By Nora Nagy
Connecting the Visual World with Language Education
Looking back at the Image Conference I can’t help thinking that something special and important started to happen in the world of English language teaching with the first conference six years ago. Being at this event felt like attending an empowering interdisciplinary conference with the overarching principle of connecting the visual world with language education.
As a teacher-researcher, I think a lot about the possibility of change and innovation through education, always searching for practical approaches and tasks which can contribute to a better learning experience for my students. The Image Conference, both allegorically and in action, managed to create bridges among various disciplines. Let me share the five most important things that I was reminded of and learnt about in a short but intensive two days in Lisbon on 13-14 October:
- People can make magic happen. Everyone at the Conference – Kieran Donaghy, Sylvia Karastathi, Anna Witcher, the members of the Visual Arts Circle, Alberto Gaspar and the organizers from APPI, the high school students who helped at the event, the participants and the speakers – worked towards the same goal of making these two days a rich and memorable experience. No matter what background we came from or what our main role at the event was, we all had the same sense of purpose and we shared our love of the visual arts and education through them.
- The written word (and world) is just one of the many meaning-making systems that teachers operate with. In the classroom, different semiotic systems are present at the same time, and we can draw on them when designing our lessons. Using images, sound, video, songs, our own body language – all multimodal resources – are ways of creating a better learning experience. The Image Conference opens the world of English language teaching by linking different areas such as museum studies, semiotics, social studies, applied imagination, information technology, discourse analysis, literary studies, film studies, music and psychology, just to mention the most apparent ones.
- If the great goal of education is implementing positive change in the lives of our students, the Image Conference managed to show examples of achieving this by offering excellent teaching techniques and at the same time addressing the themes of empathy, equality and social justice. These three issues were discussed in most talks and workshop, and empathy was probably the greatest philosophical and psychological framework which guided our thinking and action. We often find it difficult to discuss the controversial topics our students see on various media channels on a daily basis. Through powerful images we can introduce issues like homelessness, migration, poverty or learning difficulties and disabilities. Empowering our students with the right level of language to converse about these questions in their mother tongue as well as in a second or third language can probably contribute to the discussion of these topics across cultures and nations. This is how even a small task addressing a difficult topic can help our students develop their intercultural communication competence and share their ideas in an argumentative setting.
- One image can be a powerful resource for a wide range of levels and ages. At the conference, we saw several examples of what it means to grade the task and not the text. Imagine looking at a famous painting. How many levels of meaning can you create based on a single image? You can describe it, talk about the colours, the people, the objects, the setting. Then you can create a narrative based on what you and your students can see. With more experienced viewers you can discuss the historical context, talk about geography, political issues, and abstract concepts. By asking the right questions and designing the right task for each group, a single image can turn into a powerful starting point for your various classes.
- We cannot grow without connecting with each other. From the very beginning, with Kieran Donaghy’s opening plenary through the workshops and talks to Carmen Herrero’s closing plenary, I could not remember a talk which did not refer to the work of other presenters. The two days together formed a colourful mixture with different presentations built into the same beautiful bowl of ideas. The variety of themes and presenters reminded me how individual differences can become powerful resources in collaborative projects. I would like to remind all my colleagues that we need to team up with each other more regularly. When we are looking for inspiration, it might just be enough to talk with the Arts, Math or Geography teachers in the staff room and start a project together.
Implementing Meaningful Reflection
If we would like to make the most out of our collaboration, we need to ask for and give critical reflection to each other. This is the trickiest part of most conferences and most work experiences. How can I reflect on another teacher’s, researcher’s, author’s work when I have just met them in person? The key to this question seems to lie in the intentions of the people involved, and the conference provided the perfect examples for this. Not only did the feeling of empowerment and empathy permeate the presentations, it also guided our coffee breaks and evening chats. When a speaker asked for feedback, I get the impression that the compliments lead to serious discussions which can take a good talk to its next step: the implementation and development of the ideas of the speaker and inspiring each other to do more and share more with others.
This year, I went to this event with the excitement and the enthusiasm of a first-timer, and I can tell you that I am already more intrigued about the next event than I was before Lisbon because I know exactly what to look forward to in Athens in 2018. I would like to encourage all teachers to follow the work of the speakers of this conference and the work of the Visual Arts Circle to get constant inspiration for their daily teaching adventures.
PhD student in English Applied Linguistics and TESOL, University of Pécs
Instructor at the Department of English Applied Linguistics, ELTE Budapest
Helbling Readers Blog Co-Author