Category Archives: Talks/workshops

Paint me a world:The Athens Image Conference

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 in the sessions of 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).

Art and creative thinking workshop: looking back

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.

Wrested Heart by Peggy Lipschutz

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.

Teacher responses

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.

Student responses

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.

“Then what” or “What after” by Louay Kayyali

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.

Killing ourselves by Santiago Pejac

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.

Images on Canvas – The Image Conference Cordoba

At the end of November I attended and presented at the Image Conference in Cordoba, Spain. The Conference is an event that puts media and images at the heart of language learning. This year it was organised by International House Cordoba. It was a valuable and thought-provoking experience. 

I shared my experience from a classroom project with my 6th grade primary school students, the Art in the English Class Project. It ran in parallel with the syllabus. During the project, we went coursebook free and drew upon paintings, photography, video, and poetry. We worked on five topics over a period of six months: Bullying, Hope, War/Peace, Asperger’s & Autism, School. Thinking routines were regularly integrated among the activities and students wrote systematically learning journals. The project yielded nice results in encouraging children’s creative and critical thinking, and motivated them. It was a memorable learning experience for them and me alike.

PPT for the conference session

Feedback from participants

Teaching English Through Art:Reflection on a MOOC session

Back in July I delivered a session for the International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi) Summer School MOOC. I had attended a couple of online events during the previous months, but this was my first time presenting in such a context. The session was ‘Teaching English Through Art’. It involved showcasing how artful stimuli and Thinking Routines can be integrated in the English classroom as a means of developing students’ thinking skills and creativity alongside their linguistic competence. It drew upon classroom experience from working with my students on a project integrating the use of art and the Making Thinking Visible approach. They were 6th grade primary school students (11 years old), two mixed-ability groups of 20 students each, their level of English ranging from pre-intermediate to upper-intermediate.

A great number of teachers from more than 20 countries attended the session. In this post I will try to make visible a medium part of the participants’ thinking and interaction during the session as shared in the rich chat box.

This blog has a separate section on Visible Thinking, but I will also offer some brief reference on thinking routines here:

Thinking Routines are flexible, simple structures such as a set of questions or a short sequence of steps. When applied systematically, these routines help develop students’ creative and critical.

Some of the routines that we worked on:


The participants were shown the image below and asked to answer the questions:

-What do you see?
-What do you think about it?
-What does it make you wonder?

Some of the answers offered were as follows:

I see a tree. I think it’s winter. I wonder if this is a graveyard.

I see a graveyard. I think it’s quite depressing. I wonder what kind of lesson it was.

I see abstract thinking. I think students have had quite a touch with art. I wonder how long it takes to develop this.

I see a different picture. I think they built a concept. I wonder why.

I wonder what experiences the students have had to produce this.

The See-Think-Wonder routine encourages careful observations and thoughtful interpretations. You can use it to stimulate curiosity and set the stage for further engagement with a topic. Paintings, photographs, interesting objects can be used to prompt learners’ observations, thoughts, and wonderings. In this case, I used it as a way to introduce the session participants to the idea of integrating artful stimuli and Thinking Routines in the English classroom. At the same time, I used it as a means of reflecting upon another routine, the colour-symbol-image routine.


What the participants saw was how a group of the students I worked with distilled creatively the essence of ideas explored through watching, reading, and discussing when we dealt with the theme of War/Peace. The Colour-Symbol-Image routine is a way to encourage individual or group expression, both verbally and non-verbally. It can be used at the end of a topic and asks learners to select a colour/a symbol/an image that they feel represent the ideas discussed, and to explain why they chose it.

The students who produced this image had chosen to represent war. During the theme they were exposed to a variety of art, audio/visual, and textual stimuli such as paintings, photographs, a short animation film. This enhanced their symbolic and metaphoric thinking. We needed eight 40-minute teaching sessions to complete the theme. The Colour-Symbol-Image routine was used at the last session.

Another routine that we tried was What makes you say that?

Painting: Matt Mahurin

Participants were asked to look at this painting and reflect on these questions:

-What’s going on?
-What do you see that makes you say that?

This routine helps learners describe what they see and invites them to build explanations. It promotes evidence-based reasoning.

Some of the sharing that took place among participants:

The bigger girl is bullying the younger one. She looks threatening and there must be some figures behind her.

Maybe the mediumer girl feels she has no support-teetering on the edge of a cliff. Bigger girl intimidating with support.

She’s going to push her over. Her clenched fist indicates an angry persona.

Shadows represent support even though we don’t see their bodies.

People watching, but not doing anything. The case with bullying usually.

What is fascinating in this picture…is that half of the girl is darkened by the shadow of the older one. …students are cognitively and emotionally engaged…and this would be a good base for a speaking and writing task.

This is very thought provoking…makes students think…and talk…

Open-ended activity, no right or wrong answers, students are encouraged to express themselves.

These routines also help the teacher to develop his own critical thinking.

The group of teachers who attended the MOOC was an amazing audience who took part actively and enthusiastically in the activities, sharing, and commenting. As one of the participants put it: “This is really a group of word artists”. These are some of their insightful comments on the use of art and thinking routines in the English classroom:

Helps students make strong connections between ideas and language.

It is a fantastic way to give students forum for free thought and associations.

It levels the playing field in learning.

Students express deep feelings. Become more sympathetic.

These activities stimulate creativity, critical thinking skills, English language skills, and respect for other people’s opinion.

Routines promote descriptive language and stimulate observation.

Stimulates your mind to think and to re-think again and again…

No right/wrong answer so sense of security for learners.

It taps into the students’ imagination, feelings, creativity, vocabulary.

These kinds of activities draw the language from them.

Consistent and prolonged use of thinking routines cannot but nurture a culture of thinking. Like breathing.

Diversity of thinking is stimulated like this. No set answers neither answers in the teacher’s mind the students try to guess. Very learner centred.

The last routine we tried in the session was

‘I used to think..Now, I think…’

It is a routine to have learners reflect on how and why their thinking has changed. It is best to use it at the end of a topic or issue. I asked participants to reflect on what they used to think about using art in their English classes before the session, and what they thought about it, at the end of the session.

I used to think it’s impossible to programme the thinking process of students. Now, I think art is a powerful way, which can make this process not only possible, but also enjoyable for students.

I used to think it was a great stimulus for my Dogme lessons. Now, you have given me some fresh ideas for thought.

I used to think my students wouldn’t like to work with art. Now, I think they will love it. I used to think teaching through art was tricky. Now, I think it’s fun.

I used to think that teaching through high brow art is too academic. Now, I think it can be very involving.

I used to think I had no need for art in my English classes. Now, I think I was wrong, and I’m looking forward to trying it out.

I used to think that teaching through art was mostly for older students but now I think it is good for my primary students too.

I used to think art could be useful in order to visualize some ideas. Now, I think it has a much deeper potential that could be explored in class.

I used to think that teaching grammar was enough. Now, I think art is a wonderful tool to explore language use.

I used to think there was no use for art in esl. Now, I think I can’t wait to try it.

I used to think art might have difficult notions for students to talk about, now I think that there are ways to motivate them.

I used to think very few children would appreciate works of art. Now, I think it can be turned into a very creative and amazing activity.

I used to think that art just belongs to artists but now I think it’s a perfect device for teaching.

This was a great group of teachers who made this MOOC session a truly worthwhile learning experience. Thank you all very much. Special thanks to Chuck Sandy and iTDi for encouraging, and supporting this session.