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.

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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.

 

Fine tuning and improving – a creative language and art assignment (clil)

You learn a lot from trying something for the first time with a class. An idea that was so clear in your head seems to create confusion or uncertainty in those of your pupils. Or something that you planned to fill just a couple of lessons takes three times as long to complete. This was one such assignment, one that has many good aspects to it, but when I experimented with it for the first time two years ago, I knew afterwards refinements had to be made.

The project is a really nice blend of language and imagery that comes together to produce a final piece of work that has considerable space for the pupil’s own ideas, has strong compositional challenges and can be completed with figurative and/or abstract elements. A full description of the working process can be found here.

The problem I had with the results last time was the language element. I remember at the time perhaps being in a little bit of a hurry to get onto the practical work. As a result, the language part (that comes first) didn’t get enough time and, dare I say it, a not critical enough push from me. The results were in the end reasonable, but the language output simply wasn’t as poetic, imaginative or grammatically fine-tuned as I had hoped. So this time, these were the areas for focus.

It’s an interesting challenge for my groups of fifteen year olds learning in English (their second language). I delivered them each a page of Wuthering Heights ask them to create something new with a selection of the words that are on the page that they have been given and obliterate the rest, or at least cover them over with their design work. It could result in a new and very concise new narrative, it could be a collection of phrases that read like a poem or the lyrics of a song, it could even result in a series of profound statements. But whichever direction they choose the text should be clear, make sense and be grammatically correct.

I did hammer on a bit about the grammatical criteria, but it did pay off. The results this year are definitely stronger in this area. Emily Brontë’s pages have been turned into something really quite different. The visual design is eye-catching, but the textual puzzle of sentence creation using limited means has produced some intriguing results.

 

I used to love him I cried heartbroken. 

I guess he would rather have her arms round his neck. 

I know he will never like me. 

Will I miss him? I asked myself half angrily. 

 

She, a woman, our mistress had said, it was nothing less than murder in her eyes, she kept aloof, and avoided any alliance with him.

Three years subsequent to my inclination, I was persuaded to leave, but tears were more powerful when I refused to go.

He wanted no women he said, no mistress.

I kissed good bye and, since then a stranger I’ve no doubt.

 

Those you term weak shall fight to the death. 

Have faith I advised her, value him more, melting into tears and delighted she replied. 

I wondered what he had been doing, how he had been living. 

He is too reckless, doesn’t trouble himself to reflect on the causes. 

 

Enough complaining, look at the evenings spent.

See the good.

Talk about anything, amuse me.

Talk is agitation.

Express feelings beautiful and sweet.

Pronounce words softer.

 

The accursed boy’d never know a dark absence would lavish the whole place in words of silence. 

As it persisted he cried, oh friends run away from me.

Advertising slogans…clil and creativity

When teaching a second language through the content of other subject areas, art lessons in my case, the production of language rich output from the pupils is often an important part of the learning strategies used. One day we might focus on written output and another on verbal. Both are important aspects of language acquisition and use.

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Within a standard language learning situation the focus is often placed on issues such as sentence construction or grammar. Within my own branch of language teaching, the CLIL classroom (content and language integrated learning) other elements are given increased focus, such as subject specific vocabulary, ensuring the pupils have a mastery of subject themes and terminology.

This is all well and good, but personally (and creatively) I want to take the output one step further and ask the pupils to take the creative steps that I expect of them when we are drawing or painting and make similar steps in terms of language.  In a sense I say to the pupils;

‘OK, you have a certain knowledge of language, now what can you do with it in terms of communication and creativity?  How can your choice of language output engage, communicate and grip the reader?’

I’m exploring this very idea with my third year class (14-15 year olds) at the moment. We are going to be looking at how printed and digital advertising makes use of the way image and text can be combined in an unexpected and maybe slightly surreal way in order to help sell a product. The language output is initially likely to be in the form of discussion based around some examples. But really my attention is more on that question of how can well-chosen words be used to communicate in the form of a slogan or attention grabbing phrase.  Whichever route is chosen,  a sharp and concise text is required. It asks the question of the pupils what can you do with language, how can you use it, and in this case use it to activate an image in a particular way?

This challenges the pupils in a number of ways:

  • Be economic in your choice of words, this is absolutely about being clear and to the point
  • Be creative, entertaining and engaging
  • Stretch your language ability to the limit, don’t rely on the familiar, safe and obvious routes of communication (a tendency that is often very strong in teenage learners!)

The assignment

Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning, creating advertising imagery and text writing is deceptively complex and difficult. In some ways it is like coming up with a joke, we can all recognize and appreciate a good one when we see or hear it, but coming up with one of our own is completely different matter! It is not without good reason that businesses employ expensive advertising agencies to help them with this problem.

But let’s not be deterred, surely 14-15 year olds can do this!

It is all about framing the assignment up in such a way that it leads the pupils in down the path you want to explore and still offer scope for their own ideas and creativity.

I provide the pupils with an image from advertising. An image that has been lightly photoshopped in order to remove the text or slogan which activates the image in terms of bringing image and text together to promote the product being sold.

The pupils are also given the necessary information as to what the product actually is, if indeed it is not clear from the image. The challenge after that is simple, working in groups they have to write their own adverting text, one that engages and activates the existing image.

This whole project comes on the back of a series of lessons about the art of Surrealism, so I certainly encourage a slightly surprising and out of the box line of thought.

What does this require of the pupils?

  • A thoughtful interpretation of the image that they have been given and an understanding of what exactly the product is and what our relationship to it can be.
  • A concise and creative formulation of a text or slogan to activate the relationship between the image and the product Like when working on a drawing, pupils have to remain switched on to working with care, correcting where necessary and above all trying to stretch and refine their language output, both in terms of the verbal discussion of possibilities in the group and the small, but hugely significant written output that follows.

In practice this might only be a few words, but that is all the more reason to be critical in producing a truly fine-tuned phrase. Below are a few examples of the resulting pupil work, along with the original texts from the advertisements.

Like when working on a drawing, pupils have to remain switched on to working with care, correcting where necessary and above all trying to stretch and refine their language output, both in terms of the verbal discussion of possibilities in the group and the small, but hugely significant written output that follows.

The photos I couldn’t possibly post….

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To be honest I felt that these photos were photos that I couldn’t even take, and so decided not to……Why? Well that will perhaps become clear.

It was a school excursion to a museum, the pupils were having at this particular photographic opportunity, a lot of fun, they were laughing hysterically in fact. I suspect it is going to be an excursion that hangs in the memory for quite some time.

It was an excursion day for a relatively small group of sixteen year olds. Twenty four pupils in all. The whole group were pupils who have chosen art as an exam subject. As part of the course my colleague organizes a couple of times a year museum visits as an extension, and enrichment, of the classroom program.

Last Friday we were visiting Rotterdam, first a session in the Kunsthal and after that the Boijmans van Beuningen museum.

In the Kunsthal we saw the Hyperrealist sculpture exhibition. It was an exhibition with a wow factor, certainly for our pupils. They had never seen anything like it. Duane Hanson, John deAndrea, Ron Mueck and many others. The strange confrontation that these life like sculptures bring, the permission that they give to stare at the human body without embarrassment and the slightly alienating effect of it all had our class transfixed.  They were focused in a quite different way than I think I have ever seen pupils in a museum before.  It was a good start to the day, the pupils left the museum for lunch talking about what they had just seen, which as a teacher is exactly where you want them to be.

But then there was still the afternoon part of our city visit still to come…..

We regathered on the steps of the Boijmans museum ready for our second cultural dose.  We were principally there for the museum’s permanent collection and had arranged two guides to lead our pupils through some of its high points.  As we had hoped, particular attention was given to the museum’s collection of Surrealist art. Although, my group also had a really nice discussion with our excellent guide about performance art.  Time was nearly up when our guides brought our two groups pretty much simultaneously to one last work, a piece by the Vienna based artists’ collective Gelatin.

They explained that it was an art work that invited a form of participation, although it was entirely up to visitors as to whether they actually did.  There was no pressure to do so if you didn’t want to.

We entered a first space with what at first glance looked like racks of clothes.  Well, they kind of were, but kind of weren’t!  But they were garments of sorts, designed to be pulled on over your normal clothes.  Rather than describe the rest at length, maybe it’s easier to just add a link to Gelatin’s own website showing photographs from the opening of the exhibition in Rotterdam just a few days ago.

Link to Gelatin site 

I have to admit to being a little surprised, partly by the artwork itself, but more so by the reaction of a significant number of our group.  They just couldn’t wait to get involved and pull some of the outfits on! Thereafter there really was little to be done to control the hysterical laughter. This really is going to be an excursion that is going to be discussed for years!

The artists themselves clearly want their work to have a sharp element of humour. But it is also about dissolving hierarchies by, in a way, equalizing physical appearances, through imposing a sort of artificial nakedness.  Most of the girls couldn’t wait to try on the male outfits to huge comic effect. They were happy enough to take photos of themselves and each other, but somehow it just didn’t feel the right thing to do myself. Restraint seemed appropriate.

It also felt extremely appropriate not to join in with the artwork myself…..I feel absolutely sure that my pupils wouldn’t have been able to show the same restraint had I pulled on one of the skin coloured overalls. It would certainly have been a photo that would have been shared throughout the school and that would have subsequently followed me round forever!

The frustrations of an art teacher…seeing it for real

You hear it often enough, ‘You have to see the real thing, it so different’. As an art teacher you know this well, the days of scratchy slides in a half darkened room may be long gone, replaced now by large scale digital screens at the front of the classroom.  The possibilities on offer to an art teachers (and all teachers of course) have improved enormously during the last decade. But still, the chance to see art, design, architecture, theatre, dance, music and other cultural forms for real, first hand, offers so much more.

A fabulous case in point is an exhibition of the Dutch fashion designer Jan Taminiau that I have visited today.  I’ve referred to his work in my lessons at school in the context of a fashion design assignment that I use with my groups of 15-16 year olds. Examples and cultural references are important in my work as a teacher. Not in the sense of showing pupils what I expect them to do. It is more a question of firing the imagination and showing them the possibilities; possibilities that often go way beyond their wildest imagination. There is so much that I’d like to show and share with them.

But the limitations of the classroom, even with its generous display screen at the front and pupils with tablet, laptop or phone screens available to them, can’t match seeing the real thing.  What it would mean to be able to bring my groups of budding fashion designers to the Centraalmuseum in Utrecht to see Taminiau’s exhibition?

The exhibition oozes qualities that grab your attention. The elegant silhouette’s that he creates, the rich use of colour and the, quite literally, dazzling textures and structures of the surface of the fabrics. This would have been the most amazing teaching aid to the above mentioned assignment.

I have photographically documented as much of the work as I can.  I’ll be using it next school year I’m sure.  Teaching fashion design is just a little outside of my comfort zone, but I do like to do it once in a while.  But oh, how I would like to let the pupils see such an exhibition. But then the same is true of so many of the shows that I see.  The museum world in the big cities, certainly in Europe, is booming. The challenge is finding a way to be able to get pupils to visit them in the context of the educational programs that they are following.  More often it seems to  happen in a rather detached sort of day out to the city that often seems to have rather vague educational aims……the fully focused and contextualized field trip is a sadly underused and rather squeezed out aspect of contemporary education. But the detail of that is a post for another day.

Parallel Worlds

There was a strange symmetry to today. I was sitting in a hall with about one hundred of our eighteen year old pupils taking their final English exam. Meanwhile, about twenty miles north of where I teach, my daughter was sitting down simultaneously to take the very same exam.

Such a parallel activity inevitably makes you stop and reconsider the pupils in front of you. They sit there ploughing their way through the selection of texts and trying to answer the questions that are designed to split the narrow gaps in possible interpretations. It’s an intensive business, especially on warm afternoon.

Today’s exam was two and a half hours long. Most of the other exams during this two and a bit weeks long test period are three hours long. The sheer length of the sessions all seems rather extreme.

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Still Life on corner of exam candidate’s table, May 2018

Many of the pupils present this afternoon are ones that I have taught in the past. And, if I’m honest, have had to work hard at times to keep them focused and motivated during a sixty-minute lesson.  It does kind of beg the question ‘what are we doing sitting them down for such a massive test of concentration?’ Yes, I know it is also a test of knowledge and insight, but make no mistake here, this is a level of concentration that is rarely, if at all, practiced for.

It is certainly not easy for a school to clear sufficient space in timetables to spend too much time giving them three-hour dry runs.  But these are young people who are used to having their days broken up into mostly forty-five or sixty-minute chunks.  Most people simply find sitting still for 180 minutes pretty challenging.

Imagine if you had a driving test that went on for three hours!  Its perhaps not any entirely fair comparison, but it does seem that footballers run into trouble as soon as a match goes beyond the regular ninety minutes that they train for and are used to.

Maybe I’m just seeing the world through my daughters eyes this year a bit too much. Could we not be constructing slightly shorter test? Could we simply cut them into two smaller pieces?  Maybe we should actually be looking at different ways of test altogether….I guess in my heart of hearts that’s really what I think.  But one thing that I feel sure about three-hour exam sessions and sometimes two in a day does seem rather like some form of punishment as a last experience in a child’s secondary school career.

 

 

But she’s got no clothes on!

It was an unexpected and entertaining end to a Thursday afternoon with my first years (12 year olds). I’d asked one of them to give a one minute presentation on Matisse’s painting The Dance. As soon as I put the painting on the screen at the front of the class I could feel a twitchy unrest spreading round the class, particularly amongst the boys. The reason was the nudity of Matisse’s five figures dancing in a ring.

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You can’t teach art and support the practical work with a bit of art history without occasionally showing an unclothed body, I’ve done it often enough, normally with nothing more than an odd snigger. I’m still not sure what caused this particular class to find it all, well, so exciting! Not being one to shy away from a discussion I decided to try and contextualize the place of the nude in the history of art. The more I explained, the more interested they were becoming. It was kind of a mixture of twelve year old fascination mixed with a kind of perplexed disbelief.

Then finally came the inevitable question, “Sir, have you ever painted a lady with no clothes on?”

I wondered for a moment whether to carefully move the attention onto other things, but decided instead to explain that in art schools students are often given the chance to draw from the model, and that I too had done that in the past. In fact when I had first started I had produced one painting that had taken six weeks and the model, Jenny, had sat in the same pose every day. At this point you could almost see the minds of the class ticking over as they worked out some of the practicalities for themselves. A whole series of questions followed.

“How many hours a day did she sit?”

“How did she know she was sitting in the right way?”

“Did she take breaks?”

“Wasn’t it cold for her?”

“Did she get paid for just sitting there doing nothing?”

“Isn’t it a bit of a funny thing to do?”

“Did she wear shoes?”

But perhaps the funniest part of the discussion was as the pupils pictured the model’s breaks,

“Did you talk to the model during the breaks?”

“Did you get to know her a bit?”

And then…..

“Wasn’t it a bit funny talking…..er……to someone…..er….with no clothes on?”

….er no, she put her clothes on during the breaks I replied. You could almost see all the little pictures being drawn in their minds!

Like I said, it was a funny and quite entertaining way to end the day. There was an atmosphere of excited disbelief running around the class….especially amongst the boys. Only time will tell if it will increase the number who apply to go to art school in five years time!

The post aboveboard is a repost of a text from a few years ago. I was prompted to use it again having read it to my daughter who has been doing some figure drawing today. Next year she is likely to be taking the first step towards her own art school education. We were speculating as to whether life drawing would still have the place in the fine art courses that it had when I was studying. A second reason for reposting is simply that it really was a very funny classroom discussion!

 

Art in odd places

I’ve got a lot of art at home. Some on the walls in the house, and a lot in my studio space upstairs. At least 95% of it is my own work, possibly more. I like living with my own work on the walls, it gives me a chance to look at it and to think about it.  However, that is not to say that I wouldn’t like to have the work of others in the space around me.

I posted a while back about a vague thought I have, to one day make a hugely accurate copy of an original artwork that I really like. How would that be to have around? A Matisse for company, that would be quite strange in my familiar (and fairly small) domestic space.

Famous art for at home

The context around an artwork has an impact on what we see and think.  The white cube type gallery space is an attempt to offer some sort of purity and isolation to the art as we view it. But as a context this sort of immaculate wall space brings a context of its own and a particular sort of serious art world baggage.

Numerous artists have played and experimented with artistic and environmental contexts.  It is the basic exhibition space for street artists and urban hackers and the likes of Alexy Kondakov have experimented with ripping high art subject matter from its usual location before depositing it in a new and contemporary environment.

Displacement of art and its subsequent relocation is certainly nothing new, Lord Elgin and the British Museum (plus countless others) have excellent examples.

But to return to the more domestic environment that I started with.  Another artist, responsible for a considerable output of manipulated photographs in this area is Paul Kremer, with his project Great Art in Ugly Rooms.  The images are packed with humour as the reverence that is normally given to these famous artworks is torn away as they are deposited in the trashiest, kitsch, chaotic or yes, just plain ugly spaces. What does it change in the artworks?  Well, quite a bit in many of the examples….we’re really not used to observing how the Rothko matches the curtains or how the huge gestural work or Franz Kline seems oddly to cope somewhat better against the back wall of a garage.

It is all entertaining stuff, but to can’t help thinking at the back of your mind about how many great works in private collections around the world must do battle with their own domestic interiors. How many are squeezed between a plant and over-sized lamp fitting, lost in a cluttered kitchen, or indeed become forgotten and left against a wall in the garage?

My colleague says she loves her job……

My colleague app’ed me the other day to say that she loved her job. I love my job too. We both work in the art department. This admission came in the context of a particular assignment that we are working together at the moment.

The project is part of a street art related theme and is centered in particular on the Little People Project by the British street artist Slinkachu.

Slinkachu’s own website

We were preparing the figures, similar to those used by Slinkachu to give our pupils the chance to work in a similar way when they visit The Hague for a day in a couple of weeks’ time. We were both doing the preparation work simultaneously on a Saturday afternoon apping photos of what we were doing to each other.

littlepeople

We’d sourced our own simple plastic figures and had them mailed from China. We wanted to deliver our fifteen year old pupils high quality painted figures with which to work and had decided to do the painting ourselves.

Why were we enjoying the preparation so much? Well, it was fun to do. Slinkachu’s art has a childish playfulness to it. Having presented the idea of the assignment to our pupils this week it is clear to see that they too recognize the element of childish play that is involved here.  Even fifteen year olds love the chance to play…..sometimes there almost seems to be a nostalgic view back to their own childhood activities! If I ask them to bring in the LEGO from in the box under their bed for an animation project, they love to do just that, and the excuse to play.

Picasso once said:

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

In this regard our assignment certainly seems to connect with Picasso’s thought.  But I think that it also relates strongly to why my colleague and I enjoy our work.  All creativity involves an element of play and experimentation.  An open minded involvement to our activity as art teachers has a free wheeling playfulness to it. When, as a teacher you are able to awaken this sense of playfulness in your pupils, the rest generally takes care of itself.