Sitting quietly at the back of the digital report card meeting

It’s been another week of report card meetings for me the last few days.  All online meetings, discussing the performance of our pupils in these extraordinary online educational times.  Academic achievement stands central in the discussions.  And in the Dutch educational system, a child’s ability in the area of Mathematics stands towering above everything.  You may be a gifted language expert, a pupil totally engaged by historical perspectives or on with tremendous creativity in the cultural world, but if you struggle at Maths, you are in trouble.

Time and again the Maths or Physics teachers are asked for their perspectives on the chances of a particular pupil being able to perform well enough to be able to progress to the next school year or remain studying at their current level.  The art teacher, sits quietly in the background, but if I’m honest, so do the history, geography, social studies ones, and often also the language teachers. 

If a child really struggles with languages, even in the multi-language learning Dutch system a slightly lighter learning route can often be found, but struggle with Maths and the options are limited.

Coming from the British system of A-levels this has always struck me as strange.  In my final two years of school in the UK I did the standard three A-levels.  In the British system, it is really not that unusual for pupils to drop Maths altogether for the final two years of their secondary education.  Choosing just three subjects it is inevitable that you are going to let go of something that others may see as crucial.

Ironically, for my argument here, I didn’t drop Maths or Physics and took them as A-level alongside Art.  I did however drop English and History, which on reflection may actually have been more useful to me in the long run.

The truth is, you more often than not simply don’t know what is going to be useful to you, and what is equally true is that just because you don’t choose a particular subject at school, doesn’t necessarily mean that a whole chapter of your life is going to be closed off.  My lack of English lessons at school hasn’t held me back from becoming an effective teacher of English within my art lessons in a Dutch bilingual teaching stream. Interestingly in the Dutch education system you can go on to study many subjects at university level without even having them as one of your final exam subjects.

Surely we should be aiming at creating more rounded and genuinely broadly educated young people and ones who at the age of fifteen seem stricken by the stress of choosing subjects that they seem to perceive as being the ones that will set them on a direct railroad to their final career.

 In order to this there has to me a greater awareness and value placed on the skills, knowledge and insights that are gained inside all the classrooms and for that matter outside the classroom too.  It depresses me hugely to see pupils who feel like they are failing at school because they are struggling in maybe one or two subject areas, whilst they are achieving excellently in the remaining eight.  It just feels like or educational focus is simply out of balance, and the pupils are the victims.

Lauren Martin’s excellent article covers a good few of my Art teacher frustrations in this area:

https://www.learningliftoff.com/10-reasons-arts-in-education-important-kids/

At last some sun and a little bit of warmth

After what feels like months of continually having to reinvent what I am doing in the classroom, and way too much time staring into the webcam, there was today just a hint of spring in the air.  Reason enough to head of out on the bike before an afternoon of online meetings and prep work for the school days ahead.

The result two of the first en plein air drawings of 2021.  Fingers were still a bit cold, but it is a start……..

Hybrid lessons….three weeks in

Do I look at the eight or nine faces spread evenly across the classroom, or do I stare into the lens at the top of my laptop?  Do I try and spread my attention between the pupils physically present with me and those sitting at home?  Do I offer the same materials and activities to all or do I differentiate between the two learning contexts?  All hugely relevant to my current educational situation.  Welcome to hybrid teaching!

A couple of weeks ago the Dutch government decided that it was time for the secondary schools to return to the classroom.  Or at least, to return to physical lessons for all children for at least one day a week.  If we set aside for a moment whether this was the right decision or not for a moment and focus on the practicalities and how hybrid lessons are working in particular for us in the art department.

My school like many in the Netherlands has chosen to split each class in three groups.  Each day, one of the groups are at school and physically present in the classroom, and the other two groups are at home and following the lesson online.

The net result for the teacher is a sort of split personality of teaching practice, a near impossible challenge of knowing where to aim your focus, and yet another opportunity to overhaul teaching material to give it a chance of working in this new situation. 

Three weeks in, and at least for me in my art room role, a few things have become clear:

  • After the months of totally online lessons and having to rely only on materials that the pupils have available to the at home, I want to offer those physically present the chance to work with some of the more interesting materials that we have on offer at school.
  • Spreading your attention evenly between the two groups is near impossible.  As a result, hardly surprisingly, you find yourself participating in small talk with those present, and risking neglecting those at home. Avoiding creating “second-class learners” at home is a challenge.  The home-based groups receive certainly less attention than they got while the teaching was fulling online.
  • I have decided that I simply need two assignments for each class.  One for home lessons days and a second (related, but different in terms of materials and practicalities) for the at school days.  The home assignment is designed in such a way that pupils can essentially get on with it independently, while I give more attention to those present in the classroom.

This set up of split assignments seemed to me to be the only way to go, especially with classes where there are sometimes ten pupils in class and twenty following at home. 

The only exception to this rule has interestingly been the youngest class that I teach.  Twenty-six 12-year-olds do seem able to be taught in one group.  That has been partly down to the assignments that I have been doing with them, but a bigger factor here has been the openness and chatty active participation levels of the younger children in comparison to their camera shy 15- or 16-year-old fellow pupils. 

So, my conclusions after these first three weeks of hybrid education?  Well, when looked at in terms of the quality of the education being offered (in terms of content) has not been improved, when compared to the fully online lessons. 

What we have now is a hugely complex learning situation where everyone is battling to find focus and the best way to do things.  But was this change to hybrid ever actually about the content?

It feels more like it has been an attempt to offer a degree of ‘normality’ in our pandemic world.  A kind of ‘look everyone, the schools are open again’ sort of statement.  Although the more pushed narrative is one aimed at increasing the social contact of our young people.  I have no problem with this second perspective, our pupils need to meet up, to socialise and re-establish old weekly rhythms. 

However, the ”return to normality” viewpoint is considerably more problematic, especially in the context of rising infection rates and neighbouring countries being still very much in lockdown.  Could it just be that there was a political motivation to the reopening that was connected to the general election last week? 

Family art exhibition and reunion

Like many families around the world, the physical contact with all but my immediate family  has been greatly interrupted by the pandemic.  I see my wife every day and my studying children regularly.  But contact with my own English extended family has had to move online.  We have regular family get togethers with up to fourteen of us at a time, aged between teenager and 80+ and spread around the world in various places in the UK, the Netherlands, Prague and Kuala Lumper in Malaysia.

The Zoom meetings have been very fun to do and surprisingly satisfying in terms of them being a replacement for the family meals together in any normal year.  We also have family app groups and sub-groups, all-in all, contact remains very good.

But after fourteen months apart I felt that it was time for something else.  We are, by most standards,  a very creative family.  Visual artists, musicians/sound remixer, graphic designers and writers. With many of use taking these interests well beyond a hobby having gained degrees in related areas and gone on to work in these fields.

With this background it was time to stage an online exhibition where we share and take a closer look at each other’s creative output.  Added to this is also of course the possibility open the work to a broader public.

Use the link below to visit our digital exhibition space and enjoy the work of:

  • Five visual artists
  • One film and soundscape artist
  • One graphic designer
  • Two poets

Be patient…..the exhibition can take a moment or two to load!

(The software works best on a laptop or desktop computer, on mobile devices some elements may work less well)

Digital presentation of pupils work, PR possibilities and a future assignment

Most schools in the Netherlands have open days during the mid-winter. Many schools have something of a pitched battle against nearby rival schools in the effort to attract a good number of new pupils for the forthcoming school year. The school where I teach is no different, we must be seen to compete!

Such open days are all well and good, if a little exhausting and long at the end of the teaching week. But with the current lockdowns and need for extreme social distancing the normal packed school with hundreds of children and their parents simply is not an option. As a result, things are moving online.  Most schools are frantically putting together a new online presence/digital open day. Films are being shot, interviews recorded, and websites constructed.

As far as the art department is concerned, in my school we were looking for a way to present a collection of pupils’ work.  Collections of photographs or films of pieces of work were of course possible but we wanted something a bit more immersive and interactive, and amongst all the other films that were being made, we simply wanted something that stood out as being a bit different.

The need of the situation, as with many other things in education in the last year, has forced me and a colleague to explore the possibilities more than we perhaps have done up until now.  The online exhibition possibilities offered my artsteps.com where something that I have known about for a while but have never fully explored up until now because I simply have not fully felt the need to.  But now was the time, was this going to be what we needed?

Well, the short answer to that is a resounding yes, absolutely. A week later I have built three online, three dimensional exhibitions of pupils’ work that are going to serve our purposes fantastically well. The links below will take you there and allow you to pass through and view the work. 

Exhibition one —————- Exhibition two —————- Exhibition three

Of course, it is not as good as walking around an art room in a school taking a closer look for yourself but given the circumstances it really isn’t a bad substitute for our 10- and 11-year-old visitors and their parents.

Having put it all together, what would I say are the pros and cons on offer here?

Positive points:

  • The learning curve for using the software really is not too step. Invest a little time and you should find your way.
  • Creating a stylish and well-ordered look to the exhibition is both possible and straight forward.
  • It is free and everything is online (apart from the photos and films you want to upload) with no software having to be downloaded or installed.
  • Videos can also be part of your exhibition.
  • You can design your own rooms.
  • But above all is just fun to create and fun to visit!

Negatives

  • Three-dimensional work is difficult to include.  3D printer designs can be unloaded and included, but documentation of a tradition sculpture can only be done using a film of the object or photographs of it.
  • I do not seem to be able to get the films to work on mobile devices. Although walking around the spaces to look at the pictures on my iPad works perfectly.
  • Visiting the exhibitions on a mobile phone is, it seems, possible on some phones and not on others.

The ease with which the software works leaves me thinking of the future possibilities.  I see opportunities for asking a group to curate their own exhibitions on selected themes.  They could visit the websites museums of the museums of the world gathering the artworks that they need.  I have done this before and set poster design assignments as a part of the project, but now I see the additional installation of a 3-dimensional digital exhibition as a fantastic extension of the project.

It is strange how necessity can be the mother of invention, forcing you to explore new possibilities. This has certainly been the case in the past few weeks.

Story telling, illustration and digital books, language and creativity in the art room

For several years I have been working on refining an art project that involves a number of distinct phases.

  • Research an artwork from art history
  • Presenting the research about the artwork and artist involved in the form of an infographic
  • Writing a story aimed at primary school aged children where the researched artwork plays a central role
  • Illustrating the story using a variety of drawing and/or painting techniques, traditional or digital
  • Designing the layout of the pages of the book where images and text have to be combined
  • ….and finally, the presenting a completed book

I will write about the use of infographics as an alternative to report writing on another occasion, but here I want to focus most of all on the story telling, the illustration and the designing of an online book.  Due to the uncertainties of the way the school year was going to develop I decided early in this lengthy project that I was going to encourage the pupils to aim for a more digital based working process.  In the end virtually the whole class chose to go virtually completely digital.

The story, once the research was completed, was hammered out on the iPads the pupils work with.  Incidentally, I should mention that we are talking here of pupils aged 14 or 15 mostly, and as part of a bilingual education stream, the pupils are working in English, their second language rather than their native Dutch.

Digital illustrations were produced using a variety of drawing apps, before these were then uploaded into the Canva app (also a pc application) to work on the page layout and overall design.  Even working on the relatively small iPad screen the pupils were able to produce some interesting and varied work. 

When all the pages are complete a .pdf can be exported of the complete book.

The pièce de résistance comes in the form of the Yumpu.com website that allowed the pupils to upload the raw pages to the site to generate an online digital version with three dimensional pages that can be turned. 

Click below to take a look at some of the possibilities the project offers from this year’s results:

Book One

Book Two

Book Three

Once we reach this point it is over to their teacher to grade the work on four criteria:

  1. The interest, complexity, and engagement of their story writing
  2. The use of English and grammar
  3. The quality of the illustrations
  4. The quality of the layout of the book

It is a lengthy project.  But in a world where we are all (and in the art department) are having to lean heavily on digital means, it is a project that offers interesting online possibilities for classes that have a little digital know how.

New Year’s resolution……to draw more, again

Last year I started the year with a plan to draw more. I have drawn a lot in the last twelve months, but still have the feeling that I should do it more, if only to avoid later dead ends in paintings that haven’t been sufficiently planned out.

So this year we start again and above is the first drawing of 2021.

Last year’s resolution can be found here:

https://petersansom.wordpress.com/2020/01/01/new-year-the-same-old-resolution/

2020 – Looking back on some creative online group projects

I coach a group of enthusiastic part-time painters.  We have been meeting up one evening a week for years, except of course in 2020.  In mid-March this year our painting sessions, like so many other things came to an abrupt halt.  We were temporarily able to restart for a period of four weeks in the autumn, before once again having to stop again.

I’ve done what has been possible to keep the group active (at least for those who wish to carry on at home), and the group themselves have retained contact via our app group, sharing what they are up to in the area of creativity and artistic interests.  It has, all-in all, worked well.  The group does still feel like a group and the stream of creative output certainly hasn’t dried up. 

In terms of “going online”, like my other area of work in mainstream education, it hasn’t been quite the same.  The commitment to an online lesson at a specific time didn’t feel like the way to go.  Instead, what seems to have worked best has been a series of group paintings/projects.  Anyone who wanted to, could easily contribute, and I worked on grouping things together.  Some have been very loose, and in a way, not much more than a collection of paintings and drawings around a theme, while others have been quite structured in their approach.

Looking back complete 2020 set, it is surprising just how productive the group has been, and how well this loose online approach has worked.  We are all of course hoping for better things in 2021, but as a record of 2020 it certainly shouldn’t be a year best forgotten by the group as the results below show.

Art, language and typefaces (a design project with a CLIL extension)

Since the restart of the school year back in August I have been working on a quite extensive art and language project with two of the third year groups (aged 14) that I teach. Essentially it is a design module that focuses on the fonts and typefaces but has involved:

  • A photography assignment
  • A black and white, graphic typeface design assignment
  • A painting assignment exploring more painterly approaches
  • A poetry assignment
  • Digital illustration assignment
  • A page design/layout assignment

Often with such a long drawn out assignment the challenge is to keep the energy going, but in this case, with the diversity of activities, I have never felt that to be a problem.

A brief summary of the art and design activities and a few of the results:

Typeface design made using found objects

Create a coherent font using objects that you find at home. Arrange at least five letters that clearly belong as a set and make use of the same types of objects.  The most significant challenge here is to get the pupils beyond the stage of using five pencils lying on the table to spell out a set of easy to create letters.  There are so many possibilities but it does require a kind of mental leap to bring the pupils to a point where they start to see the design possibilities.

Typeface design using only black ink

This is the most purely design related step and before we get as far as using the ink we go through a series of design steps that first involve sketch designs of three quite different design ideas. One of these is then chosen and a series of design refinements using different types of letter are made. Finally we arrive at the ink work where a series of five or six letters from there font are inked in using brush and pen work.

Painterly letters

After the graphic work of the previous assignment things become considerably looser in this coloured in and painting assignment as the pupils build on and further develop their design work.

Poetry assignment

To include a significant language element into the assignment I ask the pupils to chooses the names on at least two typeface names (and there are so many to choose from!).  These names, be they Broadway, Cairo, Baskerville, Freestyle, etc. are the starting point for the creation for writing a short poem.  The names of the letter types have to actually be a part of the poem’s text, and ultimately when the poem is presented for marking the typefaces referred to must be used.

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!