Stealing the physics’ department thunder…and a little art room magic

Every year with my classes of first years (12 year olds) I spend part of a lesson looking at the Anolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck. It is a beautiful painting from the 1430s. It is a fantastic example of van Eyck’s technical brilliance, it is also a painting loaded up with symbolic content, has an interesting narrative back story and contains unbelievable levels of painterly detail.  All good reasons to show it to the pupils.

arnolfiniThe question always comes up….’how did he do that?’. It’s a very understandable question to ask and one that British artist David Hockney also asked in his book and tv programme entitled Secret Knowledge that raised a similar point and gave particular attention to the hugely intricate chandelier that hangs at the centre of the painting.  It is a phenomenally complex object that has been rendered with an accuracy that it difficult to believe. The perspective of the decorative arms of the chandelier just looks so ‘correct’ as Hockney puts it.

Hockney’s theory is that van Eyck was an early user of a camera obscura to aid the drawing of this intricate structure.  The device makes an optical projection that could, just maybe have been allowed to fall on his canvas, thus allowing him the chance to simply trace over it.  It is a theory that I have to say I see as being very plausible.

I explain the theory to my first years, draw a diagram on the board and give them a basic physics lesson about the behaviour of light. Often I’m not completely sure if the whole class is ‘getting it’. So, I dash down the corridor to the physics department and borrow their camera obscura. I set it up, with its tracing paper screen overlooking the railway that runs past the classroom and invite the pupils to come and have a look. It’s a real ‘wow’ moment that follows!

Even in this world of mobile phones and huge LCD screens the projection the pupils see silences them. CinemaScope it certainly isn’t, however, using such basic materials I am able to create a projection quite unlike anything they have ever seen and something that gives a scientific insight into a way of working that Jan van Eyck, nearly 600 years ago may just have been making use of.

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An educational luxury…..a little extra time

Twice in two weeks I’ve had the chance to work with groups in a workshop situation. There’s nothing so unusual about that, but in both cases the workshops have been for unusually long sessions.  Last week I worked with a group of twenty 12 year olds for a seven hour long art, language and creativity workshop (yes, with a couple of breaks!). Today I have had four hours with colleagues to try and use an afternoon to create new lesson material that combines lesson content and language learning challenges in imaginative ways.

The length of both workshop sessions are relatively unusual in educational contexts,  where so much is cut up into small pieces to fit a timetable or simply to make sure all subjects get their allotted amount of time.  Both children and staff are constantly switching, readjusting and having to start again. It is a system that generates a lot of wasted time and a great deal of disruption.  Breaks are of course important to refresh and clear the mind a little, but the normal school day (or the average conference day for that matter) it does at times feel like overkill. These are the reasons why these more extended workshop sessions feel so different and offer other possibilities.

For the children last week we were able to extensively play a series of language games, combine them with practical art activities and written assignments. The pupils got completely involved and spent the day consistently speaking English (their second language) after only having had a couple of weeks of bilingual education. The workshop had something of a pressure cooker effect, intensive input, active involvement and language rich output. Yes, we were all exhausted at the end of the day, but there is nothing wrong with that once in a while!

Today’s workshop with colleagues was rather different. Four hours together essentially with the aim of producing teaching material that can be put into use in the forthcoming weeks and months. This too, like last week, required energy and focus. But the unusual difference today is that we have been able to have time to work together. The more usual format being a workshop that presents a collection of ideas, the workshop ends, everyone goes home and you may (or may not) get a chance to return to workshop content a few weeks later when you get a moment, and that moment is very unlikely to be with your colleagues. Again, as so often in education the the breaks and disruption get in the way and potentially constructive work is lost as a result.

school-bellInterestingly, the school where I teach, are currently looking at the merits of personalized learning. It is a bit too early to say whether this will ultimately help in this area.  But it certainly will be interesting to see if it might be possible, in a readjusted school day, to see a timetable that might help in this area.  Could it result in more scope for pupils to work on particular subjects in more extended ways when it is possible to do so and perhaps be a little the slaves to the school bell?

Climbing at altitude with thirteen year olds and a teacher with altitude sickness….well sort of

It is nice to get out of the classroom with the pupils, the dynamics change, but whether I am always comfortable with it, that is a very different question.

Each year near the start of the first term we have a day without lessons and there are any number of activities to develop the relationships within the class in new ways and for teachers to a build different sort of contact with their groups.  All sorts of things are done, swimming, canoeing, bowling, team-building games and so on.  I joined a class of second years (13 year olds) that I teach art to. Our outing was to head into the local town to climb (with a guide) the 55 metre tall church tower. (Using the steps on the inside, unlike the picture below!)  Along the way we would hear a bit of the history of the building.

047 16th Dec 2014_Salisbury Cathedral Spire Climb

Maybe I’m overly cautious about safety matters, but as we started our accent on a fairly well-worn wooden staircase (that looked to have been constructed rather a long while) my eye catches the sign that says, ‘climbing the tower is done so at your own risk’.  What must I do with such a notice?  We’re already there, the kids are already climbing the steps ahead of me.  Should I be worried?  Is there something I should know?  Yes, we’re climbing a fifty-five metre tower with a group of maybe overly excited 13 year olds.  I know enough about their classroom behaviour to know that they can sometimes simply do unpredictable and unexpected things. You project that sort of behaviour onto the current situation, climbing narrow, winding, wooden staircases round the edges of a series of nine metre high spaces.  At the back of my mind are also those occasions when  I have biked with a comparable class observing the way that they themselves seem oblivious to risk or danger!

We climb higher, the kids do seem to be enjoying it, chattering and shouting to each other.  Just about calming down enough to hear the historical nuggets of information that our guide provides.  We pause 18 metres up, in a large room.  A couple of the pupils don’t want to go higher, the height issue being a bit too much for them.  I feel a bit like a Sherpa, leaving a couple of climbers at base camp two.

We take a side door and suddenly we’re walking in the space between the roof of the church and the ceiling of the main body of the building.  For this part we are on a narrow wooden walkway, at times with no barrier to the side.  A mountain ridge springs to mind as the pupils must swing themselves round beams that are awkwardly placed for the walkway.

Then we are climbing again, past the bells and onward and upwards.  The last staircase is little more than a ladder.  And finally, we’re out on the fifty-five metre high roof.  It is a big view, I glance briefly at it, take a photo, but as so often with pupils outside of the school I find myself focussing on my charges excitedly shouting and jumping.

There is no doubt, the children have enjoyed this, it is good to see.  The question is, have I also enjoyed it? Well, yes, a bit.  But I find myself thinking about my brother who teaches in the British educational system.  Before he does anything outside of school he has to fill in a risk assessment form.  I’ve never seen such a form in the Dutch system.  Generally, the Dutch approach is much more open and free-wheeling.  Too open for me?  Well at times, maybe.  But then again, perhaps this approach by educationalists (and parents too) also has a part to play in the success in ‘happiness’ surveys that Dutch children seem to score so well in.  The have an independence and openness that stands them in good stead for their future.

For today though, we’ve reached a conclusion, we reached the summit, enjoyed the view and descended safely. The children are on their way home for the weekend.  For some that means a 16 km (ten mile) bike ride through towns, villages and countryside which they may well do completely alone.  This may well in itself say something about the Dutch approach to risk.