A rarity in education

I have worked in mainstream education for 17 years and I have just participated in something of a unique experience, a three day, uninterrupted training course for the very first time. In fact, since qualifying to teach, I have never had any more than a single isolated day of training and more often than not, any specific extra input comes in the form of just an afternoon clamped on the end of a morning of teaching. The reasons for this restriction is either financial or, and this is more often the case where I work, the fact that lessons for our pupils are cancelled. I understand this reasoning up to a point.  However, really the question in the end is; is the hugely limited and disjointed scope of on the job training in education actually not a far bigger problem than that of a number of cancelled lessons?

As it happens I haven’t been on the receiving end of the training during the first three days of this week. I have been giving the course, together with Cathy, a colleague form New Zealand to a group of ten other teachers from our school who will be teaching in English as part of our bilingual team for the first time after the summer break. It’s been a fantastic three days.  Hard work for all of those involved, challenging for many, fun, engaging, thought provoking and certainly good for team building. The progress made by the group has been amazing to see, confidence has been built and there is a growing belief that they really can teach their classes of Dutch twelve year olds using a good level of English.

The space we have been given this time has allowed us to deliver information, to use numerous didactic approaches, allow discussions to take place, create space for actual lesson material to be developed and presented and above all work on the verbal presentation skills that are necessary for a teacher teaching in a second language. What you might call a ‘critical learning mass’ has been built up and will hopefully be carried forward into the next school year. Way more common in education are training sessions that are offered in an intensive two to three hour session that throw a series of ideas at participants that work as a flash in the pan creating momentary enthusiasm only for the input to largely disapate due to a lack of follow up as the teacher is once again left to their own devices to try and find a way of making use of the material.  I’m a pretty conscientious worker but I recognize this tendency for good input is simply lost because it is offered initially in such an isolated island of training. So what would I propose as an improvement on the current situation? Well, on the basis of the last three days I would definitely say that twice a year, a training session of  two or three days could be fantastic and actually have the chance of producing something truly effective. Yes, the pupils would miss five days of lessons, but if the quality of the education on offer was significantly improved might that ground not simply be made up in another way? Schools have significant pools of experts and examples of good practice, but if we are honest it is mostly only the pupils who happen to be in the right classes who are the beneficiaries. The spreading and sharing of ideas, material and teaching skills is something that all educational institutions probably have to work on.

To bin or not to bin

Am I being over sensitive? It is the end of the school year, maybe I’m a bit worn out by it all, but this is a returning feature of the weeks leading up to the summer holiday.

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The scenario goes like this. After a year of working with the various classes that I teach the chest of drawers and the shelves where I keep their work are getting rather full. The last week of term big clear up is just around the corner and so it is time to return the fruits of our art lessons back to the pupils. We normally do this in a frenzied fifteen minute session during the last lesson but one of the year. Pupils wander round the room with armfuls of drawings, paintings and collages, handing them out to classmates while I take care of the fragile three dimensional work. At the end of it all, each pupil has a small stack of their creative efforts of the past year on the table in front of them.

When I was new to the teaching business I just waited for the bell to go and the class got up and left. I’d then look round to discover a number of rejected ‘artworks’ deposited in the bin in the corner of the room. Like I said at the beginning, maybe I’m just being too sensitive and suffering from end of the year fragility. But after helping and coaxing, maybe less that talented pupils, to produce the best they could, I can’t help feeling strangely let down by the drawings in the bin…….they hadn’t even got through the door of the art room!

I kept all my artworks when I was at school, in fact I still have many of them even now! Although, I should be honest, I didn’t keep my maths, chemistry or biology books!

I can’t make my pupils keep their artistically rejected creations, I realize that. I do try to point out that maybe a mum or a dad back home may be interested in at least seeing them once. Most of the class do depart quite happily and voluntarily with their work, but for those who do plan to bin it instantly, I do have one fixed rule now, they are not allowed to leave in the bin in the art room it has to at the very least make it to the container outside our school. This way, their (perhaps overly sensitive teacher!) doesn’t have to scoop it out of one bin and then put it in another himself.

Finally after seven years an exhibition

I don’t write posts often about the adult groups that I teach. I’m not sure why, it’s certainly not because they’re not interesting enough, on the contrary, they often throw up the most unexpected things as the very first post I ever wrote for this blog points out:

When the cat’s away…

Over the last few years I’ve taught one particular group that has grown into a very productive and sociable Thursday evening session.  At the moment, it is a group of around fifteen, ranging in ages from early twenties to around eighty. Many of the group have been following the lessons for six or seven years and in that time, have been open to trying any sort of assignment that I throw to them.

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We talk about art a great deal, I help them with technical and content challenges, we laugh a lot, especially when I stumble badly enough in a Dutch sentence…. yes, even after twenty-five years here that does still happen!  There is also something of a running joke about how I, once every couple of weeks, come with a new assignment, they all listen carefully and then they all go and do something else.

All in all it’s become a group of friends who paint together once a week. Each summer I make a book of photographs of some of the work that has been produced the previous season as a kind of record of where the group are at that moment.  The one thing that we’ve never done though, is to have an exhibition of paintings in a public space. Until that is, this week. Today I spent the morning with Nynke, one of the group, installing an exhibition of nearly thirty-five paintings in the exhibition space of our local library.

The exhibition includes a variety of paintings including a large group painting that marks a number of the recognizable landmarks from our town of Wageningen in the Netherlands.

Photography, language and communication (a clil assignment)

A while back I wrote a couple of posts about an internationally orientated photography project that I was working on with my art teacher colleague Pasi in Finland. I have never really written a reflection on how the process went, although I think both Pasi and I already have a pretty good idea about the strengths and weaknesses of the setup we had.

The project placed its emphasis on several key points:

  • Learning about photography: using a camera in a considered way, appreciating what makes a good photograph, etc.
  • Writing in a descriptive way and a way that communicates ideas clearly
  • Creating a degree of collaboration and engagement between pupils at Pasi’s school in Finland and mine in the Netherlands.

There were several elements to the projects that we drew up, including the analysis of various forms of portrait photography that we encounter in our modern lives, from the selfie to the school photograph and the celebrity photograph to a wedding photograph. Pupils were also asked to look at images of power in a photographic sense and draw comparisons with how our politicians and leaders present themselves when looked at alongside painted portraits from the past.

But perhaps the most complex and engaging part of the project involved the Finnish pupils writing 200 word descriptions of photographic portraits made by contemporary Finnish photographers and my pupils doing likewise with Dutch examples.

We ended up with descriptions such as this:

The length of the photograph is a bit longer than the width. The background is completely black. The back of the person is touching the left side of the photograph. The person covers a little bit more than the left-half of the photograph. The head of the person is almost reaching the top and the body is cut off at the chest. We can only see the right side of the body and face. The female is looking down. She is wearing a black shirt with a v-neck so, we can see her right collar bone. The black shirt blends in with the background so we can’t really see the edges of the shirt. She is wearing earphones; the wire is underneath her middle finger and on top of the other fingers. Her hand is positioned relaxed in her chest. Under her left sleeve, we can see a little bit of her watch. She has dark-brown curly hair braided in a Dutch braid on top of her forehead, which becomes darker and blends in with the black background. She might be listening to classical music I think. She’s wearing an earring in her right ear. The light is coming from the bottom right corner, there’s shadow in her back and the rest of the left-top. The darkness is important in the picture, the picture is very dark and the face is very light. Her face is neutral and she isn’t smiling.

In this case written about this photograph by Dutch photographer Suzanne Jongmans.

The text was then sent off to Pasi’s school where a pupil then set about remaking the photograph without ever seeing the original and only having the short text about it to work with. The resulting pair of photographs looked like this with the Suzanne Jongmans photo on the left and the pupil’s work on the right:

It was a fascinating process not least for the big ‘reveal’ at the end where pupils get to see the original that they have been trying to reconstruct, and indeed the results that others had made based on the text that they had written.

In some cases, a number of photographs were made by different pupils using the same description, a process that showed further how language and interpretation played a significant role in the process.  The link below takes you to more extended documentation of the project:

project documentation(shortened)

For me, the most interesting part of this whole process is how it opens pupil’s eyes to the use of different forms of language in communication. The limitations of text and description often become quite visible and obvious to the pupils in this way. Their descriptive texts often aren’t nearly as absolute and concrete as they thought. Misinterpretation and misunderstanding is at times highlighted, which can certainly provide good learning experiences.

Alongside this is the more visual language of photography, the images we used were so much more that ‘just photos of people’. Each told its individual story, gave us a view into a real or maybe constructed world and highlighted the whole series of decisions that a photographer makes when setting up, framing, lighting and directing their subject before finally taking the photograph. This was of course a series of steps that the pupils could experience for themselves when making their new versions of the originals.

Feeling a bit like an artistic magician…..

It’s sometimes nice to make a big statement. To remind a school of the presence of the art department. It’s also nice when a relatively simple assignment catches the imagination of a whole class, both the ones at the artistic top of the class and the ones who generally find the creative lessons more challenging.

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This particular lesson idea sets out to make a whole wall of art in the end. It is, if I’m honest, not the most creative assignment to offer a group of fifteen year olds. It kind of sets them on a line that of production with, for a part at least, a clear set of instructions to follow. But having said that, it does give opportunities to learn about a highly graphic way of working, layering and spatial relationships in drawing and the significance repetition can have in design. I was also able to add some Pop Art references and study and introduce the class to one of my favourite British artists in Michael Craig-Martin.

The work process involves filling an A4 with line drawings of a collection of the objects being taken as the theme of the work, importantly without any of them touching the edges of the paper. Then a careful cutting and reassembling of the pieces, before a little more drawing. Then it goes onto the glass of the copy machine and six (or many more!) copies are made before the copies are joined together in a completely repeating pattern. I promise you, the first time you show this to the class, you will feel like some sort of artistic magician!

This all sounds a bit complicated perhaps, watch this film and it will become a lot clearer!

Then a little colour work and very rapidly the wall filling work is complete. The front entrance of our school is currently being rebuilt, the wooden screens that have been put up offer that perfect location for the big statement.

An image and language project completed (CLIL activity)

I posted a while back about an extended content and language integrated learning project that I have been working on.

Book project and digitalization

The project in short has involved groups of pupils (aged 14-15) who have completed the following:

  • Researched and analyzed, a group of artworks from the history of art that in some way have a relationship with one another
  • Singled out one artwork and wrote a story (in English, their second language) for younger children in which the afore mentioned artwork played a significant role, and in this way is introduced to the younger readers
  • Produced illustrations to accompany the story
  • Photographed the images and combined them with the text to produce layouts for each page on their iPad
  • Printed and bound the book for a finished project

That was the working process, and as my previous post illustrated there has been seen some good work made, the digital layout work being particularly pleasing to see.

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The whole project though has today taken its final turn. I went with a group of nine of the pupils and a selection of the books to visit a primary school, De Fonkeling, where they are also working hard to get more English into the curriculum.

Here, my pupils then read the story books to the oldest children at the primary school (aged 11), explained the project and showed the illustrations.

I entered the school with a group of perhaps slightly nervous fourteen and fifteen year olds, but I left with a group who were clearly surprised by the attention that they were given and the rounds of applause that they received at the end of each story. The younger children played their part fully, filling feedback questionnaires about what they had heard and reacting so enthusiastically.  All in all, a very rewarding and authentic experience at the end of a long project.

Why do I have the feeling that not everyone in the English department is going to approve of this art inspired (clil) writing assignment?

Surreal poetry assignment

This might not be a lesson idea for language purists, but in my defense, I would say that encouraging learners to play with language can be an important aspect of language acquisition. I remember the satisfying buzz I started to get when my mastery of the Dutch language reached a level where I could crack a joke or maybe use a little irony. It makes the using of the language more pleasurable and dare I say it, more fun. So if my surreal poetry assignment takes us into areas of confusing and sometimes conflicting interpretation….well…..that is actually the point of it.

If you would like a little more context and history on the Surrealists, their forerunners the Dadaists and how text and language featured in their work a good place to start is the excellent The Art Story site through the links at the bottom of this post.

So how does the assignment work? I should start by saying that there are plenty of variations on these poetic themes to be found on a variety of websites. The one that I sketch out here is based on an idea from one on a wikihow.com page.

The initial task is to find an existing poem; this could perhaps be one that has been made use of in an English lesson or one that you as a teacher feel is particularly appropriate. Alternatively, allow your pupils to search for a starting point themselves in books or on websites, one that they themselves find interesting…..reading a bit of poetry can never be a bad thing!

Once a suitable poem has been found ask the pupils to identify the nouns, verbs and adjectives in the poem by underlining them with three different coloured pens. Again, this is a useful language exercise for pupils of any level to try to complete.

Then comes the creative part, ask the pupils to replace the existing nouns, verbs and adjectives with new ones of their own choice. It helps if they have already grasped the fact that in the world of the Surrealists not everything is quite as it seems. To make this point clear the paintings of Rene Magritte are my own favourite.

The challenge is to create new poetic lines that are grammatically correct, but have an intriguing and perhaps perplexing connection…..complete randomness though, doesn’t seem to engage the writer or the reader in quite the same way.

 

The examples below illustrate the process:

 

Is the Moon Tired?

By Christina Rossetti (1830-1994)

Is the moon tired? she looks so pale

Within her misty veil:

She scales the sky from east to west,

And takes no rest.

Before the coming of the night

The moon shows papery white;

Before the dawning of the day

She fades away

 

Is the (noun) tired? she looks so (adjective)

Within her misty (noun):

She (verb) the sky from (noun) to (noun),

And takes no (noun).

Before the (verb) of the (noun)

The moon shows (adjective) (noun);

Before the (verb) of the (noun)

She (verb) away.

(Noun – Verb – Adjective)

 

A new version might go:

Is the ink tired? she looks so weak

Within her misty streak:

She swims the sky from pen to book,

And takes no second look.

Before the consuming of the text

The moon shows uncertain perplex;

Before the burning of the hay

She withdraws away.

 

Two possible extensions to this project could be:

  1. Ask pupils to try to produce an illustration based on their own new version of the poem
  2. Give pupils an example of a surreal artwork (such as one by Magritte) and ask them to write a poem about the painting from scratch. The visual material that the painting offers provides a clear direction and material enough for an interesting exploration and simultaneously requires them to look long and hard at an image from art history.

The story of Dada

The story of Surrealism

Wikihow page used

Showing images of violence to teenagers

We live in a world full of violent imagery. Some of this is factual some of it fictional. Our teenage children are as much submerged in this world as any of us. Some fifteen year olds are immensely sensitive to this aspect of our visual world, others seem immune to it, whilst others seem almost to crave it.

As someone who teaches art and visual culture I see at least part of my task as helping the young people I teach to engage and understand the nature of the images that they are constantly bombarded with, be that through the news media, social media, art or advertising. It is a form of visual literacy, developing an appreciation and understanding for the visual world around us.

Particularly when referring to images of violence in war this brings me and my pupils into a sensitive areas and raises questions about what I can show them in a lesson situation and what is appropriate. I was confronted this week by exactly this dilemma. It came within the context of a cross-curricular project week on the theme of war and peace. Most timetable subjects participate and twist their lesson material in such a way that it touches on this shared theme in one way or another.

In my art course I had planned a couple of lessons. The first one of which was simply to take a look at how the presentation of conflict has changed through the centuries and how we the viewer are affected by what we see and what the creator of the artwork or photographer wanted us to think.  We talked about battlefield images ranging from those on Ancient Greek ceramics, the Bayeux Tapestry, the Medieval conflicts depicted during the Renaissance. I gradually brought the developments through the centuries and reached the hugely significant moment around the beginning of the nineteenth century where we go from the heroic images of Napoleon on the battlefield to the victim of war being pushed to centre stage in Goya’s 3rd May. From then on the nature of the imagery becomes a whole lot more confrontational as we move through the First and Second World War.

Most of what I show my groups of fourteen and fifteen year olds are paintings. But by the second half of the twentieth century it is difficult to ignore the place of photography and to help me cover this I have an interesting film about World Press Photography award winning images.  The film discusses a number of photographs, but two in particular are dealt with at length. Firstly, the iconic image made by Eddie Adams of a street execution in Vietnam. It’s a shockingly confrontational image, and one that I remember thinking long and hard about in the past as to whether to show it to my pupils or not. It is also an image that is embedded in our visual culture and I know now that many in the class will have come across the photograph in other contexts. Seen alongside Goya’s image of execution it presents an excellent opportunity to consider how the tools of the painter and photographer allow to experience moments of extreme destruction, what are the advantages and disadvantages of the different media? Why do we feel what we do when viewing the images?

Perhaps more importantly though, it is a particular land mark in the sort of journalistic photography that we (my pupils included) are confronted with all too often in a news reporting context. Offering the pupils, a greater understanding of how we respond to these sorts of images is certainly worth doing. It raises a plethora of questions that can be discussed and the pupils themselves have plenty to opinions and ideas to bring to the discussion, the place in our lives of imagery of real and fictional violence being a particularly interesting one to have.

But does this mean that I can show my pupils anything and everything? The second photograph in the film, David Turnley’s helicopter interior form the first Gulf War back at the beginning of the 1990s. It’s a powerful image that doesn’t show the violence as much as the results and consequences of the violence as a fully kitted out American soldier sits crying next to the body of his friend that is concealed in a body bag. I wouldn’t hesitate to show and discuss this image with my fourteen and fifteen olds. Yet in the same film there is a twenty second sequence where I turn the screen off. It shows the results of the bombing of the Iraqi column of vehicles that were bombed when they were fleeing Kuwait. I draw the line at showing the graphic images of this monumental destruction with its burnt bodies and unimaginable suffering.

My action of turning the screen off (and explaining why) always prompts discussion. Like I said at the start some teenagers seem almost to crave this sort of imagery. I feel no inclination to feed this craving in my lessons, but I do want to lead my pupils to seriously consider the journalistic photographs that report the world around us. It is a fine line to tread on occasions, a point that was brought home to me this week by a pupil who expressed nervousness when searching for her own images to be used in a related project didn’t want to be confronted by shocking photographs from the battlefield. A reason to tread cautiously, but not one to step away from the subject.

Other war and art related projects:

There they stood project

Guernica project

Music buying habits of teenagers, copyright and my quietest lessons of the year

For the last few years, during the art and cultural awareness course that I teach to my fourth years (15-16 years old), I have included a series of lessons that focus on the theme of the remix in all areas of culture and how the copyright laws affect both creators and users of culture.

It is an area that is close to the pupils and leads to interesting discussions. I asked them this week about their music buying habits. When I was at school as a teenager, everyone spent money on actually buying the vinyl or CDs of their favourite bands. This week in one of my classes of twenty-four pupils, just four had ever paid directly for a music track (either in the form of a physical object or legal download). A number of others pay indirectly by using Spotify but the majority either download from ‘other’ sources or simply make do with YouTube or (and I still find this slightly surprising) listen to the radio.

The content of the lessons certainly doesn’t just stop at our music buying and listening habits though. I focus more on the creative people whose work in their field could be described as a form of remix and the collisions this may or may not bring with the laws of copyright. This may be in music, film, visual arts or design.

The core of the whole series of lessons is try and get the pupils to evaluate their own position and opinions in just how creative any form of remix is and how this may compare to comparable but ‘non-remix’ work forms.

When I present them at the start of the module with the question of who is being the most creative; someone who takes a box of watercolour paints and makes a picture, someone who plays a Mozart piano sonata or someone using a computer to make a remix? Almost without exception they all choose for the painter. Not that surprising maybe, but it’s just an initial thought in opening up their minds to the world of the remix in all its forms and what it actually means to be creative. In doing this we touch on the laws of copyright, intellectual ownership, the lengths that some cultural practitioners go to in order protect their work and the impact the digital world has had on this complex and changing field.

I make use of some excellent online material such as the films below:

Having presented them with a range of examples and situations to consider I also ask them to have a go at creating their own remix.  I have two main assignments that I make use of.

The first is a digital graphic design assignment. It sounds straight forward enough. They have to design a poster for a music festival. I provide them with a limited collection of image material, a set of about twelve varied pictures that they may use. They are allowed to rework work them, crop, filter and add colour to them. They are also required to add the necessary text to advertise the festival, but the twelve images are the limit, they are not allowed to source any of their own images.

Of course at the end of the design process there are recognizable elements and overlaps in all of the posters. But what is interesting to see, and the pupils see this also clearly for themselves, is that some have been a whole lot more imaginative and varied in their use of the basic material.

The second practical assignment is to use one of the online remix studios and sound libraries to create their very own remix. I use www.soundation.com or www.looplabs.com. They both offer similar possibilities, extensive libraries of sounds and rhythms. Each fragment is just that, a fragment, mostly very short. These have to be combined and built up into a composition.

Let me be clear, I am not a music teacher, this is a little outside of my field. However, in a sense, it is not about producing a beautiful, complex and immaculately combined track. It is about giving the pupils a chance to work with preexisting sound fragments, to order and manipulate them, to challenge them to see just what they can achieve in this very new area of creative practice for them.

soundation

They respond well, once the headphones go on I get my quietest lessons of year. Eyes are glued to the screen, tongues often nipped between lips of concentrated faces. We subsequently spend a lesson listening to the results. Some can really be quite impressive, combining varied sounds and subtle transitions, others, if I’m honest, sometimes sound like a kind of brown, musical soup!

Whichever assignment is chosen, the most important question of all comes at the end. Whilst working on your remix or poster design, making use of ‘other people’s stuff’ as your raw material, ‘did you actually feel like you were being creative?’

Once in a while something special comes along – Cartomania

I remember one of my lecturers at art school using the word ‘cartomaniac’ to describe herself. It struck an immediate chord with me because I recognized something of myself in the term. A gallery full of large scale map paintings at the Vatican museums that I had seen a few months before my teacher’s remark had truly captured my attention. The balance between the pictorial and the graphic qualities, the representation of landscape and yet the apparently abstract forms all come together to, form a type of image that engages and fascinates.

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It is the schematic representation of the world around us, everything so familiar, yet so different, the symbols, the lines and patterns, the place names. There is just so much to see. When I travel, a map is always a necessity, seeing where I am, what’s around me and where I can go. I, like most people, have a small collection of maps from various holiday destinations I’ve visited over the years. But perhaps my favourite is actually one closer to home, it is a very Dutch map indeed and one showing the most interventionist approach to the real landscape. It shows the 32 kilometer long afsluitdijk, a 32km raised causeway that was built across the North Sea to create a division between the sea on one side and the Ijsselmeer on the other.

blog map copy

For a long while I’ve been planning to work with maps in my own teaching work (I continue also to ponder how I actually might one day include them in my own paintings too). The school plans though have made progress this year and resulted in a series of paintings made by my third year groups (age 14-15). While I feel that the project is still a bit of a work in progress and can be refined and developed next year, there have been some good results that I am posting here.

The assignment was built on top of an abstract drawing assignment where pupils explored ideas of movement and flow in an abstract design. There are also some very dominant conventions in map making, water is blue, more natural areas green and so on, one of my aims was also to break free from these more obvious routes.

Building on these ideas we were able to take map representations of cities around the world. Exactly which city plan was the basis us left to the pupils, for some it was a location they’d been to, for others it was an aesthetic choice and for still more it was place that they hope one day to visit.

The resulting works have an impact that catches the attention and has given us material that once displayed together on the printed banners we’ve made grabs the attention.