When needs must, Covid, creative and educational choices…Minecraft in and out of the classroom

For a number of years in the winter months I run a series of lessons with the fifteen-year olds that I teach about architecture that focus on aesthetic beauty in contemporary buildings.  We spend time looking at the architecture found on the streets of our local towns and villages as well as the work of leading architects on the world stage.  Most pupils are interested and surprised when being introduced to the work of the likes of Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Peter Eisenman, and seeing work that is a long way from what we find closer to home.

Once the theory and written assignments are out of the way we dive into what are some of my favourite lessons of the year.  Pupils begin work on a architectural design process that first involves them working out on paper a layout for the interior of a building, puzzling out how to make best use of a space with fixed parameters of a building’s footprint.  This is followed by a second part where following a short lesson on how to use SketchUp, the pupils use it to design the exterior to accompany their interior plans.  We sit for several lessons at the computers at school, first working on the basic form, and then focussing of pushing the level of detail and refinement in the design as far as we can.

This year though, with a lockdown in place and lessons being given online this practical assignment presented a problem.  Many of our pupils, when at home, only have access to their iPad, the chosen digital device that we have been using at school for a number of years.  There may be a computer at home, but during lockdown, the whole family may have claims on this.  To get round this problem, as an art department, we reorganized the assignment (like we have done many times in the last year!).  The new version offered a whole series of possibilities:

  • The SketchUp option (for those who could install and use computer)
  • Tinkercad 3D design software (that does work on the iPad)
  • A physical maquette made of wood, cardboard, paper, plastic, etc.
  • Two architectural drawings

Or, and this turned out to be the real crowd pleaser…..

  • Using Minecraft to design the building

I have to admit that was a little a little sceptical at the beginning.  Would the limitations of the Minecraft blocks simply be too much of a restriction and result in designs with little flair and imagination?  I need not have worried, encouraging the pupils to work big in their Minecraft worlds meant that this really wasn´t too much of an issue.  Pupils seemed only too keen to put the necessary hours in and show off the hours that they had already invested over the years mastering the building possibilities. 

video 20210425 93604 PM c36ea098 – YouTube

Ckv modern school building – YouTube

There has been much reinventing of the educational wheels this year.  Multiple assignments have been adjusted, redeveloped or simply thrown away to be replaced by others that may work in an online teaching world.  This is just one such example. 

An assignment to keep in for next year?  Given the choice I’ll head back to SketchUp with these older pupils.  But the idea of using Minecraft within an art program is a possibility for sure.  The software is a bit geared up for a particular type of architecture, but maybe heading off in a different direction altogether and using it to create abstract sculpture could be very interesting, and the pupils might be less drawn to following tutorials on YouTube.  I have also just thrown down a challenge to the 12 year olds I teach to try using Minecraft to recreate Renaissance architecture as it is to be would in the paintings from 500 years ago…….I’ll be posting the results in due course!

Hybrid lessons….three weeks in

Do I look at the eight or nine faces spread evenly across the classroom, or do I stare into the lens at the top of my laptop?  Do I try and spread my attention between the pupils physically present with me and those sitting at home?  Do I offer the same materials and activities to all or do I differentiate between the two learning contexts?  All hugely relevant to my current educational situation.  Welcome to hybrid teaching!

A couple of weeks ago the Dutch government decided that it was time for the secondary schools to return to the classroom.  Or at least, to return to physical lessons for all children for at least one day a week.  If we set aside for a moment whether this was the right decision or not for a moment and focus on the practicalities and how hybrid lessons are working in particular for us in the art department.

My school like many in the Netherlands has chosen to split each class in three groups.  Each day, one of the groups are at school and physically present in the classroom, and the other two groups are at home and following the lesson online.

The net result for the teacher is a sort of split personality of teaching practice, a near impossible challenge of knowing where to aim your focus, and yet another opportunity to overhaul teaching material to give it a chance of working in this new situation. 

Three weeks in, and at least for me in my art room role, a few things have become clear:

  • After the months of totally online lessons and having to rely only on materials that the pupils have available to the at home, I want to offer those physically present the chance to work with some of the more interesting materials that we have on offer at school.
  • Spreading your attention evenly between the two groups is near impossible.  As a result, hardly surprisingly, you find yourself participating in small talk with those present, and risking neglecting those at home. Avoiding creating “second-class learners” at home is a challenge.  The home-based groups receive certainly less attention than they got while the teaching was fulling online.
  • I have decided that I simply need two assignments for each class.  One for home lessons days and a second (related, but different in terms of materials and practicalities) for the at school days.  The home assignment is designed in such a way that pupils can essentially get on with it independently, while I give more attention to those present in the classroom.

This set up of split assignments seemed to me to be the only way to go, especially with classes where there are sometimes ten pupils in class and twenty following at home. 

The only exception to this rule has interestingly been the youngest class that I teach.  Twenty-six 12-year-olds do seem able to be taught in one group.  That has been partly down to the assignments that I have been doing with them, but a bigger factor here has been the openness and chatty active participation levels of the younger children in comparison to their camera shy 15- or 16-year-old fellow pupils. 

So, my conclusions after these first three weeks of hybrid education?  Well, when looked at in terms of the quality of the education being offered (in terms of content) has not been improved, when compared to the fully online lessons. 

What we have now is a hugely complex learning situation where everyone is battling to find focus and the best way to do things.  But was this change to hybrid ever actually about the content?

It feels more like it has been an attempt to offer a degree of ‘normality’ in our pandemic world.  A kind of ‘look everyone, the schools are open again’ sort of statement.  Although the more pushed narrative is one aimed at increasing the social contact of our young people.  I have no problem with this second perspective, our pupils need to meet up, to socialise and re-establish old weekly rhythms. 

However, the ”return to normality” viewpoint is considerably more problematic, especially in the context of rising infection rates and neighbouring countries being still very much in lockdown.  Could it just be that there was a political motivation to the reopening that was connected to the general election last week? 

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.

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.