by Patricia Lannes,
CALTA21 Co-Founder and Project Director
CALTA21 (Cultures And Literacies Through Art for the 21st Century) is an IMLS (Institute of Museums and Library Services) funded initiative under the National Leadership Grant category designed to create a national replicable model that builds academic, social and cultural capital among adult immigrants and their families. The project partners art museums with English programs in higher education institutions. CALTA21 seeks to engage and empower adult English language learners (ELL) by strengthening their language and critical thinking skills as well as supporting the recovery of their own voices.
After many years of implementing VTS with adult English language learners in different settings, we chose VTS as the pedagogy for CALTA21 since it is particularly suited to benefit adult English language learners.
Art addresses rich and complex life issues that adults can relate to, even if they lack the language to fully communicate their interpretations. Given the nature of VTS's open ended questions, students can have different entry points to a work of art and find an opportunity to address issues relevant to them. Art and VTS allow them to bring a wealth of background experiences to the conversation. Through VTS, students can share their knowledge in a "sovereign" way. "What do you see that makes you say that" allows them to bring that personal background experience to support their point. Classes of adult students participating in CALTA21 are composed of individuals from many different cultures, religions, countries of origins, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds and literacy levels. Art and VTS gives them the context to engage in intercultural dialogue and discussion.
VTS discussions ask the viewer to use higher order thinking skills, to understand metaphors, to think in abstract, to speculate and to infer. Those skills are then supported by the development of lower order thinking skills, such as vocabulary and grammar. Adults respond and engage first through the VTS discussion and the teacher then uses scaffolding strategies that specifically build the lower order thinking skills.
Through these discussions students get very involved in the conversation, take risks in a safe and predictable environment and "unlock their tongues" by leaving aside the right/wrong answer framework. Engagement and comfort liberates the viewer from the language barrier, many times body language kicks in and words flow, even if the English syntax is not perfect. Teachers learn from their students' comments and acquire a new window into their lives and minds.
Language learners rely on their senses when exploring a new culture and they are used to use visual perception. Visualization is a powerful tool for them, and VTS provides them with the opportunity to store a bank of images in their memory that will enrich their imagination and sharpen observation skills that will reinforce the language acquisition process.
Paraphrasing not only validates students' comments, but also gives teachers an opportunity to introduce new vocabulary, while pointing at the part of the image that introduces a new word or concept. Teachers participating in CALTA21 also write the new words so that students can connect word to image. A bank of words generated by the students ensures interest and relevancy for the writing exercises that follow the verbal discussion.
Linking different comments gives each student the opportunity to understand that their different opinion is still valid as it is supported by evidentiary thinking. Paraphrasing and linking are very empowering strategies that strengthen student's sense of self and of uniqueness of their voice.
CALTA21 also intends to make art museums accessible to adult immigrant students in a meaningful way. Its curriculum is designed to be conducted during eight classroom sessions and two museum trips. By having practiced VTS in the classroom, regardless of their art prior knowledge, they arrive to the museum with a strategy that enables them to tackle a work of art in a predictable way, while connecting with it personally.
VTS's training methods prepare teachers to use art in the classroom and to facilitate discussions that otherwise might not have occurred given that literacy and English teachers might not feel comfortable using art. The facilitator's neutrality during a discussion creates a shift in the concept of knowledge ownership. The creation of knowledge relies on the group; therefore knowledge is the result of a group construction and hence acquires a new meaning. This is a powerful paradigm for an adult who might feel that the lack of command of a language makes him or her less knowledgeable.
CALTA21 seeks to develop academic skills, build social and cultural capital and foster civic engagement among its participating students. We have found that VTS is a very appropriate methodology that engages and empowers adult English Language learners and that it opens doors to the art and museum world in an accessible and inclusive manner. Once art and museums become meaningful and are used in authentic and relevant ways by the students and their teachers, it is up to them to dig deeper and continue their quest of what more art and museums can offer them.