Why do I have the feeling that not everyone in the English department is going to approve of this art inspired (clil) writing assignment?

Surreal poetry assignment

This might not be a lesson idea for language purists, but in my defense, I would say that encouraging learners to play with language can be an important aspect of language acquisition. I remember the satisfying buzz I started to get when my mastery of the Dutch language reached a level where I could crack a joke or maybe use a little irony. It makes the using of the language more pleasurable and dare I say it, more fun. So if my surreal poetry assignment takes us into areas of confusing and sometimes conflicting interpretation….well…..that is actually the point of it.

If you would like a little more context and history on the Surrealists, their forerunners the Dadaists and how text and language featured in their work a good place to start is the excellent The Art Story site through the links at the bottom of this post.

So how does the assignment work? I should start by saying that there are plenty of variations on these poetic themes to be found on a variety of websites. The one that I sketch out here is based on an idea from one on a wikihow.com page.

The initial task is to find an existing poem; this could perhaps be one that has been made use of in an English lesson or one that you as a teacher feel is particularly appropriate. Alternatively, allow your pupils to search for a starting point themselves in books or on websites, one that they themselves find interesting…..reading a bit of poetry can never be a bad thing!

Once a suitable poem has been found ask the pupils to identify the nouns, verbs and adjectives in the poem by underlining them with three different coloured pens. Again, this is a useful language exercise for pupils of any level to try to complete.

Then comes the creative part, ask the pupils to replace the existing nouns, verbs and adjectives with new ones of their own choice. It helps if they have already grasped the fact that in the world of the Surrealists not everything is quite as it seems. To make this point clear the paintings of Rene Magritte are my own favourite.

The challenge is to create new poetic lines that are grammatically correct, but have an intriguing and perhaps perplexing connection…..complete randomness though, doesn’t seem to engage the writer or the reader in quite the same way.

 

The examples below illustrate the process:

 

Is the Moon Tired?

By Christina Rossetti (1830-1994)

Is the moon tired? she looks so pale

Within her misty veil:

She scales the sky from east to west,

And takes no rest.

Before the coming of the night

The moon shows papery white;

Before the dawning of the day

She fades away

 

Is the (noun) tired? she looks so (adjective)

Within her misty (noun):

She (verb) the sky from (noun) to (noun),

And takes no (noun).

Before the (verb) of the (noun)

The moon shows (adjective) (noun);

Before the (verb) of the (noun)

She (verb) away.

(Noun – Verb – Adjective)

 

A new version might go:

Is the ink tired? she looks so weak

Within her misty streak:

She swims the sky from pen to book,

And takes no second look.

Before the consuming of the text

The moon shows uncertain perplex;

Before the burning of the hay

She withdraws away.

 

Two possible extensions to this project could be:

  1. Ask pupils to try to produce an illustration based on their own new version of the poem
  2. Give pupils an example of a surreal artwork (such as one by Magritte) and ask them to write a poem about the painting from scratch. The visual material that the painting offers provides a clear direction and material enough for an interesting exploration and simultaneously requires them to look long and hard at an image from art history.

The story of Dada

The story of Surrealism

Wikihow page used

Rewarding creativity and technical skill ‐ a pupil’s choice

vermeerThere are plenty of art teachers who will recognize the following situation, it’s one that I see particularly in the younger pupils (aged 12–‐14) that I teach. A painting assignment is finally finished and is being handed in after several lessons work. There are a number of immaculately made paintings, extremely neatly and carefully completed. However the works lack imagination and creativity. Pupils have relied very much on the approaches they know well and haven’t explored other possibilities as well as they could have done. There are also other works made by different pupils that are rather untidy and perhaps carelessly made in terms of technical execution. However this second group shows great evidence of creativity and invention. The pupils have thought hard about the assignment in relation to content, but the technical facility of the pupil has let them down in the final finished quality of the work.

The problem I face as teacher is one of where to I lay the emphasis and weighting when I mark the work? Is technical ability to be rewarded the most or creativity and imagination? The truth is, as a teacher, you would probably like to have both in a piece of work. I have often designed marking rubrics that give a sliding scale of grades for both qualities. This way you can at least make clear to the pupils that you are interested in both areas.

But a recent workshop on differentiation in the class has set me thinking in a different direction. The workshop focussed on the fact that within any given class you have pupils both with a range of abilities but also with a variety talents or skills. This would certainly seem to be the case in the example I have described above. My own feelings are that pupils who lack a certain dexterity in the way they use their materials (even if their ideas are imaginative and ambitious) generally get short changed during this early stage of secondary education.

Greater emphasis on specific judgment criteria in a marking rubric certainly goes some way to helping in this area, but in a way I would like pupils to look even more critically at the work themselves and in doing so identify for themselves their own strengths and weaknesses. In order to try and reach this goal I am considering adjusting my marking for a couple of forthcoming assignments. My plan is to continue using a marking rubric to produce say, two grades that are marks out of ten, one for technical skill and one for creativity and imagination. These two scales will be accompanied by the normal descriptors explaining the sorts of standards in both areas I am looking for.

The difference though would come in allowing the pupils themselves to decide what the overall weighting between the two grades should be. They could decide for 50–‐50, or 30–‐70 for example, anything up to a maximum or perhaps 20–‐80 or 80–‐20. Obviously I would ask them to make the decision for the weighting before they get to hear the grades that I have given the work. The whole point of the exercise is to get them to look critically at the strengths and weaknesses in their own work and to help them to identify areas where they could improve and to give them the feeling that they are able to be rewarded for areas that they are successful in.

I’m not sure how often I might use this approach to marking, at this stage it is very much an interesting experiment. However, I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has experimented in similar ways. I am of course also interested to know and see for myself if it has any effect on the qualities of the work pupils produce.

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.

Is fashion becoming my thing?

Fashion design is not my specific area of specialization. I was trained as a painter and that remains my man focus of interest. Having said that, one of the great luxuries of my education job here in the Netherlands is that I get to teach the subject known as Culturele en kunstzinnige vorming (CKV), which roughly translates as artistic and cultural education. It is a fantastic subject that takes me and the fifteen and sixteen year olds that I teach into the broadest range of cultural disciplines such as film, theatre, dance, music, photography, architecture, applied art, design and visual arts. Over the fourteen years that I have now taught CKV it has lead me to widen my own cultural knowledge base into many new areas.

IMG_0423
It is with this process of continual self-education I travelled to The Boijmans van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam to see The Future of Fashion is Now exhibition. As I wrote earlier fashion design isn’t specifically my thing, although I have to admit to a growing interest and have just completed writing a module of lesson material for my CKV lessons that I’ll be working with after the Christmas break. The exhibition today was an opportunity to top up on ideas that I might be able to make use of in my lessons.

A particular challenge in this area is to break through the inherent conservatism in the pupils’ view of the world. So many of them in their approaches are anything but radical. IMG_0427 (1)They like what they know any they know what they like!  Forcing them to consider things outside of their normal range of experience is the challenge here. I want them to think creatively and experimentally, the idea will ultimately to produce a design idea, although I should add, not and actual item of clothing.

Partly inspired by another recent exhibition in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague entitled Romantic Fashions my idea is set the challenge of producing a hybrid item of clothing that combines the clothes of today with elements of fashion from the nineteenth century. There are examples of designers who have done just that already, people such a, Vivian Westwood and Jan Taminiau. But in taking these frames of fashion reference I am attempting to reduce the over whelming range of references that are potentially on offer to the pupils.  They will learn a little about the cultural world of 150 years ago and they will relate it to the world that they know today.

It is at this point that the exhibition in Rotterdam today will be useful. Pupils know what to expect in the high street in 2014 generally, they might even know a little about what appears on the catwalks of Paris and Milan, but much of what was visible today was altogether more experimental and will challenge them to think further and hopefully creatively when combining the designs of the past with the sensibilities and materials on offer today.

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!

Photographic frames of reference

Establishing clearly defined areas of creativity when working with young people is something I’ve posted about before, it is something that, as an art educator I feel quite strongly about. This week I’m being reminded about again through an assignment that I have set.

The assignment is part of a photography module that I am working on with my fourth year class (15-16 year olds in the Dutch system of education). We’ve spent time in the lessons looking at examples of good portrait photography, the pupils have compared photographs and written about them.

But ultimately the core of the whole project is getting the pupils to take their own photographs and trying to insure that the photographs are more that the bulk of the photographs these teenagers take in the average week.

This is a generation that take so many photographs. This is fantastic in so many ways, the freedom to experiment, the minimal cost involved and the ease with which they can share their creative discoveries. The big down side though is that they rarely stop to think about what it is that they are doing, everything is a snap shot, instantaneous and so often just for amusement purposes.

With this in the background, it is actually often quite difficult to get the sorts of photographic results that you might hope for. The assignment that I have been experimenting with is essentially a portrait assignment, not so much about ensuring that the portrait photograph discloses something about the subject, it is simply more about encouraging the pupils to look carefully and critically at there’s on that they are photographing, consider how they are framing them up and how that they are controlling light.

Image

The assignment is based on an idea that I came across on the www.booooooom.com website although I have also seen work by other photographer doing similar things, such as the Dutch photographer Hendrik Kerstens.

For the project I gave the pupils a selection of five Vermeer and five Rembrandt portraits to use as a basis. They simply had to create their own photographic versions of the portraits. It was not so much about dressing up or gathering attributes to fill the picture, but more about creating the ‘look’ of the painting, simulating the glance, creating a comparable composition.

faye

By allowing the pupils to play the role that the original offered seems to have removed a lot of the self-consciousness that might otherwise get in the way. They step in front of the camera knowing what they have to do. The endless possibilities that the camera normally offers is framed within some limitations, but these limitations allow the chance to focus on the issues I want them to focus on. This is the strength of the project I feel.

Is this the most difficult art assignment of the year?

I can’t speak for everyone of course, but for my pupils this is the most challenging assignment I get them to attempt. The challenge comes not in the technical skill, knowledge of materials or pure facility to draw but because it requires a sharp combination of text and image, maybe humour and above all a good idea.

 Essentially it is an advertising assignment, but an assignment that I also relate to surrealism and tend to focus on examples from advertising that could be said to have a surreal quality to them. The assignment I set is to design an advertisement for one product from a list that I provide and that could be used in a magazine, on a billboard or in a newspaper. Alternatively it could be a storyboard for a TV, cinema or internet advertising film.

 I start by showing them a whole series of examples. One or two or the examples are quite complex and might need a bit of an explanation, but by and large these groups of mostly fifteen year old are well able to follow the line of thought in the advert, make connections to the product, or see the joke if there is a joke to be seen. More broadly, they are perfectly able to spot the really good adverts and explain why they are so successful.

 But then comes the hard bit. Try coming up with your own idea. Be original, think outside of the box, take an oblique angle. Ask yourself what your product is all about, what are its characteristics, what can you focus on and start to build an idea around?

Image

It can all be so simple. An example like the one above makes use of an existing image or situation and by careful placement of the product name and slogan the image and text come together to form a delightful whole, with a real feeling for humour. The pupils see this, they understand it, they laugh. But trying to get them to think beyond the “Buy our chili sauce because, well, it’s very hot…” level is so difficult.

I tell them they have to turn every idea and product over in their minds, look at it from different angles, bounce ideas off each other. But this is so different to most other school work, where you are generally rewarded to grinding away at assignments or preparations for tests. It is about being open and ready for that idea to come.

 It’s still early days with this assignment, if anything memorable, the good, the bad or the ugly comes up, I’ll post for feedback.