Lenape High School’s French students get a March Madness all their own

Music tournament offers foreign language students a new way to learn

Special to The Sun: Lenape High School junior and French 4 student Nia Covington had a near-perfect bracket in this year’s Manie Musicale, a worldwide tournament for French-language students.

It’s not every day the phrase “It’s like March Madness, but with French songs” describes an educational experience.

But for “Madame” Mary Hubbard’s Lenape High School French students, Manie Musicale de Mars was a portal to French music and a whole new way to experience a living language that pupils took to almost instantly.

“I checked to see how my bracket was doing before I even checked my homework,” junior Nia Covinginton admitted with a laugh. Covington is in one of Lenape’s two French 4 classes and was one of two LHS students to finish with a near-perfect bracket and 33 out of a possible 38 points.

While the international tournament-style approach to discovering French culture through predominantly contemporary songs and music videos has been available to students of the language for a few years, this was the first time Hubbard signed up for her classes to participate. Even before remote learning forced teachers to think outside the box, she had been looking for a way to introduce her students to the differences between formal and spoken language.

“I teach proper French and that’s not how people really communicate,” Hubbard explained.  “This exposes them to music that they like in French. When they have something that they like, they’re more likely to listen to it. And if they’re more likely to listen to it, then they’re going to hear French. And it’s not textbook French: It’s real, authentic people. There’s real value in that.”

The rules of Manie Musicale are akin to the single-elimination brackets of college basketball’s March Madness, where two competitors duke it out to advance by another level. In this case, worldwide participants vote round by round on what French song they like the most after submitting their own brackets, picking up more points with each winning selection as the game goes on. The tournament paired a broad range of genres across 16 songs until a champion — or the vainqueur — was crowned at Match #15.

The competitions are so closely aligned, in fact, that Hubbard said Manie Musicale usually begins in tandem with the athletic event, cancelled for this year. 

As in-person education, too, was called off for the rest of the academic year, teachers and students alike adjusted to a virtual classroom. But for Hubbard’s French students, Manie Musicale was a distraction from the challenges of the transition and the onslaught of bad news by which they felt surrounded.

“It made for a conversation that wasn’t about coronavirus and schoolwork,” Covington said. “Everyone’s so worried about all their assignments, and this was something different. It’s still French, it’s still relevant, we’re still learning — and it was really fun.”  

Nora Mahgoub is also an LHS junior and French 4 student. She not only agreed that Manie Musicale was a great way to keep learning but also said that experiencing French music has been an asset to her education.  

“I thought this was the best way to learn the language,” she noted. “I wanted to go and explore French through music for a while. I learned that the main and the best way on improving my accent is through songs.”

Sophomore Jodie Lee is in her second year of French at LHS. As a violist, singer and, most recently, guitarist, her love of music added a lingering element of personal enjoyment to the tournament. 

“I just really love music,” she said. “I liked the wide variety of French music — there was pop, country, multiple different genres — because I just didn’t know a lot of French artists I could listen to. And now I do!”

Like its basketball-driven counterpart, the object of Manie Musicale is, of course, to win. And both Covington and Lee came out on top in a tie — which, as any devotee of bracketed tournaments can attest, is a rarity. 

“Jodie’s a sophomore so we really don’t get to talk, but it was cool when we found out we tied and did the exact same bracket,” Covington said. 

Each student loves French for a different reason and approaches it from his or her own perspective. Lee’s musical background drew her to the March project, and she said the building blocks of French are similar to the foundation of musical progression.

French is a third language for Mahgoub, who said that “Arabic and French go beautifully together.” And Covington loves learning its quirks and exploring the differences between a textbook language and its less formal spoken counterpart. 

They all enjoyed the unique educational opportunity of Manie Musicale for different reasons, too. 

“It was so cool to hear vocab words and phrases that we’d learned,” Lee enthused. “There was one song that even taught us about the future tense.”

“I got more appreciative of music,” Mahgoub said. “When we’re in class, it can be awkward, we don’t always know how to pronounce things. But when we’re singing these French songs, it’s much more comfortable.”

Hubbard was thrilled when Manie Musicale struck a chord with students. 

“The ones who really take to it, they just do it on their own,” she explained. “I’d tell my students, if they really like a song, look up that artist and more of their songs. I have some students who really invested a lot of time into listening to more things by more artists.”

And as students found themselves physically isolated from their classmates, one more commonality made a big difference. 

“Doing it during these crazy times, especially with our two already separated French 4 classes, it made us all a little closer,” said Covington.