‘All Real Living is Meeting’: Using The Cognitive Tools Of Imaginative Education To Teach Culture To Second Language Learners

By Greta Visscher-Pau (Secondary FSL Teacher)





It’s 2020, and you are on a train. You carry nothing but a backpack, filled with clothes, toiletries and a guidebook explaining how to get from A to B. As you wait for the train to pull out from the station, a smiling person walks up, checks his/her ticket, then sits down next to you. You’ve got a long ride ahead of you, so you smile back and ask their name. You click, and end up talking throughout the day as you travel through the countryside to your destination.

What do you talk about? What do you learn from this person? What do you tell them about yourself and your life as a Canadian?

Like many teachers of a second language, I’ve lived out this scenario multiple times throughout my travels. Each time I’ve been grateful for my knowledge of French and somewhat in awe of my second language’s ability to unlock new worlds and to open up a new culture to me. That encounter with a new culture is my emotional connection to the material that I now teach daily.

Like other teachers, I have also had to work to breathe life into a subject that many students find difficult to engage with. This is what led me to a diploma in Imaginative Education, and I believe that using the cognitive tools of IE to study culture provides an ideal entry into helping students engage emotionally with another language. Culture is the human context of a language – to teach culture is, in essence, to humanize knowledge and to situate it as the tool of a wide range of human emotions and experiences.

But, how can we do that? How can we transport our students to the streets of Vieux Quebec or the markets of Marseilles? I believe that the cognitive tools of IE can be used to create a cultural inquiry project for students to develop their understanding of the target language. I designed this project as part of a field study on the BC French 8 curriculum, though I could see it being adapted to a wide variety of ages, languages, and levels of proficiency.

Imaginative Activities For Cultural Inquiry

In this cultural inquiry, the narrative that frames the entire unit is the meeting of two cultures. By learning about another culture, students come to better understand (or even simply be aware of!) their own. To that end, start this inquiry by having the students imagine that they are on a train, travelling alone in a new country. Who sits beside them? What questions would they want to ask this person? What would they want to share about themselves and where they are from? Having the students formulate these questions for themselves and answer them is the heart of the assignment. Learning a language is thus about enlarging one’s community, building bridges and learning to embrace difference. I would emphasize the heroic quality of a sense of community in the following assignments:

1) Identity Card: Students need context and information to think with in order to feed their imaginations. To establish this, they can begin by working alone or in small groups to research the basic facts on a country of their choice. Where is it on the map? How many people live there? When did it become a country? What is the weather like (i.e. winter/summer extremes)? What sports do they play, etc. They present this information in a graphic organizer on a small card, next to a flag of that country.

From there, the class can do a scavenger hunt to discover the extremes and limits of the countries displayed. This is a great way to practice the superlative sentence structures in context! Which country has the largest population? …the smallest? Which country is the oldest? …the youngest? These facts could also be used to play riddles in the target language, where students have to guess the country based on a series of clues from the cards.

2) Compare and Contrast: Students can research some key cultural elements from their chosen country and compare them to their own culture. Possible topics: gender roles, school system, typical meals, hobbies and pastimes, slang terms, social justice issues, popular sports, etc. For older students, the ideas of social justice, gender equality and other social issues also play a role in igniting the imagination, as they become more aware of the world and their place in it.

Once they have gathered this information, they use it to do a role play of a conversation where they meet someone from that country – complete with costumes and props if possible! This could be done in the target language with advanced students, or a mix of English/target language for beginners. You could also encourage them to share a joke/idiomatic expression/proverb from their chosen country as part of their role play. For example, in French one can say ‘Revenons à nos moutons’ (Let’s get back to our sheep) if the conversation has veered off-topic – useful in so many contexts!

3) Heroes! Students can research someone who is admired and/or famous in their chosen country. Who is considered a hero in this community? Why? They could then prepare a ‘trading card’ of that person with their basic information. A possible extension to encourage speaking is to play a version of ‘Headbands.’ Each group has a pack of the trading cards and a paper crown. A card is clipped to the student wearing the crown and they then have to guess who they have by asking yes or no questions of the group, who can see which card they have. (Including play and playfulness in learning in all contexts supports learning.)

4) Visualizations. Students would first create a collection of images of their chosen country, perhaps with a theme (nature, markets, city streets, food, etc). They could use this visual research as the basis for a visualization activity where they would imagine what each of their senses is noticing in a specific scene – what colours would they see? What would they smell? What sounds would they hear? With scaffolding, students would write a short description of the scene they imagine: ‘I feel… I see… I smell… etc.’ These could then be used as listening activities with a partner: each student shares their visualization and their partner then draws what they understood.

5) Cultural Celebration. To wrap up the project, students can present an element of their country’s culture in a final celebration. This is a great way to highlight all that they have learned and done throughout the year by inviting other classes, administration, family, and friends. Students choose something from their country to display – they could demonstrate a cultural dance, do a mini-cooking demo, give a speech on a social justice issue, narrate an art gallery walk, or teach a mini-lesson on specific vocabulary from their country. To encourage creativity, I would make the rule that PowerPoints and similar programs are not allowed – it has to be something the audience can experience in some way, not just listen to. It would also be fun to have the final day be a potluck day, where each student or group brings a snack that represents their country.

Final Thoughts

‘All real living is meeting’ writes Martin Buber, and this is especially true of encounters between different cultures. While we may not be able to have our students physically meet people from a different language group in our classrooms, we can enlist the tools of the imagination to make it happen in their minds. Teaching culture helps our students to experience its ability to unlock whole new worlds and thus to see the wonder in their second language.



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