Where teachers meet and learn

ETAS Journal Editors' Choice, Number 15 (November 2016)

Why bring art into our English classroom

Adriana Millikovsky

ETAS Journal Volume 32 number 2 (Spring 2015), page 34-35

The description of how a teacher introduces a piece of art to her Monday morning English class draws me into this text and I can visualize how the students react to a painting with a true story behind it. This is how Adriana Millikovsky begins her article by illustrating how to use art in the classroom. By doing this we can see ourselves using art in the classroom before we even know how or why it can help our students.

She then goes on to explain how visual materials can be used to grab attention by bringing the real world into the classroom as well as providing structure and organisation to a lesson. What interested me the most was how she argues that higher-order thinking skills can be encouraged through predicting, speculating, and making connections with personal experiences, to name a few.

So why bring art into the classroom? Adriana convincingly discusses five reasons why and has got me thinking how I can bring art into my classroom next week. I don’t have to contemplate too long because she also provides a list of 10 ways that I can easily incorporate art into my lessons.

One of the many reasons I recommend this article to read is the concept of giving our students time to think. Time to contemplate why an artist made the decisions they made to tell their story. A visual story which comes alive through the words we choose to decipher and describe it. The interpretation of art allows for more than one truth or one voice to be heard. What a pleasant change to the rigidity of true/false and gap-fill questions which can occupy so much of our time.

One last thought is that it would be so nice to expose younger students to everlasting images that were created with a message long before Photoshop, Instagram, and Snapchat.

Susanne Oswald

ETAS Journal Editorial Board

Why bring art to our English classroom

Adriana Millikovsky

It is Monday morning in the 10th grade. Ms. Randal, the English language teacher, begins her 50-minute class telling students a true story. It is about the life of the famous Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, who had been seriously injured in a major traffic accident in her youth. The students seem impressed, especially by Kahlo’s strong determination to carry on with her life despite the gradual deterioration of her health. “I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint,” were the words of this painter whose life was a true lesson in tenacity. And before the teacher has the chance to request any response, one boy eagerly begins to describe a recent traffic accident in the neighborhood. Others follow adding frightening details with the help of peers and the teacher.

After a few minutes of this conversation, the teacher directs the students’ attention to a picture of a painting large enough for everybody to see: Frida Kahlo’s The Bus (1929). The painting seems to depict the moment before the unexpected accident: a woman wearing a silk scarf sits at the far right of the bus. Presumably, she represents Frida. “Where are all these people? Which one is Frida do you think? What was her life like before the tragic event? What was her daily routine like, and how has it all changed since the accident?” the teacher asks.

Following this plenary session in which they are invited to first describe and then predict, speculate, imagine, and relate what they see to personal experience, students work through a variety of both accuracy and fluency-oriented activities in writing, reading, listening, and/or speaking, basically depending on time, students´ needs, and the objectives of the lesson. Within this real context, students are encouraged to further develop their language skills beyond ordinary and mundane topics (like daily activities, jobs, and occupations) and with added value: they will come out of this classroom not only better able to perform in English on these topics, but also intellectually, spiritually, and culturally enriched.

The above description provides an example of a short English language lesson around an artwork. Before discussing the whys and wherefores of bringing art to our classroom, allow me to go back to Ms. Randal’s lesson and expand on some concepts: the true story, the picture, the plenary session, and the context. The fact that the teacher begins her lesson by telling a true story has two importance effects: firstly, she hooks the students´ attention and participation right from the start, and secondly, she helps bring the real world into the classroom and provides a reliable anchor for students to adapt new knowledge.

Furthermore, the use of a picture – a piece of authentic cultural material as visual realia – affords the students a better tool to focus their attention on the subject as the visual component provides structure and organization to the lesson. Lessons reinforced by visual materials encourage spontaneous language response and inspire pupils to develop their own ideas for creative work. More importantly, as we can see from the description of the plenary session, the picture engages students in higher-order thinking skills when they are motivated to predict, use their imagination, speculate about the narrative being depicted, and then make connections with personal experiences. Finally, the atmosphere created by the use of authentic materials – both orally (the story) and visually (the painting) – coupled with the plenary session, enlivens the class and creates a more positive attitude towards learning. We can hope that this will encourage students to take more language risks even if they may lack the necessary production vocabulary.

Now on to the topic of this article: Why bring art to our English classroom? While the lesson’s description and its brief analysis are already indicative of the usefulness and suitability of art as visual support for our English lessons, there are still other important reasons to justify this choice of classroom material. First, art carries with it explicit and implicit information, thus affording teachers the chance to develop students’ thinking skills. When students are engaged in the description or narration of what they are looking at (i.e. what the artwork denotes), they are developing their language and lower-thinking skills. When asked to hypothesize, predict, speculate, compare and contrast, comment on, or synthesize what they see (i.e. what the picture connotes), they are developing the language of reasoning, judgment, and higher-order thinking skills.

Second, art can develop in students the habit of taking the time to think. In our daily lessons, we are more often than not focused on the ‘right’ answers or the completion of a task, a unit or a test. Thinking time is something we barely have the opportunity for in our lessons. With artworks, we are compelled to take the necessary time for thoughtful looking to decode hidden messages and metaphors (and so on).

Third, art can also help young people to see and understand that “problems can have more than one solution” (Nathan, 2005), and that “reality is multiple perspectives” (Greene, 1995, pp. 130-131), as often, artists offer several renderings of the same scene, character, or event. Thus, unlike much of the school curriculum, including of course the English language – in which correct answers and rules dominate – in art, personal opinions and speculations count and multiple interpretations can be accepted. Consequently, students are offered a safe space to share different readings of an artwork with an added bonus: they will be required to respect, tolerate, and practice listening to one another.

Fourth, art is for the most part embedded in real historical, cultural, and social contexts. This aspect of art affords students the opportunity to broaden their background knowledge, which in turn increases learning in all areas of the school curriculum. This facilitates the development of positive transfer, which allows students to make connections between contents of their various school subjects.

Finally, art connects well with all school subjects. If offers a dazzling array of visual representations of everyday situations in different cultural settings and social contexts from all periods and from all parts of the world. There are works that depict elements of nature, of man and his material creations, and as well his dreams. In art, EFL teachers can find visual support for any topic in their syllabi and textbooks, for example, to teach description of people, family life, work and occupations, food, situations of human interest, historical events, social and sports events, and so on.

The above is a simple attempt to introduce the discussion on why we should bring art into our English classrooms. There are countless reasons to support its use in our lessons, but as is often the case in class, there is not enough room in this article for more considerations. I will simply end my argument with a list of some of the many activities students might engage in while looking at a piece of art:

  1. observing and describing facts
  2. recognizing familiar features and applying given knowledge to make associations
  3. problem solving: students attempt to recognize a problem and seek solutions
  4. comparing and contrasting
  5. analyzing prominent elements of the artwork
  6. engaging in open discussions: hypothesizing, inferring, suggesting (a) the possible message of the piece of art; (b) the influence of the painter's life and background; (c) the mood portrayed in the piece of art; (d) what is going on in the picture; (d) the historical period and cultural context; and (e) the socio-political connotations
  7. building stories
  8. dramatizing what they observe
  9. simulating, by engaging in conversation with the artist or writing a letter to him/her
  10. changing or suggesting a new title to the artwork.

In short, works of art, with all of their attributes, can offer a way of teaching and learning that responds to the many educational demands of the 21st century. Much of the complex information that we need to process every day in our modern life is transmitted visually. The use of art as visual support in our English-language classroom can help enhance our students’ power of observation inside and outside the classroom and foster higher-order thinking skills. English teachers do not need to be art experts to conduct lessons around works of art. There are no right or wrong answers in art. Art is open discourse. You can work with art the same way you do with any coursebook illustrations. Give it a try and you will experience a world of difference.

References

Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts and social change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass In. Pub.
Nathan, L. F. (2005, March 5-6). Melanie’s story: Why arts matter. Developing critical minds and responsive schools. Panel Presentation #3: Teaching Methods/Teacher Training at the UNESCO World Conference on Arts Education: Building Creative Capacities for the 21st Century, Lisbon, Portugal. Retrieved January 28, 2015, from http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CLT/CLT/pdf/linda_nathan.htm

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in ETAI Forum, 25(1), Spring 2014. Reprinted here with the permission of the author and ETAI (English Teachers Association of Israel).

About the Author

Adriana Millikovsky is a graduate of Universidad Nacional de Córdoba in Argentina and the University of Leicester, England. She is a teacher trainer and a high-school teacher in Jerusalem. Her special interests are teaching English through art and information technology, and learning. [CB1] 

 [CB1]Kindly confirm that learning is an interests, or is it teaching and learning through art and infomration technology. Thank you.