By Kim Walter
FRONT ROYAL -- Nicolas Houpert, a 32-year-old math teacher from France, had never seen Pixie Stix before, but that's n'est plus le cas now that he's visited Front Royal.
Pixie Stix, the size of cars and the freedom of students in a classroom were among the things that surprised Houpert this week while he visited with Heidi Trude's French classes at Skyline High School.
Trude helped foster a Skype relationship between her classes and another teacher's classes in France last year, and expanded the project this school year. Houpert's students, who are required to learn English, have communicated via letters and Facebook with all of Trude's students.
This year was even more exciting for Trude after learning that Houpert would be able to stay in town for a week and present information about France and the high school where he teaches -- Lycée Bazin in Charleville-Mezières. This was his first time in the United States.
His students also made a video in which they talked about their daily schedule and gave a tour of their educational facility. Trude's students are still working on their own version of the video, and plan to Skype for the first time with Houpert's students in the next few weeks.
Trude's students include those being introduced to the French language, as well as those in their fifth year of instruction.
During a class on Thursday afternoon, Houpert gave his presentation comparing monuments and landscapes in the United States and France. When asking questions, he required Trude's students to answer in French, and applauded their efforts.
"French is complicated language to learn, so to me they are very brave to take it on," he said after the class.
Even with Monday's snow day, Houpert had already managed to learn each and every student's name. Some of them admitted they were nervous and didn't know what to expect, but by Thursday they felt comfortable conversing with him.
Hannah Henry, 15, said it was nice to hear French spoken by Houpert, and it felt even better when she realized she knew what he was saying.
"I can already tell that I learned so much in the past few days," she said. "It's so much better than just reading a book or watching a video."
Throughout the year, Trude's students also learned that students in France aren't much different from themselves, which came as a surprise.
"They're just like us, just normal teenagers," said 15-year-old Alicia Zarzuela. "I wonder if they were surprised when they saw us for the first time."
Both Trude and Houpert agreed that the experience wasn't just beneficial for the students, though.
"This has changed me as a person, it is something that I am so happy to have been a part of," Trude said, looking around her classroom.
Before Houpert came, Trude worried her students would disappoint him, or that he might be unimpressed with her teaching. However, she said Houpert was delighted with her students and classroom, calling it "a home."
"He reassured me that sometimes his student misbehave too," she said.
Contrary to some of the students' expectations, Houpert said he loves Front Royal and Skyline.
"It is a beautiful place ... I know some of the kids don't like it, but I think it's wonderful," he said.
The students' ability to walk around a classroom, talk to each other and ask for help surprised him.
"These students are free," he said. "That is something I will take back with me to my high school ... I want to take the best of America's method of teaching and use it to enhance my students' learning."
Houpert has wanted to come to the United States since he was a child, and said he was now living "the American dream." On Friday and Saturday, he and Trude will embark on more sightseeing, which will include a trip to Washington, D.C.
Trude said her French accent and vocabulary have managed to improve during Houpert's stay, and in turn he has learned more English words. Houpert also had the chance to teach a couple math classes Thursday morning, which he called "rewarding."
"It is always so wonderful to teach and see a student smile, so you know they understand and enjoy it," he said. "It is right to say that this experience was good for everyone involved."
Mashayla Roy, a 17-year-old senior, is in her fifth year of taking French, and said meeting Houpert and communicating with students in France has been just what she needed.
"This has all been so important to me," she said. "I'm studying abroad my first semester at college, so to meet people like those that I'll be interacting with every day is priceless. I feel so much more prepared to continue my education."
Trude said it's important to her that her students keep an open mind, not only to other languages, but also to people and cultures around the world.
"How can they grow if they only know what is right around them," she said. "My students have embraced Nicolas, and he has embraced them. I'm so proud ... everything has gone so perfectly."
Next year, Trude plans to visit a high school in France for a week. Upon Houpert's return to France, he said he hopes to use his experience to help convince the headmaster of his high school that some of his students should join him when he returns to Skyline next year for another week.
"I want my students to come to America, they need to," he said. "You can't just learn through a computer or books ... you have to make it real."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org