Yes, I’ve thought that before. In fact, almost always the most recent work feels like it’s the best. You are most in tune with the newest creative processes and the ideas attached to them. But having said all that, these recent pieces to feel like particularly good ones.
I seem to be finding potential of the ideas and approaches that started to take an initial form back in January. They paintings are slow and labour intensive to make, but the results are good. Bringing together visually interesting compositions, with landscape, seascape, weather, and the disrupted effect we are having on our environment.
The result……elements of beauty and elements of fragmentation.
This week, together with colleagues I spent a couple of hours brainstorming a way towards formulating a new school mission/vision plan. Prior to the afternoon I’d already given the subject some thought. I’ve been doing it quite a bit since the Covid interruptions that started back in 2020. What sort of school environment do I want to work in, and what do I miss at the moment.
Exam results are a subject that often raise their head in such discussions. They are a very tangible piece of evidence to the successes or failures in any school. But an overly focussed attention on this the academic success of an institution often leads to a vicious circle of pressure. Teachers need to perform better to squeeze the best out of their pupils, pupils need to work harder and focus more on the teachers’ message, and the teachers need to be more aware of the needs of their pupils when constructing their lessons, and the pupils need to make the best use of what the teachers offer them. It all sounds obvious and sensible enough, but this upwards educational spiral can equally become a downward one where pupils point fingers and the shortcomings of their teachers and teachers lament the failures of their pupils.
Within this educational pressure-cooker the pressure builds on all involved, and in the end reaches into most corners of a school.
One of the things that came out of the productive discussion table I found myself sitting at during the mission statement discussions this week reached into this area. It touched on areas of well-being and state of mind amongst staff and pupils at school, and how by addressing shortcomings in this area we might contribute positively to relationships between:
Staff and staff
Pupils and pupils
Pupils and staff
It’s a personal view, but in the classroom, I generally think that we have too much of a ‘them and us’ view when considering the educational process. Staff and here to teach and pupils are here to learn. Of course, this is true to a degree, we are in the process together, there should be more space for a sense of ‘we are doing this together’ as opposed to ‘you have to do this’.
We seem to escape this ‘them and us’ relationship on occasions in education, on a school trip, exchange or excursion, a snippet of doing things together, but get back to school and things seem to change back again.
Togetherness, contact and collaboration were, for me, the key words in our brainstorm session. Steps towards a greater sense of positive wellbeing, where pupils and staff work together on a better flow of contact that stretches beyond the academic level. Get this right and it will surely bring its own contribution to the academic performance.
Let me repost an earlier piece I wrote on the artist/educator whose work made me first take steps towards entering teaching. Tim Rollins knew the importance of working together and the benefits it could bring.
When you make an artwork, I’ve always felt that you need to create some sort of hook of fascination in the work that the viewer latches onto quickly and that will hold them long enough to take a proper, more considered view. Good lesson material is similar, in that you need to catch the learner’s attention, once you have that you then take them to the content that you want them to encounter and understand. Below is an example of such an approach.
Over the years I have written a large amount of lesson material, my OneDrive and the various websites that I have created are full of it. One of the problems that arises with this is that you sometimes forget or overlook something that you made at some point that was good material and worked well. I rediscovered this week exactly such an example.
With the twelve-year-olds that I teach I include a series of lessons that are centred around Renaissance and Northern Renaissance themes. For our practical lessons we look at one-point perspective and we make a clay monster inspired by Hieronymus Bosch. The “forgotten” lesson material though was a little art history lesson based around the Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder from 1563. I´m not required to teach anything about this particular painting, it certainly isn’t in a fixed curriculum. This is simply about encouraging pupils to look and to think carefully about pieces of art, trying to show them that art history doesn’t have to be a dry and stuffy place.
The Tower of Babel is great for this. It has a simple story that is not difficult to understand, it is painted in a very realistic way, but above all, it is packed full of action and detail. It is this level of detail that is the vehicle for this simple language and art history assignment.
Basically, my aim is threefold:
Get the pupils to look carefully and in detail at the artwork
Ask them to create language output inspired by the discoveries they make in the artwork
Create a fun and playful way of learning that has a gentle form of competition to it using a sort of scavenger-hunt principle
The whole lesson is hung up around the availability of extremely high-resolution photographs of artworks that can be found at various online locations.
I ask the pupils to get this image open on their laptop screen and first have a good look round the picture, zooming in and zooming out, taking a good look at everything that is going on.
Then I start my PowerPoint up at the front of the class. Each slide shows a very zoomed in piece of detail from the painting, along with an arrow pointing above, below or to a side of the detail. There is also a word, maybe `climbing` for example. The idea is simply to±
Find the detail in Bruegel´s original work
Look just beyond the detail in the direction of the arrow
Describe or explain what is going on in this `beyond` area, but the sentence that you form MUST include the given word in exactly the form it is given
Returning to this assignment for the first time in a few years it was great to see the pleasure that was had by this particular group of twelve-year-olds, They were searching around a nearly 500 year old painting, laughing at some of the more quirky discoveries they made. They were enjoying looking at and exploring for themselves a jewel from art history. Added to this they were also constructing often quite complex English sentences in what is their second language.
I´ll be doing my best not to overlook this half hour activity again next year!
For anyone interested in trying the assignment, my PowerPoint can be found below.
There was actually rather more got done than just this lino-collage. But this one did get finished. An experiment to try and speed up the process development and testing of ideas that can run alongside the current rather labour intensive paintings. This one being a step further on a previous painting.
The 75th anniversary of the school where I work has been celebrated this year. Reason enough for a whole series of events and activities to mark the occasion. Without doubt though, this weekend was the big one. An afternoon and evening filling reunion that in the end was attended by close to two thousand ex-pupils and staff as well as many of those currently teaching.
I’ve taught at the school for over twenty years and so have been looking forward to the event. I’ve done my part in the preparation work designing posters, display boards documenting the history of the school and coordinating the production of a celebratory artwork.
But I must admit to not being quite sure how I would experience such a mass event of ex-pupils ranging in age from their early twenties, up to a much more select group over the age of seventy.
After my twenty plus years of teaching at the school, I was trying this week, to puzzle out just how many different children I have taught over the years. I’m not completely sure, but I think the total probably lies somewhere between 2500 and 3000. Obviously, they weren’t all going to show up, but a reasonably number could be expected. How would that be? How many would I recognize and how many names would I be able to drag up from the area of memory where pupils’ names seem to pile up in what feels like an incredibly unsorted fashion?
Looking back on the evening I don’t think that I did too badly. I got some names and failed with others! I recognized so many of the pupils I’ve taught even with well over a decade having passed in many cases.
Was it a good experience? Yes absolutely, although at times quite overwhelming. It did me good to be talking with ex-pupils and hear them recount a small detail of something you said during a lesson back in 2010 that they still remember and has caused them to ponder and think about it on numerous occasions since. That is what you are in education for, those seeds you can sow and experiences you can give! One thought I often share with pupils is that teaching art and culture at secondary school level is about giving a little baggage that they will be able to make use of for a lifetime. One ex-pupil at the reunion said he remembered me saying it and admitted to being a little sceptical as a fifteen-year-old at the time. But his summer on a visit to Rome and walking through a museum there, he returned in his mind to the lessons. He found he had a little perspective, a little knowledge that allowed him to find his way into a particular artwork.
Another reminisced about the group artwork we made based of Goya’s third of May painting, another recounted a project that focussed on the Dutch coast. These are the nuggets of knowledge, experience and enjoyment that get carried away. The art lessons are in so many educational contexts the ‘odd-ball’ lessons. They’re different of virtually all the other subjects on the pupils’ timetables. But that ‘otherness’ is the very reason why they should be there and be taken seriously in every school context. They offer pupils a different way to work, to think and to experience the world.
This year is the 75th anniversary of the school where I work. Reason enough for a large-scale reunion and a series of other events. Suddenly there are budgets available for things that weren’t previously possible. And for the art department that meant financing was available for a large-scale artwork to celebrate the occasion.
Within our department we spent an afternoon pondering what and how we might do this in such a way as to involve the pupils, somehow combine that activity within our existing lesson structure and most importantly of all, make a bit of a large-scale statement!
The result for us was to move the series of lessons we teach about all forms of street art that to the classes of 15- and 16-year-olds, from the end of the school year to the beginning and to get started with the practical part of the project as quickly as possible.
Different teachers approached the practical part in their own preferred way, but the basic idea was to allow each pupil to produce a street art/graffiti inspired artwork and then to combine the elements of many of the designs digitally to produce one combination work for each class involved in the project. In the end we finished with nine such digital works, on for each class that was involved.
It was at this point the extra ‘reunion budget’ came to help. We were able to print each design commercially or plastic sheeting measuring 1.5 x 2 metres, making a total artwork that was 18 metres long. If you’ve never tried such large-scale printing it is worth looking into, it’s not as expensive as you might think.
Once hung up, some inside for the reunion and some outside the ‘big statement’ was made, and the pride of the pupils whose work was included was clear to see. And of course, we now have a series of bright, largescale works that can be used in many ways and many occasions around the school in the future.