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Drawing the Arts into Foreign Language Collaborations

I consider myself an art lover. I admire painting, sculpture, photography, and I've begun to dabble in book arts, especially printing and collage. If you have a passion for a particular art form, look for new ways to incorporate it in your teaching. Even if the arts are not your bag, I encourage you to consider the inspiration that artistic and making activities may bring to your students. Leveraging our students' creativity helps them engage actively in learning, and it provide opportunities for insight and inspiration as our instructional practice continues to evolve. Remember that you can seek assistance from art teachers, who will value your collaboration, especially if they understand that your work is contributing to their curricular goals.

In our high school, I have particularly enjoyed creating projects with artistic components in collaboration with teachers of foreign languages. In their discipline they prioritize projects that feature "real world" activities; they want students to practice language skills in practical contexts that mirror authentic use of language in the world. Here, I share a series of projects we've developed with students studying French: writing book proposals, evaluating and creating French tabloids, and analyzing and designing book covers.

Write a Book Proposal to Impress(ionist)

The first project connects with their unit of study on impressionist painters. I pull dozens of books featuring French impressionists, and let the students immerse themselves in the material, flipping through pages until they find a particular artist or theme that intrigues them. The mini-lesson I teach introduces them to the publishing process for nonfiction. I explain that many titles are written only after a proposal and an outline are picked up by a publisher. Simplifying the process for clarity's sake, I highlight three key elements of a book proposal. A proposal should define a unique niche that the book would fill, identify its target market, and provide credentials that qualify its author as an expert.

The students go on to create book proposals inspired by an impressionist artist. They write the proposals in French, and the project culminates with each student offering a one-to-two minute "elevator pitch." The group ranks the proposals on how well they fulfill the three criteria, and ultimately we tally the rankings to determine whose proposal would be most likely to be published.

Librarians meet with the students while their ideas are in development to push them to be more creative or precise. One productive area for developing good research practices has been exploring the credentials that would be ideal for the author of a given book. Some sample proposals have included: a children's book about a dot from a pointillist painting that goes on an adventure through the canvases of Seurat; a travel guide to the south of France inspired by locations featured in Monet's work; and a cookbook built around meals depicted by impressionist artists. Experts in each of these topics would, of course, have different kind of educational and professional backgrounds. It's great to see the students thinking creatively as they generate their ideas and invent their authors. While they do not create the proposed book itself, we do ask them to mockup a sample page for a slide in their elevator pitch.

Dig into the Tabloids

In the subsequent year of studying French, the next lesson in the series focuses on media and journalism. The teacher uses the example of tabloid journalism to teach the conditional verb tense, which tabloids can use to make controversial or unsupported claims. This was a perfect tie-in to a curricular goal for my library: teaching close reading for sources and evidence. We begin the lesson by emphasizing for students that they can evaluate the reliability and quality of journalism by looking closely at the sources a journalist is using and the type of evidence they are relying on. We discuss examples from the French tabloid press, where "click-baity" headlines or plays on words are used to entertain and draw in readers. Then students work in small groups, assessing a set of magazines I've selected for them from across the journalistic spectrum. They look for use of grammar to signify certainty or doubt, as well as sources, evidence, and design components that can be indications of quality. Students rank the publications I've given them from least to most academic. It is quite interesting when students disagree on the rankings; I love to hear them provide evidence for their assessments.

The project they go on to create is their own tabloid magazine. They mimic the style of writing and get practice using the conditional verb tense. They also show they have understood the journalistic practices of this genre, providing questionable sources and dubious evidence. Further, they incorporate aesthetic elements resonant of the tabloid genre. Practicing their layout and design skills, they set headlines in huge fonts, in bright, bold colors. They grant celebrity photos more real estate than text. We do a simple binding and display the student-made tabloids in the library.

Judge a Book by Its Cover

The final project in this series has the most significant artistic component. It comes in a seminar some students opt into after they have taken the AP language course. In this seminar they read several books in French. As the culminating project at the end of the year, students each select one of these books and go on to design their own version of the book's cover.

I begin with a seminar on analyzing book cover design. Each year I update my slideshow to incorporate examples from current trends in cover design. It is great fun to discuss book covers with students. I open the workshop with a single cover; student silently make a few notes of what they think this book will be about. (Everyone gets a little guilty pleasure out of judging a book by its cover!) They discuss with a partner what impressions they had and what about the cover was the source of their impressions. Then, since international covers can often vary widely, I show them a British version of the cover for the same title. Quickly they see that the choices of a cover designer significantly impact their perceptions. I share other examples that illustrate more aspects of cover design, such as design elements meant to appeal to a particular audience demographic, components that either literally or metaphorically represent the themes or content of the book itself, and more subtle choices like typeface and use of color. As with the book proposal project, students get fascinated by the process behind publishing. It feels good to pull the curtain back a little for them, making the idea of writing, publishing, or even designing, seem a bit more attainable.

After the initial workshop, the each student prepares a short presentation (in French!) analyzing any book cover based on the criteria we've established. With this practice under their belts, they create their own cover for one of the books from the course. A detailed rubric requires that the covers have flaps and spines, a short biography of the writer, a synopsis of the work, a barcode, a price, and so on, but the medium is left up to the student. Some make original artwork; others do cut-and-paste or digital designs. When the book jackets are completed, we use library supplies to cover them in mylar or contact paper, which gives them a satisfyingly professional look, and we put them on display in the library alongside professionally published versions.

The written work in this project includes a letter to a fictitious publisher whom we imagine is holding a design contest for a new edition of the book. Finally, the students do formal presentations to share their work with their classmates, clarifying the thinking that went into the design choices they made. I believe that once they have done this project they never look at book covers quite the same again! Students become aware that no matter how strongly it may shape our opinions of the text within, a book cover is mutable, the product of a series of aesthetic and marketing decisions.

In some ways this project feels like an ideal moment for artmaking. The students have already engaged with the texts in multiple other traditional academic modes. Creating their own covers gives them the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings about the book differently, and the scaffolding we provide ensures that their thinking is nuanced and their design choices are grounded in an analysis of the book, its cultural context, and its audience.

Conclusion

This series of projects highlights art and design, journalism and literature. The students and teachers alike welcome the opportunity to shift their focus and try out different ways of engaging with the classroom content. A level of challenge is added to these projects by their being conducted in a second language. The same projects might be accessible for less advanced students if they were run in an English class, for example. The success of these projects must be at least in part attributable to my own interest in art, design, publishing, and literature. I hope these projects inspire you to experiment with the arts as they intersect with your own interests and instructional goals.

About the Author

Jole Seroff, MS, is director of library and information services at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, CA. She received a master's of science in instruction and curriculum leadership with a focus in library sciences at the University of Memphis in her home state of Tennessee. Seroff recently contributed to Creating Data Literate Students and Data Literacy in the Real World.

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MLA
Seroff, Jole. "Drawing the Arts into Foreign Language Collaborations." School Library Connection, October 2018, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2150608.
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Seroff, Jole. "Drawing the Arts into Foreign Language Collaborations." School Library Connection, October 2018. http://schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2150608.
APA
Seroff, J. (2018, October). Drawing the arts into foreign language collaborations. School Library Connection. Retrieved from http://schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2150608
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