1 out of every 10 students in the United States is an English Language Learner. ELL students face unique and often overwhelming challenges, but the art classroom is the perfect place for them to thrive. Art is a universal language and can become a vital educational, communicative, and creative outlet for ELL students.
Listen to Supporting English Language Learners in the Art Classroom Now
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Links Mentioned in the Show
- Art as a Tool for Teachers of English Language Learners
- English Language Learners in Public Schools Stats
- Guggenheim Museum: Learning Through Art
- Drawing Description Game
- Free Worksheets
- Art Appreciation Worksheet Bundle
Supporting English Language Learners in the Art Classroom Transcript
Hello and welcome to The Art Class Curator Podcast. I am Cindy Ingram, your host and the Founder of Art Class Curator and The Curated Connections Library. We’re here to talk about teaching art with purpose and inspiration from the daily delight of creativity to the messy mishaps that come with being a teacher, whether you’re driving home from school or cleaning up your classroom for the 15th time today. Take a second, take a deep breath, relax those shoulders and let’s get started.
Hello, everybody. It’s Cindy Ingram from Art Class Curator and I am back for the Art Class Curator Podcast. Today we are going to talk about how our art connection lessons, our lessons where we are looking at and discussing and interpreting art with our students, how those lessons help our English language learning students. And this is a really important thing here in the United States especially. The average number of English language learners in the US in 2016 was 9.6%, and that is up from 8% I think in … I actually don’t remember, was it 2000 or 2012? I don’t remember. But the past number was, I didn’t write that down. But nine States in the US are over 10%, that’s 14% average in urban areas. And then in States like California and Texas, we’re at 17% and higher.
So really that’s one out of every 10 of your students could be an English language learner. And then, the younger they are, the higher those percentages are too. And that’s not just Spanish. 76% is Spanish and the rest is a slew of other languages. So, the ability to communicate with your students and for those students to be able to meaningfully communicate, read, write, listen, speak. I guess, did I already say speak? I don’t remember if I said speak, but all of those things are really important for our students. And it’s not just so that they can be better at their core content areas so that they can pass tests, but so they can live productive lives here in the United States and wherever they want to go in the future.
And there’s been research studies on this, the Guggenheim Learning Through Art study says that looking at art and talking about art improved literacy skills in our students in over six different categories of literacy and critical thinking. And that these discussions and these activities that we have in our classrooms with our students, it’s going to lead to more empathetic, communicative people as you know. So, I have come up with a list of ways that these lessons can help your English language learning students. And then, in a future episode, I have an interview with one of the teachers from my team who teaches mostly English language learners. So we’re going to talk about some strategies that she uses in her classroom and the day-to-day of teaching our ELL students. But we’re going to do an overall sort of overview of it today.
Before we get started with that, I have to tell you that my view of these kids in our care that are learning English, I have the greatest respect for them and their families because I find learning languages to be one of the hardest things ever. When I was in college, I took Italian, which was not the wisest of decisions, but I had to take five semesters of a foreign language as an art history major. Because if you want to do grad school in art history, you have to know, you do two languages. Well, no one told me when I started that you had to do French or German. So I just did Italian. So anyway, I had a terrible experience learning Italian. Because I had a large amount of social anxiety, lots of years of therapy and practice of social skills have taken that away. But at the time it was extremely, extremely challenging to me not only to speak up in class, but to also speak up in class in a language that wasn’t my own language.
There were some days that I would be walking to class and then I would turn, I would be walking up the steps of the building and I would turn around and go home because I was so terrified that I would have to speak in another language in front of other people. Logical or not, but anxiety doesn’t work that way. So now anytime I’m trying to … I still feel that same way. I know a little bit of Spanish from high school or a little bit of Italian, I still have a really hard time actually trying to speak it, because it just feels so very vulnerable.
So, when working with these students who they have to live in that existence of communicating in another language, I just have the most … I can’t even fathom what that must be like. But they’re so brave for doing it and I highly commend them. So anyway … I was a straight A student my whole life and I made pretty much my whole life until college. And then that was my first F, was in Italian. And straight up from anxiety, but there we go.
And then, I had to retake that class that I got the F in and I took an Italian literature class instead, because that felt easier to me, because there was a text we were looking at, we were reading, we were talking about the text, there was less speaking. But it gave me a different way in. And so I can only imagine if I would’ve had an Italian art class where we looked at art and talked about in Italian, I think I would’ve felt a little more comfortable. So I think art can be, in our discussions, can be an amazing way to help someone learn another language.
So, really, when you think about it, to me, looking at works of art created by people from across the world is a deeply human and emotional experience. So, we can use art to connect with that human spirit. And I’ve talked about that in other podcast episodes before, but we can connect with that human spirit, connect with emotions and connect with other cultures. And so, our students, who are coming from other countries or speaking other languages, they can relate to emotion and feeling and culture. And it’s a place for them to really embrace their culture and cultures of other people. So, one example of this is when you show artwork from the culture of the students in your classroom, and so we always say, choose artworks that are relevant to your students that they’re going to connect with. I’ve talked before about the four C’s of art selection and one of those is connected. That the more personal relation you can find to an artwork, the better the experience is going to be for the student.
And that if you show, say you have a student who speaks Vietnamese or is from Vietnam and you show an artwork from Vietnam, they’re going to experience a pride of their own culture, a pride from their home country. And they’re going to feel a little bit more seen and heard than they might have if you’re only showing art from your particular culture or from the culture of the country that you live in. I have an example of this. When I was teaching, it was a seventh grade class and the majority of my students were English language learners. Most of them were Latino and from many different countries. But I had several students who had Mexican roots and I had shown, I was showing an artwork from Mexico and there was a Mexican flag in it and it was hilarious.
I don’t know, at least 50% of the class cheered, straight up yelled and hooted and hollered. And it was so funny that they then … it became a joke the rest of the year and then they just kept doing it all year long. It got really old after a while. But that surge of pride, that surge of connection was really important to them and they felt like that was a connection point. And then when you show art from the culture of the students, they can use their prior knowledge to help them communicate in a better … in this different language, that they have something to say.
The other thing that I found with teaching English language learners is that when talking about art, it feels more low stakes, because there … and I’ve encouraged this time and time again that there is no right or wrong answer when you’re looking at art. So when a student has something to say about an artwork and they’re already struggling in the language. If they’re also worried that they’re going to say the wrong answer, that adds a whole different layer of stress to the student. So when we lead these art discussions, it’s an exploration in communication. It’s practicing social interaction, it’s practicing interaction with the teacher. It’s practicing listening and responding and looking and responding, that it feels easier because it’s not … there’s no sort of grade tied to it at the end or there’s not as much opportunity to get it wrong.
It also helps when a student participates in a class discussion, I always say, when I teach about how to talk about art with kids, that your job as the teacher is to facilitate the discussion. And I often recommend you paraphrasing whatever the student says. One, so that they feel heard. So they are acknowledged in what they said. And also so that you can make sure that you understood what they said. So if they say something and then you paraphrase it back and then you’ve got it wrong, then they can then clarify. But that process of listening to one student and then the teacher paraphrasing it, that’s going to help your English language learner student. Even if they don’t say anything at all, they’re listening to that interaction. They’re hearing how the words relate to each other, they’re hearing the different ways of saying things and then they’re being able to make those connections. So just listening to the conversation of the class, even if they’re not actively involved in it, can be a learning experience.
The act of translating what you’re thinking in your head to actual words from one language to another, our discussions will help you practice that and help give you a confidence in your communication, because you might be able to, an English language learner might be able to understand better than they’ll be able to speak because of the varying levels of communication. Because the pronunciation of the words is hard and putting yourself up on display is hard. So all of this gives our students a really great practice in that communication.
And when we do this in a more informal way, in a more low stakes environment, it also creates a really positive learning experience in education, when coming to a school doing schoolwork in a language that’s not your own, it can be super frustrating. But through art we can make those learning experiences fun and connected and special and that they can then have that positive emotional response to school and to communication with teachers and to communication with other students. So we’re creating environments of joy that will lead to sort of a safe space where the student does feel a little bit more comfortable in exploring that translation of thought to language and exploring vocabulary and exploring being brave.
And our classrooms, and our art discussions, we’re allowing them to practice thinking skills beyond the academics. So we’re practicing storytelling and interpretation and symbolism and emotions. And those are things that maybe are not as prevalent in their other subjects, but they’re getting a chance to explore those topics as well. And then, of course, art is just visual. It allows the students to connect language and pictures instead of just relying on that language and that communication alone. We’re adding in the pictures to add in an easier way to connect to language.
So what I want to do now is, okay, so you probably knew all of that, right? You know why art is good for this. But what are some ways that you can foster this connection to your English language learners in your curriculum? So I’m going to go through a couple of my favorite activities that are really good for this and the first one is what I call the drawing description game, and I will link to it in the show notes at artclasscurator.com/40, it is one of my favorite activities to do with students.
It’s a great activity to do when you need something last minute. It’s a great activity to do at the beginning of a unit. You can really use it anytime. The day before a holiday is always a really good one. I’ve done it on the first day of school before as well. But basically what you do is you put students into pairs and one student can see the front of the room, wherever the screen is of the artwork, and the other student has their back to the front of the room or to wherever the screen is. And the student who can see the artwork on the screen describes it to the person, to their partner, and then the partner has to draw the artwork based on their description. And students love, adults love this. All students love this. It’s such a great. Even my kids, we do it here at home too and they just think it’s such a great fun.
But how it’s good for English language learners is, I have one particular situation where I had two students who were working together and it was an artwork that I just randomly pulled from the internet and it had these tea kettles and they were like tree trunks that morphed into tea kettles that were like the leaves of the tree kind of. And the student didn’t know. The person who was doing the drawing didn’t know what a tea kettle was. And so they had to communicate about what that was without having, not knowing what the word tea kettle meant. And so it challenged both of them to think about other ways of communicating what a tea kettle is. So they could have talked about the function of it. The pot that you use, you put the tea in, you pour into your glass or they could actually just talk about the shapes and the lines. But they had to work that out between them.
And they even raised their hand and she was like, “I don’t know what to do. She doesn’t know what a tea kettle is.” And I was like, “Well this is what you’re going to have to figure out. You’re going to have to work on that communication. You’re going to work on your description skills, you’re going to have to work on how you communicate with another person.” And to me, it was such a powerful thing to watch because they were both learning from that experience, you know? Kids love that activity and it really challenges them to think, not just in English skills and vocabulary but how you describe something and also spatial awareness and size and composition and all those things. They have to really pick it apart to figure out how you describe it. So I love that activity. I have a blog post about it on the site that you can also get a PowerPoint with some artworks that I like to use with that activity. I will link that in the show notes.
Also, on our website, we have some free art appreciation worksheets and there are poetry templates and one of them is sentence prompts that say, “I see, I feel, I hear, I wonder.” And we call it the character poem. And that one is a really good one to look at art too, because it allows the students, they have somewhere to start, they don’t have to … you don’t just say, “Hey, okay, write a poem about this.” But they have some prompts, they can really look at it and think about it.
And it is a much safer thing with those prompts. I wouldn’t give a haiku poem assignment to a group of English language learners when it’s already hard enough to come up with the words, let alone try to come up with the syllables. But we have a cinquain poem that has really a very simple structure, the character poem and different poetry templates in that bundle of worksheets that you could use. A lot of times I would say too. So when leading your discussion, you want to do the paraphrasing, you want to do the connecting between the different ideas, making sure you’re really understanding what the student says. But also giving the student time to think about it in advance and have a chance to write some notes down at the beginning.
So if you have a group of students who it’s more challenging for them, give them time before you start the discussion to take some notes and write some of their own ideas first. And then you can even do some think-pair-shares too so that they have a chance to communicate it verbally first with someone else before they have to do it to the whole class. That’s going to create a safer environment. And I found that the other students are so kind and forgiving of any struggle that other students are having. And they’re very supportive of each other when you lead this discussion correctly, or not correctly, but when you lead in an empathetic way and a supportive way that the students are really interested in helping each other. And are very patient with each other in these situations.
So, those are some of my favorite activities to use with my English language learning students. I think building in as much time for discussion, for writing, especially reflecting on their art projects at the end. Any chance that you can have them write a sentence or two down about what they’ve learned at the end of class so that they’re constantly in their practice of translating that thought into writing, into words so that you can help develop those skills. Because that’s not only going to help them in their other subjects, but it’s going to help them in their life from here on out.
So those are just a couple of my thoughts on teaching our English language learning students. And I have an interview coming up in a few weeks with someone from my team who teaches mostly English language learning students, where we’re going to dive into this even more deeply. And she has some amazing stories to share about her kiddos that I can’t wait to share with you.
All right. That is it for today. But before I go, I want to make a plea again, I’ve made this plea before. I used to end every podcast episode, when I did more interviews, with the question which art work changed your life? And to me, these answers are so super powerful and emotional and inspiring and I feel that the world can be made a little bit better by hearing about other people’s powerful aesthetic experiences with artworks. So you heard Madalyn’s a few weeks ago on The Tale of Two Monets episode, and I want to really encourage you to consider sending in your art story to us. Now, there is a couple ways that you can do this. One way is to send us a recording or a voicemail.
So you can just record a voice memo with your phone and email it to us. But you also can send us a voicemail. So I am going to give you the phone number that you can call and leave the voicemail and then we will add your story to our episode. Now that phone number, and I will also put it in the show notes at artclasscurator.com/40. The phone number is 202-996-7972 and just leave your name and where you’re from and any information like maybe what grade you teach or something like that. And then leave your art story.
We would absolutely love to hear it. I have an interview scheduled next week with Trevor Bryan who wrote the book The Art of Comprehension, and his art story is a powerful one and I can’t wait for you to hear that next week as well. But really consider sharing those personal powerful art stories. They just bring us all joy and bring us all light and life. So thank you so much for considering doing that again, the number 202-996-7972. All right, thank you so very much for listening. Thank you in advance for sharing your art story because I know you’re going to do that, right. And I will see you again next week for an interview with Trevor Bryan. Bye.
Thank you so much for listening to The Art Class Curator Podcast. Help more art teachers find us by reviewing the podcast and recommending it to a friend. Get more inspiration for teaching art with purpose by subscribing to our newsletter, Your Weekly Art Break. Recent topics include the importance of seeing art in person, famous and should be famous women artists, and 21 days of art from around the world. Subscribe at artclasscurator.com/artbreak to receive six free art appreciation worksheets. This week’s art quote is from Thomas Merton. He says, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” Thanks so much for listening. Have a wonderful week.
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