The contemporary world in the art lesson – a content and language integrated lesson idea (CLIL)

I’ve written before on this blog about how I have worked contemporary issues around the theme of immigration into my art and culture lessons. Immigration as a social theme is one that has always been with us. But I hadn’t anticipated when I first started putting lesson material together just how big an issue it was about to become and how it was going to touch European social and political structures in so many ways.

arrivalI am fortunate to teach a broad artistic and cultural education subject here in the Netherlands that allows me the space to show my pupils how various creative people and groups have tackled the contemporary immigration subject using visual art, photography and film. Some documentary of this previous work can be found using the links below:

Illegal Immigration and Art

Struggling to extend the teenage world view

Immigartion – Pupil work and feedback

Apart from exposing the pupils to areas of new experience in the art and cultural world part of my teaching task is also to strengthen their grasp of English. I teach in English, the pupils’ second language, and deliver my content in a dual learning approach known as CLIL (content and language integrated learning). I am constantly looking for new ways to bind the arts material of the lesson to language learning opportunities without compromising the content.

With this background in mind I will this year I’ll be adding a new element in the immigration module that offers some new language possibilities that I haven’t explored before. I should first though say thank you to Kathrine over in Kansas for pointing me in the right direction for this new source of material. It concerns a book called The Arrival by the Australian artist, writer and filmmaker Shaun Tan. The Arrival is a graphic novel, it follows the story of a man who flees his homeland, leaves his family behind and arrives in a new and unfamiliar place. What makes Tan’s novel rather different is that the whole story is told without the use of text. We are not told specifically what he is running from, clever visual devices are used to clue us in to the fact that he is trying to escape something that hangs like a specter over society there. Each page on the A4 format book is made up of multiple drawings (often twelve or more on a page) each sensitively and realistically drawn.

arrivalconfusedmanThe book (like other graphic novels) could open the door to practical assignments linked to depicting stories using multiple images, but what of the language driven opportunities? The fact that each page carries so much information and communicates so much content is where the CLIL learning opportunity lies. Tan’s approach tells a story that on many pages that can be laid down next to the current events that we are seeing across Europe, we bring our own baggage and opinions and add them to the story being played out in The Arrival. I find myself thinking of several possibilities here, not necessarily working with the whole book, loose pages may well be enough.

The strength of Tan’s work is that it challenges us to think and interpret, he doesn’t feel the need to resort to speech bubbles or extra direction. We are asked to form our own narrative, to fill in the gaps and the pages would challenge our pupils to do the same. Pupils could be asked to:

  • Write their own narrative text to accompany each image
  • Write a narrative based on what the man himself is thinking and reflecting on the world around him
  • Write a short poem that documents a fragment of storyline
  • Write a newspaper article that reports the man’s plight
  • Write the questions that they would use if they had a chance to interview the man – a second pupil could then try and answer the questions

These are obviously all language driven assignments, useful in challenging pupils articulation of complex themes. But for me as an art teacher interested in showing the importance of the arts in engaging in contemporary and relevant issues the chance of encouraging to place themselves in the position of the main protagonist in the book and in doing so maybe gain a little more understanding of the refugee situation confronting Europe is where the real gain lies.

Munch and Van Gogh in the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam

Starry Night by Munch and Starry Night over the Rhone by Van Gogh
The Wheatfield with Reaper by Van Gogh and The haymaker by Munch
An avenue of trees by one and An avenue of trees by the other
A couple kissing in the park and A couple kissing in the park
Van Gogh’s room with bed and Munch’s room with bed

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Walking round the Van Gogh and Munch exhibition in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam you would be forgiven for thinking that the two artists were following each other around. But for two artists who shared a strong interest in the everyday people and places in the world around them, were both quite prolific and lived similar times and even places, it is overall not that surprising that you gain a feeling of kindred spirits from the show. The curators of the exhibition have been able to draw together a number of eye catching couplets ranging from self portraits to landscapes and interiors to social activities.

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Such pairing up opens a way into the less familiar work and refreshes your view of the more familiar, other works by Manet, Pissaro and Lautrec only enrich this experience further.
Living as I do in the Netherlands I am a relatively regular visitor to the two main collections of the Dutch artist’s work in the Van Gogh Museum and the Kroller Muller Museum. I’m familiar with the artist’s vibrant work and his tormented life story. It’s a life story that is there to be found in his work on occasions, but largely it’s the colour and virtuosity of his brush work that hit you most.
By contrast though, and the further you go through the Amsterdam exhibition the stronger it gets, the fear and melancholy in Munch’s work weighs heavier and heavier. Tortured faces stare out at you. The final room contains five framed prints by the Norwegian, Evening Melancholy, Death in the Sickroom, Angst, Vampire II and a version of the well known Madonna painting. A moody but powerful end to the collection that has travelled from Scandinavia.
With my art teacher’s hat on I would like my pupils to see this collection of paintings a lot. It’s all quite accessible stuff, it might help them see the perhaps slightly over familiar Van Gogh work in a slightly new light, but above all I think that maybe the older teenagers would enjoy and appreciate the moody menace in much of Munch’s work.

With the classroom door closed…

classroomdoorA couple of weeks ago something unusual happened. I had visitors in one of my classes. Obviously the pupils were there, they always are, but sitting at the back I had my bilingual department head, an educator from New Zealand and two teacher trainers from Leiden University complete with video camera. I knew they were coming, all of us except for the guest from New Zealand are part of a professional development study group in the area of bilingual education. With this as background it really didn’t feel like a big deal, except it did feel, like I said at the start, rather unusual.

The reason it felt this way is that in teaching, certainly once you get beyond your first year or two in the job, you are largely left alone. The bell goes, the class comes in, the classroom door is closed and you get on with it. As long as no complaints come in from pupils or parents this is generally the way things stay. With this as background it is no wonder that when visitors do come to the classroom it feels at best unusual and at worst threatening.

It is an irritating fact that part of my job is a couple of times a year to spend the best part of a week sitting watching a classroom full of pupils complete tests and exams, checking nobody cheats, but otherwise doing nothing. At the same time there is virtually no time or opportunity to sit and watch a colleague teach, to learn from them or to offer them feedback. Occasionally attempts are made to try and facilitate this sort of visit, but the reality is that it is incredibly difficult to find the space for it in an otherwise packed timetable. Classroom visits to colleagues’ lessons are very definitely not the norm in education. As a result of this it does feel slightly strange to walk into another teacher’s classroom, if only just for a moment. You feel as if you are stepping into someone else’s territory, crossing a line!

It is slightly bizarre that we try to educate our pupils in the importance of working in groups, stressing the benefits that it can bring, learning from the strengths of others and helping them with things that they find more challenging. Yet when it comes to our key activity of being in a classroom with up to thirty children, coping with issues of content delivery, communication, classroom management, use of IT, differentiation and so on, the benefits of working with and learning from others is extremely underplayed.

I feel fortunate that I work at probably a quite open and social school, staff room discussions in the breaks are normally open and frank. Yet I still can’t help feeling that so much could be gained if there was the chance for more observation of other peoples’ teaching styles. But that would seem to require something of a shift in both classroom and school culture, an opening of the doors, doors that like the fire doors in the corridor, tend to swing shut when the last pupil has come in. Are we not missing a chance for better education when a teacher with fifteen years of classroom experience can say that it feels slightly strange to have someone sitting at the back of his classroom?

Finding that right movie

Around this time of the year, every year I am faced with the same challenge; trying to find the right feature film to show to the fifteen and sixteen year olds who I teach a broad cultural education program to.

Although the course as a whole covers all sorts of artistic disciplines I like to start the year if possible with a movie, for the pupils its familiar territory and compared to some areas of art and culture film is generally quite accessible to them. The idea is to watch a feature film together and then become engaged with a little film analysis to give them some insight and appreciation of the craft and practices of film making.

babadookI said at the beginning that I try to find a suitable film, well actually I try to find several. I teach three parallel classes of twenty five to thirty pupils, so this year a total of eighty two pupils, and importantly for me that means eighty two reflective essays at the end, each of around one thousand words. I don’t Think that I have to enlarge on what eighty two films about the same film does to your head when you’re marking them!

So with this in mind I often return to films that have proved popular  and effective in the past, but also try to add at least one new one each year. Last year I wrote here at some length about the response on my class to Asif Kapadia’s excellent documentary entitled Senna about the formula one racing driver Ayrton Senna. So struck was I by the class’ response to the film last time that I had no hesitation in showing it again this year to one off my three classes. Once again the atmosphere in the classroom at the end of the movie was amazing, a hushed stillness as the pupils took in and tried to order and evaluate the captivating climax of the film. So much of the average teenager’s entertainment world is often trivial, violent or superficial it is truly fantastic to show them something that has been constructed with such skill that the narrative that all the film fragments carry take us right to the heart of a high profile sportsman’s world, it’s pressures, it’s challenges and ultimately it’s horrendous risks. For many it was wide open eyes and hands on mouths at the end!

You can find further reflections on Senna by clicking here and here for posts from last year.

A second film I chose to use this year was Australian director Jennifer Kent’s excellent The Babadook.  For several years I have wanted to take a look at a horror film with my fourth year groups. But trying to find an appropriate movie has been so difficult. Many teenagers in the fifteen to sixteen age bracket love horror films and have seen many. Others in the class though have seen virtually none or doubt whether they want to see one. Some pupils seem largely insensitive to the tensions of a horror movie whilst others struggle to cope. Add to this a personal requirement to only use a film that I feel comfortable myself showing, also  keeping in mind that I too am a father of a fifteen year daughter. What wouldn’t I mind her seeing at a school screening? With all these points to consider it has been difficult, I’m not happy to show excessive violence, blood or gore, I am also cautious of using a film with a huge number of ‘shock’ moments. Finally though, The Babadook has come along and after watching for myself I felt relatively sure that this could be the one. It has more of a creeping tension, as with many of the best horror movies, the fear is more in what you imagine rather than what you actually see. It also makes use of a good number of ‘classic’ horror film elements, a scary domestic context, relatively innocent key characters, sound effects and ultimately a monster. All good stuff when it comes to critically trying to unpack the movie with the pupils afterwards.

Below is a review of the film by Mark Kermode on BBC radio.

As I write this I am half way through the class with class V4D. I offered an alternative film to anyone who really didn’t fancy a horror film. Three chose that option, which was fine, and a fact that went uncommented on by the rest of the class. I watched the first fifty minutes together with the class this week. I’ve already of course watched the film several times and so regularly found myself watching the pupils watching the film rather than focusing on the film myself!

Reading the reports at the end will be the ultimate test of the enjoyment. But as far as I could see there seemed to be three categories of viewers:

  1. Viewers (most often, although not exclusively boys) who were just lapping it all up, completely enjoying themselves
  2. Viewers who whilst regularly seeming to be frightened by occurrences or frightened in the anticipation of what was going to occur, but who nonetheless were still enjoying the experience
  3. Viewers who when you looked at their faces were either transfixed by the action or turning continuously away.  Were these pupils actually enjoying the experience? Or was it more a question of endurance?

I worry a little about the third category, have they felt pressured to stay and watch? Are they wishing that they had chosen the alternative. I offered the choice again, nobody wanted to leave.

When it comes to writing about their cultural experiences and their opinions pupils are in my experience extremely open and honest, so I expect I’ll get a clearer picture in the end, but for now it’s another forty five minutes of pupil watching as the climax of the movie comes closer and I look forward to the discussions afterwards!