Personal bilingual education milestones x2

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!

Homophones CLIL Art and English assignment

Fed up with your pupils muddling up words that sound the same, but are spelt differently and have different meanings?  These words are called homophones and are often an area of confusion, especially when starting to learn a language.

Technically the definition is:

Homophones are words which have the same pronunciation, but different spellings and meanings.

Some examples:


To help clear up some of this confusion why not get the art department involved in a little design work?


Pictograms that illustrate the differences in homophones words

Pictograms are something that we are all so familiar with in our daily lives. They are visual shortcuts in information delivery.  Images that are designed to inform and instruct in a rapid and clear way that is not dependent on language, or at least not conventional language. Pictograms rely instead on a visual language. Think of all those symbols you see around airports directing us to various facilities, or the buttons on your tablet for different apps or within the app or program on your computer helping you to use it without becoming involved with written text.

A well designed pictogram should require little explanation!

When it comes to designing the pictogram it should meet the following criteria:

  • Be clear and not overly complex
  • Be sharp and graphic in its appearance so that it is easily viewed from a distance
  • Have a boldness that allows it to be reproduced on various scales without losing quality

Sets of pictograms also have a ‘house style’, they look like they belong together even though they may be illustrating quite diverse things.


Design pairs of pictograms that illustrate clearly the differences between homophones. This could be carried out by hand with ink or paint on a piece of paper, or alternatively be set as a simple computer based design assignment.

Text would not normally be part of a pictogram, but in this case it is also important to include the pair of words underneath the design so that viewers can see and appreciate the subtle or not so subtle differences between the homophones.

Remember, each pair of pictograms should in terms of drawing and style look like they do belong together!

The resulting artworks could subsequently be reproduced and make excellent decoration for the language classrooms at school.

Don’t underestimate your class

I remember reading somewhere recently that an excellent way to motive a class is to say something like “I think this is probably too difficult for you….but we’ll give it a go anyway”. The philosophy being, give them a reason to prove you, the teacher, wrong!

At the time I didn’t think much of it, apart perhaps from thinking….’yeah….would they really go for that?’. Well, a couple of weeks later I have to admit to coming up with just such a statement (without intending to) to a class of 12 year olds and then watching them exceed what I thought they were capable of.

Most years I do a little perspective drawing with my first years. It fits in well with talking about the art of the Renaissance. Over time I’ve tried out various assignments, and for my own amusement and variation I continue to do this. This year I decided to try, with one of my classes, something a little more ambitious where they were to produce a two-point perspective interior space drawing, spread over two sheets of paper, with one pupil working on one half of the drawing and a second on the other.  The idea was to simulate collaboration, teamwork and plenty of discussion (in English, as I teach them in English, which is the pupils’ second language), plus of course to learn about perspective.


After a first session working, fielding questions about vanishing points, how the area where to two pages came together should work and just how accurate it all needed to be, I went home feeling that this was perhaps one step too far.

I returned to the lesson the following week ready to explain this, and that I thought it better if we maybe went for something just a little less ambitious.  There was total amazement and disagreement from the class.  From their perspective they had invested a lesson puzzling it out and felt now that they knew what they needed to do. Slightly reluctantly I gave way to their view and we continued.

Two weeks later and we’re finished and while the standard of drawing from the class is varied (as it always is with any class), the grasp of the perspective rules they have been working with is fantastic, I’m hugely impressed.

Whether or not my ‘I think it’s too difficult for you’ moment with the class was the turning point we’ll never know for sure. But the way the pupils rose to the challenge was fantastic to see.

Word smuggling….CLIL continued

Someone who read my previous post asked me to expand a little on the Word Smuggling language learning idea that I mentioned at the end. In a way it’s a variation on the better known word game known as Taboo, where you ask someone to talk on a particular subject without actually using certain obvious and important words. Others listen and try to guess what the subject was. For example, explain the term ‘primary colours’ without saying red, yellow, blue, colour, mix or mixing. It forces you to think of alternatives and other more unexpected routes you would take in language in order to make yourself clear. All very good for language development.

Word Smuggling is in a way kind of the reverse of this game and well suited to any subject area. You give the participant a subject to talk about, this is likely to be in some way connected to your current lesson content, the idea is to use the language game to strengthen and deepen the understanding of content.

rembrandt clil

In my own lessons it might go a follows:

  • give a pupil a particular artwork to describe and discuss, or maybe the experience of a recent trip to a museum (others in the group may see this example or theme for themselves)
  • Give the same pupil a word on a piece of paper (this word must on no accounts be disclosed to the others in the group). The type word you choose to give to the pupil is very important to how well the game will work.  It should not be directly or obviously related to the subject they are talking about. For example if the pupil has been given a Rembrandt self-portrait to talk about, try giving them a word such as ‘boat’ or ‘shopping basket’
  • They then have to talk for a while to the others in the group about their theme or subject and somewhere in amongst all of what they are saying they have to try and use the word that they were given. They must try and do this in such a way that the others in the group are not likely to notice it as being particularly obvious.
  • When the speaker has reached the end of what they have to say the rest of the group have to try and guess what the secret word was.

There are a couple of extra points to make about the game, it is of course forbidden to include lists of random words in what is said in order to conceal the word that way!

This is actually a relatively difficult language game for learners of a younger age. If I try it with the twelve year olds I teach, in their first year of learning English, their limited vocabulary is rather a restricting factor. Although having said that, with twelve year olds perhaps an even bigger restricting factor is their inability not to give the word away simply through the look on their face when they say it!

Word smuggling after watching a film – a CLIL idea

For those not familiar with the abbreviation CLIL, it simply means content and language integrated learning, it’s my particular branch on education. I teach my art lessons in English to Dutch children learning my (and other subjects) in their second language. Thus in my lessons they are learning about art and creativity and simultaneously learning English.

My daily challenge is how to work the language element into the content. I want to share an example that I’ll be making use of today. For non-CLIL teachers there’s no reason why you shouldn’t use the same a approach, but obviously simply in your usual language of teaching.


With my first year groups (12-13 year olds) I like to mix a little art history into the practical activities and today I’ll be talking to them about Leonardo.  We’ll look at the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, but we will also be spending rather more time on Leonardo ‘the inventor’. The pure creativity of that area of his work always seems to catch the attention of the first years. I have a really nice film about modern day designers trying to build a number of the plans he drew out in his notebooks back in the Renaissance.

My learning aims for today’s and the following lesson are as follows:


  • Discover who exactly Leonardo was and how he was a whole lot more than just the painter we know from the Mona Lisa
  • Observe how a creative mind can tackle diverse problems and design challenges
  • Learn a little about the science and design challenges involved in making a diving helmet, a hang glider and a mechanical version of a human figure

Most of this content will be provided by the film itself, although I’ll undoubtedly be expanding on it during discussions.

Language aims:

  • Accurate listening and understanding of the film
  • Verbal articulation of the key points involved in the film
  • Correct use by the pupils of subject specific vocabulary used in the film

Further aims:

  • Working as a group with fellow pupils
  • Giving pupils the confidence that they can give short presentations on a theme without the use of notes or extensive preparation
  • Verbal use of English in a presentation situation

That sounds like quite a list of targets and quite a complex learning situation but it is actually quite simple, and it is a lesson strategy that will work regardless of whether you are a CLIL teacher or one involved in regular education.

The lesson plan runs as follows:

  • Begin with an introduction to the work of Leonardo, show a few examples of paintings, discuss with the class what they already know about him. Encouraging pupils to share verbally and maybe building a word web on the board.
  • Lead onto the fact that Leonardo was also an inventor and designer.
  • Explain that we are going to watch a film about the inventions and designers trying to remake some of his plans. Draw attention to the fact that after the film they will be doing a short presentation about the film (always good for the concentration on the film!).
  • Watch the film, (occasionally stopping and discussing what we are seeing and explaining any particularly difficult words).

Now the more intense language/CLIL part.

  • Divide the class into groups of four.
  • Give each group for special words that are connected with the film e.g. intelligent, anatomy, imagination, underwater.
  • Explain that overall the presentation should be a verbal summary of the film and that each person should play a roughly equal part in the presentation.
  • Explain that each person should take one of the words and use it in exactly the same form in their part of the presentation.
  • The presentations must be between two and three minutes long, not more and not less.
  • Allow the group fifteen minutes to prepare their presentation and practice it once.
  • Presentations are given to the whole class.
  • Marking criteria, marks are awarded for clear and good use of English, visually engaging the audience in the way you present and explain, correct use of the ‘special’ word. Bonus marks are given for fitting the presentation within the two to three minute margin.

It is a very simply strategy based around a film that I wanted to show the class for its interesting content. By using this approach the pupils have focussed on the content and simultaneously exercised their listening skills, speaking skills, focussed on a little grammar in using the ‘special’ word correctly and worked as a group in planning the presentation.

With a class of 28 pupils I have seven short presentations that take maybe thirty minutes to do and can be graded on the spot. Allowing the preparation and presentations to easily fit into one lesson.

The first time I tried this I was shocked by the excellent quality of the presentation, above all for the ease with which the pupils were able to just talk about their little bit of the theme. It would seem that a lot of the terror that often goes with a presentation had been avoided, they dared to just stand up and talk…..which was of course the point of it all!

For older classes who are more able with their use of language you can give a more challenging ‘special’ word. Choose words that actually have little or nothing to do with the film and ask them to try and conceal the words in their presentation. Not by saying them unclearly, but by trying to hide them in amongst all the points they are trying to make in such a way that the others in the class are unaware of them being used. At the end of the presentation let the audience try and guess the smuggled word.

Do you still draw and paint? – the iPad story continues

That was not a question for me personally, but a question about the art department where I work. It came towards the end of an evening where the bilingual department that I teach in presented itself to primary school children who are thinking about coming to the school next year and their parents. Having started a project last year that involves all new pupils working with an iPad, a considerable effort was made to show the effects of increasing digitalization in school.

Made with Repix (

After hearing the iPad story in the course of the evening, one parent came up to me and asked about the effects on the art department, “you do still draw and paint, don’t you?” Came the slightly nervous question. The parent involved I’m guessing probably didn’t honestly expect me to say “no of course not, we’ve given all that up and just use the iPad”! But at the same time it does reflect a nervousness that parents, and if I’m honest some teachers also have about creeping digitalization in education. Essentially its a throwing the baby out with the bath water fear, that good practice and successful classroom approaches will be somehow forced out by more (and not necessarily better) hi-tech strategies.

What I’m discovering in the art department is quite the opposite, I am still doing all the things that I always did, but the iPad offers new possibilities that I never had before to enrich the creative process. A good example of this is the clay project that I have just finished with my first years (12 year olds). As we have done before, the practical assignment was the create a ‘scary monster’ clay head, to fit onto a body that we will make later.  In the past the result of the project was simply a clay fired clay head that ultimately went home with the pupils. This year though I asked the pupils to photograph the development of the head at the beginning of each lesson. As a result each pupil has a photographic record of the whole process, from the beginning with just a formless lump of clay, to a finely worked head with a whole array of scary features. These photos have been put into an iMovie with accompanying text describing the process and the best of the photographs of the final piece of work have be digitally reworked (as in the examples here) to try to create even more sinister effects.

So to return to the parent’s question, well, yes of course we still paint, draw, work with clay and other materials. The digital developments are there to help, support and above all extend the educational possibilities, not replace the parts that already work perfectly well. It does sometimes feel like we are in a race towards a digital educational world, but drawing and painting does still have a place along with a whole load of other ‘old-fashioned’ approaches, it’s important that we don’t throw those ‘babies out with the bath water’, but equally we can’t close our eyes to the new possibilities on offer from the new tools and techniques that we have.

25 years of bilingual education continued and Peer Instruction

At the risk of becoming repetitive I’ll say it again, having a chance to talk with your colleagues about content and approaches in the classroom is something of a luxury in education. Too often we find ourselves swept along by the school year and meeting up with your colleagues is simply to agree the necessities of the weekly business of organisation and planning that are needed to keep our educational boat afloat.

Having said that I now find myself for the second time in two weeks writing about opportunities that have come along and provided discussion opportunities and inspiration from gatherings organized by the European Platform, the bilingual education organization here in the Netherlands.

As part of their celebrations for 25 years of the bilingual approach being part of the educational scene here the European Platform organized a gathering of teachers and school leaders at the Beatrix theatre in Utrecht. This time though, instead of having to provide content I was able to sit back and listen, a situation that the longer I work in education, the more I seem to enjoy!  Although to be honest the most important part of the day’s presentation for me was not quite so much simply listening, but actively thinking along and discussing. The reason for this is that we had Eric Mazur as our guest keynote speaker.  Mazur has made his name as the developer of the ‘flipping the classroom’ approach, although as he explained later he prefers ‘inverting the classroom’, I guess maybe physicists don’t flip, but prefer to invert.

His presentation was both entertaining and informative, showing how his PI (peer instruction) approach works. In doing so he got a very diverse group of educators engaged and discussing thermo dynamics, which as an art teacher was not what I expected to be doing with those sitting around me in the theatre. This of course was the point, with good instruction and approaches that are designed to engage and activate the learner our education that we offer will become more effective. It is obviously not the only answer or strategy that we should be applying in the classroom, but certainly has a place and left pondering how I will be able to apply similar approaches.

Afterwards there was the chance once again to discuss with others the implications and uses of what we had seen, and as it turned out for me and my two colleagues attending also the opportunity to quiz Mazur himself further on what he had spoken about.

If you are interested to know how Peer Instruction works, take a look at this video:

25 years of bilingual education in the Netherlands

The Netherlands isn’t the only place in the world where you can encounter bilingual education. There are many countries where, for varying reasons, this approach of teaching is used. It offers an array of subject areas taught in a non-native language for the learner. The aim is the speeding up and adding an extra depth to language acquisition. It is a broad approach that has its strength in immersion in the target language for the large of every school day.


What is certainly true of the Dutch language experiment with secondary education is that it very definitely no longer an experiment. It is now established and embedded widely across the whole country with around 130 secondary schools offering the bilingual approach and pilot programs in primary education underway.

Yesterday the European Platform, the organisation that oversees and coordinates the bilingual schools, marked the occasion with an afternoon of presentations and reflections on the project so far, and a look towards the future. It seems a healthy future, as one of the contributors pointed out, many educational initiatives come and go, but the bilingual star in the Netherlands seems to continue to rise.

One of the reasons for this success might well be the fact that it is largely a bottom up initiative, starting with schools who decide that they want to join the process, rather than an organisation (or government) telling schools that they have to join. It remains a branch of education that is peopled by teachers and school leaders who want to be involved.

My own bilingual experience goes back fifteen years. In a sense I was in the right place at the right time. I arrived in the Netherlands in the early 1990s and five years later got my teacher training qualification just at the moment that the bilingual train was really starting to pick up momentum. I left the course and walked straight into my first bilingual teaching job. I was a rare commodity, a native speaker of English, qualified to teach a subject other than English (art in my case).

In the meantime, now twenty five years on, there probably aren’t that many teachers in the country who have taught as many bilingual classes as I have. My ‘native speaker’ credentials mean that I don’t ever have to teach a Dutch language art class, a benefit of working in a large bilingual department. If there is a weak link in the whole set up within the schools it is that the quest for native speakers to join and strengthen the departments is a constant hunt and not an easy one to be successful in.

I wrote two posts ago about the enthusiastic meeting I chaired for the European Platform of bilingual art teachers. They were a group of people who by offering to teach the bilingual classes have in effect said, yes, “I am prepared to do more than just teach my subject content, I am prepared to take on more and teach a language at the same time”. It says sometime about the mind-set of my Dutch colleagues who take this step, it is a fairly thick extra layer on top of regular classes. I have this too of course, but with the extra luxury that it is my first language, but like it or not, I am to a significant degree a language teacher.  Having struggled hugely at school with French and German, and yet now being able to speak Dutch fluently, I am also an example as to why immersion is the best method of language acquisition.

Do you speak Dutch….?

Experience in any field is important. In education experience brings with it the confidence to try new things.  This year as well as all the usual ‘new things’ I find myself trying at school (some seem to pop up every year), I also find myself, together with Mar a colleague of ten years, venturing off on a new project. Together we are offering art and language workshops to the bilingual and international schools in the Netherlands.

The start of any new school year is busy, but added to that we did our first outing as ‘Lignum Learning‘ educational experts.


Working with a single group of 26 first year pupils (aged 12), who were just a week into their bilingual journey we produced two artworks focusing on the idea of journeys that they make locally and internationally and the trips that they might hope to make in the future.

Normally we see our groups of pupils for 60 minutes at a time before they disappear off to their next timetabled lesson. Today though we worked with the same group from 8.30am until 5pm in a hugely intensive and focused session.

The end results were seem in two large-scale group artworks based on a map of the local area and a world map. We had been brought in by the school because they wanted to expose the children to an intense day of ‘native speakers’ of English leading the lessons.

We were introduced at the start as a teacher from England and a teacher from America.  We subsequently maintained the whole day that we couldn’t speak any Dutch. Both of us stuck rigidly to not responding to anything said in the pupils’ first language, which was at times difficult but of course in keeping with stimulating them to speak English.  But the children’s reaction in the final moments of the presentation to parents at the end of the day, when we slipped into fluent Dutch was an absolute treat to see!