A new favourite app…apart from the name!

From time to time I post things about apps that I am making use of in the classroom on the iPads that the pupils I teach all have. One of the limitations I have in this area is that the apps essentially have to be free. Generally the school has a policy that if the app is one that is likely to be used by multiple subject areas they may consider buying a collective license, but if on department, and certainly if it’s just one teacher who’s involved it has to be a freebie!

img_2974-1The art department this understandable policy often presents a problem. There are many good drawing and painting apps out there, but most have restrictions and limitations with the free versions that simply make them less interesting to use. But one that doesn’t suffer from this problem is the truly awfully named MediBang Paint. Whoever thought of that name!

Aside from the name though, this really is an excellent app, with a tremendous range of well-organized possibilities. I’ll be using it during the coming weeks as an extension of an abstraction project that I have been working on. For this application I particularly like the guided drawing tools that allow you to work extensively with concentric circles, parallel lines or with a vanishing point (see the example below).

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When my pupils have had a go at producing their own designs I’ll post more.

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Text interventions – A CLIL work in progress

Scrabble is perhaps the world’s best known language based game. The puzzling out of word options within limited possibilities forces us to think hard and squeeze out the longest and highest scoring configurations.   In essence the same could be said for a small language and image assignment that I was experimenting with last week.

The idea ordinates from a piece of street art by the British artist known as Banksy.

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The image doesn’t need a great deal of explanation. An altered text, an image is added and a social point is made……in this case, our city parks are being concreted over to provide city car parking. Simple and to the point, something that my pupils have no problem in ‘getting’. But coming up with an idea of their own is a whole different kettle of fish. Could my third year pupils (aged 14-15) face up to the challenge?

I was asked to provide a 90 minute language orientated workshop for a group, an ideal opportunity to try the idea out and see if they could.

Technically we were able to simultaneously use the project for a little digital orientation using iPads to do the necessary image manipulation (we used Brushes Redux for those interested) however in principle a desktop or just pencil and paper could be used.

I asked the pupils to go looking for warning signs, road and traffic direction boards, text on the roads, walls or anywhere else where text could be found. Like the Banksy example the challenge was then to remove letters to change the direction of the meaning of the text in a humourous, ironic, serious or simply crazy and unexpected way.

Like my Scrabble example the pupil is left trying to manipulate and construct within the limited options available. Also like the Banksy example a little extra imagery could also be added or the context behind the text altered.

An hour and a half later I am left with a series of examples. Some pupils have picked the idea up and developed some interesting angles. In truth we were perhaps a little short of time. Surprising, inspired ideas don’t always come so quickly. With a little more time I would also like to push the images that have been added a bit further, but there is certainly potential here to develop the idea into something a little more expansive.

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!

Christmas holiday, art teacher, iPad

christmasTime to do what I’ve been encouraging my pupils to do all term, experiment and play a bit with their iPads.  A bit of pure iPad drawing.

For those interested in the technical details, it is made with Bamboo Paper to start with and then Brushes Redux.

Happy Christmas!

 

 

Do you trust your device in a classroom?

I’ve been working for a year and a half with an iPad in classrooms of children all similarly equipped.  It’s been eighteen months of leaps forward, steps backwards and occasionally periods where I’ve pondered hard as to how best to implement the device into my art lessons.

I should say that I have approached the digital developments with considerable openness, I’ve been part of the steering group at school and I’m quite digitally literate. Added to this the background of my own
arts education taught me always to look and think broadly about methods, tools and materials that may be on offer. A kind of ‘consider everything and use what works for you’ approach.

Now a year and a half in I feel I am starting to feel the experimentation with the tablet and its apps are perhaps starting to become a little more embedded in my lessons and teaching materials. Whilst many of my colleagues have encountered problems with materials and apps provided by educational publishers, in the art department we have always been used to developing our own material and deciding exactly which route to take independently. In this way I’ve discovered apps that are useful and of an appropriate level for the twelve and thirteen year olds that are working in iPad classes up until now. Up until now that’s Brushes Redux and Bamboo Paper for digital drawing activities, iMovie for a film and the extremely versatile Photoshop Mix for digital collage.

This last one, Photoshop Mix, raises an interesting point. I could see that this undoubtedly was a fantastic app that suited FullSizeRender (40)my needs perfectly. However I was rather worried that the complexity of how it worked and the technical opportunities on offer were simply too great and my class of twelve year olds would struggle to get it to do what they wanted. But as it turned out the lesson was a fantastic example of peer to peer driven teaching and learning. Each new technical discovery made by me or any pupil seemed to spread rapidly around the class. By the time it came to hand in the work it was clear that everyone had grasped the content of the assignment and the technical possibilities offered by the app. A note to self, be careful not to underestimate the abilities of the pupils!

If there is one area of concern in all my iPad activities it is undoubtedly a question of how far I can go in saying that I have full confidence in the device to fully function in the way intend it to when leading a lesson.  Lesson situations have adversely been affected by issues such as linking my own iPad to the screen at the front of the room, pupils not being connected correctly to the cloud to allow full use of some apps, Internet connection issues and so on.

On the surface many of these sorts of problems are relatively small and definitely solvable. However, when you encounter them unexpectedly, even if the problem only effects a couple of the pupils in the class the disruption to the main task of the lesson can be extremely significant. It is also all too evident that bad experiences count and weigh heavily on the mind. If you don’t feel confident that your device (an iPad in this case) is going to allow you to simply get on with what you intended to do, is it not better and safer simply to fall back on what you know and have always done and put the tablet back in your bag?

It is a phase that a digital school has to go through perhaps, kind of painful and frustrating at times, but something that has to be experienced a worked through. To do this you obviously need the right technical support, but you also need enthusiasts willing to take chances and experiment, you need leadership prepared to lead by example and to commit to broad digitalization projects and who can take their whole team with them. But maybe above all you need time and patience to develop that all important trust in device and its role in the new classroom possibilities that it offers.

900 Poplars losing their place in the Dutch landscape

Rows of poplar trees have had a place in the Dutch landscape for many years, often in hard straight lines cutting across the fields or following a road or lane.  The poplar though as a tree is it would seem, losing its popularity and the rows of spectacular verticals set against the horizontal landscape are increasingly being removed.

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Near where I live in the centre of the Netherlands one of the most spectacular avenues in the country is living on borrowed time. Some 900 trees are due to be removed over the next couple of years.  The landscape on the edge of the town of Wageningen it is fair to say, won’t be quite the same without them.  Writers, artists, photographers, runners, birdwatchers, sound recordists and others have contributed to a new book that reflects on the trees, there presence in the landscape, their importance to us and ultimately what their removal will mean to us.

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Wim Huijser and sound recordist Henk Meeuwsen have taken the lead in assembling the book, but I too have contributed to “Het ruisen van de populieren”, or in English, “The Rustle of the Poplars”.

There can be few landscapes around the world that are as manipulated and carefully managed as the Dutch landscape.  The presence of man and the control he exerts is almost always present, sometimes subtly, sometimes in a more extreme form. My manipulated photograph for the book connects with this and the way the landscape forms the scenery for our lives.

iPad education and looking for Creativity

A year into the experiment of digital enriched education at the school where I work and I am becoming increasingly interested by the place creativity has in this new form of teaching. As a device the iPad, or any other tablet for that matter, offers so much. Each pupil has on the desk in front of them a camera, a video camera, a microphone and countless apps that seem to open so many doors. The creative possibilities would seem to be so extensive, more than I could have ever dreamed of just a few years ago. And yet I have a niggling doubt, a dissatisfaction at the back of my mind.

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Many friends and colleagues are enthusiastic at the new possibilities on offer in their lessons. But maybe it is the duty of the art teacher to look and ask questions about creativity and whether we are getting the most out of these digital devices. Are we actually developing in ourselves as teachers and in our pupils a creative and critical edge in our judgement of what we are doing and making?

If we focus for a moment on the use of the camera, both video and still. These tools are so immediate and easy for our pupils to use, just point and shoot. Equally easy on their phones too, this is the generation that has grown up totally used to documenting everything in their lives, and why take one photograph or one fragment of film when you can shoot ten or twenty or thirty?

This sort of costless freedom is fantastic, but at least in the hands of the teenagers I teach there does seem to be a creative trade off. Do I observe them making critical and formal judgements in the images they are capturing? Well, no not really.  And this fact is often exacerbated by the apps that are then used to present or rework the visual material. In no time the pupils throw the images and film fragments into iMovie or some other app, make use of the ready-made formats, themes and stencils on offer and have in no time a slick final product. But the question the art teacher must surely ask is, “are they actually being creative?” It is equally true when you ask them to present their photographs, a few filters may be applied to make the image more eye catching in some way, but they don’t even stop to think if cropping the image in some way could actually improve it.

Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely not against working digitally. I am a great fan of working with Photoshop or other similar software. The wealth of choices on offer provide fantastic creative options. And there in that word options or decisions perhaps you have an important distinction. Creativity is about decision making and a critical evaluation. Does too much of the app market rely or a quick fix within a too restricted range of choices? It certainly does seem to encourage and invite an over reliance on essentially ready-made solutions.

There are undoubtedly apps that allow an extensive range of creative possibilities, I have made use of a number in the last year, and seen some good results. There is also nothing to stop a young photographer or film-maker setting about using their camera in an incredibly creative way. There lies perhaps the new challenge for the art departments in schools to stop and consider how they can instruct and encourage the use of the tablet computer or other device to extend creative possibilities. This would seem both desirable and necessary. My observations of my pupils up to now certainly don’t give me the feeling that this will take care of itself.

So in conclusion, a note to self for this coming school year; start to work out strategies and places in the educational material for more creative use of the chances on offer.

If anyone has particular favourite apps that seem to encourage the sorts of options that I am talking about here I would be only too glad to hear about them.

Digital lessons…does anyone still build websites?

Alongside this blog I have my own website. I use it mostly for two main purposes, firstly to present my own work as an artist and also to provide a storage and presentation space for my educational work. I am at the moment in the process of overhauling the sight, clearing it up where it’s got a bit unnecessarily complex or overly full and giving it a restyle.

Although this is quite a long and drawn out activity I do quite like doing it. The structuring of the site is an interesting puzzle, you try to work out the most logical and easy to follow construction for potential users. This is then combined with designing the look of the pages, which is simply something I like doing. Hopefully, within a week or two I’ll be able to upload the site, a job well done.

webdesignWhile I’ve been doing this I’ve been pondering a little about websites in general and digitization in education. I remember ten or more years ago we offered pupils at the school where I work workshops for those interested in website building. A useful skill it was thought in this digital world we were heading into. Pupils did battle with the horrible Microsoft Front Page, a piece of software that thankfully seems to have disappeared.

As I was setting in place the umpteenth hyperlink on my own site I found myself wondering how many people actually still do this for themselves. Despite the presence of plenty of good software out there to help, has website design, become the dominion of the professional? A bit like the way modern car maintenance has got rather too technical of the home enthusiast. How many people actually go through the stresses and strains of building and designing their own site?

To be honest I have no idea what the answer is to my own question.  What I do know though, is that alongside the software to help build a website, there are so many other alternatives. Services where you just have to drop your information into an existing template or a template that you have tweaked at the edges to work it into a form more to your taste. Everyone can thus create their own digital place. In education terms I also suspect that the move towards iPads and other mobile devices this tendency is only going to grow.

I’ll be pressing on with the redesign work of my own site, like I said, I quite enjoy doing it. I do feel a little geeky doing it though, especially when the maintenance of this WordPress site for my blog is so easy. Obviously we do still need the digital technicians to help create WordPress like facilities, but are the enthusiastic amateur web designers going to slowly go the way of the floppy disk? And would the pupils I teach have the slightest idea where to start on such a project?

A few would I guess, but a great many wouldn’t. Teenagers are without doubt huge users of the digital world, but are they creatively engaged and involved in any way as they flit from one site or app to another? The success of games like Minecraft would seem to suggest that there is some sort of a creative energy to be found, others are creatively productive in the use of online mixing desks for producing digital music or are making imaginative and experimental films in quantities that have never before been possible. Most though, are simply users and consumers. Those who are genuinely creative will find their way to be so, whether within the digital world or beyond it.

Is iTunes U the future?

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It is couple of months since I was given an iPad by the school where I work as preparation for the new school year in late August when we will be switching to a digitally driven form of education. Initially it will be all our first years (12 year olds) who will all have an iPad in their school bag, but then, year on year it will spread through the school. I, like others at school, have been following courses and familiarizing myself with some of the possibilities.

There are a huge amount of possibilities and some fantastic apps out there that are going to offer some very creative and new directions to what I do in my art and cultural awareness lessons. I really am quite enthusiastic about the project, if perhaps a little daunted by the shear amount of work involved. All changes in education cost teachers and educators time and effort, but this feels like a real ground shift.

One of the recent courses I attended was for iTunes U. In short iTunes U is a project, with an accompanying app, that is aimed at teachers world-wide at all levels of education. The philosophy is that great education material is being developed everywhere and too often doesn’t get shared and passed around.  Huge numbers of educational institutions are becoming involved from the likes of Oxford and Harvard universities right down to primary schools. Apple are putting a huge amount of resources into facilitating the education of teaching staff to make use of iTunes U, for me there was a two day, free of charge course at the icentre in Amsterdam on offer.

I am new to this all, and am having to learn and pick things up as I go along, but I am at the moment a little perplexed by what iTunes U seems to offer and in particular how it relates to the arts, cultural and design areas of education.

I am more than happy if there is someone out there who can tell me that I am perhaps mistaken, or not seeing all the possibilities that are actually on offer.  However at the moment a couple of points seem to be particularly problematic, at least from my own arts related direction.

Firstly, from my art teacher’s perspective there is the copyright issue. My understanding from the iTunes U course that I followed was that Apple are only too aware of the potential copyright minefield that the idea of a sort of open source library of education material might become. As a result they only what original material, and supporting material that comes from a sort of Creative Commons perspective. This is all fine and well, but try writing a piece of art education material without making use of examples of the work of others. Art teachers the world over are used to, normally for just their own usage and certainly not on a commercial level, playing quite fast and loose with the work of others. They want to illustrate a particular point or inspire in a particular way, so they insert appropriate examples into their lesson material.

They would probably normally defend their position, rightly or wrongly, behind a sort of fair use argument. They are simply trying to place an activity in a cultural context or guide an activity in a particular way.  If, as Apple seem to be saying, this sort of referencing of cultural context places the material outside the remit of iTunes U, then the resulting material is likely to end up being a rather dry and unstimulating sort of experience, which brings brings me nicely onto my second point.

When I was at teacher training college it was hammered into me regularly that you should make your lesson material visually interesting to look at. Publishers of lesson material know this to be important and spend great deal of time and effort designing their products to attract and lead the attention of the reader. As a visual artist, and someone with an interest in design, I have always worked hard to make sure that the material I produce for my pupils looks well-made and engaging. With all this in mind I am bewildered by iTunes U, a system where as far as I have seen so far, everything ends up looking the same. A sort of list structure that folds out to reveal text, links, film, routes to apps and so on. The content in the end might be fantastic, but the entrance route to it seems dull to say the least.

If anyone knows a different perspective on these two reservations I would be only too happy to hear it and be corrected, but for now I see myself continuing to produce eye-catching PDF files with all the links I need embedded into them and then directly mailed to the pupils who need them.

 

Bonnard, Vuillard and an iPad

Whilst walking round an exhibition in the Amsterdam Hermitage I notice that the French artist Pierre Bonnard was born exactly 100 years before me. Bonnard, along with Vuillard and Gauguin are the star names in the exhibition. Their paintings are very familiar, making use of relatively simple approaches, flat areas of colour in Gauguin’s case and the direct and inconspicuously unhidden brushstrokes in the work of Bonnard and Vuillard.

All three were making paintings in a period when artists were coming to terms with what it was to paint in a period where photography was becoming increasingly visible in daily life. It makes me wonder about my own paintings and the place that new digital possibilities have found in my own production.

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Whilst walking round the Hermitage I find myself stopping to make a quick digital sketch of a sculpture on my ipad. It is an occasional pleasure, drawing whilst visiting a show, as much to make me look a little harder as anything else. Drawing on the glass screen really doesn’t feel to me at least as anything particularly different to paper in a book. Yet it does leave me feeling a little conspicuous amongst the tourists visiting what feels a pretty traditional sort of art exhibition.

I’ve been experimenting quite a lot in the last couple of weeks with drawing software for on the tablet. I want to experiment with my pupils at school after the summer with various digital drawing ideas. I am hugely curious to see whether the speed and directness of the drawing on the tablet can help bridge the nervousness that all art teachers will recognize when their pupils approach the virginal whiteness of a new sheet of paper. the urge to match this perfection can be quite inhibiting.

My own paintings have undoubtedly been effected by the possibilities offered by the digital age. I use a computer to create geometric forms and also painterly effects that are later transferred to canvases. For my pupils that is not likely to be the result or what is desired. Instead, what I am hoping for, is a less inhibited approach to their drawings, a directness of just making the work, yes kind of like the qualities found in the work of Bonnard and Vuillard and their paintings of 100 years ago.