Lest we forget…..

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2018 marks the centenary of the end of the First World War.  Education plays is part in recognition and remembrance of the events a century ago and the conflicts of the years that have followed.  At the school where I teach we will be spending time considering and reflecting on the the we years of war and years of peace shape our societies and lives in the new year.

But today I see no better moment to repost an artwork that my classes of fourteen year olds made in the context of a similar project four years ago.  For a full explanation of the project click here.

https://petersansom.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/serious-content-in-a-teenage-artwork/

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The otherside of educationland…

Screen Shot 2018-11-05 at 20.38.16It’s not unusual to finish a school day feeling drained of energy.  It is often hard work.  Today was different, and I hope different for all involved.  A workshop day for art teachers involved in bilingual education here in the Netherlands.  I’d done my preparation carefully, I hoped for constructive, positive contributions, and thankfully that is exactly what took we got.

A chance to work with colleagues from other schools for an undisturbed three-hour session is rare, rarer still when they are all from your own subject area.  The time flew by, and I think most of the participants left with the feeling that batteries had been recharged.  Thanks for all those present and the enthusiasm and ideas you brought to the workshop.  As promised the link below will give you a .pdf of the presentation I used to jog the memory on issues of content:

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Don’t forget to mail me a summary of the lesson ideas that we developed together.  I’ll gather these together and circulate them in due course.

So, a good afternoon, but one that always leaves me asking the same question, why in the world of education do we do this so rarely?

An Artistic Odyssey….

I don’t often post a complete article written by someone else, but Edith Pritchett’s prize winning short story did make me laugh. The link below takes you to the Guardian article about the competition.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/04/edith-pritchett-an-artistic-odyssey-jonathan-cape-observer-comica-graphic-short-story-prize-2018

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Draw, draw and draw again

There’s a lot to be said for sessions of intensive drawing. I can remember frantic days of drawing workshops producing drawing after drawing in my art school days. My daughter, now doing a art school course of her own, is experiencing a similar intense working process.

In a working life that is filled with any number of commitments and distractions a sustained period of drawing is difficult to achieve, but the advantage of working on drawing after drawing in a condensed period is multiple:

• You don’t loose your place in the flow of the work, it is a continuum

• You don’t loose time in repeating and retracing steps that have already been made

• A sort of cumulative effect is built up, where although you might be producing a series of drawings, together they amount to a sense of whole, a single unity almost.

But perhaps most important of all is the element of risk taking that seems much more to become an intergral part of such an intense creative process. Maybe you become less attached to individual pieces of work, maybe it’s just that you become more open and inclined to experiment or maybe it’s just that you simply want to push each subsequent piece of work to a new place.

Whatever exactly is going on in the process, it does seem to be particularly dynamic in terms of a productive creative process. Many artists have identified and recognized the value of this approach to their work.

The last few days I have been away on the Friesian island of Vlieland, just off the north coast of the Dutch mainland. We have had fantastic weather and I have gone out and about around the island to draw. It has become an increasingly frenetic process and has resulted in an extended series of more than thirty drawings made in just five days. It is a long while since I have been so productive in such a short period of time.

It has been a fascinating series. As the days have gone by the approach has become more experimental, often more reduced and at times extremely loose and wild. The challenge is there, almost hour by hour to push the next drawing just that bit further and to avoid safer routes that I know only too well I can rely on when being cautious.

Drawings that I make out in the landscape are only indirectly connected to my studio based work. I see this part of my artistic process as a rather more recreational process. A sort of parallel that runs alongside the more extended studio work. In the past I have made use of landscape motifs such as birds, or trees or pools of water lying in the landscape. During these days of sustained drawing I have become aware of a couple of new landscape or features that may yet make the step from the traveling sketchbook to the larger canvases produced in the studio, only time will tell if these glimmers of new ideas can be brought to a more resolved form.

The teenage photographic challenge

We live in a world where more photographs are made than ever before.  The teenagers that I teach are part of a generation who are barely able to live without their ever-present phone and photographic device in their hand. They are totally comfortable it would to record all around them and themselves for digital sharing on one of the many social media platforms.  It is all so easy and immediate.

As an art teacher it is fantastic to have the possibility to make use of the photographic medium so easily.  Yet experience shows that successfully getting worthwhile pupil work is surprisingly difficult to achieve.  Indeed, one of the problems I feel I face is the very casualness of the way many teenagers approach photographic documentation.  It is all so easy, point and shoot, endless quantities of images can be taken at no cost at all and the device of choice (the phone camera) always being with us in a pocket or bag. This same casualness brings also a sort of complacency or at less a much-weakened critical judgement.  Few teenagers ever look at their photographs on a screen bigger than that of their phone, fewer still bother to stop and evaluate the successes or failures of a composition.

Over the years I’ve experimented with a number of photographic assignments. Some have produced the results I hoped for such as a photographic exchange project and photographic art work reconstructions, others haven’t though and have resulted in mediocre or simply disappointing results.

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By David Hockney

This year’s photographic variation is a project based on the collages made by the British artist David Hockney during the 1970s and 80s. Hockney’s work used extensive sets of photographs that he had taken of various subjects, people, interiors and landscapes. These were reassembled in an overlapping fashion to document the view and made active use of distortions, disruptions and twisted perspectives that the process produced.

The resulting works are fascinating to see.  I showed my two classes of fifteen year olds a selection of Hockney’s work. I explained. They looked. Were they actually seeing and understanding what they were looking at and grasping the process? To be honest, in education I have that feeling more often. For most of them is was a completely unfamiliar way of working with a camera, but to be honest, I didn’t think that it was so complex or difficult!

 

A week later the pupils arrive with their own set of photographs at school. In most cases, still on their phones. There is a misconception that teenagers are technological able and literate.  In some areas maybe, but occasionally a surprise comes along…..in this case it seemed like more than half of the class had little idea how to get photographs off their phones and onto a desktop computer.  It seems a little symptomatic of a development I’ve noticed over last couple of years.  At the school where I teach all pupils have an iPad.  I’ve written before about how we in the art department make use of it.  There are new tools and new possibilities, but with it has undoubtedly also come a diminishing capability and familiarity with using a laptop or desktop computer.

I am digressing a little……. eventually the photographs the pupils have made are onto the computer and the creative process begins.  The room quietens, and the pupils gain that fixed gaze that comes when a computer-based activity engages them.

It is a puzzle, but a fascinating one to do.  In the end, the work is relatively quickly done.  The results in some cases are quite complex.  As always, you learn during the process, what are the extra directions that you need to give to guarantee a suitable set of photographs or maybe spend just a few more minutes looking at and analyzing Hockney’s collages in order to make sure the pupils have some insight in choosing appropriate subjects.  But overall the results are good, certainly interesting enough to have another go at it next year.

 

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.

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.

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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.

Class sizes, it’s a numbers game…..and being lucky, for this year at least

Its the start of another school year.  Everyone returns rested after an unusually warm summer holiday.  This year though, for me at least , something has changed a bit and it is leaving me feeling a little more positive than this time last year.

The reason for this optimism is simple, It lies in the way that the pupil numbers cookie has crumbled this year for me, I have been fortunate.  Across the seven classes that I teach the average number of pupils in the classes has dropped by five.  Last year my biggest class was a whopping 32 and the smallest one of 24.  This year that has become a biggest of 27 and the smallest a tiny group of 17.  (All my classes fall in the 12-16 year age group)

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Wow, what an improvement you might say! And this year it certainly is. But I did have the experience of last year first and I have been doing this long enough to know that next year will almost certainly spring back to more normal levels.

Class sizes are, in most cases, simply a numbers game.  There are ‘good’ numbers and numbers that are less desirable. If, in a given cluster or year layer within the school there are 90 children, that means three classes of 30 will be made.  However, if there are 75 in the cluster the result will be a much more attractive three groups of 25.  A disaster number for most of my colleagues would be 96, as I work at a school where we have been known to create classes of 32 on occasions. My mini class of 17 this year is the product of a particular cluster counting 34 children…..too many (just!) for one class to be created, but seemingly extremely generous when two of seventeen are the result.

Like I said, it is a numbers game of balancing the class sizes as much as possible, but then there is the other numbers game of the financial consequences (extra teaching hours and other resources) of having to create an extra or unexpected class also playing a significant part.

There is research that suggests that class sizes has little impact on pupils’ learning.  If I’m honest, when I’m up the front explaining something to the whole group it makes little difference if the class is 17 or 32.  Maybe it could even be more than 32.  Equally if everyone is simply getting on with an assignment quietly and I’m marking or preparing the next activity, then the group size is of little significance.

However, and it is a big however, this doesn’t explain why the class sizes that I have got this year have left me with a feeling of relief. Let me list a few positives of smaller class sizes. Some are general to most teachers, some are more specific to me as a teacher whose work involves a significant amount of practical activities:

Classroom individual contact time

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As an art teacher a significant amount of my teaching is done one on one, walking around the classroom helping, assisting, guiding and encouraging individual pupils. Smaller classes means more opportunity for this sort of teaching. More personal contact can only be good for the quality of the education.

Materials practicalities and limitations

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Most art teachers work without technician to support them. The smaller the class means that more complex practical variations can be offered. You can move away from the tendency towards a ‘one size fits all’ approach. The teacher becomes less of the technician shuffling and preparing materials at the expense of the actual content and teaching that they should be involved with.  Choices and differentiation within the lesson and the materials on offer are increased.

More effective lesson time

The start-up and clear-up phases of lessons with a smaller class are reduced and invade on the lesson time less. The result is simply more effective education time at the core of the lesson.

Admin and marking reductions

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If I am honest, it is here that my smaller classes this year give me the best feeling.  One of the subjects I teach has particular benefits in this area.  In this subject the pupils have to produce written reports of cultural activities that they have completed. Think film reports, theatre reports, exhibition reports and so on.  If I ask 80 pupils (like I had last year) to produce a 1000 word report…..yes, do the maths, that’s 80000 words……and giving eighty times written feedback on top.  46 (like this year) is obviously a significant saving in the time that I will be ploughing through the work my classes produce.  This freeing up of time obviously also opens the chance to maybe do other things that benefit my pupils further.

For me these are four pretty convincing reasons why class sizes are a serious issue in the eyes of so many who work in education.  It results in conflict and disagreements within schools, where leadership groups are asked to balance budgets using the resources that have been allocated.  Their hands are often tied by the financial restraints imposed on them.

There are many things that can be done to improve the quality of education.  Class sizes is certainly one of them.  But national educational budgets are generally failing to recognize this.

When you have time on your hands…..

In the days when I was a student I had the habit for a while of watching old movies on a Sunday afternoon. As a young art-student I had the feeling that I had a whole load of culture to catch up on and dipping into the history of film making was part of that. It was kind of a weekend luxury that I enjoyed, and in a way, whenever I watch films from the Hollywood output of the 1940s and 50s I am taken back to my Sunday afternoon student days in London when college was over for the week.  I had time on my hands and enjoyed familiarizing myself with the cinema of the past, it was all a little like reading a good book on holiday.

I still like watching old movies and regularly dip into watching one when I have time. Mostly that will be online or on a DVD at home. The chance to watch them on the big screen comes along less often. But in the last week of the school holidays, a day in Amsterdam visiting the museums ended with a trip to the Amsterdam Eye to see Double Indemnity, part of the Billie Wilder season being shown there. Screen 3 wasn’t full, but there was a pretty good turnout for the early evening screening. The lights dimmed and instead of the curtains pulling back for the full wide screen effect as they normally do, they shuffled almost apologetically to a slightly narrower aspect for the old screen format……before the black and white film began to roll.

In my work in education I have to work hard at times to convince the 15-year olds that the technological advances, that are a constant feature of the film world, aren’t the be all and end all when it comes to quality. Many at times seem convinced that the newest films, with all their computer aided opportunities and effects are, by definition, going to be a better film. Why anyone would choose to watch a black and white movie when vivid colour is so obviously so much better is beyond them. They are only fifteen, and maybe at least in part thanks to the lessons we are able to spend looking at films outside of their normal film consumption, some of them at least will open up to a broader and richer view of the cinematic world that is on offer.

Whether this will ever result in any of the turning up to watch an early evening showing of a film noir classic such as Double Indemnity I’ll probably never know. But if they don’t they’ll be missing the performances of Fred MacMurray and the captivating Barbara Stanwyck and the razorsharp Raymond Chandler script.