Madison Consolidated High School teacher Michael Heitz spent six weeks this summer teaching French during an immersion program for Indiana high-school juniors in Brest, France. (Photo courtesy of Michael Heitz)
Madison Consolidated High School teacher Michael Heitz spent six weeks this summer teaching French during an immersion program for Indiana high-school juniors in Brest, France. (Photo courtesy of Michael Heitz)
Summer vacation experiences were continents apart for two Madison teachers who spent part of their summer break teaching in foreign countries.

Laura Ferguson, who teaches third grade at Rykers’ Ridge Elementary School, spent 16 days working with students during a summer camp at the Mary English School in Xangzhou, China, through the Chinese Educational Council in Indianapolis.

Madison Consolidated High School French teacher Michael Heitz accompanied a group of 27 high school juniors from across Indiana to Brest, France, for a six-week immersion program offered through the Indiana University Honors Program for Foreign Language.

For Ferguson, who had never traveled outside of the United States, it was a personal learning experience as well as a professional one.

Originally, she was to stay with a group of teachers who traveled together with the program. However, she ended up going to another town, with one other teacher, to a school that didn’t have enough instructors for the number of children who had signed up.

She said splitting off from the main group, which had more structured time off, worked out well. “I really think going this route, I unknowingly gave myself more opportunities.”

The differences between the Chinese school and what Ferguson has been used to here were stunning, she said.

First, the heat index while she was there reached as high as 115 degrees, and her classroom had no air-conditioning. Temperatures reached as high as 80 degrees during the 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. class day, and it taught her to appreciate her own classroom here.

“It was oppressive,” she said of the heat. “It was so hot, you could almost taste it.”

Ferguson taught reading, science and writing to a class of Level II students, ages 6-12. Lessons were held throughout the day, interspersed with crafts and other activities she used to reinforce reading comprehension.

Four or five Chinese teachers sat in each day to observe and learn new teaching methods from the American visitor.

Students are expected to sit at their desks, do their work and always pay attention to the teacher – an education style that has long been outmoded in the United States.

“Here ... we do a lot of group work, partner work, collaboration, even working with other teachers,” she said. “We brought a lot of new life into their setting.”

But the biggest surprise: “They don’t use a lot of technology in the classroom, which blew my mind,” she said, adding that her students and the teachers were intrigued when she would get out the iPad, ChromeBook and MacBook computers she brought with her to use with her lessons.

At the end of the day, she and her fellow teacher would walk 10 minutes back to their hotel, where they would rest until about 5 p.m.

“In China, they rest a lot,” she said, which for her meant taking a shower to cool off. “At 5, our principal or one of her staff would take us somewhere to learn about the culture. We went to the National Green Tea Garden and went shopping in a street market.”

Heitz, a veteran traveler, had a much different experience during his six weeks in France.

First, the city of Brest had the rainiest June in a quarter of a century, with weather watchers logging just 38.5 hours of sunshine for the entire month.

“July got sunnier, but it never got above 72 degrees,” he said.

Heitz was teamed with three other teachers, who each taught one class in the morning. Heitz taught French culture, while the others taught French linguistics, literature and grammar.

The American students who are accepted into the program, however, are required to sign a contract vowing not to speak a word of English for the entire six weeks, Heitz said.

“They are allowed one hour a week to communicate with their family at home over the Internet, but it can’t be spoken,” he said. “We even took their smartphones,” replacing them with flip-phones that could only be used in France. They could text to each other, but they still had to text in French.

Classes, held in “very modern conditions” in buildings constructed by the Allies in the years after the war, were 9 a.m. to noon, followed by a one-and-a-half-hour lunch break, he said.

“That was a surprise for the students,” who are used to having a half-hour for lunch here, he said. “We had to convince the kids to not eat so fast, but they still always had plenty of time, so they played cards. Uno was popular.”

In the afternoons, the students had activities, most of which were preparations for a show that they would perform at the end for their French host families. “Le Spectacle” featured skits, a ballet routine, vocal and instrumental performances and even lip-syncing. “So, a lot of our activity was getting ready for that. ... One day a week, they went to a gym and just played. They played a lot of soccer and volleyball.”

At the end of the day, the students were allowed to go off on their own adventures, as long as they traveled in groups of three.

He said the host families, and the people of Brest in general, “were just so genuinely kind.”

He spoke of one French father who arranged for two students to go golfing, which was difficult because there were no municipal golf courses. The father not only took them to the course, but also arranged for them to have a golf cart and a caddy, who worked for the fee of one bottle of wine.

But probably the most important experience for the students, he said, was a trip to Normandy, where they visited Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery, where World War II soldiers who died during D-Day are buried.

“It was so moving,” he said. “The students learn about it, but until you see the thousands of white crosses and names. ... Many were moved to tears, and they understood that freedom is something you have to fight for.”