Volume III - 1995-1996

Graphics from the Front: Artistry in Language Teaching
by Susan Gill

       Susan Gill has taught ESL in California, Colorado, Alabama, Massachusetts, and New York. She works at the American Language Program at the University of Georgia in Athens. Ms. Gill designed the pictorial cards and wrote the chapter on vocabulary games for a collaboratively written textbook tentatively entitled A Novel Approach: English for Bookworms and Movie Buffs to be published by the University of Michigan Press. In the following article, the author/illustrator discusses her student's graphic designs.

      A colleague of mine at the University of Georgia took a bag of Hershey's Kisses into one of her ESL classes and gave each student a piece of the silver foil-wrapped candy. She told her students that there were many different ways of looking at objects. For example, she said, we can describe them, analyze them or associate them with other things. She asked her class to spend a few minutes thinking about their candy and then to write about it. Kwang-Sun Chung, a 25-year old Korean man affectionately known as "Sunny," was a student in my colleague's writing class and my listening/speaking class. He was a gentle person who sang in the University choir and attended church. This is what he wrote (unedited):

      The Chocolate
You should not tug violently at her
one-piece dress which is brilliant and beautiful.
Take her hand on which
is written "Kisses" and pull it gently.
You can see a delicious-looking flesh.
Quietly and slowly, peel her dress from
top to bottom. Wait! Don't make her naked,
she'll be shy. Put it in your mouth. She
will convince you.

      Teachers search for ways to communicate that do not leave students feeling vulnerable and exposed, yet inspire them to reveal their ideas. Requiring international students to express themselves in English, is, in a sense, taking something away from them, divesting them of a cover which usually protects them, namely their mother tongue. While some students obviously enjoy using their non-native language skills in front of a group, others seem to feel stripped and apprehensive, especially at the beginning of a course.

Unfolding Personality

      In certain cultures, an urgent tempo--a colorful insistence upon touch, speech and interaction--prevails. In others, the personality unfolds slowly like a paper fan. When we demand "active participation" in English class, we may be overriding cultural precepts about modesty and reserve. How, then, do we structure a variety of activities so that classroom interplay is inclusive? Years ago, as a novice teacher in Los Angeles, I felt exasperated one day when my attempts to involve a group of Japanese students in conversation failed. I complained, "Trying to get opinions from you makes me feel like a dentist pulling teeth."

      Tazuko responded mildly, "Susie, I don't speak in Japanese, either." Her comment was a gift to me: a clue, a glimpse into a different mentality. It was as if Tazuko had wiped a smudged pane of glass clean for me, freeing me from a limitation in my own perception. My students' silence taught me that a relentlessly linear communicative style, such as direct questioning related to teacher-chosen topics, can fail to engage language learners.

Topic Cards

      Increasingly, I experiment with oblique approaches designed to encourage rapport. Wanting to discover what goes in students' minds led me to "topic cards," which contain one or more words and/or a sketch to serve as something to talk about. Passing out three 5"x8" white index cards to each student, I suggest that everyone complete three. Although I love color, I ask the students to use only a black pen or to go over their design if they first use a pencil, so that when I Xerox the cards, the graphics will be clear and bold. My own favorite pen is a fine-line Expresso, which has a polymer point and a smooth, fluid feel. It is available at pharmacies and stationer's for about $1.25. Felt-tip pens and rolling writers also suffice.

      Generally, when I ask my students to design topic cards, they ask, "About what?" "About anything you want to talk about," I reply. "The sky's the limit." At this point I give an example of a topic that a student from another class came up with that had some sort of universal appeal, such as "Insomnia" or "What's the most important thing in life?" I avoid making up my own example, because I want to discover the students' agenda, not impose my own. I tell my students something to this effect: "If you think your topic is interesting, probably somebody else will, too. You don't have to make a speech about your topic. You're just opening up the conversation by suggesting a theme. Maybe you want to know your classmates' ideas on a particular subject. You can write a word, a phrase or question on your card. If you want, you can draw a picture on your card or find someone else to illustrate your idea." After collecting a set of cards done in class or at home, I reproduce them on cardstock (heavy paper) because I want to "give weight" to what students say. I prefer cream-colored cardstock for its warmth, and because black lines are highly visible against it; any light background will do. With large classes, multiple sets of student designs are essential. Everyone must be able to see and handle them. The teacher should not hold all the cards, either literally or metaphorically.

Windows to Joy, Sadness and Anger

      Topic cards--which I often refer to as "pictographs"--have many purposes. They introduce a wide range of topics into classroom dialogue, yet build unity by suggesting connecting themes. While graphics created by students vary in style (ranging from stick figures to geometric and curvilinear designs), they tend to overlap conceptually. For example, food, recreation, separation, and supernatural phenomena are recurring themes. It is vital to find common ground in the international classroom, as well as to honor divergent viewpoints. Topic cards serve not only as effective ice-breakers but can open windows to subtle but powerful conflicts. As such, they provide emotional release that is sometimes vital to cultural adaptation. People far from home may feel cut off from everything familiar and comforting. They need an opportunity to express painful emotions without feeling even more alone or overwhelmed. Drawing and captioning tasks allow students to give form to joy, sadness and anger in a socially acceptable manner. One group of students seemed happiest while discussing their national food. A Frenchman rhapsodized about the fresh loaves of bread people carry in their bicycle baskets in Paris. A card about dating inspired a hilarious game of charades in which a Venezuelan "Cinderella" danced around the classroom with her Japanese "prince. Hardly missing a beat, she stepped out of her shoe, casually indicating the loss of the glass slipper. The students also suggested a game they called "statistics," in which a leader stood in front of the class asking questions related to the cards' personal themes. The other students and I wrote "yes," "no," or "pass" on individual blank cards that were collected and then tallied on the blackboard.

      Graphic design offers economy of expression and visual imagery conducive to free association. Balloon speech and thought clouds are epigrammatic, allowing students to use both visual and verbal skills. Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and author, told a journalist from The Boston Globe Magazine,"...there's something about the way comics work that approximates the way the mind works, with streamlined images combined with the abstraction of words" (June 24, 1990).

Thinking in English

      Designing cards helps students begin to think in English. Students in a mixed-nationality classroom struggle to understand the vocabulary, syntax and accented English of their classmates. However, they quickly "tune in" to phrases and pictures appearing on a wide variety of topic cards. In Art as Image and Idea, Edmund Burke Feldman (1967) expresses a closely related principle:

      Simplicity and logic are the dominant traits which emerge from the successful solution of problems in information design. Visual simplicity implies a bias in favor of bold, abstract forms--forms which are easily visible, quickly identifiable, and capable of rich, symbolic meaning. By logic I mean a sense of connectedness among the elements of the total design: the product or idea; the pictorial or other visual material; and the caption, copy, or other verbal material. (p. 64)

A Responsive Class

      After collecting my first set of pictographs, I took them home and studied them. I was excited by the visual imagery and array of topics. Looking them over again on my lunch break at school, I resisted the impulse to correct grammar and spelling mistakes. If I reworked the cards, I decided, they would lose some of their original power. They were more effective earning tools left untouched. My next inclination was to categorize the cards by subject. I put all the cards into several piles, impressed by the connecting threads: travel and culture, social issues, personal relationships and philosophical questions. Then I thought, "Why am I doing this?" and rearranged the cards in random order. When I went to class, I complimented the students as a whole on their work and wrote these instructions on the board:

1. Divide into groups.
2. Look at, enjoy, and talk about the cards.
3. Make a mental note of grammar and spelling corrections or write them on a separate piece of paper. Write a title for each subject.
4. Discuss 5 ways of using these cards in learning activities or games and write them down.

      I wrote number two, above, because my students need explicit directions, while the most traditional ones actually need permission to have fun. I wanted to make sure my students allowed themselves to appreciate their own work and that of their classmates. The students divided into several groups, and I passed out an identical set of cards to each cluster. The response to the cards was electric. I circulated among the groups, hearing animated discussions of grammar points, ways to categorize the cards and, of course, the content of the cards themselves.

Josef, Yoko, Jin and Charlotte

      ESL students may experience intercultural conflicts with their classmates and or/teacher. In one of my larger reading classes, the wide disparity in English proficiency and modes of relating caused stress. When we discussed a text, communication was far from smooth. Josef, a young man from the Czech Republic, made aggressive jokes at other students' expense. "Speak English!" he called across the room, not having understood a Japanese woman's accented English. Yoko, who had been trying to express her idea about a reading, remained silent for the rest of the period. I asked Josef and Yoko to stay after class and talk, asking each one what was needed from the other. Yoko told Josef to be kind; he asked her to speak more loudly in class. It suddenly occurred to me that this strapping, blue-eyed blonde Czech might feel out of place surrounded by the more delicately built, soft-spoken Asians who comprised the majority of his classmates.

"Josef," I asked, "do you feel isolated?"
"What does that mean?" he replied.
"Alone," I explained.
"Yes," he answered.

      Josef's topic card showed a stick figure hanging from a gallows. He had labeled the figure "Jin," the name of a male Korean classmate whom he liked.1

      I chose two cards from this class for a writing assignment. One was designed by a Korean woman:

      The other was drawn by a Colombian man:

      I Xeroxed each card on 8" x 11" paper and distributed copies to my students and asked them to write about either topic. The woman who had introduced the topic of homesickness chose to write about the differences between Korea and the States. After reading her upbeat, tolerant composition to the class, she received a lot of positive feedback. Later, a student who we will call Charlotte read her essay, in which she denied feeling homesick. She explained that she had left home in her teens to study and had become used to separation from her parents.

      Then I asked my students to write responses to the compositions that were read in class. Josf's response began,"Charlotte is strong girl because she doesn't feel homesick, but I am weak man...." He went on to say that he missed his family and friends, that everything was better back home, and that he looked forward to visiting the Czech Republic at Christmas. I asked Josef to read his response to the group, and he did so, omitting the part in which he called himself weak. Jin commented that Josef was like a child. "Once you choose your direction, you have to stick to it."

      I said, "I'm 44 years old, and I still miss my mother, even though she lives in Boston, not that far away." The students pressed me to continue. I told them I missed my brothers but "carry them in my heart." I added that it was difficult to let go of students time after time, that we are continually losing and gaining in life.

      As in any community, a curious symbiosis exists in the classroom, in which one member may speak for others. This connection may be particularly dramatic in an international group in which English skills vary. I was grateful to my student (see above) who had drawn the homesick student weeping at her desk; it allowed Josef to air his grievance.

      Josef relaxed after that meeting. The students and I bonded. Jin and Josef eventually became roommates. As Jin wrote in an essay, "Humans have as many feelings as stars in the night sky. We feel happiness, sorrow, anger, shame, doubt, jealousy and joy.... Love is born from sympathy, and sympathy is based on sorrow."

      Thinking about the inevitable separation from my students, I wrote the following and read it to my class:

Teacher '94

We are the gypsies
The make-shift

The oasis, the

The conduit

Before dawn
My children are gone

Left weeping

But a thousand seeds
Spring up 'round the world.


      The students' cards also help them communicate spiritual sensibility for which they have few words, at least in English. I knew very little about my student from Yemen, Mansour, except that his attendance was sporadic and that he had trouble keeping up with his classmates due to his limited vocabulary. During one quarter at the University, he had suffered greatly when he temporarily could not reach his family in Yemen due to civil strife there. The next quarter, his life had stabilized as things back home calmed down. Here is the card he designed:*

*Mansour's card reads: "You are very rich."

      I puzzled over his design for about a week, not sure if I understood it or not. Then something clicked. In response to his captioned picture, I wrote:

Know something
They can't explain
About the nature of loss and pain

And riches falling from
Heaven like rain.

      When we discussed his card in class, someone suggested that Mansour had drawn rain because Yemen is a dry country. Mansour explained his idea very simply: God gives us water, and that makes plants; animals eat plants. We eat the animals, and that gives us life. "You are very rich," he repeated as if stating the obvious, while gesturing with the palms of his hands upturned.

      Students are growing and changing, whether they are aware of the process or not. I want a chance to delve beneath the surface of their busy lives and record some of the changes. Interweaving student designs into my teaching gives me such an opportunity. The cards offer a glimpse into my students' inner worlds and enrich my classes.


1       Why did Josef draw a ghoulish picture? Why did Jin smile? Perhaps Josef both liked and feared intelligent, detached Jin at the beginning of the quarter. Labeling his hangman's victim "Jin," Josef expressed his ambivalence: interest in his classmate as well as hostility. In some ways, Josef and Jin were opposites. A professional tennis player, Josef was outspoken and emotional. He asked me to bring colorfully illustrated sightseeing and geography books to show the class. Jin, on the other hand, was intellectual, with a poetic sensibility. He asked for articles from Time magazine to study. Jim may have smiled at the antisocial, graffiti-style card because he was not threatened by Josef's "bad boy" response to my assignment. Maybe he found Josef's negative attention amusing--as long as it was kept "in the family" (within the confines of our class). My guess is that each young man secretly admired qualities the other had.) Since Jin was one of the most appealing and articulate members of class with little need of my protection, I did not delete Josef's drawing from the pack of student cards. Jin, in fact, smiled when he saw Josef's card but later asked me not to show it to a teachers-in -training class I had to address at the College of Education.


Dennison, D.C. "The Interview" (with Art Spiegelman).The Boston Globe Magazine. June 24, 1990.

Feldman, Edmund Burke. Art as Image and Idea. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967.

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