For much of June, we were in the U.S., visiting family and friends. This series of articles offers observations of that trip in connection with raising bilingual children.
My father was an art professor for many years at a small college in northeast Missouri. He taught his students a wide range of fine arts, like drawing, painting, and ceramics, while producing his own work in a house nestled in the woods. Below is the small, pyramid-shaped gallery that he constructed next to the house, and a ceramic mask that still hangs on its door. (That’s Lulu and Roy peering for wild deer.)
But life ticks by, and he retired from teaching some time ago. Then, recently, after his wife passed away, he moved from the woods of Missouri into a retirement community in nearby Quincy, Illinois, my hometown. (While we were there, we drove out to the old house so my kids could see it and make a memory or two.)
I share this with you to set up a story I’d like to tell. It’s a story from my childhood, and a symbol of the creative mind my father has had throughout his life. We may not be artists, like my father, but the fact is, creativity is a vital quality in our own quest to raise bilingual children. After all, our mission, essentially, is to match our efforts to the ever-evolving needs of our circumstances, and the wider our minds can imagine and create, the more effectively we can meet this challenge.
It helps when we’re able to think “outside the box”—or, as you’ll soon see, think “outside the swan planter.”
“It’s a family heirloom”
When I was a boy, I often accompanied my father on jaunts to flea markets and auctions in the countryside. I have very fond memories of hunting among all the intriguing things on sale—it was like searching for treasure!
Farming tools, furniture, household items, clothing, toys, even animals…you never knew what you might find.
Well, one day my father came across a small planter made of porcelain—it was a white swan, much like the one in this photo. He picked it up and turned it over in his hands. It only cost a dollar or two.
“Perfect,” he muttered.
“Perfect for what?” I asked. “What are you going to plant?”
“Oh, I’m not going to plant anything,” he replied.
“You’re not? Then why do you want it?”
“The new school year is starting soon. I’ll use it in my drawing class.”
So he brought the planter home, polished it up, and took it to school. On the first day of his drawing class, with a group of new, fresh-faced students looking up at him, he held the swan planter out and said:
“See this? It’s a family heirloom, from my grandmother. Now imagine you’re going to draw a picture of it. My question is: How many different ways could you draw it?”
The students raised their hands.
“From the front.”
“From the side.”
“From the other side.”
“From the back.”
These were the first responses.
“Keep thinking,” my father prompted. “What other ways are there?”
A long pause.
“How about upside down?” my father asked, turning the planter over.
The students smiled, nodding.
“Or how about standing on its head?” he said, demonstrating. “You could draw it like this, couldn’t you? And now, from this position, you could turn it just a tiny bit to the left. This would be another new angle, wouldn’t it? Then you turn it a tiny bit more, and you could draw it like this. Keep turning it, bit by bit, and you have a new angle every time, don’t you? See? Like this! And like this!”
And as he went on, eagerly showing how the object could be manipulated in space, in endless ways, it suddenly—“accidentally”—slipped from his grasp. His hands fumbled for it, but the swan planter—a “family heirloom”—went plunging to the floor with a crash. The delicate porcelain shattered into a hundred pieces.
The students gasped, eyes wide.
In that awful silence my father pointed at the planter, now in pieces on the floor.
“Or even…like this!” he cried in triumph.
That swan planter wasn’t the only thing to shatter that day. My father’s little trick shattered his students’ minds, instantly enabling them to see far beyond their preconceptions of the world.
I wasn’t there, of course, but when I heard the story from my father, my mind cracked open, too. For me, this was a defining moment in the way I approach a problem, a challenge. In that moment it dawned on me: There are always other solutions beyond what we can first imagine.
For parents raising bilingual kids, here’s my point: No matter what problems, what challenges, we may face on this journey, the broader our capacity for creative thinking, the more likely we’ll come up with effective ways to address them. It’s often important to get beyond the initial, conventional ideas our minds serve us to discover deeper, more unconventional responses that may have more impact.
A good example of this, I think, is “captive reading.”
One of the bigger challenges I face in my situation is getting my kids to read more in English, our minority language. Although Lulu and Roy are pretty competent readers now, their days are very full with school, homework, and neighborhood friends (all in Japanese), and this leaves precious little time for reading in English. In Lulu’s case it’s even tougher because she’s older, with longer school days and heavier loads of homework, and she isn’t, by nature, an eager reader—she’d much rather engage in active play.
From the time they first began to read, I’ve been reading with them, individually, each day—we take turns, page by page. Though this routine has produced good results, I still felt that “more reading” would equal “more progress.” But under these circumstances—including the fact that my time with them is rather limited, too—how could I get them reading more by themselves?
I won’t get into all the details of what I’ve done—you can find all that information, and further links, in the recent post If This Isn’t a Big Part of Your Strategy for Raising Bilingual Kids, It Really Should Be. My message today is: Because I kept pushing, and pushing, and pushing on that question, the “captive reading” idea, and all its variations, eventually appeared. This doesn’t mean I’m now entirely content with the amount of reading my kids do. Still, the solution has been effective to a satisfying degree—it’s had an important impact on their language development—and it was the result of pressing for those deeper, more unconventional ideas.
So the next time a challenge arises (probably today, since the challenges seem to be non-stop!), pose the question and then start pushing. Your first solutions may be fine, but keep pressing on the question—even brainstorm on paper by making a list of possibilities. If you withhold judgment—if you don’t quickly dismiss the more unconventional ideas as “crazy” or “impossible”—you’ll dig deeper and deeper and you just might discover some surprising solutions that could ultimately have an even greater impact on your children’s progress.