“What did you do to the children?”

…said the British customs team as we left the British passport control in Dunkirk. As the last of our group of seventy twelve-year-olds disappeared through the door, all five members of the customs inspectors burst out laughing.  “You could have heard a pin drop as you brought your children through, we have never seen, or heard such a well-behaved school group, it so quiet” she said between her laughs.

Yes, even seventy Dutch twelve-year-olds can be quiet and serious!

Travelling with large groups of school children has its moments.  The chaos, the noise and the feeling that you are heading a flock of sheep.  But occasionally something like this comes along.

As a teacher it does give you a good feeling to get such a compliment!  Was it our very serious (and possibly slightly over the top) instructions? Was it the uniforms of the serious looking customs men and women staring down from their desks? Was it a bit of both? 

Either way, we were happy, the customs people were happy and the kids were quiet…..what is there not to like?

My first post-Covid and post-Brexit international school trip

This really does seem a note-worthy moment to post. So much has happened in the last three years.  In the autumn of 2019 I travelled with 80 or so pupils and a team of colleagues for the last time, the journey being from the Netherlands to visit the U.K. for just under a week.  It was before the pandemic and before the Brexit deal was finalized.

Now three years later we have just repeated the visit for the first time. This time with two groups, one of 71 twelve year olds accompanied by seven teachers and a secon group of 60, mostly fourteen year olds and five teachers. On the program were various outside activities at the location were we stayed as well as a day trip to Oxford, and for the older children also a visit to London.

Reflecting now, from the comfort of having returned, what is there to say, what has remained the same and what has changed?

We’ll leave aside the fact that our travel agency, who organized the main logistics of the trip, let us down to a serious level,. Leaving us with many situations where we were forced to improvise, be creative or simply hang around in the cold waiting for a bus at five in the morning. But what about Brexit or Covid issues?

The main Brexit difference was that now, every single child is required to have a passport, and not just a EU Identity card.  The extra expense of this change was  born by parents and thankfully due to notifying them of it months in advance presented no unexpected problems.  We were also fortunate to have no pupils in our group with complex nationality issues.  Visa requirements have become significantly tighter since Brexit, this is doubtless a bridge that we will have to cross another time.

The Covid part of the story in the end worked out reasonably well, but did leave us a little on edge at times.  There are no real Covid restrictions to travel between the Netherlands and the UK at present.  However the idea of setting off on the trip with people in the bus who were testing positive was a concern.  We didn’t specifically ask pupils to test, I’m pretty sure that we are actually not allowed to do that.   It was the health issues amongst  the staff that was the main concern.  The days before we travelled, one of my colleagues had two family members at home who were testing positive, what if there were more cases amongst the teachers pop up at the last minute?  We needed the full team, and a fully fit team!  It really is an excursion that needs you to be at the top of your game in terms of health to cope with the 16-18 hour working days.

Right until the morning of our departure teachers were testing, thankfully in the end all with negative results.  Did we have pupils with us who might have tested positive?  Quite possibly yes, sitting amongst us in a crowed bus for hours on end.  Did we have an outbreak of pupils feeling under the weather and maybe ill?  Well, that’s a no, despite the tightly packed bedrooms that the pupils slept in. 

Some colleagues were at times definately a little effected by symptoms that could easily have been a relatively light case of Covid.  Did we test whilst in the U.K.? That’s a definite no.  There seemed little to be gained by knowing. We just ploughed on with the excursion.

All in all the trip as a whole felt remarkably similar to the trip of three years ago. There was a bit more hand washing go on before eating, but to be honest, that is about as far as the Covid measures went. But also about as far as the measures really could go in such crouded conditions. Hopefully we’ll be making the same trip again next year, and hopefully the Covid situation will have eased still further, the situation/rules at the border crossing, given the current state of British politics, is anyone’s guess!

A flying start – migrating into the new school year

It might not actually quite be the start of the school year anymore, but it is in its way a flying start. 

The end of school clear out inevitably means empty display spaces come the start of the new school.  This year I decided to make an immediate splash in the biggest space in the school with rapidly made charcoal drawings of birds made by the fourteen-year-olds I teach.

Now as we head into the autumn season of migration in the bird world, it seems appropriate to share the result online.  It’s not an easy display to photograph well, but in real life the transparency of the paper and the darkness of the images combine for ever changing results throughout the day as the light outside changes.

Good things come to those who wait….

It has been slow, but finally this relatively small painting is finished. Started earlier in the summer with a month-long trip that involved considerable staring out to the horizon on the north Atlantic seas around Orkney, and finished on our return.

Although the idea for the work was essentially in place before the journey north a number of combinations of ideas and occurrences are playing their part in this painting and the steps on to the subsequent pieces now being developed. The countless watercolours made of the Orcadian landscape and coast, the ever-present geometry of the horizon so present around the sea and a treeless landscape. Then there was the visit to an exhibition of Laura Drever’s work at the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness. Whilst her work is considerably less geometric than mine, we share landscape interests and a surprisingly similar way of layering imagery up.

For me the work hints and opens the door further on the series of pieces I’ve been developing since the start of the year. More subtle and sensitive that the brasher and brighter paintings from the spring. More to follow……

Getting twelve year olds to look carefully at Renaissance art and architecture…..at the end of the school year

Written at the end of last school year, but a nice post to start the year with……

The weeks are ticking away until the end of the school year.  Three lessons to go with the group of twelve and thirteen year olds that I teach. The temptation is to go for something passive and comfortably time filling.  But I want to give them one last push, but also engage them with a little fun.

The solution…..

The content

Renaissance art, and in particular architecture as it is found in the paintings of the period

The skills needed

Looking carefully

Some creativity

A little digital knowhow on at least one of the platforms we were using

The technical bit…..

Using, or learning to use one of the following digital design possibilities

  • Tinkercad.com
  • SketchUp online
  • Minecraft
  • The Sims (A new one for me in an educational context…I wondered if it would be a bit too restrictive in its possibilities. In the end I feel I was generally proved correct)

The class had heard a while back that I have been known to use Minecraft as a creative tool for building assignments.  They’d been nagging me a little bit to do something similar with them.  These last few lessons of the year were an ideal opportunity.

The assignment was a very simple one.  I had a PowerPoint of a selection of images or renaissance paintings, and in particular images that showed examples of Renaissance architecture.  The pupils simply had to choose one of the buildings and try and recreate it on their favoring design platform, and perhaps add to it a little in an appropriate way.

For SketchUp and Tinkercad I had to start with a short demonstration into how the software worked and what a few of the possibilities were. But with Minecraft and the Sims no assistance was needed. Within thirty minutes of the start of the first lesson the room settled down and we were off! Focused looks on the faces, mouse hand moving in its familiar erratic jumps.  And this point it was quite easy to leave the room to go and get myself a cup of coffee, on my return I could see the start of their Renaissance inspired worlds starting to take shape.

Minecraft is a favourite amongst the pupils. It is familiar and the idea that you are actually allowed to use it for a school assignment does have something of a special attraction.  But it is the work done on SketchUp and Tinkercad that I enjoy watching unfold the most. In both cases you create your own building elements, the software has more flexibility for refined work, and the icing on the cake as far as Tinkercad is concerned, we can make the final step of 3d printing the results.

Drawing on/for memories

I ended the last school year making a series of drawings of the school building where I work.  The idea was to make a series of images that may turn out to be useful for the forthcoming year, a vague plan I have for a series of lessons.  As it turned out the series of three drawings became combined to make a card I gave to a few departing colleagues as a memory of what they are leaving behind as they move on to other things……(any colleagues who have moved on to other things, and I didn’t get as far as dropping a card in your pigeon hole, if you’d like one let me know, I’d be more than happy to send one through….pure disorganisation at the end of the year!)  The fact that our school will be celebrating its 75th anniversary gives the ink and wash drawings an extra meaning perhaps.

I’ve subsequently spent the summer holidays travelling around Orkney, the island group between the Scottish mainland and Shetland.  Here too I have spent my time recording, documenting, and committing to memory the world around me in an extensive series of watercolours and drawings.  The activity makes me look hard, experiment a bit with what I can achieve on a small page of my notebook with a very limited set of artistic tools.  It is a good exercise, but above all, it is a fantastic way to record the experience of travel and to be able to return to it in the future.

Vacancies, vacancies and still more vacancies

In education there is always a certain amount of roundabouting. Teachers leaving one school and moving onto another.  The Dutch secondary school where I teach is no different in this regard.  Most years we wave goodbye to one group of colleagues only to say hello to another.  This year is a continuation of this pattern, and maybe a few more than we are used to are making this changeover. 

Are we unique in seeing a larger than normal switch around of staff looking for pastures new to explore?  Well, if I look at the number of advertisements for teaching posts in circulation my conclusion would very definitely be no.  Maybe even more indicative of a more general change are the number of art teaching vacancies that are passing through the Dutch art teaching Facebook groups I am member of.  Art teachers are used to having to wait and be patient for teaching opportunities.  The odd teaching posts that come by are often temporary, small in the number of hours offered and hugely oversubscribed for.  This year though is different, there is a positive deluge of vacancies!

What is going on?  What has changed this year?  Dutch education in general has a personnel shortage.  The work can at times be very challenging and the hours are long with a tendency to spill all over your life.  Added to this the classes are getting bigger, the administration workload more far reaching and the demands from government, parents, and the pupils themselves at times, is more pressing.  Getting new people into the profession is a constant necessity.  Or should I say, getting the right, talented, driven people into the profession is a necessity.

But the general shortage of teachers is a longer running problem.  This end of year, job circus feels different.  Like I said at the start, it feels like a roundabout, a game of musical chairs is perhaps also a good metaphor.  Most years it feels more like a situation of more mature colleagues leaving the profession at the top end, to be replaced by recent graduates joining it at the bottom end.  This year though, teachers at all stages of their working career are on the move, and as soon as one makes the switch it opens up another space that needs to be filled.  That will in turn perhaps tempt someone else to make the jump from another school, and so the rotation goes on.  This certainly seems to be what is going on amongst those much sought after art teaching posts.  The way new vacancies are popping up with just days to go until the end of the school year are evidence of this.

Is this all perhaps a consequence of the Corona years?  Are teachers less likely now to just stay put and make do?  Have the Corona years lead to an urge to work closer to home?  Were tough years of online, hybrid and generally chaotic education the final straw in a decision to leave education and head off in a different direction?  Or is simply a case of hoping that the grass will be greener on the other side of the fence?

I’m really not sure where the reason lines, one thing is sure though, I’ll have quite a few new colleagues on the other side of the summer holiday.  I will also be missing a few others who have been familiar and much valued faces in the staffroom.

Art lessons, homophones and Ukrainian homophones

It’s a bit of an end of year project for me with the 13-14 year-olds that I teach.  A short, essentially creative graphic design assignment with a language twist.  In short, we take homophones (a word that is pronounced the same as another word but differs in meaning), and design pictograms that illustrate the two different meanings.

I’ve written about the activity before, and that post can be found here:https://petersansom.wordpress.com/2015/03/26/homophones-clil-art-and-english-assignment/

This year I did much the same again, asking the pupils to produce a pair of matching pictograms that illustrate the contrasts in terms of language and meaning.  This year I offered the possibility to produce a handmade drawn result or a more graphic digitally made result.  Below you can see a few of the results.

All well and good you might say.  But for the last few months I have had two new additions to the class, Ira and Iryna from the Ukraine.  They’ve been two fantastic additions to the group.  Despite all that is of course playing out in their lives, they have been enthusiastic and extremely creative members of the class.  They have enjoyed the freedoms of the art lessons, that were rather different to the style of teaching they experienced back home.  I should also add that their level of English has allowed them to slip easily into the bilingual class that has been their educational home since arriving.

When I explained the homophones project to the class and set them to work on an initial bit of brainstorming and sketching out of possibilities I turned to Ira and Iryna, had they understood the project?  Had they grasped the eccentricities of this particular corner of the English language?  I didn’t have to worry, with an excited look on their faces they announced that they wanted to do the project using Ukrainian homophones, and off they went making plans for the illustrations for examples from their own language that they were able to share and explain to me and others in the class.

As it turned out there are homophones that the two languages share, such as organ (the musical instrument) and organ (the part of the body), but there were others that in English showed absolutely no connection at all!

World CLIL Conference, The Hague

Conferences are back on the agenda, and I am ending the school year in The Hague for two days to attend one that has been in the pipeline for more than two years, the World CLIL Conference.   CLIL, content and language integrated learning has been the main stay of my type of educational practice for the last twenty plus years.  Yes, I’m an art teacher, but in the bilingual educational context that I work in, CLIL is my methodology, combining the teaching of art with the intensive and immersive use of a second language teaching (the use of English when teaching Dutch children art in my case).

That sounds quite simple, a different language of instruction during the lessons.  It is of course that, I speak only English with the Dutch children I teach, and the language of the classroom is English.  But good and slightly more complex CLIL teaching goes several steps further, and it is this that the conference this week is about, and what the consequences are of this approach.

I gave a workshop as part of the conference but have also dosed up on CLIL input that hopefully should give me ideas and angles to explore in my teaching next school year.

I don’t attend a great many conferences, certainly not in the last couple of years, but it is so good to escape the humdrum classroom life.  These are the battery recharge moments that I’ve missed immensely. The chance to listen, hear new and different perspectives and simply just to reflect a bit on what we do and perhaps what we could be doing is something we don’t get the opportunity to do enough in educationland.

Particularly for those who attended my workshop during the conference, below there is a link to the PowerPoint that I made use of.  It is not completely ready-made lesson material, but it is certainly enough of a reminder of the content we covered and offers the necessary basis material that may be of use to you.

A proper open day at last

Open days at school have been a bit of disrupted business over the last two years.  A chance for a school to show potentially new pupils what the school is all about, the atmosphere, building, and of course the staff.  For the first time since January 2020, we invited both parents and their primary school aged children into the school yesterday evening.

For the art department it’s a chance to show just what we are about and stage an extensive display of the pupils’ work, from the youngest in the school (aged 12) right through to the oldest (aged 18).  During the five hours of the open day, we welcomed around 300 ten- and eleven-year-olds into the main hall to show them round. 

But an art department wouldn’t be an art department if there wasn’t something to do and participate in.  Not an insignificant challenge when they are coming through in groups of up to twenty-four children every ten minutes or so.  The resulting activity is kind of formulaic, and maybe lacks a bit in the area of creativity, but it certainly had a good groups participation factor and a wow effect at the end!

For step by step instructions on how to carry out a similar large scale, pixelated portrait click on the link below to download the .pdf file.