Paintings and Stories – imagination in classroom

Let me tell you a story….

With her half-closed and somewhat weary eyes, Grandma sits beside Jimmy, her much beloved grandson. Genuinely concerned about his tricky question,  the woman averts her sight from the boy and fixes her solemn eyes on the stony floor as if desperately trying to find an answer she can give Jimmy.

“Oh, my dear boy! You want to know about life, how important it is, and why. Well, it’s not easy to answer. We’ve been given our life as a gift and, as with any gift, we should be happy to have the greatest gift of all. And…,” here her words are interrupted  by the impatient boy.

“But some people aren’t happy at all, Grandma. Some steal or take others’ life away. So, it isn’t right to take away what you’ve been given in the first place, right?” Jimmy asks incredulously and his eyes are getting bigger and brighter with every word he utters.

“You’re right and that’s why you should cherish every single moment of your life without letting others change it, letting them change you, or letting them take it away from you,” replies Grandma soothingly.

All of a sudden, she feels a chilly draught of air coming from the door. Unwittingly or not, the elderly woman puts out her wrinkled left hand as if to protect the bright flame of the candle firmly held in the other hand. She wishes for the candle flame to burn lightly, not to flicker and then die, leaving both of them in complete darkness. She doesn’t want the flame to die as she doesn’t want to die herself. Not yet! Although inevitable, death will come but the woman would secretly love to be given more moments to be shared with her grandson. Jimmy’s radiant and plump face turns closer and closer not to miss out on any word from his Grandma.  His equally luminous and curious eyes penetrate the elderly woman’s wrinkled face as if trying to read more, to know more, to learn more…

“You see, dear,” she begins, “you must always watch out because you never know when your life may be in danger. It’s like with this candle,” she continues, bringing her hand closer and closer to secure the dear flame, “Protect your life from any wind, any storm, any downpour coming your way.”

“But what if I don’t? What if I’m not careful enough?”, his sparkling, wide eyes expect more.

“If you don’t,” starts Grandma slowly as if emphasizing every single word, “then your life will go to waste. It’s inevitable! Look at my candle, look at yours. Mine is about to die, yours – about to live a life. If you just let it burn brightly.”

And the warmth from the candle, just like the warmth from within, makes us decent and lets us stay  decent after all. If we only try…


My story has come to an end. Why did I tell you this story? Well, to quote Tracy Chevalier: “Our DNA tells us to tell stories.” Story-telling is part of our civilization. And why did I tell you this particular story? Well, on the wall above my truly inspirational hundred-year-old desk, there hangs a framed picture. Actually, this is a print of a famous painting which hangs in the Mauritshuis Gallery in The Hague. Painted by Peter Paul Rubens, “Old Woman and Boy with Candles” belongs to the Flemish masterpieces. Together with a great number of extraordinary paintings, this canvas illustrates the Royal Collection, so eagerly admired by the gallery goers. If interested in the works of Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Rubens, or Holbein, visit the gallery. When in the gallery myself some time ago, I immediately knew which paintings would catch my eye, would hold my attention for much longer than a minute or two. And again, similarly to Tracy Chevalier in her T.E.D. presentation (ref. below), when contemplating this or that painting, I subconsciously started constructing / sketching stories behind the characters and settings.

Why do it? Is it a medical condition I should worry about? If it is, then I’d rather not part with it. Art galleries have always been an indispensable part of me visiting Rome, London, or Amsterdam. Staying in a city without visiting a gallery there is incomplete, at least to me. So, again, why do it?

  1. to enjoy the paintings and to appreciate their uniqueness even more by constructing stories and visualizing more than meets the eye;
  2. to subconsciously become part of a historical period, of a past everyday setting, so meticulously delineated by painters;
  3. to keep dreaming, to keep imagining, and to keep looking for inspiration for my teaching.

I’ve always been fascinated by novelists who belong to the so called post-modern historical metafiction. They build their storylines around historic figures and skillfully, following from their thorough research, they enhance the pages of their novels by history-bound figures, events, etc. Boring? No, not at all. History in the background and fictitious plots come to the foreground to grasp the readers’ attention and to hold it. Some, like Tracy Chevalier or Jeanne Kalogridis, have been trying to reconstruct stories behind paintings. Their intertextual outcome, in which words and strokes of brushes go hand in hand, reveal enchanting scenes.

Besides, being a teacher calls for developing your students’ multiple intelligences. “Look for stories in the paintings. Identify objects. For instance, with a portrait, try to figure out if the person is wealthy, who they are and what they did by the clues in the paintings” (Ellen Alvord). It’s true that visual stimuli, when appropriately introduced in the classroom, do help the students. Virtually all of us as teachers of languages or humanities, have employed paintings for some of the following:

  • To build a scaffold based on the ss’ previous knowledge and skills at a warm-up stage;
  • To revise lexis, functions, or grammar points at a preview stage;
  • To set up contexts, to prompt suggestions, implications, and speculations at a lead-in stage;
  • To elicit answers to focus questions or to get the ss to build questions based on picture-story elements;
  • To introduce new lexical material through the contents of the painting without resorting to L1, but sticking to the target language L2 (LS) as much as possible;
  • To teach new grammatical patterns and aspects, e.g. modal auxiliary verbs;
  • To compare and contrast visuals – to practise phrases used and generated in any other context;
  • To get students to create categories, to describe clusters – exam-based tasks;
  • To support classes of literature – paintings introduce the characters, they allow the ss to be immersed in a fictitious world. In this way, the ss’ senses are sharpened and their sensitivity is stressed. The Pre-Raphaelites and their masterpieces are a case in point here;
  • To promote personalization and conceptualization – the ss’ perceptiveness and their own experience help them understand some problems discussed in the classroom after, let’s say, a field trip to a local art gallery;
  • To create conditions for the ss to expand their writing, i.e. writing a story, writing a review, writing a fairy-tale, etc.;
  • To see role-playing opportunities in this or that painting. Following from their research, some epoch-based preparation, the ss invent dialogues based on the masterpieces. Alternatively, the ss adapt the characters to the contemporary times;
  • To accentuate problems (issues) depicted in paintings – great springboard for debates, discussions, essays (for/against, opinion, etc.);
  • To promote language functions and grammar through the arts, e.g. through picture description where one group of ss has a painting they see and describe, whereas the other group listens, follows instructions and tries to draw what’s dictated to them.

My blog post is slowly coming to an end although the topic of paintings in life and in the classroom appears endless. As Horace said so long ago, “A picture is a poem without words.” It’s our task, or privilege, which sometimes may be treated as a challenge, to give a picture some individualized meaning. Your vivid imagination gets stirred and excited. And what is the meaning of life without a little imagination or day-dreaming which takes us away from harsh reality.

As Jerzy Kosiński once put it, “The principle of true art is not to portray, but to evoke.” So, next time you’re in a gallery of paintings, remember not to rush headlong in any direction. “Do your own curation,” as wisely suggested by Tracy Chevalier. Let your own feelings, together with your speedy heartbeat be your only guide. Art is therapeutic by all means. However, your visit to the Tate Gallery, to the Uffizi, or to the Mauritshuis may not be revolutionary for your day-to-day life as such but it may make you undeniably richer inside. Cherish such moments, as Grandma from Rubens' canvas would tell you, if only given a chance to speak.



  • Mauritshuis website: DOA 04.12.2015

  • Tracy Chevalier’s talk on T.E.D.: DOA 04.12.2015