.
The end result was a peace wall with several student-created posters affixed to a giant backdrop of the French flag on the wall in the hallway directly across from the French classroom at East Carter. But it didn’t stop there. I also decided then and there that I had to connect the theme of this year’s French Fest to this somehow. I began to plan the evening’s events to show support for all of the people in the world affected by terrorism in 2015, but to do so in a positive and hopeful manner.
Through the evening’s events and festivities, we celebrated the French-speaking world in style and tried our best to encourage people to not be afraid to live their lives and be who they are, to have hope and spread love and compassion. For this is truly the only way to win against terrorism.
Another of the evening’s highlights came from the French teacher responsible for starting the French Fest at East Carter 21 years ago, Mrs. Debra McDaniel. Mrs. McDaniel – accompanied by a retired professor of French from Morehead State University, Mary Jo Netherton – performed a song that became a balm of healing to the French people in the wake of the Nov. 13 attacks, “Paix Sur La Terre” (“Peace on the Earth”).
Overall, last year’s French Fest was another huge success, leaving much to be looked forward to for this year. For more information on this event, you can go to the East Carter French website here.
Festivals or events like the French Fest at East Carter are great ways for schools to encourage and help students, as well as communities, to become more globally competent and appreciative of cultural diversity. Being sensitive to and respectful of cultural differences is one of the most-desired results of any successful world language program; the French Fest helps make this happen in an exciting and memorable way for all who jump in and participate.
Ben Hawkins is a French teacher at East Carter County High School (Carter County Public Schools). He is very involved in the Kentucky chapter of the American Association of Teachers of French (KY-AATF) and serves in the Kentucky World Language Association as the chair of the Awards Committee.