CALTA21 Curriculum

CALTA21 (Cultures and Literacies through Art for the 21st Century)

To access the CALTA21 curriculum and its additional materials, email with your request. Please include your professional title and the name of the organization or institution with which you are affiliated.  

The original CALTA21 curriculum, “ Identity, Portraiture and Photography,” is designed for adult English language learners. These programs can be offered in institutions of higher education, such as community colleges and colleges, in public libraries and in community-based organizations. These institutions will work in partnership with a local art museum.

Participants will be registered in Intermediate or Advanced English language programs. For the lower-intermediate levels, which might vary in proficiency from program to program, teachers need to review the units and in some cases provide additional scaffolding activities.

To empower adult immigrant English language learners by:

  • Strengthening their literacy and critical thinking skills
  • Enriching their social and cultural capital through the development of visual and museum literacy


Individuals acquire many identities through their lifetimes. These identities are shaped within different contexts, forged by a variety of forces, among which are nationality, culture, language, religion, gender, sexuality, socio-economics, education and memory. For many reasons, some identities are nurtured while others are repressed. In the case of immigrants, issues such as displacement, diaspora, acculturation, exile and the preservation or rejection of memories related to these issues present another layer upon which one’s concept of identity is formed. By engaging with portraiture, students examine how people throughout time have explored the multi-layered aspects of identity.

Immigrants face a unique challenge in preserving their identities as they navigate issues of belonging, language and assimilation. Memories of meaningful moments, places and people from their lives prior to migrating are frequently captured in the form of photographs, objects, paintings and writings. Immigrants’ identities are shaped by the interaction of those memories with their experiences in their new country.

Exploring our own identity through personal narratives is not only a captivating exercise, but it is also a valuable way of using our own stories to acquire new knowledge. The curriculum is designed around the theme of identity as it can be expressed in portraits and self-portrait. This allows participants to explore how they see themselves as well as how they are perceived by others. Participants have an opportunity to develop literacy skills while investigating their own identity, a very complex and layered concept.


CALTA21 utilizes the Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) pedagogy and stresses pedagogical practices that best serve adult immigrants through small group collaborative work. Units integrate cooperative learning and communicative language teaching. In pairs and small groups, students will have conversational practice by facilitating art viewing discussions and discussing one another’s photographs and writing. Art images and the students’ self-portraits will be used as the jumping off point from which to practice all the language skills. In addition to conversational practice, students will respond in writing to their own works and to their peers’ photos, as well as to literacy assignments.

Learning through art and culture offers students the opportunity to immerse in content. It provides them with opportunities for language learning to emerge as they use language within a visual context that enables them to understand the subject matter. Students revisit the same concepts of “Identity, Portraiture and Photography” in many different ways, allowing them to reinforce new concepts, vocabulary and language skills. They also can use their immigrant expertise to learn new content. They learn through topics that are relevant to their lives and activate background knowledge and prior experiences to build new knowledge.

Each curriculum unit includes: looking at art, speaking and engaging in facilitated discussions, listening, reading, researching, writing and taking photographs. Units rely on student’s background knowledge,

Each unit will start with a Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) discussion in which students will engage in looking at art images and teachers in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes and museum educators will facilitate conversations based on three open-ended questions:

  • What is going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?

Facilitators will paraphrase students’ responses, carefully avoiding judgment, pointing at the evidence students are presenting and linking students’ comments. Adult immigrant English language learners find this methodology particularly helpful since it does not require prior art knowledge and fosters the development of interpretative skills. By using predictable questions, VTS avoids any unexpected question that can trigger a sense of discomfort among adults for lack of background knowledge. Given that art addresses complex issues in a visual manner, each viewer can visually connect to a work of art. Trained facilitators provide a positive experience where language need not be a barrier to communicating, assisting students in strengthening their respective voices.

Students become facilitators of VTS discussions in small groups in Unit 3 and continue to do so until the end in Unit 10. During their first trip to the museum in Unit 6 and after the museum educator has modeled VTS, participants take turns facilitating discussions of works of their choice. In Unit 10, at the end of the curriculum, they curate the museum experience and are the leaders for their families and friends.

Every unit also incorporates in lessons 2 and 3 each student’s personal immigrant story through written narratives and photography. These lessons dig deeper into the concepts of identity, portraiture and photography and build vocabulary to address them. Each unit responds to the following questions:

  • Where do I come from?
  • Who am I today in my new home?
  • What are my hopes and dreams for my future?

The curriculum also emphasizes speaking and listening with practice activities modeled on the StoryCorps’ website and its interviews. Cooperative learning activities incorporate techniques from the counseling-learning approach in order to provide an opportunity for self-expression as well as an opportunity to practice effective listening techniques, such as paraphrasing, follow up, and feedback and question formation. This question making supports the development of the research questions that students will generate after their first museum visit.


In many cases, photography will serve as the springboard for the activities and has been designed with Roland Barthes’ theory as explored in Camera Lucida.[1] According to Barthes, four aspects of a person are present when an individual poses for a camera:

  • Who the individual thinks he is
  • Who he wants others to think he is
  • Who the photographer thinks the subject is
  • Who the photographer tries to make visible in his art.

Students will examine notions of identity by taking their own self-portraits. Using self-portrait photography in the adult ESL classroom has the potential to provide a high level of motivation for learning and is uniquely suitable for an exploration of the theme of identity. As Henri Cartier-Bresson states in The Mind’s Eye, the camera is the sketchbook and to take photographs is to put “one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis”.[2] Students can use old photos but will also be encouraged to take new ones in response to assignments.

In both the use of technology and the artistically creative portions of this curriculum, students are encouraged to find creative solutions to the art assignments. Technological constraints should be viewed and presented as possibilities for creative invention. Students should be encouraged to use any camera available: their own, cell phones, or disposable cameras and/or a program’s digital camera that can be provided for those students who do not own a camera.   Students should be encouraged to be as creative as possible by responding to assignments individually.

Family Literacy

The curriculum also incorporates family literacy. The curriculum prepares students to curate a museum experience for their families and friends and to be the facilitators during the two curriculum units that are done at the museum. This intergenerational component of the curriculum empowers the adults who are parents by positioning them as their children’s teachers.



The curriculum is divided into 10 units of study. Each unit is divided into (3) fifty minute lessons. Units 1 -5 and 7 – 9 are taught in the classroom by an ESL instructor. Units 6 and 10 are taught at the art museum by museum educators, docents and the adult ELLs participating in the program.

The partnership between the ESL program and the museum is established in advance during the Professional Development Institute, so planning for the museum trips and instruction should be adapted to the museum and to the collection or exhibit to be viewed. Works of art that focus on issues of identity, portraiture and multiculturalism are very conducive to engage students in dialogue and to support what they have been learning in the classroom.

The CALTA21 Manual (available in CALTA21’s website) offers guidance on the partnership development and on the use of trip protocols. Many of the lessons have materials and worksheets that can be duplicated for classroom use.


NOTE: To access the CALTA21 curriculum and its additional materials, email with your request. 


[1] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

[2] Cartier-Bresson, Henri. The Mind’s Eye – Writings in Photography and Photographers. (New York: Aperture, 1999), 16.