The biggest difference between the French cartable and the American schoolbag weighs a little over half an ounce. In the United States, school children write with lead pencils while many students in France continue to use fountain pens.
“My son was surprised to see his classmates all using lead pencils instead of a pen on his first day at school,” says Caroline Diène-Ménard. The French mother arrived in New York in May and her oldest has just started eighth grade at a public school in Queens. The list of equipment required includes a set of highlighters, a few ballpoint pens, and a packet of 12 lead pencils.
Fountain pens embody French education and a certain sophistication, but the American equivalent remains the wooden pencil. “Lead pencils have been the standard writing tool used by U.S. school kids since the early 20th century,” says Caroline Weaver, author of a book on the history of pencils in the United States and the owner of a specialist store in Manhattan. Some 23 manufacturers dominated the U.S. market during the 1950s. Today, there are only three left.
Sporting a yellow barrel and a green collar (also known as a ferrule), the HB2 model by Dixon Ticonderoga is the most popular pencil around and is part of young Americans’ school bags from elementary school to university. Its soft graphite core leaves a dark enough trace on paper to be registered by the automatic marking machines used in the United States since the 1930s. Students and teachers alike also like the eraser that tops each model.
“The eraser enables children to easily correct their mistakes,” says Sonia Gmar, a fifth-grade teacher at the Lycée International de Los Angeles. “Students can start over without any problems, while removing any sign of their mistakes. In France, however, mistakes are seen as very important and students are taught to analyze their errors to avoid repeating them.”
Pushback Against the Fountain Pen
Most Francophone schools in the United States use pencils, but a handful of private establishments continue to resist. These rebels include the French School of Detroit, where fountain pens are required from third grade through to high school, the Lycée Français de Chicago, and the French-American School of New York (FASNY).
“There are no official guidelines for writing instruments. Teachers are free to choose the one they want to use with their students,” says Damien Armengaud, director of first, second, and third grade at the Lycée Français de New York. Children generally learn to write with pencils as they are lightweight and require little effort to make marks on paper. But after understanding how to use the pencil, they move onto pens. “Our students usually write with an erasable ballpoint pen,” say Damien Armengaud. However, several teachers have ordered fountain pens for their classes.
At the Lycée International de Los Angeles, Sonia Gmar insists that her fifth-grade class writes with fountain pens. According to her, it all comes down to tradition, precision, and respect. “It takes more effort to hold and write with a fountain pen than a ballpoint. It encourages students to concentrate. And writing with a fountain pen introduces students to French culture and traditions.”
Certain parents also prefer their children to write with a fountain pen. Vanessa Mellier has been living in Campbell, California, for three years, and teaches her daughters French after their classes at an American school. They both do their homework using fountain pens and French notebooks, partly because “it’s far prettier.” In Breckenridge, Colorado, Joëlle Miller homeschools her two kids. And they were the ones who chose to use a fountain pen. “They think it’s neater, and really cool,” she says. “We buy the pens and ink cartridges on Amazon!”
Lines Versus Squares
There is also a vast difference in paper quality between France and the United States. American kids write in spiral-bound notebooks. The pages are thin, almost transparent, and printed with rows of single lines. Their French classmates use notebooks with thicker pages covered with squares. This pattern is known as “French rule” or “Seyès,” after the French papermaker Jean-Alexandre Seyès, and has been the reference model in French schools since the early 20th century.
This is the paper used by most of the Lycées Français in the United States. Each square comprises four sides measuring 0.3 inches, and is divided by four horizontal lines spaced 0.08 inches apart. This layout is adapted to learning cursive handwriting. “This is a very formatted style of writing that dates back to the tradition of quills, but it is also a teaching tool,” says Damien Armengaud. “Writing by hand in this way enables students to associate each letter and word with a specific movement and learn how to read.”
French teachers believe in the importance of presentation and precision. Some even ask parents to check students’ notebooks! The American approach is very different to the French method, with more emphasis put on expression instead of how the result is presented. “French notebooks are generally neater than U.S. notebooks,” says Sonia Gmar. “American students can write however they like, in pencil, and even in capitals.” Much to the dismay of certain expat parents. One French mother in Michigan complains that her two children, both enrolled in a U.S. elementary school, write like “mucky pups,” and would far prefer their handwriting was “less fanciful and easier to read.”