Raising the arts profile in school

It’s the start of a new month and time to publish a new cultural newsletter aimed at the older pupils in the school where I teach and also my colleagues.  The aim, as ever, is to keep pushing the arts profile within the school and in particular for the pupils the remind them just how broad and varied the cultural world is.

newsletterThe content this month has a visual arts and gaming angle.  It is all fairly easy access references.  The aim, as always, is to try and set discussion going, maybe dip into a link in the last five minutes of a lesson.

The links are all things I’ve come across in the last month or so, made a note of an subsequently inserted into the standard form of the newsletter.  It is extra work, but really not too much, and the reaction and remarks from both pupils and colleagues is always nice to hear….the teachers’ questionnaire always prompting a few comments.

Click on the link below to read the full newsletter:

april 2015 no.3(blog)

As a simple format for making the art department just that little bit more visible I can recommend it.

Homophones CLIL Art and English assignment

Fed up with your pupils muddling up words that sound the same, but are spelt differently and have different meanings?  These words are called homophones and are often an area of confusion, especially when starting to learn a language.

Technically the definition is:

Homophones are words which have the same pronunciation, but different spellings and meanings.

Some examples:


To help clear up some of this confusion why not get the art department involved in a little design work?


Pictograms that illustrate the differences in homophones words

Pictograms are something that we are all so familiar with in our daily lives. They are visual shortcuts in information delivery.  Images that are designed to inform and instruct in a rapid and clear way that is not dependent on language, or at least not conventional language. Pictograms rely instead on a visual language. Think of all those symbols you see around airports directing us to various facilities, or the buttons on your tablet for different apps or within the app or program on your computer helping you to use it without becoming involved with written text.

A well designed pictogram should require little explanation!

When it comes to designing the pictogram it should meet the following criteria:

  • Be clear and not overly complex
  • Be sharp and graphic in its appearance so that it is easily viewed from a distance
  • Have a boldness that allows it to be reproduced on various scales without losing quality

Sets of pictograms also have a ‘house style’, they look like they belong together even though they may be illustrating quite diverse things.


Design pairs of pictograms that illustrate clearly the differences between homophones. This could be carried out by hand with ink or paint on a piece of paper, or alternatively be set as a simple computer based design assignment.

Text would not normally be part of a pictogram, but in this case it is also important to include the pair of words underneath the design so that viewers can see and appreciate the subtle or not so subtle differences between the homophones.

Remember, each pair of pictograms should in terms of drawing and style look like they do belong together!

The resulting artworks could subsequently be reproduced and make excellent decoration for the language classrooms at school.

Don’t underestimate your class

I remember reading somewhere recently that an excellent way to motive a class is to say something like “I think this is probably too difficult for you….but we’ll give it a go anyway”. The philosophy being, give them a reason to prove you, the teacher, wrong!

At the time I didn’t think much of it, apart perhaps from thinking….’yeah….would they really go for that?’. Well, a couple of weeks later I have to admit to coming up with just such a statement (without intending to) to a class of 12 year olds and then watching them exceed what I thought they were capable of.

Most years I do a little perspective drawing with my first years. It fits in well with talking about the art of the Renaissance. Over time I’ve tried out various assignments, and for my own amusement and variation I continue to do this. This year I decided to try, with one of my classes, something a little more ambitious where they were to produce a two-point perspective interior space drawing, spread over two sheets of paper, with one pupil working on one half of the drawing and a second on the other.  The idea was to simulate collaboration, teamwork and plenty of discussion (in English, as I teach them in English, which is the pupils’ second language), plus of course to learn about perspective.


After a first session working, fielding questions about vanishing points, how the area where to two pages came together should work and just how accurate it all needed to be, I went home feeling that this was perhaps one step too far.

I returned to the lesson the following week ready to explain this, and that I thought it better if we maybe went for something just a little less ambitious.  There was total amazement and disagreement from the class.  From their perspective they had invested a lesson puzzling it out and felt now that they knew what they needed to do. Slightly reluctantly I gave way to their view and we continued.

Two weeks later and we’re finished and while the standard of drawing from the class is varied (as it always is with any class), the grasp of the perspective rules they have been working with is fantastic, I’m hugely impressed.

Whether or not my ‘I think it’s too difficult for you’ moment with the class was the turning point we’ll never know for sure. But the way the pupils rose to the challenge was fantastic to see.

Patience and practical assignments in education

The way things develop in the classroom is sometimes painfully slow, but with patience there can be good results in the end. There is an inevitability to this, with just one or two hours a week progress is never going to race along as fast as you might like.

Looking back on a couple of my posts from the past months it is easy see this slow process of development.  Back in the autumn I visited a fashion exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague that focused the clothing of the nineteenth century. This was enough to prompt me to set about rewriting an assignment that I planned to make use of during the winter. Last month I wrote about the pupils response to this assignment in my Sir….were you a punk and Gender roles in the classroom posts.

Now, nearly six months after starting to develop the lesson material we have reached the end of the process.

famke fashion

A variety of assignments have been completed by the pupils, and have been marked. The lesson material has included research elements, written reflection/opinion forming parts and practical assignments. As the designer of the lessons it has been interesting to see how pupils have responded. Overall I’m not unhappy. However, one thing is hugely clear to me, when the pupils get down to the practical assignments their enjoyment and engagement rises. Sit them down at a computer and ask them to answer questions on what they like or dislike about a particular piece of architecture or fashion design and it can be so hard to get them to tune in and get started. Ask them to produce a three dimensional architectural design or a fantastic fashion creation I almost feel I can go and sit in the staff room and leave them to it.

This observation raises for me three main questions.

  • Why is it that practical work can engage teenagers so effectively?
  • How well are they learning about issues of content during this practical process?
  • Why do so few pupils choose against pursuing practically orientated subjects at school in their later years, especially if they are seen as being academically talented?

I think the third point is a very interesting discussion, but it shall remain for a blog post on another day, but what about those first two points?

max archtectureWhy does practical work engage pupils well?

Practical work in the context of the secondary school is very much the exception to the rule. Pupils spend the largest part of each school day listening to teachers, completing written assignments, confronted by texts in either digital or book form. Given this situation, it is perhaps not surprising that they enjoy practical work purely as a break in the monotony of the regular pattern. But I think there is more at hand here than just a change in the normal passage of things. A practical assignment, certainly in an art context, can contain a huge variety of facets that challenge pupils in a great diversity of ways. Added to this, often in practical work there is a multitude of possibilities for successful completion, or put another way, no one correct answer. That offers a sort of freedom and confronts the pupils with a variety of choices that they must make.  It is didactically good to challenge them and offer them diversity in the way they must set about carrying it out a task.

Add to this the other challenges that practical work offers. Different materials, self-discovery, spatial awareness, dexterity in hand eye coordination and creativity. So much more is suddenly going on, it is little wonder that this can feel refreshingly different in the course of the school day.

The ‘otherness’ of these challenges has a further engaging element, that being the magical aspect of transformation that much art has. You begin with base elements, a pencil and a piece of paper or a piece of clay for example, during the course of an activity these undergo an almost magical alchemy as they are given new form. Observe the wonder in children as they observe what others have achieved with the same materials or with a different approach to the same assignment.

How well are they learning about issues of content during this process?

The question of what is being picked up by pupils in a practically driven session is sometimes a little tricky to measure. But there can be little doubt that ‘doing’ for oneself reinforces the learning process. My biology department colleagues value their practical sessions for the way that carrying out certain processes allows pupils to see and experience a theme in a more interactive and hands on way.  It cements the theory into place.

In the art department the hands on activity often is the central content of the lesson. It gives pupils the chance to express what they have learned and develop their study of a certain area or theme. My recent work on architecture and fashion are a good examples of this.

You can talk about how an architect works with volumes of space in their work, or how a fashion designer blends the modern and influences from the past. You can ask pupils to look and reflect on the work of others to try and grasp these approaches. But to can also set a practical assignment that forces them to consider it for themselves and be confronted with similar problems. In doing this the learners gain a better grasp of how other artists and designers have faced up to these challenges.

But perhaps most importantly of all it confronts the learner with the role of creativity. Much in education, certainly at secondary school level, is about achieving a sort of functional proof of understanding. It might be accurate reproduction of material in an exam or showing correct application of systems or theories. The art department offers learners the chance to start to learn the importance of artistic and creative flair and choosing their own route. Taking the world we live in beyond simply functionality into an environment where beauty, originality and the element of surprise are valued.

Word smuggling….CLIL continued

Someone who read my previous post asked me to expand a little on the Word Smuggling language learning idea that I mentioned at the end. In a way it’s a variation on the better known word game known as Taboo, where you ask someone to talk on a particular subject without actually using certain obvious and important words. Others listen and try to guess what the subject was. For example, explain the term ‘primary colours’ without saying red, yellow, blue, colour, mix or mixing. It forces you to think of alternatives and other more unexpected routes you would take in language in order to make yourself clear. All very good for language development.

Word Smuggling is in a way kind of the reverse of this game and well suited to any subject area. You give the participant a subject to talk about, this is likely to be in some way connected to your current lesson content, the idea is to use the language game to strengthen and deepen the understanding of content.

rembrandt clil

In my own lessons it might go a follows:

  • give a pupil a particular artwork to describe and discuss, or maybe the experience of a recent trip to a museum (others in the group may see this example or theme for themselves)
  • Give the same pupil a word on a piece of paper (this word must on no accounts be disclosed to the others in the group). The type word you choose to give to the pupil is very important to how well the game will work.  It should not be directly or obviously related to the subject they are talking about. For example if the pupil has been given a Rembrandt self-portrait to talk about, try giving them a word such as ‘boat’ or ‘shopping basket’
  • They then have to talk for a while to the others in the group about their theme or subject and somewhere in amongst all of what they are saying they have to try and use the word that they were given. They must try and do this in such a way that the others in the group are not likely to notice it as being particularly obvious.
  • When the speaker has reached the end of what they have to say the rest of the group have to try and guess what the secret word was.

There are a couple of extra points to make about the game, it is of course forbidden to include lists of random words in what is said in order to conceal the word that way!

This is actually a relatively difficult language game for learners of a younger age. If I try it with the twelve year olds I teach, in their first year of learning English, their limited vocabulary is rather a restricting factor. Although having said that, with twelve year olds perhaps an even bigger restricting factor is their inability not to give the word away simply through the look on their face when they say it!

Word smuggling after watching a film – a CLIL idea

For those not familiar with the abbreviation CLIL, it simply means content and language integrated learning, it’s my particular branch on education. I teach my art lessons in English to Dutch children learning my (and other subjects) in their second language. Thus in my lessons they are learning about art and creativity and simultaneously learning English.

My daily challenge is how to work the language element into the content. I want to share an example that I’ll be making use of today. For non-CLIL teachers there’s no reason why you shouldn’t use the same a approach, but obviously simply in your usual language of teaching.


With my first year groups (12-13 year olds) I like to mix a little art history into the practical activities and today I’ll be talking to them about Leonardo.  We’ll look at the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, but we will also be spending rather more time on Leonardo ‘the inventor’. The pure creativity of that area of his work always seems to catch the attention of the first years. I have a really nice film about modern day designers trying to build a number of the plans he drew out in his notebooks back in the Renaissance.

My learning aims for today’s and the following lesson are as follows:


  • Discover who exactly Leonardo was and how he was a whole lot more than just the painter we know from the Mona Lisa
  • Observe how a creative mind can tackle diverse problems and design challenges
  • Learn a little about the science and design challenges involved in making a diving helmet, a hang glider and a mechanical version of a human figure

Most of this content will be provided by the film itself, although I’ll undoubtedly be expanding on it during discussions.

Language aims:

  • Accurate listening and understanding of the film
  • Verbal articulation of the key points involved in the film
  • Correct use by the pupils of subject specific vocabulary used in the film

Further aims:

  • Working as a group with fellow pupils
  • Giving pupils the confidence that they can give short presentations on a theme without the use of notes or extensive preparation
  • Verbal use of English in a presentation situation

That sounds like quite a list of targets and quite a complex learning situation but it is actually quite simple, and it is a lesson strategy that will work regardless of whether you are a CLIL teacher or one involved in regular education.

The lesson plan runs as follows:

  • Begin with an introduction to the work of Leonardo, show a few examples of paintings, discuss with the class what they already know about him. Encouraging pupils to share verbally and maybe building a word web on the board.
  • Lead onto the fact that Leonardo was also an inventor and designer.
  • Explain that we are going to watch a film about the inventions and designers trying to remake some of his plans. Draw attention to the fact that after the film they will be doing a short presentation about the film (always good for the concentration on the film!).
  • Watch the film, (occasionally stopping and discussing what we are seeing and explaining any particularly difficult words).

Now the more intense language/CLIL part.

  • Divide the class into groups of four.
  • Give each group for special words that are connected with the film e.g. intelligent, anatomy, imagination, underwater.
  • Explain that overall the presentation should be a verbal summary of the film and that each person should play a roughly equal part in the presentation.
  • Explain that each person should take one of the words and use it in exactly the same form in their part of the presentation.
  • The presentations must be between two and three minutes long, not more and not less.
  • Allow the group fifteen minutes to prepare their presentation and practice it once.
  • Presentations are given to the whole class.
  • Marking criteria, marks are awarded for clear and good use of English, visually engaging the audience in the way you present and explain, correct use of the ‘special’ word. Bonus marks are given for fitting the presentation within the two to three minute margin.

It is a very simply strategy based around a film that I wanted to show the class for its interesting content. By using this approach the pupils have focussed on the content and simultaneously exercised their listening skills, speaking skills, focussed on a little grammar in using the ‘special’ word correctly and worked as a group in planning the presentation.

With a class of 28 pupils I have seven short presentations that take maybe thirty minutes to do and can be graded on the spot. Allowing the preparation and presentations to easily fit into one lesson.

The first time I tried this I was shocked by the excellent quality of the presentation, above all for the ease with which the pupils were able to just talk about their little bit of the theme. It would seem that a lot of the terror that often goes with a presentation had been avoided, they dared to just stand up and talk…..which was of course the point of it all!

For older classes who are more able with their use of language you can give a more challenging ‘special’ word. Choose words that actually have little or nothing to do with the film and ask them to try and conceal the words in their presentation. Not by saying them unclearly, but by trying to hide them in amongst all the points they are trying to make in such a way that the others in the class are unaware of them being used. At the end of the presentation let the audience try and guess the smuggled word.