Ways of Seeing: 4 Drawing Activities for the English language classroom
As English teachers, we are often able to step outside or exist at least in the fringes of compulsory, institutionalised learning. We are therefore, in a position to try methodologies that are different. That’s what keeps me excited about working in ELT. It was specifically this curious ELT community that encouraged me to begin my artists in schools programme.
Once a week, I set up my artist studio in a primary school. While making my work, children come to join me. They sit and watch, they pick up drawing tools and work alongside me. They even draw on my work. We talk and I mostly observe what is happening. I don’t give “a class” as such. Rather, I provide a space, an environment that cuts through the day like a pleasant disruption.
As a result, I think a lot about learning, language and drawing. Based on my observation and trials, I am beginning to piece together some activities that I believe can be useful to open pathways of thinking, being and communicating in the English language classroom.
Four Drawing Activities for the English Language Classroom.
Activity 1: (DPR) Drawing as a Physical Response
Stage: Ice Breaker, settler, preparation for speaking.
- Students need a hard surface to be able to draw on -a clip board, hard coursebook or desk top. I have tried this with students drawing with their paper held on a wall, but it was too uncomfortable to do for long. The key is that the student needs to be comfortable so they can really tune in.
- Pencil and paper
Language Focus: Language to describe our individual response: emotions, actions, different energy, feelings, descriptions of marks, language of marking a narrative, comparisons between different people’s responses.
The earliest marks, from 70,000 years ago, may have been about the pleasure of making the mark itself. Drawing is both an aesthetic and physical pleasure. Speaking as an artist, what I create grows to become my own “iconography” or set of marks. They are symbolic of how I personally respond to the world around and within me. When joined together, they become a language.
In this activity I used Beethoven’s Alegretto (7th Symphony) because it has a great narrative in the music to respond too. It’s accessible. We made marks responding to what we heard and felt. The activity aim is simply to aid our connection to the music and its narrative.
An artist would use this kind of exercise to let go of rules, break through blocks and discover new ways of making marks.
How I Use this Drawing Activity in My Own Arts Practice
I’ve found drawing as a physical response useful in my own drawing. I use it as a way of getting through a flight (I’m a nervous flyer). I make “flight drawings”, which help me focus on the moment. I react to what I see out the window or feel, usually never looking at my paper. Sometimes I also draw with my other hand (let’s see what it has to say!). Focusing my energy into my hand helps me. This new catalogue of marks find their way into other drawings.
The drawing above, without contextualisation, appears very abstract and full of random squiggles. But if I tell you it’s a drawing of my experience of a flight descent and landing, can you “see” it?
Activity 2: A Classic “Drawing Class” Activity
Stage: Ice Breaker, settler, preparation for speaking, getting to know you.
- Students need a hard surface to be able to draw on -a clip board, hard coursebook or desk top.
- Pencil and paper
Language Focus: Language to describe our individual response: emotions, actions, descriptions of facial features, descriptions of people and characteristics, comparisons between different people’s responses. This is a challenge, so also consider expressions for embarrassment, insecurity, laughing at one’s self.
This is an activity from a life drawing class. You look very deeply at a person and draw them without looking at your paper. The aim is to loosen your drawing up, but also to get you focused on really looking. The eye-to-hand, hand-to-eye experience deepens the registering of what you see. Try gripping the pencil in a different way and using a variety of pressures and angles with the pencil.
I thought at first, to avoid feelings of discomfort with this exercise- where everyone would be staring at each other, of finding an image that everyone could all look at. Imagine teenagers doing this exercise! But if you google “face” or “man” or “woman” it is hard to find an image that isn’t all about beauty or youth or sexuality. So, the exercise also becomes a challenge to acknowledge the people about you, in the room. Do we really see each other uncomfortable as it may be?
Activity 3: Telling an Image
Stage: Ice Breaker, settler, preparation for speaking, focus on listening, descriptions, narratives.
• Students need a hard surface to be able to draw on -a clip board, hard coursebook or desk top.
• Pencil and paper
Language Focus: Language to describe shapes, parts of figures, actions, positions and directions, comparisons between different people’s responses. This is again a drawing challenge, so also consider expressions for embarrassment, insecurity, laughing at one’s self.
An image is a text where the meaning can float and be flexible according to the viewer. Artworks can be very potent. You would need to think about the cultural context of the students and what they will connect with.
My personal favourite is to describe Picasso’s painting “Guernica”. I start by asking them to get ready to listen and draw. I make sure they have no idea what I am about to describe. First, I get them to draw a long rectangle, and then describe the parts perhaps starting at the far right and working to the left. This helps students really look at the content of that painting in broken down bites. You can alternatively get partners to describe it to each other.
- We can compare the way we have depicted an element with how Picasso drew it.
- Talk about the ways that Picasso painted. How he drew figures in very raw “naive” ways (he certainly know how to draw a figure beautifully if he wanted, so why did he create figures like that?
- Consider the use of black and white – why did he choose such a reduced colour palette?
- Discuss the event he was reacting to the aerial bombing of Guernica (26 April 1937) during the Spanish Civil War.
- If Picasso was reacting to a war now, what would he change?
- Other protest artists such as http://banksy.co.uk/out.asp Banksy, who has very accessible images that also talk about power, oppression and war.
Activity 4: Graffitti, Art and Public Spaces
Stage: Follow Up activity
- Students need a hard surface to be able to draw on -a clip board, hard coursebook or desk top
- Pencil and paper
I also like (inside this genre of art works against war and oppression) the work of eL Seed. You could begin by talking about different graffiti around town and what it’s used for. Comparisons between countries. Then introduce the art of calligraphy, and especially Islamic calligraphy. eL Seed is famous for a practice known as caligraffiti and his work is in Arabic, always promoting messages of peace
You could take a still from one of his videos of a part of Cairo – describe the scene to get them to get them thinking about how people are living, the conditions- that they work with in order to prepare for his TEd Talk and his art work.
Finally, to follow up this video lesson, get your students to make their own responses to eL Seed’s calligraffiti – their own signs or calligraphic presentations of messages to share and discuss.
See the TED Talk Calligraffiti video: https://www.ted.com/talks/el_seed_a_project_of_peace_painted_across_50_buildings?language=en