It’s a common scenario as an art educator: you tell someone about your chosen profession and they proclaim enthusiastically to be a supporter of teaching art in primary school. Then it comes… “Art classes are so necessary because student’s need a break from using their brain!” or “they need a class where they can just relax” or even worse, “student’s who take art or music are shown to perform better in math and science!”. While these people always have the best of intentions and truly do support art education (which is more than half the battle), their reasoning is off base.
I would like to justify the importance of art education precisely because it is a rich and rigorous curriculum (or should be) and because there are vast opportunities to develop literacy, critical thinking, social and emotional intelligence, and visual acumen, not to mention various artistic techniques that require bodily coordination, advanced planning, and theory of mind. A good art classroom is not one in which students go to play with formulaic “elements of art and principles of design” or to nebulously “express themselves”. In a good art classroom, students are challenged, deeply challenged, on an intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual level.
First, art has a complex vocabulary all it's’ own. There are technical vocabulary words that apply to mediums and processes of making art. Think: linocut, chiaroscuro, impasto, tenebrism, conte, or encaustic. Then there are the baneful elements of art and principles of design, which aren’t inherently bad on their own, but seem to be the alpha and omega of primary art education. There is some value in them, due to their abstract nature, and can be a good basis for getting students to start noticing things about art. What does “rhythm” look like in the sense of a work of visual art? How is it similar and different to rhythm in music? Extending beyond E&P there are other words to discuss the formal qualities of a work, there are also words to discuss symbolism and metaphor within art. There is the language of art critique, whether formal or informal, that students need to master in order to fully discuss their intentions and potential for art making and art analysis. Any art teacher that is not engaging in academic literacy beyond E&P is not really doing their job to fully immerse students in a subject that requires an advanced command of language. Artspeak, like any other language, makes the non-speaker feel confused, excluded, and disinterested. There is ample opportunity to turn students off to art forever if they are not given the tools with which to decode artspeak. Let’s set the bar high for the capabilities of our students to learn, develop, and employ artistic language. Not to mention, focusing on literacy in the art classroom marries well with English Language Development (ELD) because of the inherent use of visual representation to illustrate vocabulary words and concepts.
However, teachers cannot rely solely on the inherent visual nature of art to teach students how to speak the language of art. Teachers must incorporate deliberate language instruction into their curriculum to ensure that students are understanding the words and putting them to authentic use whether in description, analysis, or critique. Under Common Core State Standards, all teachers must focus on disciplinary literacy during instruction. Also, in California, all teachers are required to integrate English Language Development into their daily instruction. Art teachers are no exception and I call on educators to reframe their ideas about what language can look like in the art classroom.
So what does language development look like in the art classroom? Below is a list of ideas that I have come up with to help integrate language development and literacy into the arts classroom:
Begin by getting to know your students through speaking, listening, and writing. The art classroom needs to foster a sense of community so that students feel comfortable sharing their ideas about art. It is too intimidating to begin with artistic language development, especially for ELL students. Start with low-affective-filter assignments such as creating “get to know me” boards, goal creating assignments, and ice breaker games that allow students to get to know one another and practice listening, speaking, reading, and writing with Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS).
Create a student forum (GoogleClassroom is a great tool for this) where students can share things they are interested about in the art world and comment on each other’s posts. Students are used to using technology to communicate. It is a great tool to help scaffold students in language development as they acquire more precise vocabulary to discuss art. This also helps students move from BICS to Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALPs).
Incorporate reading, writing, speaking, and listening in some way into every lesson. It is important to have some combination of the four modalities of language present in each lesson. For example, have students turn and talk to each other during a direct instruction to discuss next steps, have students write an exit ticket listing the steps of the Feldman Method of critique. The more students have practice with using the vocabulary and academic language, the more they will begin to spontaneously use the language in and out of the classroom.
Give students opportunities to use formal, academic language. I like to give students the opportunity to use formal language at least once throughout a unit. Usually this takes the form of a formal artist’s statement where students incorporate academic language with artistic language to write a statement about their work and process. Students can also participate in Close Reading assignments that ask them to answer a question in formal language while gathering evidence from print and other media to support their answer. It is important to show students that art extends beyond art creation and that there are many different issues that effect the art world. Students can investigate an issue and then write formal arguments and participate in a debate. This is a great way to incorporate all four language modalities and introduce students who are reluctant to make art to the ways art is relevant in everyone’s lives.
Create scaffolds and differentiation for students with special needs. Art classrooms will always accommodate a wide variety of students, language learners, students with IEPs, struggling readers, and students with gaps in their knowledge. It is important to take on the responsibility of developing students’ academic language as well as artistic proficiency. I like to create differentiated worksheets when we are using any type of academic language. The worksheets could include academic sentence frames, vocabulary word banks, or prompting questions to help get the student started. These differentiations are leveled so that ideally, students will progress and need fewer and fewer scaffolds to perform the assignments. With a tool like GoogleClassroom, it is easy to ensure that each student gets the curriculum at the level they are at.
Provide students with a choice in how they use their academic language. All students have different strengths that they can bring to the art classroom. Allowing students choice in how they express themselves with language will help them to feel more confident in using not only art vocabulary but the academic language as well. Students may write an artist statement on the computer instead of on paper. Students may record themselves giving their art analysis instead of giving it to the whole class. There are many ways to ensure students have choice while maintaining the academic rigor of each assignment.
I hope you have found this list of ideas helpful. If you are a teacher, what ways do you create opportunities for academic language development in your art classroom? As a student, what practices helped you learn to use academic language the best? It is up to all of us to ensure students are prepared to use higher-order language once they leave high school. Art teachers can provide students with a rich opportunity for language development with a little advanced planning and flexibility. I believe that academically rigorous art classes will ensure the legitimacy of art education in the future. Let us show people (even the well-intended) that the curriculum in an art classroom uses your whole brain by developing academic language, visual literacy, and artistic technique!
If you would like to know how to use GoogleClassroom as a language integration tool, let me know! xx- Sierra