Starting the day with a long-distance lesson

September 15, 2011 by

Sister Regina Ann Brummel leads her class in a simple conversation in French, via video conference from her office in Concordia to their classroom in Belcourt, N.D.

The students studying French at Turtle Mountain Community High School in Belcourt, N.D., are barely three weeks into their class, but there are a few words and phrases they already know well:

Très bien



In their 50-minute class each morning, they hear those repeatedly from Sister Regina Ann Brummel, sitting in front of her laptop computer roughly 750 miles away.

Sister Regina Ann review the French I textbook as students practicing ordering in a coffee shop.

The 17 students in the French I class and Sister Regina Ann are an experiment for the school on the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Reservation near the Canadian border.

Last year for the first time, the North Dakota Legislature added some specific classes to the high school graduation requirements. Now students must complete a year of a foreign language, a Native American language or a career and technical education course.

Spanish was already being offered to the 565 students at Turtle Mountain, as was a class in Mechif, a mixed language that is primarily based on French, Cree and Ojibwe with a little English thrown in. School officials also wanted to offer French — in large part because of the French influence on the native Mechif — but there were no instructors available for the relatively small school.

Students in their Turtle Mountain classroom play the roles of waiter and customer as Sister Regina Ann listens to their pronunciation.

That’s when Andrea Laverdure, a guidance counselor at Turtle Mountain High, asked Sister Regina Ann if she would be interested.

Laverdure’s mother, Betty, and Sister Regina Ann are longtime friends who have collaborated on a number of projects over the years. They met in 1975 when they both took part in the West African Ethnic Heritage Seminar; Betty Laverdure was the only Native American to join the group in its tour of West Africa and Sister Regina Ann had just started on the faculty of Marymount College teaching French.

Regina Ann, who has a master’s degree in French from the University of Kansas plus a master’s in international relations from the University of Denver and who taught at Marymount for five years, would eventually also earn a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in multicultural higher education.

One curious stumbling block to the plan to have her become the first video-teacher at Turtle Mountain, however, was that Regina Ann does not have a certificate to teach high school in North Dakota.

She’s in the process of remedying that through a class she’s taking at Kansas State University this term, and she’ll follow that up with additional work at Newman College next year.

The next stumbling block, of course, was the technology.

Turtle Mountain is equipped with state-of-the-art video equipment — but the sisters’ Administration Center, where as a member of the congregation’s Leadership Council Regina Ann has her office, does not have the “bandwidth” (or computer speed) to accommodate it. So at a little after 8 each morning, Monday through Friday, she fires up the Skype video phone call software on her laptop and waits for her class to call from North Dakota.

A teacher aide at Turtle Mountain provides the technical assistance on the north end of the video call, and at 8:15 the students fill the small screen on top of Regina Ann’s desk.

For the next 50 minutes, the students on this day practice a conversation about ordering café in a restaurant.

Their pronunciation is halting, but they are engaged as Sister Regina Ann heaps continuous praise on their efforts: “Très bien! Excellente! Fantastique!” she exclaims, over and over. “Répéter, s’il vous plait.”

And each time they repeat, it’s with a little more confidence.

“These are sounds they grew up hearing” (in the Mechif language),” she says when the lesson is over for the day. “They didn’t know there was so much French in it, but that’s what they’re learning.”

And according to the school, the students are responding — both to the teacher and to the technology. “They love it,” said a spokeswoman from the high school. “They love that it’s video — and then you hear them trying out their new French words.”


2 Responses to “Starting the day with a long-distance lesson”

  1. Elizabeth (Betsy Gasperich) Miller on September 25th, 2011 4:04 pm

    Bravo…Sister Regina Ann
    How wonderful that you are doing this… fortunate for the students!
    Sending love, hugs and blessings always….dear Sister!

  2. Loretta Jasper on September 24th, 2011 6:30 am

    Thanks, Regina Ann, for sharing your gifts across cyberspace. Needs are many, and options for ministry are multitudinous! Needs beyond our front door tended within arm’s length.

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