Raising cultural awareness in education

newsletter

I have been trying to raise the general profile of art and culture at the school where I work since I have worked there.  For the last couple of years I have been sending out a newsletter every couple of months to the older pupils in the school and to all the staff.  Normally the content of the pdf file has a similar format. On the right is a çultural baggage’ questionnaire, filled in by one of the members of staff in order to give us all a little more understanding as to what they are (culturally) all about, and on the left links to a sellection of artistic, sites, films or articles that I think might be interesting to my quite broad readership.

I’m not sure why it hasn’t occurred to me to put it onto my blog too, I’d certainly be interested to hear any feedback or comments from others who do something similar. Click on the link below to take a look at the lastest issue.

october 2014(blog vers.)

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Avoiding the blind alleys in creativity…

In mainstream teaching you are, as a teacher in your classroom, used to taking the lead. The pupils look to you to take the initiative and mark out the route they have to follow. Such a relationship can at times become a little passive as the pupils get used to waiting to be told what is required of them. This year, by one group that I teach I have been set a challenge by the group themselves, to take their creativity to the ‘next level’ as one of them put it.
The group concerned is not one of the classes of teenagers that I teach at school (such an open request would indeed every surprising coming from them), but from the adult evening class I teach. The group concerned is a group of about fifteen adults, ranging in age from early twenties to late seventies. The group has, for a number of years remained with a hard core who have been returning regularly each new season with a handful of new members every September.
They are a talented bunch, none have had any formal sort of art education, and perhaps their greatest strength is their openness and willingness to jump straight on in an try new things out. This approach has served them well in the approach I take to teaching the group on a Thursday evening between late September and early May. Once every two weeks I arrive with a new assignment, mostly a fairly loose idea that can be interpreted and explored in various ways. This way we have been able to take the paintings made in any number of directions.
IMG_20140213_214858301
Now though after, for some of the group, five years of lessons comes the request to go a step further. As a group we exchanged a number of mails at the end of the previous season trying to pin down what exactly they want to aim for. Interestingly, many said that they would be quite happy to make less paintings, as long of course that those that were made were of good quality. It is this wish that has been the basis for my readjustment of the course. The aim is to avoid seeing the participants heading off down artistic blind alleys of having to learn from ‘interesting’ failures. To do this there is going to be more focus on the preparation work and the making of thumbnail paintings before embarking on the final piece of work. With only two and a half hours of painting time (per week for most of them) this is going to mean indeed the production of less finished pieces of work, but hopefully less blind alleys too.
In many ways this set up will bring the working process a lot closer to my own approach. I work ideas through a notebook onto works on paper, then maybe a small version of an idea before finally heading on to a finished piece of work. I am also of course interested in avoiding those ‘interesting mistakes’. You can never completely eradicate them, but when your time is precious, trying to reduce the numbers of them is definitely desirable.

If you are interested the documentation of the new set-up of the course can be found on the following link……….
http://petersansom.nl/nextlevel.html

Is that my work in a museum?…

gemeentehuis

Mostly pupils’ work lives in a drawer at school.  Sometimes the better pieces are mounted on a piece of coloured paper and taped on a wall somewhere around the art department. Very occasionally a particularly impressive piece of work might make it into a frame elsewhere in school.  We all like a little recognition for our best efforts and achievements. My pupils are no different and like to see their work appear elsewhere around school.

It is extremely rare that pupil work makes the jump from the confines of the school building to a truly public space. On the part of the teacher this always involves extra work and organisation. As a teacher I am prepared to make that extra effort but with two criteria that I feel make it worth the extra effort.

  • it must be a location where the work is actually going to be seen by a broader public
  • it must be a location where the work can actually be nicely presented in a space where it looks good

These two criteria don’t sound too complicated but are actually in practice fairly difficult to meet.  But knowing that I had some good work from a group of classes I set out looking for a suitable venue. The local museum of the town where I teach (Oss, in the Netherlands) was for a time an option. Highly suitable, but at present they are going throughout a process of reorganization and so that possibility fell by the wayside. However, with the help of the museum’s excellent education department I was put onto the town’s council offices. The modern architecture of the building offers a very good exhibition space in its foyer that with, not too much imagination, could easily pass as an gallery space in a museum of modern art….a fact that I feel sure won’t be lost on my pupils when they see the exhibition of their work that I have set up this afternoon.

The exhibition is small, showing just three works. All three are group projects made by a total of seven different classes over the last three years.  All three relate to war and violence and how it is represented in art and the media. The works make use of references to Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s 3rd May and the piles of discarded shoes from the victims of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

It’s all quite heavy material, but the new presentation of the collages and sculpture give an extra credibility and one that gives me a sense of satisfaction and the pupils too it hope.

Senna…..gripped to the end

A short follow up to my earlier post about my doubts related to the showing of the Senna movie to my group of fifteen year olds. We completed the film yesterday in class. The second half of the movie builds to the weekend in early May 1994 at the Imola racetrack when in practice on the Saturday a driver suffered a fatal accident and then the following day during the race Ayrton Senna also collided with a wall and died only minutes later. Both events are documented in the film, using the original race day footage. The imagery is not grotesquely close, but none the less both incidents are shown.

This was the point that I was obviously uncertain about. The classroom of 32 pupils went absolutely still. I’m so used to wise cracks from pupils in class, even when we are being serious, but on this occasion there was simply a hugely respectful silence. The titles rolled, still a quite classroom. I turned the lights on and gently started a discussion, a discussion that we will be continuing next week. My impression of their reaction?..well, they almost seemed grateful to have seen the film. They certainly seemed to have absolutely got the measure of the seriousness of it, which as a teacher is very satisfying to see.

The real feedback will come in a couple of weeks when they hand in the reports that they will be writing. But as things stand I am very pleased to have taken the chance and feel rewarded by the response.

Three films, three classes and three reactions

My art and cultural education course that I teach to my groups of 15 and 16 year olds normally begins with a module about film and filmmaking.  This year has been no different. Film as a cultural experience is close to the world of the teenagers and easily accessible to them. With three large groups to teach and a total of 90 one thousand word essays to mark at the end, I chose, for my own sanity to use three different films. This way I would at least have some variety in the resulting report reading.

I like to select films that are just outside the pupils own film going experience and ones that challenge the to consider certain choices made by the film makers concerned.

The first class are now half way through watching the Schulman brothers’ and Henry Joost’s film Catfish and are absolutely loving it. It’s a film I’ve used before and knew that I was on fairly safe ground. The Facebook relationship story with its documentary style and tense moments works tremendously well.  It is a scenario that they can easily identify with.

The second class are now half way through Asif Kapadia’s documentary Senna. The initial reaction of the class to watching a documentary film for two hours was fairly sceptical. They want a good story…..they said.  I asked them to be patient with the movie and after fifteen minutes of watching it was clear to all that a good story is exactly what the film delivers. I explained before the start that I had thought long and hard about whether I should show this film. The film uses only genuine footage to tell the story of the life and death of the formula one driver Ayrton Senna.  The car crashes in the movie are a crucial part of the narrative.  A genuine death on film is course different to the countless deaths that teenagers observe in the more normal film fodder that they consume. I discussed this with the class before the film and offered an alternative to anyone who really didn’t want to watch. We are at the moment half way through watching the film, it hasn’t reached its climax yet, although the film is being watched in a focused silence….not always easy to achieve in a classroom of 32 watching a film together. They seem to realize that this is something different and that from my perspective is exactly the point. Senna is an excellent movie when it comes to throwing a new light on the sort of detached sense of realism with which we approach most films. Normally we have to give ourselves over to suspending our disbelief, but here we are living and thinking along with real people, their conflicts, their relationships and the risks they take. I’m curious to see how the second half is experienced.

In many ways, my third choice was the one aimed most specifically at my teenage audience. I wanted to make use of a film where music played a strong part. Sometimes I look a little bit further back into film history to find films that nobody in the class is likely to have seen. This is what I did and chose Alan Parker’s 1991 film The Commitments, a film about a struggling and ultimately, failing, bunch of teenagers trying to form a band in Dublin. The movie is packed with music, has a lot of humour and the leading roles are almost exclusively filled by teenagers. On the face of it you would think a highly appropriate film for one of my classes. Here too, after one lesson we are about half way through the movie, but I find myself perplexed by the reaction of the class to watching it.  It is a film that is heading towards being 25 years old, but I certainly feel that that isn’t the problem, it has aged relatively well. When a class is watching a film I often find myself watching the class, gauging their enjoyment.  The problem we are having is that they aren’t getting the humour. I can see that there are one or two in the class who are getting it, but the majority are watching in something of a stony silence. So why is this……? At the end of the lesson I had no time to quiz them; it could be a language issue, the strong Irish accents aren’t always easy, but then I have subtitles on to make it more accessible (they are after all watching in their second languages – Dutch being their first). Or is it that the Irish/British humour is so different to that of the Dutch? This is a regular topic of discussion with my Dutch colleagues at school. In our bilingual department we use so much British or American material to support our educational programmes, and humour, particularly British humour, is so often problematic. How can sensibilities in this area be so different? A point of discussion for another blog post perhaps, but for now I am spending the weekend wondering whether to scrap the second half of The Commitments and try something else!

Do you speak Dutch….?

Experience in any field is important. In education experience brings with it the confidence to try new things.  This year as well as all the usual ‘new things’ I find myself trying at school (some seem to pop up every year), I also find myself, together with Mar a colleague of ten years, venturing off on a new project. Together we are offering art and language workshops to the bilingual and international schools in the Netherlands.

The start of any new school year is busy, but added to that we did our first outing as ‘Lignum Learning‘ educational experts.

cuijk

Working with a single group of 26 first year pupils (aged 12), who were just a week into their bilingual journey we produced two artworks focusing on the idea of journeys that they make locally and internationally and the trips that they might hope to make in the future.

Normally we see our groups of pupils for 60 minutes at a time before they disappear off to their next timetabled lesson. Today though we worked with the same group from 8.30am until 5pm in a hugely intensive and focused session.

The end results were seem in two large-scale group artworks based on a map of the local area and a world map. We had been brought in by the school because they wanted to expose the children to an intense day of ‘native speakers’ of English leading the lessons.

We were introduced at the start as a teacher from England and a teacher from America.  We subsequently maintained the whole day that we couldn’t speak any Dutch. Both of us stuck rigidly to not responding to anything said in the pupils’ first language, which was at times difficult but of course in keeping with stimulating them to speak English.  But the children’s reaction in the final moments of the presentation to parents at the end of the day, when we slipped into fluent Dutch was an absolute treat to see!