The immigration issue and the role of education

20110427-immigrationI’ve posted before about a series of lessons I teach to my 15-16 year old pupils on the theme of immigration and how artists have related to, and worked with the subject. When I initially started to put this module together about four years ago my main intention was to try and show my classes how art can be used to engage with real world issues and show that it has a contribution to make in difficult and complex areas.

I have also written before that my immigration theme seems to becoming more and more complex year on year as I teach it each spring time. There seems to be additional dimensions to add and discuss each time round. I am planning to teach it again in late May and my mind is already wandering and pondering how to bring it to my pupils. The module seems to have become so much more than it was when I started. I have gathered so many artistic work forms that have tackled the broad theme of immigration; films, books, visual art and photography.

How exactly the various cultural practitioners have tackled this issue is my first port of call. Most of the work approaches the theme in a fairly non-judgmental way, observations are sensitively presented and more often than not the viewer is asked to come to their own opinions and positions. I would say that this is why it is such good material to be showing to my pupils, it focuses on individuals, real world narratives, storylines that they can relate to. The news and media often seem to have little time to tune into the individual story and perhaps more importantly to ask the question ‘what would you do in such a situation?’ Such an approach doesn’t offer answers of course but it does offer important perspectives that maybe broadens the minds of our young people and enables them to come closer to making their own minds up in a balanced and informed way.

Inevitably it also raises questions of a political nature which I try to answer as best I can. The world seems to be full of dramas on so many different fronts at the moment but the political rhetoric regularly seems to be brutal and sweeping in its nature.

It all begs the question, what should we be offering our pupils in turbulent times?

Immigration isn’t a new issue. There is constant crossing of borders and relocation for so many different reasons. From the Netherlands where I now live, back in the first half of the twentieth century there was significant immigration to the US and Canada, I myself am an immigrant, having made the relatively small trip from the UK over to the Netherlands back in the early 1990s. My own subject of art and culture in a secondary school offers good possibilities to broach this difficult subject sensitively and with integrity. But language lessons could do the same and geography, history and religious studies could all have a part to play in contextualizing the issues that confront the impressionable minds of our teenagers.

Many of us in education are, in various ways, idealists. We’re in there with intentions and dreams for a better world for our young people. These are difficult issues, often way outside of our normal teaching comfort zone, but can we afford to ignore them?

If you are interested in the cultural materials that I draw from, many of them are enlarged on at the link below:



Lost Consonants, sayings and proverbs – Content and language integrated learning (CLIL)

A couple of weeks ago I published a post called One Letter Switch that involved a small switch of one letter in the title of an existing film to produce a new and very different movie name. I mentioned in the post that I would also explain a second variation that in some ways follows similar lines.

I should start by underlining that this idea has its root in the extremely quirky “Lost Consonants” images that artist and writer Graham Rawle published in the Guardian newspaper a number of years ago. Rawle’s work was published in the newspaper for its entertainment value and its humour with both a visual and a text-based edge.

Each image was created in a similar way. He took a sentence, like for example, “Every time the doorbell rang, the dog started barking”. He then altered the sentence by removing one single consonant from somewhere in the sentence. So the sentence could become, “Every time the doorbell rang, the dog started baking”. This new variation of the text would then be placed underneath a collage that Rawle made by cutting up magazine images and illustrating the new, mostly somewhat sillier version of the phrase………..


How exactly to apply the core of this idea to the classroom was the first issue. It occurred to me that potentially any sort of sentence could be used. Because of this it also seemed to offer an excellent opportunity to shine a light on one particularly troublesome area of language acquisition. Sayings, proverbs and other ‘wise’ sayings have their place in all languages. When you stop to consider them carefully it becomes only too clear just how often they are used. They enrich a language, they give it a more playful complexity, they are also quite difficult to learn.  I know this last point from my own experience of learning Dutch. They are some similarities and even some sayings that are essentially the same. There are others that simply have no comparison and if you stop to translate them literally into a second language you often see just how odd they are, a fact that makes you very nervous about daring to use them!

I decided to apply the ‘Lost Consonants’ approach to sayings and proverbs in my lesson. The aim was essentially three-fold:

  1. To get my pupils reading English proverbs and sayings on websites that also provide an explanation of what they mean and how they should be used.
  2. The get the class playing with the language and interpretation possibilities if just one letter was dropped from the proverb. The new version needed to have a linguistic logic, even (and hopefully) if the result was actually a rather crazy literal meaning.
  3. The new version had to work in such a way that it could result in an entertaining and engaging photographic collage put together from diverse sources (it is, after all an art lesson!)

Providing pupils with examples of sayings to look through was easy enough, there are plenty of sites available that offer lists:

Then the word game starts of experimenting with the possibilities. Just one consonant to be removed, no other possibilities allowed. Some of the sayings offer little or no options for adjustment, but there are plenty that do. Having experimented with this assignment with a couple of classes in the last week, I think it is also important to get the pupils sharing not only their new variations with each other but also the original version and explaining the contexts to one another when it might be used.

Most pupils were quite easily able to come up with three or four possibilities.  Often though the final decision of which one to work with was simply down to which one would make the best Graham Rawle-like collage with the most surreal visual qualities. Below are a few examples from my third years (14-15 year olds).


If you would like to see more of Graham Rawle’s work in this area it can be found here:

Language and creativity continued…..more content and language integrated learning (CLIL)

At the start of the year I wrote a post about using elements of existing text in a creative way, both in terms of the meanings of the words themselves, but also ultimately in the way that they appear and are presented on the page. If you didn’t read the post it can be found here:

Language and Creativity

I mentioned the Newspaper Blackout work of Austin Kleon in what I wrote and included a TEDx presentation that he gave.  Since writing the first post I have bought a copy of his Newspaper Blackout ‘poetry’ for myself and have been taking a more focussed look at how he works.

Unlike the work of Tom Phillips (and his work A Humunent: a treated Victorian  Novel) who uses pages from a novel as his basis, Kleon uses pages from a newspaper. In doing this a few new options are opened up if used in a classroom situation:

  • There are greater varieties of theme on a single page
  • There are interesting varieties in letter types and layout arrangement
  • There may even be an occasional image that could be included
  • A degree of current affairs content comes into the classroom, at least at the beginning


As an arts teacher I find the simple blacking out of the unused text too simple for my taste. But to be fair to Austin Kleon, that isn’t the point here, it is about the words and letters on the page and how they are used.  This is where the creativity lies, this is where the language challenge lies and this is also why this work offers such great potential to a language teacher and I think especially the bilingual teacher. An existing page of text imposes limitations, but it also throws down challenges. The limitations, or maybe I should say, the framework in which the creative challenge needs to take place.

I was watching a film recently and the fashion designer John Galliano said ‘when you find yourself in a corner, that’s when you get creative’.  In a sense when you limit your pupils to just the words and text available on a single page you are placing them in such a corner.

On a broader level limitations and frameworks in which to work are maybe more important than we might think in the way we teach.  In the art room I am all for offering choices and variety.  However limitless choices can in the end be an obstacle.  A while back I was working on a photography project with my 15-16 year old pupils.  I wanted them to take a self-portrait photograph.  Having done a similar assignment a year earlier I knew how they had a tendency to all fall into the “selfie” snap shot direction.  So instead I asked them to model their portraits on one of a selection of old master paintings I gave them. My aim was to get them to look a little more carefully at the paintings, but above all to get them to consider what they were doing with the camera and use of light a great deal more.

The results in the end were generally very good, a few of the results can be seen here:

Frames of reference

It’s the clear parameters that seem to be working here.  They maybe even bring a slightly competitive edge to the challenge, maybe that’s where the positive response comes from. I think it is certainly where the strength of the work of Austin Kleon and Ted Phillips comes from when using it in a classroom context.


One letter switch – language and graphic design, a CLIL (content and language) assignment

Studying a little graphic design is part of the broad art and culture course that I teach my classes of fifteen and sixteen year olds. Their world is full of this type of visual material in the form of websites, magazines, posters, packaging and video.  However it never fails to surprise me just how little they have actually stopped to think about it and how good design can influence them.

With this in mind I have constructed a series of lessons that explore various forms of graphic design it features interviews with designers and analysis of their work. I like to support this sort of theoretical work with a practical assignment that encourages the pupils to try and get to grips with design issues themselves. It’s a kind of ‘doing is the best form of learning’ approach, a standpoint I am definitely a supporter of.

The assignment

I wanted to set the pupils the task of designing a movie poster. It’s an area of graphic design that they are all familiar with and one that by and large has a number of design elements that come back again and again, ones that they could also be applied in their design work.

The image part of the poster I decided to turn into a small photographic assignment. All photographic imagery had to be made by the pupils themselves, nothing was to be sourced from the Internet.

The language challenge

However before any photography or design work could be started the language element was going to be crucial in determining the direction that the final design would take. The rule I imposed for the fictitious film that they were to design a poster for was simple; they had to take the title of an existing film and then create a new, and completely different direction for it by switching just one letter in the title for a different letter. No other variations were allowed, it was just one for one.

brotherbearI gave a couple of examples to get the ball rolling a little, Pirates of the Caribbean  could become Pilates of the Caribbean or Saving Private Ryan could become Raving Private Ryan. One letter in each case, resulting in film titles that head off in completely new directions and would produce very different posters.

This sounds too simple to be much of a language challenge, but when I watched the class engage with the challenge it soon became clear that it offered more than I expected. The pupils searched through countless film titles on their phones seeking out word and letter switches that could work. It almost reminded me of a classroom of pupils trying to puzzle out crosswords as they juggled with letter and word combinations.

For most there seemed to be two pressing criteria that developed.  Firstly and perhaps most obviously, that the new title had to produce an idea that could also result in a photographic image that they felt that they could actually make, but also the presence of humour seemed important.

I realize now that in terms of creativity I should have shown them one of my favourite, crazy film related websites, Cardboard Box Office. It doesn’t exactly play along the same language related lines, but it is not far off.  In terms of taking a film related image and theme and twisting it in a wonderfully creative way there are few sites to beat it!  I think it would have almost certainly lead to greater creativity in arranging the photographic material. A note to self……next year make use of the cardboard box office!!

setpostersOn the level of extensive content and language integration (CLIL) this is a fairly modest language assignment. But it was a language element that was certainly enjoyed by the pupils. It engaged them and caused a form of creative play that was a positive diversion from the more standard report writing that they are more often involved with.

I’ll be posting a second assignment that continues, in a slightly more complex way , in this direction in a week or two, follow the blog if you’d like to hear about it.