A mention for classes h3p and h3q

In the socially distanced classrooms that we are encountering in education at the moment a special mention should go out to my two 3rd year (14 year olds) classes.  Both are small classes an I find myself with no fewer than twelve empty desks in the room.  All the pupils in Dutch schools are being required to keep at least 1.5 metres of distance from their teachers.  Both h3p and h3q have taken this advice to the limit, they seem to care for my health and well-being to the extreme.  Every lesson they pile into the classroom and insist on making sure that there is a good four if not five metres between me and them, they couldn’t put any more distance between me and them if they tried.

Or……it could of course be that they are displaying the more recognised teenage behaviour of wanting to sit at the back of the bus, back of the hall, back of the cinema, back of the theatre, back of the bike shed, the back of anything else that is going, and yes, the back of the classroom! 

But on a more positive note, I do feel a general respect of my personal space from the pupils I teach, and if they do creep a little too close it is simply through enthusiasm for the drawings they want to show me, and don’t seem to mind at all to be reminded to take a step back.

Some things would just never work in an online lesson

There are quite some contrasts in the emotions of being back in the classroom. I would be lying if I said that I was totally happy and comfortable to be back in the classroom. Having said that, it is great to be back doing some physical teaching and pushing the pupils to experiment and try activities and approaches that simply wouldn’t be possible in the distant learning situation.

One such example from yesterday.  The context was an initial session at the beginning of a series of lessons about abstraction in visual art.

Later on there will be assignments giving the pupils the chance to create abstract compositions that focus on dynamism and flow in an image, but today I wanted to get my group of fourteen year olds to loosen up, experiment with abstract mark-making and to draw a parallel with the abstract language offered by music.

Using eight different pieces of instrumental music and applying different ‘rules’ to each drawing a sheet of increasingly wild drawings was made.  We had fun, they smiled and laughed on seeing their own and the results of others. They were engaged and curious. The results made were maybe not of great artistic merit, but they were part of a process leading onto other things.

Would this lesson have worked online? Without a doubt it would not. Of course I could have played the music to them via the computers. I could also have asked them to have had paper and pencils ready. I could even have given exactly the same explanation about what they had to do. But still it would not have worked. Such a lesson (and there are many more in all areas of education) only work because you are sharing and participating together in an activity. It is perhaps not dissimilar to going to a theatre to watch a stand-up comedian or watching it alone on your laptop. The material might be the same but the experience isn’t.

We are social creatures and also social learners, being part of a group of peers, together with a teacher, brings a dynamic that rarely occurs in the online environment. In an art room context it is a dynamic that can be used to push learners further as they look over their shoulders and respond and react to the work that others around them are doing.

Back to school…how have things changed?

Three weeks ago secondary schools in the Netherlands were allowed to reopen.  This reopening was under strict restrictions concerning the general organization within the school building and that a 1.5 metre social-distancing was required.  The school where I work decided to generally continue with online lessons in the mornings in most subject areas and on a rotating basis to allow a few classes to come into school in the afternoons. The ‘at school’ sessions consisted mostly of an outside sports lesson, a form teacher/mentor lesson and an art lesson (that’s my part!) or perhaps a bit of extra English. 

We have had close to three months out of conventional schooling.  One of the motivations behind choosing physical education and arts lessons to be given the afternoon, was that the social contact and social exchange they allow was seen as desirable to facilitate. A sort of restarting of the background chatter, and for me hopefully the reintroduction of the humour and laughing that go on in a physical classroom but seems almost completely absent in the online classroom. 

I have been giving these rather make-shift, end of year lessons for a few weeks now, and it really shouldn’t be underestimated how the social dynamics within groups has changed.  Yes, they are smaller groups, only sections of classes, but I have been completely taken aback by how quiet and seemingly shy the groups seem to have become.  

Much has been written about how the removal of the school based social contact teenagers have been missing may be effecting or even damaging them.  My own (and my colleagues too) small scale, anecdotal evidence would certainly point towards a social change within groups that will undoubtedly have its own effects (small or large) as we head into the next school year.  Something has shifted, it may be connected to a certain amount of end of year reduction of energy levels, but the buzz of contact within groups has changed.  I feel also in myself that the reestablishing of the old rhythms and patterns as and when we return fully to school is something that is perhaps going to take more time than you might expect. 

iPads in the art room

I might be jumping the gun a little bit in this post. But the school where I teach is considering a change in our digital device of choice. For about six years all the pupils at our school have worked with an iPad alongside their regular schoolbooks or in many cases in place of their regular schoolbooks. As a school we are on the cusp of implementing considerable changes in the way we teach our pupils and, as a result, it’s a good moment to be reflecting on the educational tools that we use. This is the reason why our choice for the iPad is up for evaluation. It could well be that in the end we choose to stay with the iPad, although I feel maybe the balance of opinion within the teaching staff is shifting. Might the future device we choose be a laptop or a Chromebook perhaps?

Within the art Department we are also reflecting and thinking about what we prefer. If I’m honest and look back to the start of our iPad experiment, in the beginning I wasn’t sure exactly how it would come to gain a place in my lessons. I too was new to the iPad and the possibilities the digital tablet may offer the creative wing of our school. Through a process of learning and experimentation the digital possibilities on offer found their way into all sorts of areas of my lessons.

I love having Internet access at every desk for researching and linking art history to practical assignments. I also love having every pupil ready with a stills or video camera to record their activities and document their work. It has offered graphics and page layout design possibilities in the classroom without having to relocate to computer classrooms to access desktops. I’ve done animation projects and photo collage assignments having simply first asked the pupils to download the appropriate app.

Possibly though, the area that I’ve grown to enjoy most, and in a way, has surprised me most, are simply the drawing and painting opportunities that the touch screen offers my pupils. Teenagers are often very cautious when it comes to putting pen or pencil to paper. Most are teachers have any number of tricks to try and loosen them up and tempt them into more expressive mark making. The instantaneous nature of a digital paper that the iPad offers brings different possibilities to this area. Yes, perhaps it is at times a bit overly disposable, but that’s exactly what helps. When I look at the decorative letter designs my 12-year-old pupils recently produced, and the freedom of mark making that they display, it is a considerable step from where I can get them to using pencils and paper. Also, when I consider the abstract designs that my slightly older 14-year-old pupils have produced using a different app. This work shows a speed of creative possibilities are so much faster than the comparable approach on paper would allow. It is not a replacement; it is simply something creatively different that allows them to cut loose and be considerably more experimental and ultimately more expressive in their work. In both cases these benefits can subsequently be drawn on and used in pieces that rely on more traditional media.

The art department enthusiasm for the iPad isn’t entirely shared by other areas within the school. Some colleagues lament the lack of a proper keyboard. Others would like to have a bigger screen. And many would like to lose the instant accessibility of the games put the pupils are so determined to play outside (and inside) their lessons.

I would certainly be interested to hear from any other art teachers and art departments that have been confronted with similar digital choices.

End of year…..jobs you just don’t get to the rest of the year

The last weeks of the school year have arrived.  The pupils are intermittently at school for tests, a few last appointments and finally the picking up of reports.  Apart from a huge amount of clearing up, once this stage of the year is reached there is generally time at last to spend a little while working on a task that has been continually pushed to the side throughout the year.  That being presenting the work of pupils on the walls and in the glass cases around school.

It is an important job, at least in terms of raising the profile of the art department in the school as a whole, both for pupils and staff.  Some great things do get made in the art department, we produce good final exam results, but still the importance of a bit of PR work is never wasted. Colleagues from other subject areas are generally pleased and interested to see the creative work that pupils produce. But undoubtedly the most important thing is building the interest of the younger pupils to potentially choose the creative subjects as an exam subject in our upper school.

From a personal point of view, I do also get a sense of satisfaction in seeing the pupils’ efforts presented clearly and well.  This is especially true for the larger group projects that I have carried out with whole classes during the last months.

 

An app as a serious story-telling device

Screenshot 2019-04-11 at 07.01.31Today, for the first time ever in one of my lessons I had a whole class active on their phones, headphones on and experiencing a piece of serious thematic lesson material. We were using an app that connected strongly with our current lessons based around how artists and other creative people tackle subjects such as immigration and refugees in their work.

For more than half an hour there was silence in the room and eyes were fixed on the small screens as the pupils were challenged to make decisions for an imaginary refugee fleeing persecution in Malaysia.

The app that we were using was ‘Finding Home’ made by the UNHCR a couple of years ago to give users insights into how the life of such a refugee is and their dependence on the communication opportunities offered by a smartphone.

It is an interesting approach and engaged the pupil’s attention fantastically well.  The app, in effect, takes over the phone of the user and makes it work like the phone of the refugee in the story.  The app presents a story in which there are choices to be made by the user that will alter what happens and the course of events.  In a sense it is not unlike some forms of literature that offer the reader the chance to make decisions and choices as the story progresses.

The app goes a step further though in that it also offers access to the photos, video and phone calls of the user, thus making it a much more immersive experience, one that continually engages you with choices, new developments and lurking in the background a constant feeling of danger.

The reaction of the pupils at the end of the lesson was positive.  The narrative that drives the storyline that the app develops was engaging and held their attention. There was even a suggestion I feel that they would actually have liked the app to have had even greater complexity and length, a positive, I think.  It will be a while yet before I ask the class to make a comparison between the various cultural media used to deal with these sensitive political issues.  It will be then that truly find out what the whole class thought of the way we spent the lesson and how the experience weighs in against immigration narratives developed by filmmakers, writers and visual artists in the other examples that we will be looking at.

 

Apps that meet my art room needs (12-15 year olds)

 

I’ve been making use of iPads in my art lessons for a number of years.  Together with my pupils I have experimented quite a bit, discovered some very bad apps and some very good ones. I’ve enjoyed having a camera always close to hand, easy and rapid access to the internet and discovered that an iPad also works really well as a tray for carrying cups of coffee through the corridor! 

There are still things that I am searching for. For instance I am yet to find an app that works well enough and fine enough to give satisfying results for modelling and designing for a 3d printer. But maybe someone out there has a suggestion for me. 

So what are my favourites when it comes to combining the digital possibilities of the iPad with the more conventional materials in the art room?  First of all let me explain a couple of criteria I have (or are forced to have): 

·         Due to department and school restrictions the app must be free to use 

·         It mustn’t be overly and unnecessarily complex 

·         It must be reliable, no crashes or freezing screens 

·         It must offer truly creative possibilities, not just readymade routes to polished results (this is a particularly important criteria, there are way too many apps that simply do too much for you) 

Below are a few of my favourites at the moment and examples of pupil work that has been produced using them. 

PHOTO EDITING 

Photoshop mix (Difficulty level: initially seems quite complex, but really isn’t) 

Cutting out, rearranging and editing photos on the iPad in the first instance looks like it is going to be difficult with a relatively small screen and complex to do without a mouse.  Photoshop Mix from Adobe though makes this remarkably easy to carry out quite fine work and even the younger pupils grasp the principles of the app rapidly and are soon able to manipulate images made up of multiple parts on numerous layers. 

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DRAWING AND PAINTING 

Bamboo Paper (Difficulty level: easy) 

The free version of Bamboo Paper comes with only two drawing tools and a limited collection of colours.  Despite these apparently enormous restrictions I use it every year with my youngest pupils.  It’s easy to use and has the by-product of forcing the pupils to be creative in discovering just what is possible with so few things to work with. 

Brushes Redux (Difficulty level: easy) 

Like Bamboo Paper, Brushes Redux doesn’t go overboard on the tools that it offers.  There are unlimited colours and a large collection of possible brushes but not a great deal more.  It is also a lot less graphic in the quality of the images that you make. It brings you closer to a painting or drawing with pastels sort of experience. The sampling of colours by touching a colour on the image on which you are working is useful, as is the possibility to import an image and work over the top of it is a facility that I have used in class.  Also the app allows you to reply i high speed animation of the drawing that you have been working on, a feature that is always popular with my pupils. 

Medibang Paint (Difficulty level: more complex, but offers so much) 

Medibang Paint (with its truly awful name) is a very complete, free, drawing app with a huge amount going for it.  Yes the screen space is often very crowded with the controls that are on offer, but get used to that and you start to ese the potential.  There is a huge selection of brushes on offer that can be modified,  photos can be imported and worked on and it has and interesting control feature that lets you manipulate the ways and directions in which your brushes work.  My older classes love it. 

GRAPHIC PAGE DESIGN AND POSTER LAYOUTS  

DesignPad (Difficulty level: more complex, but works well, even on the iPad’s relatively small screen) 

I use DesignPad with all age groups that I teach, beginning with a simple book cover design assignment with twelve year olds as a sort of orientation challenge.  After that comes poster design before progressing onto using it to plan the entire layout of a self-made book with my groups of fifteen year olds.  It requires a certain amount of getting your head around how it all works, but after that it is possible to use it for quite complex design challenges without ever having to leave the classroom to go and search out the desktop computers. 

Well-being and the arts

Around this time of the year, and every year, I am involved in an advertising campaign.  My third-year pupils (aged 14-15) are busy pondering their exam programme choices.  It is the point where pupils have to choose which subjects they will continue to study to exam level at the end of their Dutch secondary education.  Pupils in the Netherlands take a still very broad collection of subjects through to the age of 18, so you would think that there would be plenty of scope to choose an arts subject.  This is indeed the case, virtually every student could find the space for art in their timetable.  So why the need for an advertising campaign to push my subject forward and encourage it to be chosen?

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It is an effort to win hearts and minds of those in the classroom (the children themselves) and those beyond (parents and colleagues).  It is, broadly speaking, a two-pronged attack.  Firstly, and perhaps more obviously, there are the children would have particularly strong and well-developed abilities where just maybe the studying of an arts related subject may help them in their route into further education and ultimately a career.  In these cases, I don’t have to do too much, they enjoy the subject, they want to extend themselves and they want to see just how far that they can push themselves.

The second group however, potentially a much larger group, is a much harder sell.  They too may well have a high level of artistic ability and interest.  However, somewhere, even at the age of fifteen a decision has already been made that an arts subject is a wasted and unnecessary choice on the railroad to their future and prestigious career.  The idea that everything has to be in the service of their future university study and career is a deep-seated one.  It is a perspective that is undoubtedly pushed by over cautious parents wanting the ‘best’ for their children.  But it is also reinforced all too often by the general advice that is consciously or unconsciously given at school.  This is the playing-field for the art department’s advertising campaign.

To this group of pupils my message is normally pretty straight forward to deliver; it is perfectly acceptable to choose a subject to follow for three years simply because you like and enjoy it.It might give you a good feeling, it offers a different perspectives and activities to many other subjects on the timetable, it broadens you view of the world, it combines theory, practical, creativity, design, social issues, history and so much more.

Would I dare to add to this that it can increase your sense of well-being? Well maybe, and I wouldn’t be alone in doing this:

British Doctors May Soon Prescribe Art, Music, Dance, Singing Lessons

It is ironic that the views that are presented in this article (that I whole-heartedly support) run counter to the difficulties experienced in the arts, be that the pressures creative subjects are under within educational institutions or funding towards our broader arts organisations across society.

The arts as a wide field of creativity offers so much to those directly involved as artistic practitioners, but infinitely more to the broader public.  Those of us involved at all levels of the cultural world shouldn’t be shy in pushing our agenda, it is a constructive and at fulfilling one. 

Two further articles exploring this area:

The arts and medicine

Medical schools and art classes

Abstraction for teenagers

When I was doing my teacher training, I distinctly remember one of my art history lecturers arguing that abstraction was simply not something worth exploring with teenagers in their early teenage years.  Figurative art was the way to go, being more accessible, more linked to a narrative and simply more of an open door to them.

I would certainly acknowledge that figurative work is a more straight forward route, but to leave abstraction out of the picture seems to me to be a neglection of rather too much of the art of the twentieth century!  Each year with my classes of 14-15 year olds I launch into a quite extensive series of lessons that explores abstraction from a number of different directions.

I can’t pretend that the first session is often greeted with some bewilderment, but as the lessons and assignments progress there is an increasing realization that there is serious work to be done and artistic decisions to be made.

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I normally start by drawing parallels with the world of instrumental music (lyrics being way too much of a distraction).  Music is closer to their world of experience and discussions around rhythm, expression and emotional tone are all easily possible.  Also matters of personal taste can be explored. I use various music fragments to set the ball rolling, challenging the pupils to react with line, shape and tone to pieces ranging from the most minimal of Brian Eno compositions to pastoral classical music and techno rhythms.  Each fragment produces its own distinctive results.  The door towards abstract compositions swings slowly open.

We explore directional flow around and towards focal points in abstract arrangements. Graphic qualities in design, chaos and order, both working on paper and in digital work.  We have also explored step by step processes of abstraction from a figurative starting point, moving slowly away from pictorial conventions. We have also worked with street maps as a starting point towards working towards a much-abstracted version that has often become essentially unrecognizable.

When working around these themes I often refer to the work of Frank Stella, and this year couldn’t resist the chance to dip into his work to explore the differences between illusionistic form (through the cones and pillars relief pieces) and the real three-dimensional space that these huge constructions have.

All-in all there seems so much to explore and experiment with and I have to say that often after a little initial scepticism there is an increasing focused engagement and they start to understand the considerable possibilities and freedom that these assignments offer.  Do they miss the narrative?  My impression is that they don’t really, they just focus on the choices and options that are on offer, and they are undoubtedly more knowledgeable and technically able at the end of the module.

 

Stealing the physics’ department thunder…and a little art room magic

Every year with my classes of first years (12 year olds) I spend part of a lesson looking at the Anolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck. It is a beautiful painting from the 1430s. It is a fantastic example of van Eyck’s technical brilliance, it is also a painting loaded up with symbolic content, has an interesting narrative back story and contains unbelievable levels of painterly detail.  All good reasons to show it to the pupils.

arnolfiniThe question always comes up….’how did he do that?’. It’s a very understandable question to ask and one that British artist David Hockney also asked in his book and tv programme entitled Secret Knowledge that raised a similar point and gave particular attention to the hugely intricate chandelier that hangs at the centre of the painting.  It is a phenomenally complex object that has been rendered with an accuracy that it difficult to believe. The perspective of the decorative arms of the chandelier just looks so ‘correct’ as Hockney puts it.

Hockney’s theory is that van Eyck was an early user of a camera obscura to aid the drawing of this intricate structure.  The device makes an optical projection that could, just maybe have been allowed to fall on his canvas, thus allowing him the chance to simply trace over it.  It is a theory that I have to say I see as being very plausible.

I explain the theory to my first years, draw a diagram on the board and give them a basic physics lesson about the behaviour of light. Often I’m not completely sure if the whole class is ‘getting it’. So, I dash down the corridor to the physics department and borrow their camera obscura. I set it up, with its tracing paper screen overlooking the railway that runs past the classroom and invite the pupils to come and have a look. It’s a real ‘wow’ moment that follows!

Even in this world of mobile phones and huge LCD screens the projection the pupils see silences them. CinemaScope it certainly isn’t, however, using such basic materials I am able to create a projection quite unlike anything they have ever seen and something that gives a scientific insight into a way of working that Jan van Eyck, nearly 600 years ago may just have been making use of.