The art of it all: paintings to inspire your materials

In the fifth of our posts covering the MaWSIG-LitSIG joint Pre-Conference Event Creative Arts and Materials Writing in Liverpool on 1 April 2019, Hania Krystyna Bociek discusses the importance of bringing art into the classroom and how she creates materials to make art come alive.

If the teaching of English be an art, as I believe it is, then let art help us teach it …

When I was originally asked to do a talk at this year’s joint Pre-Conference LitSIG and MaWSIG event, I was slightly perplexed. I actually plead for minimal material. I plead for making more of your material, for making the most of your material. I aspire to learners being creative, not to putting them into a linguistic straitjacket of ready-made materials. Dogme calls …

So I made it the main point of my talk that it is paintings themselves that are the main material in my work. Paintings inspire an emotional reaction in learners. Then they use language to express their emotions. We teachers supply that language. And so language acquisition and the appreciation of paintings flow into each other. By tapping into learners’ emotions, firing that creativity, deploying visual thinking strategies, we underpin learner expression and, as a next step, lead them to further expression via artistic creation.

Using works of art in the English classroom goes far beyond facilitating language acquisition, however. Although this was a major feature of English Through Art,1 the role of art in my work has expanded to include all aspects of literature, personal expression, global issues and CLIL. In a world that is increasingly pragmatic, individual creativity is essential; in a world where English is the default means of communication, individual cultures should stand out. As Thornbury often rightly stresses, language is used in a historical, cultural and social context. Works of art are born of these same things. In turn, they inspire communication, both verbal and visual. English, the modern-day lingua franca, can and should facilitate the transmission of distinct cultural values. In an era of fake news and alternative facts, being able to ‘read’ a painting and discuss the issues it raises can help fine-tune learners’ critical thinking.

Using art in the classroom is a question of personal taste, both that of the teacher and the learner. It is not about being an art expert or a gifted artist. If a painting ‘speaks’ to you, use it. My first activity presented three Uruguayan paintings, little known outside of South America. This did not stop participants being able to say which they preferred and why. It did encourage them to explain their personal taste and criteria for liking and/or responding to a painting. My second activity asked participants to think of titles for a series of paintings – two titles per painting: one concrete (e.g. ‘The Beach’) and one abstract (e.g. ‘Peace’). Comparing titles and reaching consensus on the ‘best’ title involved using transactional and persuasive language. In class, one can build up the catalogue of useful language with the learners themselves, i.e. not provide them with material but create it in collaboration with them.

Moving beyond the classroom we considered cultural issues of communication, from turn-taking to the breakdown of communication. Considering a painting like Tissot’s Bad News (The Parting),2 we considered the art and pre-requisites/strategies of successful conversation.

In my ‘Two Lives’ activity, two women, one old and one young, in two separate paintings, held imaginary conversations to look towards their hoped-for future or back on their fulfilled or frustrated dreams. From here we moved into internal conversations, or internal monologues. We put ourselves into the shoes of those portrayed and wondered ‘What if …’ with them. Cézanne’s Boy in a Red Vest and Manuel Rosé’s Payaso en Blanco gave us food for thought. As Atticus tells Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird,3 you need to put yourself into someone’s shoes for a longer while to be able to understand them. The life skill of empathy, the literary analysis of character motivation and general appreciation of perspective can all be trained this way.

We practised advanced lexical expansion with an activity that considered a series of paintings portraying water. From literal streams, torrents and splashing we moved into the realm of visualising water metaphors. From Hockney’s Big Splash we looked at news stories that ‘had made a splash’.

Just as the beauty of using metaphoric expression can be suggested by paintings, so paintings can provide the genuinely culturally meaningful materials for speaking test preparation (e.g. ranking activities using portraits, both abstract and figurative, of beautiful people). In the same way, we used an authentic painting of a crime scene4 to spark the discussion of crimes and punishment that is ubiquitous in all examination-oriented coursebooks.

Albert Anker’s Village School provided a springboard for a ‘Back then …’ project, involving both learners and their grandparents. After accessing the language to discuss past habits of schooling and learning, learners went home to interview their grandparents about their school days. Returning to class, they exchanged their findings. In the next phase they looked into the future to imagine the classroom or school of the coming decades. This they recorded not only in words but also in their own (painted) images.

I often use works of art in poetry projects with my classes. I displayed examples of these. From picture poems about love to poems inspired by Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles, we saw examples of the interplay between poetry and art. This led to the next activity: the creative and playful manipulation or re-creation of known works of art. Svetlana Petrova’s work in this field has inspired me here.5 She inserts her ginger cat Zarathustra into paintings as diverse as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Liberating learners’ creative ideas thanks to digital tools is the privilege of our age, an age in which the visual is omnipresent. The historic precedent for re-creating images was set long before, however, among others, by Picasso in his re-rendering of Cézanne’s Bathers or of Delacroix’s Women of Algiers. The amusing continuation of this can be found in Banksy’s rendition of Gleaners.

Moving further into the possibilities offered by digitisation in producing or reproducing works of art, I projected a photograph of a New Year’s Eve scene in 20156 that had then been visually transformed and retransformed by online artists in the Twitter community. Here I repeated Joanna Norton’s core message7 that it is not enough to produce the work of art; you have to be able to explain what you did and why, to provide the rationale and intention behind the visual creation.

And so I came full circle: from using paintings to inspire language to using language to express the inspiration behind the paintings.

There was no time or place to talk about my projects on global issues such as emigration and immigration, dehumanisation, egotism, industrialisation or climate change, nor to present writing projects inspired by portraits (well before the National Portrait Gallery’s Imagined Lives). There was just time to throw the cat among the pigeons one last time: the less material we create, the better; the more culturally rich and significant prompts (aka paintings) we use, the better; the more we get out of our material with our learners, the better; the more our learners are encouraged to think, analyse and be creative themselves, the better. That is the art of it all.

References
1 English Through Art, Grundy, Bociek and Parker, Helbling, 2011
2 as featured in English Through Art
3 Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbiird
4 Juan Manuel Blanes’ Asesinato de G’ral Venancio Flores
5 Svetlana Petrova, Oxford, 2014.
6 Photograph by Joel Goodmann; reproduced in the Guardian online edition 31.12.2015/1.1.2016
7 As heard at the VACLA Conference in Malta, February 2019

Hania Bociek teaches English at a Zurich grammar school and is a teacher trainer at the University of Zurich. She has a particular interest in using both literature and art in the classroom and beyond, and regularly gives talks and workshops related to this. She is the co-author of English through Art (Helbling, 2011). 

 

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