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French Declamation Contest Flourishes Over Many Years

The first generation of CHCCS elementary school students who stood on stage at East Chapel Hill High (ECHHS) and recited French poems might now have little ones of their own learning French and climbing the same steps to perform in the French Declamation Contest. It’s likely that some of the poems are the same, “Le Chat et le Soleil,” (The Cat and the Sun) or “La Fourmi” (The Ant), in which case recollections of the dramatic gestures and simple French rhymes might still resurface in the memories of those 30-something’s who competed. On May 18, more than 150 contestants from Estes Hills Elementary (EHES), Glenwood Elementary (GES) and Ephesus Elementary (EES) continued an age-old tradition of poetry declamation, one practiced in world-language classrooms around the globe.

The original model for the CHCCS declamation contest was presented by Romance Language professors and graduate students from UNC, and it was open to middle and high school students in French or Spanish. Kathleen Rhodes, former French teacher at ECHHS, redesigned the contest for elementary students to recite their poems to high school student judges.

Shawna Catlett, French teacher at EES, said, “When I began teaching at Estes in 1997, the declamation was still for both languages.  As the district grew and expanded the Spanish FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary Schools), the contest became too unwieldy because of the sheer numbers.” For a year or two, the contest stopped, but nearly 20 years ago, Rhodes proposed the contest become a French-only event. “This is because we only taught French at three schools, so the number of participants would be manageable,” Catlett said.

Over the years, Catlett stepped in and, as she said, “carried the torch” for the contest to survive. “When Madame Rhodes retired in 2011, the contest faltered, until we found leadership in Molly Brooks (ECHHS teacher) in 2018 and revived it to its former glory,” she said. This year’s event involved French students from grades one through twelve. Elementary students recited poems, Lisa Feather’s Phillips Middle School students held a carnival to entertain the younger children after their recitations, and high school students ran the event, from helping with the initial organizing tasks to the judging of each recitation.

East French students at contest “This was my first year helping run the French Poetry Declamation and, after all the fun I had, there's no doubt that I'll volunteer again next year,” said Shiny Shen, ECHHS student. “The most engaging aspect of FPD is definitely the chance to share our love of French language and culture with the children and (hopefully) instill that same sense of wonder to propel their interest. The French Poetry Declamation is both an educational and entertaining opportunity for all.”

Although the initial mission for the UNC-sponsored contest was a celebration of the study of all world languages, Catlett said, “It’s a nice way to celebrate vertical alignment in our French (instruction) schools, and a preemptive way of getting ahead of ‘Why French?’ questions. In addition to being a great tool for advocacy, learning poetry is a standard in the NC World Language Standard Course of Study for novice learners.”

As the students recited their poems for the judges, it was clear that many had invested time honing their dramatic flourishes, as well as their accents and the accuracy of memorization. The poems included "Le Chat et le Soleil" by Maurice Carême for third graders and "La Fourmi" by Robert Desnos for fourth graders. Catlett said, “Most poems were chosen back in the day and have been a mainstay for this contest. They were chosen to increase in difficulty as the children progress through the FLES program. They are also chosen based on having concrete language, lending themselves well to visuals and movements and gestures. Most deal with animals or other familiar objects. Some have repetitions to make learning easier.”

Sophie Cronin, ECHHS student, said, “I've loved being a part of the Declamation! I participated when I was in fourth grade, and I remember that encouraged me to keep taking French throughout the years. And now I've really enjoyed organizing the event and seeing how excited all the students were.”

Brooks said, “It is only East Chapel Hill School students who participate among the high schools, since the elementary and middle schools which participate are feeders for our program. The Phillips Middle school students with Ms. Feathers run the 'games,’ but ECHHS students are in charge of walking the kids to and from their poem recitations, and ECHHS students are the judges. The judges are Honors French 3 or above.”

Catlett noted, “This is an equal opportunity event. The only criterion is that the student attend one of the three French schools. All students are encouraged to come out and participate, and the elementary French teachers work hard to get documents translated into many languages for families in our schools, as well as help families who need transportation connect with others who can provide a ride.”

French declamation contestants “This is a great way to showcase our district French K-12  language program,” said Brooks. “It allows students to collaborate and interact with others who have an interest in French language and culture and show off their skills to the community at large. It allows the elementary students to see where their study of French language can take them. None of this would be possible without the work and dedication of Mme. Catlett who continues to promote and organize this event from her end at the elementary school.”

After the last student’s recitation ended, the entire group filed into the ECHHS auditorium for the presentation of awards and certificates. Brooks said, “It was a fantastic event and well received by parents and students.”




      Le Chat et le Soleil

           par Maurice Carême

Le chat ouvrit les yeux,

Le soleil y entra.

Le chat ferma les yeux,

Le soleil y resta.


Voilà pourquoi, le soir

Quand le chat se réveille,

J'aperçois dans le noir

Deux morceaux de soleil.