World CLIL Conference, The Hague

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.

More playing and language integrated learning (PLIL/CLIL)

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.

Fridge poetry tiles

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.

An unfinished CLIL plan, or is it PLIL? With thanks to Bruce Springsteen

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.

Story telling, illustration and digital books, language and creativity in the art room

For several years I have been working on refining an art project that involves a number of distinct phases.

  • Research an artwork from art history
  • Presenting the research about the artwork and artist involved in the form of an infographic
  • Writing a story aimed at primary school aged children where the researched artwork plays a central role
  • Illustrating the story using a variety of drawing and/or painting techniques, traditional or digital
  • Designing the layout of the pages of the book where images and text have to be combined
  • ….and finally, the presenting a completed book

I will write about the use of infographics as an alternative to report writing on another occasion, but here I want to focus most of all on the story telling, the illustration and the designing of an online book.  Due to the uncertainties of the way the school year was going to develop I decided early in this lengthy project that I was going to encourage the pupils to aim for a more digital based working process.  In the end virtually the whole class chose to go virtually completely digital.

The story, once the research was completed, was hammered out on the iPads the pupils work with.  Incidentally, I should mention that we are talking here of pupils aged 14 or 15 mostly, and as part of a bilingual education stream, the pupils are working in English, their second language rather than their native Dutch.

Digital illustrations were produced using a variety of drawing apps, before these were then uploaded into the Canva app (also a pc application) to work on the page layout and overall design.  Even working on the relatively small iPad screen the pupils were able to produce some interesting and varied work. 

When all the pages are complete a .pdf can be exported of the complete book.

The pièce de résistance comes in the form of the Yumpu.com website that allowed the pupils to upload the raw pages to the site to generate an online digital version with three dimensional pages that can be turned. 

Click below to take a look at some of the possibilities the project offers from this year’s results:

Book One

Book Two

Book Three

Once we reach this point it is over to their teacher to grade the work on four criteria:

  1. The interest, complexity, and engagement of their story writing
  2. The use of English and grammar
  3. The quality of the illustrations
  4. The quality of the layout of the book

It is a lengthy project.  But in a world where we are all (and in the art department) are having to lean heavily on digital means, it is a project that offers interesting online possibilities for classes that have a little digital know how.

Art, language and typefaces (a design project with a CLIL extension)

Since the restart of the school year back in August I have been working on a quite extensive art and language project with two of the third year groups (aged 14) that I teach. Essentially it is a design module that focuses on the fonts and typefaces but has involved:

  • A photography assignment
  • A black and white, graphic typeface design assignment
  • A painting assignment exploring more painterly approaches
  • A poetry assignment
  • Digital illustration assignment
  • A page design/layout assignment

Often with such a long drawn out assignment the challenge is to keep the energy going, but in this case, with the diversity of activities, I have never felt that to be a problem.

A brief summary of the art and design activities and a few of the results:

Typeface design made using found objects

Create a coherent font using objects that you find at home. Arrange at least five letters that clearly belong as a set and make use of the same types of objects.  The most significant challenge here is to get the pupils beyond the stage of using five pencils lying on the table to spell out a set of easy to create letters.  There are so many possibilities but it does require a kind of mental leap to bring the pupils to a point where they start to see the design possibilities.

Typeface design using only black ink

This is the most purely design related step and before we get as far as using the ink we go through a series of design steps that first involve sketch designs of three quite different design ideas. One of these is then chosen and a series of design refinements using different types of letter are made. Finally we arrive at the ink work where a series of five or six letters from there font are inked in using brush and pen work.

Painterly letters

After the graphic work of the previous assignment things become considerably looser in this coloured in and painting assignment as the pupils build on and further develop their design work.

Poetry assignment

To include a significant language element into the assignment I ask the pupils to chooses the names on at least two typeface names (and there are so many to choose from!).  These names, be they Broadway, Cairo, Baskerville, Freestyle, etc. are the starting point for the creation for writing a short poem.  The names of the letter types have to actually be a part of the poem’s text, and ultimately when the poem is presented for marking the typefaces referred to must be used.

Art and language project – Merletcollege

Around this time of the year, about a month into the new school year, I visit a neighbouring school for a language and art project day.  I work with a class of 25-30 twelve year olds on a variety of language and art based activities for an intense six hour session, using my abilities as both an art teacher and a native speaker of English to my full advantage.

This year was no different, except for the obvious presence of a number Corona classroom rules and the fact that the normal presentation to parents at the end of the day wasn’t allowed to go ahead. Due to this reason I offered to put together a slightly longer blogpost than I might have done to offer parents a little more insight into the day.

I should perhaps start by mentioning, for those not entirely familiar with the situation, that the class of twelve years involved were Dutch children who have three weeks ago started on a bilingual educational programme that involves most of their regular subjects (including art) being taught in English. It is just the start of language immersion project that they are going to be involved with for the next six years.

But for the group at the project day it is very early days.  The main aims of the workshop is to get them to hear a lot of English, to let them play with the language a little but above all to start chipping away at the nervousness they have about speaking a new language and helping them worry a bit less about the mistakes they make.

The whole day had a bit of a journeys and traveling theme and started with a whole series of questions about trips that the pupils had made in the past, how they got to school and where they hope to go in the future.

We played story making games about imaginary and fantastic journeys. We looked at how artists had painted pictures of faraway places and looked and guessed at where the cities were meant to be.  We played an alphabet game where we tried to think of a different city that started with every letter of the alphabet and the second time through the alphabet thought of descriptive words for each letter that could be matched with a city.

The language games were mixed up with more arts and creative activities. Decorative and descriptive name tags were made for cities on our large shared artwork.  Skyline collages were cut-out and added to the map as a sort of frame and a large scale group drawing of a view of London was made. 

Some more focussed, and written language output, came in the form of Haiku poems about the cities of the world.  Each pupil doing their best to follow the traditional haiku structure of five syllables in the first line, seven in the second and five again in the third.  This asks a particular sort of playing with language and using the vocabulary that you already know as well as you can.  The results, even for such new language learners, are surprisingly good.

All in all it was a very intensive day and a little different from a regular day with its switches from one classroom to another. I arrived home a little worn out by it all, and I expect the same could probably said for the pupils.

A return to the lost consonant

Sayings and proverbs are one of the last areas that you seem to get to when learning a language. My own experience in this area certainly confirms this. I’ve been learning Dutch for over twenty-five years and I still rarely feel confident enough to casually throw a Dutch proverb into things I’m saying. Having a full and complete understanding of both the phrase itself and when it is appropriate to use it isn’t easy.

Some proverbs are sometimes a little familiar when you come from an English background or are relatively simple to work out the meaning of them. Phrases such as “Er schuilt een addertje onder het gras“, translates easily as “there is an adder hiding in the grass”, something that you should obviously watch out for and avoid the danger if you can.   However, others are confusing or just plainly weird! Maybe they do have a logical history somewhere in the past, but for me, they just feel like a language obstacle waiting to trip me up. A couple of examples of this category could be “Zo gek als een deur zijn” (as mad as a door) and “ik schrik me een hoedje” (actually means, it scared the wits out of me, but literally translates as “you scared me a hat”).

I’m certainly no beginner with the Dutch language anymore, but still, this area of language does feel a bit like a communication minefield that I enter at my peril!

With this in mind, and as a sort of language orientated art teacher I have recently reused for the first time in a while a creative project that gets my pupils to think a bit more about the extensive collection of proverbs that there is in the English language. Many of these are every bit as odd as the Dutch examples I’ve mentioned. But to make my creative activity a bit more fun I combine it with an idea based on artist/designer Graham Rawle’s Guardian column from a while back, “The Lost Consonant”. In it Rawle took a sentence and removed a single consonant from one of the words that resulted in the meaning of the sentence being stood on its head and gaining an often ridiculous or plain silly alternative. This new version of the sentence was then accompanied by an equally silly collage that illustrated the new, twisted version.

My assignment, that I use with the (14-15 year old) pupils works in a similar way. Except I ask them to choose an existing proverb or saying from the English language and make use of that as a starting point. We make use of the many websites that there are that list plenty of possibilities together with their meanings.

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Then the challenge is two-fold. Firstly, find one where the removal of a single consonant can stand the meaning on its head. In this way “Barking up the wrong tree” can become “Baking up the wrong tree” or “Caught between two stools” becomes “Caught between two tools”. Whilst doing this it is equally important to keep in mind that an entertaining collage also needs to be made that illustrates the new version. We do this using photo-manipulation software on an iPad, but it could equally be done on a desktop computer or with scissors and glue.

For me the assignment has several interesting elements:

  • Developing familiarity with a difficult area of language acquisition
  • Playing with language and looking for humourous possibilities
  • Creative opportunities for communication through manipulated imagery in the form of collage combined with text

Although I am an art teacher, I certainly don’t see this as an assignment that should be limited to the art room.

For more of Graham Rawle’s work click here.

How did this happen?

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.

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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.

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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.

Cartoons: Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

The otherside of educationland…

Screen Shot 2018-11-05 at 20.38.16It’s not unusual to finish a school day feeling drained of energy.  It is often hard work.  Today was different, and I hope different for all involved.  A workshop day for art teachers involved in bilingual education here in the Netherlands.  I’d done my preparation carefully, I hoped for constructive, positive contributions, and thankfully that is exactly what took we got.

A chance to work with colleagues from other schools for an undisturbed three-hour session is rare, rarer still when they are all from your own subject area.  The time flew by, and I think most of the participants left with the feeling that batteries had been recharged.  Thanks for all those present and the enthusiasm and ideas you brought to the workshop.  As promised the link below will give you a .pdf of the presentation I used to jog the memory on issues of content:

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Don’t forget to mail me a summary of the lesson ideas that we developed together.  I’ll gather these together and circulate them in due course.

So, a good afternoon, but one that always leaves me asking the same question, why in the world of education do we do this so rarely?

An educational luxury…..a little extra time

Twice in two weeks I’ve had the chance to work with groups in a workshop situation. There’s nothing so unusual about that, but in both cases the workshops have been for unusually long sessions.  Last week I worked with a group of twenty 12 year olds for a seven hour long art, language and creativity workshop (yes, with a couple of breaks!). Today I have had four hours with colleagues to try and use an afternoon to create new lesson material that combines lesson content and language learning challenges in imaginative ways.

The length of both workshop sessions are relatively unusual in educational contexts,  where so much is cut up into small pieces to fit a timetable or simply to make sure all subjects get their allotted amount of time.  Both children and staff are constantly switching, readjusting and having to start again. It is a system that generates a lot of wasted time and a great deal of disruption.  Breaks are of course important to refresh and clear the mind a little, but the normal school day (or the average conference day for that matter) it does at times feel like overkill. These are the reasons why these more extended workshop sessions feel so different and offer other possibilities.

For the children last week we were able to extensively play a series of language games, combine them with practical art activities and written assignments. The pupils got completely involved and spent the day consistently speaking English (their second language) after only having had a couple of weeks of bilingual education. The workshop had something of a pressure cooker effect, intensive input, active involvement and language rich output. Yes, we were all exhausted at the end of the day, but there is nothing wrong with that once in a while!

Today’s workshop with colleagues was rather different. Four hours together essentially with the aim of producing teaching material that can be put into use in the forthcoming weeks and months. This too, like last week, required energy and focus. But the unusual difference today is that we have been able to have time to work together. The more usual format being a workshop that presents a collection of ideas, the workshop ends, everyone goes home and you may (or may not) get a chance to return to workshop content a few weeks later when you get a moment, and that moment is very unlikely to be with your colleagues. Again, as so often in education the the breaks and disruption get in the way and potentially constructive work is lost as a result.

school-bellInterestingly, the school where I teach, are currently looking at the merits of personalized learning. It is a bit too early to say whether this will ultimately help in this area.  But it certainly will be interesting to see if it might be possible, in a readjusted school day, to see a timetable that might help in this area.  Could it result in more scope for pupils to work on particular subjects in more extended ways when it is possible to do so and perhaps be a little the slaves to the school bell?