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French government recognizes Normandale principal’s devotion to language, culture

Aerial view of Kuhlman stadium with water tower in foreground.
French government recognizes Normandale principal’s devotion to language, culture

Chris Holden’s love for learning languages started with an influential high school teacher. His passion for languages led him toward a career path that allowed him to inspire second language learners. Holden’s ability to spark learners has not gone unnoticed. During a school assembly in September, Holden was honored as a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques (Knight of the Order of Academic Palms) by the Consul General of France in Chicago. This order expresses the French government’s recognition and gratitude to French and foreign academics and educators who have made outstanding contributions to French education or science, and to the expansion of French language and culture throughout the world. 

Normandale teachers submitted letters of recommendation detailing Holden’s contributions toward French culture and academics. Sophie Toner, fifth grade teacher at Normandale, was confident Holden would make an exceptional nominee. “His French speaking skills are excellent and he is always communicating in French with students and staff in his own relaxed style with continual positivity and optimism,” said Toner in her letter. 

Holden was introduced to the language in high school. He went on to study French in college and fine-tuned his skills by spending a semester in France. Upon graduation, he was once again captivated by French culture and worked in France for three years. After living abroad, he came to Normandale in 1992 as a first grade teacher and progressively taught higher grade levels. Holden left Normandale in 1997 to pursue a teaching position in Paraguay, where he learned to speak Spanish.  Holden subsequently held the role of principal at Robbinsdale Middle School, Robbinsdale Spanish Immersion School, and Cornelia Elementary School. 

Since returning to Normandale as principal in 2014, his influence has been felt among the staff. “He welcomes staff and student initiatives to promote French language and Francophone cultural activities and finds the time, space, and sometime funds to make those initiatives take place,” said Toner. “We’ve been able to welcome a Haitian artist-in-residence group three years in a row to engage students in the discovery of storytelling, songs, dances, music, and textile art from Haiti.” 

Holden’s impact is felt outside the district as well. Isabelle Punchard, the K-12 world language coordinator, has known Holden since she initially started her career as a teacher at Normandale. “He has supported administrators who are new to immersion by presenting at the Immersion 101 Summer Institute of the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA),” said Punchard. “He also hosted a very informative school visit for immersion colleagues from the U.S., Canada, and several European Countries. 

Holden was surprised when he received an email from the French Consulate informing him of the recognition. “It’s actually one of the oldest honors given by the Republic of France,” said Holden. “I didn’t even know I was nominated for the honor.” The roots of L’ordre des Palmes Académiques can be traced to 1808 when Napoleon established the award for devotion and accomplishment in the realm of teaching and development of knowledge. 

Holden, who has already joined the American Society of the French Academic Palms, is continuously finding new ways to grow in the work that he does. “I’m participating in a cohort with other principals in the Minnesota Principals Academy, which is a joint effort by the University of Minnesota and the State of Minnesota to develop school leaders,” said Holden. “’I’ve also recently accepted a position as a board member on the Alliance Française of Minneapolis.”

Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques is an honor that Holden didn’t expect. “I’m just an elementary school principal who happens to like French language and culture,” he said. “I’m certainly not doing this job for that type of recognition, but it’s really heartwarming that my teachers took the time to notice and recommend me for the award.”