THE ARTS IN EDUCATION
News at the College of Staten Island:
Art Project Helps English Learners
How do you teach English-language writing and speaking skills to college-bound immigrants, ages 17 to 55, who began life in diverse countries speaking a multitude of languages? With warmth, creativity, and innovation if you are Caryn Davis, an award-winning instructor at The College of Staten Island’s CUNY Language Immersion Program, also known as CLIP.
Offered on a semester basis, CLIP requires 25 hours a week of intense classroom work and enrolls approximately 3,000 adult students at eight CUNY campuses. To help them express themselves and develop confidence, Davis turned to art, a universal language, and created the very successful Altered Book Project, incorporating it into the more traditional curriculum. In the project, students choose discarded books that attract them and cut out and add sections, paste pages together to achieve heft, and cover up, use, or leave as background the original text and illustrations. Paint, paste, glitter, yarn, fabric, glass, photos, decals, lettering, drawings, collage, and other forms of art materials, as well as vivid memories and imaginations go into the books.
Divided into three sections to illustrate growing up in the native country, personal impressions and life in New York City, and the experience of learning English, the altered volumes are intimate visual diaries that reveal lives and cultures. A written personal essay is included and, depending on the student’s ingenuity, is embedded or incorporated into the volume in a unique way. Poetry sometimes joins the mix. Doors and windows may be created on the pages. Sculptural forms may jump out.
Authentic English communication skills are developed as, sitting around large tables, the bookmakers relax into the project and start exchanging ideas, asking for help, and sharing materials. They begin to learn about art production and each other’s history and culture. Davis explains the cooperative venture leads to new vocabulary around art supplies and native customs, formal and informal expression — please pass the glue, pass the glue, and can you pass me the glue, for example — and small talk, or the ability to “chat” American style over a topic of mutual interest. She notes that the resulting cooperation, respect, teamwork, and problem solving are applicable to future college coursework and jobs. And Davis’ personal “sub-theme” for all her classes, “Building Bridges,” is played out in astounding ways, she said.
Initially, some students lack confidence about their art abilities or are skeptical about the project. Yu, from China, said: “When I started, I felt so childish. After one week I changed my mind. The altered book helped me develop my thinking and I shared ideas with my classmates.” Mariam, from Syria said, “at first, I did not take this seriously. However, after we worked together, I learned large words. I learned I can ask for help. I learned about a large number of countries.”
Another student named Jorge, from Colombia, said, “I felt I was destroying a book...Later I realized the book was going to be mine...little by little my book took form and started to speak by itself.” Hend, who is originally from Jordan, was so enthusiastic about this, her first art project, she attached a long gold chain to the cover of her creation and wore it over her shoulder. Pride becomes palpable at the culmination of the course when the altered books are displayed in branches of the New York Public Library.
Davis feels special pleasure hearing her students communicate effectively about the project to other English-language learners who come to see these art exhibits. In 2009, she and her students presented a workshop on altered books at the NYU Writing Workshop, which is sponsored by the NYU Literacy Review, a publication of GED and ESOL writings. Her students’ work is included in every edition.
In 2010, Davis was honored by The New York Times with the ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) Award, which “recognizes educators who have consistently excelled in helping adult students learn English and develop skills they need to create successful lives in the United States.” Her boss, Dr. Tomas Morales, president of the College of Staten Island, said, “Her exceptional teaching skills, energy and creativeness ensure our students’ successful assimilation into higher education, and empower the many diverse communities we serve.” In 2010, she also received the Outstanding Literacy Practitioners Award from The Literacy Assistance Center in New York, which included a library development grant for her program from The Bookbinders Guild of New York. Davis has a Master’s degree in TESOL from the New School as well as a lifetime of experience in teaching, advocacy and practice of the arts. #