French, Creativity, and the Complexities of School

I’ve had an exciting summer! In my most recent adventure I had the chance to spend a week in Quebec City in a French immersion experience. I went to French classes all day and lived with a host family—just like being a 16-year-old exchange student all over again. The family-stay was the best part of the experience. The woman who hosted us spoke Spanish (her first language) and French but very little English. The other student in the house spoke English and conversational Spanish, but was in her second week of studying French. I spoke English and conversational French but no Spanish. We ended up having wonderful long three-language conversations about all manner of things. It made me think about the associations between international travel and creativity. Certainly our conversations entailed a great deal of flexible thinking!

There were, of course, many adventures that week. It also was the first time I’ve been a student in a formal classroom in many (many many) years. I was impressed with the flexibility with which the instructors dealt with a constantly-changing class roster as students arrived and departed on their own schedules, a few like me for just a week, but others for several weeks or months. Of course I also was very conscious of the instructor’s efforts to get us to use language creatively.

There were a number of interesting—and to me, enjoyable—activities that exercised our creativity and/or critical thinking. We invented characters and had to justify saving them in a doomsday scenario. We tried to convince classmates that fantasy life events were true. We staged debates arguing the relative merits of actors and musicians from various countries—a particularly interesting exercise in a class of students from across the globe. Using the language in multiple ways forced us to apply the things we were learning in complex and interesting ways. But as much as I enjoyed and benefited from those exercises, another woman in our class loathed them. Her French is very good, so there was no reason she could not be successful, but those unpredictable, often silly, activities made her very anxious. She did not enjoy them, and I suspect her learning in those moments was minimal.

It reminded me, yet again, of the essential importance of emotions in learning and creativity, and the complexities of trying to support creativity in a class full of learners with varied experiences. For me, the creative activities were fun and they helped me develop needed skills. But, perhaps because of my many years as a teacher, I was comfortable being spontaneous in front of a group and not particularly worried if I looked foolish. Certainly I’ve looked foolish plenty of times before! But my classmate was genuinely anxious in those moments. She much preferred activities with predictable correct answers. Of course there are many reasons for her reaction, including some unique to that situation, but the general principle is important. When we open up the gateways to imagination, believing that all students will run through with joy, we are likely to be surprised. Some will not.

This does not mean that we should give up and revert to predictable exercises, any more than we should give up on complex math equations because some students find them difficult. It does mean we should recognize that the risk taking involved in creative thinking is real, and for some students it feels like a dangerous risk. As teachers, it is essential to work to build a relationship and classroom atmosphere that support risk taking, bit by bit if necessary. For those of us contemplating a not-too-distant beginning of the academic year, thinking about that atmosphere may be a good way to begin.

P.S. I just had to share that perhaps my favorite example of flexible thinking in Quebec City was the ice cream chocolate bars, featuring dozens of flavors of melted chocolate ready to be scooped over sorbet or coat a dipped ice cream cone. Dark chocolate with wild blueberries, anyone? I think I want to go back tomorrow!

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