In a typical beginning French course, the first day might involve introductions. " Bonjour, je m'appelle Kate." "Enchanté. Je m'appelle Jim."
It's gentle immersion—the students stick a toe in.
That's not how Mary Jane Cowles handles day one. Every time she teaches "Intensive Introductory French," she plunges the class into an ebullient Francophile torrent, culminating in crepes, which she cajoles the students to cook themselves, breaking the eggs, weighing out the flour in grams, whisking the batter, pouring, flipping.
"I want to pique their curiosity," Cowles said. "The idea is to actually do something that has a dramatic impact, that engages the students' emotions and all their senses, while sharing something important about French culture."
Entering class, the students find posters of French cities and regions. Reproductions of paintings adorn the wall. And French is flowing like champagne.
"I express my émerveillement, my sense of wonder and delight in how beautiful the towns and paintings are. I play French music—Mouret, Debussy, Jean-Michel Jarre. I show them books that I love. It's all in French, and I assume zero knowledge of French on their part, so there's a lot of gesturing and repetition."
The exercise reflects Cowles's conviction that her own deeply felt connections can help energize students. "One of the common threads in the things I enjoy about France is the aesthetic sense," she said. "It's expressed in both high culture and low, including cuisine."
So, rhapsodizing over a beautifully illustrated cookbook, Cowles segues to the crepe pan. At the end of class, as the students are licking Nutella from their lips, she switches to English and asks, "What do you think the purpose of this was?"
The months to come will entail more conjugations than crepes. But a bond has been forged: teacher to student, language to life. Cowles sees that she has made a difference when her students look back and write, "When we made crepes on the first day, I knew that this was going to be a different kind of class."