Exploring the art and artists of the French-speaking world
When I first started working as my school’s specialist languages teacher, with responsibility for teaching across all eight Key Stage Two classes, one of my main aims was to take French from being a “stand-alone” subject to one which was much more cross-curricular. Weaving language-learning into the curriculum alongside other subjects felt important in terms of raising the profile of French in our school, but also as a tool to enable pupils to make links to other subject areas and recognise that learning another language has real-world relevance. The process hasn’t been without its challenges and has, of course, taken time but I have been very lucky to have lots of support from my Head, SLT and our great team of class teachers to make these plans a reality.
I’ve always felt that a project combining both French and Art would make for some excellent cross-curricular learning. After all, France is the country that gave birth to the impressionist movement and artists from around the world have flocked there for centuries to paint its landscapes. Francophone Art Week, which was inspired by a post from Sarah Bruce in the Languages in Primary Schools (LiPS) Facebook group from way back in 2015, is an opportunity for our pupils to explore the varied cultures of the French-speaking world through its art and artists. During the week, each year group from Reception to Year 6, learns about the work of an artist from a Francophone nation and uses them as inspiration for their own compositions.
In terms of decolonising the curriculum, I believe that it is essential that we ensure pupils are exposed to lesser-known artists from countries other than France. So, while Key Stage One focus on the likes of Claude Monet and Henri Rousseau, Key Stage Two use their partnerships with Francophone countries as a springboard for the study of artists from Guadeloupe, Reunion Island, Rwanda and Senegal. This is a great opportunity for pupils to learn more about their focus countries early on in the school year.
Now an annual event in our school’s calendar, Francophone Art Week is a collaborative planning effort alongside our wonderful Art Lead. It involves every class in the school going “off-timetable” for four afternoons, something which I am very lucky to have support from SLT to do. Each class spends time learning about the artist that they are studying and becoming familiar with their backgrounds and work, as well as practising the techniques used within one – or a range – of their pieces. These techniques link directly to the Art objectives in our school’s progression documents for each year group. Then, it is time for the pupils to create their own artwork, inspired by the techniques and colours of their focus artist. The children finish the process by evaluating their compositions. French lessons, which happen in Key Stage Two only, also reflect the focus of the week but are directly linked to the pupils’ progression in the target language.
Reception – Sonia Delaunay (born in modern-day Ukraine but lived most of her life in France):
With its bold colours and opportunities to talk about a variety of shapes, Sonia Delaunay’s work is perfectly suited to Reception. Pupils experiment with mark making and printing in paint with a variety of 2D shapes in the three primary colours. They also practise safely using scissors to cut out shapes and choose how to position and stick them onto the page. The results look fabulous when displayed and generate excellent conversations around shape names, which links well to maths too.
Year 1 – Henri Rousseau (France):
Henri Rousseau’s fabulous jungle paintings are the inspiration for Year 1, who use pallets to mix the various tones for their leafy backgrounds and then paint their designs in poster paint on cartridge paper. They then experiment with finer paint brushes to create zig-zags, swirls, stripes and dots, which they use when creating their own hand-print jungle animals to add to the scene.
Year 2 – Claude Monet (France):
Claude Monet’s beautiful watercolour lily works are re-imagined by Year 2, who work on colour mixing to make finer variations in secondary colours. Pupils then practise a range of brush-strokes to create different effects, which they then put to use in their own work.
Year 3 – Anaïs Verspan (Guadeloupe):
Working in acrylic paint can be challenging, but the contrasting colours against the black backgrounds of these works on miniature canvases look stunning. The children start off by exploring the use of colour within Anaïs Verspan’s art and work with a colour wheel to choose a range of contrasting shades for use in their own pieces. They experiment with a variety of combinations before painting their black backgrounds and adding the coloured paints.
We have also been lucky enough to have the artist herself join us via Zoom so the children can ask her questions about her artwork and inspiration.
In French, children learn some simple colour names through games such as Jaques a dit (Simon Says) and Montrez-moi (Show Me). The flashcards I made can be downloaded here and printed using the ‘multiple copies to a page’ option to create the mini cards for the game. They also join in with this lovely rainbow song, using coloured scarves to physically respond to the colour names as they hear them. Then, I challenge them to talk about the colours they can see in the art works themselves, either by pointing and naming the colour with a single word or, if they want to extend themselves, by using the sentence starter “Je vois la couleur…”. This is a great introduction to colour adjectives, which we come back to and explore through our phonics as part of a later unit of work in Year 3. The slides I created for the session can be accessed here.
For the final exhibition for the school community, which happens the following week, I film some of the children talking about the colours they can see in the different paintings and create QR codes to stick up with their art work. These can then be scanned by carers using their smartphones to see and hear examples of pupils speaking in French.
Year 4 – Kid Kreol and Boogie (Reunion Island):
Year 4 pupils focus on the work of two amazing street artists from Reunion Island: Kid Kreol and Boogie. After exploring the inspiration that the artists draw from the nature and topography of this amazing island, the children sketch a range of tropical leaves found in Reunion’s rainforests. They then consider ways to turn their sketches into the more styalised street art form, with bold lines and less detail, and use these techniques to create their own individual jungle collages.
In their French lesson, pupils work to translate a poem about Reunion Island from the fantastic book 101 poésies et comptines tout autour du monde by Corinne Albaut. This one was flagged up to me in a webinar by the fabulous Suzi Bewell and I highly recommend it for simple poems about loads of different countries, both Francophone and non-Francophone. We discuss how we might use cognates to begin to understand the poem, along with words that we already recognise from our previous learning. Then, we use dictionaries to work out the meaning of small sections of the poem before creating a whole-class translation of the entire thing. We didn’t have time this year, but this is a great poem to learn by heart and perform too. You can break it down into chunks and give individual groups different sections to make it more accessible. The slides I made for the session can be found here.
Year 5 – Kenneth Nkusi (Rwanda):
The acrylic works of Kenneth Nkusi of the Inema Arts Centre, Kigali, are the inspiration for Year 5, who begin by examining the contrasting colours of the artist’s work and his depictions of forests and trees. Pupils use colour wheels to experiment with contrasting colour combinations for their own works and also practise the different brush strokes used within Nkusi’s original pieces. Then, they choose their background colour and paint in their tree trunks and leaves.
In French, pupils have recently revisited the use of the definite article in the singular and have been introduced to the plural form les, so this week is a great opportunity to put their learning into practice. Firstly, we watch a couple of clips to immerse the children in the sights and sounds of Rwanda. As they watch, pupils write down all the nouns that they see – gorilla, lake, volcano, etc. – in English. After feeding back and generating a shared list as a class, pupils choose a range of these nouns to translate into French, selecting the correct definite article. Pupils use bilingual dictionaries, or glossaries for those who find the dictionary tricky to use, to create a list poem of nouns associated with Rwanda. Those who feel confident, can create a list poem made up of plural nouns, as in the example below. The slides for the session are here.
Year 6 – Souleymane Keita (Senegal):
Described as the father of contemporary Senegalese art, Souleymane Keita’s ink masterpiece, ‘The Door to Nowhere’, is the focus for Year 6’s learning. The children begin by learning about Keita and how his works were inspired by his birthplace: the Island of Gorée, off the coast of Dakar. Pupils explore Keita’s use of different tones of ink to create a sense of depth – lighter tones to make things appear further away and darker ones to bring objects closer to the viewer. After experimenting with ink washes and the use of rollers, pupils create their own monochrome pieces for display.
Following on from their previous unit of work – Je suis moi – in which pupils revise vocabulary to talk about their name; where they live; their age and birthday; and learn how to share information about their nationality; hair and eye colour; and the languages that they speak, I get the children to write a short autobiography of Souleymane Keita, in French, using bilingual dictionaries to add information about his job. The slides for this lesson are available here.
On the Wednesday of Francophone Art Week, we always have a whole-school assembly, the slides for which are available here, to talk about the artists that the children have encountered and discuss what they have learned so far. We then round the whole thing off the following week with an after-school exhibition. Sharing all of the pupils’ creations with our school community and seeing how proud they, and their carers, are of the hard work that went into creating them is an incredible end to a fantastic week!
How do you incorporate cross-curricular learning into the languages offer at your school? If you want to know more about how we planned and organised our Francophone Art Week, feel free to get in touch.