Raising cultural awareness in education

newsletter

I have been trying to raise the general profile of art and culture at the school where I work since I have worked there.  For the last couple of years I have been sending out a newsletter every couple of months to the older pupils in the school and to all the staff.  Normally the content of the pdf file has a similar format. On the right is a çultural baggage’ questionnaire, filled in by one of the members of staff in order to give us all a little more understanding as to what they are (culturally) all about, and on the left links to a sellection of artistic, sites, films or articles that I think might be interesting to my quite broad readership.

I’m not sure why it hasn’t occurred to me to put it onto my blog too, I’d certainly be interested to hear any feedback or comments from others who do something similar. Click on the link below to take a look at the lastest issue.

october 2014(blog vers.)

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Avoiding the blind alleys in creativity…

In mainstream teaching you are, as a teacher in your classroom, used to taking the lead. The pupils look to you to take the initiative and mark out the route they have to follow. Such a relationship can at times become a little passive as the pupils get used to waiting to be told what is required of them. This year, by one group that I teach I have been set a challenge by the group themselves, to take their creativity to the ‘next level’ as one of them put it.
The group concerned is not one of the classes of teenagers that I teach at school (such an open request would indeed every surprising coming from them), but from the adult evening class I teach. The group concerned is a group of about fifteen adults, ranging in age from early twenties to late seventies. The group has, for a number of years remained with a hard core who have been returning regularly each new season with a handful of new members every September.
They are a talented bunch, none have had any formal sort of art education, and perhaps their greatest strength is their openness and willingness to jump straight on in an try new things out. This approach has served them well in the approach I take to teaching the group on a Thursday evening between late September and early May. Once every two weeks I arrive with a new assignment, mostly a fairly loose idea that can be interpreted and explored in various ways. This way we have been able to take the paintings made in any number of directions.
IMG_20140213_214858301
Now though after, for some of the group, five years of lessons comes the request to go a step further. As a group we exchanged a number of mails at the end of the previous season trying to pin down what exactly they want to aim for. Interestingly, many said that they would be quite happy to make less paintings, as long of course that those that were made were of good quality. It is this wish that has been the basis for my readjustment of the course. The aim is to avoid seeing the participants heading off down artistic blind alleys of having to learn from ‘interesting’ failures. To do this there is going to be more focus on the preparation work and the making of thumbnail paintings before embarking on the final piece of work. With only two and a half hours of painting time (per week for most of them) this is going to mean indeed the production of less finished pieces of work, but hopefully less blind alleys too.
In many ways this set up will bring the working process a lot closer to my own approach. I work ideas through a notebook onto works on paper, then maybe a small version of an idea before finally heading on to a finished piece of work. I am also of course interested in avoiding those ‘interesting mistakes’. You can never completely eradicate them, but when your time is precious, trying to reduce the numbers of them is definitely desirable.

If you are interested the documentation of the new set-up of the course can be found on the following link……….
http://petersansom.nl/nextlevel.html

Is that my work in a museum?…

gemeentehuis

Mostly pupils’ work lives in a drawer at school.  Sometimes the better pieces are mounted on a piece of coloured paper and taped on a wall somewhere around the art department. Very occasionally a particularly impressive piece of work might make it into a frame elsewhere in school.  We all like a little recognition for our best efforts and achievements. My pupils are no different and like to see their work appear elsewhere around school.

It is extremely rare that pupil work makes the jump from the confines of the school building to a truly public space. On the part of the teacher this always involves extra work and organisation. As a teacher I am prepared to make that extra effort but with two criteria that I feel make it worth the extra effort.

  • it must be a location where the work is actually going to be seen by a broader public
  • it must be a location where the work can actually be nicely presented in a space where it looks good

These two criteria don’t sound too complicated but are actually in practice fairly difficult to meet.  But knowing that I had some good work from a group of classes I set out looking for a suitable venue. The local museum of the town where I teach (Oss, in the Netherlands) was for a time an option. Highly suitable, but at present they are going throughout a process of reorganization and so that possibility fell by the wayside. However, with the help of the museum’s excellent education department I was put onto the town’s council offices. The modern architecture of the building offers a very good exhibition space in its foyer that with, not too much imagination, could easily pass as an gallery space in a museum of modern art….a fact that I feel sure won’t be lost on my pupils when they see the exhibition of their work that I have set up this afternoon.

The exhibition is small, showing just three works. All three are group projects made by a total of seven different classes over the last three years.  All three relate to war and violence and how it is represented in art and the media. The works make use of references to Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s 3rd May and the piles of discarded shoes from the victims of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

It’s all quite heavy material, but the new presentation of the collages and sculpture give an extra credibility and one that gives me a sense of satisfaction and the pupils too it hope.

Three films, three classes and three reactions

My art and cultural education course that I teach to my groups of 15 and 16 year olds normally begins with a module about film and filmmaking.  This year has been no different. Film as a cultural experience is close to the world of the teenagers and easily accessible to them. With three large groups to teach and a total of 90 one thousand word essays to mark at the end, I chose, for my own sanity to use three different films. This way I would at least have some variety in the resulting report reading.

I like to select films that are just outside the pupils own film going experience and ones that challenge the to consider certain choices made by the film makers concerned.

The first class are now half way through watching the Schulman brothers’ and Henry Joost’s film Catfish and are absolutely loving it. It’s a film I’ve used before and knew that I was on fairly safe ground. The Facebook relationship story with its documentary style and tense moments works tremendously well.  It is a scenario that they can easily identify with.

The second class are now half way through Asif Kapadia’s documentary Senna. The initial reaction of the class to watching a documentary film for two hours was fairly sceptical. They want a good story…..they said.  I asked them to be patient with the movie and after fifteen minutes of watching it was clear to all that a good story is exactly what the film delivers. I explained before the start that I had thought long and hard about whether I should show this film. The film uses only genuine footage to tell the story of the life and death of the formula one driver Ayrton Senna.  The car crashes in the movie are a crucial part of the narrative.  A genuine death on film is course different to the countless deaths that teenagers observe in the more normal film fodder that they consume. I discussed this with the class before the film and offered an alternative to anyone who really didn’t want to watch. We are at the moment half way through watching the film, it hasn’t reached its climax yet, although the film is being watched in a focused silence….not always easy to achieve in a classroom of 32 watching a film together. They seem to realize that this is something different and that from my perspective is exactly the point. Senna is an excellent movie when it comes to throwing a new light on the sort of detached sense of realism with which we approach most films. Normally we have to give ourselves over to suspending our disbelief, but here we are living and thinking along with real people, their conflicts, their relationships and the risks they take. I’m curious to see how the second half is experienced.

In many ways, my third choice was the one aimed most specifically at my teenage audience. I wanted to make use of a film where music played a strong part. Sometimes I look a little bit further back into film history to find films that nobody in the class is likely to have seen. This is what I did and chose Alan Parker’s 1991 film The Commitments, a film about a struggling and ultimately, failing, bunch of teenagers trying to form a band in Dublin. The movie is packed with music, has a lot of humour and the leading roles are almost exclusively filled by teenagers. On the face of it you would think a highly appropriate film for one of my classes. Here too, after one lesson we are about half way through the movie, but I find myself perplexed by the reaction of the class to watching it.  It is a film that is heading towards being 25 years old, but I certainly feel that that isn’t the problem, it has aged relatively well. When a class is watching a film I often find myself watching the class, gauging their enjoyment.  The problem we are having is that they aren’t getting the humour. I can see that there are one or two in the class who are getting it, but the majority are watching in something of a stony silence. So why is this……? At the end of the lesson I had no time to quiz them; it could be a language issue, the strong Irish accents aren’t always easy, but then I have subtitles on to make it more accessible (they are after all watching in their second languages – Dutch being their first). Or is it that the Irish/British humour is so different to that of the Dutch? This is a regular topic of discussion with my Dutch colleagues at school. In our bilingual department we use so much British or American material to support our educational programmes, and humour, particularly British humour, is so often problematic. How can sensibilities in this area be so different? A point of discussion for another blog post perhaps, but for now I am spending the weekend wondering whether to scrap the second half of The Commitments and try something else!

Why was it teachers want smaller classes again…?

A few month ago on this blog I wrote a piece about the unique situation (at least unique for me), I found myself in of having one class of just sixteen pupils. I found myself reflecting on the educational opportunities such a small group offered me as an art teacher.

This week I return to school and it is fair to say that normality has returned with a bang, at least in terms of the numbers in my classes, except somewhat worse than every other year I can remember in my 13 years of teaching. The forthcoming year I am teaching six different classes, three younger classes for art and design and three slightly older classes for a broader art and cultural studies class. All these lessons involve a mixture of theory and practical lessons.

The overall picture is as follows:

1st years (12-13 year olds), one class of 30 pupils

3rd years (14-15 year olds), one class of 25 pupils and one class of 29 pupils

4th years (15-16 year olds), one class of 28 pupils  and two of 32 pupils

full class

Thirty two is more than I’ve ever taught. I don’t like to start the year with a moan or a rant, but how can this be good for the quality of education that we offer?  Way too much of my time in these situations is spent simply being a sort of technician, ensuring everyone has their work and their materials at the start and that everything gets cleared up and put away at the end of the hour. Where’s the space for the teaching? Well it’s in there somewhere squeezed in between the start-up and the closing down phase.  Needless to say, it’s not so much time, and spread between thirty two pupils there is not a lot of space for differentiation towards the abilities of the various types of pupils in the group. Individual assistance…..so often needed in a practical art class is close to impossible for more than just a few seconds!

I said in my earlier piece that education quality has everything to do with class size and class size has everything to do with quality. I find myself right at the beginning of the school year looking at my course plans, particularly for those two classes of thirty two and thinking how can I slim this down, what can I get rid of?  This simply being to make it possible to cope with the deluge of written marking work that such a class produce and to make the lessons themselves work practically with thirty two sixteen year olds filling a classroom to a level of over capacity.

From the very first lesson of the year the education is being compromised and the quality reduced. This is why we need smaller classes.

If anyone has similar problems or suggestions on how to deal with these challenges I’d be only too glad to hear them!

An Apple for the teacher and one for the pupils

The first day back after the summer holidays normally starts with the the slightly autumnal sight of low mist hanging over the flat Dutch river landscape that I cross in the train as I make my way to work on the train.  This year was no different, the sight being accompanied by a watery sunshine.

A familiar start, but this year there are some significant differences to the start of the year. Perhaps the biggest of these is the step towards a more digital form of education and the arrival of iPads in the classrooms where I teach. It is going to be a step by step process, beginning with the first years and gradually building through in subsequent years.

Personally, I have only one first year class (of thirty pupils) who I will see twice a week for an hour their art lessons. They will arrive, doubtless clasping their new iPads. What will they be expecting from their new school and it’s iPad supported education? To be honest I really find it hard to know what they will be expecting, at this point I still find it fairly difficult to predict how my own classes are going to be effected by the iPad if I try to look six months ahead! I’ve had a number of training sessions, I’ve experimented a little and my first module of lesson material is ready in digital form to be opened in iBooks. I would describe myself as reasonably capable in the digital world, but discovering just how much the iPad offers above and beyond what a normal laptop offers is the area that is the area of expansion.

The opportunities in the App Store is vast. The possibilities for developing a more activating form of education an ever broadening horizon. Yet how does this all work for an art teacher, we have always had a whole variety of activating and engaging approaches that our colleagues in other departments didn’t have?  We can reach for the paint, the collage, the printmaking tools or the clay the stimulate and activate our pupils.

These techniques will of course remain, so where is the gain going to be? Is it going to be in the ready and close to hand access to art history and other cultural contexts offered by the internet, the access point to which is now going to lying on the pupils desk during the lesson? Is it going to be through teaching aids in the form of demonstration films on YouTube or Vimeo? Or is it going to be by using the iPad as a new creative tool in the form as a drawing or painting tablet or maybe as a camera or filmmaking device? Or will it be through one of those handy apps that allow you to give your lessons a new and playful approach?

What are the teaching staff ready for, what are the pupils ready for? Horizons certainly are changing, I feel ready, but at the same time have I rarely felt that there is more to learn.

Time will tell how it all pans out, but I am certainly open for suggestions, so feel free to post any art education related iPad ideas or suggestions.

Fights round the sink and a good weekend feeling

There are some classes that enjoy a truly creative activity, a painting or drawing assignment with plenty of space for imaginative interpretation of the assignment or a complex collage challenge. Others though respond better to small bursts of creativity and longer sections of process where an artistic task simply has to be worked through in order to achieve results. My second year class (13-14 year olds) is one such group.

It is a relatively small class who don’t always perform as well as we might hope in all their timetable subjects, but when given a practical assignment that involves plenty of physical activity they generally respond well. This year I have produced large scale papiermâché and soft sculpture inspired by pop art with them and more recently have been doing some lino block printing.  I only see the class for sixty minutes a week, so getting them started promptedly has always been important.  They don’t generally like long explanations at the start of the lesson and with only an hour I don’t much either. Again here the more practical ‘making’ things approach seems to work best, materials and tools out on the table and get on.

insects

We’ve spent the last weeks first drawing a pencil drawing of an insect, then transferring the design to a piece of lino, one week doing a first cut, one week printing a first colour, a week cutting again and a week printing a second colour. It seems all to have been so clear in their heads, step by step towards the end result. If we’re honest, several hours of process and more like minutes of real creativity as they plan where exactly to cut with the knife.

Having said though, that the creativity is relatively limited, the pay back of engaging with their materials, carrying out the necessary tasks and the always surprising result as they peel the paper from the block to reveal their print more than makes up for this. This was definitely the case today as the second colour went onto the block to reveal suddenly an unfamiliar complexity in the resulting image. Pupils step back with a ‘wow’ to admire their own work.

Two other results are, firstly that I leave for the weekend with an equally positive feeling. A little later there will be a second moment of pride when we assemble the best prints as a set, then comes the extra layer of achievement, this time as a class and all the positive vibes that brings with it.  One last point though, if anyone can advise on how to get thirteen year olds to clear up after a lino printing session without leaving a soaking wet floor and inky fingerprints everywhere as they squabble round the sink I’d be interested to hear about it.