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?

Five weeks into distant learning, the pros and the cons

Five weeks ago, after a week of school in early March where you could already feel that the Corona effect was about to burst loose, the schools in the Netherlands closed. Initially for three weeks, although for most people it was pretty clear that five weeks minimum was extremely likely as it would bring many schools up to the spring holiday.  We’ve reached that point, and holiday for me starts this weekend and runs until early May. As I write it is unclear what will happen thereafter, but that should become known sometime in the next week or so.

So, five weeks in, time for a little reflection on how it’s gone and is going. Let’s start with the negatives.

Cons:

  • I have undoubtedly put in more hours to my teaching job in a month than quite possibly ever before
  • As a result of the above, I go into the holiday hugely behind with my marking
  • I feel like I have an office job, stuck behind a desk, staring at a screen for hours on end. Which for an art teacher does come as a bit of a shock.
  • I miss massively the contact with the kids, the humour, the silliness and general classroom banter.
  • I miss the engagement with the pupils involved in their practical activities, the reaching over a shoulder to guide, coach and advise
  • It is too easy for pupils to be invisible. And herein lies the biggest potential problem. Successful and assertive ‘achievers’ will work well. The shy, the strugglers or the disadvantaged (in any number of ways) will run into more difficulties. This potential risk area, means the differences in abilities and achievements in any class is going to magnified.
  • The practical possibilities on offer to be able to work into distant learning art practical assignments are greatly reduced. I can’t really assume my pupils have access to much more than their iPad, pencil and pen at home.
  • The online lessons whilst being useful are so radically different in almost every way to the sorts of lessons I normally give.  There are possibilities here, but after these first weeks of experimentation I am only really just starting to get my head round the new format and to start to see the opportunities.  Initially you do seem to be constantly hitting your head on the difficulties.

But enough of the negatives, what about the positives….

Pro’s:

  • First, and most importantly of all, education is continuing, the form is different, but something is certainly happening!
  • The digital know-how and experience of virtually all teachers is coming on in leaps and bounds, instead of it being just the realm of the enthusiasts. I sense that the incredibly difficult to arrange art department meetings might be moving to a digital arrangement next year.
  • The pupils are actually turning up on time and doing the assignments at the required moments (at least in my experience)
  • The pupils are also rapidly picking up the necessary skills to work in new digital areas.
  • The pupils don’t seem to moan any more…..but maybe that’s because their microphones are turned off!
  • The one on one contact with pupils is interestingly different.  In the course of the week there’s quite a lot of messaging and chatting with individual pupils about assignments that are being worked on.  This is chatty and friendly and feels somehow different both to the rather awkwardly written emails I sometimes get or the face to face contact in the classroom.  They’ve started wishing me a good weekend, saying that they enjoyed an assignment, some have even asked for extra homework…..this is all rather uncharted and very interesting territory!

I certainly wouldn’t go as far as to say that distant learning is the future of mainstream education. But this is a learning experience for all, and there are undoubtedly things that should be kept in and built on when we do eventually get back into the classroom.

Well it’s a daily rhythm of sorts

The normal working week for me had a regular pattern. There was the time at home at the start of the week preparing for my teaching role in the middle and later part of the week.  School days were long with lengthy travel time at the beginning and end of the teaching day. There were the weekends where the very best was done to make them feel, well, like a weekend.

The last four weeks, like for just about everyone else, has felt very different. I’ve just been reading an article, I think in the Guardian, that said that the education world has been rising to the Corona challenge.  I have a daughter studying at art school in the Netherlands, a brother teaching in the UK and another teaching at a university in Malaysia. Added to this my wife teaches at a university of applied science her in the Netherlands and then there is me, a secondary school teacher. Maybe, just maybe, I’m better placed than most to offer an opinion on the efforts going on in the educational world.

I would certainly feel a large amount of agreement with that newspaper article, education is rising to the challenge.  The urgency of the situation was rapidly clear. The online possibilities were ready, although for most, a little unexplored, to have a serious go at engaging and serving the stay at home pupils. 

A learning curve of dizzying steepness was leapt at.  Teams, Skype, Zoom, Moodles and any number of other online learning opportunities and facilities have been thrown into place.  A process of teacher education that under normal circumstances that would have been spread out over numerous after school sessions spread over months has been picked up and run with.

Have I ever had so many emails, apps, chats and video meetings?  And we really are only at the start of actually providing a form of online teaching of our numerous classes.  This week I am starting with classes of up to 33 pupils online together in a Teams group together. I’m curious to see how it goes. I have to say, that although I’m missing the personal contact, I’m not sure how the online classroom might measure up in filling this gap.

Teachers the world over are undoubtedly putting in plenty of extra time and effort.  I’m also curious to see whether this is being matched by our pupils. At this stage that is rather the great unknown factor. Can they work effectively with us only digitally standing over them. Time will tell. What will be the payback for a one, two, three-month dip in the educational service that we normally provide?

Amongst all this my weekly rhythm has changed, I’m starting to recognize something of a vague pattern. It is hours in front of the computer screen, apping on my phone, writing new material adjusted for the online context, marking, guiding colleagues, liaising with the school leadership, following online teaching courses and so on. 

It’s starting early, finishing late. Technically my job is only 60% full-time. Educational hours always tend to run out of control, now more than ever. But I try to intersperse the screen time with other things to break it up and create rhythm in the days rather than lapsing into a sort of even continuum. For me that means a walk or going out running in the nearby woods. Thank goodness that these things are still an option for me.  Family time and fragmented through it all when the moment presents itself, some painting and drawing.

A future blog post will dive into the theme of online appropriate and stimulating assignments that might work the best.

Finding humour in distant learning

Education has been thrown to the bottom of a learning curve in online distance learning that few were prepared for.  Teachers across the globe are looking for new ways to teach, to communicate and to continue and extend their educational practices.  It’s a serious business of course, but we are going to have to make compromises and adjustments in expectations.  This is all rather unknown territory, but education is doing its best, in what are difficult and challenging situations.

One of the things I am missing in my educational experience of the past couple of weeks is the social encounters with my pupils, the humour, the messing about and simply laughing together.  It is an important part of my daily routine.  The distant learning contact with the pupils and the classes just isn’t the same as it was.  The look on my face when I say something in class that I don’t actually seriously mean, or the social banter about a tv programme, football match or someone’s birthday are largely lost and with it the richness that is the background to the classroom learning situation.

I like many teachers are in the process of rebuilding and repackaging lesson plans and material to work in a digital environment.  That is the key business of course.  But I and colleagues are also busy with trying to keep an informal and playful contact with our pupils that offer a more relaxed engagement through the digital route.

There are various examples going round on social media that play into this area.  A few that I have been involved with can be seen below. 

The missing emojis in WhatsApp – the need for other emojis than are what are on offer in the app, now that is that the hairdressers and barbers in the Netherlands are going to be shut for two months or more.

The views out of pupils’ and teachers’ windows where they are sitting behind their computers

Online/Instagram quizzes relating to school, such as the emoji quiz based on the names of teachers

A missing you film from teachers to their pupils

They are all fringe activities to the main educational one of course.  But let us not forget that play and fun are also crucial elements to education at all levels.