Dr. Geneviève Brisson on Plurilingualism, Transnational Identity and Scribjab

July 03, 2019

Geneviève Brisson is an assistant professor in Language and Literacy and Francophone Education at SFU. Since joining the Faculty of Education in the Fall of 2017, she has been busy working on a variety of research projects, teaching in the French module of the PDP (Professional Development Program) and contributing to the next generation of researchers by sitting on master and doctoral committees.  She has recently come back from participating in the AAAL (American Association of Applied Linguistics) conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

Can you tell us more about the conference at AAAL that you just came back from?

I was part of a colloquium hosted by my SFU colleague and collaborator Diane Dagenais on new materialism and posthumanist theories in language pedagogies. Diane and I presented some of our early findings on our research on Scribjab ecologies. There was a rich dialogue and presentations from three other experts from the University of Ottawa, Laval and Luxembourg. Kelleen Toohey, another SFU colleague and collaborator, was the designated discussant for the session.

AAAL was a catalyst for new thinking and potential collaborations.  For example, at the conference, I met an instructor who teaches Spanish in the US. There were many parallels between some of the challenges he was facing and some of the issues we are facing in Francophone minority schools in BC.  I also met someone from Finland who shared that their government had recently changed their education system to start introducing children to other languages starting at five.

Being in Francophone education in Canada, it is easy to forget that our research shares strong connections with other countries and other plurilingual education.  Coming out of this conference with new possibilities for international collaboration in research is a great outcome.

Can you tell us briefly about your research?

There are two strands of research focus for me.  The first is Francophone children’s literature, and right now I am interested in how immigrants are represented in first novels for young readers. My specific interest is in the representations of plurilingual kids and in narrative points of view. Immigrants and plurilingual kids are still under-represented in Canadian children’s books in French.

The second is looking at tools for language education. Recently, I have been collaborating with Diane Dagenais on ScribJab, a free iPad app and website. The tool was originally developed in 2014 at SFU with a grant from Heritage Canada and won the Gold Horizon Interactive Award for the Education Mobile/Apps category.  In 2018, Diane and I received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to explore how this tool is adopted in homes, schools and public libraries for multilingual and multimodal story creation.

Why are you passionate about these areas of research?

I love the French Language and I love books.

I am originally from Quebec City and it wasn’t until moving to Vancouver that I realized how much I loved the French language and how much I identified with the language and the culture.  My research around transnational identity and plurilingual children is very personal to me. I am passionate about helping teachers with how they teach language skills to children.

I have observed that many elementary school educators assume that children are monolingual and miss opportunities to help students use their rich plurilingual background to learn a new language.  With the number of immigrant children who may speak multiple languages (plurilingual) and have ties to multiple countries (transnational), this is an important question.  Instead of discouraging children from using other languages at school, I believe that by acknowledging various levels of proficiency in other languages and encouraging students to share their diverse cultural identity, educators can enable children to participate more actively in the classroom and can enhance their learning experience.

Tell me more about your professional background.

I completed my undergraduate degree in education at Université Laval in Quebec city, and my Master’s and PhD at UBC. My master studies were focused on Children’s Literature and in my doctorate, my focus was on the relationship between plurilingual students – who attended a Francophone minority school in BC – and their multiple identities.

I have taught French as a second language at UBC, Educacentre and Capilano University. I have also worked as a teacher librarian in a Francophone school in Vancouver and in two French immersion schools in West Vancouver.  I have a young daughter who is an avid reader and shares a common love of books with me. At the moment, she is fascinated with dragons and the series “How to Train Your Dragon”

I believe these experiences have helped me gain a better understanding of the experience of teachers, librarians, students and parents as well as some of their needs around language and literacy education. Ultimately, I would like my research to serve these four groups of people.

What have been some of the key challenges and rewarding aspects of your work?

One of the biggest challenges I have is helping people see different levels of proficiency in a language as an asset. Interestingly both teachers and students often fall into the trap of perfectionism. They equate bilingualism or plurilingualism with being able to speak all languages perfectly. This can lead to students missing on opportunities to share, communicate, practice and ultimately improve their language skills.

Another challenge I face is that to reach each of my target audience groups, I need to repurpose the research.  Teachers and librarians have very different needs from academic researchers.  They search for and consume information differently.

In my PDP class, the student teachers are often asking for specific techniques that they can apply directly in the classroom.  Specific teaching techniques do not always work but by learning theories, teachers can develop their own teaching philosophy and be able to adapt to the students in their classroom and to changes in curriculum.  Seeing them make the connections between theory and practice is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work as an educator for teachers.

The reality, however, is that once they become full-time teachers, they do not have much time to do this kind of in-depth reading.  I see myself supporting them as a practitioner-researcher. So, when I am presenting workshops for a Pro-D day or writing an article for a teacher magazine, I try to connect research and theory with concrete classroom examples and to connect with the BC curriculum to make it useful to teachers.

What kind of impact does your research have?  How does it advance the field of education and/or improve Canadian society?

I attempt to act as a bridge between recent academic research and the needs of teachers to have practical approaches that they can use in their classroom. Ultimately it is these student teachers who will be impacting the education and learning experiences of the children. I think that one of the core purposes of my work is supporting them.

Recently during a Pro-D day organized by APPIPC (Association provinciale des professeurs d'immersion et du programme francophone de Colombie-Britannique), I presented a workshop to French immersion teachers focused on picture books and cultural and linguistic diversity. By sharing these books I have been researching, I hope to provide teachers with new resources for  language and literacy education because reviewing and finding new resources in French is time consuming.