How does one teach language to kids from an online setting and still be fun and engaging? It would seem impossible until you see what Les Petites Pommes is doing. Founded by Mary Clements in 2009, the award-winning Canadian company specializes in creating programs that help children learn French. The CEO herself joins Melanie Parish in today’s episode to share what the pivot looked like for their company when COVID-19 forced them to shift everything online. An artist by heart, Mary led her company to thrive in the midst of the pandemic through willful experimentation and trailblazing. Listen to the episode to learn more about this beautiful pivot story.
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“French Chat” And Other Experiments In Online Learning With Mary Clements Of Les Petites Pommes
I'm here with Mary Clements, the Founder and CEO of the company Les Petites Pommes. Since 2009, Les Petites Pommes has led award-winning summer camps and tutoring programs that help children learn French. For thousands of children, their camps and programs have been a warm and friendly place where they have had the opportunity to feel confident in developing their French language skills while also having fun. Since COVID-19, all of the Petite Pommes programs are now available online. Mary, welcome to the show.
Melanie, I'm happy to be here.
It's great to have you. I am super excited to get to talk to you. I want to dive right in and ask you what's going on in your world, business, and life?
Like everybody, we're all still going on with COVID-19, which had a major impact on our business. For Les Petites Pommes, prior to March 2020 was completely in person and now we're online.
I can't even imagine the amount of work that must have taken for you to get to this point.
It was a bit of a big surprise and shock. I never thought of our business being online before this since we deal with children. We work in person for tutoring and summer camps. It's connecting with them in person. I knew they were possible, but I’m like, “This is probably not for us,” but since moving online, it's opened up a lot of options and create a lot of more possibilities for the kids too because they can connect with us more frequently than they used to be able to. We can connect with kids in different cities and different parts of the world to each other. It's cool in that way.
You've tried a whole bunch of experiments this time. What's worked? What hasn't worked that you've been experimenting with since March 2020?
We've had quite a lot of experiments happening, which luckily I had your book ready to go and to give me permission to experiment and to be extremely gentle on myself as we were moving through these experiments. In the past, I've been hard on myself when it's like, “I tried something once and it didn't work.” This was a time where even then that wasn't useful, but extremely as we're experimenting with many different aspects, no space for that. In terms of experiments, what we've been doing straightaway when March 2020 happens, all the kids were out of school right away and everybody was shot into online. We canceled our in-person March 2020 break camp. We had to figure out how we're going to move all of our tutoring students online and then how we're going to teach everybody to be online.
We spent that whole week amongst our team figuring out what that looked like for us and converting all of our resources and workbooks into a digital format so we could bring those with us. Rather than doing it one-one-on-one with our tutoring students, we wanted to make it available to a larger set of kids. I started something called French chat where students could come in. We did free ones at first to make it accessible to everybody. Kids could come in for a half-hour. It was light, friendly, and chat in French. We talk about their feelings and anything they wanted. We'd read a story sometimes and they could connect with different kids that they don't know. It was even we connected with kids we didn't know. There were kids signing into our French chat. Normally, we only serve the greater Toronto area, but for the French chat, we were getting kids all across Canada.
What was your thinking? Why did you experiment with making those free in the beginning?
I thought it was the right thing to do because that was a challenging time. I wanted to try and give back to people in our strongest students. I knew helping people in French was our strongest suit and it was generous to all these people who were working hard and figuring out what to do. How could we help contribute to the effort? That was our way of contributing.
Was there any business reason for doing them free?
I kept them free because there were a lot of new people coming in. We were getting some new people interested in what Les Petites Pommes was from that service there. We kept them free longer than we needed to.
I'm curious about what freedom is available when you produce something free, you get to experiment any way you want to.
With those free classes, I was collecting everybody's information. They were all on our list as well. They didn't come for that one time. They got stayed into our weekly newsletters and things. They became part of our club.
Are there any other big experiments? It sounds like everything was an experiment going online. What did you need to think of as a leader as everything was changing?
I was concerned with not laying anybody off. I wanted everybody to keep their job, feel secure, feel purpose and direction while everything else was feeling uncertain. During that time, that was important to me. I had to figure out how we can keep the cashflow coming so that everybody felt secured. Amongst major cancellations, all the in-person tutoring being canceled, March 2020 break being canceled, and then at that time, that was still March, April, and May 2020, we weren't sure what was going to happen with summer camp, which is our major event of the years. We're running five simultaneous summer camps at once in different cities and we're looking at canceling that. That was a big thing happening at that time. We ended up canceling it, but also figuring out what is an online summer camp even looks like.
What did you think of as you were creating? How did you decide what was important to include in an online summer camp? As a leader, you were in lots of uncertainty. How did you find the thing that your company values and your client needs?
For the online summer camp, I know our clients have big dreams for their children and those big dreams include their kids being masterful at the French language, being able to feel confident, feel happy acquiring and using their second language. I knew that that's one of our important things to our clients. That's for the parents as clients. For the kids as the clients, it has to be fun or else forget it. You can have the highest quality boot camp of verbs coming along. If it's not fun, they don't care about it. I was like, “How do we keep everybody happy in our new online world?
Those were the two things we had to consider for that. What was it going to look like? We ended up doing a heavier grammar focus because there were a lot of kids that missed a lot of school during that time. I knew that was going to be important and there were a lot of concerns about, “How are the kids going to move?” We made sure we had a movement and a dancing component so that they were feeling jolly, having lots of energy flowing, and not sitting on their computers the whole day. We were doing scavenger hunts throughout their house.
I would send an email to the parents like, “If your child is running through the house and finding random objects, let them do that.” That's going to be expected because they would say like, “Justine, go run and get that fork.” They all run and like, “I got my fork.” They go find their spoon. It was all over. We were making sure that everyone's needs were getting met in an online way. That was a lot of experimenting because some days the kids would give us direct feedback and say, “This day was not good. Make it better tomorrow.” We'll make it better tomorrow.
Did you solicit that feedback in some way with your students?
We always ask them to let us know what they're thinking and make sure that it's a comfortable space for them to feel that all of their opinions are welcome. We asked them a lot during the first couple of weeks.
How did you ask them?
I always say to them, “Come on.” I do a thumbs up, thumbs to the side, or thumbs down, and they would pick what they like. If there was a lot of thumbs down, I'd say, “Pourquoi,” or the teachers would say, “Why?” They would tell them exactly why. Kids don't hold back. That one's easy. A challenge that we had was assigning a proper level of French to the proper rooms. We decided to divide them by age and not by French level. Some eight-year-olds who are Francophone versus an eight-year-old who's French immersion to an eight-year-old who might be in core French, for example, they're all at different levels. That's what we do in our regular in-person camp. In an online fashion, it was a little harder to make sure everybody's levels were getting attended to.
Was there anything that you learned that you'll apply in 2020 about placing kids in rooms?
We're going to keep it the same because at the end of the day, I don't like to break them up by levels. I knew you have like a six-year-old Francophone kid with a nine-year-old, it doesn't work socially. We try to accommodate those kids. We make special rules. For example, in person, if one boy was an eight-year-old Francophone versus an eight-year-old core French child, they'd say, “This eight-year old’s going to be your special translator for the whole day.” They'd have to buddy up and help each other. Online it was a little harder to do that, but we did get better at it.
Thank you for sharing so much detail. It's interesting when you're doing that experimentation to hear what's in your mind. Who do you need to be as a leader as the uncertainty continues going forward?
I'm trying to take care of myself because I know if I crumble, this is not the time to be crumbling. I've been focused on self-care and being intentional with my time, where my mind goes and trying to be as present as possible so it doesn't stumble or spiral into anxiety. That's easy to do. As a leader, it's important to have intentional self-care
What do you do for self-care?
I got the whole thing. It was like, “I ask the crazy question.”
Tell me about your self-care.
My day is extremely scheduled with all of the items that I want to achieve. I'm on day 40 of my made-up 75 hard routines. There's this guy named Andy Frisella and he invented this thing called 75 Hard. It's more towards working out. He had five components that you have to achieve. It was one 45-minute in the gym workout with weights, one 45-minute outdoor workout and no alcohol. You have to document all the calories you eat per day and ten minutes of uplifting material per day. That's what he made up. It's called 75 Hard. You have to do it for 75 days straight. If you miss a day, you have to restart.
I like this concept that he made up, but I took it, I made it more towards my own goals, and I massaged it to suit me better. My 75 Hard looks like twenty minutes of meditation a day and one hour of body movement. It can be anything I want. It doesn't have to be specific like he said. One hour moving your body. It could be weights, running outside, and slowly walking. One hour of reading a physical book, not online, and not on your phone because I find that I've been on the phone and computers a lot.
I wanted to bring reading back into my life, so one hour of reading and then my last one hour is one hour of music because I'm working on my first studio release of my first album. I wanted to make sure I'm dedicated an hour a day to pushing those goals forward. I added 3.5 hours a day extra to my day during this crazy time, but I'm on day 40. It gives me a lot of direction and a path to follow rather than if I didn't have that extra thing to occupy myself with, then it's easy to doom scroll through the news on your phone for this amount of time.
I always love to ask my guests who are leaders about what they know about imposter syndrome. I'm not asking you to reveal your deepest darkest secrets but you've been leading your organization for a decade. I'd love to hear what you've noticed about imposter syndrome in yourself and others, or any light you can shed on the topic.
For me to describe the best way is to describe how I've experienced it. I know not to reveal our deepest darkest secrets, but I don't think this is a secret because I tell the kids, “Les Petites Pommes is several years old now. We've been riding the business for several years.” I didn't feel like a real business leader and business owner until a few years into the business. I think because at that point I was still living with my parents and my business being run out of my bedroom. We're a few years in and it was successful, helping hundreds of kids a year.
Finally, when I bought my first house, I thought, “I've made it.” For some reason, I didn't have imposter syndrome anymore. This happens to the kids a lot too where they feel like they're not good enough at French. They have an imposter syndrome going into Quebec or France where they're like, “My second language isn't strong enough and I'm not good enough.” I try to reassure them. It's common with second-language learners and it's common with business people too. I got it double way because I had that too when I was learning French, I was like, “I'm not good enough at French.” Finally, in France, the French person said, “I couldn't even tell you were from Canada.” I was like, “Imposter syndrome done.” I don't want to say it's cured by external validation but maybe it is sometimes.
I had the same thing happen to me because I learned Danish when I was an exchange student and in immersion. There was a day that a guy made fun of me for something I said at a train station. I said something and he mocked me and I was like, “How rude are you?” He was like, “I had no idea you were an American. I thought you were from another part of Denmark.” He was making fun of me for being Danish. You're right, that external validation of being mistaken. I never worried about my Danish again. That's a fun story to share. I am fascinated by the idea that language learning has a lot of imposter syndrome. I hadn't thought about that but that's true.
The kids talk about it too. I remember even as a French immersion student feeling it as well. It's common and it's important for people to hear that other people experience it because when you feel that imposter syndrome, I say, “I'm isolated in this feeling.” Even with music, for example, I did my degree in Music but I never felt like a musician. This is one where I dug deep and said, “I'm a musician now.” If I feel that imposter syndrome, I'm going to meditate through it, observe it, and not acknowledge it.
Where can people find you, Mary?
If they want to find more information about Les Petites Pommes, if they have any children who are interested in the second language learning of French, they can find us at www.LesPetitesPommes.ca. We're also Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and all the regular platforms. Reach out. I'd love to connect with anybody to help you or your children along your French journey. We also tutor adults as well.
When's your album coming out?
I can't wait to get my hands on it.
My album, you can visit MaryClements.ca.
Thanks, Mary, for being on my show. It's been a pleasure getting to hear more about how you've been experimenting and how you lead.
Melanie, thanks for having me. Also, I want to acknowledge you for being my coach for many years. You've been a game-changer to me. I know that other people have their businesses, but I have a secret special angel.
Thank you, Mary.
Who plants ideas in my brain? I'm like, “I came up with a great idea.” I'm like, “That was Melanie a few years ago.”
Thanks, Melanie. Have a great day.
I've been chatting with Mary Clements. I love how she creates feedback loops with her summer camp students. When she switched to online summer camp to get them to use their thumbs, thumbs up, thumbs down, and thumbs sideways as a way to find out how they're feeling about her delivery of summer camp so that she can change and adapt on a daily basis. I'm also fascinated by how business leaders and language speakers both share the commonality of experiencing imposter syndrome and how knowing that other people experience it helps people change the way that they do those things. It's been great spending time with Mary Clements. Go experiment.
A public speaker, consultant, workshop leader, author, and Master Certified Coach through the International Coach Federation, from whom she received the Prism Award, Melanie is an expert in problem-solving, constraints management, operations, strategic hiring, and brand development.