Learning English Through the Lens of Art

The Riis Settlement Immigrant Services program provides English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes to almost 350 immigrants on a yearly basis. Each academic year consists of three semesters, and during those semesters students not only engage in intensive in-class learning but also have the opportunity to put their skills to practice by engaging in activities beyond the classroom that call for conversation. This past semester included a field trip to the nearby Noguchi Museum , which gave the students the chance to explore the sculptures and architectural designs of the renowned Japanese-American sculptor, Isamu Noguchi.

Ms. Shannon Murphy, head of education at the museum and long-time collaborator with Riis Settlement generously provided the students and teachers with free day passes as well as small group tours. The tours lasted approximately one hour and were conducted solely in English. The students were engaged and very interested in learning more about the life of Isamu Noguchi, who “set a new standard for the reintegration of the arts, both traditional and modern”.[1] Students also had the opportunity to participate in a number of group activities; the first of which included an interpretation of the wooden, crystal, stone and glass materials Noguchi had used for his sculptures. Each student was asked to select their favorite material and then define the material, explain why they had chosen it, and relate it to their own lives.  The second group activity took place in the sculpture garden of the museum where students participated in drawing the exterior sculptures, interpreting their symbolic meaning, and presenting them to their groups.

The students really enjoyed the day and felt that it was beneficial in helping them improve their English language skills and make the connection between the art and their own identity. According to student, Miriam Bautista, “the activities let us create the same feeling-thing to express our own culture.”  And, student Aida Vega mentioned that she really enjoyed the trip because “the tour guide brought us to sit down – she asked us to choose things we liked.  We each got the things that reminded us of our country.  I thought about why it reminded me of my native country.”


The Immigrants Services program is committed to ensuring that its participants are given the tools necessary for success, and the ESOL classes are the cornerstone of this work.  The Director of Immigrant Services, Ms. Driftnery Martinez, strongly believes that “learning English is essential in helping students successfully integrate into their communities and become self-sufficient.” Furthermore, Ms. Martinez added that by obtaining English language skills, “students are better able to find and secure employment, communicate with health care professionals, law enforcement, and their children’s educators and become active participants in their communities.”

Teaching English through the lens of Art makes language learning fun. It allows for students of all levels to gain a better command of the language while learning how to think critically and explore their own creativity.  It also leads to improved attendance and a greater determination to learn. As Noguchi once said, “I perceive my limitations even as I work. There are times when I see nothing but restrictions, barriers. Learning takes time.” Program Coordinator, Johan Lopez, believes that “the English courses in combination with the field visits to cultural institutions allow students to explore different perspectives regarding their learning styles, therefore creating a safe-environment of inclusion, engagement and respect even when English is not their native language of communication.” Ultimately, it is that sense of community and mutual respect that really proves the value of our work.

[1] http://www.noguchi.org/noguchi/biography


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