TA Language Development as a Tool for Student Success


As I was reading articles about speaking and writing development and trying to visualize where and how this happens in the art room, most of the examples that popped into my head first were of my Teaching Assistant (TA).  I began to think about how her language development has changed over the past 3.5 years we’ve worked together and how it affects the children’s art experience and language acquisition.

Some examples that entered my thoughts:

  • Since my TA does a lot of one-on-one work with students, she needs to be aware of what we’re learning and doing each lesson.  Before a lesson, she’ll ask questions about what we’re doing.  Often, art specific vocabulary comes into the conversation (symmetry, body of work, armature, etc) as well as PYP terminology (function, perspective, inquiry, creative cycle, etc) that she is curious about or needs more clarifying/context in order to help students.  Too often, I assume that she knows some of the key vocabulary I’m using and if I don’t take the time to ask her questions and check for understanding, the vocabulary and concepts I’m teaching can easily become more confusing for students later on.
  • Often, my TA and I communicate tasks in the form of a written log that can be referred to throughout the week.  I noticed firsthand how much of a gap there can be between writing and speaking in this instance.  Often, I cannot think of the words to write and explain a task in a clear and simple way, or I realize that the description words I am using may be confusing without visual cues.  I find myself drawing pictures of certain tasks or just writing “see me when you get to this one” so that communication is more clear or so I can physically show examples.  It’s helped me to rethink the way I speak, write, and present information for non-native English speaking students on a daily basis.
  • Typically, it is me who leads demonstrations with art materials and techniques in the art room.  However, this year, I have asked my TA on several occasions to lead small and large group demonstrations for students.  Each time this occurs, I find her more engaged, asking more questions, and exuding more confidence in the art room.  I can see how the same sense of responsibility leads to student language and art progress.  I need to make these types of formal talks and giving presentations a bigger focus for moving students and my TA along the mode continuum of spoken to written language.
  • Attitude is everything.  My teaching assistant is a motivated and curious person which aides tremendously with our communication.  She asks questions when something is not clear, wants to know more about new words/concepts in our curriculum, and is not afraid to tell me when something doesn’t make sense and could be changed for better meaning (which is a tremendous help because if she can’t understand something, the students surely won’t either).  I like to think that I encourage that same attitude in my students to support their language development.  When she models these traits in front of students, it can only lead to their growth as learners.

Reflecting on this relationship helps me to reflect on similar relationships with my students.  My TA’s proficiency in understanding the meaning in all art lessons directly effects students.  Also, what I learn from her language acquisition helps me to better understand and differentiate for my students.  This knowledge leads me to want to explore the question,”What else can I be doing to assist my TA in language acquisition that will have a direct impact on students’ use of language in the art room?”

Drawing, Memory and Learning

I just read this article in the Huffington Post about remembering by drawing and instantly thought about how this applies to #SPELTAC.  I think at a young age, students are often encouraged to draw their thoughts and use illustrations to assist in language acquisition, but often that gets forgotten as they grow and our academic, linguistic demands change.  Or sometimes we get discouraged by our artistic abilities and shy away from drawing because of our lack of confidence.  However, as emphasized in the article,

The method works whether or not you are particularly gifted in the drawing department. Even if your drawings are barely legible to the outside world, to the inner workings of your memory, you’re basically Albrecht Dürer.

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So I am doing a little self experiment.  I take Khmer classes and often find that vocabulary lingers in my brain momentarily and then leaves as I make room for more.  Maybe I should also be drawing to learn and remember words in a new language.  How can I (and students) create drawn vocabulary visuals around my room to do the same?  Excited to build a more visual vocabulary in the art room as the year progresses.

We Do Not Live in Bubbles

Learning is social.  Art is social.  It’s all connected.  The more I teach it, the more I know it because I see it every day.  A student has no inspiration.  He peeks over the shoulder of a peer, catches a glimpse of an awesome robot drawing and BAM!, no more creative block.  He’s off, inventing his own robot, adding superpowers, creating a sidekick…it’s hard to get him to stop at the end of class.  The exchange is done without speaking, or much interacting at all.  A look, some thought, a spark, and they’re off.

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I used to have a bit of an internal conflict about these types of situations.  Is it original?  Is the student developing their own voice if they’re always “copying” ideas from others?  How do I approach two students bickering about someone “copying” their work?  But then I looked to the greater world of learning and living.  What is original anyway?  Does it even matter?  We live in a world that is more connected and overlapping than ever.  Images are appropriated to send a message, beats and lyrics are sampled into something new, the spouse of a Presidential candidate “borrows” part of her speech from the First Lady of the United States.  What does it all mean?

As I listened to George Siemens’ talk about networking through blogs, I started to make my own connections.  He explains how one blog inspires and ignites thought from another blogger, who then adds to the conversation, and so on and so on.  So that in the end, ALL of our ideas are influencing the others and growing together into a giant tumbleweed of collective understanding.  Art is like that too.  Artists see and are inspired by past artists, movements, their current visual culture, surrounding environment, and so much more.  When they create, even with imagination, that imagination is a product of their extensions of the known world.  So is there really such a thing as an “original” piece?  How can you prove it?  Does it even matter?

While I am finding these great connections between connectivism and art, what does it tell me about language in my classroom?  I’m not quite sure of the answer right now.  I’ve found that language is less of an obstacle in the art room, as visuals and demonstrations can be utilized to learn skills, but conceptually, how can I capitalize on the social and visual nature of my classroom to help my ELL’s to get more out of each unit?  How can I help them to express their questions and understandings better?