The Arts: Expressing Oneself Without Words

This week’s post is written by Ann McCormack, the theater arts teacher at The Brooklyn International High School.

With all that our students have to accomplish before they can graduate with a New York State High School diploma, why even offer art classes? Why not double up on English classes? Or have special English conversation tutors?

Founding principal of BIHS, Sara Newman, explains her choice to include the Arts this way, “I wanted to have an art teacher because I wanted students to have a way to express themselves without having to use words.” Without a word of English, students could share their thoughts, their concerns, and their imaginations through artistic creations. Our current principal, Pam Taranto agrees: “…the arts give English language learners a practical and creative point of entry without having to rely on verbal language as the only mode of communication.” As an artist and a teacher, I have witnessed many moments of self-discovery and self-expression.

Example #1:

Nicolas arrives in my classroom well into the spring term. If he speaks any English, he’s not letting me know it. Even with the help of other native language speakers, it’s difficult to gather much information about his past experience. His eyes, when they meet mine, are apologetic for not knowing my language and seem to challenge me, “Can you really make this work?”

We’re in the midst of a messy and time-consuming project called, Making Masks from Literature when Nicolas arrives. My classes had recently read Macbeth and Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray. They had also attended productions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and A Shogun Macbeth. Unfortunately, Nicolas had missed all of these scaffolds and had no clue as to what we were doing. He looked discouraged and helpless. He didn’t know where to look or what to do.

For the project, the students could choose any character from those pieces of literature to create their mask. A couple of students who shared Nicolas’ first language were working on characters from The Hunchback and enjoyed explaining the story and characters to him, demonstrating and acting it out whenever necessary. He chose Frollo, the villain of The Hunchback and silently set to work.

First, he drew the face of a man with evil eyes and a devilish beard. From the drawing, I could see that he had a basic understanding of the character, the plot, the setting, and the conflict. I showed him samples of the different steps of the project that I’ve kept from previous years. He kept nodding. He understood the process.

Building up the clay on the plastic mold, his Frollo had a strong nose, a little mouth and beady eyes. He was balding and had a pointed goatee. He covered his clay with several layers plaster of Paris wrap and set it to dry over several days. When it was dry, we removed it from the mold and mixed paint for the desired skin tone and hair color. The skin was pale and sickly and as he saw Frollo as an older character, his hair and beard were grey.

Nicholas' mask of FrolloBy the end of the project, Nicolas still wasn’t speaking much English but he had been quite successful with his mask project, expressing his academic knowledge creatively. The other students and I loved and praised Nicolas’ work and he was very proud. His work was, in fact, displayed as part of BIHS’ First Arts Expo at MetroTech last spring and at The Internationals Arts Gallery event at NYU in June. Not bad for a newcomer.

Example #2:

A few years ago Mamadou came to BIHS through the IRC. Perhaps because of his disability, he had been marginalized in his home country. His first language was an oral one and since he hadn’t been to a regular school, he couldn’t read in the country’s official language. He couldn’t read or write English and apparently had a serious sight problem as well. So, he had trouble staying in his seat and typically wanted to leave the classroom and, indeed, the building by about mid-day.

The other students began reading and acting out Romeo and Juliet aloud in class. A teaching artist from The Shakespeare Society taught us fencing moves and staged the opening fight scene. A dance teacher taught us an Elizabethan dance. Mamadou enjoyed the active group work but even then seemed to get distracted easily. He would turn away while we were reading to draw designs on the white board but at least he was staying with us.

Mamdou as one of the witches from MacbethOne day as I was about to erase the board at the end of class, I saw that he had drawn six stick figures, swords pointed, facing six other stick figures with swords pointed. Over one group he’d written the name Romeo and over the other, the name Juliet. Pam says, “The arts serve as a bridge to support language development while providing students with multiple ways to communicate about content.” Mamadou had quietly found a way to communicate that he understood.

Example #3:

Ishrat is a young woman from Pakistan. She was very ambivalent about coming to school and so was absent for the first six weeks. When she did arrive she was very quiet and completely veiled. Somehow having her face covered seemed to be a barrier to conversation. Some of her classmates seemed to reticent about speaking to her but her eyes peered out saying, “Get to know me! You might be surprised what you find.” I was surprised but delighted when she was eager to act the role of Lady Macbeth. She chose the monologue when Lady Macbeth receives the news from her husband and begins her wicked journey.

Ishrat as Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband.One day while we were rehearsing in class, Ishrat found a donated prom dress on the costume rack in my room. I turned around and Ishrat was wearing her Lady Macbeth costume: a lovely white and pink prom gown. She had placed it on over her black robe so that her Lady Macbeth also wore a hijab and niqab.

She did a beautiful job with the role during the performance. It turned out that the quiet, veiled newcomer had excellent oral English skills and loved to read aloud and act. Ishrat was able to establish herself though this project and the class got to see her in a wonderful new light.

Final words:

Each art teacher within the International Network, and the many other teachers who choose to incorporate art (drawing, rap, poetry, video, etc) into their content area, have seen our students benefit from, often thrive through, the arts. To any teacher who may be seeking ways to incorporating arts in your classroom, your colleagues, arts teachers and others alike, can help you get started. There are many professional development opportunities with a museum or a theater. There are arts organizations that will come into your classroom to lead workshops in your content area. I, for instance, came to Brooklyn International in 2003 as a teaching artist with East River Theatre Company and got hooked on the Internationals’ approach and here I am writing this INHS blog entry.

* The other arts teachers at Brooklyn International are Susan Handwerker, visual arts, Christopher Wilson, Music/Media Arts, and Kia DeCou, Literacy Through Photography and Bookmaking.

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