Open days at school have been a bit of disrupted business over the last two years. A chance for a school to show potentially new pupils what the school is all about, the atmosphere, building, and of course the staff. For the first time since January 2020, we invited both parents and their primary school aged children into the school yesterday evening.
For the art department it’s a chance to show just what we are about and stage an extensive display of the pupils’ work, from the youngest in the school (aged 12) right through to the oldest (aged 18). During the five hours of the open day, we welcomed around 300 ten- and eleven-year-olds into the main hall to show them round.
But an art department wouldn’t be an art department if there wasn’t something to do and participate in. Not an insignificant challenge when they are coming through in groups of up to twenty-four children every ten minutes or so. The resulting activity is kind of formulaic, and maybe lacks a bit in the area of creativity, but it certainly had a good groups participation factor and a wow effect at the end!
For step by step instructions on how to carry out a similar large scale, pixelated portrait click on the link below to download the .pdf file.
Getting children to understand a bit about how areas of tone and colour can work to create form is a central task for most of those working in art education. The pupils generally get the idea of how line has a part to play rather quicker than these other two might combine to occupy the areas between the drawn line.
Also increasingly central to activities, at least in my art room, is how digital tools can also have a part to play and can be combined with more traditional approaches.
The following short assignment played very much into these areas, focusing on how form can be created using surfaces of colour, colour mixing and becoming familiar with how a few digitally editing tools can be used. Those tools can be found in most editing software, and we were using the excellent (and free!) open source software offered on the photopea.com website.
The contextual background for the project that I did with my class of 12-13 year olds was transcriptions in art. We had looked at a variety of artists’ work, but had paid particular attention to Velazquez Las Meninas and Picasso’s numerous interpretations of it.
Our focus was subsequently on the work of Vermeer for our own remakes. The working process was reasonably simple and worked as follows:
Import the image that you want to remake into Photopea.com
Create a new layer above the image
Look carefully at the image and try to identify areas of colour that whilst not being identical are at least very similar
Use a selection lasso to trace round the area
Sample the ‘average’ colour in the selected area and fill the whole area with just that colour
Then proceed onto the next area
The pupils find this quite fascinating to do and work in an increasingly focused way, gradually building up their own image. The result look a little like vector drawings that might have been created using a inbuilt filter, but it is very much a question of look, analyse and then carry out the digital steps.
For a group of 12-13 year olds the results have been excellent and has resulted in a feeling of considerable pride in the group.
The second phase was to use carbon paper to transfer the ‘vector’ drawing structure onto paper and then to paint or colour (using coloured pencils) the resulting simplified linear drawing. At this point it becomes very much a colour mixing exercise where the subtleties of the digital image are transferred into a handmade version.
This part of the project is still at a relatively early stage, but the signs are good for some well made results. But of course the real proof of the pudding will be in seeing whether pupils are able to take the lessons learning into future work, but hopefully without the digital step always having to be used.
Below is a link to a short PDF booklet that explains how the part of the project done using photopea.com works. It is written about portraits, but the principle and process is the same.
A couple of blog posts ago I coined the acronym PLIL, a variation on CLIL. I make use of CLIL (content and language integrated learning) in much of my teaching, where I lead my art lessons with classes of Dutch children in English. They receive the art and the second language content simultaneously and in doing so pick up the language acquisition at a hugely increased pace.
PLIL is similar, but the content is simply replaced by play. There are plenty of situations in education where you are not directly involved in content from one of the subjects that you may be teaching in a school context. Play, and simply messing about with the children can equally be twisted and turned to increase the language learning opportunities.
Simple word games that I dip into at the end of a lesson fit into this area. For example, you pick a theme, ‘animals’ for example. The first child says the name of an animal, ‘tiger’ for instance. The second child has to pick another animal that begins with the last letter of the previous animal, so maybe ‘rhinoceros’. Then we get ‘snake’, ‘elephant’ and ‘tarantula’. You’re not allowed to repeat an animal, and you are not allowed to hesitate/think for more than a few seconds otherwise you are forced out of the game. It’s play, fun and laughter in the last few minutes of the lesson.
I have more of these sorts of activities that I draw on from time to time. Sometimes though, unusual situations throw up new possibilities. A case that illustrates this was a couple of months ago when five colleagues and I took ninety twelve-year-olds on a four day excursion to the coast.
The days were filled with all sorts of activities. Games, walks, playing on the beach, eating together, sports and so on. I’ve been on such trips often enough and know that on occasions you want to offer small rewards for winning, participating well, being especially helpful, maintaining a tidy room or even complimenting a teacher on how young they look! (That last one didn’t ever happen until we started playing this game!).
The idea grew out of the fridge poetry sets that you can buy, where you have an assortment of words stuck on your refrigerator door that you can rearrange from time to time to create poems. I wondered if we, as teachers, could have a pile of printed out words in our pockets and bags that we could hand out when a reward was needed? Would the pupils want to collect them to be able to play the word game that we would announce at the end of the week? It was an experiment, but it worked exactly as we hoped. These random words on little pieces of blue paper became ‘collectors’ items’ and were rapidly hidden away when handed out.
The pupils were sleeping in rooms of four or six generally and we instructed them to pool their words and together to puzzle out the most imaginative, poetic, surreal or simply strange sentence or sentences that they could form from their words. And surreal they were, as they stretched sentence constructions and grammatical knowledge to squeeze out the best possibilities.
Below are a couple of the ones we liked the most (Maasland, is the name of our school!)
The idea was simple. It served several purposes, but most of all, it offered the chance to have fun and be creative with language. We’ll be repeating the idea. Maybe our basic collection of words needs to be fined tuned a little here and there. The little linking words, the likes of or, and, then and is are perhaps less fun to ‘win’ than a fought or swallowed, but in the end every bit as important for making a sentence that hangs together well.
Every art teacher has had this experience I think. You visit a museum or art gallery and find yourself wishing you could take your pupils to see this particular exhibition.
Today was one such occasion for me. The artist involved was the French street artist JR and the place was Groningen in the far north of the Netherlands. It’s a two and a half hour trip on the train for me to get there, and if I was traveling from the school where I work it would be more than three hours. With such a time frame, a school visit, no matter how appropriate the exhibition isn’t going to happen.
In the case of the JR exhibition the ‘you just must see the real thing’ sort of recommendation isn’t really relevant. The exhibition doesn’t actually have the ‘real’ artworks. They are out on the streets in cities around the world interacting with the contexts and locations in which they are placed. In JR’s case the work is often on a huge scale and in places with serious political or social tensions. What we see in Groningen is documentation and museum installations that help give a feel for the scale of the work and includes supporting films that document and interview the participants involved. Together, multiple narratives are presented, the life and development of an artist, and the aims an objectives of each individual project.
When seen as a whole, this large scale presentation of the Frenchman’s work, has an effect that I know would have been so interesting to show my pupils. We’ve recently been talking a lot about street art and in doing so have also looked at JR’s large scale photographic work. Whilst in class at school, we have so many possibilities to look at art, a large lcd screen at the front of the class for images and films and pupils have their own computer screens to carry out further web-based investigations. But a walk into a museum, even if it is only to see this sort of documentation does bring other benefits and a chance to reflect and discuss in different ways than in class.
As I said at the beginning, we won’t be going to Groningen. Maybe I’ll share someone the photographs I took today with my classes. But there will be other museum visits at other times that are more feasible. It is crucial to those of us in education to continue making such visits when we can, to give a non-screen based experience of art and culture to our pupils.
I call it PLIL, because this is more like playing and language combined, rather than pure content as we are more familiar with from CLIL (Content and language integrated learning).
I’m always interested in finding new ways to combine a little extra culture and language into my lessons. This is an idea that arose kind of by accident in an online exchange of messages a few weeks ago with a couple of friends. The messages ranged through various themes, but as I remember it, Bruce Springsteen was mentioned, Cathy, one of those involved in the discussion is a big fan. Also, rather randomly, a woman riding a horse was also mentioned……and that was, as it turned out, not an unimportant point.
To amuse myself and, I hoped, the others in the discussion, I decided to write a short fictious exchange between me and an imaginary stranger (the woman on the horse!). The challenge I set myself was to try and squeeze in as many Bruce Springsteen song titles as possible into my short text. I am reasonably familiar with Springsteen’s body of work, but after Googling his musical biography I was surprised by the sheer amount, but also the number that were going to be useful for this challenge.
The titles available dictated to a large degree where the narrative headed, but in a way that was the fun of this word puzzle. It is all about playing with language and in my art and culture CLIL classroom that is very much the sort of area that I like to search out and make use of. In this case selecting out the words and phrases that are loaded with possibility and then working out ways to link and connect them without altering any grammar or phrasing in the existing titles.
The result of my own puzzling went as follows:
I saw a woman on a horse yesterday,
I asked were you ‘Born in the USA’?
Yes, she said, in the ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’
And ‘Growin Up’ I asked
Mostly near ‘Harry’s Place’ she replied
So this isn’t exactly your’s or my ‘Home Town’ I remarked
No, not ‘This Hard Land’ she said, ‘I’m working on a Dream’
You ‘Walk like a man’ she went on,
I’m ‘Outlaw Pete’ I said as threateningly as I could
Am I being ‘Held up without a gun’?
I was hoping for some ‘Easy money’ I said
Go and jump in ‘The River’ she replied……and rode off.
I haven’t actually tried this activity in class yet, but I plan to soon. I’m not a music teacher, but within my broader culture lessons this can certainly find a place. I think my third years (aged 15) could have a pretty good go at this. We will doubtless end up in discussions about which artists and musicians are the best to use. They’ll have their own favourites. But it will be interesting to see if they offer such content and grammatically rich pickings.
In my work as an artist, I spend a lot of time playing with images and forms, working out ways to combine and connect them. It is an approach I love to make use of in the classroom too. It maybe with paint, collage or other materials, but I really don’t see this form of play with words as being so very different to that.
Combing content and language in the learning process
For a while now monsters of one kind or another have been a feature of the lessons that I give to my groups of twelve-year-old pupils. We’ve done various drawing assignments, made clay gargoyles, and dipped into art history by looking at the work of the likes of Hieronymus Bosch.
With these classes, being bilingual learners (Dutch children, being taught across their timetable in English in order to super-charge their acquisition of the English language), I am always looking for ways of enriching the practical lessons with elements of language beyond simply using it for instruction. For example, recently I have had the class writing haikus that were inspired by the clay heads that we made together.
This year though I decided to branch out in a slightly different direction and make use of Lewis Carroll’s poem The Jabberwocky. The monsters connection was obvious, but how to work with it with these children who are only eight months into their experience of bilingual education was the question. Would they be ready to deal with this curious piece of literature?
I needn’t have worried; they were up to it. When I asked them to read the poem for themselves and underline all the nonsense words, they were able to complete this first challenge without any problem at all, their vocabulary being sufficiently developed to spot the words in amongst the text.
Next, we spent time thinking of alternative words that could be used to replace the nonsense in the middle section of the poem. Again, no real problem. An occasional grammatical error or slip in the spelling perhaps, but they were definitely onto it, and understanding the intention completely.
The fun and laughter really started when I asked them to come up with their own nonsense words for the first and last verse. At this point I wondered if the imaginary words they created might end up having an English or a Dutch feel to them. It was of course all nonsense……but to me, the words that they were coming up with did have a distinctly English twang to it and they generally nestled perfectly well into the context of Carroll’s poem.
The link below allows you to download a step by step guide to the language part of the lesson.
With this language component of the lesson series complete, we moved on with enthusiasm to work on a more than five-meter-long group drawing of our own Jabberwocky. The result of the drawing project can be seen here, but how exactly we arrived at the composition and in what order we did things, are details I’ll save for another post.
In 2015 I wrote a piece on this blog (entitled “Gender roles in the classroom”) about a situation in lessons where I give a class of 15-16 year olds a choice of practical assignments. There is an architectural design assignment and a fashion design assignment. The two variations are well balanced I feel and require similar amounts of effort and creativity on the part of the pupils. I provide both possibilities with a good contextual build up and frame the challenges up for the pupils so that they have a very clear idea on what is on offer.
The post from 2015, seven years ago, referred to the fact that whilst a reasonable number on girls would choose the architecture assignment, there seemed to be an unbelievable reluctance amongst the boys to pick up the fashion challenge. In 2015, I was pleased to have a total of one boy from several teaching groups who did.
However, in the intervening years I seem to be observing a change going on. Year on year, the fashion designing boys in my groups has been starting to change. Statistically the numbers involved in my classes aren’t big enough for concrete conclusions to be drawn, but there really does seem to be a bit of a movement in a particular direction. This year I’ve reached the point where there are 50% of the boyswho have chosen the fashion route ahead of the architecture, something of a seismic shift in this limited creative sample.
It leads be to wonder if there is anything significant going on here. Is there a switch away from the idea that anything involving clothes is only for girls? Is there greater acceptance that role models and expectations of behaviours aligned purely to gender and choices have moved on?
I’d like to think, certainly within the school where I teach, that that second point is the case. It isn’t that we have an educational institution that is a utopia of acceptance and respect for all issues that in anyway touch on gender, education, behaviour and related areas. But it is certainly true to say that great steps have been taken in the last ten years or so. The entrenchment of a boy group and a girl group in each class is not what it once was I feel, maybe this reflects changes in society a broader level too? But whatever the reasons, I’m certainly happy to see that pupils feel a freedom to choose in this area at least the assignments that interest or suit them the most.
I know that we might not yet be fully out of the woods with regard to reflecting on how Covid has got in the way of any number of things during the last two years. But there was last week, for me at least, something of a fairly large step forward.
For the first time since November 2019, I was part of a multi-day excursion together with a group of ninety twelve and thirteen year olds, and five colleagues.
Four days eating, playing, learning and relaxing together…..plus of course getting the pupils to bed and asleep in their 4-6 person bedrooms at the end of the day (always one of the most challenging parts of this sort of week). Virtually all Covid restrictions have just been removed here in the Netherlands, so there was no one and half metre rule, no face masks and full buses to transport us. Judging by the weeks immediately previous at school I had fully expected a small but significant number of cases to occur, but thankfully that was an absolute minimum. One case during the visit and a couple in the days thereafter.
All in all the days away felt surprisingly normal, at least to the teachers involved. We had all made similar trips before. To many of the pupils it was all a bit of a new experience, with these sorts of extra-curricular activities being so scarce during the last two years.
Normally we would head off abroad, but this Spring that was still just a step too complicated and risky in terms of planning and potential problems. So, it was all nearer to home. Easier to arrange, but sadly without the international dimension and the language challenges that come along with it.
Sometimes things in the studio progress painfully slowly. Any number of things get in the way and finding the spaces in between all the other stuff just doesn’t happen. That has been very much the case in the last few weeks.
Over Christmas I made a couple of collages using elements of lino-prints that I had made. They were good and I could see the potential to take them further into paintings. A few technical experiments followed (unsuccessfully) before I finally landed on how to approach the idea.
Now, a few weeks later, finally my first successfully completed painting of 2022 is a fact. It is a good one I think and has good possibilities to be taken further, hopefully quicker this time round. All in all, a nice distraction from other activities, not least the educational one, which is tough at the moment. But that is another story!