Pen Pals

From Knoxville to Paris: Linking Art and Bilingual Education

Sixteen elementary school students from Nature's Way Montessori School in Knoxville, Tennessee, will travel to Paris in the Fall and meet their French pen pals from Jean Zay Elementary School. The cultural exchange was inspired by the life of Tennessee-born painter Beauford Delaney, who spent the last 26 years of his life in France.
Students at Nature’s Way Montessori School in Knoxville, Tennessee, participate in the first video conference with their Paris pen pals. © Wells International Foundation

The 32 students in the Classes Duo Paris/Knoxville program have been interacting since January. They exchange emails and participate in monthly video conferences in French and in English. Each class also gave video presentations in their partner’s language and learned about art through oil and watercolor painting and red clay sculpture.

The French-American exchange stems from an exhibition of the works of Beauford Delaney organized by the Wells International Foundation (WIF) at the Columbia Global Centers, in the 6th arrondissement of Paris, in 2016. As interest for the exhibition grew in France and in the U.S., WIF founder and CEO Monique Y. Wells – who has lived in Paris more than 20 years – decided to establish a “sister city” partnership between Knoxville and Paris.

For the exchange, the City of Paris selected Jean Zay Elementary School, a public school in the 14th arrondissement, the neighborhood where Beauford Delaney lived from 1962 to 1975. For a week next October, French and American students will walk in the footsteps of the modernist painter, tour the Montparnasse district, learn about other famous African-American expatriates who lived in Paris, and visit the Centre Pompidou museum, which has a painting by Delaney in its collection.

For many of the children, between the ages of 7 and 10, this will be their first trip abroad. This empowerment of students as global citizens through intercultural and interdisciplinary learning is a key underlying theme, which makes it a wonderful experience for the students currently involved and a model for other organizations and institutions desirous of developing core values and a mindset of global citizenship from an early age.

A reciprocal visit of the French students to Knoxville is being discussed. Classes Duo Paris/Knoxville is built on the inspiration of an American-born artist who chose Paris as his home for decades, but similar programs could be developed using the arts as their springboard on even the smallest budget.