Swept along on a wave of enthusiasm

In education a lot is written about peer group pressure. Generally when it gets mentioned it is very much in a negative context. It’s linked to pupils under-performing because of the influence of others or children being led astray because they don’t want to stand out from the crowd.

These sorts of examples are recognizable to anyone who works in education.

However peer group pressure can have a sort of flip side. Let’s leave all the negative connotations behind and call the flip side The power of the crowd. A winning football or hockey team gets something of this quality, people are swept along on its success, individuals within the team are lifted up by their achievement and share in the achievements of others in the team. We see glimpses of these sorts of qualities in education from time to time, but for me is difficult to imagine anything to match the effects of the music, song, dance and drama project that we have visiting our school this week.

A group known as the Young Americans visit our school every two years. It is a group of about forty or so performing arts students, principally from the U.S. but also from a large number from other countries around the world. They visit for three days and work for that time with all our bilingual second and third classes (ages thirteen to fifteen), normally a total of around 180-200 pupils.

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During two and a half days of intensive workshops they put together with the Young Americans, a performance of music, dance and song that is presented to a packed makeshift theatre in our sports hall in the afternoon and evening of the third day. For the Young Americans it is a well-practiced and well-oiled format that allows them to integrate all of the pupils into the performance, often with all of them on or around the stage simultaneously.  It is for all the pupils an incredible experience.

I am used to having to motivate and engage a class of thirty pupils. Sometimes that’s easy, other days you have to work a lot harder. I am also all too aware that there are odd pupils in classes that in the normal run of things are simply quite difficult to ‘reach’ or quite difficult to motivate. So how is it that they are up there on the stage dancing, singing, smiling and enjoying it with the rest of them?

Well the answer to that lies in the power of the crowd. It starts with the overwhelming enthusiasm of the Young Americans. The pupils really don’t know what’s hit them to start with. They show them just how cool having a go can actually be. They support and encourage, they applaud and put an arm over the shoulder when it’s needed. Their enthusiasm is infectious. Their high fives and shouts of encouragement edge the nervous pupils forward.  And before you know what is happening the pupils are joining in, cheering their classmates on.  There is a growing belief in the group that they can make something special.  Pupils who are normally ‘background’ inhabitants are suddenly discovered, and they find themselves making the giant step from the background, literally into the limelight.

Come the performance in front of 600 parents, family and friends the tension and excitement rise. Suddenly that thirteen year old who has hardly said a word all year in class is on the stage singing a solo, maybe only two lines before someone else takes it over, but she has done it and in doing so performed to a theatre full of onlookers, an achievement she wouldn’t have dreamed of just two days earlier.

What has brought her to this point?  Well that is part the sheer enthusiasm of the Young American group, but it is also partly the subtle shift that has occurred in the peer group. They have been swept up in the enthusiasm, the excitement and plain thrill of performing.

As a teacher involved in the arts and cultural education it is fantastic to see. Often I feel there is just a handful of us at school to defend and promote the importance and value that the arts in the curriculum have.  Watch one of these shows and a door is opened on the possibilities and crucial role culture, drama, music, art, dance, etc. can have for our young people.

The Young Americans will undoubtedly be returning to our school.

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Avoiding a cultural backwards step

A few weeks ago I posted about the British government’s plan to scrap Art History as an a-level exam subject for eighteen year olds:

Culturally stepping backwards

I would like to claim that my post made all the difference to the debate. But the truth of course is that the likes of Simon Schama and Anish Kapoor weighing with their hefty opinions has led to a rethink. Surprising? Well yes, in the world we seem to be living in of intellectual dumbing down. But good news non-the-less for the British cultural climate.

Art history a-level saved

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Swept along by a film assignment – feel free to use the idea!

Teenagers love a movie. A good film during lesson time is, in the eyes of many of many pupils, about as good as it gets. Because of this I normally start the broad art and culture awareness course that I teach to my fourth years (15-16 year olds) with a module on film making.

The series of lessons is built up essentially of three separate parts.

  1. A few theory lessons that look at the history of film and explore the craft of the filmmaker, along with a little shared group analysis of filmmaking techniques.
  2. We subsequently watch a movie in class, discuss it as a group before the pupils write their own analysis and evaluation report of what we have seen. I use various films for various classes, favorites from the last few years have been Senna and Amy from Asif Kapadia, great for teenagers with an aversion for documentary films. Alongside these two, Catfish and The Babadook have also been greatly enjoyed.

For a little more reflection on watching films in class, take a look at the links below:

Three film, three reactions

Finding the right film

  1. The final part of the module is a practical assignment. The aim of this practical is essentially to get the pupils out of the classroom, and to experience in a more conscious and hands on way, the possibilities of camera use, and alongside this, the importance of the edit.

This third part, the film practical assignment, is without doubt one of my favourite activities of the year. To start with it is a little complex to explain to the class, but once they have got the idea they just love doing it.

The assignment

In bullet points, this is the working process:

  • I choose an existing short film (one that is about five minutes long)
  • I divide my pupils up into groups of about five (often this is done across three or four classes together)
  • I divide the film up into sections (the same number of sections as I have groups)
  • I allocate each group a section (normally 20-30 seconds long)
  • The groups produce a detailed story board of their fragment. This involves making screenshots, notes about what the camera is doing, notes about the performances being given and very importantly exactly how long the individual shot lasts
  • The pupils then head off to reproduce each individual shot as precisely as they possibly can
  • The pupils then edit their own work to result in a fragment of the exact same length as the original section that they had been allocated
  • The groups hand in their piece of work.
  • I then join all the fragments together in the correct order
  • I rip the soundtrack of the original film and drop this onto the pupils’ version, add some titles at the beginning and the end and the job is then essentially finished.

This year’s pupil film:

Based on the following original:

 

A few footnotes

For someone with a little knowledge of even the most simply video editing software this is not an overly complex project. However there are a few things to watch out for. Most importantly is the choice of original film. Script that is spoken ‘on camera’ makes the process a lot more complex. The marrying up of the sound of the spoken text from the original and the pupils mouths is difficult and often requires numerous small adjustments. To limit this, choose a film with a narrator, or simply one with the absolute minimum of speech.

This is an incredibly fun assignment to do. It is a carefully framed up activity, and leaves the pupils with a very clear task to carry out. The results can be fantastic and leave the pupils desperate to see the final version, that in my case, is often made by a group of close to one hundred pupils.

We show the finished product at a social event where both parents and pupils are present. It is a great hit every year!

Below are links to the same assignment from previous years:

 

Lovesick II

Black Coffee II

 

Such a ‘cool’ day of lessons…www.virtual-emotions.nl

If you work in education you are often all too used to being in the centre of attention during your lessons. It’s fantastic when the chance comes along to take a back seat and just watch. Today was just such a day for me. It was an unusual in other ways too, in fact not a day of normal lessons at all really, instead a day of workshops for my groups of fifteen and sixteen year old pupils in the context of our broad art and culture lessons. The workshops formed a part of a series of lessons that focus on the role of new technologies in the cultural world and artists and creative people who are involved in this area. We spent time looking at the design work of Daan Roosegaarde for instance, a creative and experimental designer who leans heavily on new technologies in his work.

For examples of Roosegaarde’s work and a film about his activities follow this link.

Seeing and thinking about such work, and discovering a little about the personalities behind it, can be a real eye opener for a teenager. However in terms of engagement it is no secret that actual direct involvement and participation can be a fantastic learning experience, which brings me back to today’s workshops.

The workshops were provided by Edwin and Frans Jan from www.virtual-emotions.nl. It’s not so easy to describe what they do, but let me try. With the help of a camera, a computer an area of a classroom is scanned continuously. The computer senses movement within this area and throughout this zone various sounds are located. By moving the sounds are activated and the degree and type of movement effects the volume and other qualities of the sounds.

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In effect, by moving your body and being expressive with your arms, hands and legs, you ‘play’ the space like it is your musical instrument. Stand still, and slowly all sound fades away. This is about movement and making music, it shouldn’t be confused with dancing, in fact it is kind of the reverse of dancing. With dancing the music comes first and we move as a reaction to the music, with virtualemotions the movement is the trigger that creates the music.

It was fascinating to watch pupils tentatively enter the space and discover the effects of even the smallest movement. I hadn’t anticipated just how far outside the comfort zone this was going to be, particularly for the boys. It was strange, and in a way a little disorientating, but as the penny started to drop and some in the class started to see just what the possibilities were, the class slowly loosened up and started to let go.

Having initially had a go in the space individually the pupils started to use the space in groups of two or three, allowing interactions between them to start taking place, again fascinating to watch how the pupils succeeded (or not) in working with one another.

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We can offer offer our pupils many creative activities at school. But today’s workshops were something genuinely different. Interestingly the pupils who play a musical instrument or have had dance lessons didn’t necessarily seem to be at an advantage. The ones who thought and listened carefully to the consequences of their actions were ultimately the ones who achieved most. Such alert self awareness is definitely a skill that we should stimulate in all areas of education!

Priceless moments in education – the Jean Paul Gaultier dress

Once in a while something in the classroom happens that is just priceless. It might be the timing of a joke, throwing a ball of paper over your shoulder and across the classroom straight into the bin or a truly insightful comment of a pupil. Yesterday produced such a moment…..

It concerned a fashion assignment my fourth year pupils (15-16 year olds) are working on. A number of the girls were sitting at computers doing some preparatory work by researching nineteenth century fashion and contemporary designs. I don’t have any fashion orientated training, more a passing interest that has recently been stimulated visits to a number of museum fashion exhibitions. To my pupils, I think I am very much their art teacher and one with a particular interest in painting and sculpture.

As I walked around watching the pupils trawl through hundreds of photographs on a variety of sites one of the pupils stopped me and pointed to an image of a model in a dress on the screen.

gaultier“Do you know by any chance know who designed this dress sir?” she asked.

I looked over her shoulder, I could hardly believe the coincidence, it was one of the gowns that I had seen last year in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague last year, and better still, I did remember who’s it was!

I paused for a moment and said, “yes, that’s by Jean Paul Gaultier”, carefully saying nothing more, and definitely not referring to the source of my knowledge. A couple of searches and clicks later and the pupil concerned had double checked my identification and found it to be true.

The best bit though was when the girl sitting next to her (and a bit of a fashion expert herself) slowly turned and looked up at me and said, “and you can tell that just by looking at the dress?”

“Yes” I said and walked away. As I moved on I glanced back, the look of dumbfounded amazement on the second girl’s face was truly priceless!

They say that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but equally, a little knowledge , used sparingly can be a truly wonderful thing. You can walk away appearing to be, if not a genius, at least a contemporary fashion expert.

Further fashion related posts:

https://petersansom.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/is-fashion-becoming-my-thing/

https://petersansom.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/fashion-and-storylines/

Brian Eno – The BBC John Peel Lecture

Why do we make art?

What is the function of art?

….and how do hairstyles and a whole load of other things fit into these discussions.

If you didn’t hear it last week or haven’t come across it since, Eno’s calm and eloquent promotion (because it certainly isn’t a defence) of the significance of the arts makes for engaging listening. The forty-five minute presentation on how and why art and culture in its broadest sense is so important to us and why it shouldn’t be underestimated in its relevance touches on a multitude of references. Eno looks ahead towards the future and possible changes ahead of us raises so many points for discussion.

eno

Art offers an environment to consider issues and subjects that we may not otherwise come to. But above all, art in all its forms is about engagement with one another and engagement ourselves. If you have a long train journey coming, a large pile of washing up to do or simply time for a glass of wine take the time to listen.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p033smwp#play

If illegality is involved, then we’re interested

Whilst evaluating the various art and culture modules I’ve taught to my groups of fifteen and sixteen year old’s this year, an interesting point has come up. I’ve taught across a variety of themes, but there is no doubt, that three in particular have stood out in the eyes of the pupils, and they all involve, in some way, questions of where the line lies between legality and illegality. I’ve looked at copyright and the remix in the cultural sphere, and how it impacts on artists and other creative practitioners. We’ve covered the question of artists and filmmakers engage with the extremely newsworthy theme of illegal immigration and we’ve spent time looking at street art and its place on the fringes of artistic production.

These links with illegality in various ways has on my part been a completely unconscious decision, but is the preference expressed by pupils in relation to these themes more than just a coincidence?

streetart

In the eyes of many young people the world of art and culture exists in many ways as something of a detached entity, particularly when it comes to visual art.  You go to the museum to see it and often it seems to boil down to a question of whether you like it for its aesthetic qualities or not. If there is an accessible narrative, for young people it is a narrative that is often a huge distance from their own world of experience.

Maybe in this context it isn’t that surprising than a cultural theme that engages with a relatively straight forward distinction of legality and illegality does provide a point of access. Most children and teenagers are quite interested in a sort of natural justice, things that should be allowed and things that shouldn’t.  All three of these modules have played into this area in different ways. The response of my pupils in all three cases has been incredibly positive. They feel we are engaging with the real world, they tell me that it’s helping them understand complex issues better and they are learning to appreciate that artists and other creative people have important and relevant things to say in these areas. In short it is a win, win, win situation!

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I suppose in a way it still reduces down to being able to link up with narratives and stories. Stories of the artists and musicians working in areas of dubious legality and being pursued by multinationals who own copyrights, illegal immigrants struggling to cross (or stay within) borders and the nocturnal world of the illegal street artist all have their own narratives, and better still they are narratives based on reality.

For me there is perhaps a lesson and an opportunity here, playing into these sorts of narratives must be possible in other areas too. More emphasis on the personal history of a particular artist, designer or architect perhaps or seeking out dramatic social contexts or dramas behind a given creative work. Once engaged, it never stops to amaze me, how far you can go, but opening the door is the challenge and finding the route in is oh so important.

Raising the arts profile in school

It’s the start of a new month and time to publish a new cultural newsletter aimed at the older pupils in the school where I teach and also my colleagues.  The aim, as ever, is to keep pushing the arts profile within the school and in particular for the pupils the remind them just how broad and varied the cultural world is.

newsletterThe content this month has a visual arts and gaming angle.  It is all fairly easy access references.  The aim, as always, is to try and set discussion going, maybe dip into a link in the last five minutes of a lesson.

The links are all things I’ve come across in the last month or so, made a note of an subsequently inserted into the standard form of the newsletter.  It is extra work, but really not too much, and the reaction and remarks from both pupils and colleagues is always nice to hear….the teachers’ questionnaire always prompting a few comments.

Click on the link below to read the full newsletter:

april 2015 no.3(blog)

As a simple format for making the art department just that little bit more visible I can recommend it.

Sir, …..were you a Punk?….and the fashion of offence

During my cultural education lessons with my fourth years (15-16 year olds) I spend a little time looking at some applied arts. And amongst these lessons what better applied art to make use of than fashion. Nice and close to the range of interests and experiences of the pupils you would think. You might also think that they would relish the idea of the more experimental and progressive work of modern designers.

I acknowledge that I don’t teach in one of the more cosmopolitan cities of Europe. I actually teach in a relatively small provincial town. But even so, I am still regularly taken aback by the conservativeness of my pupils. Are there rebels amongst them? Well, when it comes to clothing, probably not!

westwood2I watched a film with them today about Vivienne Westwood that spent a considerable part looking at the Punk related fashion she, in collaboration with Malcolm McLaren produced in the late seventies and early eighties. We saw the bondage trousers and the near pornographic t-shirts that were intended to stir things up and to shock. The film certainly caught the attention of the class, to say that the pupils were shocked, in the same way that the general public might have been shocked back in 1980, wouldn’t be true. No, they weren’t shocked, they were bemused.  They just didn’t seem to understand why someone would want to confront someone in that way through what they wear. They also wanted to know whether I had been a Punk back in the early eighties, but I had to admit to being just a shade too young for that!

I guess we are living in different times.  I can think of plenty of things that you could put on a t-shirt nowadays that would be shocking too. The perception of the world today is such that a provocative statement of offense to others might involve a risk to yourself. It would really seem that sensibilities have shifted. We are exposed to so much through modern media, but simultaneously there does seem to be a creeping restriction in freedom of expression that didn’t seem to be the case thirty years ago.

Could the rebels clothed by Westwood back in the late seventies and early eighties have a place in today’s society? What shocks and offends today is not the same as what shocked and offended then. The Punk fashion point of reference seemed to be the establishment and society that was immediately around them. The explicit content that featured on their t-shirts then would probably now result in little more than a shrug of the shoulders of passers-by.  The global village nature of the world in which we now live in means that frames of reference and potential offended audiences are spread over the entire globe.

Opinionated pupils….unlocking and articulating a standpoint?!

Teenagers have an opinion about everything it would sometimes seem. A teacher who is unjustly tough on them, why the training session at the football club is more important than their homework, how their timetable could be better organised and well, how Susan is wearing something that she just shouldn’t wear.

Snoopy

However trying to squeeze an opinion out of a pupil about matters of lesson content is sometimes a lot harder than you might think.  It is quite a central part in much of the teaching that I do. Cultural education involves a great deal of subjective evaluation, you are allowed to have an opinion, and I positively encourage it.

And yet, within a large part of secondary education we neglect this important ability of giving our opinion and being rewarded for how well we articulate it.  Instead we focus on testing that proves we know something or understand how to use it. I understand of course why and how this situation arises as we aim to test and measure academic abilities and understanding, this in an educationland that is constantly driven to record and classify pupil performance. But in this rush towards producing hard documentation the value of encouraging young people to give their own view and interpretation often gets completely snowed under.

In my own work as a teacher I often find asking pupils to step outside of this system is sometimes surprisingly difficult. There is often a nervousness to open up and simply to say what they think, even when we are on quite familiar ground to them, like giving an opinion about a film that we have watched in class. There is the constant “what does the teacher want me to say?” question lurking in the background. In a sense what is most often important to me is that they stop waiting for me to ask them questions and start asking themselves questions and discovering how to develop and manoeuvre a line of thought into interesting areas where they can present their own ideas and articulate them.

To help reach this point I’m noticing that my lesson material is increasingly built upon collections of short, open questions that help them to discover for themselves what sort of questions are useful to ask and which ones take them into areas that help them to formulate and justify their own opinions. The questions are often quite generic, but that’s perhaps the point, they have to discover for themselves which ones are more relevant and fruitful when trying to explain a standpoint. Ultimately I hope that the pupils will have the ability and confidence to ask their own questions, an ability that will serve them well as they move from being teenagers to young adults.

Incidentally, if there actually a Susan in one of my classes with interesting fashion sense, it might well be interesting one day to try and write a similar list of generic questions to analyse her choice in clothes.  That way we might discover more about the basis for such strong and judgmental opinions in this area!