Reimagining famous paintings : Stimulating creative and critical thinking in the EFL class through an art project

Reimagining famous paintings

Stimulating creative and critical thinking in the EFL class through an art project

Special thanks to Maria Karantzi and Annette Morley for their contribution to the project! 

Can art in the EFL class, trigger thought-provoking discussions and provide useful language content for primary school learners? The following post is based on a project I did with my 5th graders and displays some of the work done by the students.

Until I heard Maria Karanzti, an arts and crafts teacher presenting, the only thing I could could think of was to ask my learners do a tedious project on art. Something like:

“Find information about your favourite painting and present it in class”

But I knew that two things were guaranteed: utter boredom in class and powerpoint slides with copied and pasted information that my learners wouldn’t even have read before “presenting” them in class.

When Maria talked about the trend of “reimagining” famous paintings, I thought I saw the challenge arising for my learners.  So the project was rephrased as following:

“Find information about your favourite painting and reimagine it. You can draw or use technology to make your version of the painting. Write a short text and describe why you have made changes and how you feel.”

I showed in class Vermeer’s girl and the humorous “Star Wars” version and explained the notion. We even searched on ® Bing other “reimagined” paintings and the students found it intriguing. To my surprise, none chose to draw it and they all chose to use technology. Some used photoshop, others used apps that sounded alien to me. 

 The problem that arises at this stage is that you need to collect the students’ work and give them feedback. The most practical tool for that is  ®OneNote. You can create a virtual notebook and invite students to share there, photos of their drawings, information about the paintings and their reflective accounts on the changes they made. If the school does not support Windows, you can use any other collaborative web 2.0 tool like padlet or you can even have them in a USB flash drive. Once you have collected all the material, you can put everything together in a video like this one:

The original idea to create a virtual museum using ® Minecraft came unstuck as the 5th graders who promised to do it, failed to meet the deadline. However, all the students created their reimagined paintings. Beyond the artistic value, I was happy as an EFL teacher because all the students produced texts in L2 – some short, others longer and more elaborate. The  structure which was Reimagining famous paintingsmainly used was the 2nd conditional but there were also chunks of language which were closer to freer practice and using the language more creatively.

But that was not all… As we were talking about the project, issues arose like:

Is it a good idea to reimagine paintings and create our own version?

Does it make us more creative or does it show disrespect for the artist and the work of art?

These sparked heated discussions in class and on the school's Learning Management System, which were a source of inspiration for the next part of the project: An opinion poll.

I used ®Office Mix to create the poll but there are also a number of Web 2.0 tools that can be used in class. 

An English teacher openly opposed the idea while the art and crafts teacher was in favour which gave me the opportunity to do a follow-up on the topic.  I divided the class into two groups. Group A interviewed the teacher who was against and Group B the one who was a supporter of the idea. Then, the class listened to both recording and wrote down the arguments of each side. 

This was a great opportunity for me to introduce small argumentative paragraphs with a topic sentence, the argument and example. For instance:

I believe that reimagining famous paintings is not a good idea. First of all, we do not know exactly what the artist wanted to show and how he or she felt. For example, I can not feel the same like Munch when he painted the Scream.

This may not seem much of an accomplishment but for 10-11 year old pupils, supporting their views with reasons and examples is not an easy task.

Finally, after doing a unit in the coursebook on art, I asked my students if they knew about any special stories behind a painting or work of art. Even though I had originally feared that my students had mechanistically copied and pasted information about their favourite work of art, it turned out that some of them had paid attention. A few days later, A. K. came to class with this video: 

So far, my students had read, listened, spoken and written in English about a different subject (CLIL) and above all were motivated and felt creative, taking initiatives like the video produced by A.K.

Yet, there seemed to be one more element missing. Their own personal creations. So I asked them to create their own work of art and write a paragraph or shoot a video to talk about it. Here is a sample of their work:

Video created by M.M.

My pupils had fun and learned so many things that I intend to try it again this September. Would you like to give it a go with your students?

Dimitris Primalis


7+1 tips to make CLIL work with your class

CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) has been adopted by a growing number of schools and language schools for a number of reasons, including more opportunities for language practice, motivation for learners who are interested in subjects other than English and developing 21st century skills.

Yet, many educators often feel that the syllabus and previously followed practices, hinder CLIL and their students are deprived of the opportunity to reap benefits from its implementation. 
Indeed, habits from the past may jeopardize the efforts of the leadership and the teaching staff to facilitate learning and raise the standards.  The following tips may help towards creating an environment that will allow CLIL to be fruitful and boost language production and reception :

1.      Balance testing with language production time
Tests are tangible, measurable and go down well with parents who feel that their kids are closely monitored. In fact, many teachers saw their popularity rise among ever concerned parents because they tested on a daily basis their children . Yet, quite often there is so much testing that there is not enough room left for students to be exposed to language, let alone produce it. 

Ensure there is a balance and move towards other forms of assessment such as evaluating projects with the aid of rubrics and giving more feedback to learners. These are often friendlier to the learners and they may even motivate them more as they will be actively involved through peer correction or negotiate the criteria to assess projects or presentations.

2.      Make the most of technology
Learning more about a natural phenomenon by searching it on the internet, carrying out a poll or creating their own video or animation on the topic you are teaching this week? These may be skills and activities that your students may be doing in their free time in real life. Isn’t it about time the school integrated them into the syllabus? By exploiting technology, students can reap numerous benefits ranging from exposure to L2, having their schemata activated with diagrams and flowcharts, to developing learner autonomy.

3.      Avoid lectures, involve learners
Νο! Pairwork, groupwork and communication among students will neither ruin your class management nor challenge your authority. On the contrary, this can be achieved easily if you
Source:ELT pics
lecture throughout the lesson till the student switch off. This can get  even worse by asking them if they have understood and ]then you receive the usual “yes, Miss!”. From my experience, the answer is always yes to such a question irrespective of whether they have understood or not. Learning can be facilitated with student engagement and different forms of interaction. Through these, students have an opportunity to express themselves, have a personal stake in their learning and assume responsibility to carry out a task rather than being passive recipients.

4.      Stop spoon feeding your learners
It is often thought that being a good teacher means giving lengthy explanations about everything even before your students ask you. But there are two points to consider: a) you will not be on their side for ever so they need  start forming hypotheses and b) CLIL is about discovering knowledge. Providing all the answers before your students try to figure them out, defeats the purpose. Devoting some time to help them develop their critical thinking skills is a mid/long run investment that will compensate you and the learners. 

5.      Grammar without context? Exploiting available resources
A large number of teachers feel that they are not teaching enough grammar – compared to a grammar based syllabus – and tend to teach grammar without context, often with piles of photocopied exercises. In extreme cases, they teach the structure and all its aspects all the way down to the last exception that even a grammarian may not be aware of.  This can impose a huge strain on the syllabus.

Surely, there is a video,a reading or listening text to exploit so that students can use the context to grasp it more easily. It is also worth bearing in mind that in some forms of CLIL, grammatical structures are treated as “chunks” of language and I personally feel  that sometimes they are easier to be treated as such.  In any case, assessing the priorities of the class and selecting what needs to be taught explicitly and what implicitly can act as a compass that will save you time and effort.

6.      Make the most of projects
Inquiry based learning may not bring the desired results in terms of language accuracy and surely it cannot be controlled by you. Plus, you may find some parents complaining that project  work is time consuming. But it is through these projects that you can give your learners freedom to choose topics that are of interest to them, and give them the opportunity to immerse into new language and develop more autonomy as learners. Projects can be easily integrated into any syllabus and can be done by learners over a period of time without requiring any time in class. Learning technology enables teachers to provide personalized feedback while blogs, Learning Management Systems and school websites offer a splendid room for display and sharing with the community.

7.       Don’t encourage learners to translate texts word for word
Many parents  ask students to read the text aloud at home and translate it word for word. Some teachers, either because they are aware of the above practice or they are used to more traditional approaches and methods (grammar translation) may be tempted to do so in class or assign it as homework. Considering though that CLIL texts are usually longer and more challenging than the usual EFL ones, it will not really help the students. On the contrary, they are likely to be demotivated by the number of new words and length of text. Developing word and text attack skills in class, doing pre-reading tasks that can activate learners' schemata and breaking the text into manageable chunks in the while-reading stage are not a waste of time. They will help your learners deal confidently with texts and later on, approach academic texts and books more efficiently.

Be prepared to explain to parents and learners at the very beginning of the year that not all words in a text are important and that you aim at helping learners develop reading skills . This is likely to prevent many reactions and complains expressed by the above mentioned stakeholders.

+1 Be consistent and patient
This applies to any new approach that is being implemented. No matter how many difficulties you may face, repeating the same steps on a regular basis, builds a creative routine that allows students to feel secure, knowing what they are expected to do.  Despite the initial shock, students tend to adapt easily and as time passes by they tend to respond more enthusiastically. No new approach has ever seen measurable positive  results overnight and it would be unfair to condemn your and your students efforts without allowing for enough time to apply it.

Some more thoughts instead of conclusion
An educator’s constant concern is to ensure that their learners will be able to cope with the challenges that are yet to arise. Implementing change may take you out of your comfort zone and require longer hours of work, observation, feedback and adaptation. However, it can be motivating and rewarding in terms of exploring and exploiting potential you never thought that you as a teacher, or your students have.

Enjoy the journey!
Dimitris Primalis


Sway your class into creativity and imagination

Sway your class into creativity and imagination

3 ways to use ®Sway creatively with an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) class

Many presentation tools can be used to spark creativity and imagination in class but in this post I have chosen Sway – an internet based tool – because it is easy to use, versatile, allows the user to find photos without wasting time and incorporate sounds and videos . Thus, learners can focus more on the content rather than the aesthetic part.

1.    Create a mystery story…
Open a new presentation and choose 5 photos that can stimulate learners’ imagination. 
Click on the link to see example:

An unforgettable night

 Add creepy sounds like the sound of a door slumming, thunder, the scream of a woman.  You can  find free sond effects on  http://www.orangefreesounds.com/. Write on the board: Who, where, when. Then invite learners to work in pairs or in groups and decide who is involved in the story, where and it takes place. Elicit vocabulary relevant to the story (i.e. sounds, descriptive adjectives, feelings).

You can elicit the first paragraph in class and write it on the Sway slides. Then invite learners to continue the story. Allow them to use photos to illustrate the story and present it in class or share it on the school blog.

2.     Narrate holiday experiences
 Create a ® Sway presentation with 5 of your favourite holiday photos and explain why they are special to you. Present in class. Click on the link below to see a sample:

My holidays

3.   Digitalize your hand made book
Students often create handmade paperback books with stories with their drawings.  Given that most of the times they are tiny, sharing them with the rest of the class is not easy because learners want to see the illustrations. Scan the content of the books or take a photo you’re your mobile and uploaded them on a Sway presentation. Project the presentation on the board while the pupil is reading his/her story to the rest of the class. It makes narration more interesting and learners tend to appreciate more the effort and time spent on the creation of the book. You can also share the Sway presentation on the school blog. Click on the link  below to look at one of the stories:

Mouse to the rescue

     My students loved all the above activities, were actively involved in creating content and  were particularly keen on sharing it with the rest of their classmates.
Have fun!

Dimitris Primalis



Holiday snapshots in class

Snapshots in class
Use holiday photos to spark speaking and writing in class
Special thanks to Sophia Nikoletou for her contribution!

With the extensive use of smart phones, tablets and digital cameras, more and more of your students are likely to have taken a sizeable number of photos during their holidays. In this post, I will suggest ways in which teachers and students can use these photos in order to practise speaking and writing skills.

Activity 1: The inanimate object
Choose a photo with an inanimate object and ask your students to imagine what the object would say if it had a voice: “What can the object tell us about what had happened before the photo was taken?”
Below you can find an example. Students can use their own photos to illustrate their own stories. They can present their story in class by showing their photo(s) on a ®Powerpoint slide and record their voice narrating their story on the slide with the photo.  

Here's a sample of the kind of writing it may inspire:
 "Standing at the small cafe' on top of the cliff, Henry was enjoying the breathtaking view of the island which seemed to be the perfect holiday destination. Suddenly, a distant voice pulled his eye from the coast to his wife, who was swimming under the cliff and waving at him. Henry grabbed his camera to capture the scene. He narrowed his eyes to take a close-up shot, but what he saw turned his excitement into panic. Christine was not waving but drowning!!!"  

Alternatively, use an unusual photo as a lead-in to story writing.

Activity 2: Give it a title
Choose a funny or unusual photo and ask students to write a title or brief comment.

Flying saucers invade Greek beach: Swimmer blames Mojitos

Activity 3: Tweet it
Ask students to write a message accompanying the photo as if they were going to share it on Twitter.  The message should not be more than 140 characters.

Pristine waters, Mediterranean food and idyllic view on Europe’s southernmost tip.  Heaven on Earth #serendipity #Crete

Activity 4: Present with sway
Create a ® Sway presentation with 5 of your favourite holiday photos and explain why they are special to you. Present in class. Click on the link below to see a sample:

Activity 5: Use mobile phone apps
Most students download apps on their smart phone that create various effects on photos. ®Prisma is free and turns photos into art work. You can use these effects to compare and contrast the real photo and the one  with the effects or you can have sets of photos to start a story. The students can work in pairs or groups and they can narrate it or write it down or even create an e-book with the content they have put together.
Last night I had a strange dream. It was dark and rainy and my balcony door overlooked a cliff..

Then, suddenly it got lighter and I could see outside my balcony. There  were two rocks in the sea...

Then the sun came out and the sea started sparkling under the sun...

It felt as if it was true... I could smell the sea and feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. 

For those of you who may not have a smart phone or do not feel comfortable using your personal photos, Eltpics,  http://www.eltpics.com/ is a website with photos from teachers for teachers.

Final thoughts
Personalizing learning and inviting learners to be actively involved with their own material can both act as a very strong stimulus to motivate learners and urge them to develop their creative thinking skills along with writing and speaking skills in L2.

Have fun and enjoy your learners' creativity and imagination!
Dimitris Primalis


Who says feedback can’t be Motivating, Involving & Xciting ???!!!

Who says feedback can’t be Motivating, Involving & Xciting ???!!!

Revisiting feedback with the aid of technology  from a personalized learning perspective.

Does the word feedback conjure spine-chilling images of scraps of paper with red smudges, stereotypical comments and a much awaited mark? And then a feeling of bitterness on both sides?

On the students’ side, the feeling that it is only mistakes that are highlighted and there’s rarely a word of encouragement or recognition of their hard work.

On the teacher’s part, the feeling that endless hours of work are not spared more than a quick glance at the grade and practically nobody paying attention to the corrections. All the hard work going down the drain…

With few exceptions this has been the picture so far. Yet technology can change the game and motivate and involve learners through personal or group feedback. Below you can read 3 ways that you can change the feedback you give to your students. My students loved them and it is very easy to use

  • .      Use video and voice recording to give feedback.
  • .      Instead of spoon feeding your students, challenge them with a poll.
  • .     Create content with your students and then ask them to give you feedback on their product.

The tool I used is called  Office Mix. It is an add-on  Add-on software that allows you to record what you have on your screen, record voice or video and draw or underline. This process is called “screen casting” and there are quite a few tools available on the market. Yet, what I found convenient with Mix is that once  downloaded,  it is automatically added to the top menu bar of your powerpoint and it is easy to use.

1. Most students find personalized feedback in front of the class embarrassing and they would like to have it in a more discreet way. Because breaks are never long enough to do it I tried emailing them the feedback they need using Office Mix.  You can see a video below (View from 15th second).

Use the video or voice recording functions to give personalized feedback to your learners. Click  Mix on slide recording on the top left corner,

 record your feedback – you may use the pens on the left to underline or circle areas and then click preview to check if you’re satisfied with your recording. Then convert it into an mp4 video (see top bar) and send it to your student. They will surely appreciate the fact that you pay attention to their work and you provide personalized feedback.

2.  Few students like to be lectured upon their mistake but when they are given a second chance to correct their mistake then it is seen as a challenge they are willing to take up.

I often ask my students to share their work in digital form (either email it or share it on the school’s Learning Management System).
If you have their homework or project in digital form, insert it in a powerpoint slide and then click on the top bar of Mix on Quizzes, Video Apps.

Choose the type of quiz or poll you want to give them. My favourite is the multiple choice one. They can choose the reason why their answer is wrong or even better ask them to choose the correct answer and write why they chose the specific one.

They are far more likely to respond to that kind of feedback rather than reading detailed comments on their notebook.

3. Helena is a new student and can be described as a very weak in terms of cognitive skills. Yet, she is eager to learn and seems to be learning through doing things rather than being lectured. When she sang a song from the student’s book that practices a function – “I’d like some ice cream, how about you? Me too” – she did well but when it came to a freer practice, she could not perceive the pronunciation mistakes.

I created 4 powerpoint slides ( you can see them in the form of the embedded video below) and we recorded her voice using Office Mix. She insisted on listening to her recording (click on preview recording) and asked to delete it and try again. She was recorded several times until she felt satisfied with the outcome. I promised her that I would turn the powerpoint presentation into  video so that she can show her mother and grandmother – her role models – her creation.

At the end of the lesson, Helena was happy feeling creative instead of the usual frustration learners suffer when given feedback.

A few closing thoughts
Mixing in new tools with old techniques and approaches can be fun and fruitful in terms of motivation, involvement and assessment. Technology can pave brand new ways to serve pedagogy. It is up to the educators to explore their potential and integrate them seamlessly into our lesson to serve best our students’ learning goals.

Dimitris Primalis


How to turn your powerpoint presentation into a video and boost your learners' creativity!

Turn your powerpoint presentation into a video in 
3 easy steps and boost your learners' creativity!

Powerpoint is the best known tool for presentations. Now you can use it to promote your and your students'  work and attract your audience's attention by  creating short videos like the one below:

Step 1: Create your presentation and save it as ODP. You may want to add transitions between the slides which make it more impressive or add sound.

Step 2: Click the presentation button at the top bar menu (see green arrow) and rehearse as if you were presenting the powerpoint. If you are not happy with the outcome, you can try as many times as you want. 

Step 3:  Save the presentation either as MP4 file or as wmv file. It may take a while for the video to "brew"  but the end product is worth the time. 

Ideas for the classroom

Students can create:
1. a trailer for their favourite film or book
2. their own commercial promoting their inventions or a good cause i.e. recycling
3. their own animated stories by using the new "synth" transition which creates animation effects 
4. a vlog by inserting photos or videos from their holidays or daily routine .

For the mini video and screen shots in the step-by-step tutorials I used Office Mix which is an add-on easily downloadable and can be an invaluable tool for every educator. You can read more on my next blogpost in a few days.  

Have fun with your class and boost their creativity with their own powerpoint videos!

Dimitris Primalis