Volume III - 1995-1996

Grandma Moses Meets ESL: Art for Speaking and Writing Activities
by Claudia J. Rucinski-Hatch

       Claudia J. Rucinski-Hatch teaches ESL and Spanish at The Milwaukee Area Technical College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She is the author of two ESL textbooks, Cuing In and Cuing In with Pictures (Scott, Foresman and Co.) She has presented at local and international TESOL conferences as well as adult education conferences. She holds an M.S. in Curriculum and Instruction (concentration in TESOL) and an M.A. in Foreign Language and Literature (Spanish) from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

       Painters use their eyes
To show us what they see.
But when that canvas dries
We all see it differently.
"Ain't No Song" (D. Spinozza and J. Levine, l974)

       Fine art has a power and richness that can deeply stimulate the imagination of ESL students. Because of that, it is well-suited to speaking and writing activities, both of which profit enormously from a strong wish to express an idea or reaction. The use of works of art also promotes an understanding of the target culture and its history. A third advantage is that it seems to enhance a "bridge function" between the pattern-recognizing right hemisphere of the brain and the more analytical, language-processing aspects of the left. After briefly discussing these three advantages, we will look at several examples of student writing in response to paintings by well known American artists.

Cultural Legacy

       The legacy of a culture is contained in its artwork, which also provides students with exposure to a multitude of interesting points of incidental information. For example, with regard to U.S. culture, the paintings of Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell portray the Old West while Grandma Moses' paintings show scenes of farm life. Students from hot climates may not be familiar with winter activities such as sledding, ice-skating, ice hockey, etc. as portrayed in Grandma Moses' paintings. American holiday celebrations are also depicted in Norman Rockwell's paintings such as Thanksgiving and Union Station, Chicago at Christmas as well as Grandma Moses paintings Halloween and July 4th. American history can be seen in Norman Rockwell's GI Homecoming and The Problem We All Live With. Values of American society are evident in Norman Rockwell's Freedom of Worship and Freedom of Speech. These represent only a sampling of the possibilities for our ESL classroom.

Using Art to Bridge the Hemispheres

       For most lay people (non-art historians), art is thought to be processed in the right hemisphere. When we go to an art museum and look at a painting, our first impulse is not to express our feelings about the painting in words. How do we behave? We step backward, we step forward, we look at the painting from top to bottom, bottom to top, left to right, right to left. We ask ourselves if we like it or not. How does the painting make us feel? We try to identify our feelings. Perhaps later we can verbalize our feelings. But when we do finally speak in words, it is only because our right hemisphere has helped us to approach the structured language abilities of the left hemisphere. It's as if the left and right hemispheres were connected by a bridge. We start contemplating art in the right hemisphere and then walk across the bridge to further process language in the right hemisphere. We may speak of left- brain and right-brain cultures. The Western industrialized societies represent a more left- brain orientation. We value technology, science, organization, efficiency, accuracy and proof; while right-brain cultures value art, music, spiritualism, mysticism and mystery. Left-brain cultures tend to value the work of the logical, rational mind; while right-brain cultures value the work of the hands, such as the ability to draw or create a beautiful embroidery.

       Although American society is more left-brain oriented, many of our students originate from right-brain societies. Perhaps then it is correct to begin language learning activities in a right-brain orientation where these students feel more comfortable. They experience feelings in the right hemisphere and then are able to transfer these feelings to the left hemisphere where they are processed as spoken and/or written language. What advantage does art bring for the development of language? Perhaps one answer is that the left hemisphere receives opportunities for vocabulary development and manipulation of target language structures. The right hemisphere receives opportunities for use of imagination and exploration and identification of feelings. Since many of our ESL students are refugees who have recently arrived from traumatic circumstances, the latter may be particularly helpful, according to what psychologists have told us about this population.

Incorporating Art and ESL

       How are we to incorporate art and ESL? First, we begin by selecting paintings that lend themselves to this activity. Which paintings are appropriate depends on the level of the students and the focus of the lesson. This activity can be used at all levels of ESL and can be adapted to meet the particular needs of the students. For very beginning level students ( those students who are beginning literacy), paintings should be chosen that show figures and depict activity and movement. This enables the students to discuss the who- questions "Who are these people?" "What are they doing?" Students should work together in groups of at least two but not more than four. When the students are given their assigned painting, the title should be covered. They should be told to examine the painting, discuss it and write a story together about it. A handout prepared by the instructor should be distributed. This provides a guided composition format for the students to work from. The instructor can spend some time with each group as they discuss the story of the painting and write their answers. They should be instructed to take only their answers from the handout and combine these answers to form a composition. Each group may then present their painting and composition to the rest of the class. The actual title of the painting can then be revealed and students can compare their title with that given by the artist. The teacher can give a short biography of the artist..

       Following are sample questions for handout for lesson concentrating on wh- questions and vocabulary development:

1. Who are these people?
2 .Where are they?
3. What are they doing?

       This plan could be modified according to the needs of the group. For example, the instructor may wish to do this as a whole-class activity using a slide or poster rather than a print in an art book. The focus of the lesson might be simply on wh- questions or the present progressive. At the more advanced level, questions emphasizing the present perfect tense, past tense, "if" clauses, etc. might be included. For students at the very beginning level (non-literate), the teacher may want to do this as strictly an oral activity. The teacher has the freedom to structure this activity as she or he deems appropriate.

Apparent Chaos

       After you have explained the procedure to the students and distributed the handout with the questions, let the fun begin! Your classroom may look like total chaos as students disagree with each other about who these people are and what they're doing, but in the process they're using a lot of English! This allows the classroom to be less teacher-directed and provides for cooperative learning as students have to discuss the painting and then work together to write a story. As they combine their answers to complete the composition, students need to consider transitions as well. Students can also help each other edit their compositions. For example,Group 1 can help Group 2 as they are finalizing their composition. Are there spelling mistakes? How about irregular verb forms? It's true that we do all see that canvas differently. The following are samples student writings about the Edward Hopper painting, Nighthawks:

Justice is Coming

       In the picture we see an all-night diner in a big city with some customers. Some people have a job that begins or ends late at night; they don't have a sweet home and so go to an all-night diner to have some fast food. Sometimes their work isn't legal and is connected to the world of crime. People bring their far-from-nice feelings to the all-night diner and leave part of these feelings here. The man in the front of the picture is a typical representative of the current life around the all-night diner. But this all-night diner remembers its visitors from the past.

       We see one of them at the counter. He was in jail for a long time because he had been involved in some illegal business. One of his partners stole all the money from the group and escaped. Now he wants to find this man. The ex-prisoner found their former boss' daughter and she suggested that he talk with the waiter of the all-night diner. The waiter has been working here for a long time. He knows many of the customers well and has heard a lot of stories from them. He might know something about this matter.

       Another group wrote that the man with the woman was a drug dealer and the man sitting alone was the FBI agent who came to arrest him. When I asked another group of beginning level students if they thought the people in the picture were happy, I got an enthusiastic "Oh, yes! from a student. When I asked him why he thought they were happy, he replied, Because they have money to go to a restaurant. This man was a recently-arrived refugee for whom a dinner in a restaurant would have been a complete luxury. Another student, a young woman recently-arrived from Bosnia, wrote a lengthy story about this painting and told me, "I love this painting so much. I don't know why but it gives me a good feeling. I love it." A group of recently-arrived Vietnamese students, having just survived their first Midwestern winter, reviewed a Grandma Moses painting showing a winter scene full of outside activities, and called the painting, Outside Snow- Wow! Grandma Moses had entitled it It Snows, Oh It Snows.

       Norman Rockwell's painting, Freedom from Fear was interpreted by two groups.


       They are a family: a father, a mother, a daughter and a son. The children were tired of playing with their toys so they went to sleep in their bedroom upstairs. The mother is taking care of her children, and the parents are talking about how sweet their children are. The parents seem to be happy to see their children sleeping in the early night. Before they came here, the father might have been reading the newspaper in the living room downstairs. After they finish with their children, they will go downstairs to the living room again and watch TV or talk about their children to each other. We think the the title of this picture is Family because this picture is a very ordinary expression for a family, but we could also feel the real love of the family in this picture. We could see that this is a very peaceful family, so we would like to be there. When we first saw this picture it also reminded us of when we were young and we were children ourselves. If we could be here, we would like to take care of the children sleeping so peacefully and sweetly. We would like to kiss the children.

       Below is the other interpretation of this painting:

The House at Night

       These people are at home and in the bedroom. They are husband, wife and children. They are here because this is their house. The parents are taking care of their children. The mother is singing a lullaby and the children are sleeping. The parents feel happy because they feel the children will have a good sleep. They came from the living room before and after they will go to their bedroom and they will sleep. I think the title of this painting is The House at Night because I see the children sleeping and after that the parents will go to sleep too. I feel happy when I see this painting because everyone is quiet. I would like to be here because I see they are a good family. It reminds me of when I lived in Vietnam. Every night my sister and I went to sleep and our parents always took are of us. I love my parents. I would like to be here and go to sleep because the bedroom looks very nice and peaceful.

       This painting shows two children sleeping in their bed with the parents bending over them. The scene is indeed touching and students all seem to fondly recall their own childhood's. No one, however, has ever noticed that the father is holding a newspaper in his hands with the heading: "Bombing! Horror!" Norman Rockwell painted Freedom From Fear in l943.

Additional Activities

       There are many additional activities involving the use of art in the ESL class. For example, students could write individual (not group) compositions and then do some drawing or painting of their own. For example, using Grandma Moses' My Homeland, show the painting and read what Grandma Moses wrote about where she lived. Have the students write a story about their homeland and make a drawing or painting if they choose! If space permits, decorate the classroom with their drawings, posters or prints with copies of the compositions next to them. This is a great self-esteem booster! Give a biography of the artist and, if possible, show a video about her/him. Watching Norman Rockwell use his neighbors as models for his work makes the painting become very real. A field trip to the local art museum is also a very worthwhile activity. I profoundly remember a trip to the Milwaukee Art Museum with my group of recently-arrived Southeast Asian refugee students. One Hmong woman, who could barely say her address and telephone number in English, came around the corner of the gallery and suddenly saw the Georgia O'Keefe painting, Poppies. The student ran to the painting and said, "My farm, my farm". She had been a poppy farmer in Laos.

       Paintings can evoke powerful feelings that can later be expressed in language! Our students may come to us empty of English but certainly not empty of wisdom, intelligence and life. This contemplation of great paintings can provide them with an outlet to express all that they have to say.

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