Don’t underestimate your class

I remember reading somewhere recently that an excellent way to motive a class is to say something like “I think this is probably too difficult for you….but we’ll give it a go anyway”. The philosophy being, give them a reason to prove you, the teacher, wrong!

At the time I didn’t think much of it, apart perhaps from thinking….’yeah….would they really go for that?’. Well, a couple of weeks later I have to admit to coming up with just such a statement (without intending to) to a class of 12 year olds and then watching them exceed what I thought they were capable of.

Most years I do a little perspective drawing with my first years. It fits in well with talking about the art of the Renaissance. Over time I’ve tried out various assignments, and for my own amusement and variation I continue to do this. This year I decided to try, with one of my classes, something a little more ambitious where they were to produce a two-point perspective interior space drawing, spread over two sheets of paper, with one pupil working on one half of the drawing and a second on the other.  The idea was to simulate collaboration, teamwork and plenty of discussion (in English, as I teach them in English, which is the pupils’ second language), plus of course to learn about perspective.

perspective

After a first session working, fielding questions about vanishing points, how the area where to two pages came together should work and just how accurate it all needed to be, I went home feeling that this was perhaps one step too far.

I returned to the lesson the following week ready to explain this, and that I thought it better if we maybe went for something just a little less ambitious.  There was total amazement and disagreement from the class.  From their perspective they had invested a lesson puzzling it out and felt now that they knew what they needed to do. Slightly reluctantly I gave way to their view and we continued.

Two weeks later and we’re finished and while the standard of drawing from the class is varied (as it always is with any class), the grasp of the perspective rules they have been working with is fantastic, I’m hugely impressed.

Whether or not my ‘I think it’s too difficult for you’ moment with the class was the turning point we’ll never know for sure. But the way the pupils rose to the challenge was fantastic to see.

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The fear of getting started, the pressure of the empty page

The anxiety of getting started, we all have it to a degree. Those involved in the visual arts will certainly recognize the confrontation with that virgin white piece of paper, canvas or block of stone. For me, and I’m guessing for many others, it’s a bit of a mixture in reality, anxiety yes, but mixed with the sense of possibility.

blank paper

That nervousness and the feeling that something good might result is also a quality I recognize all too clearly in those I teach. This goes for the twelve year olds in my first year lessons right through the most elderly in the courses for adults that I lead. The edgy excitement that a blank canvas, immaculate sheet of white paper or other yet to be touched material presents us with is, I think, one of the driving forces behind creativity. It is the alchemy of turning neutrality into something of value.  But with this process of transformation comes pressure and responsibility. If you start something, can you finish it? Pressure indeed!

From my early days at art school I can remember tutors offering me and other students strategies to overcome this anxiety and to bypass that white paper confrontation stage. We were encouraged to splash paint across the sheet before we started or to screw the paper up into a ball, flatten it out and then start to work. Interesting approaches and ones that I too might from time to time also suggest.

A few weeks ago I tried an experiment with the group of fifteen adults that I work with every Thursday evening. It also produced a more experimental and open approach to drawing, an approach that also seemed to go quite a way in reducing the pressure the participants felt about the impact of their mark making.  Perhaps more interesting to me though, was the way this fed through to produce some very engaging drawings.

The set up was simple, fifteen people, fifteen pieces of paper and a variety of drawing materials on offer. I had a list of simple terms, the first was “water”. I gave them three or four minutes to draw something that for them was connected or associated with “water”. After an initial four minute drawing session the drawings were then passed on to the person on their left and I then gave them a new drawing theme for a further four minutes of drawing, “sweetness”, “Vermeer”, “five straight lines” followed.  Each time the drawing was in part a reaction to the word, but also a reaction to what was already there. The series continued with terms such as “window”, “red”, “1920s/30s” and “journey”. The final block was simply to look at the drawing that you now had in front of you and to add something that you feel the composition needs.

group drawings

Art with diminished responsibility

My initial worry was that the result was going to be either a mess or one person just obliterating the work of another. However, slowly in most (although not quite all if I am honest) a sense of order started to appear. One of the participants observed that it was kind of art with diminished responsibility, you had a part to play, but the knowledge that you would soon be passing the drawing on, having made a small contribution, was in a sense quite liberating, you didn’t feel the pressure that this sheet of paper was somehow representing you. The ownership lay with the whole group. It will be interesting in the coming weeks to see if I can persuade some in the group to take up the challenge of working one of the drawings into a truly ‘own’ piece of work.

A chance to talk with colleagues…..an educational luxury

The fact that I haven’t posted anything for a month tells me something very clearly, I’m working my way through a very busy period. Weeks are flying by towards Christmas and schedules are packed with countless activities, preparation, planning, plus of course simply giving lessons. Most people who work in education will recognize this.

matisse quote

We encourage our pupils to reflect on their activities, to learn from their successes and failures, but as a teacher there often seems so little time to step back and think about what we are doing, and even less time to do this with colleagues of our own subject area.

The value of such an opportunity was made clear a week ago by an annual meeting I chair of art teachers, teaching in bilingual education in the Netherlands. On the agenda, with the twenty-five other art educators present were three main points:

  1. CLIL – the bilingual teachers educational mainstay of Content and Language Integrated Learning; that is to say, how do you teach the content of your subject whilst simultaneously teaching a second language (English in my case).  As coordinator I am expected to throw some good CLIL practices into the group.
  2. Digitalization in the art room
  3. Resources – Where do we draw our ideas and inspiration when developing new material

I’ve been doing these meetings for a few years now and find it a tricky balance to strike between leading the meeting and trying to get discussion going (between a group of teachers who don’t really know one another). I prepared some material but went into the meeting hoping that the others present would be open and willing to contribute.

Was I nervous? Well maybe just a little bit, but I certainly didn’t need to have been, what a fantastic meeting we had. Three hours flew by. What a luxury three hours of open and constructive discussion felt. So often I sit in meetings crammed onto the end of the school day with colleagues who are worn out and, let’s be honest, wanting to head home to get on with some marking, pick the children up from school, do the groceries….etc. But this occasion was different, rarely have I sat in on a discussion session with such a group of people wanting to participate, share and learn….all together.

I left the meeting feeling invigorated and enthusiastic. It was three hours of pure subject content and there is perhaps a lesson for all in education. There is a time and a place for meetings concerning planning and organization, that’s important stuff. But don’t let it dominate every meeting….it is the love of the content that brought many of us to education in the first place and it is engaging with content that recharges our batteries.

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.)

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.

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.

Is iTunes U the future?

Image

It is couple of months since I was given an iPad by the school where I work as preparation for the new school year in late August when we will be switching to a digitally driven form of education. Initially it will be all our first years (12 year olds) who will all have an iPad in their school bag, but then, year on year it will spread through the school. I, like others at school, have been following courses and familiarizing myself with some of the possibilities.

There are a huge amount of possibilities and some fantastic apps out there that are going to offer some very creative and new directions to what I do in my art and cultural awareness lessons. I really am quite enthusiastic about the project, if perhaps a little daunted by the shear amount of work involved. All changes in education cost teachers and educators time and effort, but this feels like a real ground shift.

One of the recent courses I attended was for iTunes U. In short iTunes U is a project, with an accompanying app, that is aimed at teachers world-wide at all levels of education. The philosophy is that great education material is being developed everywhere and too often doesn’t get shared and passed around.  Huge numbers of educational institutions are becoming involved from the likes of Oxford and Harvard universities right down to primary schools. Apple are putting a huge amount of resources into facilitating the education of teaching staff to make use of iTunes U, for me there was a two day, free of charge course at the icentre in Amsterdam on offer.

I am new to this all, and am having to learn and pick things up as I go along, but I am at the moment a little perplexed by what iTunes U seems to offer and in particular how it relates to the arts, cultural and design areas of education.

I am more than happy if there is someone out there who can tell me that I am perhaps mistaken, or not seeing all the possibilities that are actually on offer.  However at the moment a couple of points seem to be particularly problematic, at least from my own arts related direction.

Firstly, from my art teacher’s perspective there is the copyright issue. My understanding from the iTunes U course that I followed was that Apple are only too aware of the potential copyright minefield that the idea of a sort of open source library of education material might become. As a result they only what original material, and supporting material that comes from a sort of Creative Commons perspective. This is all fine and well, but try writing a piece of art education material without making use of examples of the work of others. Art teachers the world over are used to, normally for just their own usage and certainly not on a commercial level, playing quite fast and loose with the work of others. They want to illustrate a particular point or inspire in a particular way, so they insert appropriate examples into their lesson material.

They would probably normally defend their position, rightly or wrongly, behind a sort of fair use argument. They are simply trying to place an activity in a cultural context or guide an activity in a particular way.  If, as Apple seem to be saying, this sort of referencing of cultural context places the material outside the remit of iTunes U, then the resulting material is likely to end up being a rather dry and unstimulating sort of experience, which brings brings me nicely onto my second point.

When I was at teacher training college it was hammered into me regularly that you should make your lesson material visually interesting to look at. Publishers of lesson material know this to be important and spend great deal of time and effort designing their products to attract and lead the attention of the reader. As a visual artist, and someone with an interest in design, I have always worked hard to make sure that the material I produce for my pupils looks well-made and engaging. With all this in mind I am bewildered by iTunes U, a system where as far as I have seen so far, everything ends up looking the same. A sort of list structure that folds out to reveal text, links, film, routes to apps and so on. The content in the end might be fantastic, but the entrance route to it seems dull to say the least.

If anyone knows a different perspective on these two reservations I would be only too happy to hear it and be corrected, but for now I see myself continuing to produce eye-catching PDF files with all the links I need embedded into them and then directly mailed to the pupils who need them.