Last weekend the Image Conference took place. This is the annual event of the Visual Arts Circle. VAC is an innovative and collaborative project which seeks to explore the possibilities of film, video and images in language teaching and learning. The conference is held in a different city every year. This year it was its seventh edition and it took place in Athens, hosted and co-organized by New York College. There was also a strand of the conference being run by GISIG (Global Issues Special Interest Group).
The event was very stimulating and focused which is something I really like. I find an add-on the fact that this year, apart from the overarching theme of images and video, there was also a focus on the migrant and refugee crisis. This offered a new perspective to the conference. It was mainly dealt with by the sessions in the GISIG strand. I have however the overall impression that many of the teaching approaches presented in other sessions, too, showed a heightened awareness of global issues and this is really interesting and important.
I feel very honoured to have been asked by Kieran Donaghy and Sylvia Karastathi to give one of the plenary sessions during the Conference. My session focused on the use of paintings and how they can be linked to social topics. I reflected on work we have done with the students and discussed activities that nurture the development of thinking dispositions, meaningful language, visual literacy and social awareness through examples and insights from my classroom practice. Here is the link to the slides I used in my plenary session.
The 2019 Image Conference will take place in Brussels and it will be hosted by the Belgian English Language Teaching Association (BELTA).
The 21st of March is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. We worked with eleven-year-old primary school students on the topic of racism, not only on that day, but also during the following week. Here is an account focusing on two of the resources we used and the activities we worked on.
Racism Explained to My Daughterby Tahar Ben Jelloun
Tahar Ben Jelloun is a Morrocan writer whose entire work is written in French although his first language is Arabic. Racism Explained to My Daughter is a wonderful book which involves a compelling dialogue between the author and his ten-year-old daughter on the difficult topic of racism in an admirably straightforward and understandable way. There were three main activites that guided our way through the excerpt we worked with:
I described this in the previous post. It is a thinking routine that provides learners with a structure for identifying key ideas and committing them to memory. It can be used after reading a text, watching a movie, or being presented with new information or ideas. Students are asked to a) recall and note (a list of key ideas), b) exchange notes with classmates, read others’ ideas and add one new thing to the list, and c) review their returned notes with all the additions from their classmates and maybe add any new ideas they have picked up from reading others’ notes. The way we tried it in class was slightly adapted since recalling from memory would be difficult for the students’ language level. I let them have a look at the excerpt whenever they felt they needed to.
Make note is a routine that enhances students’ memory of and engagement with ideas by focusing on capturing the heart and distilling key issues and questions.
After a film, reading or discussion we ask students to make a note of ONE of the following:
What is the most important point?
What do you find difficult to understand?
What question would you most like to discuss?
What is something you found intesting?
A final activity that we tried with the same text was the sentence-phrase-word routine. Students chose a sentence, a phrase and a word that they thought was powerful, important or moving and justified their choices. The children offered a wealth of ideas highlighting diverse aspects of the issue. Some choices and explanations offered:
Murder at Sharpeville by Godfrey Rubens
This painting by the painter and photographer Godfrey Rubens portrays the massacre in the town of Sharpeville, South Africa, which took place on the 21st of March, 1960. The incident in which 69 unarmed black African people were shot dead during a peaceful protest against apartheid’s pass-books system marked a turning point. It is the reason that today this day is commemorated as the Universal Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
See, think, wonder
We first worked with the see, think, wonder routine. The children wrote and shared interesting ideas and thoughts and were very curious to know what, where, and why this happened.
The story behind the painting
This high curiosity level led us to look at the historical facts behind the painting. I wanted to avoid developing another reading text since we had already worked with the excerpt from Tahar Ben Jelloun’s book. I decided to frame it as a listening activity. I started telling the story using simplified language to ensure understanding. At the same time I was writing key points on the board. Students were listening and taking notes. From time to time I asked them questions or invited them to ask me questions. I also paused regularly and asked individual students to repeat the story so far. Little by little we built a diagram with the story behind the painting on the board. When we finished that session I asked them to study the diagram at home and be prepared to talk about it next time. In the lesson that followed children practised speaking about the incident by drawing on the diagram. We tried this a few times, students took turns among them each narrating a part of the story and then another would take up and continue. Their confidence gradually grew. During this stage, we added two more clouds to the diagram. In the first one we included the verbs they used (base form) while in the second some other words and phrases they needed to refine their story-telling. The final diagram served as their blueprint for stepping into writing the story. We started that in class and they finalized it at home. Although it was one of the longest texts the children have written so far, it worked really well. I asked them in the following lesson how they coped with writing the story and they said that having the diagram with the key points, verbs and extra words was very helpful. Some of them also said that having talked about it in class made writing easy because they “had it in their minds”. We spent a small part of that session narrating the incident again and after having told, retold and writing about it there was a very satisfying, smooth speaking flow.
I remember that when we started working on this topic, I had asked students if they knew what we celebrate on the 21st of March. They had come up with the answer: the world day of sleep. It did not come as a surprise. After all, World Sleep Day was quite prominent on tv those days, and I myself had seen a surge of tv commercials for furniture, mattresses and other relevant products. The children had probably seen them, too. I think it’s good that they now know it is the day against racial discrimination.
It happened last week before a teaching session with a group of eleven-year-olds was about to start. This was the second lesson we were to have on the topic of racism. This topic had been triggered by the celebration of the 21st of March as the Universal Day against Racial Discriminations. We had just got into the classroom after the break and we were getting organized when I overheard this short exchange between two of the students in the class.
“You are racist. You don’t respect difference. All people deserve equal rights. I am unique.”
“I humiliate you every day with my racist remark. I hate you. You have not dignity.”
During our previous lesson I had introduced the issue of racism through an excerpt from Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Racism Explained to My Daughter. Students read the excerpt individually and we discussed new language. The words they wanted to know the meaning of were: complacent, deserve, difference, dignity, diversity, equal, flourish, identical, hatred, humiliate, law, miracle, mistrust, racism, racist, remark, respect, rights, unique
Then I asked them to:
Take 2-3 minutes, work individually, and make a note of 1 or 2 key ideas that they felt are important to hang onto.
Exchange notebooks in groups of 4-5 students, read their classmates’ ideas, and add one new thing to what they read.
As a homework activity I asked students to read the excerpt again and revise the new language. Also, to come up with a sentence, a phrase and a word that struck them as powerful, important or moving, and explain why.
I have always felt it important to deal with social issues in the English class. Admittedly, the topic of racism is a complex one and you cannot possibly explore all its aspects given the few instructional hours that are available. Besides, the materials and activities have to be within their reach linguistically and meaningful to them. Even by having taken all these things into consideration, one can never be sure about how much learning has taken place.
Back to the two students’ impromptu exchange. I found creative the way they engaged in this brief communication. They drew on their emerging linguistic resources on the topic and accommodated in six sentences a great deal of the new language we had dealt with in our previous lesson. They are best friends, tolerant, and broad-minded children. In this brief, self-motivated dramatization instance, I found that they had committed to memory and demonstrated understanding of key ideas in racism. They did that in a succinct and deliberately playful and ironic style which pleasantly surprised me. I was even more surprised and happy that they chose to do it with a topic that one might think would be “heavy” or “difficult” for children of their age and language level.
More to follow in an upcoming post with a fuller report.
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.
It was our first day at school after Christmas break and we all looked a bit numb. There was a mixture of sadness that holidays had ended and happiness to see familiar faces again. We were also a bit tired and sleepy after a two-week period of waking up late. I felt it was important not to overwhelm students right from the get-go at 8:00 am on a Monday morning, but opt for a more open-ended, student-led activity.
This post reflects on how we worked with two groups of sixth graders, mixed-ability A2- English learners, on the concept of “change” by using the thinking routine Making Meaning. The aim of the routine is to build collective meaning of words, ideas, concepts or events; a collective concept mapping. It is a new routine I had come across some time ago, but had not given it a try so far. I was a bit cautious not knowing how it was going to work with students. Yet, after having tried routines in my classes for a long time, I trusted in the results they can yield with students and the richness and originality of ideas they can trigger. In any case one can never find out until one tries and cautiousness was outweighed by curiosity and anticipation.
In our case the concept was “change” and it emerged after looking at a visual stimulus. It was a street art piece which read: Happy New Year. The change starts here.
We first discussed a bit what it showed and where it could be found. We identified that it was a street art piece, probably on a wall, and that the focus was the concept of change. Change was written in the centre of the board. The first step then was to ask students
1.Think of one word that you associate/connect with change. Which word is this?
This was done as a whole class brainstorming activity and yielded some first tentative responses. Students came up with the words: New Year, school, safety, technology, economy.
As a second step I asked:
2. Now, can you think and add one more word or phrase under any of these four so as to tell me something more about it?
Students began to warm up and were able to contribute more ideas, there was greater participation and more words and phrases were added under the initial ones.
In the third step I asked them to:
3. Look at all the words and phrases we shared on the board. Can you see any connections? Think and tell me about them.
The third step found me coping with the practical issue of how to draw joining lines between the connections the children found and talked about, and how to write on those lines. It was quite an enjoyable stage as we were all taking notes, trying to accommodate on our concept maps the new information that came up from sharing ideas. It was also a moment that reveals so eloquently that thinking expands in multiple directions, it “does not happen in a linear manner” (Ritchhart et al., 2011).
In the fourth step I asked students to look at the collective concept mapping our board was displaying and think and ask any questions about the topics that had emerged:
4. Look at all our ideas shared on the board. Do you have any questions to ask about what we discussed?
We ended by adding some interesting questions:
I tried the routine with another class on that same first day at school after Christmas. I did not have the time though to take proper snapshots of our board so here are the few hasty ones I captured:
What kind of map is this?
It was funny how on finishing with the four steps, students in both groups began making jokes about this kind of map they had in their notebooks, different for each one since their notes were personalized. Some of them had opted for a full diagram while a few others had opted for a mixture of diagram and listing ideas and questions as I noticed by a quick look at their notebooks. One student said that it was “a map not to find your way, but to get lost”, another added “yes, to get lost in ideas and thoughts”, a third remarked that “it’s a map of all the different, nice ideas we had in our minds” while some others were explaining to their classmates how they were able to navigate themselves in their maps through lines, arrows, colours, boxes and clouds. I told them this was a concept map and the term seemed to stick in their minds.
The new language that emerged out of the students’ need to express their ideas while working on this routine was: connect with, associate with, concept map, economy, sustainable, equipment, space, hybrid, citizens, develop, thefts, special needs (first group) and connect with, associate with, concept map, radical, gap, reduce, increase, tax, racism, origin, argument (for the second group).
The proper wrapping up of the Making Meaning routine is that students come up with their own definition of the word, concept, topic being explored. We did not have much time to do this individually as the session was coming to an end so I asked children to hierarchize the most important elements for them and came up with a joint very short piece of writing.
I found it interesting how in both groups the routine facilitated the expression of a diversity of ideas that captured aspects of the issue ranging from the personal/school/local one to the wider “big global picture”. They associated the concept of change not only with themselves, their school, their relationships with classmates, but also with the current state of unemployment in the country, feeling of insecurity, loss of homes and the more global issues related to sustainable environment, gap between rich and poor, racism, injustice, war/peace. Each one of the questions the students asked at the final step lends itself to a new circle of inquiry.
The Making Meaning routine helped smooth our way back into “school mode” and gain some energy after the Christmas-hynernation phase. It reminded me a lot of Chalk Talk, another routine that helps students build understanding collectively. For some pictures of classroom practice with the Chalk Talk routine you can have a look here and here.
Hope you have a Happy New Year.
Ritchhart, R. Church, M. and Morrison, K. (2011) Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
There was a unit on shopping we were recently working on with my sixth grade primary school students that triggered the idea of showing them Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters” and relating it to poverty. After looking at coursebooks images of happy people shopping and paying at supermarkets, and reading texts on the numerous goods one can buy there, I could not help but wonder how the children would react to the issue of poverty, especially since they are growing up and living in a country constantly descending into poverty because of the prolongued economic recession. There was also some reaction on the part of the children while working with the coursebook when a couple of them pointed out that “well, if you don’t have money, you can’t buy anything”. That made me even more curious to find out what the students see around them, in their surroundings. For these children, who in their majority come from families who can provide for the basics and in some cases more than that, are the poor invisible? or even worse “written off as trash” as John Berger phrased it?
My main aims during these lessons were to:
expose them to the work of art and encourage careful observation and aesthetic appreciation
encourage students’ thinking, speaking, active listening and writing
associate the work of art with the issue of poverty and prompt their thinking on it
explore how the children make meaning of poverty through seeing around them, drawing their own images of poverty and writing about them
The Potato Eaters
The “Potato Eaters” (1885) by Vincent Van Gogh is a realistic painting about harsh country life. It depicts five peasants sitting around a table, eating potatoes. The colours are dark and gloomy and the only light source comes from an oil lamp on the ceiling, at the centre of the panting, which sheds light on the facial expressions of four of the figures.
What’s going on?
We first observed carefully the painting. I then asked the students:
What’s going on in this painting?
When a student offered his/her idea, I asked a follow-up question:
What do you see that makes you say that?
This is the Visual Thinking Strategies approach (VTS) to finding meaning in imagery, developing visual literacy through learning on the arts, fostering thinking, and communication skills—listening and expressing oneself. Following a constructivist, developmental approach to aesthetic appreciation, VTS views the teacher as the facilitator who allows the students’ mental frame to evolve by making connections, new constructions, and building meaning in new kinds of ways as they weave their understanding and interpretation of a work of art.
This was a viewing, speaking and note-taking activity. Children agreed as to the more evident elements like the fact that “there are people around a table who are eating”. They also negotiated meaning on:
what exactly it is that they’re eating and drinking
what is the overall situation they’re in
In the first case, ideas involved “fish”, “apples”, “potatoes”, “tea”, “coffee”, “cocoa”. In the second case, some children believed there are “poor people in a house” while others believed the people in the painting are “in a war” situation.
The What do you see that makes you say that? stem prompted them to look more carefully for details that supported their ideas so
“poor” was related to the figures’ “old and cheap clothes”, and the fact that “they’re eating from the same platter”. Students also related “poor” with “sad and tired faces” who “are not smiling” and even with “dirty” appearance
“eating” was related to the fact that they can see “food on the table”, “they’re holding forks”, “they’re sitting around a table and families usually sit around a table to have lunch or dinner”
“potatoes” was related to the fact that “they are not expensive so they can buy them”
“War” was related to the “small room” which had no electricity, but “only one lamp” and because these people “looked sad”
I finally asked the children if the atmosphere in the painting is cold or warm. Opinions were divided. Others thought it was cold because the people in the painting were poor, tired, sad. Others, however, thought it was warm because these people were all together and were sharing their food.
As students were expressing their ideas and listening to each other’s ideas, I facilitated note-taking by writing key words and phrases shared, when speaking, on the board for all to see. I also helped them with the language they needed in the flow of the conversation which involved items like “hiding shed”, “platter”, “serve”, “shelves”, “in the background”, “all together” “atmosphere”, “I believe”, “in my opinion”.
When this session ended, I revealed the title and asked them to write a text on what we did in class, drawing on the classroom discussion and their notes. Children came up with shorter or longer texts that ranged from simple descriptive accounts of the painting to more elaborate reflective texts where they incorporated their own thinking as well as their classmates’ thinking. All of them responded well and even struggling students found the activity accessible since the in-built differentiation and the fact that their writing was based on classroom experience was of considerable help.
In the second session, first, we briefly revised the previous lesson through a plenary discussion and brainstorming around questions like: “What did we talk about last time?”, “what did we see in the painting?” I also mentioned the name of the painter and his country of origin. Then I asked them to look again and answer the question:
What more can we find?
This is the third question in the VTS approach that encourages more careful viewing. We focussed on
the colours of the painting which the children found dark and gloomy, but noticed bright spots, too (What do you think about the colours?)
the appearance of the people in the painting (What are the people wearing?, “)
what their job might be (What do you think their job is?)
how the room is illuminated (How is the room illuminated?)
any other details they could find (Can you see anything else?)
what emotions the painting evoked (What are your feelings?, How does the painting make you feel?)
The new vocabulary that emerged out of this session included items like “ceiling”, “illuminate”, “bony” (fingers), “kerchiefs”, “caps”, “bright”, “little, a little, very little”, “depressing”, “gloomy”, “feeling”. I also provided them with the terms “monochromatic”, “realistic” and “naturalistic” related to the artistic elements of the painting. I finally explained that Vincent Van Gogh made this painting for two reasons: he wanted people to see that he was a good artist, and he wanted to show how hard the life of poor peasants is because he lived among them at that time. “Peasants” was added to our words list and I asked the students’ opinion on whether the painting was successfully showing what it was supposed to show.
For the next lesson I assigned them to write a text on the new information we had added
I also asked them to look around them, think, and draw their own images of poverty along with a short description and rationale.
My Image of Poverty
The children did look around them and what they brought in class indeed reflected the face of poverty in our surroundings. In the final sessions, they presented their images to their classmates and talked about them. The majority chose to depict people scavenging food, paper or anything useful from rubbish bins which in the Greek debt crisis context has been rapidly rising and has become a way to survive. At times they associated it with the country’s shuttered industrial infrastructure, scarcity of jobs or poorly paid ones.
Begging in the streets, in the subway, in front of global supermarket chains and homelessness also featured in their work. This was again at times related to the rising unemployment in the country and the rising cost of living.
Others related their images of poverty to immigrants and refugees
Or associated poverty with different reactions towards poor people
On completing these series of lessons, children had come in contact with art, had shown interest in both the aesthetic and social aspect it embraces, had had the opportunity to express themselves in verbal and visual modes, and had seen and identified the often unseen and overlooked. Their responses were marked by awareness and emotional and cognitive engagement. As they were trying to make meaning of poverty through drawing their own images and writing about them, they employed their thinking, planning, and connecting skills. There were interesting signs of individual engagement with putting together their own works of art and reasoning their choices. Of course, there were varying degrees of conscious connectivity among the children which have to do with their diverse degree of maturity, artistic and language ability, familial and social context.
Ideally, a related problem-solving situation that would push children’s thinking beyond identifying and empathizing towards developing and initiating ways of tackling with the issue of poverty should follow. Poverty is a very complex issue with the unequal distribution of wealth at its core. We did not go that far. Food for thought for the future.
Here are two publications I have been happy to contribute to. Starting from the most recent one:
Edited by Kieran Donaghy and Daniel Xerri, The Image in English Language Teaching is the first publication of the Visual Arts Circle, a community of teachers with interests in visual literacy and language learning. It is a groundbreaking book whose diverse papers reflect on the multi-dimensional role of images in teaching and learning in an increasingly visual and complex world. The papers in the book were presented at different editions of The Image Conference whose aims are to put images at the centre of the language learning agenda, offer guidance on using them critically and creatively, and to promote visual literacy in language education. There are contributions by members of the Visual Arts Circle such as Ben Goldstein, Anna Whitcher, Antonia Clare, Paul Driver, Sylvia Karasthati, Paul Dummett, Magdalena Wasilewska, Andreia Zakime,Elena Domínguez Romero, Jelena Bobkina, Candy Fresacher, Tyson Seburn, Magdalena Brzezinska, Emma Louise Pratt, Samantha Lewis, Jean Theuma, Valéria Benévolo França, and myself. The book includes a preface by Gunther Kress, Professor of Semiotics and Education in the Department of Culture, Communication and Media within the Institute of Education of University College London. My paper, “Images on canvas: art, thinking and creativity in ELT” draws on my presentation at the third edition of the Image Conference in Cordoba, Spain, and is about how exposing students to paintings can serve to structure their thinking and enhance their writing skills. The book is available by open access thanks to the support of the ELT Council and can be downloaded from the Visual Arts Circle website.
Edited by Alan Maley and Nik Peachey, the Integrating global issues in the creative English language classroom book is a British Council publication that aims at bringing together practical and creative language teaching ideas with a focus on raising awareness of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. My contribution is on Sustainable Development Goal 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems. It explores in particular the issue of deforestation through a series of activities that utilize artful visual prompts and aim at having students appreciate the value of forests, the diversity of life in rainforests and raising awareness of the role of palm oil in deforestation and Orangutan extinction. The book is a follow-up to the first volume on Creativity in the English language classroom where I was also also happy to be a part of.