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.

A classic poem in a CLIL context in the art room

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

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.

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!

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.

H3P going where few classes dare to go

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!

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

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?