Conferences are back on the agenda, and I am ending the school year in The Hague for two days to attend one that has been in the pipeline for more than two years, the World CLIL Conference. CLIL, content and language integrated learning has been the main stay of my type of educational practice for the last twenty plus years. Yes, I’m an art teacher, but in the bilingual educational context that I work in, CLIL is my methodology, combining the teaching of art with the intensive and immersive use of a second language teaching (the use of English when teaching Dutch children art in my case).
That sounds quite simple, a different language of instruction during the lessons. It is of course that, I speak only English with the Dutch children I teach, and the language of the classroom is English. But good and slightly more complex CLIL teaching goes several steps further, and it is this that the conference this week is about, and what the consequences are of this approach.
I gave a workshop as part of the conference but have also dosed up on CLIL input that hopefully should give me ideas and angles to explore in my teaching next school year.
I don’t attend a great many conferences, certainly not in the last couple of years, but it is so good to escape the humdrum classroom life. These are the battery recharge moments that I’ve missed immensely. The chance to listen, hear new and different perspectives and simply just to reflect a bit on what we do and perhaps what we could be doing is something we don’t get the opportunity to do enough in educationland.
Particularly for those who attended my workshop during the conference, below there is a link to the PowerPoint that I made use of. It is not completely ready-made lesson material, but it is certainly enough of a reminder of the content we covered and offers the necessary basis material that may be of use to you.
A couple of blog posts ago I coined the acronym PLIL, a variation on CLIL. I make use of CLIL (content and language integrated learning) in much of my teaching, where I lead my art lessons with classes of Dutch children in English. They receive the art and the second language content simultaneously and in doing so pick up the language acquisition at a hugely increased pace.
PLIL is similar, but the content is simply replaced by play. There are plenty of situations in education where you are not directly involved in content from one of the subjects that you may be teaching in a school context. Play, and simply messing about with the children can equally be twisted and turned to increase the language learning opportunities.
Simple word games that I dip into at the end of a lesson fit into this area. For example, you pick a theme, ‘animals’ for example. The first child says the name of an animal, ‘tiger’ for instance. The second child has to pick another animal that begins with the last letter of the previous animal, so maybe ‘rhinoceros’. Then we get ‘snake’, ‘elephant’ and ‘tarantula’. You’re not allowed to repeat an animal, and you are not allowed to hesitate/think for more than a few seconds otherwise you are forced out of the game. It’s play, fun and laughter in the last few minutes of the lesson.
I have more of these sorts of activities that I draw on from time to time. Sometimes though, unusual situations throw up new possibilities. A case that illustrates this was a couple of months ago when five colleagues and I took ninety twelve-year-olds on a four day excursion to the coast.
The days were filled with all sorts of activities. Games, walks, playing on the beach, eating together, sports and so on. I’ve been on such trips often enough and know that on occasions you want to offer small rewards for winning, participating well, being especially helpful, maintaining a tidy room or even complimenting a teacher on how young they look! (That last one didn’t ever happen until we started playing this game!).
The idea grew out of the fridge poetry sets that you can buy, where you have an assortment of words stuck on your refrigerator door that you can rearrange from time to time to create poems. I wondered if we, as teachers, could have a pile of printed out words in our pockets and bags that we could hand out when a reward was needed? Would the pupils want to collect them to be able to play the word game that we would announce at the end of the week? It was an experiment, but it worked exactly as we hoped. These random words on little pieces of blue paper became ‘collectors’ items’ and were rapidly hidden away when handed out.
The pupils were sleeping in rooms of four or six generally and we instructed them to pool their words and together to puzzle out the most imaginative, poetic, surreal or simply strange sentence or sentences that they could form from their words. And surreal they were, as they stretched sentence constructions and grammatical knowledge to squeeze out the best possibilities.
Below are a couple of the ones we liked the most (Maasland, is the name of our school!)
The idea was simple. It served several purposes, but most of all, it offered the chance to have fun and be creative with language. We’ll be repeating the idea. Maybe our basic collection of words needs to be fined tuned a little here and there. The little linking words, the likes of or, and, then and is are perhaps less fun to ‘win’ than a fought or swallowed, but in the end every bit as important for making a sentence that hangs together well.
I call it PLIL, because this is more like playing and language combined, rather than pure content as we are more familiar with from CLIL (Content and language integrated learning).
I’m always interested in finding new ways to combine a little extra culture and language into my lessons. This is an idea that arose kind of by accident in an online exchange of messages a few weeks ago with a couple of friends. The messages ranged through various themes, but as I remember it, Bruce Springsteen was mentioned, Cathy, one of those involved in the discussion is a big fan. Also, rather randomly, a woman riding a horse was also mentioned……and that was, as it turned out, not an unimportant point.
To amuse myself and, I hoped, the others in the discussion, I decided to write a short fictious exchange between me and an imaginary stranger (the woman on the horse!). The challenge I set myself was to try and squeeze in as many Bruce Springsteen song titles as possible into my short text. I am reasonably familiar with Springsteen’s body of work, but after Googling his musical biography I was surprised by the sheer amount, but also the number that were going to be useful for this challenge.
The titles available dictated to a large degree where the narrative headed, but in a way that was the fun of this word puzzle. It is all about playing with language and in my art and culture CLIL classroom that is very much the sort of area that I like to search out and make use of. In this case selecting out the words and phrases that are loaded with possibility and then working out ways to link and connect them without altering any grammar or phrasing in the existing titles.
The result of my own puzzling went as follows:
I saw a woman on a horse yesterday,
I asked were you ‘Born in the USA’?
Yes, she said, in the ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’
And ‘Growin Up’ I asked
Mostly near ‘Harry’s Place’ she replied
So this isn’t exactly your’s or my ‘Home Town’ I remarked
No, not ‘This Hard Land’ she said, ‘I’m working on a Dream’
You ‘Walk like a man’ she went on,
I’m ‘Outlaw Pete’ I said as threateningly as I could
Am I being ‘Held up without a gun’?
I was hoping for some ‘Easy money’ I said
Go and jump in ‘The River’ she replied……and rode off.
I haven’t actually tried this activity in class yet, but I plan to soon. I’m not a music teacher, but within my broader culture lessons this can certainly find a place. I think my third years (aged 15) could have a pretty good go at this. We will doubtless end up in discussions about which artists and musicians are the best to use. They’ll have their own favourites. But it will be interesting to see if they offer such content and grammatically rich pickings.
In my work as an artist, I spend a lot of time playing with images and forms, working out ways to combine and connect them. It is an approach I love to make use of in the classroom too. It maybe with paint, collage or other materials, but I really don’t see this form of play with words as being so very different to that.
Combing content and language in the learning process
For a while now monsters of one kind or another have been a feature of the lessons that I give to my groups of twelve-year-old pupils. We’ve done various drawing assignments, made clay gargoyles, and dipped into art history by looking at the work of the likes of Hieronymus Bosch.
With these classes, being bilingual learners (Dutch children, being taught across their timetable in English in order to super-charge their acquisition of the English language), I am always looking for ways of enriching the practical lessons with elements of language beyond simply using it for instruction. For example, recently I have had the class writing haikus that were inspired by the clay heads that we made together.
This year though I decided to branch out in a slightly different direction and make use of Lewis Carroll’s poem The Jabberwocky. The monsters connection was obvious, but how to work with it with these children who are only eight months into their experience of bilingual education was the question. Would they be ready to deal with this curious piece of literature?
I needn’t have worried; they were up to it. When I asked them to read the poem for themselves and underline all the nonsense words, they were able to complete this first challenge without any problem at all, their vocabulary being sufficiently developed to spot the words in amongst the text.
Next, we spent time thinking of alternative words that could be used to replace the nonsense in the middle section of the poem. Again, no real problem. An occasional grammatical error or slip in the spelling perhaps, but they were definitely onto it, and understanding the intention completely.
The fun and laughter really started when I asked them to come up with their own nonsense words for the first and last verse. At this point I wondered if the imaginary words they created might end up having an English or a Dutch feel to them. It was of course all nonsense……but to me, the words that they were coming up with did have a distinctly English twang to it and they generally nestled perfectly well into the context of Carroll’s poem.
The link below allows you to download a step by step guide to the language part of the lesson.
With this language component of the lesson series complete, we moved on with enthusiasm to work on a more than five-meter-long group drawing of our own Jabberwocky. The result of the drawing project can be seen here, but how exactly we arrived at the composition and in what order we did things, are details I’ll save for another post.
Arguing, discussing, instructing, squabbling…..call it what you will, it is all communication. And communication is a crucial and live part of any classroom and in particular the bilingual classroom. Here we are encouraging the pupils to practice and use the second language (English in my case) as they participate in my art lessons.
A well-constructed group/collaborative project forces communication, discussion, and consideration with others. I often find myself saying to the Dutch teenagers I teach how much I love when I hear them arguing in English, it underlines how far that they have come in their mastery of a new language.
A well-constructed collaborative project may have relatively modest artistic aims but could have a very significant goal in the use of clear and concise communication within the group.
Such projects are a work-form that I have made a lot of use of over the years, I found myself hanging one up on the walls in school only last week. But beyond the communication issue there are several other educationally sound reasons to be making use of such projects.
The result is ‘greater than the sum of the parts’ argument and a chance to produce something big with a wow effect!
There are many reasons why in art lessons we often find ourselves working on a relatively small scale. Storage limitations, costs of materials, time pressures, large classes, the necessity for pupils being able to take work home with them, they all play a part. A group project allows the pupils to see something different. A large-scale project spreads across the classroom floor at the end of each lesson, slowly taking form and seeing how their own section of it contributes to the big visual statement that is developing.
It seems to force the underperformed in the group to up their game
Every class has them, the pupils who are content to do just enough in their work to gain a (just) sufficient grade. It continues to surprise me how working within a group project, where their contribution is visually so obvious, the result is often that these very pupils feel the pressure to up their game. There is, it seems, nowhere to hide, rather different perhaps than with a written group project.
It shows pupils that often very complex and ambitious work is possible if it is broken down into smaller parts…..rather than feeling overwhelmed by the challenges ahead
This is perhaps most a benefit to those who are the more interested in art and want to produce the best possible results in their own visual work. They suddenly realize that given time, and perhaps a slightly more systemic approach than they might usually use, could lead them too towards making more impressive and resolved individual work.
Tim Rollins and KOS
And on a personal note, it allows me to borrow from an important art educational influence, one who is responsible in part for me making the step into working with young people, Tim Rollins and KOS.
While I was still studying for my fine art degree, I watched a documentary about Tim Rollins and the Kids of Survival. At the time I didn’t really have any plans to enter education, but the film gave me a glance into what might be possible. I found it fascinating and inspiring.
About a decade later I was lucky enough, while doing my teacher training course in Utrecht, to observe a guest workshop given by Rollins to other students. If there was ever anyone able to demonstrate the power of the group project it is Rollins, and a fantastic example of the “result is greater than the sum of the parts” argument I mentioned earlier. Fantastic to see, and for a teacher in bilingual education, all the more inspiring for the way in which language, text and literature found its way into the work.
It has become a regular day out in September for me. A trip to the Merlettcollege in Cuijk to spend a day with the new bilingual class giving them the full on immersion experience of a solid day of intensive English language use and practical activities. It is a day that makes use of a whole variety of approaches designed to unlock the pupils prior knowledge in the areas of language and art and to stretch them into new areas. My own use of English, and only English, is chosen to try and prevent the pupils slipping back into Dutch and by only slightly modifying my own use of vocabulary I hope to stretch the class into new areas that are perhaps just a small step beyond their current level. This does mean that perhaps the pupils occasionally miss a small part of the instruction. But then, we all miss pieces of instruction from time to time even when we fully understand the language used. But it is in this way, where we struggle to make the very best use off our current knowledge, that the learning process is often at its most effective. This sort of ‘in at the deep end’ is at the basis of the bilingual classroom and where it really comes into its own.
This year’s group in Cuijk was been a good one. A class of 30 twelve year olds who are just two weeks into their bilingual journey and receiving the main part of all their subjects at school in English for the first time.
It was rapidly clear from initial reactions from the class that it was a day where I would be able to work at a considerable pace. I was making few extra adjustments in my teaching. Many of the day’s activities had a game-like quality and the pupils were only too pleased to play along and show off their knowledge and ability in English. We talked about art, we wrote poetry, we discussed journeys and travelling and we drew pictures, bouncing freely from one activity to the other. The day seemed to fly past.
I have two personal favourite activities from those I used. Firstly, there is the Haiku poetry writing where I can stand back and watch the children searching through their own English vocabulary, whispering words to themselves and counting the syllables of each possible word on their fingers, looking for the perfect fit for their poem. Then there is the picture drawing activity when someone else is describing what you have to draw. This second activity always brings a lot of laughter with it, whether it is me describing and the children drawing or the other way round. Both variants involve pushing the language abilities into new more precise and descriptive areas and connect this with picture making….the ideal combination for the bilingual art teacher!
During a slightly quiet moment at a conference in Brussels about a year ago, a colleague and I were reflecting on our working lives in education, and in particular on where we currently teach. I say currently teach, but that makes it sounds like we are always switching from one school to another. But that for us is definitely not the case. As it has turned out we have been in for the long haul.
Cathy Silk and I started work at the Maaslandcollege in Oss on the same day back in 2001 and have continued our parallel educational routes ever since, Cathy in the English department of our bilingual stream and me in the art department.
During our reflections last year we found ourselves recalling pupils that had passed through our classrooms, colleagues who have come and gone, and just how many lessons we must have taught. We also made the calculation of how many weeks of teaching we had given to our school. As it turned out, back then it was around 950 each. Yes, we were each nearing 1000 weeks of teaching in Oss. Further calculations and we knew that the milestone of 1000 weeks would occur in mid-November 2020. We could have a small party we thought, maybe a sort of reunion with some colleagues, ex-colleagues and pupils, nothing too official, just an occasion to mark a point in a journey that continues and to involve some people who have shared it with us.
So here we are in November 2020, 1000 weeks of teaching later, but no party. Like so many festive moments, plans have been disrupted. That is of course no big deal, there are more important things in play at the moment, and such an anniversary is just a moment in time. But it is worth reflecting on what has caused Cathy and I to have stuck around in the same school for so long. I think I can probably write for the both of us in saying that quite a few things play a part.
Firstly, being part of the bilingual educational project in the Netherlands and, at the Maaslandcollege in particular, has been both fascinating and rewarding. Our school was one of the first to begin this form of education back in the mid 1990s. A form that sees Dutch children taught in English in order to fast track their language learning abilities and ultimately brings them to levels that surprise me every year.
Our colleagues, both present and past have also been a reason to stay. An enthusiastic, social and knowledgeable group. In the occasional dip moments there have always been people around to remind you that it is a school that makes you want to be part of the team. One colleague, Lobke, should get a special mention, she was a twelve old pupil at the school, starting the very same week as we did. She is now an established member of our bilingual team as a biology teacher, a reminder for us both in the staffroom of the values of the bilingual program.
Educationally, both Cathy and I, have always been given considerable freedom to form and shape our own teaching programs. This is without a doubt one of the main reasons we have remained so steadfastly committed to our Maaslandcollege. By giving teachers space to explore and experiment in their work you keep them interested, enthusiastic and awake to new possibilities.
But then there is the school itself. On paper it is a fairly standard looking sort of school, 1500 or so pupils, quite comprehensive in terms of the educational streams that it offers. But apart from the staff, it is of course the pupils who make a school. It is difficult to calculate just how many Cathy and I must have taught over the years, other than to say that it is plenty! They arrive as, maybe rather uncertain of the themselves 12 year olds, you fight and joke with them through the middle years of their secondary schooling and finally they depart with their diploma and a sort of mutual respect as arrived in the relationship.
It’s nice to be able to follow many of my ex-pupils through Linked-in. The contact is low-key, but does let me see what some of them have moved onto do. I think also gives the pupils themselves a sort of contact route with something of their own formative teenage educational years. It’s a line of contact that is very definitely open (as far as I am concerned) to go further if the need presents itself. Before the summer I was able to help an ex-pupil with the development of a museum educational program she was working on, and next week I will be doing something similar with another who I last taught, I think, about six years ago. As a teacher, such moments are really greatly valued educational extras.
It is always nice to run into ex-pupils, on the train, at the station, in the supermarket. It reminds you just why you are in education. For both Cathy and me it is especially rewarding when these chance encounters involve a young (Dutch) adult launching into an enthusiastic conversation with us in English, fluent and without hesitation, reason enough to have stayed around to reach that 1000 weeks mark!
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a slightly tongue in cheek post that mentioned my third year class H3P (mostly 14 year olds). The post referred to how they sit down the back of the classroom, seemingly trying to get as far away as possible from me, which in the Covid classroom is, in some ways, quite welcome.
But H3P deserve a mention today for a completely different reason. They are just over two years into their bilingual education. About 70% of all their timetabled lessons are taught not in their native Dutch, but in English. We work hard at school with our classes to break through the tendency pupils have to slip out of English and back into Dutch. Being a native speaker of English my own use of English is 100%, but even with that sort of input, some classes have to be pushed, cajoled and bullied into full participation.
Today during my lesson with H3P at the end of the afternoon I had to pop out of the room to go to the copy machine. On returning to the art department I entered the corridor, the door was open and from the far end of the corridor I could already hear the class. They can be a rowdy and chaotic bunch, especially when they think that I am not looking! I crept up to the doorway to have a listen to hear what all the noise was about before entering the room.
The class seemed to be shouting and arguing with each other. Nothing too heavy, it was all good humoured. I listened on. It was fascinating to hear my group of fourteen year old Dutch children arguing with each other in English, shouting to each other in English, joking in English.
Two years ago I traveled to England with the very same children. A trip that we use to try and help the children over the psychological barrier of daring to speak their first English words and broken sentences. And now, two years on, the same group is arguing amongst themselves in English. I stood outside for a while, it was fantastic to hear!
Yesterday I boarded the train with a colleague. Face masks on, making the short trip down the line, fifteen minutes or so. Our conversation was almost immediately interrupted by a cheery “hey, Peter”. I looked across the carriage to see a tall, lanky, bearded face, peering out from behind a generous mask. He had obviously recognized me, despite my face mask. Could I return the favour? It’s not always easy, but on this occasion I could, it was Niek, a now young man, who I had last taught eight years ago.
Niek immediately launched into the conversation wanting to know how it was at school and how we were coping with the Corona situation. He enthusiastically explained what he was up to, nearing the end of his Masters degree. It was a open and relaxed conversation, if only a relatively short one. I could still very much recognize something of the first year boy who had been part of an unusual class of 23 children back in 2007 or 2008 perhaps. It was unusual in the sense of being a class of 18 boys and just 5 girls. Sometimes odd details just stick in your head.
It was nice to see Niek again and hear that all was going well for him. But the nicest thing was this……
Although I am an art teacher, I am also a teacher in a bilingual stream, giving my art lessons in English to Dutch children. I am part of the bilingual program where language learning is combined with teaching other subject areas. When Niek boarded the train yesterday and recognized me, he just launched into our conversation in English, despite the context of being in a Dutch train and the conversations around us also being conducted in Dutch. His English was fluent, clear and spoken without hesitation or grammatical faults.
When my colleague and I left the train fifteen minutes later I could turn and say with all honesty, that is why we are involved in bilingual education. It is an unusual hybrid in the educational world. It requires the teachers and pupils involved to participate in a language ‘game’ that asks everyone to conduct themselves in a second language, when using the first language would simply be easier. But here was an encounter that underlines the strengths of this approach and why it is so worth teaching in this way.
So thanks Niek, for this educational present to one of your old teachers. In the last week of this most different of educational years it does give a good feeling.
I rounded off my attempt at language learning at school with an O level English (GCSE) grade C. I always enjoyed my English lessons, it’s just that I never felt very good at them. I was a slow learner, didn’t read a novel until I was nineteen and often muddled up words. With that in mind, that grade C perhaps wasn’t too bad.
Yet, through the course of the years I have ended up becoming a language teacher through the back door as it were. First and foremost, I consider myself an artist and art teacher, but increasingly I realize that my engagement through language, via the artistic route in a playful and creative way has rather become my thing. Could it be that my earlier struggles with English at school, followed by my struggles to learn Dutch when I moved to the Netherlands has actually made me a better language instructor? Maybe, it certainly gives me an empathy and understanding of how my pupils must, at times, feel.
But perhaps more significant is the robustness and self-belief that it has built…..a kind of ‘the things that don’t kill you make you stronger’ philosophy. I notice it in my pupils. Teaching them through immersion in the target language, especially at the phase when they are struggling to keep up with the language being used, isn’t a comfortable feeling. At times it is well outside of the comfort zone. But it is getting past this and the feeling of achievement that accompanies it that is, the not insignificant by-product of learning language through immersion. With it comes a new found confidence and belief.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I presented a workshop about innovative approaches in content and language integrated learning (CLIL) situations. Much is said in education about the search for teaching methods and practices that challenge our pupils. The argument being that challenge the pupils and they will respond with an increased motivation to learn. It is a compelling argument, especially when you see just how much of a language a 12 year can master in the course of a year of bilingual education.
Maybe, just maybe, if I had had the luxury of a bilingual education in my teenage years, I might be a little less surprised about having become, rather accidentally, a language teacher of sorts myself.