A group of Year 7 children from Hayle Community School, a language college in Cornwall, are visiting Newquay Zoo for "une rencontre avec le serpent".
The snake is Monty the Python and the meeting goes well. Monty allows himself to be stroked without complaint - "Ne touchez pas la tete," advises Mark Norris, the zoo's head of education, adding "Lavez-vous les mains apr s" and makes eye contact with several of the students. It could have been worse. Before introducing him, Mark has described vividly in French how Monty squeezes the life out of its prey and swallows it whole. During the meeting he discusses Monty's very effective camouflage and how he sheds his skin.
After the talk Mark suggests that, on their return to school, the pupils find French words to describe how it feels to touch a snake. Also at the session is Jules, a lemur from French-speaking Madagascar, although, unlike Monty who is real, he is a puppet.
"Il est tr s timide," explains Mark, as Jules peers fearfully over the table. "Ou est Madagascar?" he asks later, going on to explain how Jules and his kind are threatened by loss of habitat in this country. French-speaking zoologists from Newquay are working in Madagascar on projects designed to save them, he adds. The session is part of a half-day visit during which Newquay Zoo turns itself into a language resource. Signs, for example "animaux dangereux", and "Ces animaux ont un regime special, ne pas nourrir", and animal names are mostly given in French, and the children's worksheets are all in that language. Last year the project won a European Award for Languages, organised in this country by CILT, the National Centre for Languages, and supported by the European Commission.
At the zoo, children also visit the Village Farm where they meet the less exotic, but in vocabulary terms very useful rabbits, cows and sheep. Here they are given a talk in English on the barn owl and then are set free to wander the zoo filling in their French language worksheets as they go.
They are asked, for example, to tick off animals as they see them and to write a short description of each one in French. They are also encouraged to ask staff questions in French and to get their signatures if they ask it correctly. Later they will fill in a questionnaire on their reactions to the visit and write a letter of thanks - both in French. The visit is the highspot of a three to four week zoo project.
When it began, three years ago, the project was just a zoo visit for which the school had designed a booklet of activities. But gradually it has widened until it is now an integral part of the school's Year 7 schemes of work, incorporating all four language skills. The booklet now spans the entire project and is broken down into differentiated lesson-sized chunks; the school's half-termly formal assessment is entirely based on the project. Before the visit students are already familiar with a lot of the necessary vocabulary.
Teacher Hilary Bailey says: "We're trying to introduce languages in as many contexts as possible to bring them to life. A trip likes this helps them realise the relevance of languages. They look forward to going on the trip and it enlivens what they do when they get back."
And the trip broadens the education of children who in many cases have never visited a zoo and it gives them a chance to learn more about animals and the environment. Differentiated activities leading up to the visit include ICT exercises; watching a short extract from a video in French about children going to a zoo and filling in a worksheet; and answering questions on animals, their habitat and what they eat. Students also play an animal sounds game, recognising animal sounds played on tape, and they design zoo signs on the computer.
At Hayle students begin French in Year 7 (three lessons a week) with a taster of either German, Italian and Cornish. ("We might be the only school teaching Cornish," says Hilary Bailey.) In Year 8 they all begin Spanish and continue to learn French and in Year 9 they do French and Spanish. Next year these Year 7 pupils will visit Paradise Park bird sanctuary to do a similar project in Spanish and in Year 9 will take a trip to Goonhilly Earth Station on the Lizard where they will speak in French and Spanish.