Back to school…how have things changed?

Three weeks ago secondary schools in the Netherlands were allowed to reopen.  This reopening was under strict restrictions concerning the general organization within the school building and that a 1.5 metre social-distancing was required.  The school where I work decided to generally continue with online lessons in the mornings in most subject areas and on a rotating basis to allow a few classes to come into school in the afternoons. The ‘at school’ sessions consisted mostly of an outside sports lesson, a form teacher/mentor lesson and an art lesson (that’s my part!) or perhaps a bit of extra English. 

We have had close to three months out of conventional schooling.  One of the motivations behind choosing physical education and arts lessons to be given the afternoon, was that the social contact and social exchange they allow was seen as desirable to facilitate. A sort of restarting of the background chatter, and for me hopefully the reintroduction of the humour and laughing that go on in a physical classroom but seems almost completely absent in the online classroom. 

I have been giving these rather make-shift, end of year lessons for a few weeks now, and it really shouldn’t be underestimated how the social dynamics within groups has changed.  Yes, they are smaller groups, only sections of classes, but I have been completely taken aback by how quiet and seemingly shy the groups seem to have become.  

Much has been written about how the removal of the school based social contact teenagers have been missing may be effecting or even damaging them.  My own (and my colleagues too) small scale, anecdotal evidence would certainly point towards a social change within groups that will undoubtedly have its own effects (small or large) as we head into the next school year.  Something has shifted, it may be connected to a certain amount of end of year reduction of energy levels, but the buzz of contact within groups has changed.  I feel also in myself that the reestablishing of the old rhythms and patterns as and when we return fully to school is something that is perhaps going to take more time than you might expect. 

A simple online group visual art project

Since the start of the Covid 19 induced lockdowns around the world I have seen quite a few musical and choir related projects come by on my Facebook feed.  Groups of musicians or singers all contributing their bit to the carefully mixed and arranged compositions that those with the digital know how have been able to mix and balance into impressive unity despite the geographical spread of the participants.  A classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

I too work with groups of creative enthusiasts, both children and adults and these musically combined performances set me thinking about trying something similar in my field of the visual arts.  The group of adults that I support with assignments and ideas seemed to be the most obvious place to give my own fairly modest ideas a try.

They are a very social group of people who miss their chance to paint and share life once a week.  The club’s app group has been very active during the lockdown and the project I had in mind would work well using that platform.

The initial idea was quite simple, using the reference point of a seventeenth century Dutch still life we would try and compose our own still life with everyone contributing something that could be digitally added to the group composition. The only guidelines I gave were that the objects could be modern or older if they wished and they had to make a simple shaded drawing using just a pencil.

The drawings started to roll in via the app group and I set about contructing an arrangement that gave them all a chance to be seen. Gradually the enthusiasm for the working together nature of our little project grew, with me posting regular progress up dates.

I’d seen enough to see another, perhaps better possibility, we could move on to a Dutch flower painting as inspiration.

Opnamedatum: 2010-11-11

This time I’d provide the vase and the rest of the group the flowers.  The drawings streamed in, again just in pencil to help with the overall unity of the image.  For the digital assemblage the flower arrangement gave more scope for adjustments and moving things round and in the end it was possible to fill the vase with a huge number of diverse flowers.

A this stage I’m not quite sure what the follow up will be. But I think there has to be one.

Materials problems and online art teaching

After two and a half months of distance learning and online lessons during the Corona crisis a few things, in my art department at least, are becoming clearer.  One of these relates to the materials we use and difficulties we face in not having them available to us. In a well-equipped art studio, or even an only relatively well-equipped one there are choices enough on offer as lessons are planned. 

Once the children are based at home though, it is a completely different ball game.  Yes of course some children have plenty of creative stuff at home, but there are many with very little.  Within some classes I find myself assuming that some may only have a pencil and a sheet of paper…..and thankfully also their iPad.

While on the short term this is not insurmountable problem, I find myself looking ahead to after the summer holidays and realizing that this distant learning variety of education might actually be with us a bit longer. The follow up question is how might the temporary emergency solutions of the last couple of weeks, be slowly transformed into more meaningful and structural curriculum elements next year as and when they are needed?

During the lockdown period of online lessons, I have found myself particularly engaging with collage in its various forms as a way of getting beyond just the simplest of drawing assignments.  Collage relies on simple materials that all children should be able to lay their hands on.  I do always feel that you first must get past the idea in the heads of the kids that collage belongs at primary school. Although as the examples here show my pupils seem to be making this step.

We started with two, technically seen, extreme opposites. A digital collage to create a fantastic and impossible building using iPads and the limitless resources of online imagery of buildings to cut, paste and combine.  We then moved on to a more playful form of collage, piles of clothes arranged on the floor and used to recreate existing artworks from museum collections.

The clothes experiments proved to be an excellent warm up and introduction to the more fully worked out transcription collages that I have been doing with the same groups in the last week or two.  I made a couple of demonstrations films to lead the classes into the assignments, that undoubtedly helped.  There was a degree of choice on offer; create a transcription based on the work of either Magritte, Hopper, Hockney or van Gogh.  All highly suitable for the collage challenge.

It has also been interesting to see over the last couple of months how several pupils (particularly boys) have taken time to produce some very good work.  Are they less distracted now than they usually are in the classroom situation…..or is an over-enthusiastic parent doing the work?  I guess we will never know for sure, but I do know that I am providing and art education for someone out there!!

Collage work has been a much bigger feature of my teaching during the last weeks than it normally is.  I and other art teachers are looking for solutions to difficult technical challenges.  Perhaps the biggest one still to be got to grips with is three-dimensional work.  If when we return to school in the autumn online lessons are still a significant factor (as seems likely), addressing how to work with more spatial challenges are likely to become more necessary.

….is this the moment?

The educational world has, like many other sectors, been experiencing a thorough shake up and sweeping away of familiar structures in the last couple of months. A learning experience for all concerned. As the Covid-19 crisis rumbles on there seems to be increasing evidence that these temporary measures might actually be closer to the future norms than we may care to admit.  Could this be the moment to be forced into standing education on its head and facing up to new realities and new needs? Not just the needs of the immediate requirements of medical necessity, but also of the type of education that we need right now in 2020 and the years to come? 

Here in the Netherlands we are just starting to loosen the lockdown. Primary schools have started a partial reopening this week and secondary schools look set to follow at the start of June. Temporary timetables of reduced classes will be made to perhaps give some sort of sense of a restart in the few weeks left until the summer holiday. But it also looks increasingly likely that the much longed for securities of educational familiarity might not be on offer when we return at the end of August or the beginning of September. 

What started off as temporary and emergency measures might yet rapidly take on a more permanent, or at least long lasting perspective.  Education with reduced school time blended with learning at home looks an increasingly more likely possibility.   

The school where I work have been busy for the last two to three years working on a new concept for the education that we offer.  We were, and indeed are, intending to fully launch it after the summer break. It is less dependent on the classical lesson structure of 30 children in a classroom and the teacher at the front.  There is more room for the pupils to work independently, at their own pace and level.   

The intention was of course to facilitate this independent element at school, but in the Covid-19 version of education this might very well be the section that is moved out to the home study area.  For us, as with all in education, there are important decisions to be made.  But as a school we have already made some useful and relevant steps in directions that may well prove to be extremely useful.  I does feel that the weekly developments and their effects on education are a Pandora’s box that is slowly opening with new limitations, challenges but also perhaps opportunities. Is this the time and the moment to take a critical look at what we do and how we do it? And at the same time to not be afraid to say that we have to do things differently, and indeed want to do things differently? Time will tell, but an interesting article appeared in the UK based Guardian newspaper today that touches on many of these points and raises a couple of interesting and neglected directions that are neglected areas in education philosophies.  

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/12/coronavirus-education-pandemic-natural-world-ecology

Reflections and results from the distant learning artroom

I keep telling myself that it is a learning process, both for me and the pupils.  That is undeniably true.  Who would have expected at the start of the year that the education world would have been stood on its head and we would all be sat at home, staring into the webcam, launching our lessons into the homes of our pupils?

When I first entered the educational world, many years ago, I was given the advice, “Get your lesson material right for the class and the situation, and the rest will take care of itself”.  It was good advice and is as relevant now as ever.  The problem is that we find ourselves in a very new and different situation and discovering what works, what works really well, and what simply doesn’t, is all part of that learning process we find ourselves grappling with.

I have been experimenting quite a bit with different approaches in the last couple of teaching weeks as I try to understand:

  1. what works well actually during an online session with a class, what engages them and gets them producing something at the time of the lesson
  2. What engages them with becoming involved with creative and practical activities outside the lesson time and with the restrictions of most pupils only having limited materials available to them at home

In order to tackle these two main approaches/aims I have experimented with the following

  • Straight forward drawing assignments
  • Digital assignments using the pupils’ iPads or computers
  • Playful remakes/transcription assignments based on art historical images
  • Using the Google Art Project to visit and walk through some of the museum collections of the world
  • Using the Google Street Art Project to do a research project into what street art around the world looks like and can be

I’ve had some really good lessons and results from various classes, and some painfully quiet ones where it felt like I was shooting my lesson material into outer space, with the bare minimum of response from the pupils!

But I do feel that I am starting to get a hold of what is needed to finish lessons with a feeling of some sort of success and engagement.  I suppose I am starting to understand better this new context and what the possibilities are that it offers and what the long list of limitations are as well.  The more this insight grows, the better the chance of getting that all-important lesson material right.

Having a variety of things ready and at hand to show the pupils seems to help a lot.  A film, a demonstration, a PowerPoint or some well-chosen examples all help.  They seem preferable to having to look at your teacher staring out of the computer screen! Extra preparation is undoubtedly needed, but hopefully all useful for future lessons, once we are finally back at school once again, whenever that may be!

So, what exactly have my pupils been doing?……….

This morning I had a class digitally wandering round some of the great museum collections of the world.  When they had visited a number of these they had to, amongst other things, explain which museum they would like to visit for real and motivate why that was.

Click the link above to enter the gallery of honour in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I was a little nervous about how well this would work, but it ran incredibly smoothly and the pupils responded well in the written assignments.

I have done a drawing/digital design assignment loosely based around the work of the Belgian artist Filip Dujardin.

Inspired by the artist’s eccentric architectural creations I set the pupils a task of designing their own fantastic and fictitious buildings based on a number of local buildings in combination with architecture from around the world, working either digitally or by making a drawing.

There have been enough examples on Facebook and Instagram of people remaking artworks in their homes using any materials that are at hand.  It is something I have done before over the years in class, but this really is the situation to relaunch the idea in order to squeeze a little art history into the lessons.

Following on from this assignment is the remaking of an artwork using the colours and materials found in the clothes cupboards at home.  Most of my pupils do not have any paints at home so this playful (at quite large scale) assignment has been set in motion this week.

If you are interested in any of these ideas, contact me, I’m happy to share materials.

A month or perhaps two without proper school and let the panic begin

Dutch schools have been shut for five weeks.  After the current May holiday there are eight or so weeks until the summer holiday.  In any normal year it is a busy time, with so much to fit in as the end of year approaches.

But imagine that the schools can’t return immediately after the current Spring holiday, and that very well might be the case. What then?  Well, we’ll be continuing with the current distance learning strategies.  The jury is very much out still on how effective the learning and education that is on offer is actually being.  But two things are certain, firstly, education is continuing and secondly, its success or failure certainly won’t be for lack of trying.  The education world at all levels are doing their best in incredibly demanding circumstances.

With this as the background music, in the higher echelons of the Dutch Education system there is already talk of playing catch-up.  The question is being asked, ‘how is the time that the schools are, well, not in school going to be caught up?’  There is talk of next year extending the length of the school day or of shortening the summer holiday to make good the ‘damage’.  But wait a minute, the teaching staff are currently putting in extraordinary efforts to continue the educational process.  This unprecedented situation we find ourselves in is leading pupils and staff to approach learning in some new and innovative ways and judgement is already being made that these cannot possibly be working sufficiently well, and we should be looking at damage limitation and how to make up the ‘lost’ time.

This approach overlooks so much.  During the shutdown young people are still learning.  They are still learning the conventional educational material (maybe temporarily at a slightly less high tempo than normal), but they are engaging with so many other things.  They are being encouraged to work more independently, they are meeting new digital challenges, they are learning more about the world around them, they are learning about the dynamics of a pandemic, they are learning about their relationship with in a broader society and their place within it, they might also be learning about following the news for the first time in their life.  Yes, they might very well return to school with a better understanding of a bigger picture that will stand them in good stead for future their development.

Others may return to school having struggled with the educational challenges thrown at them during the shutdown, that is perfectly true.  But what about those who return having had to deal with unexpected bereavement and loss, or simple anxiety problems that have arisen from the events happening around them that have left them feeling insecure or simply afraid.  Less obvious problems on the surface perhaps, but ones that will have lasting consequences if swept under the educational carpet in the rush to play catch-up.  Education has a wide reach and a duty of care to its pupils in countless areas that go way beyond simple academic achievement, a fact that we should not loose sight of.

Finally, it does have to be asked, what exactly are we trying to catch-up. The integrity of an educational program and the curriculum you might say. Take out two or three months, and we’ll never be able to deliver the pupils to the demarcated finishing line at the age of, say 18. That does rather assume that the content that must be forced in by the age of 18 is absolute and strictly defined. Well, I suppose it is defined by the content of the final exams. So, is the whole idea of the catch-up, and throwing the whole educational sector, pupils and staff under still more pressure, just to be able to pass the exams? Could it just be, that it is the exams that are the problem here, and it is there that we should be looking?

Five weeks into distant learning, the pros and the cons

Five weeks ago, after a week of school in early March where you could already feel that the Corona effect was about to burst loose, the schools in the Netherlands closed. Initially for three weeks, although for most people it was pretty clear that five weeks minimum was extremely likely as it would bring many schools up to the spring holiday.  We’ve reached that point, and holiday for me starts this weekend and runs until early May. As I write it is unclear what will happen thereafter, but that should become known sometime in the next week or so.

So, five weeks in, time for a little reflection on how it’s gone and is going. Let’s start with the negatives.

Cons:

  • I have undoubtedly put in more hours to my teaching job in a month than quite possibly ever before
  • As a result of the above, I go into the holiday hugely behind with my marking
  • I feel like I have an office job, stuck behind a desk, staring at a screen for hours on end. Which for an art teacher does come as a bit of a shock.
  • I miss massively the contact with the kids, the humour, the silliness and general classroom banter.
  • I miss the engagement with the pupils involved in their practical activities, the reaching over a shoulder to guide, coach and advise
  • It is too easy for pupils to be invisible. And herein lies the biggest potential problem. Successful and assertive ‘achievers’ will work well. The shy, the strugglers or the disadvantaged (in any number of ways) will run into more difficulties. This potential risk area, means the differences in abilities and achievements in any class is going to magnified.
  • The practical possibilities on offer to be able to work into distant learning art practical assignments are greatly reduced. I can’t really assume my pupils have access to much more than their iPad, pencil and pen at home.
  • The online lessons whilst being useful are so radically different in almost every way to the sorts of lessons I normally give.  There are possibilities here, but after these first weeks of experimentation I am only really just starting to get my head round the new format and to start to see the opportunities.  Initially you do seem to be constantly hitting your head on the difficulties.

But enough of the negatives, what about the positives….

Pro’s:

  • First, and most importantly of all, education is continuing, the form is different, but something is certainly happening!
  • The digital know-how and experience of virtually all teachers is coming on in leaps and bounds, instead of it being just the realm of the enthusiasts. I sense that the incredibly difficult to arrange art department meetings might be moving to a digital arrangement next year.
  • The pupils are actually turning up on time and doing the assignments at the required moments (at least in my experience)
  • The pupils are also rapidly picking up the necessary skills to work in new digital areas.
  • The pupils don’t seem to moan any more…..but maybe that’s because their microphones are turned off!
  • The one on one contact with pupils is interestingly different.  In the course of the week there’s quite a lot of messaging and chatting with individual pupils about assignments that are being worked on.  This is chatty and friendly and feels somehow different both to the rather awkwardly written emails I sometimes get or the face to face contact in the classroom.  They’ve started wishing me a good weekend, saying that they enjoyed an assignment, some have even asked for extra homework…..this is all rather uncharted and very interesting territory!

I certainly wouldn’t go as far as to say that distant learning is the future of mainstream education. But this is a learning experience for all, and there are undoubtedly things that should be kept in and built on when we do eventually get back into the classroom.

Well it’s a daily rhythm of sorts

The normal working week for me had a regular pattern. There was the time at home at the start of the week preparing for my teaching role in the middle and later part of the week.  School days were long with lengthy travel time at the beginning and end of the teaching day. There were the weekends where the very best was done to make them feel, well, like a weekend.

The last four weeks, like for just about everyone else, has felt very different. I’ve just been reading an article, I think in the Guardian, that said that the education world has been rising to the Corona challenge.  I have a daughter studying at art school in the Netherlands, a brother teaching in the UK and another teaching at a university in Malaysia. Added to this my wife teaches at a university of applied science her in the Netherlands and then there is me, a secondary school teacher. Maybe, just maybe, I’m better placed than most to offer an opinion on the efforts going on in the educational world.

I would certainly feel a large amount of agreement with that newspaper article, education is rising to the challenge.  The urgency of the situation was rapidly clear. The online possibilities were ready, although for most, a little unexplored, to have a serious go at engaging and serving the stay at home pupils. 

A learning curve of dizzying steepness was leapt at.  Teams, Skype, Zoom, Moodles and any number of other online learning opportunities and facilities have been thrown into place.  A process of teacher education that under normal circumstances that would have been spread out over numerous after school sessions spread over months has been picked up and run with.

Have I ever had so many emails, apps, chats and video meetings?  And we really are only at the start of actually providing a form of online teaching of our numerous classes.  This week I am starting with classes of up to 33 pupils online together in a Teams group together. I’m curious to see how it goes. I have to say, that although I’m missing the personal contact, I’m not sure how the online classroom might measure up in filling this gap.

Teachers the world over are undoubtedly putting in plenty of extra time and effort.  I’m also curious to see whether this is being matched by our pupils. At this stage that is rather the great unknown factor. Can they work effectively with us only digitally standing over them. Time will tell. What will be the payback for a one, two, three-month dip in the educational service that we normally provide?

Amongst all this my weekly rhythm has changed, I’m starting to recognize something of a vague pattern. It is hours in front of the computer screen, apping on my phone, writing new material adjusted for the online context, marking, guiding colleagues, liaising with the school leadership, following online teaching courses and so on. 

It’s starting early, finishing late. Technically my job is only 60% full-time. Educational hours always tend to run out of control, now more than ever. But I try to intersperse the screen time with other things to break it up and create rhythm in the days rather than lapsing into a sort of even continuum. For me that means a walk or going out running in the nearby woods. Thank goodness that these things are still an option for me.  Family time and fragmented through it all when the moment presents itself, some painting and drawing.

A future blog post will dive into the theme of online appropriate and stimulating assignments that might work the best.

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.