Coming from more than 2,000 miles away, students and teachers from French Guiana got a taste of the Vineyard on a school trip pulled together with the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School (MVPCS).
The group was from Lycée Melkior Garré, an international high school with around 2,500 students located in the French Guianese capital, Cayenne.
Roderick Craig, who teaches at the school, said this is the biggest school in the French Overseas Department.
Craig said what made Lycée Melkior Garré special was that it had an “American international section,” which prepares students in a “Franco-American International Baccalaureate program” that teaches them to be bilingual in French and English. The program includes a trip to the U.S..
MVPCS also tries to teach its students globally through the International Baccalaureate curriculum. Students take field trips to museums in London or Paris to help bridge the real world and the curriculum, says MVPCS Assistant Director Scott Goldin. MVPCS Director Pete Steedman said the Charter School has established a sister-school relationship with a school in Puerto Rico.
The relationship between MVPCS and Melkior Garré was established when teachers from each school happened to meet each other on school trips in New Orleans, La., in 2019.
“We were there to visit some universities … and meet some city planners about how they’re going to deal with climate change and housing,” MVPCS social studies teacher Jonah Maidoff said. “We were staying at a youth hostel, where we met this group from French Guiana, and we had a great meeting and went out to dinner.”
Maidoff said the idea is to continue to develop the relationship between the schools, with hopes of being sister schools in the future. The goal is also to bring a group of MVPCS students to French Guiana in the future.
Planning had been in the works for years before the trip could be arranged for the French Guianese school. The original plan was for the class to visit in 2020, but that was put on hold with the pandemic.
Despite the amount of work required to organize and fund the trip, Melkior Garré biology teacher Sophie Boucherot said the experience has been worth it for students.
“Our children are very, very excited, and they want to stay here,” she said, with laughter.
“It’s a real opportunity for the young with [cultural] exchange,” Lycée Melkior Garré Spanish teacher Olivier Lucol said, adding that it was a chance for him to improve his English as a primarily French speaker. “We can know a lot of things with the culture. It’s a very nice experience. It’s a great experience.”
Melkior Garré teacher Roderick Craig said the MVPCS community made the trip very enjoyable. “Everybody was so friendly with us, and have done so many things for us, so we are all so impressed by the kindness of everybody, and are so happy to be here,” he said.
The group had never been to Martha’s Vineyard before, and were fascinated by what they experienced, seeing the gingerbread houses in Oak Bluffs and the down-Island Main Street shops, and learning about the Island’s culture and history at Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
During their stay on the Vineyard, the French Guianese school group stayed at the Barn House in Chilmark.
The students from French Guiana also held a presentation for MVPCS about French Guiana, particularly on the climate.
Some of the students from French Guiana — Lola Poirot, Chahinez Chouchane, Dawit Assefa, and Khemia Servius — shared with The Times their thoughts on visiting the Island and MVPCS.
“[It’s] very cold but fun,” Khemia said. “It’s kind of different from what we know, but it’s kind of refreshing. The view is really beautiful here.”
Dawit agreed Martha’s Vineyard was beautiful, adding that he particularly liked the architecture on the Island. He also said the port town “vibe” of the Island felt familiar to him. “It kind of makes me think of the countryside of France, so I felt I’ve already been here,” he said.
Lola said she especially loved seeing a Martha’s Vineyard lighthouse.
Something that added to the experience was the Islanders’ hospitality, according to Chahinez. “Everybody is so friendly to us, and in France, it’s not really the same,” she said.
The students also pointed out some differences on Martha’s Vineyard compared with French Guiana, such as the number of American and LGBTQ flags on display, the shorter school days (the Lycée Melkior Garré students have 10-hour school days), and looser dress codes.
“They’re very open compared with us in a lot of subjects, such as this book,” Lola said, pointing to a copy of “Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendships” on a bookshelf.
Craig described to The Times what kind of place French Guiana is. Located in northeastern South America, it is about three times the size of Massachusetts, and 95 percent of its territory consists of Amazon rainforest. The population is just below 300,000, and the majority of the residents live along the coastal areas.
“It’s an interesting part of the world,” Craig said. “It’s beautiful. We’re very lucky with our nature, our wild nature, and we hope this school exchange will just be the first in a series.”
The main things Craig hopes the students got out of the trip were making some new friends, experiencing a part of America, and practicing speaking English.
“I think for a lot of students, until they actually go somewhere … it’s almost like they don’t believe it exists, and as soon as you take them there, it’s ‘Wow,’ and all of it makes sense, all of their learning makes sense,” Craig said. “Whenever we’ve taken students on school trips, there’s always been [a] before-and-after effect, and after a school trip they come back and they’re even more serious than before, and they really want to learn more about the U.S., so it’s a great effect for them.”
Craig said he hopes Lycée Melkior Garré will be able to host MVPCS students by next year.