Using Visual Arts and Crafts to Support Creating Welcoming Learning Environments for All Learners

On 8th December 2017 teachers from both primary and secondary schools in Bristol, local authority advisors and some university educational researchers came together to share knowledge and practice with our trainers Lyn Ma and Dr Katya Frimberger. The purpose of the workshop was to learn more about how visual arts and crafts techniques can be used to explore issues of language, identity and belonging with our school communities and beyond. The day is part of a research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council AH/R004/781/1.


The day started with Dr Jane Andrews introducing the Creating Welcoming Learning Environments project to the teachers and advisors and sharing current practices. Lyn Ma, Glasgow Clyde College, shared her experience of using visual arts and crafts to support young adult refugees learning ESOL. Lyn illustrated how to use a guide to crafting suitcases and identity boxes and showed identity suitcases made by her students.


Lyn and Katya prepared materials for teachers to create their identity suitcases using maps and magazines and colouring materials. The room turned into a workshop where teachers created their suitcases. Everybody was then back to the discussion table and explained the rationale behind the way they assembled their suitcase. Teachers reflected on their experiences and planned how they can adapt the idea and integrate it into their own teaching with children and young people.


Lyn states the rationale behind the identity suitcases in a multilingual context:


“The Making of the suitcases/identity boxes is a way of empowering your students, especially those new to the English language, to find forms of self-expression which value their multiple literacies. It encourages the assemblages of images, textures, shapes and languages (students’ home languages + English) as valid forms of multimodal communication and opens up a broader view on literacy education in the classroom. It draws on students’ existing translingual skills for classroom learning, valuing their ability to employ a wide range of non-verbal semiotic resources (symbols, icons, images, body language, objects) alongside their linguistic resources (their home languages + English) for successful everyday communication.” (Bold in original handout)


Teachers’ Presentation of their Suitcases


Teachers assembled suitcases using maps, pictures and symbols. Teachers use the map to tell where they come from, places they lived in, or to show how their family and friends are spread across the UK or globally.




They also used images which symbolize social problems in their area, such as homelessness, the use of drugs, and representation of trauma.

Almost all of the teachers reflected on their identities and roots.  Teachers used symbols which refer to historical narrative. These histories are important to their family and their region, such as the use of hands drawn to symbolize family history:


“My father was a coal miner and hands are important to me. I really hate painted nails because we were a sort of crafting community… travelling abroad really changes me… when you start to reflect on this activity, you realize I am much important than I think I am.”


The activity encouraged teachers to think of their origins, roots, family, history, urban city history and how their body identities and history are connected. At the same time, there is a sense of belonging to more than one place and having two homes, as represented by our trainer Katya’s suitcase. Katya used the head and the heart referring to German people and Glaswegian people.



Teachers also used the activity to speak about the value of smaller and larger spaces for them. These spaces can allow relaxation and daily reflection, such as having a garden and a pond at home. Applying these activities with students can also help students value their identities, origins and spaces of belonging. Teachers and our research team also assembled symbols and images of places important to them or places they have never been to. For example, Jane Andrews highlighted the reality that we communicate with people in our community from countries which we have never been to. However, these communities form a great part of British society, such as people with Somali and Sudanese heritage. Jane hears about life in Somalia from residents in Bristol city. Her map features places she visited, and places she heard about. The two images below reveal the two sides of the suitcase front cover.







Jane’s included inside the suitcase British artifacts, such as the “language of tea”. She also employed her knowledge of the Bulgarian language and  passion towards “learning”, “travelling”, “languages”, and new “experiences.”



Teachers reflected during the day on how they can adapt the suitcase idea. We follow teachers through emails and school visits to support them and learn about their adaptations of the activity.


Useful links and Resources mentioned during the workshop:




  • Highland Council’s EAL website to help support your bilingual learners.