Classes with split personalities

It is no secret in education that a class at the start of the day is often a different proposition to a class at the end of the day. My timetable this year has thrown up, for me at least, one of the clearest examples of this that I’ve had in fifteen years of teaching. I thought about changing the name of the class to give them some anonymity, but let’s not, its V3S. They know who they are, they also know already that I see them as something of a schizophrenic bunch (in the nicest possible way of course!).

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I should perhaps start by saying that it is a class I like teaching a lot, twenty-seven fourteen and fifteen year olds. They are sociable, they are interested in more than just themselves, they are as a class really quite creative and able, and have a good feeling for humour. In fact, there haven’t been many classes that I’ve laughed so much with. All really enjoyable character traits for a class, especially for one that is actually built up of several quite distinctive ‘groups’, groups where the interaction between them is fairly modest.

But having said all that, the difference in the mind-set of the class for my last lesson of the day on a Thursday afternoon and then when I see them again for the first lesson on Friday is regularly quite huge. Friday morning can feel like being in a public library, Thursday afternoon like teaching in a market place on a Saturday afternoon.

It almost feels like I have two different classes, conscientious hard workers and a disorganised rabble. Part of my task as a teacher is obviously to try and ensure that in both modes V3S continue to be productive. Generally, I can achieve this, although if I was to stop to analyse it a carefully I’m sure I’d discover that more was being produced in that second lesson, but that has to be weighed against the verbal language production in the first one.

I mention the verbal production point because as well as the art content of my lessons, verbal language production is also important. I am after all an art teacher teaching my lessons in English to help these Dutch pupils to develop and improve their English. With this in mind I am reluctant to impose silence in the classroom, especially when it is a class where we have carefully cultivated the use of English as being the absolute norm and the class has responded so well in playing their part in this.

But oh, the chatter on a Thursday afternoon can at times be quite baffling. I recently complimented one of the boys for managing to talk continuously in English throughout the lesson, not straying into Dutch on a single occasion. He was, if I can be a little critical for a moment, talking absolute nonsense, and doing it nonstop for sixty minutes, but he was doing it in English!

The factors that come together to produce this sort of apparently split personality class are varied, the timetable has thrown up art followed by physical education on a Thursday afternoon, this generates a sort of ‘release’ after a morning of more ‘academic’ lessons in the morning. They are perhaps a little tired, and when I see them again at 8.20 on a Friday morning dare I say that they are still a little dozy?

All in all, it’s not too much of a big deal for me, however it does perhaps highlight the educational issue of good timetabling. Someone of course has to teach the difficult classes last thing on a Friday afternoon, just as long as they are not teaching the same group at the end of Wednesday and Thursday too!

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

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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.

Lipstick, powder and paint….and abstraction

I’ve been working on a project that focuses on abstraction with my third years (15 year olds). The direction of the various parts of the assignments touch on a number of issues such as design principles, dynamics in an image, colour and draws a parallel with the abstract nature of music.

Some years I have made three dimensional work during this project, but this time round I have chosen to focus on the two dimensional image and try and push the creativity of the pupils as far as I can using simply drawing materials. As we near the end of the project (and the school year), I am certainly not unhappy with the results and the pupils themselves seem to be feeling a sense of achievement, certainly when they see the work they have made grouped together.

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I’ve been also trying to encourage the class to mix up the materials, look for interesting combinations, get the class to ask themselves ‘what else can I use?’. For the most part I had in mind a little collage in combination with the more obvious pencil or pen work. But as the photo here shows this has extended to some of the girls reaching inside their bags and pulling out the make-up and working the pearlescent and metallic colours into the design. I’d been showing plenty of Frank Stella’s work in the build up to the project, that may have influenced some of their choices. I’m sure he would approve!

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