JR, street artist in Groningen….and the frustrations of the art teacher

Every art teacher has had this experience I think.  You visit a museum or art gallery and find yourself wishing you could take your pupils to see this particular exhibition. 

Today was one such occasion for me. The artist involved was the French street artist JR and the place was Groningen in the far north of the Netherlands. It’s a two and a half hour trip on the train for me to get there, and if I was traveling from the school where I work it would be more than three hours. With such a time frame, a school visit, no matter how appropriate the exhibition isn’t going to happen.

In the case of the JR exhibition the ‘you just must see the real thing’ sort of recommendation isn’t really relevant. The exhibition doesn’t actually have the ‘real’ artworks. They are out on the streets in cities around the world interacting with the contexts and locations in which they are placed. In JR’s case the work is often on a huge scale and in places with serious political or social tensions. What we see in Groningen is documentation and museum installations that help give a feel for the scale of the work and includes supporting films that document and interview the participants involved. Together, multiple narratives are presented, the life and development of an artist, and the aims an objectives of each individual project.

When seen as a whole, this large scale presentation of the Frenchman’s work, has an effect that I know would have been so interesting to show my pupils. We’ve recently been talking a lot about street art and in doing so have also looked at JR’s large scale photographic work. Whilst in class at school, we have so many possibilities to look at art, a large lcd screen at the front of the class for images and films and pupils have their own computer screens to carry out further web-based investigations. But a walk into a museum, even if it is only to see this sort of documentation does bring other benefits and a chance to reflect and discuss in different ways than in class.

As I said at the beginning, we won’t be going to Groningen.  Maybe I’ll share someone the photographs I took today with my classes.  But there will be other museum visits at other times that are more feasible. It is crucial to those of us in education to continue making such visits when we can, to give a non-screen based experience of art and culture to our pupils.

 

 

An unfinished CLIL plan, or is it PLIL? With thanks to Bruce Springsteen

I call it PLIL, because this is more like playing and language combined, rather than pure content as we are more familiar with from CLIL (Content and language integrated learning).

I’m always interested in finding new ways to combine a little extra culture and language into my lessons.  This is an idea that arose kind of by accident in an online exchange of messages a few weeks ago with a couple of friends.  The messages ranged through various themes, but as I remember it, Bruce Springsteen was mentioned, Cathy, one of those involved in the discussion is a big fan.  Also, rather randomly, a woman riding a horse was also mentioned……and that was, as it turned out, not an unimportant point.

To amuse myself and, I hoped, the others in the discussion, I decided to write a short fictious exchange between me and an imaginary stranger (the woman on the horse!).  The challenge I set myself was to try and squeeze in as many Bruce Springsteen song titles as possible into my short text.  I am reasonably familiar with Springsteen’s body of work, but after Googling his musical biography I was surprised by the sheer amount, but also the number that were going to be useful for this challenge.

The titles available dictated to a large degree where the narrative headed, but in a way that was the fun of this word puzzle.  It is all about playing with language and in my art and culture CLIL classroom that is very much the sort of area that I like to search out and make use of.  In this case selecting out the words and phrases that are loaded with possibility and then working out ways to link and connect them without altering any grammar or phrasing in the existing titles.

The result of my own puzzling went as follows:

I saw a woman on a horse yesterday,

I asked were you ‘Born in the USA’?

Yes, she said, in the ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’

And ‘Growin Up’ I asked

Mostly near ‘Harry’s Place’ she replied

So this isn’t exactly your’s or my ‘Home Town’ I remarked

No, not ‘This Hard Land’ she said, ‘I’m working on a Dream’

You ‘Walk like a man’ she went on,

I’m ‘Outlaw Pete’ I said as threateningly as I could

Am I being ‘Held up without a gun’?

I was hoping for some ‘Easy money’ I said

Go and jump in ‘The River’ she replied……and rode off.

I haven’t actually tried this activity in class yet, but I plan to soon. I’m not a music teacher, but within my broader culture lessons this can certainly find a place.  I think my third years (aged 15) could have a pretty good go at this.  We will doubtless end up in discussions about which artists and musicians are the best to use.  They’ll have their own favourites.  But it will be interesting to see if they offer such content and grammatically rich pickings.

In my work as an artist, I spend a lot of time playing with images and forms, working out ways to combine and connect them.  It is an approach I love to make use of in the classroom too.  It maybe with paint, collage or other materials, but I really don’t see this form of play with words as being so very different to that.

A classic poem in a CLIL context in the art room

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

Combing content and language in the learning process

For a while now monsters of one kind or another have been a feature of the lessons that I give to my groups of twelve-year-old pupils.  We’ve done various drawing assignments, made clay gargoyles, and dipped into art history by looking at the work of the likes of Hieronymus Bosch.

With these classes, being bilingual learners (Dutch children, being taught across their timetable in English in order to super-charge their acquisition of the English language), I am always looking for ways of enriching the practical lessons with elements of language beyond simply using it for instruction.  For example, recently I have had the class writing haikus that were inspired by the clay heads that we made together.

This year though I decided to branch out in a slightly different direction and make use of Lewis Carroll’s poem The Jabberwocky.  The monsters connection was obvious, but how to work with it with these children who are only eight months into their experience of bilingual education was the question.  Would they be ready to deal with this curious piece of literature?

I needn’t have worried; they were up to it.  When I asked them to read the poem for themselves and underline all the nonsense words, they were able to complete this first challenge without any problem at all, their vocabulary being sufficiently developed to spot the words in amongst the text.

Next, we spent time thinking of alternative words that could be used to replace the nonsense in the middle section of the poem.  Again, no real problem.  An occasional grammatical error or slip in the spelling perhaps, but they were definitely onto it, and understanding the intention completely.

The fun and laughter really started when I asked them to come up with their own nonsense words for the first and last verse.  At this point I wondered if the imaginary words they created might end up having an English or a Dutch feel to them.  It was of course all nonsense……but to me, the words that they were coming up with did have a distinctly English twang to it and they generally nestled perfectly well into the context of Carroll’s poem.

The link below allows you to download a step by step guide to the language part of the lesson.

With this language component of the lesson series complete, we moved on with enthusiasm to work on a more than five-meter-long group drawing of our own Jabberwocky.  The result of the drawing project can be seen here, but how exactly we arrived at the composition and in what order we did things, are details I’ll save for another post.

Boys choosing fashion design….as sign of changing times?

In 2015 I wrote a piece on this blog (entitled “Gender roles in the classroom”) about a situation in lessons where I give a class of 15-16 year olds a choice of practical assignments.  There is an architectural design assignment and a fashion design assignment.  The two variations are well balanced I feel and require similar amounts of effort and creativity on the part of the pupils.  I provide both possibilities with a good contextual build up and frame the challenges up for the pupils so that they have a very clear idea on what is on offer.

The post from 2015, seven years ago, referred to the fact that whilst a reasonable number on girls would choose the architecture assignment, there seemed to be an unbelievable reluctance amongst the boys to pick up the fashion challenge.  In 2015, I was pleased to have a total of one boy from several teaching groups who did.

However, in the intervening years I seem to be observing a change going on.  Year on year, the fashion designing boys in my groups has been starting to change.  Statistically the numbers involved in my classes aren’t big enough for concrete conclusions to be drawn, but there really does seem to be a bit of a movement in a particular direction.  This year I’ve reached the point where there are 50% of the boyswho have chosen the fashion route ahead of the architecture, something of a seismic shift in this limited creative sample.

It leads be to wonder if there is anything significant going on here.  Is there a switch away from the idea that anything involving clothes is only for girls?  Is there greater acceptance that role models and expectations of behaviours aligned purely to gender and choices have moved on? 

I’d like to think, certainly within the school where I teach, that that second point is the case.  It isn’t that we have an educational institution that is a utopia of acceptance and respect for all issues that in anyway touch on gender, education, behaviour and related areas.  But it is certainly true to say that great steps have been taken in the last ten years or so.  The entrenchment of a boy group and a girl group in each class is not what it once was I feel, maybe this reflects changes in society a broader level too?  But whatever the reasons, I’m certainly happy to see that pupils feel a freedom to choose in this area at least the assignments that interest or suit them the most.

A small (post) Covid mile stone last week

I know that we might not yet be fully out of the woods with regard to reflecting on how Covid has got in the way of any number of things during the last two years. But there was last week, for me at least, something of a fairly large step forward.

For the first time since November 2019, I was part of a multi-day excursion together with a group of ninety twelve and thirteen year olds, and five colleagues.

Four days eating, playing, learning and relaxing together…..plus of course getting the pupils to bed and asleep in their 4-6 person bedrooms at the end of the day (always one of the most challenging parts of this sort of week).  Virtually all Covid restrictions have just been removed here in the Netherlands, so there was no one and half metre rule, no face masks and full buses to transport us.  Judging by the weeks immediately previous at school I had fully expected a small but significant number of cases to occur, but thankfully that was an absolute minimum.  One case during the visit and a couple in the days thereafter.

All in all the days away felt surprisingly normal, at least to the teachers involved.  We had all made similar trips before.  To many of the pupils it was all a bit of a new experience, with these sorts of extra-curricular activities being so scarce during the last two years. 

Normally we would head off abroad, but this Spring that was still just a step too complicated and risky in terms of planning and potential problems.  So, it was all nearer to home.  Easier to arrange, but sadly without the international dimension and the language challenges that come along with it.

We hope to take a similar group off to England in the autumn, we’ll have to wait and see what surprises the pandemic may serve up then.  We will also be facing up to the full-blown version of Brexit, with all the restrictions and complications for EU travellers for the first time.  But that is a completely different story and one that I wrote my irritations and frustrations about a couple of months ago.

Good things (I think) come to those who wait

Sometimes things in the studio progress painfully slowly.  Any number of things get in the way and finding the spaces in between all the other stuff just doesn’t happen.  That has been very much the case in the last few weeks.

Over Christmas I made a couple of collages using elements of lino-prints that I had made.  They were good and I could see the potential to take them further into paintings.  A few technical experiments followed (unsuccessfully) before I finally landed on how to approach the idea.

Now, a few weeks later, finally my first successfully completed painting of 2022 is a fact.  It is a good one I think and has good possibilities to be taken further, hopefully quicker this time round. All in all, a nice distraction from other activities, not least the educational one, which is tough at the moment.  But that is another story!

What the art teacher did (outside of lesson times)

Art teachers are maybe not the most high-profile members of the teaching team in a school.  But perhaps more than most subject areas they are called on for extra input and support.  In fact, I often ponder the irony of teaching a subject area where pupils and parents often make the observation that there is no work to be found in choosing to study art, whilst I seem to be continually busy with my employer making full use of me (a fine art graduate) to carry out any number of creative tasks.  There clearly seems to be plenty of call for creative input and practical skills where I am!

I know I’m not stating anything new to most arts teachers.  We are requested to do so many tasks outside of the normal classroom activities.  There might be scenery needed for the school play, a poster for a party, a logo for a club, decoration or artworks needed for an empty corridor, an exhibition of pupils’ work to be organised for PR purposes, a design for a t-shirt or maybe critical input on the school’s prospectus or website.  I could go own, but I’m sure that you get the picture.

At my own school, amongst other things, I seem to have become the second line of graphic design.  We have an external bureau that designs material for us, but I am regularly asked to contribute with a poster, a flyer or animation film.  All areas I have no specialist training in but am interested to try my hand and have, over the years put in the hours learning to use the necessary software.

As with all design tasks, it always seems to take a lot longer than I expect to get to the final finished result, and a lot lot longer than most other people seem to think the process of design can take.  So why do it?  Well, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I enjoy the process and the challenge.  I’m not sure that I could design in this way full time, but the occasional work on the side is both interesting and satisfying when designs reach their final form.

A case in point are the five display boards that show our school history (it is our 75th anniversary).  I have put these together in collaboration with a colleague from the history department.  They are a combination of an interesting text, fascinating historical photographs and, even if I say it myself, some nice design work.  This time the finished product is going to stand outside of school for the next year, which is considerably longer than most other similar projects seem to last in the public eye!

Are there artists too difficult to use in educational projects?

Over the last few months, I´ve taught an extensive Pop Art related practical art project.  Pop Art is an easy hit in education, its accessible, eye-catching and technically not too challenging to appropriate.  We’ve dipped into the work of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Michael Craig Martin and others.  This year we started with a little observational drawing of pasta that later brought us onto designing repeating wallpaper-like still lives of everyday drawings, comic-book drawing and lettering techniques before exploring the making of multiples and repetition in the form of lino-prints based on the original pasta drawings.  It has been an excellent project that simply hangs together very well.  But like I said, Pop Art, in a school context seems to lend itself very well to such projects.

This appropriateness and ease with which Pop Art can be used has set me thinking in other directions.  Are there other areas of the history of art that are more, or even too difficult, for a school context?  The short answer to that is undoubtedly yes, the ones whose work dive headlong into truly adult content. but right now I feel the need to try and develop something new that perhaps goes off into more uncharted areas (for me at least).  Drawing on art and artists that are maybe a slightly trickier fit in the classroom.

Listening to a review of the new Francis Bacon exhibition at the Royal Academy in London has set me thinking further in this area.  Bacon’s work is confrontational and at times a little shocking, but I think his images could be interesting to the fifteen-year-olds that I have in mind.  Yes, they would have to be carefully selected and explained well, but I do see some possibilities.  The sexual references are, for obvious reasons, an area where we have to be careful in a classroom situation.  Art history is filled with references to sex and sexuality, but whilst the idea of a discussion about such a theme could be something I could imagine doing, the idea of taking it into a practical form is a minefield that I can’t imagine stepping into.

The brooding, slightly nightmarish quality of many of Bacon’s paintings with their twisted deformations are perhaps an area to explore in the near future.  I have spent time working with ‘violence in art’ themes with a similar age group in the past.  Representations of violence are of course, to the average fifteen-year-old, quite familiar territory, be that in the news, through movies or social media.  Opening up a discussion into how we respond to such images and doing it within the safe context of a classroom, does have persuasive arguments to support such a decision.

I see myself returning to the brutality of Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s work and others before getting as far as Bacon. 

Pupil work

This idea is very much a ‘work in progress’ at the moment.  I’m sure there are others in art education who have dipped into this area before me.  Maybe I’ll come across them in the weeks ahead.  But as I wrote at the start, a little Pop Art in the classroom is a more straight forward route, or a bit of analytical cubism, portrait or landscape work for that matter.

On learning not to fear the chaos……of a printmaking session

For quite some time I approached the idea of printmaking with my younger classes with a degree of trepidation.  The bottles of sticky ink, the messy sheets for rolling out the ink on, the pupils walking around with their inked-up lino blocks and all the sheets of printed images lying around the room.  Potentially there is so much that can go wrong.  And it is exactly that which was making me nervous.  An understandable worry perhaps, when it is room of thirty 13 year olds that you are working with.

Group print work with a distinctly Dutch Delftsblauw tile look to it

But I’ve got over it, it seems I didn’t need to worry.  The strategy is simple, clear instructions and a good demonstration of the various steps.  But perhaps above all it seems, explaining that I am a bit nervous about the lessons ahead and asking the class to prove to me that I didn’t need to worry. 

After that I step back and watch.  Of course, I am on hand to help with technical problems and advice on how to get the best results.  But perhaps simply because of the necessary classroom mobility that is needed, there is actually a tremendous amount of helping and learning from one another go on. 

As I stand in the corner of the room watching it really does look pretty chaotic, but look again, there is also order and organization as twenty-five to thirty pupils busy themselves with the steps through the process: the designing and drawing, the cutting of the lino, the inking up, the printing, the washing of the block, more cutting, a second colour of inking and printing, the list goes on!

Each step brings extra knowledge, insight and understanding.  Each printing moment brings that exciting moment of the reveal of the printed new printed image.

Why did I have to worry?  Sometimes I wonder, especially as I gather the work of the class together at the end of our series of lessons.  Each pupil has made a series of two colour prints and added to this in the last session we made a large group work using single colour prints made in a grid formation.  I’m left feeling happy and the children perhaps ever so slightly amazed at what they have made…….although most of them find it fairly difficult to admit it!