Some things would just never work in an online lesson

There are quite some contrasts in the emotions of being back in the classroom. I would be lying if I said that I was totally happy and comfortable to be back in the classroom. Having said that, it is great to be back doing some physical teaching and pushing the pupils to experiment and try activities and approaches that simply wouldn’t be possible in the distant learning situation.

One such example from yesterday.  The context was an initial session at the beginning of a series of lessons about abstraction in visual art.

Later on there will be assignments giving the pupils the chance to create abstract compositions that focus on dynamism and flow in an image, but today I wanted to get my group of fourteen year olds to loosen up, experiment with abstract mark-making and to draw a parallel with the abstract language offered by music.

Using eight different pieces of instrumental music and applying different ‘rules’ to each drawing a sheet of increasingly wild drawings was made.  We had fun, they smiled and laughed on seeing their own and the results of others. They were engaged and curious. The results made were maybe not of great artistic merit, but they were part of a process leading onto other things.

Would this lesson have worked online? Without a doubt it would not. Of course I could have played the music to them via the computers. I could also have asked them to have had paper and pencils ready. I could even have given exactly the same explanation about what they had to do. But still it would not have worked. Such a lesson (and there are many more in all areas of education) only work because you are sharing and participating together in an activity. It is perhaps not dissimilar to going to a theatre to watch a stand-up comedian or watching it alone on your laptop. The material might be the same but the experience isn’t.

We are social creatures and also social learners, being part of a group of peers, together with a teacher, brings a dynamic that rarely occurs in the online environment. In an art room context it is a dynamic that can be used to push learners further as they look over their shoulders and respond and react to the work that others around them are doing.

First day back

Every school year starts with a deep intake of breath and a feeling of here we go again.  This year, as I sit in the train, the intake of breath is through my mask that covers my nose and mouth.  The display boards outside on the platform remind us to keep our distance from one another. 

Today isn’t a lesson day, it is for me a morning of meetings and a chance to look at the classrooms and judge if they are appropriately set up for the maximum safety and in such a way that the lessons themselves will actually function with at least some sense of normality.  In the Netherlands we are starting the year with schools that plan and hope to operate to a level that is close to how they start every August.  1500+ pupils, 120+ personnel on one location in our case.  Is this realistic?  Is it sustainable?  My heart says I hope so, my head says probably not, or at least not for very long.  Time will tell of course, but while I was preparing my lessons last week I did catch myself looking forward to doing some proper teaching.  I love my subject and I have so much material that I like using with the pupils I teach. The online lessons back in the spring were to a degree functional and served a purpose, but they simply didn’t have either the fun or the fizz of the real classroom. 

All set for the first staff meeting, with our easy to measure social distancing floor!

There are so many questions and uncertainties as we start the year.  I suspect that there might be quite a bit to write about as we go along!

….five months later, a cultural recharge, and one work that kind of stood out

Exactly five months ago I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to see the Bernini and Caravaggio exhibition that was to be the big crowd pleaser exhibition in the late winter and early spring months. I had little idea at the time within a month the museum (and all museums in the country) would be closing and that my next visit to one would be close to half a year later and would be a feature of my stay at home summer holiday of 2020.

So here we are then, all that time later, and I have had my first cultural recharging of batteries from a visit to the MORE museum for modern realist art in the small town of Gorssel in the Eastern part of the Netherlands. Although the museum has been open now for a number of years and is only about 60km from where I live, it was still my first visit.

Strict protocols were in place, a pre-booked entrance time, a time limit of 90 minutes in the museum, a fixed route through the collection and no doubling back on the route.  All rather  unfamiliar and not my normal all over the place style of making my way through an exhibition.  Still, times change, and yes I was glad to be there, I’ve missed the chance to look and ponder.

MORE offers a collection of Dutch realists, many from the first half of the twentieth century alongside some more contemporary work. It’s an interesting collection, much of which is painted with an intensity and level of rechnical achievement that draws you in to take a closer look. The same could certainly be said of the work of Jan Mankes. I have rarely seen such small and intense paintings, some I liked, some I didn’t and some were just simply strange!

There was also an extensive display of the work by Jan Beutener. Figurative paintings, but ones with a strong awareness of the abstract qualities in the way his compositions are constructed. All very likable work, especially for someone like me whose own work walks a line between abstraction and figuration.

One work by Beutener should get an extra mention though. A painting from 2008, entitled With distance and featuring a face mask. It must have been included in the show as a knowing reference to the last months

Jan Beutener, With distance, 2008

Reflections on the 2019-20 school year

And so we come to the last week of a bizarre educational year. 2019-20, the Covid year, the distance learning year, the struggling to keep in touch with your pupils year. It’s perhaps a good moment to reflect a little.

For me, in many ways the first seven months were very much a more of the same sort of experience. Familiar lessons and many classes I already knew. In the background though, as a school we were working on a new educational concept that was a long term project, due to be launched in the school year 2020-21. The aim of the new approach being to increase both the educational engagement of our pupils and their ability to work more independently. Little did we know that in many ways this aim for a more independent form of learning was about to be twisted into a new form and thrust, on not just a single year group to start with, but the entire school of 1600 pupils.

So, as all those who work in education, those who are pupils and those who are parents know only too well, around February, March or maybe April, the learning world gets turned on its head. Suddenly the schools are standing empty and pupils and teaching staff, like just about everyone else are left stranded at home.

Much has been written about the admirable educational response to the new challenges. Seen as a whole this is true.  It was amazing to see the way that a steep digital learning curve was climbed and how effectively many schools and teachers got their online lessons up and running.

A first post-lockdown group artwork, June 2020

Three months later, and with the Corona situation in Europe at least easing a little we are getting closer to seeing how effective our emergency sticking plaster form of education has been. As a school we have even been able to carry out an exam week for a number of our classes. I have also spent time chatting with groups of pupils during lessons as part of the partial reopening of school.  And last week we had a series of report meetings to talk about the progress in each class. 

So how have things gone so far, and how are they going as we head into our summer break? It is early days to be drawing real conclusions of course, but what is the initial anecdotal evidence?  Variable it would seem. Like some of the teachers, a section of the pupils have coped well and relished the new challenges of working and organizing themselves a lot more than the normal school week allows. They have enjoyed puzzling out and researching lesson material and getting on with what was necessary.  Others though have struggled in the very same areas.  These are the pupils who need the structure, the discipline and the educational presence of teachers, a fixed timetable and the environment that a school building offers.

There are no great surprises in these early reflections, and the end of year test results of the students my wife teaches in higher education seem to hint at similar conclusions.  The top students continue to score top grades, but the lower areas of achievement have slipped a little lower.  Is an increasing educational seperation the risk here?  It isn’t any great surprise to discover that many pupils need the structures, rhythms and rules that the educational institution provides.  It is what we in education have taught them to be dependent on.  Take it away and replace it with distant learning that they follow from in their bed and things are going to be different.

The winners here do seem to be the ones who can work, plan and organize themselves more independently, both the pupils and it should also be said, the staff too. The new approach to the education we will be starting to offer at the school where I teach when we return after the summer is aimed at exactly these points. Letting pupils make a few more decisions for themselves in how they tackle the educational material.  Challenging them to work a little further and faster rather than allowing a general ‘class tempo’ to be the dominant one-size fits all form of education.  It would be nice (an maybe a little unrealistic) to think that if we had made such steps five years earlier our pupils may have been more ready for the effects of the COVID 19 influenced forms of education. Whether that proves to be the case only time will tell, and whether we can get on with shaking up the education we offer without further interruptions is of course also very unclear.

An educational present

Yesterday I boarded the train with a colleague. Face masks on, making the short trip down the line, fifteen minutes or so. Our conversation was almost immediately interrupted by a cheery “hey, Peter”. I looked across the carriage to see a tall, lanky, bearded face, peering out from behind a generous mask. He had obviously recognized me, despite my face mask. Could I return the favour? It’s not always easy, but on this occasion I could, it was Niek, a now young man, who I had last taught eight years ago.

Niek immediately launched into the conversation wanting to know how it was at school and how we were coping with the Corona situation. He enthusiastically explained what he was up to, nearing the end of his Masters degree. It was a open and relaxed conversation, if only a relatively short one. I could still very much recognize something of the first year boy who had been part of an unusual class of 23 children back in 2007 or 2008 perhaps. It was unusual in the sense of being a class of 18 boys and just 5 girls. Sometimes odd details just stick in your head.

It was nice to see Niek again and hear that all was going well for him.  But the nicest thing was this……

Although I am an art teacher, I am also a teacher in a bilingual stream, giving my art lessons in English to Dutch children.  I am part of the bilingual program where language learning is combined with teaching other subject areas. When Niek boarded the train yesterday and recognized me, he just launched into our conversation in English, despite the  context of being in a Dutch train and the conversations around us also being conducted in Dutch.  His English was fluent, clear and spoken without hesitation or grammatical faults.

When my colleague and I left the train fifteen minutes later I could turn and say with all honesty, that is why we are involved in bilingual education.  It is an unusual hybrid in the educational world.  It requires the teachers and pupils involved to participate in a language ‘game’ that asks everyone to conduct themselves in a second language, when using the first language would simply be easier. But here was an encounter that underlines the strengths of this approach and why it is so worth teaching in this way.

So thanks Niek, for this educational present to one of your old teachers. In the last week of this most different of educational years it does give a good feeling.

Back to school…how have things changed?

Three weeks ago secondary schools in the Netherlands were allowed to reopen.  This reopening was under strict restrictions concerning the general organization within the school building and that a 1.5 metre social-distancing was required.  The school where I work decided to generally continue with online lessons in the mornings in most subject areas and on a rotating basis to allow a few classes to come into school in the afternoons. The ‘at school’ sessions consisted mostly of an outside sports lesson, a form teacher/mentor lesson and an art lesson (that’s my part!) or perhaps a bit of extra English. 

We have had close to three months out of conventional schooling.  One of the motivations behind choosing physical education and arts lessons to be given the afternoon, was that the social contact and social exchange they allow was seen as desirable to facilitate. A sort of restarting of the background chatter, and for me hopefully the reintroduction of the humour and laughing that go on in a physical classroom but seems almost completely absent in the online classroom. 

I have been giving these rather make-shift, end of year lessons for a few weeks now, and it really shouldn’t be underestimated how the social dynamics within groups has changed.  Yes, they are smaller groups, only sections of classes, but I have been completely taken aback by how quiet and seemingly shy the groups seem to have become.  

Much has been written about how the removal of the school based social contact teenagers have been missing may be effecting or even damaging them.  My own (and my colleagues too) small scale, anecdotal evidence would certainly point towards a social change within groups that will undoubtedly have its own effects (small or large) as we head into the next school year.  Something has shifted, it may be connected to a certain amount of end of year reduction of energy levels, but the buzz of contact within groups has changed.  I feel also in myself that the reestablishing of the old rhythms and patterns as and when we return fully to school is something that is perhaps going to take more time than you might expect. 

Exhibitions I would have liked to have seen…lockdown interruptions

Museums all over the world are shuffling their exhibition programs.  They are also undoubtedly counting the costs of the missing visitors, the entrance tickets, the book shop sales, the cafes and restaurants.  The museums here in the Netherlands are no different.

Dutch museums are in the process of tentatively reopening their doors. Limited visitors are allowed, and everyone has to pre-book their time of entry.  They have also been reorganizing the exhibition programs. 

For example, there was to have been this autumn in the Drendtsmuseum in the north of the country, a large-scale exhibition of the work or Frida Kahlo.  Kahlo is an artist whose work I have only ever seen in odd snippets here and there. It was a visit that I had been looking forward to making. It seems that I will have to look forward to it a bit longer, it has now been put back a year and is now autumn 2021. 

There were other exhibitions that have simply passed by during the lockdown.  I thought that this was the case with the Breitner-Israels exhibition in the Kunstmuseum in The Hague.  The two top Dutch painters from the late 19th and early 20th century had been put head to head for comparison. The show opened shortly before Corona burst loose on us all. I hadn’t had the chance to visit and guessed my chance had been missed. As compensation to myself I bought the extensive catalogue and enjoyed reading it during the peak lockdown weeks for a bit of cultural distraction.

As it turns out the exhibition has been extended over the summer, so there is still the opportunity to visit. But for me there is a catch; getting to the museum involves a journey of an hour and a half on public transport.  The message coming out of government is that public transport should only be used when absolutely necessary……like when I use it to get to my work in education.  There’s a potentially interesting discussion to be had here, that being that after three months of no cultural input of this sort, it does feel pretty necessary and vital to recharge my cultural batteries! Is that needy enough?

A simple online group visual art project

Since the start of the Covid 19 induced lockdowns around the world I have seen quite a few musical and choir related projects come by on my Facebook feed.  Groups of musicians or singers all contributing their bit to the carefully mixed and arranged compositions that those with the digital know how have been able to mix and balance into impressive unity despite the geographical spread of the participants.  A classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

I too work with groups of creative enthusiasts, both children and adults and these musically combined performances set me thinking about trying something similar in my field of the visual arts.  The group of adults that I support with assignments and ideas seemed to be the most obvious place to give my own fairly modest ideas a try.

They are a very social group of people who miss their chance to paint and share life once a week.  The club’s app group has been very active during the lockdown and the project I had in mind would work well using that platform.

The initial idea was quite simple, using the reference point of a seventeenth century Dutch still life we would try and compose our own still life with everyone contributing something that could be digitally added to the group composition. The only guidelines I gave were that the objects could be modern or older if they wished and they had to make a simple shaded drawing using just a pencil.

The drawings started to roll in via the app group and I set about contructing an arrangement that gave them all a chance to be seen. Gradually the enthusiasm for the working together nature of our little project grew, with me posting regular progress up dates.

I’d seen enough to see another, perhaps better possibility, we could move on to a Dutch flower painting as inspiration.

Opnamedatum: 2010-11-11

This time I’d provide the vase and the rest of the group the flowers.  The drawings streamed in, again just in pencil to help with the overall unity of the image.  For the digital assemblage the flower arrangement gave more scope for adjustments and moving things round and in the end it was possible to fill the vase with a huge number of diverse flowers.

A this stage I’m not quite sure what the follow up will be. But I think there has to be one.

The return of an ex-pupil to my (now digital) classroom

Engaging the attention of 13-14 year olds on visits to museums is for an art teacher something that might be expected to be a standard challenge.  And yet it is anything but standard, there is no fixed solution.  There are simply too many variables. Try these for a few:

  • The size of the group you are visiting with
  • The academic level of the group
  • The size of the museum
  • The type of exhibition you are visiting
  • The time that you have available
  • Whether it has taken two hours to get to the museum
  • The day of the week
  • Whether the kids are hungry
  • Whether it is the beginning or end of the school day, or year

I could go on, but I am sure that you get the picture. Personally, I have pretty much concluded that every visit has to be pretty much tailor-made for a young teens group, and I like to lead it myself rather than hiring in a museum guide.  For slightly older teens it is a different story, but knowing the group, the pupils and addressing them as individually as possible seems to work for me.

Having said all that I understand that this does not really help the education department of a museum.  They are challenged with seeking out that engagement with a group from, as it were, a cold start.  Not easy to do, but a good, creative educational department are constantly busy trying to find new ways tease teenagers into opening up a little and taking a more considered look at the exhibits.

It is just this context that I was taken last this week by a visit to my (at the moment) online lessons from an ex-pupil of mine. Five years ago, I was last teaching Noa ‘Art and Cultural’ education at school.  A subject that often involves us going along to our local museum for a visit at some point.  Noa, now studying industrial design in Eindhoven, has been busy trying to develop a digital interactive game to encourage the visiting children to the museum to look, discuss and ask questions about what they see around them.  In essence it is a sort of treasure hunt game that involves searching for clues in the artworks.

We tried out the game with a couple of groups from my classes.  One group turned out to be very engaged and interactive, and the other…….well, less so!  But that is how it is, and is makes it all so difficult, each group is different and what works with one may not with another! After the sessions we had a long chat about how it had gone, the strengths the weaknesses, the opportunities, and the difficulties.

It was interesting to do, and we both learnt from the experience.  If I am honest, it was especially interesting because, five years ago, I was doing all I could to stimulate Noa and the others in her class to give the world of art and culture more than just a passing glance. To be fair, that was never really a problem with Noa herself, she was a good student and it is with good reason that she has gone on to study design.  But it is nice to reflect on the thought that you have contributed your bit to the designers and cultural practitioners of the future.  At least I prefer to see it that way, rather than the motivation for the game coming from improving on the cultural experiences she got whilst I was teaching her!

Materials problems and online art teaching

After two and a half months of distance learning and online lessons during the Corona crisis a few things, in my art department at least, are becoming clearer.  One of these relates to the materials we use and difficulties we face in not having them available to us. In a well-equipped art studio, or even an only relatively well-equipped one there are choices enough on offer as lessons are planned. 

Once the children are based at home though, it is a completely different ball game.  Yes of course some children have plenty of creative stuff at home, but there are many with very little.  Within some classes I find myself assuming that some may only have a pencil and a sheet of paper…..and thankfully also their iPad.

While on the short term this is not insurmountable problem, I find myself looking ahead to after the summer holidays and realizing that this distant learning variety of education might actually be with us a bit longer. The follow up question is how might the temporary emergency solutions of the last couple of weeks, be slowly transformed into more meaningful and structural curriculum elements next year as and when they are needed?

During the lockdown period of online lessons, I have found myself particularly engaging with collage in its various forms as a way of getting beyond just the simplest of drawing assignments.  Collage relies on simple materials that all children should be able to lay their hands on.  I do always feel that you first must get past the idea in the heads of the kids that collage belongs at primary school. Although as the examples here show my pupils seem to be making this step.

We started with two, technically seen, extreme opposites. A digital collage to create a fantastic and impossible building using iPads and the limitless resources of online imagery of buildings to cut, paste and combine.  We then moved on to a more playful form of collage, piles of clothes arranged on the floor and used to recreate existing artworks from museum collections.

The clothes experiments proved to be an excellent warm up and introduction to the more fully worked out transcription collages that I have been doing with the same groups in the last week or two.  I made a couple of demonstrations films to lead the classes into the assignments, that undoubtedly helped.  There was a degree of choice on offer; create a transcription based on the work of either Magritte, Hopper, Hockney or van Gogh.  All highly suitable for the collage challenge.

It has also been interesting to see over the last couple of months how several pupils (particularly boys) have taken time to produce some very good work.  Are they less distracted now than they usually are in the classroom situation…..or is an over-enthusiastic parent doing the work?  I guess we will never know for sure, but I do know that I am providing and art education for someone out there!!

Collage work has been a much bigger feature of my teaching during the last weeks than it normally is.  I and other art teachers are looking for solutions to difficult technical challenges.  Perhaps the biggest one still to be got to grips with is three-dimensional work.  If when we return to school in the autumn online lessons are still a significant factor (as seems likely), addressing how to work with more spatial challenges are likely to become more necessary.