A Curious Expressive Juxtaposition

Intentional or not, there is a strange coming together of art at the Fundatie Museum in Zwolle in the Netherlands. Two quite separate exhibitions, one of Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter the German movement of expressionist art from the begininning of the twentieth century, the second by the Dutch artist Rob Scholte create this contrast.

imageThe display of the German expressive paintings from a century ago features many of the names that you might expect, Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, August Macke, Franz Marc and Max Pechstein are all to be found. The museum website documents the show well as does the second link here on Wikipedia:

Museum de Fundatie

Die Brücke

The paintings displayed have many expressive hallmarks. Free and aggressive use of the brush and the marks it can make for example. There is also an abundant use of non-naturalistic colour and a freedom in the way the creation of form is approached and faces and figures are manipulated, stretched and adjusted to fit pictorial purposes.
It is all very much what you might expect from expressionistic art, a cutting loose from the art that had gone before that had become too self conscious of itself.
With this as a visual background it is interesting to then move on to the Scholte exhibition. The display of many hundreds of embroidered artworks is undoubted a creation to the Dutch artist, however the individual artworks themselves technically speaking aren’t. Spread out in expansive clusters are embroidered artworks that the artist has been collecting over the years. Picking them up from flea markets, jumble sales and second-hand shops.

imageSome of the groupings are of rather kitsch hunting scenes, flower arrangements and the like. Perhaps the most engaging collections are the embroidered versions of icons from the worlds museum collections. Multiple versions of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Fragonard and Millet can all be found. It should be underlined just how many of these images that there are to see, spread across the museum walls in loose grid arrangements.
The variations in the various version of the same base image is one of the engaging aspects of the exhibition. These variations are rather greater than you might expect, you might think that one embroidered version of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch would be much the same as another, the whole point of this form of embroidery being to meticulously execute the sewn version of the original and as accurately and evenly as possible.

image
imageIt is here that Scholte provides the twist, by displaying the reverse sides of the embroidery rather than the front sides. The variations and irregularities are fascinating to see. It is also here that a surprising parallel with the German expressionist work arises. These painters from the beginning of the twentieth century were interested in a looser and less self-conscious approach to there image making, less lethargic and more expressive. When you look at the reverse sides of the embroideries you are struck by the “unselfconscious” way many of them are made. This is of course hardly surprising when the makers’ attention has been so fully engaged with the other side of the image. Many of the resulting images have an extremely expressive quality as abundances of loose threads cross cross one another leaving an often chaotic, reversed and yet recognizable end result.
It is tempting to describe the work as being almost accidentally made, but that is to go a step too far, for in most cases it is functionally that governs. The loose threads are knotted off and twisted away. It is how this is done that creates the expressive and loose qualities. Although even here there is the extra variation in the way one work rapidly secures loose ends, whilst another applies a rigorous system of neatness to the back as well as to the front.

Empty classroom, cleaning up and preparation….and no kids!

The end of year phase is at last here. The corridors and classrooms are empty.  Although, at least in the art department that isn’t entirely the case. First the piles of rubbish bags of a year’s worth of debris have to be shifted.  At the same time the grades have to be entered into the computer before the deadline.  And then of course there is the start of the next school year to think about.  Every hour of prep work now can save you an hour of prep work during the holidays.

endyear1

It is all a little bit frantic to be honest. I find myself switching from one task to another. A new colleague is starting after the holidays, so it’s important to make the necessary extra arrangements to ease her path at the start, which of course means more preparation now.  There is also the visitation that we are having from the bilingual education board here in the Netherlands that will be rolling up in October….large volumes of documentation of all aspects of the education that we offer to be gathered and got ready for presentation.

These are very different kinds of weeks at the end of the school year. The thought of a holiday just around the corner is a good feeling. But the quiet emptiness of the rooms that are normally so full the rest of the year is kind of nice to enjoy.

1700 pupils on one site is the set up where I work. On a rainy day in the winter when everyone stays inside through the lunch break, or at the switch between lessons the building is really heaving with teenagers flowing through from one place to another. In contrast to that the last days and weeks of a school year can have a fantastic sense of calm.  Yes there is a lot to still be done, clearing up, meetings, preparation for the next school year and the marking of end of year projects and work. But often in these last days you find yourself simply sitting at the computer in an empty classroom or some other solitary task and you are struck by how wonderfully different your familiar work place feels without the kids.

endyear2

A week is a long time in politics…what are the opportunists up to seven days later?

I’ve been writing the following post off and on, in odd moments during the last week. There’s been a lot to take in!

spiderman

Friday 1 July 2016

I never intended my blog to get too political in its content, but sometimes it is difficult to avoid. A week ago I wrote of a Brexit campaign dominated by ‘opportunists and second hand car salesmen’. I stand by that, and in particular by the ‘opportunists’ part. Boris Johnson has been shown to be a political chameleon interested only in his own ego and the climbing of political ladders, constantly repositioning himself to achieve that next rung.

It’s strange then to see him stabbed in the back by one of his own. Loyalty to ideals and individuals seems to be in short supply at the political top. I suspect that might actually be one of the greatest problems the political class has to face up to in these turbulent times. Integrity and credibility in our representatives and their actions are so desperately needed right now.

Chief back stabber yesterday was Michael Gove. In a rapid switch he took Boris Johnson out leaving him limp and deflated, like a week old party balloon. However, with this being much more an educational sort of blog generally, it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves of how Gove left his previous job as Education secretary.

Although I don’t work in British education, (I work over the North Sea in Dutch state education) I do know many who do and followed Gove’s tenure through the media. On the day that he left the department of education the Guardian newspaper published an interesting article where an array of educationalists expressed a diversity of opinions. There is still a long way for Gove to go in his bid for the political top job, but the article does provide some interesting background reading.

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/jul/22/michael-gove-legacy-education-secretary

Tuesday 5 July 2016

Four days on, and confusion continues to reign. Michael Gove doesn’t, at least for now seem to have benefitted from any great springboard effect from elbowing Johnson out of the way. In fact backstabbing actually doesn’t seem to go down too well with your political peers it would seem.

I lose track of the number of times that I have been asked in the last week or two for my opinion on the situation. It would seem that being British and living in the ‘other bit’ of the EU has suddenly made me something of a curiousity and an expert in opinions.

This has extended to the classroom too. The pupils I teach have also on occasions been prompted to ask my opinion and to explain my point of view. It is here that I become most frustrated and infuriated with the politics of the last weeks. You see, in education we spend a great deal of time and effort instilling in our pupils qualities such as:

  • Taking responsibility for your own actions
  • Understanding that what you do has an effect on others
  • Being consistent and showing integrity in your own actions
  • Understanding that working together is a crucial social skill to learn
  • If you find yourself in a position of power or leadership, you have to be prepared to take on new responsibilities

I could go on but I’m sure that you get the picture.

I have enormous problems politically with the whole Brexit campaign, but arguably I more enraged by the actions of the political leaders involved. What message can teachers give to their pupils about the behaviour of these so called leaders as one after the other turns and walk away.

“With great power comes great responsibility”, whether you attribute the quote to Voltaire, Churchill or Spider-Man the message is simple.  If you take stances that lead you into a position of power, there is a type of behaviour and integrity that goes hand in hand with that position. This is the message I would want to teach; indeed, I think most in the teaching profession would stand by it. It is hugely regrettable that a significant group in the British political elite have displayed such arrogance and contempt for their position as role models for young and old in recent weeks.

Brexit, used car salesmen and opportunists – an educational view from Europe

I left The UK more than twenty years ago. Not because I didn’t like it there, but because I had a Dutch girlfriend, the Maastricht treaty had just been signed and this interesting opportunity just came along. It wasn’t always easy, certainly dealing with the bureaucracy in the early years was complex and at times, less than a pleasure. But now, all that time later, I have absolutely no regrets. I have, for as much as it matters, dual nationality and I feel integrated into society. If you asked me if I feel more British than Dutch, then I would still say yes, I feel more British. Your formative years as a child, teenager and young adult, are it would seem, just that, very formative.

referendumWorking in education it is a privilege to play your small part in helping steer young people through these influential years and giving them some extra baggage and vision as they step out into the adult world. At the school where I work we make great efforts in broadening the international perspectives of our pupils, helping them see and understand wider contexts.  We organise trips abroad, exchanges with other countries and work experience placements that sometimes take the pupils quite literally to the other side of the world.  This is my Dutch educational context, but there are educational institutions all over Europe working along the same lines. The message is very much, ‘the world is your oyster’. With this as background it is very easy to see why the younger voters in Britain have been so despondent about the result of the referendum.

This week I have been asked so often for my thoughts on the whole Brexit debacle. I have watched from a distance with increasing disbelief. On Thursday night I was genuinely starting to believe that the remain campaign had done just enough. But no, headed by a group of opportunists behaving like secondhand car salesmen throwing their promises around a Pandora’s box has been levered open. What were the voters hoping that they discovered inside, a sort of nostalgic 1950s view of the country that never really existed?

There is clearly a very long way to go in this complex situation, and it does seem apparent that the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove might just be starting to realise just how complex. A poison chalice? Maybe, time will tell.

This week, when I get back to school I will doubtless be asked again for a perspective as one of two token ‘Brits’ on the teaching staff. I will talk about my bafflement at the behaviour of the politicians and my feeling of despair at the outcome. But above all the insular, inward turned message it gives. The world is a complex place, with difficult issues on any numbers of levels. It needs and requires cooperation and understanding, not distancing yourself when the going gets tough.  My teaching I hope reflects this stance. I want my pupils to feel engaged and that they have a place and a constructive relationship in the broader world.  Maybe if you plough through the statistics there are reasons for hope, a more open minded youth vote may seem to suggest it. But departure from the EU restricts perspectives, limits choices and does little to help young people find their place and their voice in a broader world. I don’t want the opportunity that I had, and took, to belong to the past.

Classes with split personalities

It is no secret in education that a class at the start of the day is often a different proposition to a class at the end of the day. My timetable this year has thrown up, for me at least, one of the clearest examples of this that I’ve had in fifteen years of teaching. I thought about changing the name of the class to give them some anonymity, but let’s not, its V3S. They know who they are, they also know already that I see them as something of a schizophrenic bunch (in the nicest possible way of course!).

splitclasses

I should perhaps start by saying that it is a class I like teaching a lot, twenty-seven fourteen and fifteen year olds. They are sociable, they are interested in more than just themselves, they are as a class really quite creative and able, and have a good feeling for humour. In fact, there haven’t been many classes that I’ve laughed so much with. All really enjoyable character traits for a class, especially for one that is actually built up of several quite distinctive ‘groups’, groups where the interaction between them is fairly modest.

But having said all that, the difference in the mind-set of the class for my last lesson of the day on a Thursday afternoon and then when I see them again for the first lesson on Friday is regularly quite huge. Friday morning can feel like being in a public library, Thursday afternoon like teaching in a market place on a Saturday afternoon.

It almost feels like I have two different classes, conscientious hard workers and a disorganised rabble. Part of my task as a teacher is obviously to try and ensure that in both modes V3S continue to be productive. Generally, I can achieve this, although if I was to stop to analyse it a carefully I’m sure I’d discover that more was being produced in that second lesson, but that has to be weighed against the verbal language production in the first one.

I mention the verbal production point because as well as the art content of my lessons, verbal language production is also important. I am after all an art teacher teaching my lessons in English to help these Dutch pupils to develop and improve their English. With this in mind I am reluctant to impose silence in the classroom, especially when it is a class where we have carefully cultivated the use of English as being the absolute norm and the class has responded so well in playing their part in this.

But oh, the chatter on a Thursday afternoon can at times be quite baffling. I recently complimented one of the boys for managing to talk continuously in English throughout the lesson, not straying into Dutch on a single occasion. He was, if I can be a little critical for a moment, talking absolute nonsense, and doing it nonstop for sixty minutes, but he was doing it in English!

The factors that come together to produce this sort of apparently split personality class are varied, the timetable has thrown up art followed by physical education on a Thursday afternoon, this generates a sort of ‘release’ after a morning of more ‘academic’ lessons in the morning. They are perhaps a little tired, and when I see them again at 8.20 on a Friday morning dare I say that they are still a little dozy?

All in all, it’s not too much of a big deal for me, however it does perhaps highlight the educational issue of good timetabling. Someone of course has to teach the difficult classes last thing on a Friday afternoon, just as long as they are not teaching the same group at the end of Wednesday and Thursday too!

iPad education……two years in, and is it time for a new Apple purchase?

With this as background extra courses for new teachers are being offered and an afternoon of workshops covering various useful apps and possibilities of the device will be on offer.
Throughout the last two years I have been part of the iPad steering group that has been responsible for helping plan out the educational direction we are following with regard to this in-class form of digitalization. I think it is fair to say that I am an enthusiast, I lead workshops for colleagues, have followed the odd course myself, but above all have set out to try and work out how the iPad can be best used in my art lessons.
ipadsdrawing
As a result of my enthusiasm, the task of starting the school-wide study session In a couple of weeks has fallen to me! ‘You’ve always got I’m two years into my own adventure into iPad supported education. As a school where I work it’s nearly three years, first with a cautious pilot project and then an extension to the first year bilingual classes (where I teach) plus a couple more. That’s been the level for the last two years. But next year comes the big step, school wide in years one and two (12-14 year olds). Suddenly that’s a whole lot more pupils and perhaps more significantly, a whole lot more teaching staff! It’ll become more a case of who’s not involved rather than who is involved.
such interesting things to show of what you’re doing with the iPad!’, says Albert my colleague, and iPad coordinator, in a suitably flattering sort of way. Hmm….thanks for that Albert! The brief is in ten to fifteen minutes to show my colleagues what I’m up to and what is possible with the device.
To avoid people just saying, ‘it’s easy for you, you’re an art teacher’ I have my own sub-text to the brief; to show a number of interesting and exciting iPad things that:
• Aren’t exclusively art and creativity related
• Potentially might have some use or relevance across a number of subject areas
• Could potentially work at different academic or age levels
• Present the potential diversity of options that the iPad offers and avoid relying too heavily on just one app
…..this is starting to sound quite complicated!

ipads
But perhaps the trickiest part is that the audience is, as is often the case in education land, quite a varied bunch. There are enthusiasts, like myself, who have already spent considerable time working out the options on offer. There are the beginners, who perhaps to need an enthusiastic presentation of some of the possibilities, as long as it doesn’t become too scarily complex! And then finally, there are the skeptics who, if I can paraphrase for a moment, think that we might be barking up the wrong educational tree.
Whether or not we turn out to be heading up that wrong tree remains to be seen. Although I’ve seen enough in my subject area to be confident that this isn’t the case. It is a work in progress, a new form and approach to education. It shouldn’t come to control everything, but it certainly does offer some interesting and new possibilities.

Control is a word that often seems to come up. Teachers understandably like to feel like they are in control of their classroom and maybe more importantly in control of the learning that is going on. Faces to the front and listen to the teacher offers a form of control on which education has relied for many a year. It sounds obvious, but that’s why the tables in most classrooms point in the same direction. Children facing one another does tend to create unnecessary distractions. Some will also say that having an iPad on the table in front of a pupils often does the same.
The distraction issue, like the control one, has been a theme that has been a bit of a recurring one through our last couple of years of iPad experiments. Maybe as an art teacher I’m a bit less affected by it than most of my colleagues, but the level of interest and excitement that has met the new Apple Classroom app was a bit of an eye opener. Having been given a demonstration of the software it would seem that it may well ease the distraction issue and hand the control back to the teacher. Being able to control the functionality of the pupils’ device feels to me simultaneously attractive and dictatorial.

classroom-ipad-02
I think the teaching staff will, in general, want to have this application. But I can’t help feeling that there is an irony here. We are all now equipped with these fantastic devices that can do so much, and that we have all bought from Apple. Now we are having to buy a new app, also from Apple, to limit them. Would we ever buy an additional product from a car manufacturer to limit the performance of a vehicle? An argument could certainly be made for a restricting device so that a car would stay within the speed limit? The question would be is it desirable, would it be acceptable? A slightly mischievous comparison perhaps but I think there is still a discussion to be had in school around some of these issues.
Needless to say, the pupils aren’t particularly happy, but I’m sure they’ll cope, they do after all still have their phone in their pocket which we can’t limit. In the end it might all come down to money and costs. Apple know full well that an app of this kind is addressing an identified problem. They also know it can potentially be a big earner, and for us, a school where in a relatively short time 1000+ pupils will be working with an iPad, a relatively large cost.

I like using my blog to showcase pupils’ work……..but….

….if I’m going to do that, then it is only fair to show the occasional downside too.

I would like to think that it is some strange sort of typo, but to be honest I don’t think so. I thought we all knew which Shakespeare we were talking about, but maybe my pupil had a different one in mind. Work for both the art department and the English department here!

Cooking as an educational metaphor

I’m an art teacher, but I think this educational metaphor works pretty well across all subject areas, certainly within secondary education where I work, although I’m guessing also in higher education.

frozen pizza

Firstly, there are the ‘frozen pizza eaters’, they do anything and everything for convenience. The frozen pizza is a meal of sorts, it fits on a plate, it has appropriate shapes and colours, some pupils would say that it fits the requirements. But from my perspective it’s two dimensional and kind of always tastes the same. And these are just the sorts of school assignments that these pupils hand in, it looks like a report, it has the right superficial appearance, but it lacks depth. It is in all regards the easy route and one that as a teacher I want to get beyond.

Then there is a second group, those who rely on the book, the recipe book. They follow it with enormous care. Measuring carefully, working through the step by step instructions and often in the end they have a beautiful produced result/meal, or in the educational scenario, a piece of work. However, there is an important detail that they forget, they never taste their cooking as they go along.

A third group follow exactly the same route as the second, however, they do taste the cooking, make adjustments and add seasoning as required. It’s a small but oh so important detail, for this makes it a reflective process, they are remaining critical throughout the process, alert to what they are doing, aware that fine tuning Is important and that they have an important part to play themselves. In terms of education processes self-reflection and critical evaluation are vital, as is reacting to these sorts of observation.  This is how an assignment can be made their own, and operate as part of an engaged process of learning.

cookerybook

There is a fourth group too. Perhaps not the easiest group for the teacher, but ultimately the most exciting. They are the ones who take a look at the recipe book, read the instructions, close the book and go and go and look what they have in the cupboard. They are the risk takers; they are the creative spirits. They can produce truly surprising, unexpected delights, they can also fail dreadfully. In culinary terms they are the ones who ultimately leave the instructions of the recipe books behind. They are interested in flavours and ingredients and what they can do with them. They too, like the third group, are engaged with the process. They have truly made it their own.

A class full of the creative radicals that are the fourth group would be an extreme and exciting place to teach. But these pupils are very much the exception to the rule. Although the third group does seem to be quite different to the last, maybe it is actually not a bad second choice to hope for. Engaged and critical are characteristics in our students that need to be nurtured and encouraged.

In an educational system dominated by testing, there would seem to be an inherent risk of an over-reliance on the book and simple reproduction skills are perhaps too heavily rewarded. Reproduction is perhaps a first step, but it’s insight and understanding that are the crucial steps further.  In my kitchen metaphor it is important that pupils and students are given the encouragement to taste their own products and the confidence to make the necessary adjustments. Such a critical edge is an important stage towards the creative attitudes that we need to be developing across the board in education to fit into our modern and ever changing world.

 

A motivation and reward discussion in class

In a recent discussion with my fourth years (15-16 year olds) we touched on the issue of why we choose to do what we do and what we hope to get back for doing it. It was in the context of a lesson where we were considering the motivations the people caught up in the current migration flux of people from Syria, Afghanistan and North Africa. I wanted to get the pupils to think for a moment about what circumstances might cause them to want to relocate to a different country.

travel

For my groups of fifteen year olds the idea of going to live in a different country because it offers a better paid job is an apparently very easy and obvious step to make. What is perhaps more interesting is to see how they almost believe they simply have a right to pursue such a route. Whether they accept it as a right for others is often somewhat less clear.

The immigration related discussion is of course a complex and heavily charged one. But a lighter exchange also took place when I reminded the class that I too was an immigrant having moved from the UK to the Netherlands back in the nineties. “What was your motivation for coming here sir?”.  I think most of them actually already knew, but teenagers normally like to hear a bit of personal biography from their teachers.  Initially I said that I came to the Netherlands because I liked Dutch art so much, but not surprisingly, they didn’t believe me, so I set about recounting the love story that did bring me this way. It’s a nice story to tell how my wife and I met, but it does also illustrate well how as a student you can temporarily be abroad, meet someone, and all of a sudden the route of life can take a sharp bend and you too, as I found, can be caught up in your own immigration story. I know for sure that when my wife travelled to England, in her early twenties, for her university placement he wasn’t anticipating coming back with a new relationship that was going to have such far reaching effects!

These pupils sit on the cusp of great changes in their lives. In two years many will be on the point of also setting off on the journey through a university education. If we return for a moment to that initial question of what motivates us to do what we do. The financial angle is always the first one that pupils name, they all want to be wealthy and own big houses and nice cars. But I would always ask them to consider other motivations and rewards they might hope for, and can offer a few of my own. One such reward is the very possibility to be able to talk with them about these sort of issues. By doing so you hope to open their eyes a little to different perspectives on the adult world that they, in the not too distant future, will be stepping into. It is so enjoyable and rewarding to engage with them in this way. They are all entering a period of a number of years of transition.

I was all too reminded of this earlier this week when I waved my own son (aged 18) off on a post exams adventure with two friends through Scandinavia and on to Saint Petersburg.  He will learn so much from this three-week journey. As a parent this isn’t always easy when you are used to being close at hand to offer help and advice when needed.

I really shouldn’t complain though, how out of touch am I with the group of young travelers?  They’ve been away for five days, we’ve engaged text messages, photos have been posted on Facebook and I can see exactly what the weather is like where they are. I made a similar trip nearly thirty years ago with two friends. We set off around Europe and in three weeks I don’t think I contacted my parents once, we just turned up again one day. Sorry mum and dad, I’m feeling increasingly guilty about that this week!