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.

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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!

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.

 

The power of the crowd (and small technical steps)

Many of my colleagues in school have something of a strained relationship with pupils working together in groups. It is probably also fair to say that many of the pupils themselves have an equally troubled experience with this educational approach. The main reason for this is the tendency for there to be children in almost any group who are just in there for the ride, benefitting from the efforts of others, without putting the effort in themselves.

I understand this problem and realize for many pupils and teachers that it is a thorny problem, but in the art department I have to admit to being a huge fan of group work. I certainly don’t continually pursue this route, but it is an approach that I regularly return to.

Maybe one of the biggest differences in the art department and a large-scale shared piece of work is everyone has to contribute, in a sense there is no place to hide! Failure to do your part is hugely visible and my experience is that very few pupils want to put themselves in that position.  It could be argued perhaps that working like this does put the less able pupils in a bit of a spot, the pressure is on, to perform to the level of the rest of the group.  My experience here though is that with careful teacher judgement and support even the most uncertain child gets the positive effect of having contributed to an in the end impressive whole.

But beyond that, there are several very positive reasons for my love of a group project:

  • It gives a chance to produce something really big, an artwork with a wow factor!
  • Pupils leave the project with a feeling of having played their part in producing something where the result often feels greater than the sum of the parts
  • It creates an energy and curiosity in the classroom, especially at the end of a lesson where the whole group are hungry to see the progress and how the total art is coming together
  • ‘Are our individual pieces going to be graded?’ is often a cry I hear after a while, ‘no’ I say, wondering the first time whether that would make a difference. My experience is that it certainly doesn’t, somewhat dispelling the thought that pupils only work when there is a grade in it for them.  The reward in this case clearly lies elsewhere, and not a grade that contributes to the next report.
  • Socially within the cohesion of the group involved there is undoubtedly a positive effect. On a small scale there are often discussions within the group about the connections with ‘neighbours’ in the group work.  These are often interesting to see as the contact takes an individual to all corners of the classroom group and not just their most familiar friends.  But beyond this and most importantly there is a total bond in the group, a completely shared activity to which they can all contribute, a true team performance.

With the case documented here, and its small scale individual sections, I have been given the chance to explore in a relatively controlled and defined way a small but important technical skill.  In this case it has all been about mixing colours and combining colours on the painted surface to get a more complex and interesting end result.  The twelve-year-olds with which the group was made are used to using colours direct from the pot, but a little less used to mixing colours and even less familiar with the idea of painting a single area with a multitude of different hues and shades. Certainly a very useful insight to give for future projects.

Click on the links below for related posts:

Larger than the sum of the parts

Tim Rollins and K.O.S.

Friday afternoons….

The last lesson of the week on a Friday afternoon.  Not the best moment to have to teach, but somebody has to, or are we to shut all schools on a Friday after lunchtime?  For me this year this has meant teaching H2P (13-14 year olds) as my final session of the week.  I’ve always had a last lesson of the week of course, but this one has felt a little different.  This has been the case for a couple of reasons:

  • Most of my classes I see twice a week, but for H2P I only see them once, so everything has to happen in the 60 minutes that we have together!
  • They are quite a jumpy bunch and come to my classroom shortly after having had their physical education lesson, making them a little extra tired, a bit more jumpy and a ever so slightly sweaty!
  • Before this school year I hadn’t taught any of them, meaning I had to get to know their own little ways and of course they had to get to know mine

It’s fair to say that they are a class that you have to learn how to handle.  My teaching style is not to dominate my pupils, I prefer to sweep them along with enthusiasm…yes, even on a Friday afternoon.  Having said all this though discovering how exactly to do this in our one hour a week has been a bit of a process of experimentation and discovery.

We’ve drawn, we’ve painted, done some collage and designed for the 3D printer.  It all went OK although it did take a while before I actually had the whole class traveling with me on our artistic journey.  Some of the boys seemed to be testing me out to see if it was acceptable to do, well the absolute bare minimum.  As the weeks went by even this group started to up their game.

 

The 3D printer idea was one that I thought would trigger the enthusiasm, it did for a few, but a significant number were blocked by the intellectual leap that is needed for working digitally in three dimensions.  To be honest I was surprised, but teenagers can really be as irritated by computer software as their grandparents!

 

The true watershed in the activity of this jumpy group of teenagers came in an intense drawing session, using charcoal that we had one afternoon.  In 45 minutes of drawing each child produced a series of six to eight drawings.  Which the following week I immediately rolled into the beginning of a lino-printing project.  Suddenly there was so much energy in the class, and all being channelled into the practical activity.

The last few weeks I have presented the necessary materials at the start of the lesson, the ink, the rollers, the paper and the lino, and then I have largely stood back and manned the drying rack making sure we start loading it up at the bottom and work our way upwards (why do teenagers always fail to work that out for themselves?).  The drying rack aside we have enjoyed a series of lessons where kids have been wandering with fully loaded inky rollers, others have been head down over their lino block, whilst others are frantically rubbing the backs of their paper trying to get the best possible prints.

Yes, we’ve had messy tables, messy children and occasionally messy floors. But we have also had children standing back at the end of the lesson, the end of the week, thinking wow, did we just do that.

The challenge for all teachers is of course to try and carry this energy into the next assignment…..I still have some thinking to do about how I’ll approach that!

Studio day

Sometimes I find myself battling with an idea for an extended period of time, searching for that visual solution fits the various components that I want to include.  It can go on for weeks or months without anything significant coming out of it all.  That was kind of the state of things towards the end of last year, but then suddenly things started to change and develop and suddenly the possibilities seem endless.  Technically it is not quite a return to the Renaissance ‘tondo’ painting, but a ring painting is as close as I have even been.

It is at moments like this I feel I could do with an assistent to make my rather time consuming round canvases. But without such help it is simply a question of getting on as best as is possible.

 

 

 

 

Capturing the imagination – a photographic remake

It is normally a pretty good sign if some colleagues in the staff room know about a project that you are working on before you’ve told them about it. It means that pupils themselves are talking about it!

This was the case last week. I had taken my fourth-year classes (15-16 year olds) to our local museum, the Jan Cunen Museum, to see an exhibition by the Dutch photographer Micky Hoogendijk. Most of the work on display were quite large-scale portraits with varying degrees of digital manipulation often in the form of overlays of other imagery imposed over the head or face. Three works stood out though as slightly different. These particular photographs didn’t have the same manipulation, but they did have a historical resonance with seventeenth century Dutch art.

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We talked about the set of photographs whilst at the museum, the clothing, the poses, the use of light and the restrained expressions on the faces. The linking with seventeenth century art was strong and something the pupils later explored in a homework assignment.

Whilst the Hoogendijk works don’t seem to have been based on specific images from the past they offered the pupils a contemporary route back to artworks that they often pass quickly over in other circumstances.

The photographs also offered me a chance to make use of a practical assignment that I have used in the past. This involves a photographic remake of an art historical portrait where the pupil plays the part of the subject of the portrait. It is a relatively straight forward assignment to explain, and maybe this helps in the way that it seems to have captured the attention of my pupils in the last couple of weeks.

I provided a large selection of images for the classes to search through to find something that they thought that they could work with. I gave strict instructions for the photographs that they were going to take, and these were going to become my marking criteria when evaluating the work:

  • The pupil really has to play the part, the expression involved and displayed was important
  • Composition and the arrangement of figure and attributes were important
  • The use of light in the painting had to be followed as much as possible in the photograph
  • The pose of the figure should be used as a basis in the photograph
  • The clothing can be updated but should show a relationship to the original painting   Providing the framework
  • Cardboard box office
  • Related posts:
  • All photographs shown above are included with the pupils’ permission.
  • Looking back on the results that were finally handed in, I feel that the effect of that having seen high quality photos in the exhibition had a positive effect. I feel that it made them approach their own work in a more ambitious way. It definitely seemed to help them in taking a step away from the idea that this was just going to be a relatively unconsidered snap shot, an approach that is the dominant feature of most of a teenagers photographic output.

Beyond these instructions I left my pupils to it. Sending them off with a two-week deadline to produce this practical homework assignment. Although I did also stress that this was perhaps not an assignment to work on in a hurry on a dark Tuesday night…..they were to try and make use the of the natural light that the weekend offers.

 

Looking back on the results that were finally handed in, I feel that the effect of that having seen high quality photos in the exhibition had a positive effect. I feel that it made them approach their own work in a more ambitious way. It definitely seemed to help them in taking a step away from the idea that this was just going to be a relatively unconsidered snap shot, an approach that is the dominant feature of most of a teenagers photographic output.

All photographs shown above are included with the pupils’ permission.

Related posts:

Photographic frames of reference

Cardboard box office

Are we all romantics at heart?

The exhibition ‘Romanticism in the North’ at the Groningen Museum in the north of the Netherlands presents an extensive collection of landscape paintings, mostly from the early nineteenth century, and features work by the likes of William Turner, Casper David Friedrich, John Constable and Johan Christian Dahl. It is a succulent collection of paintings that ooze technical quality and present, not unsurprisingly, a romantic view of, predominantly, the landscape. The effect of light and dark on our surroundings is a recurring theme as is the weather and in particular an inclination for the slightly threatening nature the weather can take.

But it is the locations that the paintings show and how they are framed up that catches the eye. There is beauty and drama, and it is all so carefully composed. I find myself almost wanting to be there. These are the sorts of places in the busier and more hectic moments of our day to day existence that we might wish to escape to.

Romanticism in art regularly encouraged a sort of reflective escape, an escape from the present and a look back to the past. A reaction to a period to change perhaps, the hints of a more modern world lay on the horizon.

Now, two hundred years later we can still relate strongly to these images. These are still the sorts of places we like to visit and document for ourselves, although nowadays that is more likely to be using a camera whilst on a day trip out or further afield on a holiday. We still love the landscape and still have a pretty romantic view of it. We like to frame up a photograph of a lighthouse in the breaking waves, a mountain stream or the descending sun that is turning the whole sky a burning shade of orange.  In these paintings human activity is held at arm’s length, we view any figures at a distance, there is little engagement. It all feels a little individualistic.

And yet in the romantic landscape there is an understated side dish, that takes us away from a sense of idealised tranquillity. This more unsettling edge comes in the form of weather at its more extreme. An impending storm gathers on the horizon, a lone figure battles with the wind, mist or darkness descend on the landscape, a ship is dashed on a coastline or a waterfall plunges from a dizzying height. All of these would have brought an edge of danger to the viewer more than two hundred years ago, a danger in these sorts of environment that they were maybe more familiar with than we are today. Yet of course, when viewed by way of a painted image then there is little actual danger involved. It was an experience more comparable perhaps with the way we approach, and love the safer sort of danger, as it is presented to us in an adventure or disaster movie.

 

One day I must do this in class…

It’s been a while since I’ve visited the Cardboard box office blog. For any film lover it is worth dropping by to Lilly and Leon’s site. Although, nowadays it is also Orson (yes really!) and from the most recent posts, also little Elliot. The new arrivals do perhaps give an understandable reason for rather less frequent posts than in the past.

Ever since stumbling on the site a few years ago I have been toying with the idea of how I might do something similar in a school/education setting with a heap of cardboard, some lamps and a whole load of duct tape. Maybe in some sort of a project week, because trying to build such scenery spread over twice a week art lessons for a number of weeks is one sure way to fall out with colleagues as they battle their way past all the cardboard in the store room!

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Scan through the site, and you’ll soon find you’ll have your own few favourites. I think that my own personal favourite is King Kong, but there are so many others that catch the eye.

I think if I stop to analyse it a little there are two main things that I like so much about the ‘installations’ that Lilly and Leon construct. Firstly, there is just the lovable silliness of it all. They clearly love the film world and want to use their own creativity to engage with it in some way. And that leads nicely onto the second reason, that being the amount of creativity and inventiveness they show in making their ‘screen shots’.

As an art teacher creativity is an often talked about subject. We like to encourage our pupils to be creative with their materials, you try to design lessons and assignments that challenge your classes creatively. But Lilly and Leon’s installations display a visual inventiveness that requires a particular mindset that teenagers enjoy seeing but find surprisingly difficult to dare to explore in their own work.

I saw this inventiveness a little during an animation project that I did with groups of fifteen-year olds last year, once they realized that they had to go looking at home for suitable materials to animate, a bit of a creative lid did seem to come off.  I’m hoping to see something similar with a forthcoming project where pupils will be photographically reconstructing old master portrait paintings.