Finding humour in distant learning

Education has been thrown to the bottom of a learning curve in online distance learning that few were prepared for.  Teachers across the globe are looking for new ways to teach, to communicate and to continue and extend their educational practices.  It’s a serious business of course, but we are going to have to make compromises and adjustments in expectations.  This is all rather unknown territory, but education is doing its best, in what are difficult and challenging situations.

One of the things I am missing in my educational experience of the past couple of weeks is the social encounters with my pupils, the humour, the messing about and simply laughing together.  It is an important part of my daily routine.  The distant learning contact with the pupils and the classes just isn’t the same as it was.  The look on my face when I say something in class that I don’t actually seriously mean, or the social banter about a tv programme, football match or someone’s birthday are largely lost and with it the richness that is the background to the classroom learning situation.

I like many teachers are in the process of rebuilding and repackaging lesson plans and material to work in a digital environment.  That is the key business of course.  But I and colleagues are also busy with trying to keep an informal and playful contact with our pupils that offer a more relaxed engagement through the digital route.

There are various examples going round on social media that play into this area.  A few that I have been involved with can be seen below. 

The missing emojis in WhatsApp – the need for other emojis than are what are on offer in the app, now that is that the hairdressers and barbers in the Netherlands are going to be shut for two months or more.

The views out of pupils’ and teachers’ windows where they are sitting behind their computers

Online/Instagram quizzes relating to school, such as the emoji quiz based on the names of teachers

A missing you film from teachers to their pupils

They are all fringe activities to the main educational one of course.  But let us not forget that play and fun are also crucial elements to education at all levels.

A return to the lost consonant

Sayings and proverbs are one of the last areas that you seem to get to when learning a language. My own experience in this area certainly confirms this. I’ve been learning Dutch for over twenty-five years and I still rarely feel confident enough to casually throw a Dutch proverb into things I’m saying. Having a full and complete understanding of both the phrase itself and when it is appropriate to use it isn’t easy.

Some proverbs are sometimes a little familiar when you come from an English background or are relatively simple to work out the meaning of them. Phrases such as “Er schuilt een addertje onder het gras“, translates easily as “there is an adder hiding in the grass”, something that you should obviously watch out for and avoid the danger if you can.   However, others are confusing or just plainly weird! Maybe they do have a logical history somewhere in the past, but for me, they just feel like a language obstacle waiting to trip me up. A couple of examples of this category could be “Zo gek als een deur zijn” (as mad as a door) and “ik schrik me een hoedje” (actually means, it scared the wits out of me, but literally translates as “you scared me a hat”).

I’m certainly no beginner with the Dutch language anymore, but still, this area of language does feel a bit like a communication minefield that I enter at my peril!

With this in mind, and as a sort of language orientated art teacher I have recently reused for the first time in a while a creative project that gets my pupils to think a bit more about the extensive collection of proverbs that there is in the English language. Many of these are every bit as odd as the Dutch examples I’ve mentioned. But to make my creative activity a bit more fun I combine it with an idea based on artist/designer Graham Rawle’s Guardian column from a while back, “The Lost Consonant”. In it Rawle took a sentence and removed a single consonant from one of the words that resulted in the meaning of the sentence being stood on its head and gaining an often ridiculous or plain silly alternative. This new version of the sentence was then accompanied by an equally silly collage that illustrated the new, twisted version.

My assignment, that I use with the (14-15 year old) pupils works in a similar way. Except I ask them to choose an existing proverb or saying from the English language and make use of that as a starting point. We make use of the many websites that there are that list plenty of possibilities together with their meanings.

3D2168FC-FD42-414D-8C1F-CCB65C7A3C16

Then the challenge is two-fold. Firstly, find one where the removal of a single consonant can stand the meaning on its head. In this way “Barking up the wrong tree” can become “Baking up the wrong tree” or “Caught between two stools” becomes “Caught between two tools”. Whilst doing this it is equally important to keep in mind that an entertaining collage also needs to be made that illustrates the new version. We do this using photo-manipulation software on an iPad, but it could equally be done on a desktop computer or with scissors and glue.

For me the assignment has several interesting elements:

  • Developing familiarity with a difficult area of language acquisition
  • Playing with language and looking for humourous possibilities
  • Creative opportunities for communication through manipulated imagery in the form of collage combined with text

Although I am an art teacher, I certainly don’t see this as an assignment that should be limited to the art room.

For more of Graham Rawle’s work click here.

Perspective drawing and a crowd pleaser

A year ago I posted about a reverse perspective project that I had done with the twelve year olds that I teach. It is fair to say that the results of the three dimensional drawing assignment (based on the work of the British artist Patrick Hughes) seemed to trigger considerable interest, and I continue to experiment with other ideas in a conmparable direction.

I have always been interested in the geometric in art and the tensions between two dimensions and three dimensions, illusionism and perspective. These interests have regularly found their way into my own artistic practice.

IMG_0932#2

The reverse perspective project of last year certainly played into this area, and other recent art projects have done so as well. The two examples here are certainly not approaches that are unique. One relies on a form of perspective correction that is often used in street art drawings, and the other has some small scale similarities that makes use of how we view photographic images.

The larger ‘hole in the ground’ work that I made together with one of the class of 14 and 15 year olds that I teach. I used it last week at our school open day to draw people into an exhibition space of other artworks made by the pupils.

I hadn’t anticipated the success of the idea, and had people queuing out the door, waiting to be able to come in and take their turn at being photographed on the edge of the artwork. A PR success for the school and hopefully the art department too.

A film of our times – with a Dickensian echo

As the titles moved up the screen, a silence held the cinema, nobody moved.

The film we had just watched was Ken Loach’s Sorry we missed you.  Loach is well known for films with a social charge. His previous film I, Daniel Blake followed the struggles of and unemployed carpenter and a single mother through the UK’s social security system.  In Sorry we missed you we follow the life of a delivery van driver, his wife who is a care worker and their family.

The film is captivating, but anything but an easy watch. There are small glimmers of hope to be found here and there. The resilience of family bonds even in the most demanding of circumstances for example. But overall, it is a grim and punishing indictment of the world we live in of zero-hours contracts, scant employment rights and impossible demands thrown down on employees who are left with few choices or opportunities to build a career or even a stable existence.

Loach offers an insight into what goes on behind our online orders, it is not a pretty sight. As it is presented in the film it is no understatement to say that it is an abusive system.

As my wife and I discussed the film on the way home, we both felt like the film had put us through a emotional mangle, where social compassion and responsibility had been all but squeezed out. We were struck by how Dickensian it all felt.  This is a free market economy at its extreme where the workers at the end of the chain have few rights and protections.

It is a very British film, set in a clearly very British context. The EU does have its faults and difficulties, but it does take issues such as employment rights relatively seriously.  Is a post Brexit UK is unlikely to see improvements in this area?

A film for school?

Whenever I watch a movie, be it at home or in the cinema, always at the back of my mind is whether the film could be one that finds its way into the film study course I do with the 15 year olds that teach. Sorry we missed you is no exception.  And yes, part of me really wants to give my pupils a look at this one.

It would be a massive step outside of their normal film consumption of super-hero movies and rom-coms. But given the right framing up in the lesson material leading up to it I think it could be incredibly interesting.

The crucial question is always whether the film would engage them and capture the attention?  Well, it portrays a world that would be recognizable in the sense that it is a family unit with teenage children, and does it using a narrative than progresses with considerable twists and turns.The social injustices of this particular strand of the working world would certainly be an interesting discussion to have. There is a lot on offer here, and we haven’t yet started to consider the aspects of filmmaking beyond the narrative and, in this case, the social points being made.

 

Dare to think beyond the familiar – fashion design with teenagers

When teaching in the art room it is often surprising how hard you have to push pupils to get them to think creatively and challenge them to get them to go a step further than the familiar or their initial idea.  There are of course various issues that contribute to their cautious approach.  The pupils’ age, peer group pressure, the comfort and security provided by a familiar approach all play a part.  The whole general structure of an educational system that encourages pupils to think that there is often only a single way to be ‘right’ and an ‘interesting failure’ isn’t valued in many other areas other than in the art room.

All these sorts of thoughts occur to me often enough when working with the children that I teach who are all aged between the ages of 12 and 16.  But perhaps there is one assignment that I hand out once a year to the oldest groups that I teach that underlines the conservative artistic approaches more than most.  It is a fashion design assignment.  I should stress at the start that it is a ‘design’ assignment and not a ‘make’ assignment.  We have neither the time or the facilities to actually attempt to make the outfits that the pupils dream up.  In some ways this is a shame, but it does mean that the final assignment is only ever result in a drawing. This in turn means that the pupils can let their imagination run wild, their design is not ever going to be limited by their (or mine) abilities with a sewing machine!

I’ll be setting this assignment in motion again this week and I’ll be leaning heavily on the work of two designers who don’t necessarily let the practicalities of wearing of their creations be a limiting factor. Most of the pupils are aware, at least to a degree, of the catwalk shows from the various fashion week shows around the world.  They may, from time to time, have seen images of one or two ‘over the top’ designs.  However, asking them to push their imagination into these areas of creativity is very much the challenge.

The assignment that a colleague reworked last year to draw on the work of Dutch designer Iris van Herpen fits very much into these sorts of intentions and we will be making use of here creative process again.  Added to this will be photographs that I have made this week whilst visiting the Kunsthal in Rotterdam to see the exhibition by Thierry Mugler.   It was a very theatrical experience to visit the show.  Video projections met you as you entered the space and each separate room was referred to as an ‘Act’.  Some designs were stylish and elegant evening wear, but others were extraordinary for their exuberance strangely retro qualities. Bodices modelled on classic American automobile styling, sometimes complete with wing mirrors.  A series of ‘fembot’ cladding with their roots seemingly in the sci-fi cinema of the 1920s and 30s.  And finally, one outfit that was constructed with an array of exhaust pipes with clear motorcycle references.

I’m left with two thoughts.  Are these the designs to tempt my teenage designers to push the creative boat out, and are Mugler and van Herpen’s designs the ones to tempt the boys away from choosing the parallel running architect design assignment instead?

iPads in the art room

I might be jumping the gun a little bit in this post. But the school where I teach is considering a change in our digital device of choice. For about six years all the pupils at our school have worked with an iPad alongside their regular schoolbooks or in many cases in place of their regular schoolbooks. As a school we are on the cusp of implementing considerable changes in the way we teach our pupils and, as a result, it’s a good moment to be reflecting on the educational tools that we use. This is the reason why our choice for the iPad is up for evaluation. It could well be that in the end we choose to stay with the iPad, although I feel maybe the balance of opinion within the teaching staff is shifting. Might the future device we choose be a laptop or a Chromebook perhaps?

Within the art Department we are also reflecting and thinking about what we prefer. If I’m honest and look back to the start of our iPad experiment, in the beginning I wasn’t sure exactly how it would come to gain a place in my lessons. I too was new to the iPad and the possibilities the digital tablet may offer the creative wing of our school. Through a process of learning and experimentation the digital possibilities on offer found their way into all sorts of areas of my lessons.

I love having Internet access at every desk for researching and linking art history to practical assignments. I also love having every pupil ready with a stills or video camera to record their activities and document their work. It has offered graphics and page layout design possibilities in the classroom without having to relocate to computer classrooms to access desktops. I’ve done animation projects and photo collage assignments having simply first asked the pupils to download the appropriate app.

Possibly though, the area that I’ve grown to enjoy most, and in a way, has surprised me most, are simply the drawing and painting opportunities that the touch screen offers my pupils. Teenagers are often very cautious when it comes to putting pen or pencil to paper. Most are teachers have any number of tricks to try and loosen them up and tempt them into more expressive mark making. The instantaneous nature of a digital paper that the iPad offers brings different possibilities to this area. Yes, perhaps it is at times a bit overly disposable, but that’s exactly what helps. When I look at the decorative letter designs my 12-year-old pupils recently produced, and the freedom of mark making that they display, it is a considerable step from where I can get them to using pencils and paper. Also, when I consider the abstract designs that my slightly older 14-year-old pupils have produced using a different app. This work shows a speed of creative possibilities are so much faster than the comparable approach on paper would allow. It is not a replacement; it is simply something creatively different that allows them to cut loose and be considerably more experimental and ultimately more expressive in their work. In both cases these benefits can subsequently be drawn on and used in pieces that rely on more traditional media.

The art department enthusiasm for the iPad isn’t entirely shared by other areas within the school. Some colleagues lament the lack of a proper keyboard. Others would like to have a bigger screen. And many would like to lose the instant accessibility of the games put the pupils are so determined to play outside (and inside) their lessons.

I would certainly be interested to hear from any other art teachers and art departments that have been confronted with similar digital choices.

Using technology to make use of an analogue trick

The idea of making a panorama photograph using a modern camera, even the one on your phone, is simple. Select the panorama setting press the button and sweep round the 180 or 360 degrees that you want to capture. The teenagers I teach are only too familiar with this possibility. So when I suggest that we are going to have a go at creating composite panoramic photographic compositions using maybe up to fifty photographs, there is a certain amount of ‘unlearning’ to be done.

Talking our way through a number of David Hockney’s ‘joiner’ collages of multiple Polaroid photographs certainly helps open the teenage imagination to the possibilities on offer. Preparing the pupils to head out to take their series of photographs is an important point in the process. Young people are not to used to the idea of stopping to consider their photographic subjects too much, the instant and endlessly free nature of the digital image has changed that. Yet for this assignment finding an interesting, complex and maybe above all, spatial subject is crucial.

Once the photographs have been made, what Hockney would have done, puzzling through all the hard copies of his images spread across a large table is easily done digitally and without expensive or time consuming printing. Although, having said that, I am regularly surprised at the difficulties experienced by my digital natives in getting images off their phone and onto a desktop computer! Once that is achieved though, the photographs can be dumped into a single PowerPoint slide or MS Publisher document and resized to an appropriate format. After that the enjoyable part to putting the photographic puzzle together again can begin, experimenting with the layering and overlapping as they go. At this point I can normally sit back and wait for the final pdf documents to be made and handed in.

This year was the second time I’ve tried this assignment with the 15 year olds that I teach. Maybe I’d learnt a few things from last year, spotted and alerted pupils to potential problem areas when explaining the process perhaps, maybe they are just more creative pupils than last year’s group…..who knows! Either way, the results are, generally more ambitious and successfully worked out than the first time around.

Street art, but just outside the classroom door

img_0138It’s been a while since I’ve done this wall drawing project, but a new addition to our school year has been two dedicated ‘project weeks’. The aim of the project weeks was to try and get some of the interruptions that regularly come along during regular weeks (and disturbing the lessons) out of these weeks and into one compact session. This has worked to a degree, but has also lead to new projects being dreamt up or activities from previous years being revamped and inserted somewhere into the five days. My ‘street art/wall drawing project’ was one such example.

For the second year pupils (aged 13) that I was working with, this was an opportunity, albeit a rather short one (about two hours) to have a go at creating some large scale images, a welcome change to the A4 or A3 sheets that we seem to spend most of our time working on. The other challenges we worked on were creating three dimensional appearance in the taped objects and also plenty of overlapping. Both points were aimed at creating a more spatial illusion in the drawings.

An interesting and very useful reference point we’re the wall drawings of British artist Micheal Craig Martin.

The documentation of this project from a number of years ago can be found here.

A secret art project…..and a unique opportunity

The post below was written six months ago. At the time it had to remain unpublished, an art related secret yet to be told. Things have moved on, I can now tell the story.

27 February 2019

I am writing this knowing that for the time being at least, I’m not going to be publishing this post. The reason for this is that it involves an artwork that at the moment is something of a secret and is related to the ‘Rembrandt year’ that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is hosting to mark the 350 years since the artist’s death.

The story starts two and a half weeks ago. My colleague Caroline and I were at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. We had split our group of twenty-two pupils into two groups and were receiving a tour from two tour guides focussing on Dutch 17th century art. Such a tour inevitably stops off in front of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. I was elsewhere in the museum with my group when Caroline was standing in front of Rembrandt’s massive masterwork.

While the group were answering questions Caroline noticed that the group was being very closely observed by another visitor. Moments later the same visitor came and introduced herself as Rineke Dijkstra, the Dutch art photographer who is perhaps best known for her photographs of teenagers, awkwardly posing before the camera on apparently empty beaches.

Dijkstra didn’t waste anytime in getting to the point, she had been commissioned by the Rijksmuseum to produce a new video work as part of the current Rembrandt year. It was going to be along the lines of the earlier work shot in Liverpool of British children talking and reflecting on a Picasso painting without the painting itself ever coming in shot. The new project was going to have its focus on Rembrandt’s Nightwatch though……and the bottom line was, that she wanted to use Caroline’s group of pupils as a part of the project.

Two weeks of organisation followed, permission from school to participate, permission from parents because the group was mainly made up of sixteen and seventeen year olds and the willingness fo the pupils themselves to be involved.

Two and a half weeks later we find ourselves, after museum closing time in the essentially deserted gallery of honour, with its collection of Vermeer, Steen, Hals and Rembrandt works. But in front of the Nightwatch a temporary studio has been errected for the film shoot. A white cube, bright lights and multiple cameras. It begins, I think, to dawn on the pupils that this is actually really quite a big deal! We are introduced to Rineke, she also seems quite excited about the work to be done that evening.

One of the Rijksmuseum tour guides take the girls off on a quick tour of some of the other paintings to settle nerves (yes, only girls, clearly a factor that made the artist pick Caroline’s group from the masses a couple of weeks earlier). A clear embargo was placed on photographing the set or any of the activities around the shoot. No images were to find their way onto social media!

Then it was down to work. Rineke sellecting clusters of girls to join her on the set that had been created in such a way that the pupils were issolated against an intensely lit white background.

I stood, a little out of view. Behind three monitors streaming the input from the cameras, not unlike the multiscreen effect that I had seen before in the Liverpool work. However, unlike that work, where the children involved were presented in a row side by side, this time the artist seemed keen to experiment with different approaches and compositional devices. The girls were arranged sitting on a bench together, but with the bench lined up in such a way that it was angled towards the camera. The result being that the faces of the girls appeared almost stacked up behind one another, way more dynamic and perhaps more in keeping with the work of Rembrandt himself. The girls were encouraged to talk about what they saw, what they thought, no script, just spontaneous reaction.

Dijkstra also asked a group of the girls to look at the painting and draw from it in their sketch books. After much careful positioning and repositioning of the girls, and laughter and a little bemusement from the young subjects, Rineke gave the sign, cameras rolled, silence decended. The girls drew, they looked, they drew again. This time the shoot ran for a considerable time, in fact it seemed to go on and on. The concentration was palpable. Were these really the same chatty, and often enough, distracted children that we see in class at school?

The material that was recorded was fascinating to see, as was the process of work of Ms Dijkstra as she cast her critical eye over the detail of the framing of each of the cameras. One of the later shots that was made reminded me more of Rineke’s well known photographic work of teenagers on the beach and a certain discomfort that creeps through in those images. A row of girls took up position against the white backgroud, the Rijksmuseum guide, just out of shot started to talk them through the painting, an extensive and detailed monologue which went on for quite an extended period. The girls focussed on the image of the painting, following the guides descriptive speech. You saw their gaze move around the image. They remained standing and looking. After a while you saw an ocassional adjustment of balance, a dip in concentration, a momentary distraction. Suddenly you observe that ‘not completely relaxed’ mark that is present in so much of Dijkstra’s work. Simply by filming for just long enough that lapse in focus starts to show itself, both physically and mentally.

23 August 2019

At the time of writing we had no way of knowing how much, if any, of what was filmed would in the end be used in the film work. We’ve reached the point now though that there is a finished work that will shortly be unveiled in the Rijksmuseum. The presentation of the work Night Watching in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a couple of weeks away and the group of girls and us, their teachers, have been invited to the preview at the beginning of September.

End of year…..jobs you just don’t get to the rest of the year

The last weeks of the school year have arrived.  The pupils are intermittently at school for tests, a few last appointments and finally the picking up of reports.  Apart from a huge amount of clearing up, once this stage of the year is reached there is generally time at last to spend a little while working on a task that has been continually pushed to the side throughout the year.  That being presenting the work of pupils on the walls and in the glass cases around school.

It is an important job, at least in terms of raising the profile of the art department in the school as a whole, both for pupils and staff.  Some great things do get made in the art department, we produce good final exam results, but still the importance of a bit of PR work is never wasted. Colleagues from other subject areas are generally pleased and interested to see the creative work that pupils produce. But undoubtedly the most important thing is building the interest of the younger pupils to potentially choose the creative subjects as an exam subject in our upper school.

From a personal point of view, I do also get a sense of satisfaction in seeing the pupils’ efforts presented clearly and well.  This is especially true for the larger group projects that I have carried out with whole classes during the last months.