A flash back to my place in the classroom as a teenager – creating a safe learning environment

Last week we had a teachers’ study day at school.  A day off for the pupils and a day to work together with colleagues without too many distractions.

The theme for the day was ‘Didactic coaching’, or put another way, improving the flow between pupil and teacher, clearer instruction, clearer feedback, and better understanding of the educational processes at work from both sides.

Photo: Wendy de Jong Thijssen

One particular aspect of the day has lodged in my mind in the intervening week.  It was related to the themes discussed I suppose, although didn´t get a specific time or place for debate.  It relates to the need for a `safe` classroom climate, a climate where all individuals feel secure in the knowledge that successes and failures are both part of the process.  Safe in feeling that getting a question wrong, or your work being used to illustrate a maybe less successful aspect than you may like, is acceptable, and as I said, all part of the group learning process.

Why did this point hit home for me last week?  Well, that has to do with the sensation I experienced when involved with a group discussion involving all 100 or so of my colleagues.  At this point our guest speaker was posing questions to us, his audience, and asking for us to reflect on and share our thoughts.  He was doing this in a perfectly reasonable way.

But here’s the thing, in such circumstances I find myself doubting, have I interpreted the question correctly?  Is my answer relevant?  I find myself wondering whether my mastery of the Dutch language (my second language) is going to let me down or has led me to misunderstand what is being asked (I should say that this is possible, but probably rather unlikely nowadays)?

With these doubts kicking around in my head I find myself sitting rather uncomfortably……just as I used to as a rather shy teenager in the classrooms of my secondary school.  It was quite a confronting flashback.

The experience has left me pondering how many of the pupils in my own classes might be experiencing something similar.  Are there children just waiting and hoping not to be chosen to join the discussion?  Or are the learning environments that I create more open and relaxed? 

I’ve asked small groups in my classes this week for their thoughts and views in this area.  The initial reactions are thankfully good.  But I’m only too aware that children often feel a pressure to give the socially acceptable answer and that, in effect, criticizing the teacher is probably as hard as it gets!  So, I’ll be probing again this week.  I like to think that everyone feels that I treat them equally and openly.  We spend time laughing together, sharing stories of what is going on inside and outside the classroom.  I think this all helps, but I’m not yet completely convinced and will be trying to speak some more to the quiet, shy ones this week.  The ones who I recognize parts of myself in!

Finally “Viva la Frida” opens!

Back at the start of 2020 I made a plan.  It was for the group of adult amateur painters that I coach and guide in their creative activities once a week.  As a group we also make an occasional trip out to see an art exhibition that I feel would be both interesting and in some way aligned with the group’s own painting activities. Last year we visited the David Hockney and Vincent van Gogh exhibition at the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

My plan, back at the beginning of 2020 was that, as a group we could make a trip to the Drendts Museum in the northern Dutch town of Assen, to see the planned Frida Kahlo exhibition, Viva la Frida!, due in the autumn of 2020.  Without telling the group, and as way of introducing them to my plan, I set them a small painting assignment. 

I used one of the iconic portrait photographs of Kahlo, enlarged it and cut it into vertical strips, each about 40 cm tall by 2 cm wide.  To accompany each strip there was a wooden panel, larger (about a metre tall), but of the same proportions.  The task in hand was simple, use the blurry strip of black and white photograph to make a comparable blurry monochrome painted strip on the wooden panel.

To make it a little more technical I asked the group to do this using oil paints but making no use of black when mixing the grey tints that we needed.  The purpose here was twofold, firstly to challenge the group to experiment broadly with the mixing of chromatic greys, but secondly to result in more variation across the panels when the final composition was assembled.  One would hopefully be a slightly bluey mix of greys, another with more red and another with perhaps a purple edge.

We made a start, and all was going well. 

But then along came Covid-19, lockdown and the weekly painting sessions were suspended.  The painting was half finished, my painters still didn’t actually know what it was they were painting, but at this stage I told them the whole story and what my plans for the autumn had been.  In the meantime the museum in Assen had also had to change their plans.  The Kahlo exhibition was cancelled, or rather suspended, and finally opens its doors, today 7 October 2021!

Our group reconvened back in September 2020.  Meeting as two smaller groups, strict social distancing in place and returned to the business of painting, and getting our Frida Kahlo painting finished. 

Can’t see the trees for the drawings – the start of the school year

All the work was actually done at the end of the previous school year.  In fact, a significant part was put in place during the tail end of the last lockdown that we had in schools here in the Netherlands back in the spring as this previous post documents:

Preparatory tree project work

But once back in school, with whole classes back together, what started as a walk in the countryside and photographic assignment, could take on a more ambitious drawing and painting character.

The idea was relatively simple. I wanted, after months of disruption and children following my lessons on their laptops and iPads at home to do a fairly loose group project that would deliver a result that was significantly bigger than the individual parts.  It was also obliquely connected to the Surrealist’s Exquisite Corpse drawing game where elements of drawing connect vertically without one part actually being made with the intention that it should seamlessly connect.

Our ‘corpses’ weren’t to me figures, but trees. Linked together by a vertical trunk that ran through the drawing.  The pupils had spent time outside looking at trees and photographing them.  We had made small digital collages connecting various sections of diverse trees into an arrangement that hinted at where we were going.

But still, the greatest challenge was to get the pupils (14-15 years old) to loosen up a bit and dare to start on the relatively large-scale drawings I was asking them to make.  To help reach the point where we got quite high contrast drawings there was really only one material to use and that was charcoal.

After a few nervous minutes at the beginning the class soon got into it.  I kept hammering on about daring to draw and being a bit aggressive in their mark-making.  Also, I kept again and again repeating to make sure that they got different scales of mark in the drawings, from the thick and lumpy trunks to the lace-like finest twigs and everything in-between.  We used the photographs made earlier as a reference point to make sure that nobody slipped into the ways of drawing trees that they may have used when they were at primary school.

Charcoal delivers fast results, and it was very quickly clear that the drawings that were being made have qualities that were going to mean that my hopes to make a larger group display of them was likely to be a possibility. 

The speed of the drawing process meant that in subsequent lessons we moved onto similar work, but this time drawn out in paint.  The pupils were working with a freedom that I rarely see, not just from the ‘artists’ of the class, but pretty much right across the room.

The resulting work now hangs in the hall at the main entrance to the school, backlit from the light outside and against a backdrop of real trees.