By SUE SUCHYTA
DEARBORN – A lifelong love of languages and teaching earned Claire Brisson, a Wayne State University French language graduate teaching assistant, full classes and the highest ranking by her students on ratemyprofessors.com.
Brisson, 24, of Dearborn, whose WSU introductory French classes fill within three hours of the start of registration, knew from an early age she wanted to be a teacher.
When she was a young child, she said her father, also a teacher, would set up snacks and a chalkboard in the family garden and introduce her to new topics daily.
“Spending time with my father sparked my love of learning,” Brisson said, “inspiring me to pursue teaching in the future.”
She graduated from Dearborn Divine Child High School, and the University of Michigan, with a double major in French language and literature, and in secondary education, with minors in German language and literature, and political science, concentrating on cross-border US-Canadian relations.
This spring she will defend her WSU master’s thesis, written in French, on Fascist Aesthetic in 20th century occupied France.
English and French are spoken in her household, as well as some German and Italian. She speaks both standard French and Québécois, a French Canadian dialect.
As a polyglot, a person who knows and is able to use several languages, Brisson has added German and Latin to her repertoire, and is learning Russian and Portuguese.
Brisson said learning a new language creates opportunities for students.
“A second language opens so many more doors,” Brisson said, “providing another perspective and lens with which to see the world.”
She said a second language lets you meet people you couldn’t talk to before, respectfully participate in another culture, and compare one’s native language to the one being learned.
“Learning French will even expand one’s English vocabulary,” Brisson said, “since 30 percent of English words come directly from French.”
Jessica Wilson, 22, of Warren, a senior at WSU with a major in broadcast journalism and a minor in theater, said Brisson inspired her to continue to research French culture and its people.
“Her knowledge of the French language really helps anyone willing to delve into the phonetics and culture,” Wilson said. “She cares about her students and she shows it. These two elements make her stand out among most on Wayne State’s faculty.”
Making her students feel like they are in a community, and are free to share their thoughts is a priority with Brisson.
“I have never been an instructor that likes to come into the classroom and lecture for two hours,” Brisson said. “I find that teaching style to be both boring and highly ineffective – people drift off in the first five minutes.”
Brisson said she uses partner activities and communicative exchanges in French to engage her students, and to help them become comfortable speaking and interacting with it.
Her course syllabus encourages students to “come with an open mind and leave with a full notebook.”
“My students go beyond learning how to conjugate verbs and structure sentences together,” she said. “They learn about the cultures that make up some 75 French-speaking countries across the globe, learning more about the world around them.”
Wilson said Brisson’s teaching methods are some of the most interactive she has ever encountered, especially for foreign language.
“She engages her students with her and each other,” Wilson said, “using PowerPoint, (and) props, (like) plastic foods when learning about French diets. Her energy is always fun.”
Brisson said beginning French students usually enter her classroom associating France with Paris, the Eiffel Tower, macaroons, baguettes and designer fashions. She said she expands upon their initial foundation by teaching them about neighboring Quebec, the French-speaking culture in Louisiana, the music and art of Senegal, the cuisine of Morocco, and the rich culture of Haiti.
“Students explore the multiple regions and perspectives within France and around the Francophone world in a multitude of ways,” Brisson said, “and are always learning something new in the realm of culture, art, politics, business, film, or music.”
Brisson has traveled and lived in many of the regions about which she teaches.
She has family in Quebec, and has visited nine Canadian provinces.
In 2011 she lived in Ottawa, Ontario while serving as a bilingual intern in the Senate of Canada. Three years later she won one of two spots for grad students from the National Endowment for the Humanities in Avignon, France, during their summer theater festival.
This past summer she taught English in Lyon, France, while visiting and speaking French in Marseille, Strasbourg, and the Dordogne regions of France.
She also visited and spoke German in Nuremberg, Munich, Neuschwanstein, Ulm, and Frankfort.
Brisson said her grasp of French and German will help her pursue a doctorate in 20th Century French studies during the occupation during World War II.
“I hope to continue to travel, learn, and grow throughout my lifetime,” Brisson said. “I would like to learn many more languages in the future.”
Brisson, 24, said having students close to her in age – and even older – has never presented a challenge.
“When students see that I am a young instructor, I have actually merited more respect from them since I’ve started teaching at a university at such a young age,” she said.
Brisson said she would like to see improvement and expansion of the way languages are taught and implemented.
She said the greatest challenge she faces as a teacher is seeing her students struggling with the cost of tuition, textbooks, parking and housing arrangements. Many, she said, work two or three jobs while taking classes, and accumulate significant student loan debt.
“Seeing how diligent and hardworking my students are despite the whirlwind of obligations that they face from day to day makes me feel extraordinarily proud of them,” Brisson said. “I am always sad at the end of the semester when I have to say goodbye to another group of students.”
Wilson said Brisson, is a rarity among professors.
“She opened up her resources to me whenever I needed help,” Wilson said. “She is always there for me when I need her. I can’t imagine life not having met her.
“Mademoiselle Brisson is more than a professor, she is a lifetime friend.”