Volume I - 1993

Where the Magic Lies
An Interview with Carolyn Graham

Carolyn Graham is internationally known for her "Jazz Chants" books. As a teacher-trainer, she has conducted workshops throughout the world on the use of the arts in the ESL classroom. She is a Master Teacher at the American Language Institute at New York University, and is a summer teaching fellow at Harvard University.

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

JILL: Tell me about a teaching technique you've seen recently that draws heavily on the imagination.

Graham: Let's see. Two of my colleagues at New York University, Margaret Canapa and Helen Harper, are doing quite wonderful things with their ESL students, having them write and perform in puppet shows. The students themselves write the scripts, make the costumes, the set; they also stage the show and put it on. I went to a production the other day, and it was truly inspiring. These are students in the intensive program who take regular, formal classes in the morning. In the afternoon, we're starting to have electives--like the Harvard program where the students choose how they want to pursue their English. It might be in theater or poetry or music or film; there're all sorts of possibilities. Margaret and Helen's group opted to get into puppetry, which meant they would--among other things--discuss international folk tales. The class divided into groups of three or four students, and each group collected a set of tales. Then, for one of these tales, the group wrote a script, rehearsed it, made the puppets, and performed it. They're going to do them again for American children in schools around the [Greenwich] Village. Some were familiar stories like "The Boy Who Cried Wolf"; others were from other cultures. There were some from Japan, Korea--and an interesting Arabian version of "Little Red Riding Hood." In the show, the students sing old American songs like "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." It's really a charming idea.

JILL: And the purpose of it was to engage the students in an imaginative activity in order to enhance language learning.

Graham: And to tap the students' creativity and imagination. We're the catalysts, and I like to see the students express their imagination. As teachers, we should give them the possibility of doing that. The whole focus should not be on the teacher, but on the students. And I love these activities that open up the student's imagination. Some students are very rooted in reality, and that's the way they're going to respond. There's no problem with that. It's just that now each of them gets a chance to show you who they are. That's true of poetry and a great many of these activities such as drawing, music and drama. Like the puppets--the students wrote the scripts and put themselves into it. This activity is wonderful--used in combination with a more formal program. For an intensive program where you've got the students for a lot of hours, its a very good idea to give them activities that are expansive and creative. And it involves all the skills: writing, reading, speaking and working together.

Graham: Something you just said reminds me of a conversation I had recently with Walter Eliason of Rider College. We had been discussing the imagination. A look of slight concern came across his face at one point. "Now don't get the wrong idea," he said. "Creative activities are wonderful, but we do do other things as well in my classes." And he kept on talking and before long he added, "But maybe that's the only thing we should do in class." I had been lamenting that my lack of confidence limited me to only a few activities overtly calling on the imagination. I believe we concluded that both of us should look for a master teacher, a guru who did nothing but imagination. Now, let's turn to you. What are you up to these days in the way of projects?

Graham: I'm interested in the fairy tale as the basis of elementary ESL work. Now, with the Common Market, English is becoming even more important in Europe. They have begun introducing it in the elementary schools. For example, in France, they're getting ready to teach English in the first grade on a very large scale. And right now, the teachers don't have material; they're not trained for that level. It's a whole new thing. It's also happening in the emerging nations of Eastern Europe. There are many things that need to be done. And in this country, there're a lot of children with very different cultural backgrounds. I'd like to do what I can with fairy tales from different countries. The way I got interested in this is through a project with Japanese fairy tales. I'm helping to prepare teaching materials for use in Japan. I've done songs and chants based on those tales, and now I'm working on a series of videos. It would be wonderful, I think, to use this approach in other places. The tales are interesting in themselves, and at the same time, it reinforces their own culture.

JILL: Material like that would be very interesting in Jersey City, which is said to be one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the world.

Graham: So I've heard.

JILL: The time seems right for that sort of thing.

Graham: I think that with our new [Clinton] administration, there's going to be a renewed interest in education. There certainly should be attention paid to elementary, because that's where we have a chance to do a lot for the kids. If we spend some time on the elementary classes, it's going to pay off.

JILL: Changing the focus a little, let me ask if you have any idea why the imagination is squelched as children grow up in our society? That is, children seem to have a vivid imagination, but as they get older, the schools seem to weed it out of them. Often, by the time they get a college degree, they don't seem to have any idea of what the imagination is.

Graham: The imagination is certainly not encouraged in the traditional Western classroom. The imagination is frightening and unpredictable. You lose control of the child when you let that imagination loose. You really don't know where it's going to go. Some parents and some teachers feel that they want to be very much in control of what the child learns and what goes into the brain.

JILL: Have you encountered any society that is a little different?

Graham: Well, I've heard that the aboriginals in Australia are quite different. There, in the course of a day, a person can write poetry, make paintings, compose music--and they don't think anything of it. And in Bali, that's also the case. Art is not a separate thing. Everybody seems to be an artist. The whole country is dancing and singing and making beautiful objects. I mean their daily life is intimately connected with art and music. For us, it's astonishing because we're never allowed to do that.

JILL: Have you ever been there--to Bali?


Graham: I have. It's fantastic.

JILL: Is it our Western society that puts on the damper?

Graham: Yes, I think it is. We place a very high value on the rational mind, science, logic and the like. And art was too often considered something that women did at home.

JILL: Teachers seem to often pass on this unfortunate tradition to their students. The work you were describing with folk tales seems one way of breaking this. Do you know of another of about the same promise?

Graham: Some of the formula poem ideas also do that. Kenneth Koch has used these beautifully in his book Wishes, Lies and Dreams. Particularly where you bring the person back to their childhood. You ask them to remember what it was like when they were ten years old. You start to get them thinking in terms of their childhood. There's a simple little exercise that I used to do where you say, "I came into the world..." and then the student gives an "ing" word like "laughing" or "singing". By the way, this works well with adults. You model the sentence and have them provide only one word. Some students are funny; some are quite serious. Some will say that they came into the world shopping. Another will say he came into the world crying. Another will say that he came in wondering. And people start to think about who they are. Your choice of a word is very expressive of who you are and how much you are willing to reveal. You might do something funny so that people don't get too close, or you might be open. It's fascinating. Things like that are excellent for new semesters where teachers don't know each other, where the ice needs to be broken. They get to know each other in a much more intimate way than they would through simple introductions. This could be presented as something that they might like to do with their students. Through activities of this kind, we all become a little more aware of sounds and rhythms and color and language. I personally spend a lot of time with my students talking about how beautiful and musical English is for me, at least. I think that the students are very happy to hear that and understand that. Singers love the sound of some of the irregular past participles such as done, gone, seen, etc. because it's so lovely and nice to sing with long, stretched out, poetic sounds. These aspects of teaching are interesting to talk about--just the pure pleasure of the sound. It's fun to do that. Closely related to this is rhyming; there is something very satisfying about rhymes. Children like them. And I think that it's important for children to develop their ears--to hear and enjoy rhyming and eventually make their own rhymes.

JILL: Can you think of any other teacher get-together activities?

Graham: There's one I learned about in a seminar in Boston that had nothing to do with ESL. You ask each person to bring an object from their life that carries a story. You put all of the objects on a table and ask everyone to walk around the table, look at the objects and try to imagine something about the stories they contain. The objects themselves are always fascinating. The range from a little piece of clothing to a sculpture to an old postage stamp, a faded rose, a letter. Then, if it's a small group, say under 20, you ask someone to come up and choose the object that interests them the most. The person who brought the particular object gets up and talks about the object. Then that second person chooses an object, and so on. If it's a large group or if you're limited by time, then you don't put the objects on a table. Instead., you put everyone into groups of four. One pair tells their stories to each other, and then each tells the stories of the other to another member of the group. So that by the end of the activity, each person has told his or her own story, listened to another story and told that other story. This was done with 500 people in a huge gymnasium in Boston. It's a wonderful exercise. It teaches us to listen--to other people and not only ourselves.

JILL: I wonder would that work in a regular ESL program, at the beginning of the year.

Graham: I think it would.

JILL: I have a note here about something that I don't know if you're particularly interested in. It's about the imagination as being a function of the mind essential to the acquisition of language, or more generally to the acquisition of all knowledge.

Graham: It's essential to discovery. That's obviously what enables people to break the path. That's what leads us forward. Without that, we wouldn't go anywhere; we would just keep repeating the past. You can educate a child, if you mean by that to learn what happened. Without imagination, you can learn just about everything in history. But if you're talking about real education, which is how to live and how to discover, and how to break new ground and how to open up the world for the next generation, you've got to have imagination for that. That's what does it, isn't it. Without curiosity and imagination, we wouldn't have any progress. We wouldn't have any change.

JILL: That's a beautiful, large basis you're giving for education.

Graham: Well, it seems to me that that is it. Unless you only want to teach about what has already been discovered, it's just not that interesting. The point where it becomes interesting is when you give them the power to do it themselves. And we can't tell what they will do, because the ability to do something totally original is what we have given them. New ideas are what are powerful and exciting. Imagination is what does that, isn't it?

JILL: So that you're saying that allowing the student's imagination to remain open and possibly keep evolving and developing is one of the most significant gifts a teacher can give.

Graham:I think so. Because I like the idea of a society that has that. I mean that is in the best tradition of what we supposedly have, as opposed to a very restrictive society where it's very set what the students learn. And they go into a job and they stay in that job, and it's very orderly and tidy. Our society, on the other hand, is very disorderly and unpredictable and beset with problems...but it does have a very bright side--the sheer amount of creativity on the streets of New York is phenomenal. The creativity of these half-educated kids just sort of on the loose--their language creativity--it's amazing to me what they do. It's wonderful what they do with their clothing and music and lifestyle. It's all original; nobody's ever seen it. They're out there, they're rapping, they're break-dancing--you don't know what they're going to do. And it's imagination that's doing all that. And I'm very impressed by it because I think that it's powerful and wonderful to see it happening.

JILL: To be frank, I had never thought much about that--the creativity of New York streets.

Graham: Or any streets. There's a very dark side, but if you want to talk about imagination, you can surely see it in our country. It's there. And it's strong and it is a source of hope, a very positive hope.

JILL: In a nutshell, what can the average teacher do to foster the imagination?

Graham: It seems to me that the imagination--like so many things--has to be fed to grow, to blossom and to flourish. First, maybe, it needs not to be squelched when the individual is young. It also benefits from encouragement. It develops by being given the permission to do it and by seeing what can be produced. Feedback is very important. One thing that always bothered me was seeing those little duplicated turkeys that the children are supposed to color in. They call that an art lesson. That will really do it--kill the child's interest in art. Giving them another person's drawing to work with in one way is telling them that their drawing is not good. Or else the kid grows up with Disney as a model. I've seen a lot of kids who've trained themselves to draw like Disney, especially in Taiwan and Japan. They love the Disney figures. They seem to feel that when you draw an animal, the Disney model is what you want. They aspire to those particular stylized forms. For Disney, they were highly imaginative. But now what? And if you go to the Disney movies, they're copying him too. Disneyland is fantastic and wonderful, but we shouldn't forget to encourage students to exercise their own imagination. That's where the magic lies.

JILL: Would you care to mention any other teaching techniques you might happen to be working on at the present?

Graham: Yes. I'm focusing very much on teaching students to think in English. I'm working very closely with them in developing exercises. For example, when they wake up in the morning, I'd like for them to have their first thought in English. What we do is we talk about what we really do when we first wake up. They're all different but that do do some things in common. There are certain categories of expression, such as those of time and weather, that are used a lot by native speakers; for example, "I wonder what time it is?" or "I wish I didn't have to get up" or "My, what a beautiful day." I'm giving them the language for the thoughts. The students tell me in their own language what they thought of yesterday morning--their very first thought--and we find the English equivalents. They write it on cards, which they put next to their alarm clock and read right when they wake up. And then we go through the morning with other cards and similar exercises. It's like "jazz walking"; they respond in English to their environment and their activities such as dressing and shopping. This provides a way of practicing by themselves, in their mind. And I'm also working with different rhythms in language so that they'll also have that. They walk around with the beat to a song in their minds and practicing the expressions in English. I call those expressions "Ritual English." It's that sort of thing that I'm working on at the present.

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