Vincent Van Gogh is a world-renowned artist, but he was not what most people would define as successful during his lifetime. In fact, he only sold one painting before he died though today his pieces sell for millions, the most expensive of which sold for over $144 million. He died depressed and distained. His sad story can have positive effects, though, and you can see them in your ESL students. Art may not be the most common subject to include in an ESL class, but if you have never tried reaching your students through this subject you should. The content is often familiar and the artists inspiring. When you work with art in the ESL classroom, your students will be inspired and engaged in new and noteworthy ways.
How to Use Art in Your ESL Classroom
Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night
Though not Van Gogh's highest priced piece, Starry Night may be one of his most well known pieces. If you can acquire a poster sized reproduction of this piece, ask your students to look carefully at the painting and take five minutes of silence in the classroom to let your class engage with the painting. Then ask willing individuals to share their thoughts on the piece. Encourage your students to comment on color, line, composition and how the piece makes them feel. After a few students have shared, give your class some time to compose a written response to the painting. Help them understand that a response to art can take very different forms or styles depending on the person who writes it. For some, they may write about how the piece makes them feel or what thoughts it evokes. For others, they may write about an experience that the painting has brought to their minds. Still others will evaluate the piece as a work of art, paying attention to technique and artistic skill. Some may even choose to compare the piece to another work of art or a piece of literature or movie. If anyone is willing, ask her to share her response by reading it to the class. If you can have students with very different styles of response share, your class will benefit most.
Vocabulary In Context
Once your class has thought about how Van Gogh’s painting makes them feel, take some time to educate them about his life. Present to your class this short biography of Vincent Van Gogh available on YouTube. After watching the video once, give your class a list of these vocabulary words which will probably be unfamiliar to them: shunned, peasant, overwhelmed, macabre, austere, high-strung, thrived, syphilis, veil of depression, revolver and inspired. Then, watching the piece again, ask your students to guess at the meanings of the words as they appear in the video. Watch the video one more time, this time stopping the clip after each sentence which uses one of the vocabulary words. Write these sentences on the board and review the meaning of each word. If any students guessed correctly at the meaning of the words, commend them. If not, remind them that guessing the meaning of words in context is part of language learning, both in first and second languages, and they should not be discouraged if they were unable to correctly determine the meaning of the words.
If you like, you can also give your students some comprehension questions to answer after they watch the video. You can have them discuss these questions in groups of two or three. The following questions cover some basic information which is presented in the video clip and will target your students’ listening abilities.
- What happened when Vincent turned fifteen?
- Which of Van Gogh’s family members was he closest to?
- What did Van Gogh do when he was 28?
- How many languages did Van Gogh speak?
- How old was he when he died?
After watching the video, you can point your students to one of many websites that give additional information about Vincent Van Gogh and encourage them to take notes as they read about his life.
Your Own Starry Night
Your students have thought about Van Gogh’s painting, and they have learned about his life. Now they will use his artistic expression to inspire their own art, this time with words. Start by reviewing with your students the main elements of a story. These include character, plot, setting and resolution. Tell them that they will write a story using Starry Night as the setting for the story. They can create their own original characters or use themselves or someone else they know as the characters in the story. They should then determine the conflict and the resolution. Encourage each person to gain inspiration from Van Gogh’s piece but to incorporate their own ideas into their stories. Remind them that artists often gain inspiration from other artists, whether in the same media or other media.
When your students’ stories are finished, tell them that they will create their own versions of Starry Night. Using black paper and oil pastels, your students should create their own starry night in the style of Vincent Van Gogh. In addition, encourage your students to incorporate some element of their original stories into their reproduction of the famous painting. They may choose to do this by including one of their characters in the picture, changing an element of the piece or any other way they feel they can put their originality into the piece. If you like, display each story in conjunction with the picture by its author. You can title your bulletin board “We Are Shooting for the Stars.”
There is so much inspiration to be found in art, and classic pieces like Van Gogh’s Starry Night can be incorporated into the ESL classroom in many ways.
The activities here include speaking, listening, reading and writing and also encourage creativity and personal expression in your students. These same ideas can be applied to works of art by other artists that your class may relate to. In any case, they will learn more about the artists who have shaped our modern world through their creations!