A bilingual start to the year – art and language workshop

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!

In at the deep end…

Today is my first day back at school after the summer break and I’m closer than ever before to simply starting with my new bilingual first year classes in English, with none of the pupils’ native Dutch thrown in to make it easier for them. I describe them as a ‘bilingual classes’ but they aren’t really, or at least not yet. They are just starting down the language learning road. Virtually all have a smattering of English already, picked up from tv, films, music and the Internet. Normally the first weeks of the school year are for me and my first year pupils, sessions of constant switching between English and Dutch. So what has brought me to this point where I think I should just start in English and not offer a Dutch language back-up or safety net?

For the last three years I’ve been doing a workshop at a nearby school (where I don’t normally teach) that also has a bilingual stream. I am hired in for an intensive day of language and art activities that results in a presentation for parents.

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This workshop is also done with first year pupils (aged 12), just beginning their bilingual education. They are actually beginning with a lot of new things at once, it’s a big week. A new school, many new friends, new teachers, a new experience of subjects being taught as separate hours in a timetable and…….a new language of instruction. Could we make it a more intimidating and difficult step for a twelve year old I sometimes wonder.

For the pupils I worked with earlier in the week it was the start of just the second week at their new school, and the second week of wrestling with their new language of communication. It’s also been a week and one day of a huge number of new impressions and challenges for them.

Today was just such an example, verbal word games, poetry, describing activities, group communication games, drawing and illustration, all in a day long project, lead by someone they had never seen before. In short, variation ruled the day as we bounced from one assignment to the next. Variation that is, mixed with enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is one of my strong points, and today it was greeted by the enthusiasm of the pupils.

(Click here for examples of the sort of lesson assignments I make use of)

As a visitor to the school I can pretend for a day that I don’t speak any Dutch, and so force them to do all their communication in English. This way I can usurp the natural hierarchy of language in a typical Dutch school. They struggle to communicate with me in English because that is the only way it’s going to work. Rather like when you are on holiday abroad. Just like I was in France during the summer. I struggled to make use of my minimal knowledge of the French language when it was necessary. Yes it was easier of course to leave it to my wife to communicate with the locals with her much superior knowledge of the French language, but the question is, is my French ever going to improve that way?

I don’t think that I’m advocating that all my bilingual colleagues take such a hard line and aggressive language approach. I can imagine in some subject areas it could be more problematic if English was the only language used right from the beginning. But so much of my subject in the art room has the back-up of visual elements, demonstrations and images to support to aid understanding. My workshop earlier in the week was a demonstration of just how far children are able to come when thrown in at the language deep end. It’s all about listening hard, helping each other out when they don’t understand or miss a bit. But above all, and I posted about this a year ago (Learning through not understanding), keeping them stretching and reaching beyond the capabilities that they think they have.

 

Learning through not understanding? – CLIL (content and language integrated learning) art project

Yesterday I worked together with twenty three twelve year old pupils and two of their teachers (thanks Roderick and Wap!) on an long (8 hours!) and intensive art and language workshop day.  For the children this was just the start of their second week at secondary school and perhaps more significantly the start of the second week where these Dutch school children are getting most of their lessons taught to them in English.

This was the reason that I was brought in to lead the workshop. As a native speaker of English I can provide a kind of immersion day where all the pupils hear is English.  It’s a big language challenge for the children, and for me something of a challenge too as I try to hold back from allowing a single word of Dutch to slip out!

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We hear a lot about short spans of attention in the children of today and such a day as yesterday kind of puts that theory to the test a little. The children are more used to switching from one activity, subject, teacher or classroom at regular intervals, how will they cope with being in one room, with one project and one project leader (supported by a couple of others)?

Well on the experience of yesterday I would say just fine.  Yes the overall project was broken down into a number of smaller parts.  This is important for boosting and re-boosting the energy and focus of the class. Also important is that they could see what they (as a group) were achieving, this is undoubtedly a luxury of an art project, but a quality that surely can be simulated in other subject areas.  But above all, the opportunity not to be continuously interrupted by the school bell announcing that the class must clear up and move on to their next lesson offers new chances for ambitious work and prevents so much time being wasted in the day.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should do away with the fragmented timetable of ten or twelve different subject areas, but I would certainly be a fore stander for more occasional project days, as long as the lesson material, plans and teaching are strong enough to maintain a greatly extended lesson.

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Another interesting point of reflection after a day like yesterday is the question of what exactly is going on in the heads of the pupils on such a language ‘immersion’ day.  I think that the results that the group made yesterday show that the group as a whole understood the project pretty well.  But I am realistic enough to acknowledge that these twelve year olds in their first week of lessons that are being taught in their second language are likely to struggle at times. Yesterday I translated nothing into Dutch to make it clearer or easier to understand. This approach forces a couple of things to occur:

  1. They have to listen hard, probably harder than they have listened to a teacher before
  2. They have to learn to cope with missing or failing to understand some parts of the instructions that I give
  3. They inevitably and importantly starting to ‘train’ their ear in the listening skills that are going to be crucially important in the coming months

Points one and three are obviously very desirable elements of this sort of teaching strategy.  The second one sounds rather less positive.  Although as an adult who has learnt to speak a second language since leaving school this kind of ‘joining up the dots’ in speech is a skill I remember being so important to me. It is about having the confidence to make little conceptual leaps to link up elements of content when sections of language interpretation are missed for whatever reason.  Put me in a noisy environment, where everyone is speaking Dutch and I still find myself having to consciously try to do this.