2020 – Looking back on some creative online group projects

I coach a group of enthusiastic part-time painters.  We have been meeting up one evening a week for years, except of course in 2020.  In mid-March this year our painting sessions, like so many other things came to an abrupt halt.  We were temporarily able to restart for a period of four weeks in the autumn, before once again having to stop again.

I’ve done what has been possible to keep the group active (at least for those who wish to carry on at home), and the group themselves have retained contact via our app group, sharing what they are up to in the area of creativity and artistic interests.  It has, all-in all, worked well.  The group does still feel like a group and the stream of creative output certainly hasn’t dried up. 

In terms of “going online”, like my other area of work in mainstream education, it hasn’t been quite the same.  The commitment to an online lesson at a specific time didn’t feel like the way to go.  Instead, what seems to have worked best has been a series of group paintings/projects.  Anyone who wanted to, could easily contribute, and I worked on grouping things together.  Some have been very loose, and in a way, not much more than a collection of paintings and drawings around a theme, while others have been quite structured in their approach.

Looking back complete 2020 set, it is surprising just how productive the group has been, and how well this loose online approach has worked.  We are all of course hoping for better things in 2021, but as a record of 2020 it certainly shouldn’t be a year best forgotten by the group as the results below show.

The summer 2020 sketchbook

This summer has been different. Not a completely stay at home holiday, but one that hasn’t seen me cross the Dutch borders. Like most holidays I document the trips we make in a small drawing book. No great aims or ambitions, just quick visual notes of where we go. That has meant images of forests, heathlands, the rivers and the coast.

Click here or on the image below to browse through the book.

I have quite a collection of similar books on the shelf in my studio. This is the first one that I’ve put into digital form. The quality is not too bad, and it is in the end a nice record of the ‘Corona summer’.

There connections to my other paintings that I produce is limited, although maybe there is just starting to be increasing convergence. A long over-due update and documentation of my studio work from 2020 should hopefully follow sometime in the coming weeks.

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.

Three weeks open again

Three weeks into the return to school, time to make up the balance a bit.  Three weeks of up to 30 children in the classroom and me the teacher trying to maintain a one and a half metre distance from them, in the classroom and in the corridors and also a similar distance from colleagues in the staffroom (actually probably the most tricky challenge!).

Front on teaching, teacher at the front talking and explaining (ironically the sort of teaching that for years we’ve been told is educationally the least effective) works fine. The tables in my classroom have been all moved back a bit to give me more ‘safe’ space at the front, so I have to shout a bit louder at times, but that is fine.  The first week or so was quite a bit of explaining so I left at the end of the first week feeling that distance had been maintained well. But then the practical activities started…..

Once again you explain from the from, examples on the screen and the pupils get started. Soon enough the questions and queries start to come. And after those come the specific enquiries about particular (often small) details on a piece of work.  You want to see, you want to help, you want to instruct and even demonstrate.  You quickly realise just how much of your job you spend shoulder to shoulder with your pupils, how often you stand amongst them. It is all part of classroom life and especially art classroom life. 

In some ways normal classroom life has returned, the faces at the desks. But at the same time that it is anything but normal. I find myself asking whole groups of pupils to hold up their work for me to check that they are roughly on the right lines whereas in the past I would have had multiple one in one exchanges.

The crucial teaching tool of your physical presence has been taken away. You can’t go and stand closely behind the unruly individual in the back row and teach from there (right into his or her ear!).  So much looks the same, but so much is different.  At the moment my pupils seem to respect my space, but we all know how forgetful pupils can be. Time to print a “don’t stand so close to me” t-shirt for the weeks and months ahead…..although I am fully aware when Sting wrote those lyrics he was referring to a very different situation!

How long will we be teaching like this? Well that is of course anyone’s guess right now. Right now its one week at a time, but I have to admit to often finding myself thinking about all the projects I want to offer this year, and wondering which ones to save and hold back for a potential online situation.

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.

Reflections on the 2019-20 school year

And so we come to the last week of a bizarre educational year. 2019-20, the Covid year, the distance learning year, the struggling to keep in touch with your pupils year. It’s perhaps a good moment to reflect a little.

For me, in many ways the first seven months were very much a more of the same sort of experience. Familiar lessons and many classes I already knew. In the background though, as a school we were working on a new educational concept that was a long term project, due to be launched in the school year 2020-21. The aim of the new approach being to increase both the educational engagement of our pupils and their ability to work more independently. Little did we know that in many ways this aim for a more independent form of learning was about to be twisted into a new form and thrust, on not just a single year group to start with, but the entire school of 1600 pupils.

So, as all those who work in education, those who are pupils and those who are parents know only too well, around February, March or maybe April, the learning world gets turned on its head. Suddenly the schools are standing empty and pupils and teaching staff, like just about everyone else are left stranded at home.

Much has been written about the admirable educational response to the new challenges. Seen as a whole this is true.  It was amazing to see the way that a steep digital learning curve was climbed and how effectively many schools and teachers got their online lessons up and running.

A first post-lockdown group artwork, June 2020

Three months later, and with the Corona situation in Europe at least easing a little we are getting closer to seeing how effective our emergency sticking plaster form of education has been. As a school we have even been able to carry out an exam week for a number of our classes. I have also spent time chatting with groups of pupils during lessons as part of the partial reopening of school.  And last week we had a series of report meetings to talk about the progress in each class. 

So how have things gone so far, and how are they going as we head into our summer break? It is early days to be drawing real conclusions of course, but what is the initial anecdotal evidence?  Variable it would seem. Like some of the teachers, a section of the pupils have coped well and relished the new challenges of working and organizing themselves a lot more than the normal school week allows. They have enjoyed puzzling out and researching lesson material and getting on with what was necessary.  Others though have struggled in the very same areas.  These are the pupils who need the structure, the discipline and the educational presence of teachers, a fixed timetable and the environment that a school building offers.

There are no great surprises in these early reflections, and the end of year test results of the students my wife teaches in higher education seem to hint at similar conclusions.  The top students continue to score top grades, but the lower areas of achievement have slipped a little lower.  Is an increasing educational seperation the risk here?  It isn’t any great surprise to discover that many pupils need the structures, rhythms and rules that the educational institution provides.  It is what we in education have taught them to be dependent on.  Take it away and replace it with distant learning that they follow from in their bed and things are going to be different.

The winners here do seem to be the ones who can work, plan and organize themselves more independently, both the pupils and it should also be said, the staff too. The new approach to the education we will be starting to offer at the school where I teach when we return after the summer is aimed at exactly these points. Letting pupils make a few more decisions for themselves in how they tackle the educational material.  Challenging them to work a little further and faster rather than allowing a general ‘class tempo’ to be the dominant one-size fits all form of education.  It would be nice (an maybe a little unrealistic) to think that if we had made such steps five years earlier our pupils may have been more ready for the effects of the COVID 19 influenced forms of education. Whether that proves to be the case only time will tell, and whether we can get on with shaking up the education we offer without further interruptions is of course also very unclear.

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. 

Exhibitions I would have liked to have seen…lockdown interruptions

Museums all over the world are shuffling their exhibition programs.  They are also undoubtedly counting the costs of the missing visitors, the entrance tickets, the book shop sales, the cafes and restaurants.  The museums here in the Netherlands are no different.

Dutch museums are in the process of tentatively reopening their doors. Limited visitors are allowed, and everyone has to pre-book their time of entry.  They have also been reorganizing the exhibition programs. 

For example, there was to have been this autumn in the Drendtsmuseum in the north of the country, a large-scale exhibition of the work or Frida Kahlo.  Kahlo is an artist whose work I have only ever seen in odd snippets here and there. It was a visit that I had been looking forward to making. It seems that I will have to look forward to it a bit longer, it has now been put back a year and is now autumn 2021. 

There were other exhibitions that have simply passed by during the lockdown.  I thought that this was the case with the Breitner-Israels exhibition in the Kunstmuseum in The Hague.  The two top Dutch painters from the late 19th and early 20th century had been put head to head for comparison. The show opened shortly before Corona burst loose on us all. I hadn’t had the chance to visit and guessed my chance had been missed. As compensation to myself I bought the extensive catalogue and enjoyed reading it during the peak lockdown weeks for a bit of cultural distraction.

As it turns out the exhibition has been extended over the summer, so there is still the opportunity to visit. But for me there is a catch; getting to the museum involves a journey of an hour and a half on public transport.  The message coming out of government is that public transport should only be used when absolutely necessary……like when I use it to get to my work in education.  There’s a potentially interesting discussion to be had here, that being that after three months of no cultural input of this sort, it does feel pretty necessary and vital to recharge my cultural batteries! Is that needy enough?

Materials problems and online art teaching

After two and a half months of distance learning and online lessons during the Corona crisis a few things, in my art department at least, are becoming clearer.  One of these relates to the materials we use and difficulties we face in not having them available to us. In a well-equipped art studio, or even an only relatively well-equipped one there are choices enough on offer as lessons are planned. 

Once the children are based at home though, it is a completely different ball game.  Yes of course some children have plenty of creative stuff at home, but there are many with very little.  Within some classes I find myself assuming that some may only have a pencil and a sheet of paper…..and thankfully also their iPad.

While on the short term this is not insurmountable problem, I find myself looking ahead to after the summer holidays and realizing that this distant learning variety of education might actually be with us a bit longer. The follow up question is how might the temporary emergency solutions of the last couple of weeks, be slowly transformed into more meaningful and structural curriculum elements next year as and when they are needed?

During the lockdown period of online lessons, I have found myself particularly engaging with collage in its various forms as a way of getting beyond just the simplest of drawing assignments.  Collage relies on simple materials that all children should be able to lay their hands on.  I do always feel that you first must get past the idea in the heads of the kids that collage belongs at primary school. Although as the examples here show my pupils seem to be making this step.

We started with two, technically seen, extreme opposites. A digital collage to create a fantastic and impossible building using iPads and the limitless resources of online imagery of buildings to cut, paste and combine.  We then moved on to a more playful form of collage, piles of clothes arranged on the floor and used to recreate existing artworks from museum collections.

The clothes experiments proved to be an excellent warm up and introduction to the more fully worked out transcription collages that I have been doing with the same groups in the last week or two.  I made a couple of demonstrations films to lead the classes into the assignments, that undoubtedly helped.  There was a degree of choice on offer; create a transcription based on the work of either Magritte, Hopper, Hockney or van Gogh.  All highly suitable for the collage challenge.

It has also been interesting to see over the last couple of months how several pupils (particularly boys) have taken time to produce some very good work.  Are they less distracted now than they usually are in the classroom situation…..or is an over-enthusiastic parent doing the work?  I guess we will never know for sure, but I do know that I am providing and art education for someone out there!!

Collage work has been a much bigger feature of my teaching during the last weeks than it normally is.  I and other art teachers are looking for solutions to difficult technical challenges.  Perhaps the biggest one still to be got to grips with is three-dimensional work.  If when we return to school in the autumn online lessons are still a significant factor (as seems likely), addressing how to work with more spatial challenges are likely to become more necessary.

A month or perhaps two without proper school and let the panic begin

Dutch schools have been shut for five weeks.  After the current May holiday there are eight or so weeks until the summer holiday.  In any normal year it is a busy time, with so much to fit in as the end of year approaches.

But imagine that the schools can’t return immediately after the current Spring holiday, and that very well might be the case. What then?  Well, we’ll be continuing with the current distance learning strategies.  The jury is very much out still on how effective the learning and education that is on offer is actually being.  But two things are certain, firstly, education is continuing and secondly, its success or failure certainly won’t be for lack of trying.  The education world at all levels are doing their best in incredibly demanding circumstances.

With this as the background music, in the higher echelons of the Dutch Education system there is already talk of playing catch-up.  The question is being asked, ‘how is the time that the schools are, well, not in school going to be caught up?’  There is talk of next year extending the length of the school day or of shortening the summer holiday to make good the ‘damage’.  But wait a minute, the teaching staff are currently putting in extraordinary efforts to continue the educational process.  This unprecedented situation we find ourselves in is leading pupils and staff to approach learning in some new and innovative ways and judgement is already being made that these cannot possibly be working sufficiently well, and we should be looking at damage limitation and how to make up the ‘lost’ time.

This approach overlooks so much.  During the shutdown young people are still learning.  They are still learning the conventional educational material (maybe temporarily at a slightly less high tempo than normal), but they are engaging with so many other things.  They are being encouraged to work more independently, they are meeting new digital challenges, they are learning more about the world around them, they are learning about the dynamics of a pandemic, they are learning about their relationship with in a broader society and their place within it, they might also be learning about following the news for the first time in their life.  Yes, they might very well return to school with a better understanding of a bigger picture that will stand them in good stead for future their development.

Others may return to school having struggled with the educational challenges thrown at them during the shutdown, that is perfectly true.  But what about those who return having had to deal with unexpected bereavement and loss, or simple anxiety problems that have arisen from the events happening around them that have left them feeling insecure or simply afraid.  Less obvious problems on the surface perhaps, but ones that will have lasting consequences if swept under the educational carpet in the rush to play catch-up.  Education has a wide reach and a duty of care to its pupils in countless areas that go way beyond simple academic achievement, a fact that we should not loose sight of.

Finally, it does have to be asked, what exactly are we trying to catch-up. The integrity of an educational program and the curriculum you might say. Take out two or three months, and we’ll never be able to deliver the pupils to the demarcated finishing line at the age of, say 18. That does rather assume that the content that must be forced in by the age of 18 is absolute and strictly defined. Well, I suppose it is defined by the content of the final exams. So, is the whole idea of the catch-up, and throwing the whole educational sector, pupils and staff under still more pressure, just to be able to pass the exams? Could it just be, that it is the exams that are the problem here, and it is there that we should be looking?