I recently reacquired the suitcase that I lugged around on my very first trip to Paris. The moment I grabbed it by its handle and felt it dig into the flesh of my fingers, I was flooded with sensory memories – cue the soundtrack to Amélie! Only instead of seeing movie-like images, I could smell the slight mustiness of my room at the hostel and feel the rough over-laundered sheets and my fretful discomfort when lying on the unfamiliar tubular shaped pillow. I could even hear the sound that the coins made as I scooped my change out of a saucer, remembering how proud I felt to have ordered my first espresso.
All of our senses come to bear when we interact with objects in the physical world, yet through our increasing dependency on screens we have come to privilege sight and sound. The sheer power of muscle memory can sometimes be left untapped. A colleague who specializes in the fiber arts told me that more and more of her students seem to lack confidence when working in three dimensions. In our world language classrooms, much of the linguistic and cultural input that students receive is limited to two dimensions. Granted that digital technology has brought a once unimaginable wealth of authentic images, videos, audio and texts, we must remember that physical realia is also essential to make sure that we don’t flatten out the learning experience for our students. We need to help them navigate in the material world – whether at home or abroad as well as they seem to do in the virtual world as ‘digital natives.’
One approach can be to foster more conscious awareness of the types and sources of knowledge we have about the here and now we inhabit. These concepts can then be better translated to the study of other cultures and their products, practices and perspectives. A first step might be to sensitize learners to the richness of vocabulary and structures that are needed when we go beyond descriptions that rely on attributes of color, size and shape (which we tend to study first) and add the attributes of weight, texture, density, and form. In an earlier article, we shared a number of activities using everyday objects and here is another fun activity that stretches our cognitive and descriptive skills: Collect a number of small objects and distribute them in sets of three in paper bags, giving one bag to each pair (or small group) of students. One student begins by reaching into the bag to identify the objects by touch. Once they think they know what the items are, they choose one to describe, then hand the bag to another student who tries to figure out (also by touch) which one it is. Bags can be passed from group to group until all students have had a chance both to describe and to identify an object. Debrief as a whole class, drawing up a list of the most useful descriptive vocabulary and structures, and then together simply appreciate and take stock of our proficiency in our first language (as well as the distance we hope to close up between it and our second second language!).
The next step is to move toward considering which types of objects bear greater cultural significance. Toys and games can be a good source to begin with. For example, one could repeat the above activity, but substitute pieces from different board games (e.g. Monopoly, Clue, Scrabble, chess, etc.) for the items in the bags and see if students can identify and sort them by touch. This activity can offer a lead-in to a discussion of how we acquire knowledge of our material culture: Were students able to identify the objects and if so how? What memories do they associate with the objects? Do they think the objects are connected to culture and if so how? What other objects might qualify as cultural? As a follow-up, students can be asked to bring an object from home that they feel has cultural significance (following the model of this lesson on cultural artifacts). In a later segment on realia, we will build upon the insights developed by students into their own culture and explore how to introduce and analyze target culture objects including documents. After all, paper, because it has weight and texture unlike digital images, is not two-dimensional no matter how thin it might be (a letter on onion skin paper can be a priceless object).
Even when realia is not the focus of a lesson, its presence is of value in the classroom which too often is a sterile space. World language teachers who have the luxury of having an assigned classroom do a wonderful job of creating a culturally and sensorily rich haven for their students. Those of us who move from room to room can magically transform the atmosphere just by bringing in realia on a regular basis. In order to hammer home the case for realia and the rich dimension it adds, I have focused here primarily on low-tech approaches. But higher technologies are pushing past the limits of two-dimensional screens: 3D printers are now starting to be seen in schools with a variety of pedagogical uses being proposed. What realia will you create if you get one for your classroom?
Note: This is the first of three articles exploring the advantages of using realia (both 2- and 3- dimensional!). In the meantime, here are a few digital collections of realia to explore:
UCLA Language Materials Project
Rich Electronic Archive For Language Instruction Anywhere:
IE Languages Realia Resource
African Political Ephemera and Realia Project