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When we were students, many of us saw Europe through one narrow lens, as an unchanging museum or storyland, the backdrop for books and films and music we cherished. It’s understandable, since our early schooling usually characterized Europe — and France in particular — as the epitome of high art and culture, the paradigm against which all other regions should be judged (and usually found wanting). Textbooks especially seemed to freeze European life at a particular time in history. How could Europe ever change?

Since then we’ve come to understand that Europe isn’t a museum or a storybook, but a living, evolving world region, just as complicated as any other place on earth. Still, those early-instilled assumptions linger, and sometimes cloud our view.

How can we shake off old ways of thinking and teach the real, contemporary Europe — France, for example? How can we connect students to a view of France that includes the lives of contemporary young people? Here are some strategies and resources from the Center for European Studies and the European Center of Excellence at UNC-Chapel Hill that will refresh your perspective on French life and culture.

First, re-visit the icons

When most students hear “Paris” or “France,” they may first envision the Eiffel Tower. It’s understandable, of course, but too often the image appears and dissolves without any more thought. The “symbol” or “icon” status of the Eiffel Tower paradoxically robs it of any meaning.

One way to bring the icon back to life for students is to explore why the Eiffel Tower and other Parisian cultural landmarks are important to the French and (just as critical) what those landmarks mean to the people who live there. The Center for European Studies site offers “Icons of France,” an interdisciplinary overview of the places, products, and events we instinctively associate with France. The presentation is lively, makes use of several media, and offers activities and questions to give form and structure to student exploration. It’s a great way to begin your “new look” at France.

Acknowledge (and teach) diversity

Many students may think of France — indeed all of Europe — as entirely white and Christian. That’s not the case, of course. People of color have always been part of Europe’s cultural life. In fact, one of France’s leading novelists, Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, was of African descent.

Today France includes people who can trace their ancestry to North Africa, East and South Asia, Southwest Asia, and Eastern Europe, as well as the descendants of the Celts who settled the region. Any study or discussion of French culture today should most definitely include the lifestyles and contributions of a diversity of ethnic groups.

For a class project, you might focus on the Belleville neighborhood of Paris, an area famous for its multicultural and multiracial character. In the first half of the twentieth century, immigrants from Germany, Armenia, and Spain came to Belleville, fleeing massacre, genocide, and war. In the sixties, they were joined by Algerians, and more recently by Africans from sub-Saharan nations. The neighborhood is a microcosm representing the multiculturalism that is such an important part of contemporary French identity. Challenge students to use online resources to create a presentation of Belleville’s contemporary life and history for a younger group of students — perhaps an elementary or middle school class just beginning to learn about France.

The French have a strong tradition of laïcité, a very strictly secular society. Lately the laïcité tradition has been challenged by the growth of multiculturalism generally, but especially by religious diversity. France has the largest Islamic population in Europe, and the increase in the Muslim community in France has led to some clashes between the power of French law and religion.

In recent years, there has been increasing debate about the right of Muslim girls and women to wear the burqa — the traditional Islamic veil — in public. French secularists see the burqa as an unacceptable intrusion of religion into national life. Many Muslim girls and women, on the other hand, see outlawing of the burqa as an attack on their right to personal and religious expression.

The Center for European Studies offers “The Veil,” a unit including background readings, articles, audio and video clips, and other resources on France’s burqa controversy. This resource supports teachers and students in exploring multiculturalism in France, and can be a solid foundation for a discussion of the challenges and opportunities implicit in any diverse society.

Connect your students digitally to art and culture

When we think of French music, we may hear the sound of accordions, typical of the bal-musette tradition celebrated particularly in post-war films about Paris. But today’s French popular music includes hip-hop, rap, jazz, and musical forms from the African, Arabic, and Asian cultural heritages of present-day French musicians. National Geographic’s World Music site offers a wide selection of contemporary French and French-language music for students to listen to as part of their exploration of contemporary France.

To hear excerpts and commentary on contemporary popular French music, you can go to the UNC Area Studies Global Music page. There you can access the archive of WXYC Chapel Hill radio shows featuring French rap, as well as youth music from many other European countries, with discussion of the cultures and traditions represented in each piece.

Introducing students to works of art from France used to involve significant investment in art books. Often the affordable books featured images that were too small or murky to appreciate. Now, however, museums offer images of paintings online, often with descriptions and analysis. Students can explore art on their own, enlarging thumbnail images either on the classroom computer or their own hand-held devices. Use these resources to introduce a wide variety of French and European art to your students.

On the Center for European Studies site, you’ll find a link to META (Modern Europe Through Art). META offers an interdisciplinary study of twentieth-century European art, including online images, (Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon, for example) as well as lesson plans, and ideas for linking world language learning with art and cultural history. Here you can choose among classroom project themes ranging from censorship to existentialism, and approach works of art within a framework of the twentieth-century history that shaped contemporary life.

Don’t forget sports

We tend to focus on academic or culturally elite aspects of life when introducing a country or region to students. But soccer (called le foot) is also an important part of French life, and may be of great interest to your students. The French football league has an official website where you can follow news, matches, and results in French or English. International matches are covered by online news sources from all over the world.

France is crazy for soccer, but bicycle racing is also a point of national pride. The Tour de France began as a tough bicycle race course primarily for villagers, but the challenge soon drew racers from all over the world.

Following the Tour de France through the 3,500 kilometer course is a great geography lesson for classes in session in July. But even if you can’t teach it as it’s happening, the Tour offers an insight into French traditions as well as the globalization of sport.

For readings, online resources, and images as well as worksheets on the Tour de France, you can go to the Center for European Studies “Tour de France” page, which offers an interdisciplinary study of the annual bicycle race. The entire unit is available in either French or English, making it useful for both language and social studies teachers. In fact, it’s an ideal project for teacher and student collaboration across the disciplines.

And finally, include youth culture

“What are the kids my age doing?” is an often unspoken question in cultural studies. Students have an understandably strong interest in what young people their age are enjoying (or enduring) in France. A sense of what she or he might be doing if she or he were living in France can help a student understand more clearly the similarities and differences between French culture and their own culture.

It’s important to stress that most of the things students in the United States do, students in France do, too. They get up in the morning, go to school (although not so many commute by car as in the United States), do their homework, and try to make time for friends and fun. They watch television, listen to the radio, and wonder about what they’ll do after graduation, just like our students. And digital communication (by email, by cell phone, by texting) is just as important to French teens as to our own, even if we have different terms for describing it.

The resources offered on the Center for European Studies and European Union Center of Excellence sites all have direct connections to youth culture or offer a student-friendly means of cultural exploration. Use your student’s interest in music, sports, and diversity to re-connect them to the real, contemporary France that somehow never makes it into the textbooks.