Cider Mill students connect across the ocean

The conversation at Cider Mill School was foreign, yet familiar. Inside a classroom, a group of students greeted a video screen on the Smart Board. From speakers embedded in the ceiling came an enthusiastic response.


The sounds of France come alive every Friday inside this classroom as teacher Paul Keuffner hosts an international videoconference with students who wish to speak with their counterparts across the Atlantic.

“One of my goals as a teacher is to help children learn to communicate better,” he said.

The chats were originally part of the Internautes French Club that began at the school in 2005, Mr. Keuffner had to find a different way to keep them alive as budget cuts eliminated the club.

While many schools in France were initially interested, technology precluded them from participating.

“Not all of their modems were up to the task of handling the high bit-per-second transmission required for video,” he said. “Cider Mill and Wilton are lucky to have a T1 line that eliminates this problem.”

Following the elimination of the club, Mr. Keuffner decided to keep the video chats alive by hosting the chats in English, thus eliminating the need for students to prepare.

“They could learn about France and children their age in France, and still tell the French students about themselves, Wilton, and life in Connecticut,” he said. “Teachers in France thought this was great because it could be part of their English class and really motivate their students to learn English.”

At first, a rotation of three schools were used, before settling on just one school this year.

On the screen in the classroom at Cider Mill, students from L’école Publique de Salles sur Garonne, in Salles sur Garonne, are talking to students in Wilton about topics ranging from food to government to local history and more.

Outside of that, students discovered that the French school is close to the aerospace hub Toulouse, where Airbus is based. There is a tie to Connecticut that helped push the global message.

One of Cider Mill’s students researched Airbus, and learned that a super wide body A380 flew in to Bradley Airport in Hartford so that Pratt & Whitney workers could see how the engines looked on the newly designed aircraft,” Mr. Keuffner said.” Connecticut firms like Pratt & Whitney, General Electric and Sikorsky, among others, do about $5 billion a year in sales to countries that speak French and require French labeling and instructions.

“Connecticut businesses’ next-biggest foreign language customers, at around $3 billion per year, speak German,” he said. “Chinese follows at about $2 billion, followed by Spanish. My goal is to help students be able to communicate with customers worldwide, and be aware of cultural differences that can make a difference when it comes to making a sale. Our weekly Skype sessions help Cider Mill students get started moving in that direction.”

The students, all in fifth grade, come in to start the day with the videoconference. Those who attend are there on a volunteer basis, with approval from their parents, and the interest has been strong, with 70 children participating. It is not, Mr. Keuffner assured, part of the French class, but more of a global conversation. His French classes, however, do have individual email partners they correspond with.

The topic on this morning is sports, and while there is a basic structure, it also slides away. Classes are supposed to alternate their presentations, and on this morning, the French students have questions for their American counterparts. They are inquiring about the name of the national baseball championship, favorite sports, and what they play.

“Bonjour,” said Jack Myers. “My favorite sport is lacrosse.”

“Bonjour,” came the replay, digitally processed a moment later, showing the slight technological delay between countries.

“I play on Wilton 2,” he continued, describing his team. “We play against many other teams in the league. Our team is really good. I also play fencing, archery, and soccer.”

In France, teacher Jean-Louis Halioua translates for his students. He is not only a teacher but the principal and the mayor of Salles sur Garonne.

“In their report on medieval castles last week, for example, the Salles sur Garonne students showed us a picture of Carcasonne, a walled city near them from the 1200s that the entire population of Wilton could fit into,” Mr. Keuffner said. “They asked if there were any medieval monuments or buildings here, and we replied that the Pilgrims only got here in 1620, which is a bit later than 1240.

“When we changed the subject to Halloween in Wilton, however, they were suitably impressed by the hoards of candy that were amassed and reported by the Cider Millers.”

Cider Mill Principal Jennifer Mitchell also stopped by to watch a portion of the proceedings before heading back to the office for the morning announcements.

While au revoir may or may not have been said following the Pledge of Allegiance in the US, the emotion was the same regardless as the session ended.

“I hope to continue these videoconferences as long as there are students who want to have them,” Mr. Keuffner said.

He said he gave a presentation at a meeting of the Connecticut chapter of the American Association of Teachers of French regarding exchanges like this.

“The U.S. embassy in Paris and the French embassy in New York have websites devoted to communication between classes on both sides of the Atlantic,” he said.

“The world is getting smaller, and more than 200 million people in it speak French. Make that more than 200 million and 70.”

In an email, Mr. Halioua contributed a few thoughts.

"From my class, in the beginning of the year, the fifth grade pupils began to talk," he said. "After, the other pupils (seventh and sixth grades) take part in this experience. I hope to improve their English and to be in a real situation. Topics are prepared for each session as it is easier for my pupils. They prepare the questions or the topics we present with photos or PowerPoint.

"Paul (Keuffner) and have become a good friend and I enjoy working with him. Parents in France are very happy to know that we can exchange with American pupils and share our knowledge about our national culture. For instance, we would like to explain what was the Catharism in the Middle Age in the south west of France.

"It's a very rich experience and we would like to continue. Our new project? A trip to the USA to meet our new friends. Why not?"