Conversations with Tim: The power of art across languages and cultures

August 9, 2023

In this edition of Conversations with Tim, Tim speaks with Mai Chue Xiong, a visual arts teacher in Roseville, Minnesota, and Nicole Potsane, a visual arts teacher at Crawford Elementary School in Aurora, CO. Mai Chue just finished her 22nd year of teaching. Her school serves around 900 students with diverse backgrounds and families who speak at least 30 languages. Nicole has been teaching for 17 years. Her school’s student body is about 80% multilingual learners, and her students speak over 20 different languages.

Tim, Mai Chue and Nicole joined Merideth Trahan, WIDA chief of staff, to discuss the importance of representing various language and cultures when teaching visual arts and how their classrooms can be a safe space for all students to learn and explore creativity.  

Listening option: Listen to the audio here or continue reading the conversation below, which has been edited for clarity and brevity.

As you read and/or listen to this edition of Conversations with Tim, look for these top takeaways:

  • Language is not a barrier to success. Mai Chue and Nicole discuss how any student can be successful in their classroom. They find that there’s an opportunity for students to succeed in the visual arts classroom, even if they are struggling in other classrooms.
  • It’s important that students can see themselves in the lessons they’re learning in school. Mai Chue discusses her efforts to show students art by people within their own community and art by people of different races, cultures and identities.
  • Students have something to teach us, too! Mai Chue and Nicole both enjoy learning from their students, hearing about their cultures and trying to incorporate that into the projects they teach in class.

Tim Boals: Welcome to another edition of Conversations with Tim. I’m excited to be here talking with Mai Chue Xiong and Nicole Potsane. Let’s find out a little bit about you.

Nicole Potsane: I teach art at Crawford Elementary School. It’s a neighborhood school in Aurora, Colorado, just outside of Denver. Many of our students’ families have immigrated from other countries, and a lot of them are multilingual learners. Some are refugees with varying levels of school experience. I teach visual arts to all of them. I teach six classes a day—one from each grade level. All my classes have multilingual learners, which is one of my favorite parts about my classes.

Tim: Thanks, Nicole. We’re really excited to have two teachers here today talking with us. Mai Chue, tell us about your context; a little bit about yourself, and your work with multilingual learners as well.

Mai Chue Xiong: Thanks for having me, Tim. I’m Mai Chue Xiong. I teach in Roseville, Minnesota. It’s a northern suburb of Saint Paul. I’ve been in Roseville for 21 years, and we have roughly 900 students. Around 14% to 15% of our students are in the EL program, and we have a seven-period day. I see students in our EL program all day long.

Tim: We’re excited to have you. Tell us a little bit about how teachers can integrate art and creativity into their classrooms.

Mai Chue: It’s about the creative process. It’s about how we start and how we get somewhere. It’s a little bit about the product, too, because you get that satisfaction from making something. But for me, it’s how do you get there from here. And using language, a lot of it is visuals. I’m big on student choice which means allowing different ways for students to finish a project and allowing students to do the project in different ways. I’m showing them what to do, but also allowing them to explore their creativity. And then reflection. Reflection can be done in many ways—conversations with me, writing something down in their home language, or sketching, writing things. Any way that they want to do it so they can show me their process. Creativity is kind of hard to explain to EL learners because I don’t know if that word exists in every language. We talk about that all the time, “be creative, be creative.” I’m not sure if students understand that. We talk about creativity. We talk about exploring what you want others to see about your art. It is harder to teach.

Tim: I love the sense of flexibility and meeting students where they are. And that deep knowledge of where students come from and incorporating their cultures. Also, you mentioned their languages and that sort of flexibility and choice is important.

Nicole, how about you integrating art and creativity in your classroom?

Nicole: I do struggle with some of those same things with students who are multilingual learners not always being able to pick up on some of the nuances of my lessons. I think that the most important thing for me is really the process. When I sort of build my scope and sequence for the year, I focus a lot on the process. I want my students to learn as many different processes as possible. I think that one of the struggles that my students have is a lack of resources.

A lot of them have never been exposed to anything outside of a pencil and paper or crayons and paper. I focus a lot on other things like cutting and gluing, painting, weaving, working with clay, trying to work with a lot of different materials, printmaking and things – so that they really learn the whole breadth of things. As they move into middle school and high school things start to sort of narrow down into more specific content.

I am always trying to encourage them and remind them it is not just the final product. It doesn’t always have to be perfect. It is just learning the process. I also try to build on that every year. My classes all do weaving. When they get to fourth and fifth grade, they weave with yarn. And the younger kids see the finished yarn projects. And they are really excited about them. I think it actually makes students work harder to learn the process in younger grades since they know it will be something to look forward to. There’s a lot of art displayed around the hallways to really encourage them with some of the exemplars from the school.

Tim: It sounds like a very experiential and fun classroom that you have for your students. Nicole, what successes have you had collaborating with ESL and bilingual teachers?

Nicole: Interestingly enough, I’ve never worked directly with an ESL teacher. When I was teaching in Miami, we had an ESL teacher. But the teachers were focused on third, fourth, and fifth grade or the testing grades. I taught kindergarten and second grade. At my school we don’t have a teacher who is just the ESL teacher. I think about 80% of our population is English language learners. Every teacher has to be teaching ESL. One of the big collaborations that I’ve been doing the last few years is working with the kindergarten team. Kindergarten is working with our youngest learners. And some of the students have never been to school. A lot of them don’t have experience with English so the teachers give me their scope and sequence. I look at that and see ways to help.

If students are learning about weather, I have the kids paint a thunderstorm, and we learn about how to paint and mix colors and things. We create a thunderstorm to help them make those connections. They always do a unit on Eric Carle, so this year they did the Grouchy Lady Bug. Kindergarteners make a paper collage of a ladybug. I had students create clay ladybugs.

And we are very explicit about it in my classroom. I literally say the words, “Right now we are making a connection to the reading that you’re learning in your classroom.” The kids are really seeing how they are learning. I think it is really exciting to see them--especially the 5-year-olds--making those really concrete connections.

Tim: Let me ask that question for Mai Chue. What successes have you had? Have you had opportunities to collaborate with ESL and bilingual teachers?

Mai Chue: I don’t work directly with our EL department--what I do is I seek them out. And one thing that I like to do--I do this with all my students--is go into their space. I go into their classroom to see what the room looks like. I see what they have hanging up and how students interact in that space. Mine is a trimester class, so I see students for 12 weeks.

And then when I see them in that classroom, I’m just always amazed to see how they light up in that space and how they behave and interact with the teacher. If I have a particular concern about a student with how they are doing it in my classroom, I go into that space they are most familiar with to observe.

And then I ask the teacher, “When this kid is successful in your class, what are you doing?”

Tim: What you said is a great lead into the next question. What is the biggest opportunity and challenge our teachers have when teaching multilingual learners? It sounds like you are really connecting with those ESL and bilingual teachers and finding out about the students. I would think that is part of it right there.

Mai Chue: It’s self-reflection as a teacher, because I always go back and say “Okay, this didn't work this time. What did I do wrong? What can I do better?” And being a seven-period day, I find that by the end of the day I’m a better teacher because I’ve learned. I reflect. I think the biggest opportunity is to have self-reflection as a teacher, so that I can continue to better my practice and be the best teacher that I can be for all my students and not just my EL students.

I went into teaching because I just love working with students from different backgrounds. It’s very therapeutic. I’m learning from them because I’m not the only teacher in that classroom. They are teachers for me, too. I learn something different from every student. I am learning about their culture and just knowing how rich this earth is, with just everything that every student has to bring to the classroom.

The biggest challenge is that it is a 45-minute class. I feel rushed all of the time. I never know if I did it. Does every student in a 30-student classroom feel like I made an attempt to come talk to them? I want to make sure my students feel like they matter. I think the biggest challenge is not knowing and then not having enough time.

Tim: I know that’s probably something every teacher that’s listening to or reading this right now can relate to. Yes, there’s never enough time, and there’s always so many students in the room, and you want to provide that individual attention. I really relate to what you’re saying there. Nicole, we’ll put the same question to you about opportunities and challenges.

Nicole: I was mentioning earlier that I really love working with multilingual students. I don’t know anything different. I’ve always worked with them. I feel like one of the biggest successes and opportunities with multilingual learners is it’s so exciting that in visual arts language is not a barrier to success. I have students--and this goes across all the students’ spectrum--not just multilingual learners, but also students with any kind of disability, students who are native English speakers, they can all be successful in my classroom where they might not be in other classrooms.

I love that if a student’s struggling with one academic content area, we don’t have to assume that they're going to struggle with visual arts. And some of my strongest students, I don’t speak the same language as them, and/or they just came to this country. I find, the less English a student knows, oftentimes the better they learn a process because they can’t depend on looking at the step-by-step instructions, even though I put visuals in there. They must watch the demonstration, and they watch it like a hawk, and they learn it and internalize it. That’s one thing that’s always really exciting to me is really trying to celebrate those successes with multilingual learners. Sometimes my classroom is the only place where they feel successful with their academics.

Tim: You’re making a point that I was hoping we would get to, which is something that I’ve been saying for many years. I think art class and visual arts is such a wonderful place for multilingual learners, at whatever stage of English language development that they are in, because it really offers them that opportunity to shine, even if they’re a beginner, right?

Nicole: Yes, it has no bearing on their art abilities.

Tim: Then on the flip side of that, it’s a wonderful place for that beginner to begin learning the language as they engage in the art processes that you've been talking about, and the experiences that they have. It’s such a natural place for language learning to happen.

Merideth Trahan: Hey Tim, I have a question related to that. I wonder if there’s ever children in your classroom, if you do group projects, and if you ever find that children who speak the same language work together on a project, so they're both doing the project, but using their home language in your class?

Nicole: I have students who are strong art students. And when I say strong art students, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are my best artists. It means that they are really strong at interpreting a demonstration and then being able to complete the project or do the process. I try to sprinkle those really strong students around my classroom. And then if one of them speaks Spanish and I have a newcomer who speaks Spanish I’ll put them with one of those strong Spanish-speaking students for exactly that reason, so they can be able to engage in the art process.

I love that once it is project time, the students relax, and the conversation really flows. I don’t do a lot of group projects, but students always sit in groups--even if they are not working on the same paper. They might be talking about each other’s paper. I always say, no – you’re not stealing ideas. You are getting inspiration from other students at your table.

Tim: I love that you’re encouraging those academic conversations because art is an academic subject, too. And when you get the kids talking about their projects, you are giving them the sort of language experience that really transfers over into the rest of their day as well. And helping them learn the language, or if they are doing it in their native language – you’re also building important skills. I love that you're offering that flexibility to the students.

Mai Chue: I also let my students have some leadership skills. I do the same as you do, Nicole. Sometimes I have a kid who has just been in the country for a week. Luckily someone else in the classroom speaks that same language. I utilize that student and ask them to help the new student. I totally agree with you, Tim. Most of these students can read in their own languages. I think that it is just amazing they can go back and forth between their native language and English. I also think about my own language, too.

I would agree that the art space is a space where a lot of students thrive because it is less focused on tests, quizzes and numbers. It is a little bit more flexible. I believe it is also less pressure for students. If they can’t get an assignment done, then they can have a conversation with me about it. That’s fine. As you know, students come from all different backgrounds, and we don’t know what their home life is like. When students come into that space, they can share with you – either by physically doing something or talking to you about it or teaching their home language.

Tim: Yes, you are creating spaces where you are honoring students, home languages, and their cultures. You are actually promoting identity development and recognition of who the students are in those spaces. And for students to have those periods of the day is just so important.

Merideth: I think about it as a little break in a very stressful period. You are acclimating to a new culture. And students have this safe space to be creative and themselves – take a breath. I could see all of the children settling in for a bit when they are with you both.

Tim: It reminds me of the educator, Frank Smith who talked about the importance of clubs and after school activities, which were sometimes the most important part of the day. I think art class really is for the same reason. It can be one of those most important parts of the day for students because they can really connect with the learning within those spaces.

Nicole: We worked with mental health professionals at my school to develop and create peace corners in the classroom. At first, I really struggled with the logistics. Where do I put it? How do I do it? How is this going to be incorporated? How do I introduce it? And I finally sat down and talked with a few coworkers. I told them I feel like the whole classroom is a peace corner. Students walk into my classroom and settle into a relaxing space.

Tim: It is so interesting--how that changes a student’s demeanor when they come in.

Mai Chue: Language classrooms are loud because we need interactions. Students are encouraged to get up and see what other students are doing. Students are encouraged to have conversations at each table. We have tables of 4 to 5 students. And I try not to have all of the EL students at one table. I try to make sure that students appreciate each other and learn from one another.

Tim: Yeah, that really is wonderful, and brings us to the final question that I have. What advice do you have for educators teaching art and working with multilingual learners?

Mai Chue: For me growing up in Minneapolis, what I saw and what I heard did not represent me. The artists didn’t look like me. I sometimes saw people talking about Hmong culture, but I feel like that was just part of a unit and not really celebrated. And when they needed to use me to point out that I was Hmong, they did that. I work with this site called Minnesota Original. It focuses on artists who live and work in Minnesota. When my students go into the community, they see the artist and see work in the community. What I’m trying to say is, make sure that your students see themselves in what you’re teaching. I see students thrive because there is an artist that looks like them, or the artist speaks their language.

Put artwork in the classroom, in the hallway, and talk about it. Also, the artwork is not just for show. You are making sure that students know art is not just for the rich white person. I feel like sometimes it can be an elite medium, because art is expensive. I want students to know that we can create art with these things. And you don’t have to go out and buy a lot of expensive supplies.

Tim: Students must see themselves in the subject. And really be able to see themselves being successful with that. Nicole, what would you like to add as final thoughts?

Nicole: Yes, kind of building on that same idea of identity and culture. We did a book study a few years ago. And one of the books that I chose was Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum. And it was talking about race and identity. I think my biggest takeaway from this was it doesn’t have to be a huge solution. Sometimes just a small step will lead to bigger steps.

I’m hoping to start doing more cultural projects to incorporate student cultures. I realized I don’t have to do a project about Hispanic heritage month in every class or each grade level – that’s a daunting task. It is overwhelming. But if I do it with one grade level or one class, and then we hang it up – we get students talking about it. It is exciting to hear kids talk about their culture. We did a project for Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. I had five or six students who were like, “Oh my gosh! My family celebrates that.” And here is what we do. Students shared with the classroom, and everyone was intrigued by it. But then everyone participates in making a project for that. It gives those students a chance to celebrate their own culture and simultaneously giving other students a chance to learn about that culture. And I really love that meeting point.

Merideth: I really enjoyed this conversation. I think about both of you as educators and how your own personal lives and identity shape how you see students you bring up in terms of personal commitment and experience, which is so important in public education. I know we are all advocating to have more representation and knowledge in our schools – of people whose lives mirror or have deeper connection with the students who we are teaching.


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