By William Croyle
ALEXANDRIA - Ten years ago, Mimi Hagedorn began bringing professional hockey players into her French classes at Bishop Brossart High School.
She got the idea from the late Sister Madeleine Himmler, who taught French at Seton High School in Price Hill.
"It's not what you'd expect from a nun," Hagedorn said. "But she was a huge Cincinnati Cyclones fan. She would go to all the games and even the practices. She told me they would come to my class if I asked."
With many of the Cyclones players being French-speaking Canadians, Hagedorn would invite one to her class each year to spend an hour answering questions in French from her students. Others who have spoken to her class include Peace Corps volunteers.
This year, she stuck with the athlete theme, but from a different sport.
"I was reading about Romain Sato and that his native language was French," Hagedorn said. "I told myself that I really needed to get him in here."
Sato, 22, is a star guard-forward on Xavier University's basketball team. The senior was named a preseason First-Team All-American last month by Athlon Sports College Basketball after averaging 18 points and seven rebounds a game last season for the Musketeers.
He was born in the Central African Republic, a rural, sparsely populated country bordered by Sudan, Cameroon and Chad. The native languages are French and Sango, but Sato also speaks English, Lingala, Swahili, Yakoma and Ngadjirie.
Hagedorn, in her 21st year of teaching - all at Bishop Brossart--teaches French I, II and III to 80 students in five classes. She packed 48 of those students into a classroom one day last month to question Sato.
The students' questions were simple - "What do you like to eat?" "Do you miss home?" "Do you like Cincinnati?"
But all questions were asked in French, and all of Sato's responses were in French. Students had to write down his answers for review the next day.
"I thought it was neat because I've never talked to anyone who speaks fluent French (other than Hagedorn),'' said sophomore Ashley Woltermann, 15, in her second year studying the language.
Reaching an understanding
Sato, wearing blue jeans, white sneakers and a denim jacket, was soft-spoken with a thick accent.
Sato could generally understand the students, asking that only a few of the questions be repeated.
"I told the kids that if he could understand your question, that's a victory for you," said Hagedorn.
Sato, a devout Christian, has talked at local schools in the past about the importance of hard work and having a relationship with God. This was his first time speaking to a French class.
"The kids did great speaking French," Sato said after the class. "A lot of people in the states don't know a lot of languages other than English. This is a good way for them to learn."
Students also received a side lesson in religion.
"Some of his answers were truly surprising to them," said Hagedorn. "They asked what music he liked and he said gospel. They asked if he had any superstitions and he said God was his superstition. They asked what he wants to do after college and he said it's in God's hands. He clearly drew everything back to God, which was a good thing to hear, being a Catholic school."
Bishop Brossart Principal Tom Seither applauds Hagedorn's teaching methods.
"She does so many things beyond the normal classroom," he said. "There aren't too many opportunities in the United States to use French, but she does so much to bring the language alive."
For many of the students, it was the highlight of the year and another way to learn what they've been taught.
"We're interested in what he does," said junior Jeanna Heil, 16, who is a forward on the girls JV basketball team. "It makes us realize that French is all around us."
It's a class that has worked for Hagedorn for 10 years, and one that she plans to continue.
"Having someone who is well-known come in and talk to them is probably not the only way kids decide to take French, but it helps," Hagedorn said.
About the class
School: Bishop Brossart High School.
Teacher: Mimi Hagedorn.
Subjects taught: French I, II and III.
Why the class works: "I ask the kids in my class each year 'Why are you here?' Their answer is always 'I want to learn to speak French,' " Hagedorn said. "They want it to be conversational, and that's what someone like Romain Sato brings to the class."
Quote: "It was really special for us because we know who he is," said junior Daniel Beck, 16. "And growing up in America, it's good to see a different culture."
This series spotlights a local classroom in which teachers are challenging students in bold, innovative ways. To nominate a class, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, fax (513) 768-8340 or write Bill Cieslewicz, Education Editor, The Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. Please include your name, daytime phone, e-mail and school.
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