Seventeen teenagers from France visited Riverside-Brookfield High School during the last two weeks of April. They came to RBHS to work on their English and learn more about America and Americans. 

The program was organized by RBHS French teacher Laurence Forberg through a company she discovered at a conference. The French students, ages 15 and 16, all attend Jeanne d’Arc School, a small Catholic high school in Etampes, a town with a population of about 25,000 located about 30 miles south of Paris.

Forberg was anxious to have students from France visit RBHS, because she wanted her students to learn about French people and French culture up close. During her 15 years teaching at RBHS, Forberg, who grew up in France, has taken students on summer trips to France to every few years, but she felt something was missing.

“I wanted more of a connection,” Forberg said. “It’s really nice to go visit, but you really don’t have much interaction.” 

Each student from France was paired with an RBHS student and shadowed their American partners for five different school days, staying at their partner student’s home for the entire two weeks.

In French class, students worked collaboratively, researching and comparing aspects of culture and life in the United States and France. They delivered their findings in group presentations on their final day here before flying back to France on April 30.

The French students noticed some big differences between their school and RBHS. At their school, a class stays in the same classroom all day while teachers of different subjects come and go. 

They also have a college-type block schedule and don’t have the same classes every day. The French students were amazed at the wide range of classes and activities at RBHS, such as music and photography and the many sports and activities. 

The French students also were surprised by the casual dress and atmosphere at RBHS. 

“I like the school in the United States because there are a lot of people, and they can wear whatever they want to and they can use their cellphones, whereas in my school we are not allowed to do that,” said 15-year-old Jeanne Gros. “I can’t wear shorts; I can’t wear jogging [suits].”

The French students said that the teachers at RBHS tend to be friendlier than teachers at their school and were struck by the less formal interactions some RBHS students have with their teachers. They were also struck by the noise level at RBHS.

“In France, we don’t speak in class,” said Paul Gros, Jeanne’s twin brother.

And they were impressed by the choice of food at lunch offered to RBHS students.

“In France it is the same food for everyone,” said Anton Gatimeau. “Here you can choose.”

The RBHS students, and the host parents, were impressed by the manners of the French students.

“They’re so polite,” said RBHS senior Elizabeth Johnston, who hosted Paul Gros. “They will not ask you for food, they don’t want to inconvenience you. At the same time, they want to help you. They want to help you with your groceries; if something’s broken they want to help you fix it. They’re very considerate.”

When they weren’t shadowing their hosts, French students took in some of the sights in Chicago. They went on the boat architectural tour downtown, went to the Willis Tower, and visited museums. They were impressed by the Chicago skyline.

“In Paris there are maybe two big buildings,” Gatimeau said.

Host families tried their best to give their French charges a taste of American life. They took them to many different kinds of restaurants. Some went to Six Flags Great America, a few went to shows downtown. Johnston’s family took Paul Gros to a Chicago Cubs game on Easter Sunday. 

Four of the students, including Paul and Jeanne Gros, even attended the RBHS prom.

“It was like a movie for me, because every girl were wearing beautiful dresses and it was very cool,” Jeanne Gros said. “I danced with my brother.”

Paul Gros said that he thought his English improved during the trip.

“I think I improved my vocabulary,” Paul Gros said. “I think I make mistakes now, but I think I make less mistakes than when I come.”

Most of the French students have been studying English since the fourth grade.

RBHS senior Nadia Kaczmarz said that hosting Jeanne Gros has made her want to travel more.

“It’s great to get to meet somebody from a different country,” Kaczmarz said. “I definitely want to travel more, because before I just originally wanted to stay in the U.S.”

Forberg said she would like to arrange a regular exchange program with a French school, perhaps having RBHS students visit France in June and then the French students coming to RBHS in the fall.