Students take in more than scenes in France
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It might have been Pittsburgh on July 4 -- spectacular fireworks viewed by onlookers on bridges overlooking a river filled with pleasure boats -- except it was July 14, and the backdrop was not office buildings but grand country houses, or French chateaus.
It was Bastille Day in Paris, the national holiday symbolizing the birth of the republic.A group of 14 Steel Valley High School students, teachers and alumni spent part of July in France. Here they are in the Loire Valley, in front of Chateau d'Usse, the castle from which Charles Perrault drew inspiration when he was writing "Sleeping Beauty." French teacher Toni Besh, who coordinated the trip, is second from right.
Click photo for larger image.
If the pomp and ceremony didn't "make the classroom come alive," which was a goal of the trip, there were those side visits to the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Musee du Louvre, home to a "minor" work by Leonardo da Vinci called the "Mona Lisa."
"Everything we were taught in French class we were able to experience ourselves," said Jenn Smith, 18, of Munhall, who studied the language for three years at Steel Valley High School.
"It was cool to finally see it up close and personal," said Ian Mehok, 18, of Munhall, about the 1,063-foot Eiffel Tower, the city's tallest monument. Ian, a six-year French language student and former president of the Steel Valley High School French Club, especially enjoyed its breathtaking panoramic view of the nation's capital.
The recent graduates were among 14 French-language students, alumni, teachers and other adults from the Steel Valley School District who toured France from July 11 to 19.
A similar entourage from the West Jefferson Hills School District explored the City of Lights and surrounding areas from June 25 to July 2.
All of that provides a decidedly modern, upscale slant to the question, "What did you do on your summer vacation?" Both trips were wholly financed by the travelers.
Both trips also were plagued by flight delays which did not, the travelers insisted, detract from the pleasure of the Parisian experience.
While goals of the West Jefferson Hills trip were to travel and try out language skills, it was mostly about visiting the city's world-renowned sites for cultural purposes, said Lucy Fortino, a French/Latin/Spanish teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School and the trip's coordinator.
"I was so excited; I felt like I had accomplished something," said Alexa Coughenour, 16, of Jefferson Hills, of using her two years of French language training to order food in the cafes.
Her mother, Cindy Coughenour, who accompanied the group to see Paris for the first time, estimated the trip cost her and her daughter $2,000 each -- money the family has been setting aside for the past few years for just such a travel opportunity.
"None of the photos I have ever seen do it justice," said Mrs. Coughenour of the beauty and majesty of the "Mona Lisa." She was also wowed by the massive size and elaborate Gothic architecture of the 12th-century Notre Dame Cathedral.
Tour highlights for Miss Fortino included visiting the house and gardens of Impressionist painter Claude Monet in the town of Giverny, and traveling to the Loire Valley to see the castle of Blois and Chartres Cathedral.
Another priceless experience was riding the crowded metro at rush hour, and observing the students figuring out directions for their parents, she said.
The highlight for Steel Valley trip coordinator Toni Besh was "watching the students engage in using their French." Mrs. Besh is World Language Department chairwoman and a high school French teacher.
She estimated each participant paid an average of $3,000 for the tour package.
Shoes were the most important article of dress as both groups walked at least five miles a day to "see the maximum in the minimum time," Miss Fortino said.
The travelers also were struck by the absence of anti-American sentiment they encountered on their journeys.
"They were warm and accommodating if you attempted the language," said Mrs. Coughenour.
"We were treated well and received well," said Mrs. Besh.
The seven French students on her trip were "very open to the experience," she said, as they attempted the language at every opportunity.
That, their camaraderie and upbeat attitude earned them the distinction as "the best group" Mrs. Besh ever took to France since 1992.
"I would take them anywhere in a heartbeat," she said.
First Published August 9, 2007 6:26 am