Van Gogh in the ESL classroom

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Van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles

What do you see in this picture?  Tell me about it.  What words do you know?  What phrases do you need, to describe what you see in this picture?  What colors do you see?  How would you describe this painting?  Vibrant?  Muted?  Rough strokes?  Refined brushwork?  Who made this painting?  When?  Where?

Look at the painting below.  What do you see there?  What’s the weather like?  Who do you think lives there?  And again, who made this painting?  When, and where?

During lessons, it’s really important that we expose children to various modes of communication, such as music and games, but also the arts.  Paintings, sculptures, and drawings are all excellent means of developing vocabulary and eliciting speech.  It also frees us, as teachers, up from having to use what the textbook dictates.  Art is everywhere, and we can learn to talk about it, at any age.

For instance, young people can start by naming the colors and objects they see, or alternatively, point to things the teacher or other children name.  More advanced learners can talk about whether or not they like a certain piece of art, and more importantly, why they may or may not like it.  Young adults can dive into the more technical aspects of the artwork, discussing the artist, the type of art created, and maybe even the context which may have inspired the particular artwork.

An example of the history behind the painting is hidden behind the row houses in the painting above.  Who would have known that these five houses were once owned by Alfred Pope, a former slave who had once tried escaping, was caught, to be freed upon his master’s death two years later?

Art isn’t just for talking about, however.  It can be a source of inspiration for teachers and children alike, providing a means of working outside the textbook-driven box.  In an informative blog written by the British Council, several ideas for how to use art in the ESL classroom are explained.  Besides talking about art, children can make their own artwork to talk about.  In a blog written by the Oxford University Press, two more ideas are shared, expanding the idea of “art” to include doodles and poetry.

Another important reason for using a different mode of teaching is that different children are stimulated to participate in the lesson.  Oftentimes, the quiet learners will come out of their protective shells of silence to join in an arts and crafts activity, into a space that allows them to express themselves in ways outside of words.  It’s then on us, as teachers, to help them connect their work to the words and phrases they can use to talk about it.

I’ve often used pictures from the internet for use in my classes, putting them into power points as a means of getting children to look at the world in a different way.  Here are a few tips for finding usable images:

  • Search terms:  look on Google images for: painting + topic, for instance “painting + tiger”.  Sometimes I’ll use “watercolor” or “oil painting” if I’m looking for a certain kind of effect.  Other times, I’ll use “statue” or “abstract painting”.
  • Search settings: It’s important to choose the search settings carefully, by clicking on “search tools” and then “size”.  I’ve found that small images won’t reproduce well in a power point, so I often pick the “large” setting when looking for images I want to use.
  • Copyright settings: sometimes pictures have “watermarks” on them.  If you change your search setting on “usage rights” to any other setting than the default, you won’t have any watermarked images.

I wonder who else has used art in the English lesson?  Please let me know about your own experiences.

 

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