Parallel Worlds

There was a strange symmetry to today. I was sitting in a hall with about one hundred of our eighteen year old pupils taking their final English exam. Meanwhile, about twenty miles north of where I teach, my daughter was sitting down simultaneously to take the very same exam.

Such a parallel activity inevitably makes you stop and reconsider the pupils in front of you. They sit there ploughing their way through the selection of texts and trying to answer the questions that are designed to split the narrow gaps in possible interpretations. It’s an intensive business, especially on warm afternoon.

Today’s exam was two and a half hours long. Most of the other exams during this two and a bit weeks long test period are three hours long. The sheer length of the sessions all seems rather extreme.

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Still Life on corner of exam candidate’s table, May 2018

Many of the pupils present this afternoon are ones that I have taught in the past. And, if I’m honest, have had to work hard at times to keep them focused and motivated during a sixty-minute lesson.  It does kind of beg the question ‘what are we doing sitting them down for such a massive test of concentration?’ Yes, I know it is also a test of knowledge and insight, but make no mistake here, this is a level of concentration that is rarely, if at all, practiced for.

It is certainly not easy for a school to clear sufficient space in timetables to spend too much time giving them three-hour dry runs.  But these are young people who are used to having their days broken up into mostly forty-five or sixty-minute chunks.  Most people simply find sitting still for 180 minutes pretty challenging.

Imagine if you had a driving test that went on for three hours!  Its perhaps not any entirely fair comparison, but it does seem that footballers run into trouble as soon as a match goes beyond the regular ninety minutes that they train for and are used to.

Maybe I’m just seeing the world through my daughters eyes this year a bit too much. Could we not be constructing slightly shorter test? Could we simply cut them into two smaller pieces?  Maybe we should actually be looking at different ways of test altogether….I guess in my heart of hearts that’s really what I think.  But one thing that I feel sure about three-hour exam sessions and sometimes two in a day does seem rather like some form of punishment as a last experience in a child’s secondary school career.

 

 

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My colleague says she loves her job……

My colleague app’ed me the other day to say that she loved her job. I love my job too. We both work in the art department. This admission came in the context of a particular assignment that we are working together at the moment.

The project is part of a street art related theme and is centered in particular on the Little People Project by the British street artist Slinkachu.

Slinkachu’s own website

We were preparing the figures, similar to those used by Slinkachu to give our pupils the chance to work in a similar way when they visit The Hague for a day in a couple of weeks’ time. We were both doing the preparation work simultaneously on a Saturday afternoon apping photos of what we were doing to each other.

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We’d sourced our own simple plastic figures and had them mailed from China. We wanted to deliver our fifteen year old pupils high quality painted figures with which to work and had decided to do the painting ourselves.

Why were we enjoying the preparation so much? Well, it was fun to do. Slinkachu’s art has a childish playfulness to it. Having presented the idea of the assignment to our pupils this week it is clear to see that they too recognize the element of childish play that is involved here.  Even fifteen year olds love the chance to play…..sometimes there almost seems to be a nostalgic view back to their own childhood activities! If I ask them to bring in the LEGO from in the box under their bed for an animation project, they love to do just that, and the excuse to play.

Picasso once said:

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

In this regard our assignment certainly seems to connect with Picasso’s thought.  But I think that it also relates strongly to why my colleague and I enjoy our work.  All creativity involves an element of play and experimentation.  An open minded involvement to our activity as art teachers has a free wheeling playfulness to it. When, as a teacher you are able to awaken this sense of playfulness in your pupils, the rest generally takes care of itself.

 

The power of the crowd (and small technical steps)

Many of my colleagues in school have something of a strained relationship with pupils working together in groups. It is probably also fair to say that many of the pupils themselves have an equally troubled experience with this educational approach. The main reason for this is the tendency for there to be children in almost any group who are just in there for the ride, benefitting from the efforts of others, without putting the effort in themselves.

I understand this problem and realize for many pupils and teachers that it is a thorny problem, but in the art department I have to admit to being a huge fan of group work. I certainly don’t continually pursue this route, but it is an approach that I regularly return to.

Maybe one of the biggest differences in the art department and a large-scale shared piece of work is everyone has to contribute, in a sense there is no place to hide! Failure to do your part is hugely visible and my experience is that very few pupils want to put themselves in that position.  It could be argued perhaps that working like this does put the less able pupils in a bit of a spot, the pressure is on, to perform to the level of the rest of the group.  My experience here though is that with careful teacher judgement and support even the most uncertain child gets the positive effect of having contributed to an in the end impressive whole.

But beyond that, there are several very positive reasons for my love of a group project:

  • It gives a chance to produce something really big, an artwork with a wow factor!
  • Pupils leave the project with a feeling of having played their part in producing something where the result often feels greater than the sum of the parts
  • It creates an energy and curiosity in the classroom, especially at the end of a lesson where the whole group are hungry to see the progress and how the total art is coming together
  • ‘Are our individual pieces going to be graded?’ is often a cry I hear after a while, ‘no’ I say, wondering the first time whether that would make a difference. My experience is that it certainly doesn’t, somewhat dispelling the thought that pupils only work when there is a grade in it for them.  The reward in this case clearly lies elsewhere, and not a grade that contributes to the next report.
  • Socially within the cohesion of the group involved there is undoubtedly a positive effect. On a small scale there are often discussions within the group about the connections with ‘neighbours’ in the group work.  These are often interesting to see as the contact takes an individual to all corners of the classroom group and not just their most familiar friends.  But beyond this and most importantly there is a total bond in the group, a completely shared activity to which they can all contribute, a true team performance.

With the case documented here, and its small scale individual sections, I have been given the chance to explore in a relatively controlled and defined way a small but important technical skill.  In this case it has all been about mixing colours and combining colours on the painted surface to get a more complex and interesting end result.  The twelve-year-olds with which the group was made are used to using colours direct from the pot, but a little less used to mixing colours and even less familiar with the idea of painting a single area with a multitude of different hues and shades. Certainly a very useful insight to give for future projects.

Click on the links below for related posts:

Larger than the sum of the parts

Tim Rollins and K.O.S.

Friday afternoons….

The last lesson of the week on a Friday afternoon.  Not the best moment to have to teach, but somebody has to, or are we to shut all schools on a Friday after lunchtime?  For me this year this has meant teaching H2P (13-14 year olds) as my final session of the week.  I’ve always had a last lesson of the week of course, but this one has felt a little different.  This has been the case for a couple of reasons:

  • Most of my classes I see twice a week, but for H2P I only see them once, so everything has to happen in the 60 minutes that we have together!
  • They are quite a jumpy bunch and come to my classroom shortly after having had their physical education lesson, making them a little extra tired, a bit more jumpy and a ever so slightly sweaty!
  • Before this school year I hadn’t taught any of them, meaning I had to get to know their own little ways and of course they had to get to know mine

It’s fair to say that they are a class that you have to learn how to handle.  My teaching style is not to dominate my pupils, I prefer to sweep them along with enthusiasm…yes, even on a Friday afternoon.  Having said all this though discovering how exactly to do this in our one hour a week has been a bit of a process of experimentation and discovery.

We’ve drawn, we’ve painted, done some collage and designed for the 3D printer.  It all went OK although it did take a while before I actually had the whole class traveling with me on our artistic journey.  Some of the boys seemed to be testing me out to see if it was acceptable to do, well the absolute bare minimum.  As the weeks went by even this group started to up their game.

 

The 3D printer idea was one that I thought would trigger the enthusiasm, it did for a few, but a significant number were blocked by the intellectual leap that is needed for working digitally in three dimensions.  To be honest I was surprised, but teenagers can really be as irritated by computer software as their grandparents!

 

The true watershed in the activity of this jumpy group of teenagers came in an intense drawing session, using charcoal that we had one afternoon.  In 45 minutes of drawing each child produced a series of six to eight drawings.  Which the following week I immediately rolled into the beginning of a lino-printing project.  Suddenly there was so much energy in the class, and all being channelled into the practical activity.

The last few weeks I have presented the necessary materials at the start of the lesson, the ink, the rollers, the paper and the lino, and then I have largely stood back and manned the drying rack making sure we start loading it up at the bottom and work our way upwards (why do teenagers always fail to work that out for themselves?).  The drying rack aside we have enjoyed a series of lessons where kids have been wandering with fully loaded inky rollers, others have been head down over their lino block, whilst others are frantically rubbing the backs of their paper trying to get the best possible prints.

Yes, we’ve had messy tables, messy children and occasionally messy floors. But we have also had children standing back at the end of the lesson, the end of the week, thinking wow, did we just do that.

The challenge for all teachers is of course to try and carry this energy into the next assignment…..I still have some thinking to do about how I’ll approach that!

Capturing the imagination – a photographic remake

It is normally a pretty good sign if some colleagues in the staff room know about a project that you are working on before you’ve told them about it. It means that pupils themselves are talking about it!

This was the case last week. I had taken my fourth-year classes (15-16 year olds) to our local museum, the Jan Cunen Museum, to see an exhibition by the Dutch photographer Micky Hoogendijk. Most of the work on display were quite large-scale portraits with varying degrees of digital manipulation often in the form of overlays of other imagery imposed over the head or face. Three works stood out though as slightly different. These particular photographs didn’t have the same manipulation, but they did have a historical resonance with seventeenth century Dutch art.

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We talked about the set of photographs whilst at the museum, the clothing, the poses, the use of light and the restrained expressions on the faces. The linking with seventeenth century art was strong and something the pupils later explored in a homework assignment.

Whilst the Hoogendijk works don’t seem to have been based on specific images from the past they offered the pupils a contemporary route back to artworks that they often pass quickly over in other circumstances.

The photographs also offered me a chance to make use of a practical assignment that I have used in the past. This involves a photographic remake of an art historical portrait where the pupil plays the part of the subject of the portrait. It is a relatively straight forward assignment to explain, and maybe this helps in the way that it seems to have captured the attention of my pupils in the last couple of weeks.

I provided a large selection of images for the classes to search through to find something that they thought that they could work with. I gave strict instructions for the photographs that they were going to take, and these were going to become my marking criteria when evaluating the work:

  • The pupil really has to play the part, the expression involved and displayed was important
  • Composition and the arrangement of figure and attributes were important
  • The use of light in the painting had to be followed as much as possible in the photograph
  • The pose of the figure should be used as a basis in the photograph
  • The clothing can be updated but should show a relationship to the original painting   Providing the framework
  • Cardboard box office
  • Related posts:
  • All photographs shown above are included with the pupils’ permission.
  • Looking back on the results that were finally handed in, I feel that the effect of that having seen high quality photos in the exhibition had a positive effect. I feel that it made them approach their own work in a more ambitious way. It definitely seemed to help them in taking a step away from the idea that this was just going to be a relatively unconsidered snap shot, an approach that is the dominant feature of most of a teenagers photographic output.

Beyond these instructions I left my pupils to it. Sending them off with a two-week deadline to produce this practical homework assignment. Although I did also stress that this was perhaps not an assignment to work on in a hurry on a dark Tuesday night…..they were to try and make use the of the natural light that the weekend offers.

 

Looking back on the results that were finally handed in, I feel that the effect of that having seen high quality photos in the exhibition had a positive effect. I feel that it made them approach their own work in a more ambitious way. It definitely seemed to help them in taking a step away from the idea that this was just going to be a relatively unconsidered snap shot, an approach that is the dominant feature of most of a teenagers photographic output.

All photographs shown above are included with the pupils’ permission.

Related posts:

Photographic frames of reference

Cardboard box office

One day I must do this in class…

It’s been a while since I’ve visited the Cardboard box office blog. For any film lover it is worth dropping by to Lilly and Leon’s site. Although, nowadays it is also Orson (yes really!) and from the most recent posts, also little Elliot. The new arrivals do perhaps give an understandable reason for rather less frequent posts than in the past.

Ever since stumbling on the site a few years ago I have been toying with the idea of how I might do something similar in a school/education setting with a heap of cardboard, some lamps and a whole load of duct tape. Maybe in some sort of a project week, because trying to build such scenery spread over twice a week art lessons for a number of weeks is one sure way to fall out with colleagues as they battle their way past all the cardboard in the store room!

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Scan through the site, and you’ll soon find you’ll have your own few favourites. I think that my own personal favourite is King Kong, but there are so many others that catch the eye.

I think if I stop to analyse it a little there are two main things that I like so much about the ‘installations’ that Lilly and Leon construct. Firstly, there is just the lovable silliness of it all. They clearly love the film world and want to use their own creativity to engage with it in some way. And that leads nicely onto the second reason, that being the amount of creativity and inventiveness they show in making their ‘screen shots’.

As an art teacher creativity is an often talked about subject. We like to encourage our pupils to be creative with their materials, you try to design lessons and assignments that challenge your classes creatively. But Lilly and Leon’s installations display a visual inventiveness that requires a particular mindset that teenagers enjoy seeing but find surprisingly difficult to dare to explore in their own work.

I saw this inventiveness a little during an animation project that I did with groups of fifteen-year olds last year, once they realized that they had to go looking at home for suitable materials to animate, a bit of a creative lid did seem to come off.  I’m hoping to see something similar with a forthcoming project where pupils will be photographically reconstructing old master portrait paintings.

Visages Villages (Faces Places) – a film review….and educational possibilities

Agnes Varda film maker and JR the French photographer and installation artist make an unlikely couple. One is an 89 woman who originally made her name as a filmmaker during the French New Wave, the other a 34-year-old photographer/installation-maker with a well-established name in both the world of street art and the more conventional art circuit.

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But in the film Visages Villages or Faces Places if you prefer the English title, a couple they certainly are, travelling around the French countryside in their van that is dressed up to look like a giant camera.  They visit a variety of places discussing, bickering and interviewing before getting down to the business of creating and installing a series of artworks using JR’s preferred installation method of pasting often huge scale photographs on exterior walls, sea-containers, trains and even a disused and crumbling relic from the second world war.

The film presents a fascinating insight into the working process.  JR largely takes the lead, but the constant input from Varda deflects and contributes to the creative development.  She brings the perspective of a long life, creative insight and a certain historical perspective that clearly fits well with the younger artist’s own interests.

The passage through the film builds a heart-warming picture of what seems to start with as a rather unlikely friendship.  There is a certain about of teasing that goes on between the two, but also a tremendous amount of respect and warmth as they discuss their work, their lives and their differences.

Technically the film is a documentary and has seen as that when it has won various film festival awards.  But it is also very much a road movie as we travel along with the leading characters on their journey of discovery.

As an educator I think that there is a good chance that I will be showing my older pupils this film in the future.  It gives a revealing view into the artistic process.  My pupils are interested in street art and the way it intervenes into the world around us.  Perhaps slightly unusually for this sort of public space work though, these are images that often provide us with a subject, an ordinary person, to look at and think about.  JR and Varda often choose the humdrum, the ordinary person and the elevate them to often quite huge scales.  Yes, I feel sure that this film and JR’s other work can be an interesting route to explore with my pupils.

There is also no doubt at all that I see possible practical assignments that may be possible to challenge my pupils with.  Certainly, photographic installations that we could make virtually on the computer, but who knows, maybe a few real installations could follow.

Related JR links:

JR Photographer

JR street artist

Previous street art related blog posts:

Street art and illegality

Street art in the classroom

New Year in education

A new year message for education…..? Well more something to think about and reflect on, and very definitely not my own work.

I rarely repost someone else’s blog, but this one does cover a lot ground that I can relate to. John Tomsett writes from his British perspective but his observations are pretty universal I think. We have to be sure that our policy decisions in education are ones that will further and benefit the learning experiences of the children and simultaneously not further burden the teaching staff, without at least lightening the load elsewhere.

It’s an interesting read:

John Tomsett article

Equally interesting is the link within the article to the message from Geoff Barton within John’s text. Within the complex world of a school, or education in a broader sense, it is all too easy to focus on the problems and difficulties. We all recognize that tendecy, and are often enough, sucked towards it. But read what he has to say about Positivity and collective ambition, a sound message to take into the new year.

The things they didn’t mention during teacher training – no.21, the long range school trip

I wrote this a few weeks ago, but in the chaos and confusion of the week that followed I forgot to post it.

I did my training to be a teacher quite a while back. I enjoyed it and learnt a whole load of useful things that I still make use of and a few completely useless things. I can remember a lot of the workshops, presentations, seminars, reports and exams like they were yesterday. What I also realize now is that there are many things that feature in education that never got a mention and yet are, in terms of my own perception of things, pretty big issues one way or another.

I’m about to embark on a five day school trip. I know that the week ahead will feature a few such experiences. Let me start with the traveling in the bus experience.

We are traveling with about 115 pupils, aged 11-13. We are setting off at 6.30 in the morning, we’ll be reaching our destination at about 7 in the evening. We’re going to be traveling in two buses starting our journey in the central Netherlands and finishing near Swindon in England. The day also involves an hour and a half on a ferry to cross the channel. Oh yes, we are traveling with a group of nine staff members.

None of the children involved are likely to have made such a trip before, and to say that they are excited, nervous and just generally wound up about it is something of an understatement! Keeping a lid on the excitement is kind of the order of the day. No energy drinks, only limited sweets during the course of the day and hopefully it will remain bearable for all.

Three hours into the journey and I’m no longer sitting next to one of my colleagues, I’m now sitting next to a particularly irritating voice in the bus, half way down the bus amongst the boys to apply a calming influence…..it works up to a point, but it does kind of take the experience of arguing children in the back of the car on a long drive to a whole new level. Only another nine hours to go before we reach our destination.

Ahead is a week of sleep deprivation. Calming 115 children down and getting them to go to sleep at the end of the day isn’t for the faint hearted! Shepherding them as a group through the Oxford town centre in the early evening rush hour isn’t either really. Dealing with the homesick children, the lost telephones, the occasional breakages of this and that, the little conflicts between increasingly tired children as the week goes on all can be added to the list.

It’s fair to say that this is fairly extreme educational experience. 16-18 hour working days for a week are pretty demanding, physically, emotionally and intellectually. Looking back it’s perhaps not so strange that nobody ever mentioned this during teacher training!

The day I met Anselm Kiefer – Using narratives and personal history for getting attention in class

“Look at me, listen to me, be quiet, this is important” thinks the teacher quietly to themselves at the start of the lesson. Yes, that’s what you want, but anyone who’s tried starting a lesson like that will know that it doesn’t often work, certainly not on a week to week basis. So how to start?

In his book, Oops! Helping children learn accidentally Hywel Roberts talks about the importance of the lure….doing something to draw children into learning. A kind of educational strategy that grabs the attention of the pupil and leads them towards the intended learning experience, maybe via a roundabout route, but by using a successful ‘lure’ you capture the attention, imagination or focus of the learner.

‘Tell a class a story’ you are often advised during teacher training. Yes, kids live a good story. For me it’s often a chance to sneak a bit of art history into my practical art lesson, a real or made up story connected to a theme being studied works fine. But I would go one step further, the best lures or educational hooks at the start of a lesson are the ones with a strong narrative line, but the very best ones are the ones with a personal narrative line.

The natural inquisitiveness of a class can be unlocked by a teacher seemingly opening up a little personal history to them. Discovering the teacher has a life outside of school seems to me to be the ultimate lure, the challenge for the teacher is to link something out of their own biography to the lesson material.

I certainly wouldn’t claim everything out our personal lives can be used! But carefully thought out small doses can work fantastically well. We all have incidents and encounters that make for an engaging storyline. A few of my personal favourites that regularly find their way into my lessons are:

  • My brush with the immigration authorities and foreign police when moving to the Netherlands and what I did when told that I would have to leave the country very soon
  • Being first on the scene of a fierce house fire at midnight
  • Going to the cinema and being completely alone in the auditorium
  • Rolling my friends glasses up inside our tent and stuffing the tent into my rucksack at the start of a month long holiday…..with the worst results
  • Meeting world famous artist Anselm Kiefer and discovering after one sentence I had no idea what to say next
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Anselm Kiefer, Zweistromland (1986-89)

I could go on, each one of these basic storylines in a lesson situation can be built into the most captivating and lesson related narratives. Yes, with a bit of extra embellishment from time to time, but does that matter? It’s all about bringing the class to the point that you want them to be so that the most effective learning can take place.

I would also add that a little bit of metaphorical undressing of your personal biography rarely does you any harm in terms of a good working relationship with a class.

More on getting the attention of a class can be found here.