Two women in a classroom. The woman on the left is sitting on a table and the woman on the right is standing next to her. There are desks behind them.
Celine Anderson (left), a graduate student in the School of the Arts, is taking Spanish 202 with Laura Middlebrooks this semester as part of an independent study on Multilingual Art Education. Anderson developed the "¡Hagamos arte!" class as part of the "Un festival de arte" lesson, in which each student must create some sort of art project and present it to the class, speaking only in Spanish. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

‘Let’s make art!’ project unleashes students’ creativity in Spanish class

Students explore their artistic side while delving into family politics, mental health and personal passions.

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Escuchando y repitiendo — listening and repeating — may be a time-honored method of learning Spanish, but a Virginia Commonwealth University student and her teacher have come up with a way to make it a lot more fun — and meaningful.

Celine Anderson, a graduate student in the Department of Art Education in the School of the Arts, has teamed with Laura Middlebrooks, Ph.D., a teaching assistant professor in the School of World Studies, to teach "¡Hagamos arte!" to Anderson’s classmates. While Middlebrooks has included an artwork assignment in their Spanish 202 class since last spring (for instance, in observance of the National Poetry Month of April, students write haikú poems in Spanish), Anderson developed this semester’s “Let’s make art!” module as part of an independent study on multilingual art education.

An interdisciplinary collaboration proves the whole is greater than the sum of its parts

The two surveyed students about their level of comfort in making art, and how they view their previous artistic experiences as well as their current abilities. To benefit students who don't consider themselves artistic — or even who might fear making art — Anderson prepared a Spanish-language art guide and a special art session in which she taught her classmates basic techniques.

Two women standing in front of a white board and projector screen.
Laura Middlebrooks' Spanish 202 students Katherine Thompson (left) and Makayla Burton wrote poems for their "obra de arte" projects. (Courtesy Laura Middlebrooks)

The unit provides students who don't consider themselves artistic a low-stakes environment in which they can challenge that limiting assumption about themselves, Middlebooks said.

Jude Link does not consider himself artistic, yet he found a creative way to incorporate his biggest passion — wreck diving — into the "obra de arte" assignment and included his own underwater photos.

“My project was my work with TV shows about shipwrecks off the coast of Hatteras, North Carolina,” he said. “I worked with a French television show and am currently working on a new project. I chose to do it on my work with TV shows about shipwrecks because it is art.”

Other student projects ranged from original salsa dance choreography to traditional South and Central American culinary art.

Since writing is senior Katie Thompson’s passion, she decided to write a poem.

“I gave a presentation on a specific type of poetry called confessional poetry, which speaks on very intense, personal feelings and touches on topics some may find difficult to approach, such as mental health,” she said. “Because of the concise nature of language in confessional poetry, it was fairly easy to translate, and I feel like I was able to convey the feelings I was expressing in my work. The poem, ‘Muerte a las hormigas,’ explores my less-than-comfortable experience with anxiety, and how I want to overcome it.”

A woman holding up an collage. It has a red patterned background with black and white cut outs from photos on top.
Dominique Chaves, an art history major, is typically insecure with her Spanish speaking skills, but has felt more comfortable expressing herself in professor Laura Middlebrooks' class. As part of that class' "¡Hagamos arte!" session with Celine Anderson, Chaves created a multimedia art piece, which features layered ink over copies of both historical and personal photos as well as a letter in which her grandmother describes in both Spanish and English how the 1959 Cuban Revolution impacted their family. (Courtesy Laura Middlebrooks)

Art history major Dominique Chaves was happy to create a small-scale piece of art this semester since it was her first artwork outside of her studio classes. She focused on something personal that connected her to Spanish: her family's history fleeing the communist regime in Cuba.

“I gathered stories and photos from my grandmother and connected these to images of Che Guevara, who I can understand as both the dictator who drove my great-grandparents from their land and home and the aspirational revolutionary who inspired freedom fighters such as those in South Africa,” she said. “The divergence in personal politics between my family and I and my frustration with that, as well as my empathy for the circumstances which naturally catalyze opposing views to my own, are a complex dynamic in my life.

“I am typically very insecure with my speaking skills in Spanish but have felt much more comfortable expressing myself in Professor Middlebrooks’ class. They are very encouraging and, although I was nervous, I found my vocabulary has greatly expanded and that speech comes much more naturally to me.”

Jacob Simmons’ biggest problem with the assignment was whittling down his ideas. A sophomore cinema major, Simmons originally created a short story. “However, I realized I wanted to create something more visual, so I developed that story using clips and scenes from movies and television shows that came together to tell the story,” he said. “I wanted the piece to have my audience wanting a more developed story. I wanted to convey emotions that ranged from awe to self-righteousness. … The best way to appreciate art is to understand how we want our audience to be impacted by the stories we are telling.”

While Anderson herself found conducting this workshop entirely in Spanish challenging, she learned a lot of new vocabulary specific to the art room. But she learned more than just Spanish.

“I am really fortunate to have had Dr. Middlebrooks as an example for what good pedagogy looks like,” she said. “Being in an education program has made me start to notice a lot about how professors teach, and I really appreciate Dr. Middlebrooks’ emphasis on movement, tone and individual attention for their students.”

A collage with a red patterned background with black and white cut-outs from photos on top.
For her "¡Hagamos arte!" project, Dominique Chaves gathered stories and photos from her grandmother and connected these to images of Che Guevara, who she sees as both the dictator who drove her great-grandparents from their land and home and the aspirational revolutionary who inspired freedom fighters such as those in South Africa. (Courtesy Laura Middlebrooks)

Multilingualism as an instrument of resisting racism and imperialism

Anderson is pursuing Spanish because of her positive experiences with a high school Spanish teacher. But her desire to promote multilingual education goes much deeper.

As the child of an African American father and an Egyptian mother, Anderson temporarily attended primary school in Egypt, where Arabic — the country’s official language — was banned in favor of learning English. Later, when she attended school in the United States, English was also prioritized.

“I saw my fellow students of color being asked to assimilate to white American culture by losing their native languages, accents or ways of speaking, including avoiding the vernacular with which they were most comfortable speaking at home,” she said. “As an adult who has worked in the public school system, I see the same pattern of teachers covertly and overtly prioritizing English as the norm.

Three metal trays with food in them in front of a green board with black text.
Spanish 202 student Yelena Prok recited Pablo Neruda's "Ode to the Potato" for her "obra de arte" project. In addition, she prepared three different traditional Latin American potato dishes. (Courtesy Laura Middlebrooks)

“This is an injustice and an instrument of racism and imperialism. As someone studying to be an art teacher, I understand it as my responsibility to center multilingual art education in all of my teaching. In order to support all students learning without eradicating their culture, it is necessary to teach with an appreciation and intentional space for the diversity of languages and experiences.” 

Even before Anderson joined their class, Middlebrooks used the art unit to discuss students’ opinions about issues affecting the art world, including their reactions to the Oscars and/or Latin Grammy ceremonies, or about how protesters have recently attacked famous pieces of art in order to draw attention to the climate crisis.

“While monolingual speakers take for granted the ability to discuss these meaningful topics in depth, being able to do so accurately in Spanish is a significant accomplishment for second-language learners,” Middlebrooks said.