A bilingual start to the year – art and language workshop

It has become a regular day out in September for me.  A trip to the Merlettcollege in Cuijk to spend a day with the new bilingual class giving them the full on immersion experience of a solid day of intensive English language use and practical activities.  It is a day that makes use of a whole variety of approaches designed to unlock the pupils prior knowledge in the areas of language and art and to stretch them into new areas.  My own use of English, and only English, is chosen to try and prevent the pupils slipping back into Dutch and by only slightly modifying my own use of vocabulary I hope to stretch the class into new areas that are perhaps just a small step beyond their current level.  This does mean that perhaps the pupils occasionally miss a small part of the instruction.  But then, we all miss pieces of instruction from time to time even when we fully understand the language used.   But it is in this way, where we struggle to make the very best use off our current knowledge, that the learning process is often at its most effective. This sort of ‘in at the deep end’ is at the basis of the bilingual classroom and where it really comes into its own. 

This year’s group in Cuijk was been a good one. A class of 30 twelve year olds who are just two weeks into their bilingual journey and receiving the main part of all their subjects at school in English for the first time.

It was rapidly clear from initial reactions from the class that it was a day where I would be able to work at a considerable pace.  I was making few extra adjustments in my teaching.  Many of the day’s activities had a game-like quality and the pupils were only too pleased to play along and show off their knowledge and ability in English.  We talked about art, we wrote poetry, we discussed journeys and travelling and we drew pictures, bouncing freely from one activity to the other.  The day seemed to fly past.

I have two personal favourite activities from those I used. Firstly, there is the Haiku poetry writing where I can stand back and watch the children searching through their own English vocabulary, whispering words to themselves and counting the syllables of each possible word on their fingers, looking for the perfect fit for their poem.  Then there is the picture drawing activity when someone else is describing what you have to draw. This second activity always brings a lot of laughter with it, whether it is me describing and the children drawing or the other way round.  Both variants involve pushing the language abilities into new more precise and descriptive areas and connect this with picture making….the ideal combination for the bilingual art teacher!

Reverse Perspective 2

Two years ago I wrote a couple of posts about a drawing project that I had done with groups of 12 year olds using a technique where the rules of perspective are flipped around and the paper used is folded a little to produce surprising illusionistic results.  The original posts can be found here:

Reverse Perspective LINK 1

Reverse Perspective LINK 2

Since then two things have happened.  Firstly, the posts have gone all over the place, I discover then time and again online.  The idea certainly seemed to catch the attention of many involved in art and education.  And secondly I have been playing with the ideas for other variations using the techniques involved. 

Just under a year ago I finally had the new version ready to try in class, but during that very same week a lockdown arrived and I just couldn’t see how the complexities of the assignment could be made to work in an online/do it at home sort of a lesson.  As a result I moved on to other plans. 

During the early summer though, we were back at school and it was time to try again.  Like the first version the drawing makes use of essentially a form of one-point perspective drawing and a little paper folding.  The construction and drawing involved is perhaps just a little easier this time round and the results slightly different.

This PDF offers a short cut to the drawing that is needed and can be printed out or redrawn by pupils (my preferred way) during the lesson.  The two small dots are the vanishing points that need to be used for the drawing of objects on the opposite facing wall.  The areas shaded blue ultimately need to be cut away before the folding of the paper can be completed and the two tabs glued behind to create the three dimensional construction.

Like with the original version the best illusionistic effect of the results are achieved when making a film of the resulting work.  For a next time, (as always you learn things as you go along!) I’ll be offering more guidance on how to draw tiled floors so that they fit more convincingly into the illusion.  You live and learn!!

International educational opportunities in the time of Covid

I grew up in the UK and I didn’t cross borders into another country until I was fourteen, on a school trip to France.  Education has an important part to play in broadening the perspectives of young people.  Many schools (including where I work) promote themselves on their international activities and relationships.  Exchanges, trips and cross border projects and activities are all part of the packages that are offered.  Internationalization in education is as important as it has ever been to broaden understanding and appreciation between different cultures and traditions. 

Yet in this Covid influenced world (and in my own Anglo/Dutch Brexit influenced context) the challenge is just how to do this.  We have school trips from the Netherlands over to the UK lightly pencilled in again for this school year.  Whether these plans come to fruition remains to be seen.  I’ve just made my own first trip across the North Sea for twenty months.  The preparation and research of how to do the journey took me the best part of two days to finalize and has involved multiple forms and declarations and the booking of no fewer than three Covid tests for a four day visit. If things are still so complex when the time comes for our school trip, I can’t see how we will be able to organize things, not for the staff, and less still for the pupils. 

Logistically, international school trips have always been complicated, but what is now required is of a completely new order, the travel landscape has changed.  Where and how educational internationalization fits in to this, at a time when international cooperation and understanding is as important as it has ever been, is unclear and a massive challenge. 

How can we give our pupils real international experiences and firsthand relationships when it is such a struggle to do it for ourselves as adults?  The days of traveling with whole classes will surely return, but in the meantime can we afford to let the international component of our education slide amidst the rush to get our general education back up to speed after all the interruptions of the last 18 months? 

There’s no quick fix here, but surely there are possibilities.  Smaller, less ambition steps that, given time and the right structure, could develop real educational value.  A few years ago, I worked on a modest border crossing photographic project that linked my pupils with a group in Finland to produce some collaborative work.  I’m hoping to run a similar activity with others schools this year in a language/writing/painting and drawing project.  I’m also pondering other creative projects that might link pupils’ drawings together and result in an internationally touring (amongst the schools involved) art exhibition. 

These are in comparison with a full-blown week long exchange with a return visit later quite small gestures.  But with the right framing they aren’t meaningless or without consequence.  Our pupils need to see, understand and engage with the world beyond their own safe and familiar environments.  We must find ways or edging them beyond their own little worlds, even in these Covid restricted days.     

The Nightwatch extended and Ellsworth Kelly at the Rijksmuseum

A visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in mid-July certainly isn’t what it once was.  It isn’t deserted, but it very definitely is a lot quieter than I have ever seen it.  You can stroll up to a Vermeer without having to wait your turn as you filter your way to the front of the crowd around it.  Rembrandt’s Nightwatch is still in its glass box constructed for recent restoration work.  But here too you simply walk up to the barrier for the best view.

The Nightwatch was one of the reasons for my visit.  I’ve seen it often enough, and had the chance to view it better than ever before during our school’s involvement with a Rineke Dijkstra film project a couple of years ago.  But at the moment there are some interesting additions to Rembrandt’s masterpiece. The story behind this requires a little explanation.

In 1715, when the painting was moved from its original location to the Amsterdam town hall, it was too big for the new location.  The solution for this problem was simply to reduce the size of the painting to cut a little off on three sides, and really quite a large slice from the left hand side. 

With the help of the miniature version of the painting made by Gerrit Lundens in the mid-1650s that shows the whole painting and a great deal of digital technology, the museum has recreated the missing pieces, and while the original is still out of its frame have added them to the four sides, extending the painting considerably.

The museum website has documented the whole process…..

Operation Nightwatch – Rijksmuseum

The biggest change in the way the painting is viewed with the additions is undoubtedly that the two central figures who for the last 300 years have been extremely central in the composition are now significantly shifted to the right.  The effect is that they feel  more than ever that they are stepping out and moving towards the now bigger space on the left.  It’s fascinating to see how such an “old friend” can change!

Ellsworth Kelly

The other reason for a Rijksmuseum visit today has been to see the exhibition of sculptural work by Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015).  Spread around the museums gardens, and with the backdrop of the museum itself, a collection of nine of the American’s razor sharp abstract sculptures have been assembled from around the world. 

Kelly’s work has always had a special alure for me since my student days.  He was an artist I looked at a lot as made the steps towards making my first abstract works.  Even now I still regularly look at his work as a reference to what I make now.

In the museum garden the sharp flowing lines of the sculptures and their smooth and even surfaces draw a fantastic contrast with the intricacies of the Neo-Gothic architecture of the Pierre Cuypers’ building that was completed in 1885.

Finally, back to an unlocked-down Museum

It’s nearly a year since I’ve been into a museum.  My escape days to recharge my cultural batteries.  The opening up of a post-lockdown world is finally allowing it again.  It’s not quite as it was before, you have to book you entrance time slot and the number of visitors is restricted.  It is also true to say that the exhibition programming of the museums has, I’m sure, been mangled by the repeated stop start of the last 18 months.  But despite all this it has been fantastic to return to the Kunstmuseum in The Hague today, possible my favourite regular destination of all the big Dutch museums.

Apart from the regular collection, and despite the disruptive effects of the pandemic, the museum had a couple of exhibitions that had drawn me here, ahead of perhaps an Amsterdam of Rotterdam visit.  First and foremost a solo exhibition by the Dutch abstract painter Bob Bonies.  I remember discovering his work as a student in London back in the 1980s.  The hugely reduced visual arrangements that the artist uses fascinated me. The way he worked with form that was physically absent as much as what was present influenced my own student work. Much of the work is of a reasonably large scale, but relies on the most subtle of tensions between the complete and incomplete form, the flat and the spatial, the physical and the illusionistic.

Bonies work is clean, sharp and draws you in.  Immaculately made these geometric statements feel totally at home in this particular museum with its equally sharp and geometric design, created by Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856-1934).

Maybe the difficulties of exhibition planning in the Covid effected world has lead the museum to present an exhibition about its own building, or maybe it was planned all along.  But it is certainly interesting to see how the building came about, Berlage’s influences, planning and maquettes.  It is a piece of architecture that is always a pleasure to wander through, it’s heavy doors, repeating structures and wall paintings.  But for me today, and maybe partly because I had just been gazing at Bonies work, it was a set of photographs by Gerrit Scheurs of the building that particularly caught my eye.

The photographs, like paintings by Bonies, play with the geometry.  In this case, within the rectangle.  Yes, if you look carefully you can pick out easily enough which part of the museum is actually pictured.  But these images too have more than their fair share of spatial and illusionistic games going on……all with the cool diffused light that the museum always has.

One of the other spaces in the Berlage exhibition makes use of large, black and white photographs of exhibitions of the past.  Often blown up to wall filling scale.  The pictured museum spaces seeming to open up mirrored rooms, but ones that take is into the past, peopled by visitors exploring exhibitions held in the same gallery space maybe fifty or sixty years ago.  You share the space for a moment, but find yourself reflecting on the different times and indeed the different world going on outside the walls of the museum.

When needs must, Covid, creative and educational choices…Minecraft in and out of the classroom

For a number of years in the winter months I run a series of lessons with the fifteen-year olds that I teach about architecture that focus on aesthetic beauty in contemporary buildings.  We spend time looking at the architecture found on the streets of our local towns and villages as well as the work of leading architects on the world stage.  Most pupils are interested and surprised when being introduced to the work of the likes of Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Peter Eisenman, and seeing work that is a long way from what we find closer to home.

Once the theory and written assignments are out of the way we dive into what are some of my favourite lessons of the year.  Pupils begin work on a architectural design process that first involves them working out on paper a layout for the interior of a building, puzzling out how to make best use of a space with fixed parameters of a building’s footprint.  This is followed by a second part where following a short lesson on how to use SketchUp, the pupils use it to design the exterior to accompany their interior plans.  We sit for several lessons at the computers at school, first working on the basic form, and then focussing of pushing the level of detail and refinement in the design as far as we can.

This year though, with a lockdown in place and lessons being given online this practical assignment presented a problem.  Many of our pupils, when at home, only have access to their iPad, the chosen digital device that we have been using at school for a number of years.  There may be a computer at home, but during lockdown, the whole family may have claims on this.  To get round this problem, as an art department, we reorganized the assignment (like we have done many times in the last year!).  The new version offered a whole series of possibilities:

  • The SketchUp option (for those who could install and use computer)
  • Tinkercad 3D design software (that does work on the iPad)
  • A physical maquette made of wood, cardboard, paper, plastic, etc.
  • Two architectural drawings

Or, and this turned out to be the real crowd pleaser…..

  • Using Minecraft to design the building

I have to admit that was a little a little sceptical at the beginning.  Would the limitations of the Minecraft blocks simply be too much of a restriction and result in designs with little flair and imagination?  I need not have worried, encouraging the pupils to work big in their Minecraft worlds meant that this really wasn´t too much of an issue.  Pupils seemed only too keen to put the necessary hours in and show off the hours that they had already invested over the years mastering the building possibilities. 

video 20210425 93604 PM c36ea098 – YouTube

Ckv modern school building – YouTube

There has been much reinventing of the educational wheels this year.  Multiple assignments have been adjusted, redeveloped or simply thrown away to be replaced by others that may work in an online teaching world.  This is just one such example. 

An assignment to keep in for next year?  Given the choice I’ll head back to SketchUp with these older pupils.  But the idea of using Minecraft within an art program is a possibility for sure.  The software is a bit geared up for a particular type of architecture, but maybe heading off in a different direction altogether and using it to create abstract sculpture could be very interesting, and the pupils might be less drawn to following tutorials on YouTube.  I have also just thrown down a challenge to the 12 year olds I teach to try using Minecraft to recreate Renaissance architecture as it is to be would in the paintings from 500 years ago…….I’ll be posting the results in due course!

“Do you think everyone will actually go for a walk?” – getting the landscape into the classroom

Pupil “M” in one of my third year (14-15 years old) is always good for a quote.  She has the habit of saying out loud exactly what she’s thinking.  Her comment related to my new art assignment.  I wanted to get the pupils doing some work that connected to the landscape around them, where they live and go to school.  Also, having had so many online lessons sitting behind their computers this year, I decided to try and be as specific as possible and actually send them out for a walk as part of my lesson.

That was the plan and I carefully put the idea of a walk into an artistic context by showing the work British artist Richard Long has made in the past documenting walks and using maps in his artworks.  My assignment was broken up into several parts with a few specific criteria:

  • Your walk must be a minimum of 1km in length, I was tempted to say 5km, but I did want the walk to be potentially able to be completed in one of my one-hour long lessons
  • Your walk should take you to a mature, full grown tree that you must photographically document with a series of 20 photographs that will later be used as a part of the documentation of the walk
  • Record the walk itself in the form of a hand drawn, imaginably presented sketch map

In my mind these were relatively simple instructions, and ones that would undoubtedly be easiest and quickest to carry out by doing the walk with the camera of the pupil’s mobile phone close at hand to photograph the tree plus a few other points on the walk.  Which was why I was a little surprised by the “Do you actually think everyone will actually go for a walk?” comment. No, actually I wasn’t surprised at all, teenagers are a contrary lot and most teachers and parents alike will recognise the way many choose to take an alternative route, even when the recommended one is easier.

Remember, some of these are the same pupils who complain sitting behind their computer all day doing online lessons is boring.  I already have some evidence that some have tackled my assignment by, you’ve guessed it, by spending some more time in front of the computer screen, searching the internet for sets of photos that look like they could be made of a single tree on their walk……some more successfully and believably than others!

Others have of course done exactly what was asked and will I’m sure produce good work.  I’ve seen some nice photographic collages; GPS tracks of walks and the hand drawn maps will come.  We’ve already moved onto some tree drawings when it is the turn of particular small groups to physically present in class, good artistic results will, in due course, come.  But it would seem, for some at least, sitting at home behind the computer isn’t so bad, at least, not quite as bad as having to go for a short walk!!

On the same wavelength it would seem

Two weeks ago I wrote a post about my observations of the unbalanced Dutch educational system and the choices it forces teenagers to make. At the time it was a personal reaction to having sat in a report card meeting that felt rather lopsided to say the least:

https://petersansom.wordpress.com/2021/04/15/sitting-quietly-at-the-back-of-the-digital-report-card-meeting/

Today on the website of the Dutch national broadcast channel an article by Koen Koopman appeared that covers some extremely parallel lines of thought. It’s nice of course to feel that you are in tune with others! It is nicer still to know that such educational issues are at least being discussed in the national media, and who knows, maybe in the future may bring about some refinement in the situation.

https://nos.nl/artikel/2378737-pushende-ouders-te-jong-kiezen-veel-decanen-niet-blij-met-profielkeuze

Collision course

For more than ten years my creative output has broken clearly into two parts. The studio work that has resulted in paintings, constructions, prints and works on paper.  All carefully worked out and refined, often in quite extensive series of incremental steps.  Alongside this has been an extensive series of small scale, rapidly made, landscape drawings and paintings that have filled hundreds of pages of bound sketchbooks.

These two series of work have, at times, hinted at the possibility of coming together and supporting one another. But up until now, although there have been tentative connections in one way or another, I have never really felt a crossover occurring or a serious engagement between the two branches. 

However, that situation may be about to change.  It’s early days to shout too loudly about it, but maybe, just maybe, things are on a collision course, time will tell.  Here, in the most recent studio work there is a genuine landscape image, reminiscent of one of my sketchbook paintings, stands central….and there are more to follow, possibly making use of images such as this woodland watercolour.

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/