Mickey and Minnie, Maya and Miguel, Elmo and Zoe, Peppa and George, Max and Ruby – all lovable duos that that are well liked by many children.
At Hebrew Academy in Montreal, another adorable pair has won the hearts of kindergarten and Grade 1 students: Mélissa and Daniel are curious, friendly puppets who lead busy lives, even by human standards.
The unilingual francophone characters star in their very own videos and form the basis of both the kindergarten and Grade 1 French curricula.
Mélissa and Daniel were created in 2002 by Grade 1 teacher Nancy Heroux, in the absence of Jewish French-speaking characters. When Miriam Schrager joined her as a Grade 1 teacher in 2004, they developed teaching materials for their students that centred on the Jewish lifestyle and holidays.
Heroux and Schrager bought puppets at a local bookstore to personify Mélissa and Daniel and developed the Grade 1 French curriculum around them.
“Daniel and Mélissa are part of the Hebrew Academy family,” said Schrager, who is also the elementary school director of French studies and academics. “Our young students can really relate to them.
“The elementary cycle I drama curriculum established by the MEES (Ministère de l’Éducation et de l’Enseignement supérieur) also includes working with puppets. In Grade 1, my co-teacher, Zohar Dayan, and I encourage students to write short stories using the characters as a springboard.”
Mélissa and Daniel each have their own puppet families. Grade 1 students are introduced to each member as part of a unit on “Ma famille.” The class also learns that Mélissa’s brother, Avraham, is blind, which opens the door to discussions and activities about special needs and inclusion as part of Quebec’s ethics and religious culture curriculum.
Three years ago, the French department decided to prioritize students’ oral communication.
“Kindergarten French teacher Ilana Krief and I knew the best way to achieve this would be to engage the children by captivating them with playful characters with whom they could interact,” said Schrager.
They immediately thought of Mélissa and Daniel and decided to pilot a similar curriculum in kindergarten.
“Using the same heroes for both years ensures continuity and familiarity for Grade 1 students and enables teachers to further develop concepts previously introduced in kindergarten,” said Krief.
Throughout last year, Schrager and Krief discussed the various themes they would develop and the vocabulary they would like the kindergarten students to master. They then built units around those themes that include activities, worksheets and short videos starring Krief and the puppets, voiced by Schrager’s daughter, Sol Felsztyna, a student in education.
To date, the teachers have filmed eight interactive videos that span between three and six minutes in length. Each has an accompanying QR code, which is included in the course material.
After watching the movie as a class, pairs of students scan the film’s code, re-watch it at home and respond to questions or repeat phrases as prompted. The children then complete worksheets and activities based on the video’s theme.
The first video was called Je me présente (All About Me). In it, the puppets introduce themselves and include such details as their ages (Mélissa and Daniel are both five), their genders and their favourite activities.
After watching it in class, the children created their own puppets – complete with names, genders and hobbies – which they then presented to their peers.
In the few months that they have been working with the puppets, Krief and Schrager have noticed a palpable shift in how interested and engaged the students are.
“Since the program was introduced (in kindergarten), students’ relationship to the French language has changed,” said Schrager. “Daniel and Mélissa have opened their hearts and are positively influencing them to learn French.”
“There are also a number of students who came from other countries who have never spoken French before and they are catching on so quickly and are eager to learn with their peers,” added Krief. “We find that their experience accelerates the development of oral expression.”
Together with Mélissa and Daniel, the kindergarten children have also explored “L’automne” (fall), and will soon delve into “Le goûter” (snack time), where they will learn about food names, milk products and making healthy snack choices like the characters do.
Schrager and Krief are always thinking of new themes to develop, and plan to film more videos in the future. In a matter of weeks, Mélissa and Daniel will explore winter – and, of course, Hanukkah – in great depth.
The program is “a wonderful way to combine language acquisition, creative play and Jewish values,” said head of school Kalman Stein.
Elementary principal Yaffa Blanshay agrees:
“Mélissa and Daniel literally bring the French program to life and allow the children to experience the French language using real-life themes that are meaningful to a kindergarten child at Hebrew Academy. The puppets are animated, lively, colourful classmates and role models. The multimedia aspect brings an added exciting dimension to Mélissa and Daniel. Watching the children learn with, and from, their puppet friends, one cannot help but join in the fun. Yes, learning French is truly fun!”