Reimagining famous paintings : Stimulating creative and critical thinking in the EFL class through an art project

Reimagining famous paintings

Stimulating creative and critical thinking in the EFL class through an art project

Special thanks to Maria Karantzi and Annette Morley for their contribution to the project! 

Can art in the EFL class, trigger thought-provoking discussions and provide useful language content for primary school learners? The following post is based on a project I did with my 5th graders and displays some of the work done by the students.

Until I heard Maria Karanzti, an arts and crafts teacher presenting, the only thing I could could think of was to ask my learners do a tedious project on art. Something like:

“Find information about your favourite painting and present it in class”

But I knew that two things were guaranteed: utter boredom in class and powerpoint slides with copied and pasted information that my learners wouldn’t even have read before “presenting” them in class.

When Maria talked about the trend of “reimagining” famous paintings, I thought I saw the challenge arising for my learners.  So the project was rephrased as following:

“Find information about your favourite painting and reimagine it. You can draw or use technology to make your version of the painting. Write a short text and describe why you have made changes and how you feel.”

I showed in class Vermeer’s girl and the humorous “Star Wars” version and explained the notion. We even searched on ® Bing other “reimagined” paintings and the students found it intriguing. To my surprise, none chose to draw it and they all chose to use technology. Some used photoshop, others used apps that sounded alien to me. 

 The problem that arises at this stage is that you need to collect the students’ work and give them feedback. The most practical tool for that is  ®OneNote. You can create a virtual notebook and invite students to share there, photos of their drawings, information about the paintings and their reflective accounts on the changes they made. If the school does not support Windows, you can use any other collaborative web 2.0 tool like padlet or you can even have them in a USB flash drive. Once you have collected all the material, you can put everything together in a video like this one:

The original idea to create a virtual museum using ® Minecraft came unstuck as the 5th graders who promised to do it, failed to meet the deadline. However, all the students created their reimagined paintings. Beyond the artistic value, I was happy as an EFL teacher because all the students produced texts in L2 – some short, others longer and more elaborate. The  structure which was Reimagining famous paintingsmainly used was the 2nd conditional but there were also chunks of language which were closer to freer practice and using the language more creatively.

But that was not all… As we were talking about the project, issues arose like:

Is it a good idea to reimagine paintings and create our own version?

Does it make us more creative or does it show disrespect for the artist and the work of art?

These sparked heated discussions in class and on the school's Learning Management System, which were a source of inspiration for the next part of the project: An opinion poll.

I used ®Office Mix to create the poll but there are also a number of Web 2.0 tools that can be used in class. 

An English teacher openly opposed the idea while the art and crafts teacher was in favour which gave me the opportunity to do a follow-up on the topic.  I divided the class into two groups. Group A interviewed the teacher who was against and Group B the one who was a supporter of the idea. Then, the class listened to both recording and wrote down the arguments of each side. 

This was a great opportunity for me to introduce small argumentative paragraphs with a topic sentence, the argument and example. For instance:

I believe that reimagining famous paintings is not a good idea. First of all, we do not know exactly what the artist wanted to show and how he or she felt. For example, I can not feel the same like Munch when he painted the Scream.

This may not seem much of an accomplishment but for 10-11 year old pupils, supporting their views with reasons and examples is not an easy task.

Finally, after doing a unit in the coursebook on art, I asked my students if they knew about any special stories behind a painting or work of art. Even though I had originally feared that my students had mechanistically copied and pasted information about their favourite work of art, it turned out that some of them had paid attention. A few days later, A. K. came to class with this video: 

So far, my students had read, listened, spoken and written in English about a different subject (CLIL) and above all were motivated and felt creative, taking initiatives like the video produced by A.K.

Yet, there seemed to be one more element missing. Their own personal creations. So I asked them to create their own work of art and write a paragraph or shoot a video to talk about it. Here is a sample of their work:

Video created by M.M.

My pupils had fun and learned so many things that I intend to try it again this September. Would you like to give it a go with your students?

Dimitris Primalis


7+1 tips to make CLIL work with your class

CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) has been adopted by a growing number of schools and language schools for a number of reasons, including more opportunities for language practice, motivation for learners who are interested in subjects other than English and developing 21st century skills.

Yet, many educators often feel that the syllabus and previously followed practices, hinder CLIL and their students are deprived of the opportunity to reap benefits from its implementation. 
Indeed, habits from the past may jeopardize the efforts of the leadership and the teaching staff to facilitate learning and raise the standards.  The following tips may help towards creating an environment that will allow CLIL to be fruitful and boost language production and reception :

1.      Balance testing with language production time
Tests are tangible, measurable and go down well with parents who feel that their kids are closely monitored. In fact, many teachers saw their popularity rise among ever concerned parents because they tested on a daily basis their children . Yet, quite often there is so much testing that there is not enough room left for students to be exposed to language, let alone produce it. 

Ensure there is a balance and move towards other forms of assessment such as evaluating projects with the aid of rubrics and giving more feedback to learners. These are often friendlier to the learners and they may even motivate them more as they will be actively involved through peer correction or negotiate the criteria to assess projects or presentations.

2.      Make the most of technology
Learning more about a natural phenomenon by searching it on the internet, carrying out a poll or creating their own video or animation on the topic you are teaching this week? These may be skills and activities that your students may be doing in their free time in real life. Isn’t it about time the school integrated them into the syllabus? By exploiting technology, students can reap numerous benefits ranging from exposure to L2, having their schemata activated with diagrams and flowcharts, to developing learner autonomy.

3.      Avoid lectures, involve learners
Νο! Pairwork, groupwork and communication among students will neither ruin your class management nor challenge your authority. On the contrary, this can be achieved easily if you
Source:ELT pics
lecture throughout the lesson till the student switch off. This can get  even worse by asking them if they have understood and ]then you receive the usual “yes, Miss!”. From my experience, the answer is always yes to such a question irrespective of whether they have understood or not. Learning can be facilitated with student engagement and different forms of interaction. Through these, students have an opportunity to express themselves, have a personal stake in their learning and assume responsibility to carry out a task rather than being passive recipients.

4.      Stop spoon feeding your learners
It is often thought that being a good teacher means giving lengthy explanations about everything even before your students ask you. But there are two points to consider: a) you will not be on their side for ever so they need  start forming hypotheses and b) CLIL is about discovering knowledge. Providing all the answers before your students try to figure them out, defeats the purpose. Devoting some time to help them develop their critical thinking skills is a mid/long run investment that will compensate you and the learners. 

5.      Grammar without context? Exploiting available resources
A large number of teachers feel that they are not teaching enough grammar – compared to a grammar based syllabus – and tend to teach grammar without context, often with piles of photocopied exercises. In extreme cases, they teach the structure and all its aspects all the way down to the last exception that even a grammarian may not be aware of.  This can impose a huge strain on the syllabus.

Surely, there is a video,a reading or listening text to exploit so that students can use the context to grasp it more easily. It is also worth bearing in mind that in some forms of CLIL, grammatical structures are treated as “chunks” of language and I personally feel  that sometimes they are easier to be treated as such.  In any case, assessing the priorities of the class and selecting what needs to be taught explicitly and what implicitly can act as a compass that will save you time and effort.

6.      Make the most of projects
Inquiry based learning may not bring the desired results in terms of language accuracy and surely it cannot be controlled by you. Plus, you may find some parents complaining that project  work is time consuming. But it is through these projects that you can give your learners freedom to choose topics that are of interest to them, and give them the opportunity to immerse into new language and develop more autonomy as learners. Projects can be easily integrated into any syllabus and can be done by learners over a period of time without requiring any time in class. Learning technology enables teachers to provide personalized feedback while blogs, Learning Management Systems and school websites offer a splendid room for display and sharing with the community.

7.       Don’t encourage learners to translate texts word for word
Many parents  ask students to read the text aloud at home and translate it word for word. Some teachers, either because they are aware of the above practice or they are used to more traditional approaches and methods (grammar translation) may be tempted to do so in class or assign it as homework. Considering though that CLIL texts are usually longer and more challenging than the usual EFL ones, it will not really help the students. On the contrary, they are likely to be demotivated by the number of new words and length of text. Developing word and text attack skills in class, doing pre-reading tasks that can activate learners' schemata and breaking the text into manageable chunks in the while-reading stage are not a waste of time. They will help your learners deal confidently with texts and later on, approach academic texts and books more efficiently.

Be prepared to explain to parents and learners at the very beginning of the year that not all words in a text are important and that you aim at helping learners develop reading skills . This is likely to prevent many reactions and complains expressed by the above mentioned stakeholders.

+1 Be consistent and patient
This applies to any new approach that is being implemented. No matter how many difficulties you may face, repeating the same steps on a regular basis, builds a creative routine that allows students to feel secure, knowing what they are expected to do.  Despite the initial shock, students tend to adapt easily and as time passes by they tend to respond more enthusiastically. No new approach has ever seen measurable positive  results overnight and it would be unfair to condemn your and your students efforts without allowing for enough time to apply it.

Some more thoughts instead of conclusion
An educator’s constant concern is to ensure that their learners will be able to cope with the challenges that are yet to arise. Implementing change may take you out of your comfort zone and require longer hours of work, observation, feedback and adaptation. However, it can be motivating and rewarding in terms of exploring and exploiting potential you never thought that you as a teacher, or your students have.

Enjoy the journey!
Dimitris Primalis