“Design, design, did someone say design?” – what the art department did

This has become a bit of a joke at school. I said it once in an email in relation to a comment from a colleague when he provocatively said something like “what we need is someone who could design us a good poster”.


My “design, design, did someone say design?” mantra is often thrown around now at school whenever there is something visual to be made. I didn’t train as a designer of any kind, I did fine art and to be specific painting. But like many a fine art graduate I like to turn my hand to anything creative. Schools benefit a lot from their art departments  and their creative teachers. One of my deputy heads (a physics teacher) at the school where I teach recognized this when he said that “alle scholen hebben creatievelingen hard nodig” (Dutch for, every school needs creative minded spirits amongst it’s personnel). However the reality is, that often the specialist skills they bring to a school are not always given the acknowledgment they deserve, or alternatively hugely and unrealistically overestimated.

Another former colleague used to observe how other staff seemed sometimes to want to hijack her art lessons, “can you just quickly use some of your art lessons to design and build the scenery for the school play?” Like the art department doesn’t have plans  of its own for lesson content! Maybe the English department would like to try writing the school play with the cooperation of sixty of its pupils, that should produce an interesting evening of entertainment. Or what about a geography class and a French class taking charge of the next exchange with a school in France?

I’m joking of course, and actually I really like the extra creative tasks, if I have the time for them I really like doing them and I do feel appreciated too. In the last couple of years I and my art department colleagues have designed and built websites, produced artworks for departing school heads, exhibited pupil work inside and outside of school, produced publicity material for school, designed school t-shirts and hoodies (the actual t-shirt in the picture comes from www.teespring.com and seemed to fit this post so well – hope you don’t mind guys!) and even repainted part of a wall where ink had been spilled and nobody else could manage to match the colour! Many of us also keep our own studio practice running alongside the school work as well.

There is a certain irony here too.  I often find myself explaining at school that there is work and careers to be found by those who choose the art and culture route at school (contrary to what a few colleagues might suggest to pupils). Within a school context there is actually a lot of work to be done! People seem to quite like calling on us for extra assistance and help in any number of creative areas. I sometimes wonder whether the physics department have to help with the electrics around school, or the economics department with the school budget? I suspect not, I guess the truth is, we’re just a little different in the art department, but then I think most of us knew that already.

Once in a while something special comes along…..

Most art teachers are constantly changing, adjusting and refining their lesson material and the projects that they do with their classes. I for one am rarely completely satisfied and am constantly looking to push the various assignments that I do with my pupils into new areas. This approach keeps things interesting for me and also keeps in the possibility of being surprised by the results that the pupils make.


Sometimes it’s quite difficult to predict what will work and capture the imagination of the classes and produce really memorable work. When this happens though you can often sense the excitement running through the whole class as they realize that the things that they are designing or making are indeed something a bit special.

This happened recently whilst working on a project based around abstraction.  I’ve written on my blog before about dealing with abstract art with the third year classes I teach (14-15 year olds).

Abstraction – They’re too young to understand it

Lipstick, Powder and Paint….and abstraction


Abstract art is a theme I enjoy exploring with them. The module starts with some drawing assignments that relate mark making to sound and music followed by some collage preparation work. This year I decided that I wanted to include in this module also a element about how illusionistic and real space can be combined in an art work. I wanted to make abstract work with them that lurked in the middle ground between two dimensional and three dimensional abstract form. There is maybe no other artist that has explored this middle ground so thoroughly than Frank Stella.

stella6Using Stella’s Cones and Pillars series as a touch stone the pupils set to work using a 30×30 cm piece of plywood, a hand saw, acrylic paint and wood glue, each pupil produced their own abstract work based on a quarter circle base form with a number of two-dimensional painted forms set in three dimensional space.

At a certain point the pupils started to see what was going to be possible and spurred on by the complexities of Stella’s work began to become more and more creative in looking for their own solutions. The end results across the fifty pupils in the two classes of this age that I teach was consistently good with a number of exceptionally well worked out pieces of work.

All of a sudden I had boxes full of rather fragile, but really interesting pieces of work that the pupils were actually very proud of. It was work that had to be exhibited around school. A few pieces will find their way into a glass case at school. But thanks to a little extra budget being made available by the finance department I’ve been able to photograph all fifty and had them printed onto a plastic canvas to hang up as an eleven meter long artwork in the school hall.


Language and creativity – content and language integrated learning idea (CLIL)

Most who work in education know that children generally respond well to games and puzzles. This is a short assignment that never fails to engage the attention and (particularly important for me) the creativity of the pupils. As I will explain the creativity comes in part with a drawing element at the end, but actually the area of greater creativity comes earlier in the part using language.

humunentBefore I start, I should perhaps explain that I first came across this idea in the work of the British artist Tom Phillips and in particular his book A Humunent: a treated Victorian  Novel. Although there are others who have subsequently used similar approaches such as Austin Kleon in his work and book entitled Newspaper Blackout.

Although these ideas come from a visual arts context do not get the idea that this is something only for the art department, as an assignment it has opportunities for language lessons and potentially other areas too. I often use it for cover lessons when I am absent from school for a day or have to fill in unexpectedly for a colleague.

Essentially the idea is very simple. You take a piece of existing text, from an old novel, a text book or newspaper article for example, and give the text to the pupils. Personally I love walking around at the start of a lesson ripping a book to pieces, it certainly succeeds in getting attention! It also ensures that everyone has a different piece of text, which I quite like, but isn’t absolutely necessary, copies from the copy machine are also fine.

Then, using the text that they have been given, and in the order that it appears on the page (so reading from top left to bottom right) they have to make a new version, a summary, a storyline or even a poem. The words that you don’t want to use simply have to be crossed out or better still completely obliterated. In the early stages it pays to be a little cautious, you don’t want to cross out anything that you later will want to use. Generally it quite quickly becomes evident that there are some words that seem loaded with meaning that just have to be used!

Imagine for a moment that the text below was the piece that you have been asked to work with:

One of the cardinal clichés about the English is that, as a nation, we are obsessed with trivial fluctuations in the weather. Lamenting the onset of a sudden shower could happily occupy two strangers on a railway station platform for several minutes – or, at least, that is the perception. Yet Weatherland, a beautiful new book by the British cultural historian Alexandra Harris, suggests that this cliché is a fair reflection of reality.

Moreover, the argument of the book, which examines how scores of great writers and artists have been inspired by English meteorological phenomena over the past two millennia, goes even further.

Summarizing assignment

Extracting the essence out of a text is the basis of writing summaries. This is the same here, but with an added language dimension, or if you prefer, restriction! It requires creativity and flexibility with the language options that are on offer, sometimes removing a single letter from the end of an existing word can make all the difference. Remember it’s all about summarizing the essence of the text as well as you can  with the text and words that you have to work with. The result might look something like this.

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A more playful assignment

For a more creative variation, perhaps more suited for a language lesson, give the pupils a free choice of coming up with the most fantastic, imaginative and inventive new storyline, as long that is, that the grammar used still fits together and is correct. Our same initial text might produce a result like this:

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The full creative assignment

For the full creative explosion of the idea combine the idea above with a drawing assignment where the whole design and layout of the page has to be activated to tell the storyline that has been created. At this point the sky is the limit, after an initial planning stage the pages used could be enlarged to open up the full creative possibilities.

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I’ve experimented a number of times with these assignments. They really do engage the pupils in language and creativity, particularly at the puzzling out with the text stage. Believe it is well worth trying, regardless of what sort of teacher you are and which subject you teach.

The examples above have been made on my iPad, an ideal tool for experimenting with this although for the full creative effect hand-made offers so much, as Tom Phillips shows in his original work. It is really worth taking a look at his site:


Austin Kleon talks about his work in this area in his TEDx presentation about his books Steal Like an Artist and Newspaper Blackout, also well worth a look.