As students across Greater Lansing return to the classroom, a different type of school is reopening for the first time in more than a year.
After 18 months of virtual instruction, Gaëlle Cassin-Ross will welcome students back to Aux Petits Soins, a French language school where she gives private and group instruction for children and adults.
Cassin-Ross opened her school six years ago. A native of Paris with a Ph.D. in plant physiology and biochemistry, she moved to Lansing in 2009 for a postdoctoral research job in Michigan State University’s Plant Research Laboratory. After multiple locals heard her speaking French to her eldest son de ella in public and asked where they could learn, she had the idea to open a community center and school of her own, she said.
In 2015, she opened Aux Petits Soins — named for the French idiom translating to “take tender care” — and quickly amassed a following of adults and children. She kept classes small and prioritized making her instruction immersive and accessible, offering courses for everyone from six-month-olds to pre-teens and adults.
When the pandemic hit, she pivoted to virtual instruction. To help keep the business afloat, she partnered with a local print shop to make branded merchandise like water bottles, coffee mugs, wine glasses and calendars.
Now, Cassin-Ross’ small class sizes will help her transition back to in-person instruction Sept. 13, when she’ll welcome students to 1824 E. Michigan Ave. for the first time since March 2020. The first classes she’ll offer are for 6- to 18-month-olds, 18- to 36-month-olds and 3- to 5-year olds — an age group mostly too young for grade school.
“Gaëlle (teaches) in the best way to get you interested in the culture,” said Jessica Wood of East Lansing, an adult in Cassin-Ross’s advanced program. “It’s not scary in the memorization. She takes you on a ride and gets you involved in the language and makes you as passionate about it as she is.”
Wood met Cassin-Ross when they both worked in Sheng Yang He’s lab at MSU — Wood as an undergrad studying plant biology, Cassin-Ross as a postdoc.
Wood’s lessons at Aux Petits Soins are virtual for now, but she expects to return in person eventually.
Amy Carnahan, whose twins Cooper and Caedyn took classes with Cassin-Ross on Zoom during the pandemic, said the teacher’s passion for the French language was palpable even on a computer screen.
“We had it on Zoom and they just thrived,” Carnahan said. “The kids loved all of the games — she does a lot of games with them and she makes it fun. There are times they would get off Zoom and it’s something they look forward to each (week).”
Carnahan’s twins are enrolling in Cassin-Ross’ “world citizens” program, one of the more advanced children’s classes. Cassin-Ross breaks up her classes to develop students’ exposure to the the French language as they progress. There’s the entry-level “explorers” (6 months to 5 years), “travel bugs” (4 to 12 years), “world citizens” (a more advanced course for 4- to 12-year-olds) and hands-on workshops for all ages.
Carnahan enrolled her twins as travel bugs in 2020. She hopes her family can eventually visit France on a tour of Europe.
“Learning a language is like getting a passport to the world,” Cassin-Ross said.
Katie Noyes, a French teacher at DeWitt High School, enrolled her own children in Cassin-Ross’ school. She’s watched them pick up on nuances of the language that she even she did not recognize, including familial names and cultural idioms.
“I realize (through them) there are a lot of colloquial words and phrases that I wouldn’t have known,” the Grand Ledge resident said. “If you learn as an adult, you miss out on that child language.”
Noyes said her children are learning to speak French with an accent by learning the language from a native.
She hopes some of her DeWitt students will supplement their lessons with Cassin-Ross’ extracurricular programs, which include monthly cultural events and activities held at the school and throughout Lansing.
Starting Sept. 6, Cassin Ross is organizing a French appreciation week, when she’ll encourage students to seek out French culture in Greater Lansing through restaurants, art and other experiences. This year’s celebration is the first since 2019 after 2020 was canceled due to the pandemic.
Cassin-Ross is focusing on French desserts this year, filming videos directing people to Chapelure in East Lansing and Dusty Cellar in Okemos for pastry.
“Let me take you around and tell you where you can get French pastries,” she said. “When I do that, I usually contact business and tell them you don’t have (to do anything). You just have to accept me to show up with my live video and it won’t cost you a thing.”
Part of the purpose of appreciation week is to get students — especially kids — used to French words in their native pronunciations, such as croissant and crêpe.
Past French establishments she’s highlighted include EnVie, a bistro in Downtown Lansing, Bridge Street Social’s wine selection and For Crêpe Sake in East Lansing.
“If you go to some restaurant, you will always find a French item on (the menu) in English,” she said.
Cassin-Ross isn’t focusing only on French-adjacent businesses, but also on French dishes like steak tartare and phrases like “a la carte.”
All of this in service of immersing her students in French rather than teaching it traditionally, flashcard-style. She pushes students to naturally incorporate the language into their everyday life by pronouncing and listening to words in the native tongue.
“I’m going to let you know every single sound that exists in French, so you can hear it,” she said. “And so now your brain works with you instead of shutting down.”
That method has caught on with Heidi Frei’s youngest daughter, Freya, who is enrolled at Aux Petits Soins. Frei recalled her 3-year-old de ella crawling up a set of stairs and counting the steps in French. She takes Freya and her other daughter de ella, Marisol, 8, around Lansing to experience Cassin-Ross’s French recommendations and hands-on experiences.
At one point, Marisol virtually toured the Louvre museum with Cassin-Ross. Frei said they try to celebrate French cultural events in their homes, making King Cake with French-language instructions for Mardi Gras and Galette des Rois for Epiphany day.
“She uses a lot of what we’re used to being exposed to,” Frei said. “We talked a lot about COVID-19 in French, and it helps to create a pattern to practice on your own and reading things that we’re already doing and hearing in English, but in a different language.”
Frei and her family’s willingness to learn about French culture is part of what Cassin-Ross wants all her students to do. She does not want to always be their teacher de ella, but to help them enhance their skills for themselves.
“I want to teach you to not need me,” Cassin-Ross said. “I want to teach you how you can use any free resources, and actually take it and ride with it.”