Last weekend I attended the Tesol Greece annual convention called Be creative and Inspire. I gave a workshop on art and creative thinking in ELT. We explored how the integrated use of artful stimuli and thinking routines woven around social topics can foster the development not only of students’ language skills, but also help them develop their thinking. I hope it gave participants food for thought and encouraged them to explore the potentials that such an approach can have in the English classroom. There were about twenty-five people who attended the workshop which had three parts.
In the first part we worked together on the Looking 10×2 routine with The Wrested Heart, an intriguing piece of artwork by Peggy Lipschutz, an American artist and activist. While the workshop participants were sharing their ideas, I wrote them on a flipchart board in a circle concept map. I used a red marker for their initial words and phrases and a green one for the ones they came up with when we repeated the routine. In the centre I wrote the title of the painting and the name of the painter.
It was interesting to see the difference in the level of abstraction between the students in my classroom (age 11) and the teachers in this workshop. Is this because young students and teachers have different approaches to perception when looking at art? Approaches sometimes referred to as either top-down in the case of adults or bottom-up in the case of children. Perception means that we hypothesize about what we see. When adults perceive and interpret art, prior knowledge and experience may influence their reactions. In the bottom-up approach which is what children do, their perception starts right at what they have in front of them. They focus on surface features of the paintings.
Yet having a second look or being provided with some additional information will influence their attention towards top-down processing. For example, when we worked on this routine in class, most of their first responses were factual (trees, woman, heart, hole, chest, hold, darkness) and at the same time their initial reactions were drawn more towards negative impressions (bad emotion, lonely, crying, sad). That looks quite natural to me since the image of a woman sitting alone in a dark forest with an empty hole in the place of her chest where her heart is supposed to be, alludes to something bleak. When we had a second look, however, their next round of words and phrases was different. They had the chance to notice details like the glow in the woman’s face which was a reflection of her shiny heart. This led them to observe more carefully her expression which now seemed to them peaceful and they came to conclusions that this woman may be sensitive, smiling and proud of herself.
In the second part we had a look at some more routines I have used in class. This part was not that interactive as the first one. In the final third part we looked at some artworks and engaged in a free exchange of ideas on the routine they would use or which topic they could associate the artwork with. There were interesting ideas put forward. For example, when I showed them Then what or What after, a painting by Louay Kayyali, a Syrian visual artist, one of the participants offered the idea of using the Sentence, phrase, word routine. This is a routine that is targeted towards reading and capturing the essence of a text. It may be an oxymoron to use it with an image instead of text, but it is a splendid idea. What this participant did was to turn a receptive routine into a productive one. Asking students to cut down their expression to a single sentence, phrase or word, calls for them to focus their attention better to the meaning they want to communicate.
Another interesting moment was when we were looking at the street art piece Killing ourselves by a Spanish artist, Santiago Pejac and discussed what topic they could associate it with. I had thought of linking it with forest destruction, but the participants put forward a range of other ideas. They suggested immigration, disconnected society, and social media alienation. It was a happy coincidence that they could not see the title of the painting at that moment because that would limit their ideas.
At the end of the workshop I asked them to reflect on the following questions of the “I used to think…now I think…” routine:
- What did you use to think about art and creative thinking in English language teaching before this workshop?
- What do you think about it now?
These are answers to the two questions:
I feel really grateful that the people who attended this workshop participated with warmth and were eager to contribute their ideas and comments even though what I showed might not apply to every individual teaching context. Here is the link to the workshop materials.