4 Ways Art Can Make Your Activities More Interesting

The neat thing about visual art is that it’s hard not to have an opinion when you see it. What makes it good or bad? How does it make you feel? What does it remind you of? Anyone who sees a picture feels a thousand words worth of ideas, so it’s an opportunity to get a reaction from students without resorting to paragraphs or lectures. All the teacher has to do is direct the activities to get the students talking, writing, or even drawing to make them practice using English.

Over the years, I found art lessons tended to be my students’ favorite activities, no matter what their ability level. The ones who get frustrated by complicated concepts are happy to see something they can understand and be asked what they think instead of looking for an answer. More visually-oriented learners have input catered to their natural ability. For classes where there is a wide range of levels between students, the teacher has a chance to create common ground by relying less on language.

Some ways to get this benefit in the classroom:

1. Descriptive Writing and Speaking. The interesting thing about art is that everyone may see the same big picture but notice details others will miss. For lower-level students, you can have them talk about the shapes, colors, and action in the image, perhaps after reviewing some key words. Intermediate-level students can give more intricate explanations of what they think the artist means with the image, which can yield interesting answers when you apply abstract or surrealist art like a Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko painting. Higher-level students should be able to form stronger opinions about why they like or dislike the painting along with reasons or other critiques. Whether you’re going to do this as oral or written exercises depends on your class’s needs, although personally I find that smaller classes benefit more from verbal discussions, because larger ones tend to be dominated by a few confident speakers.

2. What Is Art? Now that students know what they do and don’t like, it may be time to ask what makes one thing art and not another. Is graffiti considered art, even if it isn’t by someone named Banksy? What about a common vacuum cleaner put in an art gallery, such as a few pieces from Jeff Koons’s collections? Should a painting of a soup can count as art, or did Andy Warhol’s 15-minutes-of-fame stretch for too long? There’s no harm in telling that these questions have no right-or-wrong answers, especially when the art experts are still arguing about them.

3. Cultural Influences. Unless the students moved to an English-speaking country early in life, they probably have some background in the art of their own culture. You may want to draw on this to show how their traditions influenced or were influenced by western art. Some examples include Picasso’s African period, when he borrowed heavily from African sculptures and masks to give his paintings a distinct look, and how Xu Beihong combined Impressionism with Chinese art after studying in Paris. Exactly which groups to use will depend on your students, and you may want to talk to them about their previous art experience and education for ideas.

4. Have Students Make Their Own Art. Now that students have learned how to describe art and what it is, you can give them the time to make their own art. Depending on the size, sociability, and shyness level of your class, you can have them describe their work or have other students write (not too critical) reviews. As long as the students are listening, talking, reading, and writing, they are practicing the language.

About Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall
Nathan Hall, MA TESOL, MS Education, lives in Pottstown, PA with his wife and two daughters. He has been involved in ESL since he volunteered as a tutor in 2001, which inspired him to leave the field of journalism for education. He has since taught English language learners in a variety of settings ranging from community programs to colleges as well as in several different types of middle schools and high schools. He is currently an ELL specialist at Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton, PA.
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