Personal bilingual education milestones x2

During a slightly quiet moment at a conference in Brussels about a year ago, a colleague and I were reflecting on our working lives in education, and in particular on where we currently teach.  I say currently teach, but that makes it sounds like we are always switching from one school to another. But that for us is definitely not the case. As it has turned out we have been in for the long haul.

Cathy Silk and I started work at the Maaslandcollege in Oss on the same day back in 2001 and have continued our parallel educational routes ever since, Cathy in the English department of our bilingual stream and me in the art department.

During our reflections last year we found ourselves recalling pupils that had passed through our classrooms, colleagues who have come and gone, and just how many lessons we must have taught.  We also made the calculation of how many weeks of teaching we had given to our school.  As it turned out, back then it was around 950 each.  Yes, we were each nearing 1000 weeks of teaching in Oss.  Further calculations and we knew that the milestone of 1000 weeks would occur in mid-November 2020.  We could have a small party we thought, maybe a sort of reunion with some colleagues, ex-colleagues and  pupils, nothing too official, just an occasion to mark a point in a journey that continues and to involve some people who have shared it with us.

So here we are in November 2020, 1000 weeks of teaching later, but no party.  Like so many festive moments, plans have been disrupted.  That is of course no big deal, there are more important things in play at the moment, and such an anniversary is just a moment in time.  But it is worth reflecting on what has caused Cathy and I to have stuck around in the same school for so long.  I think I can probably write for the both of us in saying that quite a few things play a part.

Firstly, being part of the bilingual educational project in the Netherlands and, at the Maaslandcollege in particular, has been both fascinating and rewarding.  Our school was one of the first to begin this form of education back in the mid 1990s.  A form that sees Dutch children taught in English in order to fast track their language learning abilities and ultimately brings them to levels that surprise me every year.

Our colleagues, both present and past have also been a reason to stay.  An enthusiastic, social and knowledgeable group.  In the occasional dip moments there have always been people around to remind you that it is a school that makes you want to be part of the team.  One colleague, Lobke, should get a special mention, she was a twelve old pupil at the school, starting the very same week as we did.  She is now an established member of our bilingual team as a biology teacher, a reminder for us both in the staffroom of the values of the bilingual program.

Educationally, both Cathy and I, have always been given considerable freedom to form and shape our own teaching programs.  This is without a doubt one of the main reasons we have remained so steadfastly committed to our Maaslandcollege.  By giving teachers space to explore and experiment in their work you keep them interested, enthusiastic and awake to new possibilities.

But then there is the school itself.  On paper it is a fairly standard looking sort of school, 1500 or so pupils, quite comprehensive in terms of the educational streams that it offers.  But apart from the staff, it is of course the pupils who make a school. It is difficult to calculate just how many Cathy and I must have taught over the years, other than to say that it is plenty!  They arrive as, maybe rather uncertain of the themselves 12 year olds, you fight and joke with them through the middle years of their secondary schooling and finally they depart with their diploma and a sort of mutual respect as arrived in the relationship.

It’s nice to be able to follow many of my ex-pupils through Linked-in.  The contact is low-key, but does let me see what some of them have moved onto do.  I think also gives the pupils themselves a sort of contact route with something of their own formative teenage educational years.  It’s a line of contact that is very definitely open (as far as I am concerned) to go further if the need presents itself.  Before the summer I was able to help an ex-pupil with the development of a museum educational program she was working on, and next week I will be doing something similar with another who I last taught, I think, about six years ago.  As a teacher, such moments are really greatly valued educational extras.

It is always nice to run into ex-pupils, on the train, at the station, in the supermarket.  It reminds you just why you are in education.  For both Cathy and me it is especially rewarding when these chance encounters involve a young (Dutch) adult launching into an enthusiastic conversation with us in English, fluent and without hesitation, reason enough to have stayed around to reach that 1000 weeks mark!

Studio progress during lockdown

During 2020 in the Netherlands we had the lock down months, the return to a summer of reasonable (but stay at home) normality and then back into lock down again.  I have been in an out of my studio quite a bit. Not for long periods of activity, it was mostly a quite fragmented working process as any number of other commitments seemed to continually get in the way. 

Maybe it is this broken up character of a working process that have been to blame, but I do feel that 2020 has been in terms of my own practical work a period of a few interesting discoveries, but also a number of dead ends.  I know that exploring dead ends is all part of the creative process, but these are generally parts that don’t actually leave you feeling that content or satisfied in what you are doing.

However, as we near the end of 2020, at last I feel these cul de sacs are starting to pay me back in the paintings I’m making.  These steps have been supported by quite a bit of drawing and printmaking to find the way to where I am now. Finally there are a variety of possibilities to be explored, a view I haven’t had for a while as I have struggled through a number of creative processes that can best be described as interesting failures.  And so the twisted, folded and manipulated nature as it is seen in the newest versions of the circular tree paintings can continue.

The long and drawn out tale of a Frida Kahlo painting

Back at the start of 2020 I made a plan.  It was for the group of adult amateur painters that I coach and guide in their creative activities once a week.  As a group we also make an occasional trip out to see an art exhibition that I feel would be both interesting and in some way aligned with the group’s own painting activities. Last year we visited the David Hockney and Vincent van Gogh exhibition at the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

My plan, back at the beginning of 2020 was that, as a group we could make a trip to the Drendts Museum in the northern Dutch town of Assen, to see the planned Frida Kahlo exhibition, Viva la Frida!, due in the autumn of 2020.  Without telling the group, and as way of introducing them to my plan, I set them a small painting assignment. 

I used one of the iconic portrait photographs of Kahlo, enlarged it and cut it into vertical strips, each about 40 cm tall by 2 cm wide.  To accompany each strip there was a wooden panel, larger (about a metre tall), but of the same proportions.  The task in hand was simple, use the blurry strip of black and white photograph to make a comparable blurry monochrome painted strip on the wooden panel.

To make it a little more technical I asked the group to do this using oil paints but making no use of black when mixing the grey tints that we needed.  The purpose here was twofold, firstly to challenge the group to experiment broadly with the mixing of chromatic greys, but secondly to result in more variation across the panels when the final composition was assembled.  One would hopefully be a slightly bluey mix of greys, another with more red and another with perhaps a purple edge.

We made a start, and all was going well. 

But then along came Covid-19, lockdown and the weekly painting sessions were suspended.  The painting was half finished, my painters still didn’t actually know what it was they were painting, but at this stage I told them the whole story and what my plans for the autumn had been.  In the meantime the museum in Assen had also had to change their plans.  The Kahlo exhibition was cancelled, or rather suspended, and has subsequently been rescheduled for the autumn of 2021……..I’m sure as a group we’ll be going.

Our group reconvened back in September.  Meeting as two smaller groups, strict social distancing in place and returned to the business of painting, and getting our Frida Kahlo painting finished. 

We almost made it!  Four weeks later, we are back in lockdown, hopefully not for as long as last time.  We are returning to our sharing of creative work in the app group and working at home on some group projects that I assemble as we progress.  Such projects help us all feel that we are still part of a group.  Our Frida work is all but finished, we’re just missing a couple of panels from the outer most reaches of the composition, but the work as it currently stands is a satisfying result and good approach work for the exhibition visit next year.

What the art teacher did…..apart from just teaching

We are not quite at the time of the year yet where I spend time encouraging pupils to consider choosing art as a final exam subject.  It is often quite hard work opening pupils eyes to the possibilities, the personal development that such a choice might bring or, if they were to take it further, the range of opportunities on offer if they were to head in the direction of the creative industries when seen as a whole.  There is often resistance to such a message from home, from colleagues and, it has to be said, from other influential places such as mainstream media and government. 

A recent crass an ill thought out British government advertising campaign to recruit for the National Cyber Security Centre underlines the problem.  The message to the ballerina seems to be to to go and get a proper job.  There was a suitable reaction to the image from those who work in culture, and social media was suddenly full of reactionary  memes and the government was forced into some embarrassed back-peddling, but it shows an underlining message.

Financial Times article

The Big Issue reaction

These prejudices run deep. At the school where I teach we essentially give lessons in twelve subject areas.  Eight of these are seen as being “before the line”.  A cut-off line that defines the eight that are seen as weighing most heavily when monitoring a pupil’s achievement. The four subjects ‘after the line’?  Well, those are art, music, philosophy and physical education.  Mainstream education still has a way to go to understand and value the place of culture and creativity it would seem.

I trained in the arts, both my brothers did and my niece did.  We all work, and are engaged fully in areas of work that we trained for.  I have more art and creatively orientated work on my plate than I have time for.  I teach teenagers to understand and appreciate the informative, communicative and enrichment that the arts can bring to our lives.

There is an irony here though, as I mentioned, I have plenty of work to do.  And part of the reason for that is the extent to which the school at which I work can make use of my creative skills.  Think of things such as:

  • Animation films, posters, folders and flyers for any number of in school and PR related reasons
  • Films documenting school activities and trips
  • Exhibiting of pupils work around school
  • Website building to make lesson material accessible for pupils
  • Playing an active role in school related social media work and the material that we place there
  • Giving workshops and developing lesson material in the area of digital media

These are skills that have their roots in deciding to chooses art as an exam subject, these were built on during my years at art school and further developed independently thanks to the creative, problem-solving attitude I developed whilst pursuing this study and indeed afterwards.  What is this ‘behind the stripe’ nonsense?  Art and creativity is work and it is truly all around us. One variation on the Fatima image takes this a step further.

I could go on, but those schooled in the creative industries are often multi-skilled and hugely useful in all areas of work.  A school is no different, and with that in mind, I’m just off to brush of my Illustrator skills again and do the next bit of PR design work…..which will in due course benefit all my colleagues, in whatever subject area, in the long run.

A book of our time, a book about dealing with losing time, place and opportunities

I’ve never posted a book review, the mention of an odd art or education related book perhaps, but I’ve never felt the need to…. despite being a fairly avid reader.  Until this week that is.  I have been reading Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book The Diving-bell and the Butterfly.  It is a collection of observations and anecdotes made whilst paralyzed with Locked-in Syndrome. Trapped inside a completely static 44-year-old body Bauby dictated his text using a system of blinking his left eye to indicate which letter his assistant should note down.

The sudden and completely unexpected brain injury the writer suffered that left him bed-ridden is both shocking and confrontational to read about in someone so young.  But as you read on you are drawn into Jean-Dominique’s world, his past, his family and friends as well as the interactions with his carers.  This should, you would think, be a challenging and heavy read, and yet it is anything but that.

Bauby displays an ability to see so far beyond his hospital bed plight.  It seems an almost superhuman achievement to explore and reflect on his life and his future when all his faculties to communicate have been closed down by his injury.  He discusses the simplest things, such as not being able to run his fingers through his son’s hair, to amusing stories from his past as an editor in chief of the French edition of Elle magazine.  He takes the reader away on memories of holidays past, dictating them to us the reader just as he has explored them for himself time and again confined in his prison-like body.

Throughout there is little evidence of a voice that is expressing regret, rage, or frustration, although all of those emotions must surely have been experienced. No, what comes out of this short one-hundred page book is a writer who seems to want to share, to maybe open our eyes a little more and to still feel part of a world that is in so many ways cut off from him.

Whilst reading it isn’t long before you started to see the connections with the world as we are experiencing it now. We are all feeling restricted, like the world as it was, is passing us by. Times are indeed difficult and challenging. But Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book does throw it into a different perspective and one that does bring a feeling of wonder for one man’s inner spirit and inner world.

“Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralyzed. My imagination and my memory

Footnote: Although I have only just read Bauby’s book The Diving-bell and the Butterfly I did also see the film made by artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel several years ago.  The structure of the film is rather different to the book, but it too is excellent and visually fantastically strong.   

H3P going where few classes dare to go

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a slightly tongue in cheek post that mentioned my third year class H3P (mostly 14 year olds).  The post referred to how they sit down the back of the classroom, seemingly trying to get as far away as possible from me, which in the Covid classroom is, in some ways, quite welcome.

But H3P deserve a mention today for a completely different reason.  They are just over two years into their bilingual education. About 70% of all their timetabled lessons are taught not in their native Dutch, but in English.  We work hard at school with our classes to break through the tendency pupils have to slip out of English and back into Dutch.  Being a native speaker of English my own use of English is 100%, but even with that sort of input, some classes have to be pushed, cajoled and bullied into full participation.

Today during my lesson with H3P at the end of the afternoon I had to pop out of the room to go to the copy machine.  On returning to the art department I entered the corridor, the door was open and from the far end of the corridor I could already hear the class.  They can be a rowdy and chaotic bunch, especially when they think that I am not looking!  I crept up to the doorway to have a listen to hear what all the noise was about before entering the room.

The class seemed to be shouting and arguing with each other.  Nothing too heavy, it was all good humoured.  I listened on.  It was fascinating to hear my group of fourteen year old Dutch children arguing with each other in English, shouting to each other in English, joking in English. 

Two years ago I traveled to England with the very same children.  A trip that we use to try and help the children over the psychological barrier of daring to speak their first English words and broken sentences.  And now, two years on, the same group is arguing amongst themselves in English.  I stood outside for a while, it was fantastic to hear!

The summer 2020 sketchbook

This summer has been different. Not a completely stay at home holiday, but one that hasn’t seen me cross the Dutch borders. Like most holidays I document the trips we make in a small drawing book. No great aims or ambitions, just quick visual notes of where we go. That has meant images of forests, heathlands, the rivers and the coast.

Click here or on the image below to browse through the book.

I have quite a collection of similar books on the shelf in my studio. This is the first one that I’ve put into digital form. The quality is not too bad, and it is in the end a nice record of the ‘Corona summer’.

There connections to my other paintings that I produce is limited, although maybe there is just starting to be increasing convergence. A long over-due update and documentation of my studio work from 2020 should hopefully follow sometime in the coming weeks.

A mention for classes h3p and h3q

In the socially distanced classrooms that we are encountering in education at the moment a special mention should go out to my two 3rd year (14 year olds) classes.  Both are small classes an I find myself with no fewer than twelve empty desks in the room.  All the pupils in Dutch schools are being required to keep at least 1.5 metres of distance from their teachers.  Both h3p and h3q have taken this advice to the limit, they seem to care for my health and well-being to the extreme.  Every lesson they pile into the classroom and insist on making sure that there is a good four if not five metres between me and them, they couldn’t put any more distance between me and them if they tried.

Or……it could of course be that they are displaying the more recognised teenage behaviour of wanting to sit at the back of the bus, back of the hall, back of the cinema, back of the theatre, back of the bike shed, the back of anything else that is going, and yes, the back of the classroom! 

But on a more positive note, I do feel a general respect of my personal space from the pupils I teach, and if they do creep a little too close it is simply through enthusiasm for the drawings they want to show me, and don’t seem to mind at all to be reminded to take a step back.

Art and language project – Merletcollege

Around this time of the year, about a month into the new school year, I visit a neighbouring school for a language and art project day.  I work with a class of 25-30 twelve year olds on a variety of language and art based activities for an intense six hour session, using my abilities as both an art teacher and a native speaker of English to my full advantage.

This year was no different, except for the obvious presence of a number Corona classroom rules and the fact that the normal presentation to parents at the end of the day wasn’t allowed to go ahead. Due to this reason I offered to put together a slightly longer blogpost than I might have done to offer parents a little more insight into the day.

I should perhaps start by mentioning, for those not entirely familiar with the situation, that the class of twelve years involved were Dutch children who have three weeks ago started on a bilingual educational programme that involves most of their regular subjects (including art) being taught in English. It is just the start of language immersion project that they are going to be involved with for the next six years.

But for the group at the project day it is very early days.  The main aims of the workshop is to get them to hear a lot of English, to let them play with the language a little but above all to start chipping away at the nervousness they have about speaking a new language and helping them worry a bit less about the mistakes they make.

The whole day had a bit of a journeys and traveling theme and started with a whole series of questions about trips that the pupils had made in the past, how they got to school and where they hope to go in the future.

We played story making games about imaginary and fantastic journeys. We looked at how artists had painted pictures of faraway places and looked and guessed at where the cities were meant to be.  We played an alphabet game where we tried to think of a different city that started with every letter of the alphabet and the second time through the alphabet thought of descriptive words for each letter that could be matched with a city.

The language games were mixed up with more arts and creative activities. Decorative and descriptive name tags were made for cities on our large shared artwork.  Skyline collages were cut-out and added to the map as a sort of frame and a large scale group drawing of a view of London was made. 

Some more focussed, and written language output, came in the form of Haiku poems about the cities of the world.  Each pupil doing their best to follow the traditional haiku structure of five syllables in the first line, seven in the second and five again in the third.  This asks a particular sort of playing with language and using the vocabulary that you already know as well as you can.  The results, even for such new language learners, are surprisingly good.

All in all it was a very intensive day and a little different from a regular day with its switches from one classroom to another. I arrived home a little worn out by it all, and I expect the same could probably said for the pupils.

Three weeks open again

Three weeks into the return to school, time to make up the balance a bit.  Three weeks of up to 30 children in the classroom and me the teacher trying to maintain a one and a half metre distance from them, in the classroom and in the corridors and also a similar distance from colleagues in the staffroom (actually probably the most tricky challenge!).

Front on teaching, teacher at the front talking and explaining (ironically the sort of teaching that for years we’ve been told is educationally the least effective) works fine. The tables in my classroom have been all moved back a bit to give me more ‘safe’ space at the front, so I have to shout a bit louder at times, but that is fine.  The first week or so was quite a bit of explaining so I left at the end of the first week feeling that distance had been maintained well. But then the practical activities started…..

Once again you explain from the from, examples on the screen and the pupils get started. Soon enough the questions and queries start to come. And after those come the specific enquiries about particular (often small) details on a piece of work.  You want to see, you want to help, you want to instruct and even demonstrate.  You quickly realise just how much of your job you spend shoulder to shoulder with your pupils, how often you stand amongst them. It is all part of classroom life and especially art classroom life. 

In some ways normal classroom life has returned, the faces at the desks. But at the same time that it is anything but normal. I find myself asking whole groups of pupils to hold up their work for me to check that they are roughly on the right lines whereas in the past I would have had multiple one in one exchanges.

The crucial teaching tool of your physical presence has been taken away. You can’t go and stand closely behind the unruly individual in the back row and teach from there (right into his or her ear!).  So much looks the same, but so much is different.  At the moment my pupils seem to respect my space, but we all know how forgetful pupils can be. Time to print a “don’t stand so close to me” t-shirt for the weeks and months ahead…..although I am fully aware when Sting wrote those lyrics he was referring to a very different situation!

How long will we be teaching like this? Well that is of course anyone’s guess right now. Right now its one week at a time, but I have to admit to often finding myself thinking about all the projects I want to offer this year, and wondering which ones to save and hold back for a potential online situation.