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The Artistry of Teaching and Arts Integration: Why Your ELs Need You to Embrace Both

You are an artist.​

If you are a teacher, I’m looking at you.

Now, some of you are thinking I’m wrong…perhaps thinking about how you might offer up some of your best stick figure drawings as evidence of exactly how wrong I am. So let’s talk about this… We can probably agree that “being an artist” is not defined and determined solely and wholly by one’s ability to create realistic portraiture – That, on the contrary, there are perhaps infinite media and forms to express one’s artistry and give one the right to legitimately claim the title of Artist. Perhaps you already have one of these fine- or folk-artsy skills up your sleeve and already also see yourself as Artist in addition to being a Teacher. But even if you don’t, if you are a Teacher, you are an Artist. Maybe your talent is akin to that of a textile maker – weaving themes and topics together with threads of various perspectives to create an elaborate tapestry of multidisciplinary learning.

Maybe the way you elicit students’ ideas and include their voices in the conversation, your engaging way of expressing a concept, and your agile, extemporaneous responses to the questions your students offer up suggest that your counterpart in a parallel universe is enjoying quite a career in improvisational theater. Maybe the way you bring together academic standards, social-emotional learning standards, language development standards, IEP specifications, culturally resonant themes, individual student interests, and attention to multiple modalities to crank out beautiful lesson plans with swift synchrony would remind us of that guy that does the live speed painting to Hendrix music ultimately revealing an (upside down!?!) likeness of Jimi himself (Google it).

Identify your strength and apply the art metaphor of your choice. Ultimately – if as a teacher, you harness your talents to explore different viewpoints, provoke curiosity and critical contemplation, inspire people to observe and connect to their world, themselves, and each other - and you create a thoughtful space for your students to do the same - then in my book you are an Artist. And if you still want to show me your terrible stick figures, I’ve got some Giacomettis to show you…

Alberto Giacometti,

National Gallery of Art,

Washington, DC

So, now that we agree that as a teacher you are an artist - not simply a “curriculum delivery service provider” - let’s think about why this matters for your English Learners…

By adopting this mindset you are likely doing more than you may realize to create a classroom climate that welcomes the whole spectrum of qualities and experiences of all your students – an environment that values multiple perspectives (which is what is truly at the heart of multicultural education…but that’s a whole ‘nother blog conversation - look for it in the spring).

But just by doing that - by inviting students to consider and share diverse perspectives - you’re encouraging, and probably modeling, some healthy risk-taking in an environment that applauds it. In my opinion, this is good stuff for any kid, but your English Learners may feel vulnerable in ways that other students won’t – whether it’s self-consciousness about an accent, feeling stigma about the EL label, or feeling some other marker of “otherness” – so they will likely doubly appreciate a teacher that makes diversity the norm and understands that each person’s unique “otherness” is actually what makes them belong.

OK, so I encourage you to ruminate on the role of artistry in your teaching practice (BTW, that’s not to suggest that there isn’t a science to it too – no binary opposition here). But let’s turn some attention to actual folk and fine arts and what role they can have in schools.

There are at least 3 important ways that kids may experience the arts in their formal education.

Exposure to the arts – Experiences such as field trips to museums or performances, bringing art into the classroom via technology (slide shows, videos, etc.), and other exposure to the arts can be a great way to simply complement the “regular” curriculum but if they are incorporated in a more central way they can be even more potent. For ELs these experiences can be particularly powerful for a few reasons:

  • This can provide a non-print text to further their understanding of a concept. Most art forms can create a more accessible means for students to engage with an idea (and learn content) because it is not solely/at all reliant on their language proficiency.

  • Viewing the arts as non-print texts creates an opportunity to deliberately develop various (multi-) literacies (e.g. visual literacy), which can inform and enhance ELs’ literacy development in both of their languages.

  • If these experiences are interactive, and especially if they occur near the beginning of a unit, they can be maximized to further language development using strategies such as the Language Experience Approach

  • Choosing experiences that feature artists and art forms from the heritage(s) of the students helps ELs to see an aspect of themselves reflected in the curriculum and become more engaged as a result – AND can give insight to their peers and create potential for deeper cross-cultural understanding.

Learning an art – The experience of engaging in art making, though often woefully under prioritized in budgets, is such a worthy endeavor in so many ways for any kid. When students can learn an art from their teacher, take art classes in school or engage in art making with a visiting artist there are several potential benefits specifically for ELs:

  • Creates a space during ELs’ day that is not so language dependent and can give them some relief from the pressure of having to navigate lessons in a language with which they are still wrestling AND an opportunity for them to shine in talents that are not always as valued in other class settings

  • The collaborative nature of some art forms is a great venue for ELs to interact and practice language authentically with their peers in a low-risk setting

  • Gives ELs access to an additional form of expression to communicate with others and nourish their social-emotional learning (amplifying what they might otherwise be able to do if only working through a language that is not fully developed)

  • When we can collaborate so that student art making with a visual art/dance/theater/music teacher or visiting artist is connected intentionally (thematically, for example) with the learning they are doing with teachers in other content areas, the art making becomes a natural scaffold to support ELs’ content learning

Learning THROUGH an art – This likely includes a combo of the above, but adds the intentional use of art as a vehicle for other kinds of learning (language development, social-emotional development, and academic learning as well as learning the art form itself). Here’s what it might look like:

In contrast to instruction that relies heavily on traditional print-text, arts can broaden opportunities for (all kids but especially) ELs to absorb and process ideas and express their learning. Art becomes the medium – a “language” – for learning and can provide ELs greater access to the content in at least three ways:

  • Artwork serves as a “text” to convey a concept

  • The process of art making offers an chance for students to connect to and experience a concept

  • Student artwork can provide a means for a student to demonstrate their learning of a concept

So…if you’re picking up what I’m putting down, here’s the to do list:

  1. Embrace your inner artist as an integral perspective on your own teaching practice

  2. Cultivate your own artistic talents, knowledge, experiences of the arts (especially those that represent the cultures/interests of your students)

  3. Take a look at the opportunities in the curriculum to integrate the arts

  4. Reach out to your potential partners in arts education

...your English Learners will thank you.

In thinking of my opening for this piece, I borrowed a bit of inspiration from the You Are Beautiful art installations that have popped up around Chicago. The premise of this project is simple but powerful: “When the phrase You Are Beautiful is integrated into a city or community, it creates an immediate positive dialogue.”

A few links to get your juices flowing…

You Are Beautiful, Public Art page

Speed painter Michael Ostaski on YouTube

Language Experience Approach, Wikipedia description

Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Education Resources page

Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education


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