Back to school…how have things changed?

Three weeks ago secondary schools in the Netherlands were allowed to reopen.  This reopening was under strict restrictions concerning the general organization within the school building and that a 1.5 metre social-distancing was required.  The school where I work decided to generally continue with online lessons in the mornings in most subject areas and on a rotating basis to allow a few classes to come into school in the afternoons. The ‘at school’ sessions consisted mostly of an outside sports lesson, a form teacher/mentor lesson and an art lesson (that’s my part!) or perhaps a bit of extra English. 

We have had close to three months out of conventional schooling.  One of the motivations behind choosing physical education and arts lessons to be given the afternoon, was that the social contact and social exchange they allow was seen as desirable to facilitate. A sort of restarting of the background chatter, and for me hopefully the reintroduction of the humour and laughing that go on in a physical classroom but seems almost completely absent in the online classroom. 

I have been giving these rather make-shift, end of year lessons for a few weeks now, and it really shouldn’t be underestimated how the social dynamics within groups has changed.  Yes, they are smaller groups, only sections of classes, but I have been completely taken aback by how quiet and seemingly shy the groups seem to have become.  

Much has been written about how the removal of the school based social contact teenagers have been missing may be effecting or even damaging them.  My own (and my colleagues too) small scale, anecdotal evidence would certainly point towards a social change within groups that will undoubtedly have its own effects (small or large) as we head into the next school year.  Something has shifted, it may be connected to a certain amount of end of year reduction of energy levels, but the buzz of contact within groups has changed.  I feel also in myself that the reestablishing of the old rhythms and patterns as and when we return fully to school is something that is perhaps going to take more time than you might expect. 

Exhibitions I would have liked to have seen…lockdown interruptions

Museums all over the world are shuffling their exhibition programs.  They are also undoubtedly counting the costs of the missing visitors, the entrance tickets, the book shop sales, the cafes and restaurants.  The museums here in the Netherlands are no different.

Dutch museums are in the process of tentatively reopening their doors. Limited visitors are allowed, and everyone has to pre-book their time of entry.  They have also been reorganizing the exhibition programs. 

For example, there was to have been this autumn in the Drendtsmuseum in the north of the country, a large-scale exhibition of the work or Frida Kahlo.  Kahlo is an artist whose work I have only ever seen in odd snippets here and there. It was a visit that I had been looking forward to making. It seems that I will have to look forward to it a bit longer, it has now been put back a year and is now autumn 2021. 

There were other exhibitions that have simply passed by during the lockdown.  I thought that this was the case with the Breitner-Israels exhibition in the Kunstmuseum in The Hague.  The two top Dutch painters from the late 19th and early 20th century had been put head to head for comparison. The show opened shortly before Corona burst loose on us all. I hadn’t had the chance to visit and guessed my chance had been missed. As compensation to myself I bought the extensive catalogue and enjoyed reading it during the peak lockdown weeks for a bit of cultural distraction.

As it turns out the exhibition has been extended over the summer, so there is still the opportunity to visit. But for me there is a catch; getting to the museum involves a journey of an hour and a half on public transport.  The message coming out of government is that public transport should only be used when absolutely necessary……like when I use it to get to my work in education.  There’s a potentially interesting discussion to be had here, that being that after three months of no cultural input of this sort, it does feel pretty necessary and vital to recharge my cultural batteries! Is that needy enough?

A simple online group visual art project

Since the start of the Covid 19 induced lockdowns around the world I have seen quite a few musical and choir related projects come by on my Facebook feed.  Groups of musicians or singers all contributing their bit to the carefully mixed and arranged compositions that those with the digital know how have been able to mix and balance into impressive unity despite the geographical spread of the participants.  A classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

I too work with groups of creative enthusiasts, both children and adults and these musically combined performances set me thinking about trying something similar in my field of the visual arts.  The group of adults that I support with assignments and ideas seemed to be the most obvious place to give my own fairly modest ideas a try.

They are a very social group of people who miss their chance to paint and share life once a week.  The club’s app group has been very active during the lockdown and the project I had in mind would work well using that platform.

The initial idea was quite simple, using the reference point of a seventeenth century Dutch still life we would try and compose our own still life with everyone contributing something that could be digitally added to the group composition. The only guidelines I gave were that the objects could be modern or older if they wished and they had to make a simple shaded drawing using just a pencil.

The drawings started to roll in via the app group and I set about contructing an arrangement that gave them all a chance to be seen. Gradually the enthusiasm for the working together nature of our little project grew, with me posting regular progress up dates.

I’d seen enough to see another, perhaps better possibility, we could move on to a Dutch flower painting as inspiration.

Opnamedatum: 2010-11-11

This time I’d provide the vase and the rest of the group the flowers.  The drawings streamed in, again just in pencil to help with the overall unity of the image.  For the digital assemblage the flower arrangement gave more scope for adjustments and moving things round and in the end it was possible to fill the vase with a huge number of diverse flowers.

A this stage I’m not quite sure what the follow up will be. But I think there has to be one.

The return of an ex-pupil to my (now digital) classroom

Engaging the attention of 13-14 year olds on visits to museums is for an art teacher something that might be expected to be a standard challenge.  And yet it is anything but standard, there is no fixed solution.  There are simply too many variables. Try these for a few:

  • The size of the group you are visiting with
  • The academic level of the group
  • The size of the museum
  • The type of exhibition you are visiting
  • The time that you have available
  • Whether it has taken two hours to get to the museum
  • The day of the week
  • Whether the kids are hungry
  • Whether it is the beginning or end of the school day, or year

I could go on, but I am sure that you get the picture. Personally, I have pretty much concluded that every visit has to be pretty much tailor-made for a young teens group, and I like to lead it myself rather than hiring in a museum guide.  For slightly older teens it is a different story, but knowing the group, the pupils and addressing them as individually as possible seems to work for me.

Having said all that I understand that this does not really help the education department of a museum.  They are challenged with seeking out that engagement with a group from, as it were, a cold start.  Not easy to do, but a good, creative educational department are constantly busy trying to find new ways tease teenagers into opening up a little and taking a more considered look at the exhibits.

It is just this context that I was taken last this week by a visit to my (at the moment) online lessons from an ex-pupil of mine. Five years ago, I was last teaching Noa ‘Art and Cultural’ education at school.  A subject that often involves us going along to our local museum for a visit at some point.  Noa, now studying industrial design in Eindhoven, has been busy trying to develop a digital interactive game to encourage the visiting children to the museum to look, discuss and ask questions about what they see around them.  In essence it is a sort of treasure hunt game that involves searching for clues in the artworks.

We tried out the game with a couple of groups from my classes.  One group turned out to be very engaged and interactive, and the other…….well, less so!  But that is how it is, and is makes it all so difficult, each group is different and what works with one may not with another! After the sessions we had a long chat about how it had gone, the strengths the weaknesses, the opportunities, and the difficulties.

It was interesting to do, and we both learnt from the experience.  If I am honest, it was especially interesting because, five years ago, I was doing all I could to stimulate Noa and the others in her class to give the world of art and culture more than just a passing glance. To be fair, that was never really a problem with Noa herself, she was a good student and it is with good reason that she has gone on to study design.  But it is nice to reflect on the thought that you have contributed your bit to the designers and cultural practitioners of the future.  At least I prefer to see it that way, rather than the motivation for the game coming from improving on the cultural experiences she got whilst I was teaching her!