I had come across a 3 minute animation showing extracts from the graphic biography of Anne Frank that I wanted to show students, but I thought that language might be a bit difficult for them. The research, sharing, visually organizing, and writing activities that we first worked on, and that I wrote about in the previous post, paved the ground for stepping smoothly into watching the animation.
The Anne Frank animation – ordering the events
I prepared a worksheet with 10 events from the video and jumbled them up. This is an activity drawn from Kieran Donaghy’s excellent resource Film in Action. Students watched the video twice and they ordered the events as they appeared in the animation.
Representing: my image of Anne Frank’s story
On finishing the lesson, I asked students to choose the most important thing from Anne’s story and communicate their ideas in both verbal and non-verbal ways. A wealth of hand made drawings and digital work was brought in class.
Many students chose to draw Anne’s diary associating it with her life events and her writings about the war. Others drew Anne herself writing in her diary and the importance of what she wrote not only for herself, but also for us, as future generations. A student drew Anne with a “Jew” badge on her chest the moment she was arrested by the Nazis. There was also a group of students who had chosen to work on this collaboratively and came up with a series of 4 portraits of Anne capturing all the important events in her life. These portraits were inspired by the imagery in the animation and were linked to four relevant life moments. Each portrait was related to her state and feelings starting from birth when she was free, moving to her receiving the diary (happy), hiding and writing in the Annex (sad, angry) and finally being arrested (scared).
Sentence-phrase-word: what speaks to me
The last activity on this topic involved being exposed to Anne’s writing. I was lucky enough to trace the definitive edition online and made a worksheet with 3 excerpts. I first read the excerpts to the students and we worked on language they did not know. Then, we worked on the sentence, phrase, word routine. I asked them to choose:
that were important, meaningful, powerful or moved them. I also encouraged them to justify their choices.
Some students chose their sentence, phrase, word from the first excerpt, some from the second, while some from the third. Some others tried choosing from more than one excerpts and some made one choice from each excerpt. Finally, some students chose only one or two of the stems (sentence or phrase or word). I realize that this activity requires a deep, personal insight into a topic which is not an easy one, let alone when you have to express yourself in another language. Students’ answers were touching and showed an admirable effort to offer their personal interpretations on Anne’s writing.
Some responses for excerpt 1
for excerpt 2
for excerpt 3 and mixed responses
By the time, we reached the end of our work, Anne Frank and her diary had become a topic of everyday discussion whether we had a class together or not. I can even say that I was slighlty surprised by the impact it had on the students. Books bought were brought in class, others had already been ordered, excerpts from their Greek language textbook on Anne Frank were discovered and they asked their Greek language teacher to work on them; students were sharing among themselves youtube addresses where they could watch and find out more about her. It was great to see the resonance of her story with the children.
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.
The Colour-Symbol-Image routine helps students to express their thinking non-verbally. Especially in the case of younger learners, this taps right into their natural creativity and desire for expression. It is a routine that encourages them to identify and capture the heart of ideas they have explored through reading, watching or listening to the selected source material. As they make their selections of colours, symbols, images, students are pushed to make connections and think metaphorically.
Metaphors are a powerful way to develop our understanding of ideas by associating a new concept with a more familiar one and making comparisons. The connections and ideas students come up with need to be understood as highly personal. Therefore we should not evaluate them as they occur. All ideas are possibilities and students should generate as many as they can before identifying degrees of merit.
This routine is best used after students have read a passage from a book, a short story, or a poem, listened to a radio essay or watched a short film, reached the end of a topic or unit. Language level-appropriate, students explain and justify their choices in writing.
After having gone through the source material, ask students to take the following steps:
Choose a colour that they feel represents the ideas discussed. Explain why they chose it. (One or two colours should be chosen by students.)
Choose a symbol. Explain why they chose it. (A symbol is something that stands for or suggests something else. For example, roses stand for romance, a heart stands for love, a dove stands for peace.)
Choose an image. Explain why they chose it. (Students may use a photograph or sketch their own drawings. They should not worry about their drawing abilities as it can be something very simple that captures their idea.)
Have students work individually, in pairs or in groups. Working with a partner or in a group has the advantage over individual work in that students learn to offer arguments and negotiate meaning.
Share the thinking and ideas. Use the student-made output as a teaching input. Have individual students, pairs or groups present their choices and hold a plenary discussion.
We tried this routine at the end of the topic of war/peace. Students organized themselves in small groups and chose what they wished to represent – war or peace. In my mixed ability primary school classroom this organization worked well. Students shared their ideas with the other members of the group before deciding on the final outcome. Members of the group could contribute in diverse ways. Some were stronger at the verbal part while others at the non-verbal, drawing part. Students first kept notes of their ideas, then shared them among their groups and we used sheets of A3 paper size for the final outcome.
Examples of students’ ideas include:
Things to note: Some groups may find it easier to start with the other parts of the routine first, i.e. symbol or image. The order is not binding.