Since 1993, Normandale Elementary has been an Edina choice school offering a complete French immersion program to students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Shortly after founding, the school began hosting native French speaking interns to engage with students in classrooms and help support the teachers while getting hands-on educational training.
Having native speakers in the classroom makes all the difference, according to the families and teachers involved in the program. Chris Holden, principal at Normandale, says, “Really, the challenge that language-immersion schools have is that we want to bring the language and the culture to life for kids, and so, the intern program has been a really good vehicle for making that happen for students and staff.”
In order to bring this opportunity to students in Edina though, it takes a village. For 23 years, Sharon Norlander, a first grade teacher, has recruited 25 interns to work for an academic year at Normandale, Valley View and most recently, Edina High School (EHS). Her commitment to the program is both personal and professional. She says, “For me, it is an amazing experience to have someone young in my classroom, with new ideas and new perspective. It is enriching to watch them grow in skill and development and relationships with our students.”
Finding interns for the next school year starts in the fall and includes travel she and another Normandale teacher, Rolland Talan, make to France in the winter.
“We work with sixteen universities who are thrilled to recommend their students to our program,” says Norlander.
Most potential interns are studying education with plans for a career in teaching in order to be considered for the program. By March, Norlander sends out acceptance letters and begins the visa application program. It is a long process, with interns arriving in the U.S. in late August for a week of orientation training. The interns are met by Edina families who host them in their homes for one semester. In January, they move into a second host’s home to finish the year. Besides host families, partner families provide another resource. Partner families remain with the intern for the entire year.
“The biggest benefit is for our kids,” says Holden, but for those families who host, they may beg to differ. For them, everyone benefits.
Wendy Witherspoon, whose family hosted Alsace native Nadège Bender this past fall, calls the experience enriching. Bender has been most pleasantly surprised by the community. “I’ve noticed the Americans are welcoming with foreigners. When we arrived, people were warm and accepting. We are less open in France, sometimes afraid of others,” she says. Her observations were echoed by nearly all of the interns interviewed.
Intern Naomi Gnana, a specialist this year at Normandale who spent her fall semester at the home of Madelyn and Rich Nasser, points out another common theme, “Classrooms are more free,” she says. “[Students] can talk, and they talk more than writing. In France, it is the opposite.” Zelda Escudie, another intern from Bayonne, says, “Classrooms in France are very rigid,” while mentioning how getting used to the more relaxed learning atmosphere takes a little bit of time.For the hosts, having an intern in their homes really opens doors to understanding. Witherspoon sums up her family’s experience: “It’s fun to see Edina through Nadège’s eyes. We live in a great community; we often take it for granted. Watching her experience it has been thrilling.” Ultimately, both interns and hosts are able to recognize commonalities and appreciate differences.
Escudie says she misses “only the food” at home. Her host, Heidi Sargeant, chuckles and mentions how different our very busy culture with our highly involved kids compares to the pace in France.
Beside their duties in the classroom, interns “participate in classes that help them understand our educational systems, philosophies, methods and technology,” says Norlander. They are essentially learning skills that they can apply to future careers.
Typically, Normandale families have hosted over the years, but recently, couples like empty-nesters, Carol and Terry Kapsen felt the call to invite an intern into their home. Their own children graduated from EHS and they now have grandchildren who attend Normandale. For them, hosting has been “a lot of great laughs,” says Terry.
“She just merged into our lifestyle,” Terry says of Sarah Oberle who lived with the Kapsen’s until January. “Our first intern even started doing some cooking,” he says, which meant they could enjoy an introduction to some French cuisine. Carol says, “After dinner, we sat together in the family room and watched The Crown with French subtitles.”
Oberle says, “Some other interns were surprised to hear that I live with ‘grandparents’ but I would say I’m really lucky. The committee made a really good match.”
Interns are matched with hosts through a process of questionnaires and interviews conducted by a committee comprised of Normandale parents.
Anne Jennen, who has sometimes been called the “Den Mother” to the interns has hosted six interns over the years and volunteered for seven. Her role on the placement committee is making sure she finds a good fit for each intern as well as help the participants build their own community by hosting social events at least once a month.
Jennen echoes another recurring theme when she says, “One thing that I really like is having a native French speaker in the classroom, [our kids’] accents are flawless.” Holden explains, “For our kids, they get exposure to someone who is working with them on a daily basis who teaches them the language and embodies that culture.”
Everyone benefits from the program, it seems, but it is costly to provide stipends, pay for visas and flights—and, it is funded entirely by parents. To meet the financial needs, the Normandale families have had many fundraisers over the years, but two years ago, Werry decided to host a gala to raise more funds. It was so successful two additional interns were hired for the 2017–’18 school year. In fall of 2016 Kristen Ewers, Rose Norman, Kelly Sapmaz & Monique Werry evolved the Normandale Gala to raise more funds to support the Intern Program.
This past November, Rebecca Sorenson and Bridget Connell hosted a “Meet Me in Paris” gala with an eye to match the previous years’ success. The event featured a silent auction with many appreciated items donated from local businesses and a live auction for round-trip airfare to Paris and a wine tour in Bordeaux. It surpassed the last year by raising more than $100,000. Of the larger purpose of the event, Connell says, “I’m proud of the togetherness this program creates, it creates community.”
The French immersion program is really just one facet of our broad Edina community, but it speaks to a common theme: We care about quality, curiosity and connection. We join together as a village to enrich lives. Here’s to continued success bridging cultures and people!