Volume I - 1993

The Right to be Creative
An Interview with Walter Eliason, Rider College

Dr. Walter Eliason is a teacher educator at Rider College in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, where he also conducts an ESL summer immersion institute. He has taught ESL in North Africa and in Latin America. His favorite color is blue; number 11; and smell, orange.

Editor's Note: This interview was conducted by The Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning (JILL).

Eliason: I have been thinking about the notion of the imagination, and I think that it's a very basic concept. Anytime a person puts together two disparate pieces of information to focus on some new item, it's a creative thought. Imagination seems to require us to connect things that are normally different. That's generally the case, but not always. In putting together colors to make new colors, we're possibly doing something that is imaginative. That would even seem true of making an apple pie....I'm not sure that the apple pie qualifies. If, in fact, we added rhubarb or cranberries, we might be doing something slightly or moderately creative. So that the imagination is such a basic concept that one finds it somewhat difficult to deal with. And it seems to be an activity that you find only or certainly mainly in humans--even in small children, maybe especially in small children. There's been a lot of work trying to define what creativity is, and I'm not sure what imagination means in terms of creativity. We can have a creative cook. Maybe they're exactly synonymous. Is it important to you to set up some parameters that you consider to be imagination and if so do you have any idea what they are?

JILL: Yes and no. A parameter is an analytical notion, and it is analysis that allows us to ask about the importance of the imagination in the first place. However, setting up parameters is always dangerous in that it possibly influences our perceptions. One day, I hope we will be able to speak of imagination in terms of a distinct mode of functioning of the brain. But that day is rather far off, I believe. At present, I prefer to discuss a lot of things that most people would simply refer to broadly as related to the imagination. The very basis of the Conference on the Imagination [at Jersey City State College] and of my interest in getting a Journal together is the lack of recognition of what seems to me a pretty simple observation: namely, that the imagination is critical to language learning, and should be focused on directly in ESL. It occurs to me fairly often--like every day--that this whole enterprise is embarrassingly obvious and should not need emphasizing. Yet I believe it does.

Eliason: I don't understand it. But you're absolutely right. For example, I've just completed a couple of teacher workshops, and the title was--and it's always an interesting title--"Creative Expression in the Foreign Language Classroom." And everyone always says, "Sure, we have to be creative as teachers," and so on. Then they'll go to workshops and say, "Gee, those are good ideas." Then they go back and do exactly what they have always done, maybe altering something and maybe trying some little thing, but not really looking at the imagination as the basis for change or reforming or revitalizing their classrooms. So what I did was spend a lot of time trying to convince the audience that their students were very different from what they--the teachers--are. In an attempt to delineate these differences, I spent a lot of time talking about personality styles and temperament styles, and right hemisphere-left hemisphere. The question is: do people really believe that there are creative people in their classes who need to find some way to express themselves, and ought to find it in their classes. This seems to be very important because maybe the lack of finding such expression is a block to their achievement. If that is the case, teachers should understand it: if they don't, then that lack of understanding is itself a block to creative expression.

JILL: Do you think that the imagination is more relevant for some types of personality than others in terms of acquiring a second language?

Eliason: That's a hard one. I think so because even constructing a sentence means selecting from the reservoir that we have. There are a lot of characteristics of creative people that have been written about. But when you talk to a creative person, it's interesting how they use language. For example, the thinking of people connected to literature is usually not convergent but divergent. Their language is almost always full of imagery. They find it easy to do images. And almost always it's more interesting. You talk to an engineer, and it's rather tough going, unless you're talking his language. It's like speaking literature or speaking art or speaking sculpture or speaking poetry--they're all separate fields. So if your question means does it help to be creative to use language more creatively, the answer is yes: obviously it's part of a certain kind of activity. The next question might be a little different. What about the artist--the painter, the graphic artist, the sculptor or the person who's dealing with different kinds of artistic expression? Does it help them to be linguistically more effective or accomplished? I think so. Those stereotypes of the athlete or of the artist who hasn't got a brain in his head are all wrong. Often, they are very astute in talking about sports and art. Maybe they don't give you all the reasons about what they're doing or how they're doing it, but they're always cognitively oriented people. In my experience, that's true.

JILL: The last time I was here, I watched you teach a class in creative expression. Now if you had found yourself teaching an ESL class, could you have transformed or changed this very interesting activity and used it to teach language?

Eliason: I think so. In ESL classes, I've used poetry and plays and other kinds of writing. When it comes to using paintings and pictures, that's obvious too. There's a great painting that I've used on the wall behind you. And this abstract--it's not of great value, but the students did it and it represents their thoughts. And they did try to project four seasons. Now if the ESL students can't unlock that from this painting, my giving them its title "The Four Seasons" might do so.

JILL: So that they orally analyze with each other and with the class? And that is an instance of the use of the visual arts in the language classroom.

Eliason: Sure. Every year I take ESL students to the museum. It's part of our summer immersion activities. It's a chance for them to get out of the classroom and into the community and for me, that always includes the art museums. And as I walk around, I try to engage the students in conversations about what we're looking at. Not primarily about what we're perceiving in terms of its artistic value and merit, but what the pictures might say, what reactions the pictures produce in the minds of the observers. I have found that what they respond to most quickly are abstractions, things into which they can really project themselves. This is true of the regular classes as well- -they're more likely to respond to a painting like the one behind you, more likely to find meaning in it than something more realistic. That may be because they're not at a handicap to understand the scenes, and they can use what language is available to them to imaginatively make the connection between the language that they have and the images that are being presented to them. I think that comes out.

JILL: And all of these people are studying English as a second language?

Eliason: Absolutely. We go to several museums. In Philadelphia, Trenton, and other places. We also go to the Franklin Institute, which is science based. There, the students have an opportunity to connect between the displays, which are fun to look at. They try to make graphic the basic theories of physics and chemistry. Many of those college students are more interested in science than in art, which is the reverse of my own interests, and I have to make an adjustment for that. But if it isn't at their level of understanding, then they find it boring. Whereas art is always intriguing. Now if I were to take high school ESL classes to the Franklin Institute, it might be right at their level and very interesting for them. It would provide an impetus for their expression in English that is far more valuable than going to the art museum. The point is that ideas and expression must be connected, and it is the imagination that is is called on to connect any two disparate bodies of information. If you have a particular concept in your native language as to, say, the bouncing of ball-bearings on surfaces and how they will eventually come to the center and stop, and what the physical principles are there, and if you have to use the English language to express those concepts--is that imagination? It is connecting two things, and god knows that we have to give the scientists credit for imaginative thinking. So I'm going to say that it is. That's where we are.

JILL: Einstein once commented that imagination is one of the most valuable faculties in a scientist.

Eliason: Otherwise, you're a technician.

JILL: This workshop, "Creative Expression in the Foreign Language Classroom"--is that the one you gave in South America?

Eliason: Yes. What I was trying to do is reach teachers who are working with little or no materials. There are lots of them, you know. Some of the textbooks we have in this country are great. But in many countries, students don't really have textbooks, or they get tired of using the ones they do have. Or the teachers get tried of using them. My first point was trying to convince teachers to try to use different approaches to the same thing, and to show them that they could function without any book by developing their own materials. Just the other day, I was looking at a child's drawing of a pumpkin, and the child was only four years old. The drawing was creative, imaginative. And I don't see any reason for that not being an awfully good starting point. Give a person a sheet of paper and a paintbrush, and tell him or her to make a pumpkin and tell you about it. Why not? But what do you do if you don't have paper and paintbrushes? Well one thing you can do is have a little basketball game with an invisible basketball. You walk into class "bouncing" the basketball and you throw it out and they throw it back to you or you simply "pass" that imaginary basketball around. It's an excellent opportunity to give commands and have students give commands to their peers. Now that has nothing to do with the written word--just listening and speaking. You can begin with a multitude of miming activities, and progress to colors and shapes. So to become creative and imaginative, teachers have to learn how to use their bodies and their eyes and hands in forming expressions; they have to develop their ability to make some of the many gestures that are well known to actors and actresses. And the teachers can do that in pantomime.

JILL: I can imagine many ways to convert mime into overt language, but why don't you specify a couple.

Eliason: Most of the behavior that we do is mimic-mime. The old audio-visual technique took advantage of that--"Raise your hand in the air and draw a big circle." Now if all you do is audiovisual, everyone will get bored. But it can easily be translated into something else. For example, raising your hands becomes calisthenics and the opportunity to practice commands: Put your hands on your hips, hands above your head, hands out straight, make small circles, make big circles." The students are active, which is kind of the Total Physical Response notion. You can form small groups led by a student who is the group leader for calisthenics, or mime some story or play basketball or do a juggler act. And then you can break the groups into pairs.

JILL: And how does this lead to words and language?

Eliason:You can insert words anywhere. "I'm throwing a white ball up and I'm catching it. Will he get that red ball? Will he get that blue ball? Oops, I dropped it. I'll pick it up and put it in my pants pocket. I'll put the other ball in my shirt pocket. Let me see. I'm never going to be able to do this. I need more practice." So what you've done is made the thoughts of the person doing the pantomime overt, expressed. You have to ask yourself, is it at their level. Do they need practice in substitution, in phrases like "in my pocket"? You can take it to any level you want.

JILL: And what are some of the other media you suggest in your workshops?

Eliason: What I worry about is the time. If you're pressed, you can have them do a lot of work at home. In the class you observed, the students were becoming more relaxed with their own creativity. Often you have to break down their fear: "Oh, I can't create; I'm no good at drawing or painting. I don't do any of that stuff." And so I just had them do it. And just like the miming, I had them copying art works. I think it's an important early step. I don't see anything wrong with coloring books, which can be used to teach them to relate colors. A lot of other teachers think there is something wrong with that, but personally, I don't. If you will recall, I had twenty students copying the painting behind you, in twenty minutes. And I had twenty very different interpretations of that piece. There's a good use of time there, if in fact it motivates and gives students confidence in what they're doing. Now it may not be very vocal while they're copying, but they're also building up a large store of things they can talk about later with great intensity and meaning. But if there's no time for copying in the classroom, then I can make a black-and-white photocopy of a painting and ask them to interpret it in color as well as form. When they bring it to class, they have something that they want very much to share with other people.

JILL: I see. You're saying that what's behind language--the content that is to be expressed--is critical.

Eliason: Right. And the motivation to express. Without that, the bread's not going to rise. You never know how long it will take for students to get into that mode of thinking. And it is absolutely critical. I've seen a motivating activity last for years. On the other hand, you can have some short motivating activity determine a person's whole life interest and career. It's that incredible. So it's hard for me to dismiss an activity just because it seems to take too long and is not necessarily active language-wise. You have to consider what it might mean to that group as it progresses through the rest of the semester. Motivating them, encouraging them to feel good about themselves is terribly important, particularly considering that lots of language learners are part of an immigrant population. They come to us with enormous problems, and they often have difficulty in feeling proud of themselves. Their poor self-concept is often one of their biggest problems. And if we can get them to be happier about themselves by getting them to be more creative, then that is often a route many of them will go to avoid the language, cognitive, and/or cultural conflicts. Why not encourage them to do that? This is directly related to their effectiveness in speech and cultural interactions.

JILL: I imagine that often takes an act of self-confidence on the part of the teacher also.

ELIASON: Yes. It's essential. And one trouble with this is dealing with administrators and other teachers who don't believe it. And not only immigrants but all people have a right to be creative and a NEED to be creative. And teachers have a responsibility therefore to provide activities that help people to develop their creativity in all kinds of ways--visual art, literature, drama. Why do we need creative expression? The reason is that people are really very different. If, then, this is the case--that we are different and they are different--then we need to satisfy different learning styles because of different preferences for class activities. Attention to creativity seems to provide us an important means to address this issue.

JILL: You mentioned drama. Were you referring to students putting on plays?

Eliason: Yes, but not for audiences. In my classes, I often use plays from a book called Action Plays. They were written back in the '60's for urban kids who couldn't read. The point was to try to make characters use very simple English to discuss problems that they had--hanging around corners, driving a car, early dates. These plays were for kids who were not able to read Ivanhoe like everyone else. They had open-ended endings so that not only is enactment possible, but the characters have to discuss the issues at the end. I've not seen anything like them in ESL materials. Maybe there are--I just don't know them.

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