Most teachers are creative people. We have to plan for multiple classes each day keeping our methods and activities fresh and interesting for both our students and ourselves.
Not many, though, would consider themselves creative enough to be art teachers. Art can be an intimidating subject full of specialized knowledge and techniques where the only approval a person receives is purely subjective. Do not let this stop you from bringing art into your ESL classroom. There are plenty of ways to use art as a vehicle to teach English to your students and have fun in the process.
How to Bring Some Art Into Your ESL Classroom
With Elementary School Students
Young children may be the easiest to teach through art. Children love to play with color and mediums (paint, crayon, chalk, clay, etc.) and are not inhibited in their creativity. They may become so involved in the art project they are doing that they do not even know they are learning English at the same time. One easy project you can do will review color words and shapes. Give each student a piece of graph paper, the bigger the squares the better. Have them draw an amorphous shape in the center of the page. Then instruct them to color each of the inside squares with hot colors (red, yellow, and orange) and each of the outside squares with cold colors (green, blue, and purple). Squares that are split by the shape the child drew should be colored with both. Tell your students that they do not have to follow a pattern when coloring their boxes but they can if they would like to. Use their work time to review shapes by discussing each student’s picture with him or her. By the end of the class, your students will have had a fun time coloring and not even realized they were learning in the process.
With Middle School Students
Middle school students will still have creativity to share, but they may not be as eager to do it with their peers. You can overcome this by showing your class some pieces by other artists. Take the opportunity to introduce new vocabulary as you describe the pictures to your class and then ask them to describe the same piece to one another. You can play an easy conversation game with your students with famous pieces of art. Take ten paintings and display them at the front of your class. Then pair students having one student describe one of the paintings. The second student must then determine which painting his partner is describing. Then switch roles. For each correct guess, award one hundred points to the pair. The pair with the most points at the end wins. Then assign a piece of writing to your students. Ask them to describe their favorite piece from class and say why they liked it. They can also compare it to some of the other pieces if you want them to write a longer piece.
With High School Students
With older students comes thinking and analysis that is more complex and an ability to connect emotionally with what they see. Review some well-known pieces of art with your students. You can introduce them as you would with middle school students, and even play the same game, but take the discussion a step further and introduce vocabulary that describes emotion. All of your students start learning emotions words with simple emotions like angry, happy, scared, and excited, but use art as a means to introduce even more complex emotion words. What does it mean to be melancholy? Lonely? Crestfallen? Apprehensive? Choose art pieces that allow you to discuss these specific emotions with your students. Ask them how the pieces make them feel. Then ask why. Students will be challenged to use specific emotion vocabulary and connect it with what they see. Show how Edward Hopper depicts loneliness through his pieces. Edvard Munch depicts panic in his painting The Scream. Embrace the serenity that comes from Claude Monet. Feel sentimental from the love expressed by Mary Cassatt in her mother and child pieces. You can use any piece or art you wish, and the emotions that one person may feel from a piece may be different than what another feels. Encourage your student to express their individuality and make personal connections with the art. This activity challenges your students to communicate a new depth of their emotions with new vocabulary and classic art in perfect harmony.
With Adult Students
Adult students may be comfortable with either of the two previous activities, but for those who may be uncomfortable getting emotional about art, take a historical approach. Many resources both in print and online give helpful information about art history. History may be a more comfortable approach for many adults who have been estranged from their creativity for many years. Ask a guest to come into class to present art history to your students, or have the students themselves do some research on artists, particularly those who may have come from their home countries. Then have your students present the information they learned to the class. Before their presentations, spend some time reviewing historical vocabulary explaining words like era, century, and movement. Encourage your students to talk about that artist’s historical context. Everyone is sure to learn about art, but they will also learn about familiar historical events in new language and vocabulary.
These are just a few of the activities you can do with art in the ESL classroom. If you want to have the greatest impact on your students, try to remember any art lessons you had as a child, teenager and adult, and share with them the same activities that impacted you.
If you did not have art, use any or all of the activities mentioned here. In either case, your English class will be memorable to your students because it opened doors to art in a new way and they still learned the English language in the process.
Susan likes to enjoy every day to its fullest whether she is freelance writing, teaching homeschoolers, or developing her special talent of instigation. When she is not imagining sand castles or catching others off balance, she cooks, sings, reads and takes walks in the sunshine. She earned an M.A. from the University of Delaware in Linguistics and an M.A. from Trinity School for Ministry in Youth Ministry. She currently lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with her wonderful husband and her three cheepy cockatiels.