TESOL 2019 Highlights: Bringing Art Into the Classroom

I attended two sessions on the use of artwork in the classroom. Both gave good take-away.

Monica Maxwell-Paegle of Georgetown University presented the poster session Using Artworks in Building Language and Analytical Skills. First off, here’s a rich resource: the National Portrait Gallery. Monica noted that besides browsing through the many portraits, you can search for specific individuals. Her list of suggested works of art included Benjamin Franklin, Chief Joseph, and Mary McLeod Bethune. Imagine the curiosity such figures can pique!

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Monica Maxwell-Paegle

Monica has two basic aims when she brings art into the classroom. She recognizes the need to develop visual literacy, and as students learn to “read” artworks, they must then be able to discuss what they see. Monica builds learners’ word banks by teaching them to talk about artistic style (e.g., “similar to” and “lifelike”), facial expressions, poses or posture, clothing, settings, objects, mediums (e.g., photo or painting), colors, and scale (the size of a work). She guides students through four steps so that they can participate successfully in group discussion: (1) they observe a given work of art, (2) they interpret what they see, (3) they connect the artwork to their own experiences or tap into their world knowledge, and then (4) they conclude with their point of view. 

The beauty of such a task is that the students develop more than language skills: they walk away with a deeper understanding of culture and history, which will then allow them to understand other figures and events in the proper cultural and historical context.

The second session I attended was part of the Electronic Village’s Technology Fair. Emma Rye and Kathleen Sheridan of Universidad de los Andes presented English Through Art: A Walk Through the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  As the title states, their preferred online resource is the Met. Thanks to the very well-designed website, numerous artworks are accessible to students near and far, even in Colombia! The presenters also mentioned The J. Paul Getty Museum as a valuable online resource.

Emma and Kathleen took the time to share their reasoning for bringing artwork into the classroom. An arts-based pedagogy prompts students to reflect, and in doing so they engage in discussion and interpretation. Critical thinking and analytical skills are put to use. Works of art, the presenters noted, are authentic materials and studying them expands one’s notion of input. Lastly, as stated in the summary of Monica’s session, art provides insights and deepens a person’s sociocultural understanding.

One of the recommended activities was for students to play the role of curator and select a few pieces for a special collection. The artworks could follow a theme, for example, the sea. Emma and Kathleen noted that many of the works of art have short descriptions, which could aid students in their search for a unifying theme and in their preparation to explain why they selected certain pieces for their “exhibition.” More extensive reading is possible if you steer students toward a website feature called Timeline of Art History, which pairs artworks with detailed chronologies.

When students present their collection to the class, Emma and Kathleen suggest allowing for peer feedback. Classmates’ comments can be kept brief; limit them to one thing the presenter did well and done thing the presenter could improve on (e.g., body language, speaking rate, speaking with expression).

A very special thank you to Monica, Emma, and Kathleen for reminding me how powerful art can be in language instruction and for kindly allowing me to share their ideas here with you.

Photo credit: Art, Art Gallery, Framed Artwork by iSAWcmopany. Retrieved from the Public Domain at https://pixabay.com/photos/art-art-gallery-framed-artwork-3802145/.

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