Creativity, Learning, and Remembering French

I took French in high school and was lucky enough to spend a summer speaking French as an exchange student in Luxembourg. I could function reasonably well in French at that time, but that was many (many many) years ago. I enjoy French, and periodically I’ll log onto a website or explore Rosetta Stone, just to see how much I can retrieve from those long-buried skills. My most recent French adventure has been our local Rec and Ed French class. These are short informal classes—one evening a week for six weeks—so I’m peeking into those rusty synapses but not making dramatic improvements.

Still, when my French teacher asked for volunteers to do a five-minute presentation in French, my teacher- instinct was to be helpful and volunteer. I prepared a “script” of my presentation on Le Petit Nicolas, a classic French children’s book. In order to make our presentations more successful (and, I suspect, comprehensible), our teacher reviews the scripts and makes suggestions/edits before the actual presentation. In this process, I had a surprising reaction to her edits.

I had anticipated that she would correct errors in grammar or word usage, which, of course, she did. She also wants to “grow” our vocabulary, so in places she made suggestions of alternative word choices, or even additional information we might want to add. I found many of those suggestions helpful and incorporated them into my presentation. But another strange thing happened. In a few places, my teacher’s suggestions incorporated ideas that didn’t “mesh” with mine, or felt like a tone I’d never use. Since I’m a beginner, I tried to use them anyway. But I find I can’t remember them! Where she’s given me new ways to express my ideas, the language flows (relatively) freely. But when I’m trying to remember language that makes me uncomfortable or just doesn’t seem like something I’d say, it is much more difficult. I finally edited the piece again myself, incorporating most of her suggestions and changing a few, and now the presentation feels like it is mine—and I’m having much less trouble remembering what I want to say.

It brought me back to a favorite quotation from Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

[E]motion and cognition are supported by interdependent neural processes. It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion. . . .Put succinctly, we only think about things we care about. (p. 18)

In my case, I’m clearly having trouble making connections to ideas don’t feel like “mine,” even in very minor ways. It made me think, yet again, of how important our students’ ideas and voices are in their learning. As we help students use ideas in their own ways, the ideas become theirs. If we try to impose one-and-only-one way, we may manage to elicit compliance, but not real learning. (Fortunately, my French teacher is much wiser than that.) For me, this experience is one more bit of evidence that teaching in ways that support students’ creativity will support their learning as well.

If you’d like to hear a bit more from Dr. Immordino-Yang, have a look. There are longer videos available on YouTube but here’s a beginning. In the meantime, wish me luck with the presentation!

Immordino-Yang, M. H. (2016). Emotions, learning, and the brain. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

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