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.

Some things would just never work in an online lesson

There are quite some contrasts in the emotions of being back in the classroom. I would be lying if I said that I was totally happy and comfortable to be back in the classroom. Having said that, it is great to be back doing some physical teaching and pushing the pupils to experiment and try activities and approaches that simply wouldn’t be possible in the distant learning situation.

One such example from yesterday.  The context was an initial session at the beginning of a series of lessons about abstraction in visual art.

Later on there will be assignments giving the pupils the chance to create abstract compositions that focus on dynamism and flow in an image, but today I wanted to get my group of fourteen year olds to loosen up, experiment with abstract mark-making and to draw a parallel with the abstract language offered by music.

Using eight different pieces of instrumental music and applying different ‘rules’ to each drawing a sheet of increasingly wild drawings was made.  We had fun, they smiled and laughed on seeing their own and the results of others. They were engaged and curious. The results made were maybe not of great artistic merit, but they were part of a process leading onto other things.

Would this lesson have worked online? Without a doubt it would not. Of course I could have played the music to them via the computers. I could also have asked them to have had paper and pencils ready. I could even have given exactly the same explanation about what they had to do. But still it would not have worked. Such a lesson (and there are many more in all areas of education) only work because you are sharing and participating together in an activity. It is perhaps not dissimilar to going to a theatre to watch a stand-up comedian or watching it alone on your laptop. The material might be the same but the experience isn’t.

We are social creatures and also social learners, being part of a group of peers, together with a teacher, brings a dynamic that rarely occurs in the online environment. In an art room context it is a dynamic that can be used to push learners further as they look over their shoulders and respond and react to the work that others around them are doing.

First day back

Every school year starts with a deep intake of breath and a feeling of here we go again.  This year, as I sit in the train, the intake of breath is through my mask that covers my nose and mouth.  The display boards outside on the platform remind us to keep our distance from one another. 

Today isn’t a lesson day, it is for me a morning of meetings and a chance to look at the classrooms and judge if they are appropriately set up for the maximum safety and in such a way that the lessons themselves will actually function with at least some sense of normality.  In the Netherlands we are starting the year with schools that plan and hope to operate to a level that is close to how they start every August.  1500+ pupils, 120+ personnel on one location in our case.  Is this realistic?  Is it sustainable?  My heart says I hope so, my head says probably not, or at least not for very long.  Time will tell of course, but while I was preparing my lessons last week I did catch myself looking forward to doing some proper teaching.  I love my subject and I have so much material that I like using with the pupils I teach. The online lessons back in the spring were to a degree functional and served a purpose, but they simply didn’t have either the fun or the fizz of the real classroom. 

All set for the first staff meeting, with our easy to measure social distancing floor!

There are so many questions and uncertainties as we start the year.  I suspect that there might be quite a bit to write about as we go along!

….five months later, a cultural recharge, and one work that kind of stood out

Exactly five months ago I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to see the Bernini and Caravaggio exhibition that was to be the big crowd pleaser exhibition in the late winter and early spring months. I had little idea at the time within a month the museum (and all museums in the country) would be closing and that my next visit to one would be close to half a year later and would be a feature of my stay at home summer holiday of 2020.

So here we are then, all that time later, and I have had my first cultural recharging of batteries from a visit to the MORE museum for modern realist art in the small town of Gorssel in the Eastern part of the Netherlands. Although the museum has been open now for a number of years and is only about 60km from where I live, it was still my first visit.

Strict protocols were in place, a pre-booked entrance time, a time limit of 90 minutes in the museum, a fixed route through the collection and no doubling back on the route.  All rather  unfamiliar and not my normal all over the place style of making my way through an exhibition.  Still, times change, and yes I was glad to be there, I’ve missed the chance to look and ponder.

MORE offers a collection of Dutch realists, many from the first half of the twentieth century alongside some more contemporary work. It’s an interesting collection, much of which is painted with an intensity and level of rechnical achievement that draws you in to take a closer look. The same could certainly be said of the work of Jan Mankes. I have rarely seen such small and intense paintings, some I liked, some I didn’t and some were just simply strange!

There was also an extensive display of the work by Jan Beutener. Figurative paintings, but ones with a strong awareness of the abstract qualities in the way his compositions are constructed. All very likable work, especially for someone like me whose own work walks a line between abstraction and figuration.

One work by Beutener should get an extra mention though. A painting from 2008, entitled With distance and featuring a face mask. It must have been included in the show as a knowing reference to the last months

Jan Beutener, With distance, 2008

Reflections on the 2019-20 school year

And so we come to the last week of a bizarre educational year. 2019-20, the Covid year, the distance learning year, the struggling to keep in touch with your pupils year. It’s perhaps a good moment to reflect a little.

For me, in many ways the first seven months were very much a more of the same sort of experience. Familiar lessons and many classes I already knew. In the background though, as a school we were working on a new educational concept that was a long term project, due to be launched in the school year 2020-21. The aim of the new approach being to increase both the educational engagement of our pupils and their ability to work more independently. Little did we know that in many ways this aim for a more independent form of learning was about to be twisted into a new form and thrust, on not just a single year group to start with, but the entire school of 1600 pupils.

So, as all those who work in education, those who are pupils and those who are parents know only too well, around February, March or maybe April, the learning world gets turned on its head. Suddenly the schools are standing empty and pupils and teaching staff, like just about everyone else are left stranded at home.

Much has been written about the admirable educational response to the new challenges. Seen as a whole this is true.  It was amazing to see the way that a steep digital learning curve was climbed and how effectively many schools and teachers got their online lessons up and running.

A first post-lockdown group artwork, June 2020

Three months later, and with the Corona situation in Europe at least easing a little we are getting closer to seeing how effective our emergency sticking plaster form of education has been. As a school we have even been able to carry out an exam week for a number of our classes. I have also spent time chatting with groups of pupils during lessons as part of the partial reopening of school.  And last week we had a series of report meetings to talk about the progress in each class. 

So how have things gone so far, and how are they going as we head into our summer break? It is early days to be drawing real conclusions of course, but what is the initial anecdotal evidence?  Variable it would seem. Like some of the teachers, a section of the pupils have coped well and relished the new challenges of working and organizing themselves a lot more than the normal school week allows. They have enjoyed puzzling out and researching lesson material and getting on with what was necessary.  Others though have struggled in the very same areas.  These are the pupils who need the structure, the discipline and the educational presence of teachers, a fixed timetable and the environment that a school building offers.

There are no great surprises in these early reflections, and the end of year test results of the students my wife teaches in higher education seem to hint at similar conclusions.  The top students continue to score top grades, but the lower areas of achievement have slipped a little lower.  Is an increasing educational seperation the risk here?  It isn’t any great surprise to discover that many pupils need the structures, rhythms and rules that the educational institution provides.  It is what we in education have taught them to be dependent on.  Take it away and replace it with distant learning that they follow from in their bed and things are going to be different.

The winners here do seem to be the ones who can work, plan and organize themselves more independently, both the pupils and it should also be said, the staff too. The new approach to the education we will be starting to offer at the school where I teach when we return after the summer is aimed at exactly these points. Letting pupils make a few more decisions for themselves in how they tackle the educational material.  Challenging them to work a little further and faster rather than allowing a general ‘class tempo’ to be the dominant one-size fits all form of education.  It would be nice (an maybe a little unrealistic) to think that if we had made such steps five years earlier our pupils may have been more ready for the effects of the COVID 19 influenced forms of education. Whether that proves to be the case only time will tell, and whether we can get on with shaking up the education we offer without further interruptions is of course also very unclear.