A motivation and reward discussion in class

In a recent discussion with my fourth years (15-16 year olds) we touched on the issue of why we choose to do what we do and what we hope to get back for doing it. It was in the context of a lesson where we were considering the motivations the people caught up in the current migration flux of people from Syria, Afghanistan and North Africa. I wanted to get the pupils to think for a moment about what circumstances might cause them to want to relocate to a different country.

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For my groups of fifteen year olds the idea of going to live in a different country because it offers a better paid job is an apparently very easy and obvious step to make. What is perhaps more interesting is to see how they almost believe they simply have a right to pursue such a route. Whether they accept it as a right for others is often somewhat less clear.

The immigration related discussion is of course a complex and heavily charged one. But a lighter exchange also took place when I reminded the class that I too was an immigrant having moved from the UK to the Netherlands back in the nineties. “What was your motivation for coming here sir?”.  I think most of them actually already knew, but teenagers normally like to hear a bit of personal biography from their teachers.  Initially I said that I came to the Netherlands because I liked Dutch art so much, but not surprisingly, they didn’t believe me, so I set about recounting the love story that did bring me this way. It’s a nice story to tell how my wife and I met, but it does also illustrate well how as a student you can temporarily be abroad, meet someone, and all of a sudden the route of life can take a sharp bend and you too, as I found, can be caught up in your own immigration story. I know for sure that when my wife travelled to England, in her early twenties, for her university placement he wasn’t anticipating coming back with a new relationship that was going to have such far reaching effects!

These pupils sit on the cusp of great changes in their lives. In two years many will be on the point of also setting off on the journey through a university education. If we return for a moment to that initial question of what motivates us to do what we do. The financial angle is always the first one that pupils name, they all want to be wealthy and own big houses and nice cars. But I would always ask them to consider other motivations and rewards they might hope for, and can offer a few of my own. One such reward is the very possibility to be able to talk with them about these sort of issues. By doing so you hope to open their eyes a little to different perspectives on the adult world that they, in the not too distant future, will be stepping into. It is so enjoyable and rewarding to engage with them in this way. They are all entering a period of a number of years of transition.

I was all too reminded of this earlier this week when I waved my own son (aged 18) off on a post exams adventure with two friends through Scandinavia and on to Saint Petersburg.  He will learn so much from this three-week journey. As a parent this isn’t always easy when you are used to being close at hand to offer help and advice when needed.

I really shouldn’t complain though, how out of touch am I with the group of young travelers?  They’ve been away for five days, we’ve engaged text messages, photos have been posted on Facebook and I can see exactly what the weather is like where they are. I made a similar trip nearly thirty years ago with two friends. We set off around Europe and in three weeks I don’t think I contacted my parents once, we just turned up again one day. Sorry mum and dad, I’m feeling increasingly guilty about that this week!

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Such a ‘cool’ day of lessons…www.virtual-emotions.nl

If you work in education you are often all too used to being in the centre of attention during your lessons. It’s fantastic when the chance comes along to take a back seat and just watch. Today was just such a day for me. It was an unusual in other ways too, in fact not a day of normal lessons at all really, instead a day of workshops for my groups of fifteen and sixteen year old pupils in the context of our broad art and culture lessons. The workshops formed a part of a series of lessons that focus on the role of new technologies in the cultural world and artists and creative people who are involved in this area. We spent time looking at the design work of Daan Roosegaarde for instance, a creative and experimental designer who leans heavily on new technologies in his work.

For examples of Roosegaarde’s work and a film about his activities follow this link.

Seeing and thinking about such work, and discovering a little about the personalities behind it, can be a real eye opener for a teenager. However in terms of engagement it is no secret that actual direct involvement and participation can be a fantastic learning experience, which brings me back to today’s workshops.

The workshops were provided by Edwin and Frans Jan from www.virtual-emotions.nl. It’s not so easy to describe what they do, but let me try. With the help of a camera, a computer an area of a classroom is scanned continuously. The computer senses movement within this area and throughout this zone various sounds are located. By moving the sounds are activated and the degree and type of movement effects the volume and other qualities of the sounds.

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In effect, by moving your body and being expressive with your arms, hands and legs, you ‘play’ the space like it is your musical instrument. Stand still, and slowly all sound fades away. This is about movement and making music, it shouldn’t be confused with dancing, in fact it is kind of the reverse of dancing. With dancing the music comes first and we move as a reaction to the music, with virtualemotions the movement is the trigger that creates the music.

It was fascinating to watch pupils tentatively enter the space and discover the effects of even the smallest movement. I hadn’t anticipated just how far outside the comfort zone this was going to be, particularly for the boys. It was strange, and in a way a little disorientating, but as the penny started to drop and some in the class started to see just what the possibilities were, the class slowly loosened up and started to let go.

Having initially had a go in the space individually the pupils started to use the space in groups of two or three, allowing interactions between them to start taking place, again fascinating to watch how the pupils succeeded (or not) in working with one another.

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We can offer offer our pupils many creative activities at school. But today’s workshops were something genuinely different. Interestingly the pupils who play a musical instrument or have had dance lessons didn’t necessarily seem to be at an advantage. The ones who thought and listened carefully to the consequences of their actions were ultimately the ones who achieved most. Such alert self awareness is definitely a skill that we should stimulate in all areas of education!

Street art in the classroom, or just outside it

Teenagers are fascinated by graffiti and street art, they love the scale of it, they love the youthfulness of it and they love the illegality of it. To find ways to draw on this enthusiasm is a challenge for educators. Obviously that last point is something of a problem for education. The moral code of teaching doesn’t really accommodate defacing other people’s property! So how to circumvent this restriction?

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Is painting on large sheets of paper the solution, spray painting canvases or seeking permission to use a specially designated wall somewhere? These are possibilities but none of them really engage with the way that this form of art engages with a location, a real location that was there already and has been added to by the artist, or in the case of a school, by the pupil.
It is with this in mind in have been doing a kind of site specific/street art project with my youngest pupils (age 12) this week. It’s a little bit of street art with a site specific content, a little bit of Michael Craig Martin and maybe a little bit of Claus Oldenburg or Roy Lichtenstein too, but above all it is about working together, working on a large scale and changing the way a familiar place looks through the addition of a creative intervention.
Working with coloured tape the group work receives a unity through its consistent quality of line. It’s a rapid approach (two ninety minutes sessions in my case), that gives fast results but also allows for adjustment and corrections.
But above all the two fantastic qualities this work has, and that it shares with most street art, is that it is large scale and that it adds to an existing environment. Both qualities bring with them a kind of element of surprise for the pupils and an excitement that is quite different to working on a sheet of paper at a table.

Update:  Some comments form a question I had on Facebook as to how I approached the assignment practically….

It was all relatively intuitive. First a little drawing work on a sheet of paper. My requirements were that it had to be an object that had something to do with the art dept and that it had to have a three dimensional appearance. There was no too conscious scaling up, it was more a question of just starting. The great thing about the tape is that it allows easily for corrections, if two lines aren’t parallel when they were meant to be, it’s just a case of pulling one of the lines off and repositioning. As I say above, just make sure that the tape isn’t too sticky. School won’t thank you for stripping the paint off the wall! Working on a glass wall would be great too…..from inside and out. I think that looking at Michael Craig Martin’s work helped quite a lot too.

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Gearing up for my first solo show in quite a while

The last couple of months I’ve been gradually getting ready for two exhibitions.  The first is a group show in the Dutch town of Nijmegen.  The second is a solo exhibiton, in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the town that has been drawing all the attention the last few months for its Jheronimus Bosch exhibition.

The exhibition is going to give me the chance to dip back into work influenced by the very Dutch interiors made by Vermeer, that I was making when I first arrived in The Netherlands back in the nineties. This will be hung alongside more recent work that is  more orientated towards the Dutch landscape and our relationship with this most manipulated of environments.

Without giving too much away, I can promise a place for both of the painintgs below.

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Empty Room, Oil paint on canvas, 1993

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Untitled, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 2016

Playing with language….with a footballing connection

Sharing a joke with a class is one of the best parts of education.  It’s a potentially fun and entertaining moment and it does wonders for the relationship that you as a teacher have with a group.  If it can also include a kind of educational dimension then you have a perhaps unusual but also very valuable combination.

I’ve posted before about the difficult and rather unique place in language acquisition that proverbs and sayings in communication.

Lost Consonants, sayings and proverbs

They are a difficult part to grasp and to dare to use. I like to use them in my teaching as an art teacher in bilingual education. I often find myself pausing to explain what exactly I mean when I use such a phrase or proverb.  Understanding, and daring to use a phrase like ‘that’s a different kettle of fish’ is difficult, but knowing when to use it enriches communication and brings a new level to expression through language.

There is also a kind of flip side to this, and also one that I occasionally encounter in the classroom. A pupil tries to use a translated version of a Dutch proverb.  The translated version can at times sound very odd, bewildering or just plain funny.

It is normally only a diversion at the end of a lesson, but throwing translations of Dutch proverbs, (translated literally and into perfect English of course) can become so entertaining, at home in our bilingual household we do it as well. Someone who complains a lot is a ‘moan sock’, a direct translation from the Dutch ‘zeurkous’.

Or try ‘ik schrik me een hoedje’, it is used when you are very shocked or have someone made you jump. It means, literally translated ‘I shocked myself a hat’!

Or ‘you’re standing with your mouth full of teeth’…you just don’t know what to say, ‘met de mond vol tanden staan’ in Dutch.

Or ‘make someone happy with a dead sparrow’….trying to impress someone with something that is actually pretty valueless, ‘iemand blij maken met een dode mus’ in Dutch.

The comedians in the class seem to like the challenge of trying to have mock conversations that include direct English translations or Dutch sayings.  I’m not sure if this whole exercise has any real language value. Other than encouraging the pupils to play and explore language in unusual and fun ways.  I would hope that it does teach them at least how careful you need to be if to are tempted to try and translate and use a proverb from your own language. It can leave you looking  well, a little daft, which is where the football connection comes in. The current coach (Louis van Gaal) of Manchester United also at times runs into problems in this area as the following two videos show:

If anyone has any examples of strange translations of sayings and proverbs into English I’d be interested to hear them.