Postcards from Paris via South Hadley

Posted: April 11, 2008

With the creative spirit and gusto of the French, language fellow Veronique Roux has developed an avant-garde teaching method during the course of the school year at Mount Holyoke. As a French department assistante, Roux came to South Hadley last fall from the olive- and grape-covered hills of southern France. "It is a dream for me to be here," she said. "I have always wanted to study in the United States, and I truly love to meet students and share my culture."

After several years of being a psychologist, Roux decided to pursue her passion for photography and hopes to earn a doctorate in art. In addition to her work in French conversation labs, she recently had a photography exhibition in the atrium of Williston Library.

With her concentration on pictorial storytelling, it came naturally to Roux to use narrative images in the classroom. Photography, she well knows, is a marvelous conversation tool. To share experiences of her native country and language, Roux enlisted the help of her French friends and family across the Atlantic. She obtained postcards from several French provinces and invented characters to fill them out. Then she wrapped up the postcards and sent them to France for her friends to mail directly to Mount Holyoke students' mailboxes, with actual French stamps on them.

"It was very funny at first," Roux said. "The students didn't understand what was going on--they couldn't grasp that I had orchestrated the whole thing as a class project. 'Who arethese people?' they asked."

The students were told to approach the postcards as evidence and to construct the life of the fictional author--how old they are, who their friends and family are, and why they are visiting a particular part of France. Working in small groups, they elaborate on the information from a postcard to create a story around it, and present their creation to the class.

This semester, Roux has created new stories for her students, in series of four cards that gradually reveal new aspects of the characters' lives. When students learned about a little boy who was visiting his grandparents in the countryside, they were exposed to informal French. They traversed Paris's cultural landmarks through the eyes of two young women traveling together, discovering in a later postcard that a mysterious rift caused one of the women to hide her traveling companion from her parents.

The beauty of this method is that it inspires language students to develop their skills creatively. Sometimes their fabrications diverge wildly from each other, and from the person or story Roux had envisioned. One card, a reproduction of an antique image, was accompanied by tender words from an old man to a woman he loves, asking her if she would like to go for a walk some afternoon. The first group of students said they hadn't seen each other since their youth but had a secret romance, another group decided the man was a lonely widower, and a third group thought he was a GI and they had met in wartime.

"I had great fun creating the characters and love to think of them living in the students' imaginations," Roux said.

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