Why do I have the feeling that not everyone in the English department is going to approve of this art inspired (clil) writing assignment?

Surreal poetry assignment

This might not be a lesson idea for language purists, but in my defense, I would say that encouraging learners to play with language can be an important aspect of language acquisition. I remember the satisfying buzz I started to get when my mastery of the Dutch language reached a level where I could crack a joke or maybe use a little irony. It makes the using of the language more pleasurable and dare I say it, more fun. So if my surreal poetry assignment takes us into areas of confusing and sometimes conflicting interpretation….well…..that is actually the point of it.

If you would like a little more context and history on the Surrealists, their forerunners the Dadaists and how text and language featured in their work a good place to start is the excellent The Art Story site through the links at the bottom of this post.

So how does the assignment work? I should start by saying that there are plenty of variations on these poetic themes to be found on a variety of websites. The one that I sketch out here is based on an idea from one on a wikihow.com page.

The initial task is to find an existing poem; this could perhaps be one that has been made use of in an English lesson or one that you as a teacher feel is particularly appropriate. Alternatively, allow your pupils to search for a starting point themselves in books or on websites, one that they themselves find interesting…..reading a bit of poetry can never be a bad thing!

Once a suitable poem has been found ask the pupils to identify the nouns, verbs and adjectives in the poem by underlining them with three different coloured pens. Again, this is a useful language exercise for pupils of any level to try to complete.

Then comes the creative part, ask the pupils to replace the existing nouns, verbs and adjectives with new ones of their own choice. It helps if they have already grasped the fact that in the world of the Surrealists not everything is quite as it seems. To make this point clear the paintings of Rene Magritte are my own favourite.

The challenge is to create new poetic lines that are grammatically correct, but have an intriguing and perhaps perplexing connection…..complete randomness though, doesn’t seem to engage the writer or the reader in quite the same way.

 

The examples below illustrate the process:

 

Is the Moon Tired?

By Christina Rossetti (1830-1994)

Is the moon tired? she looks so pale

Within her misty veil:

She scales the sky from east to west,

And takes no rest.

Before the coming of the night

The moon shows papery white;

Before the dawning of the day

She fades away

 

Is the (noun) tired? she looks so (adjective)

Within her misty (noun):

She (verb) the sky from (noun) to (noun),

And takes no (noun).

Before the (verb) of the (noun)

The moon shows (adjective) (noun);

Before the (verb) of the (noun)

She (verb) away.

(Noun – Verb – Adjective)

 

A new version might go:

Is the ink tired? she looks so weak

Within her misty streak:

She swims the sky from pen to book,

And takes no second look.

Before the consuming of the text

The moon shows uncertain perplex;

Before the burning of the hay

She withdraws away.

 

Two possible extensions to this project could be:

  1. Ask pupils to try to produce an illustration based on their own new version of the poem
  2. Give pupils an example of a surreal artwork (such as one by Magritte) and ask them to write a poem about the painting from scratch. The visual material that the painting offers provides a clear direction and material enough for an interesting exploration and simultaneously requires them to look long and hard at an image from art history.

The story of Dada

The story of Surrealism

Wikihow page used

Language and creativity – content and language integrated learning idea (CLIL)

Most who work in education know that children generally respond well to games and puzzles. This is a short assignment that never fails to engage the attention and (particularly important for me) the creativity of the pupils. As I will explain the creativity comes in part with a drawing element at the end, but actually the area of greater creativity comes earlier in the part using language.

humunentBefore I start, I should perhaps explain that I first came across this idea in the work of the British artist Tom Phillips and in particular his book A Humunent: a treated Victorian  Novel. Although there are others who have subsequently used similar approaches such as Austin Kleon in his work and book entitled Newspaper Blackout.

Although these ideas come from a visual arts context do not get the idea that this is something only for the art department, as an assignment it has opportunities for language lessons and potentially other areas too. I often use it for cover lessons when I am absent from school for a day or have to fill in unexpectedly for a colleague.

Essentially the idea is very simple. You take a piece of existing text, from an old novel, a text book or newspaper article for example, and give the text to the pupils. Personally I love walking around at the start of a lesson ripping a book to pieces, it certainly succeeds in getting attention! It also ensures that everyone has a different piece of text, which I quite like, but isn’t absolutely necessary, copies from the copy machine are also fine.

Then, using the text that they have been given, and in the order that it appears on the page (so reading from top left to bottom right) they have to make a new version, a summary, a storyline or even a poem. The words that you don’t want to use simply have to be crossed out or better still completely obliterated. In the early stages it pays to be a little cautious, you don’t want to cross out anything that you later will want to use. Generally it quite quickly becomes evident that there are some words that seem loaded with meaning that just have to be used!

Imagine for a moment that the text below was the piece that you have been asked to work with:

One of the cardinal clichés about the English is that, as a nation, we are obsessed with trivial fluctuations in the weather. Lamenting the onset of a sudden shower could happily occupy two strangers on a railway station platform for several minutes – or, at least, that is the perception. Yet Weatherland, a beautiful new book by the British cultural historian Alexandra Harris, suggests that this cliché is a fair reflection of reality.

Moreover, the argument of the book, which examines how scores of great writers and artists have been inspired by English meteorological phenomena over the past two millennia, goes even further.

Summarizing assignment

Extracting the essence out of a text is the basis of writing summaries. This is the same here, but with an added language dimension, or if you prefer, restriction! It requires creativity and flexibility with the language options that are on offer, sometimes removing a single letter from the end of an existing word can make all the difference. Remember it’s all about summarizing the essence of the text as well as you can  with the text and words that you have to work with. The result might look something like this.

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A more playful assignment

For a more creative variation, perhaps more suited for a language lesson, give the pupils a free choice of coming up with the most fantastic, imaginative and inventive new storyline, as long that is, that the grammar used still fits together and is correct. Our same initial text might produce a result like this:

FullSizeRender (54)

The full creative assignment

For the full creative explosion of the idea combine the idea above with a drawing assignment where the whole design and layout of the page has to be activated to tell the storyline that has been created. At this point the sky is the limit, after an initial planning stage the pages used could be enlarged to open up the full creative possibilities.

FullSizeRender (51)

I’ve experimented a number of times with these assignments. They really do engage the pupils in language and creativity, particularly at the puzzling out with the text stage. Believe it is well worth trying, regardless of what sort of teacher you are and which subject you teach.

The examples above have been made on my iPad, an ideal tool for experimenting with this although for the full creative effect hand-made offers so much, as Tom Phillips shows in his original work. It is really worth taking a look at his site:

http://www.tomphillips.co.uk/

Austin Kleon talks about his work in this area in his TEDx presentation about his books Steal Like an Artist and Newspaper Blackout, also well worth a look.

Reaching a conclusion, and reading a poem in public

I’ve posted before about the commission that I’ve been working on this year. A piece involving three canvases that together are close to four metres wide. This week finally saw the installation of the work in their new home, the Max Planck Institute for Psycholingistics in Nijmegen.

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You never quite know how artworks are going to look in a new location so it is always just a bit of an edgy moment when you pull them out of the packaging and lean them up against the wall and step back to look. On this occasion the result has proved to be undoubtedly a move in the positive direction. The work itself of course hasn’t changed, but the location it has received is on a beautifully spacious white wall that is positively flooded with light. I could have asked for little more, the three panels do look, even if I say so myself, beautiful.

The paintings were given an official  presentation moment on Wednesday afternoon, along with the also recently purchased work by Alex Dima. It was a chance to thank those involved, but also a moment to say something about the ideas and intentions behind the paintings. I am always a bit wary to say too much in such circumstances, I don’t want to give the idea that there is just one route to go. However I am also keen, if I can, to offer the viewer a way into interpreting the work. On this occasion I chose for a short poem, it touches on a number of ideas and reference points that have been important whilst creating the work, but does so in a way that hopefully opens doors to interpretation rather than closing them.

I do not pretend to be a writer or a poet, but I have to admit to being quite satisfied with the resulting three verses, it was certainly well received at the opening!

 

Flight and escape, contemporary themes

Uncertain destinations, safety behind barriers

I look to the landscape

The backdrop of our lives

A rush of wings

Movement passing

 

A narrow aperture opening

Reduced geometric architecture

Refined beauty in our man made line

Engaging the serene beauty beyond

Crisp, hard edges marking space

Illusions in the décor

 

Nature meets the line

Clear blue sky and searing heat

A solitary cloud drifts

A rush of wings move the air

Lost in the colour

Swift movement passing by

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Immigration – Pupil work and feedback

Two months ago I wrote this post:

Struggling to extend the teenage world view

20110427-immigrationIt was a post about the issue of illegal immigration and in particular how art and culture can be used to make us consider it in a different way to the mainstream news routes. In the post I wrote the following:

“I feel very confident of the quality of my examples and indeed of my lesson material. Yet somehow, this year perhaps more than in previous years, I don’t quite feel like the message is getting through. When I reflect a little on this situation my conclusion is that perhaps for too many in my current groups the intellectual and emotional step that they must make to reach an appreciation of the plight of illegal immigrants is just too big.  They’re aware of the problem, they’ve heard it mentioned in the news, but it’s just not their issue.”

At the time I was reacting possibly to a couple of less responsive lessons, where I was perhaps trying to provoke a reaction from my 15 and 16 year olds. We had all seen the reports of the immigrants trying to cross the Mediterranean in their leaky and over filled boats, and just last week there were a number of trucks stopped at Harwich International Port in the East of England containing sixty-eight people from Afghanistan, China and Vietnam.

68 found in Harwich containers

poemBut somehow, despite the real life news stories, my lesson material and my best efforts during the lessons themselves, I had the feeling that I hadn’t quite reached my pupils the way I wanted to.

To be honest I should know better. In education, a feeling of immediate feedback from pupils is relatively rare, normally you have to wait. You have to wait for the work to be done, the report written or the artwork made. Sometimes you have to wait for years, you find yourself talking to an ex-pupil and they recount a specific detail from a specific lesson as being important to them in some way. It’s great when it happens, but you do have to be patient for such feedback!

My doubts about my immigration module have been largely disproved by the quality of the work that I have been getting in the last weeks. Some of them almost sound thankful for being given the insight! Showing the film The Visitor has certainly helped. It has provided an individual narrative that the news stories fail to have.  In particular the poem I asked my Dutch pupils (writing in English,their second language) to produce about the plight of the immigrant was particularly enlightening.