Untitled Skull: A Speaking and Writing Activity Using Art

Some time ago, I attended a professional development seminar presented by Patricia Lannes, Project Director of CALTA21, an innovative partnership between museums and community colleges that uses art as a catalyst for enhancing adult ELLs’ language and critical thinking skills. Patricia kicked off the seminar by projecting an unfamiliar painting on a large screen and asking us three simple questions:

  • What’s going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?

These three open-ended questions stimulated a rush of comments, as different members of the audience noticed and pointed to different facets of the art work, drawing widely varied conclusions about “what was going on” in the chosen painting.

Intrigued by this non-judgmental approach to using art to stimulate discussion, I decided to try a similar activity in my Intensive English Speaking & Listening class.  I chose an iconic late 20th-century painting by the Haitian-American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat known as “Untitled Skull,” and projected a Wikipainting reproduction on the large screen at the front of our class room.

Image courtesy of wikipaintings.org

I then wrote CALTA21’s three questions on the board, put the students in small groups, and asked them to discuss the questions amongst themselves.  We then debriefed as a class. Despite—or perhaps because of—the painting’s grim subject matter, my students offered fascinating analyses of what they thought was going on in Basquiat’s painting: They saw evidence of the stress of modern life, the impact of disease, the role of memory. It was fascinating to see how this painting struck a chord with even the quietest and most introspective of my students, a Syrian Orthodox priest who had said little in class up to this point but who responded eloquently to the themes of despair and death he saw depicted in the painting.

After our group discussion, I asked the students to work again in small groups to give the painting a title and summarize in one sentence what they thought was going on in the picture.  This was a more difficult exercise, one that required students to move from the spontaneity and imprecision of speech to the concise and succinct nature of writing.  But every group rose to the challenge, and eagerly debated how best to entitle and summarize the painting.

I then asked them to write out their titles and summaries on the board for us all to discuss at both a substantive level and the grammatical level.  Here—verbatim and uncorrected—are a few of the titles and summaries they came up with before we worked together as a group to correct the grammar:

  • Darkness Side of Human:  You have to be ready for death.
  • Destruction Life: The human life is full of disease, depression and hopeless.
  • Confusing Feelings in My Mind: When the sources of your memories remind you bad feelings and you cannot hide it, you start reflecting outside yourself.
  • Human Being in the Modern World: The artist tells us about frustration and stressful conditions in our daily lives.

CALTA21’s mission statement suggests that “while looking at art and participating in facilitated discussions, adult ELLs will build new vocabulary, strengthen critical thinking skills, engage in dialogue, articulate interpretations and develop a voice while drawing from their wealth of experiences and background knowledge.”  This was certainly true in our “Untitled Skull” class.


About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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3 Responses to Untitled Skull: A Speaking and Writing Activity Using Art

  1. beth says:

    Dear Alexandra,
    Thanks for the suggestion! I tried this activity in my class today using the same image. Some of the titles my students came up with included “Soldier Returning Home” and “Face like a Map”. Then I had them choose images and work in groups to speculate about them using modals, the target grammar. There were some interesting and creative responses.

    I’ve really enjoyed your blog! Keep it up.

  2. Dear Alexandra,

    Thanks so much for sharing what you and your students accomplished while looking at BAsquiat’s work while using VTS, one of the pedagogies that CALTA21 uses in its curriculum “Identity, Portraiture and Phtography” (www.calta21.org) As you well know, the power of art engages even the quieter English language learner. EVery student has a wealth of background knowledge and prior experiences, and because art is about life adult students particularly enjoy decoding it and making meaning and connecting with it, provided they are given accessible strategies to do it. Visual art provides students with the possibility of accessing higher order thinking skills and abstract concepts, without the language barriers that a text can present.

    Patricia Lannes
    Founder and Project Director, CALTA21

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