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.

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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
kiefer-zweistromland

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.

Bouncing off the work of others – Tim Walker and Loving Vincent in the Noordbrabantsmuseum

There is a very strange double bill of exhibitions in the Noordbrabantsmuseum in Den Bosch, the Netherlands. Both, in their different ways, lean heavily on the artworks of Dutch masters from the past. British fashion photographer Tim Walker presents a series of larger than life photographs that take as their reference point Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. Meanwhile, in the neighbouring galleries there is The Loving Vincent exhibition, a display of a cross-section of the thousands of paintings made for the Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela film of the same name. To say that these lean heavily on the work of Van Gogh, would be a massive understatement.

Art in general rarely escapes referencing the past in one way or another. All of those who have any form of creative or artistic practice have their own influences that touch and inform their own production. Having said that though, these two particular exhibitions are extremely explicit in their referencing of influences and acknowledging the creative forces that lie behind their projects.

Let us start with Loving Vincent. I’m used to seeing museum spaces filled by paintings made by Van Gogh. I’m a regular visitor to both the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and my local museum the Kroller Muller in the central Netherlands. Both have excellent collections and both have galleries filled with both the Van Gogh’s art and crowds of visitors. From a distance the experience in Den Bosch looked similar, walls filled with vibrant, loosely painted images and crowds of people. There is though a difference, here there is not a single painting made by the famous Dutch man. It is a strange experience. Like the film itself it is rather a strange experience. If there ever was a painter whose work seems, through its inherent vibrancy, not in need of being animated it is surely Van Gogh. Yet the film does have a sort of hypnotic attraction. The relatively course animation techniques seemingly allowing the paint to flow across the cinema screen. Some parts work better than others and shear visual experience does tend to occupy your attention, at the expense of the narrative that the filmmakers were also trying to present.

The whole project is a Labour of Love. An infatuation with these iconic images. With this as a backdrop, and with the film in the back of my mind, the technical process is kind of interesting to see. But does it all warrant a place in a museum. Is it more than an advertisement for the film? I’ve always maintained in my teaching, even to the youngest pupils that art is about the ideas. Are there ideas here on display here?

There is clearly an audience for the exhibition, but I have to confess to feeling strangely perplexed by the visit. What are we actually looking at here? A series of paintings made by artists, or are they illustrators, who are all working in a style that is as close as possible to the way the Dutch master handled his paint 125 years ago.

Tim Walker’s exhibition in the same museum in Den Bosch is rather different. He too reaches back into art history. This time though, to a single work, The Garden of Heavenly Delights by Den Bosch’s most famous citizen, Hieronymus Bosch. Walker acknowledges in the forward to the display that he has always had a fascination for this particular painting. Is it an image of “naïve joy and freedom” or “playground of corruption and sexual deviance” is one of the introductory questions.

Having seen the work in the show I definitely feel that Walker comes down heavily on the latter choice. These are disturbing images. Staged photographs with a painterly quality, figure compositions that ooze a depraved sexuality and nightmarish menace.

Coming as he does from a fashion industry perspective with its slick images of perfection this does come as something of a contrast. Yes there are certainly elements of his fashion roots to be found. Overly theatrical….perhaps, but the photographs in the Noordbrabantsmuseum make for uncomfortable viewing, for me at least. It begs the question, would Bosch’s original work have offered still more uncomfortable viewing for its original audience? Being as it is, a warning of the hellish world that could be waiting for these original viewers back in the sixteenth century, in the afterlife.

Related post:

Hieronymus Bosch, Chris Berens and Oss

Don’t change a winning team…..a classroom film project

Or if you prefer, ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’. There is a great deal in education that is in a constant state of flux, we hear much about the atmosphere of constant change in our schools. There are many good reasons to remain critical of our classroom practices, to improve and refine. Maybe as a result of this situation is comes as something of a relief when you have a lesson element, or in this case a series of lessons, that works so well within its aims that you feel little need to adjust it.

This is very much the case with the ‘remake’ project that use with our film module that we teach to our fifteen and sixteen year olds. This practical assignment follows on heels of a more theoretical part that has involved discussing various film making practices and skills and watching a movie in class together. In recent years we’ve spent time in class discussing the boundaries of truth and fiction in movies and have made use of films such as:

But to get back to the film making practical, the set up is simple and involves taking an existing short film as the basis and dividing it up into short fragments of, say fifteen seconds. Each group involved is then asked to analyse the fragment that they are allotted, with particular attention being given to what exactly the camera is doing. Are we talking about a zooming or panning shot, a close up perhaps or a birds eye view and how long does each shot last exactly? Having recorded all the camera work detail in a storyboard the groups get down to filming the action as precisely as they can (quite a challenge for some groups!).

This year we’ve been working with one original film, five different classes and something like 120 pupils. 18 groups were formed and each had to deliver just 13.5 seconds of edited film that remade a section of Love Sick, our original short film by Kevin Lacy. Love Sick is very well suited to the project because the storyline is simple and very visual. The that fact that all our actors involved in the remake change every 13.5 seconds can potentially produce quite a lot of viewer confusion, but given this simplicity I think the result still bridges these continuity problems quite well.

Once I have all the fragments, I put them in the right order, take the original soundtrack and add that to the pupil version. Normally there is a little extra editing needed at this stage to try and make sound and image match up as well as possible, but I try to keep that to a minimum. Using the original sound sidesteps the thorny problem of pupils trying to record sound with their mobile devices and in practice works as a sort of glue in holding all the fragments together.

To say that the pupils are keen to see the film at the end of the production is a bit of an understatement! They are desperate to see it! And it provides an entertaining and often very funny element of a diploma presentation evening that we have with the classes at around the same time that the project reaches its conclusion.

Last year’s project

Winning an award….well, nearly

Awards and prizes in education should be taken with a pinch of salt. How can you possibly choose a teacher of the year? Even it was possible to for one organisation to actually somehow consider them all, what criteria could you use to say, this particular one is the best. I don’t dispute that the teachers who win such prizes are indeed very good teachers and worthy of being allowed to stand in the limelight and enjoy the recognition. But singling one out as the ‘best’ seems a little odd.

Having said all that, it didn’t stop me entering a competition a while back for innovative approaches to language teaching here in the Netherlands. Together with Pasi Kirkkopelto, my online art teacher collaborator (who up until now I have never actually met), I had worked on a project last year that seemed to fit the criteria of the competition rather well. It’s a project that I’ve posted before about:

Stating the obvious – language as a tool of communication

Photography, language and communication (a clil assignment)

I filled out the application form, without even mentioning it to Pasi. I was uncertain, it fitted the criteria in my view, but would it do so for the judges? It was a competition that seemed more geared up to full blown language teachers, rather than art teachers who squeeze language education into their lessons on the side.

utrecht2

Two weeks ago, I received a mail to say that our project had been shortlisted and would have to be presented to jury and public at the National Conference for Language Education. Presentation is something that I do feel at home with, so two weeks later I found myself with a stand at the conference with our ‘Photographic Exchange’ project presented as stylishly as I could, given the fact that I had only very limited time to plan how to do it.

Maybe I’m just a bit shy, but I did feel a little like a gatecrasher……as an art teacher at the languages conference.  Perhaps I’ve never quite got over just how bad I was at languages at school, and here I was presenting a project for innovative approaches to language education at a national conference. It’s funny how things turn out!

Anyway, to cut a day long story of conversations with a great many visitors short, the project that we had put together last year was awarded second prize in this competition for good educational practice.

utrecht1

I still think that educational competitions should be taken with a pinch of salt. I know full well that there are other excellent projects out there that for countless reasons never even got as far as being sent in for consideration by the judges.  But what I do know is that we had a good project, one that we as teachers and our pupils worked well with. I also have to say that having your moment on the stage in a huge theatre in front of your peers is, well kind of fun.

Love and Mercy – the Brian Wilson bio-pic in class

Was I sure that this particular film, the Bill Pohlad bio-pic about Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, was going to work with the twenty-eight fifteen year olds of class V4D? No, not at all. Both our lessons each week are right at the end of the day when pupils are tired and concentration less focused; no, I really wasn’t sure.

But I wanted to show the film because on the surface it ticked many of the boxes that I wanted to refer to in the short film studies course that I offer around this time each year.

Part of the reason for choosing it was that being a bio-pic, the film narrative sits nicely in the global theme that we were dealing with of fact and fiction in the cultural (and in this case in the film) world. But added to this, there were the interesting other issues of:

  • The popular culture of the past being introduced to my pupils
  • The extensive use of music in the film
  • Mental health perspectives being explored
  • The lengths that the filmmakers have gone to, to get the ‘look’ of the film and the actors right

All good reasons to show the film to my pupils and discuss with how the filmmakers involved had set about presenting the story of Brian Wilson to us.

 

Yet sitting in the classroom watching it together I still really wasn’t sure. It’s a fairly long film and we had to spread it over three lessons on three different days, not and ideal setup. If I’m honest, the first 30-40 minutes are a little slow and, for a younger audience perhaps a little confusing as the narrative jumps backwards and forwards between the nineteen sixties and late eighties. Time is spent setting the stage for the main body of the film. That first lesson the class watched with me, they were a little twitchy at times. Sometimes they seemed to be finding Wilson’s unpredictable behaviour funny rather than disturbing.

Were we going to make it to the end of the film, to start with I really wasn’t sure. But I wanted to persist. One of my big aims with the film studies course is to offer material that is outside of the pupils’ normal area of experience. I want to stretch and draw them into new areas, but without going so far that it switches them off.

We returned to the film the following lesson, and slowly, you could see them being drawn into the film. The room went quiet and they became more settled. By the end they were thoroughly engaged and wanting to see how the creeping tension that is built through the film is played out.

Now, two weeks later I am reading the 1000-1200 word essays that the pupils wrote about the movie. I was curious, I felt I really needed the proof, the confirmation that they had enjoyed it as much as I had secretly hoped.

It would seem that my uncertainty about the film was misplaced, almost without exception the reports have been both enthusiastic and well written. A couple of points stand out. The styling of the visual appearance of the film is greatly appreciated. Having shown them a few film clips of the real Beach Boys they see the parallels and the efforts that has been made to create the look of the past and the appearance of the main characters. The focus on the mental health issues experienced by Brian Wilson throughout his life hit home in the minds of the pupils. It made for fascinating reading. The appreciation of the huge difficulties and abuse that Wilson suffered made a very strong impression and undoubtedly broadened their understanding in this area.

 

The film continually jumps from the sixties to the eighties, with two different actors (Paul Dano and John Cusack) playing the role of Wilson. It was interesting to hear which section of the film engaged the pupils most. For me it was Dano and the younger version of the musician. This was partly for the performance, but mostly for the music and the look at the creative process that it gave. However for the bulk of my pupils it was the older phase of Wilson’s life that drew the attention. Why? Well two reasons I think, partly the love story that was being played out with Melinda Ledbetter. But more so for the sense of jeopardy that was being created, was Melinda going to be able to save the hugely vulnerable Brian Wilson from the manipulative clutches of Dr. Eugene Landy?

All-in all reason enough to use the film again next year? The answer is simple, yes certainly.

Surreal sculpture and the challenge of being creative with language

Art teachers are interested in creativity. That’s no surprise really.  We’re interested in squeezing new things and creative approaches out of our pupils in their practical work. Well yes maybe, but even in the most creative of classrooms over-reliance on examples/predetermined models and the pupils’ sometimes insatiable wish to do things the ‘right’ way has to be fought. In this sense, my own classroom is no different.

Occasionally a lesson situation presents itself where the pupils are confronted with an almost infinite number of choices or variables on offer.  It calls for thought, reflection and a spark that might lead to the pupils coming up with something that is their ‘own’, something that is maybe a little more original or creative. It can be a struggle, and a surprisingly difficult situation to actually teach.

This has been the case in a recent assignment I have been working on with my third-year pupils (aged 15 years). It was an assignment that required some creativity in terms of practical activity when the class working with plywood. But actually, the creative core of the assignment was more one of creativity of thought.

The assignment was linked to a series of lessons about Surrealism and involved taking an existing object and combining it with a second plywood constructed object that interacted in some way with the qualities or characteristics of the first object to present a slightly surreal combination. The idea for the assignments stemmed from various artworks like those of Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Meret Oppenheim.

 

 

The idea of placing two objects together or combining them visually is not complex, and by and large the process of constructing the second object from plywood is not too technically difficult. However, the simple act of deciding what to do is surprisingly difficult. Analyzing the qualities of the first object, with a little encouragement generally works out reasonably well. If we take the example of a fork, the sort of which you might find in the kitchen drawer.

A fork is:

Metal, silvery, shiny, hard, pointy at one end, more curved at the other, the overall form is kind of wavy, it’s for eating, for spiking food, comes as part of a set called cutlery, four prongs, fits in the hand, etc, etc.

How then to choose a second object that in some way combines or contrasts with these existing characteristics? That was difficult. It requires something of a ‘eureka’ moment, just a single idea that was going to engage the viewer, like Man Ray’s nails under the iron. Here is the creative challenge. Often I found myself sitting round a table staring at an object with a pupil, waiting, coaxing, edging them towards some possibilities, but at the same time trying to hold back from offering solutions. Testing creativity of thought in this way can at times be something of a painful process to watch!

It the end, in most cases, an idea came. Some rather predictable, others surprising, smart or downright funny. In the case of the fork the pupil settled quite quickly on working with the wave-like form of the fork when seen side on.  He decided he simply wanted to make a ship with masts and sails that by inserting it between the prongs of the fork could ‘sail’ through the wave-like form.

wThe second creative challenge came in the form of dreaming up a suitable title, one that somehow locked in on the complexities of these combinations. Can you spend a whole lesson waiting and hoping that pupils come up with an engaging, perhaps two-word title? Will that flash of an idea come?

The language abilities of my pupils are good, even working as we are in English, their second language. But that is not to say that they are going succeed at this difficult challenge. This stretches their creativity and knowledge of often multiple meanings for words to the limit. In the end, the language component of this assignment is finding just a handful of words, but they are completely integrated with the practical content. It that sense it is a good CLIL (content and language integrated learning) lesson, although not an easy one.

For more of this sort of language assignment read this:

The most difficult assignment of the year?

Sometimes you just don’t need to explain……

Yesterday I used a short film in my lessons that I had not used before, ‘Donkey’, from 2011 by Keri Burrows. I said virtually nothing to introduce the film to the two classes that saw it. It’s a quiet and stylish seven minutes in the form of a reflective monologue. Both times I watched a a hushed attention fell over the room. I watched as the class of often quite chatty pupils were drawn in and as the titles rolled at the end the silence hung in the room. There really was little I had to say, the movie’s message, and it does have a serious point to make, had reached them.

Watching this short film was a part of a brief film studies series of lessons for the classes of fifteen and sixteen year olds that I teach. It’s an introduction to basic filmmaking techniques and approaches. I usually begin with a series of short films that highlight various aspects of film craft such as the role of the speed of editing, sound and music, the positioning of camera and so on.

So why had this particular film carried its message so well to my audience? Well, yes it is a stylishly made and in a way quite elegant film. It’s performed in a form of low key realism that is very accessible. But most of all, and without giving too much away, in terms of content it takes the viewer into a world that is only too recognizable to pupils at a secondary school. For all these reasons it is a short film worth watching in class.

For further analysis of the film see the following link:

Donkey – film analysis

 

Surrealism, a sandwich and the start of the school year

One minute you’re in the deserted wilderness of northern Sweden, something of an ultimate of peace and quiet, the next you’re back amongst the heaving masses of pupils pouring into school for the first day of term.

Maybe the switch isn’t literally quite that quick, but still it is a fairly swift step from one to another and it does come as something of a shock to the system.  I move from the calm enjoyment of camping in a small tent in largely undisturbed nature to the rapid startup of a new school year. A moment for a deep intake of breath, head down and begin.

Naamloze afbeelding2

 

I’ve got a few new colleagues to get to know, but a whole lot more new pupils and class groups to familiarize myself with. New relationships have to be built and importantly groups have to be activated and switched on to my lessons, my subject and my style of teaching.  My third year groups (aged 14-15) normally require a little shaking to wake them up at the start of a new year.  I like to make that first lesson a little more memorable. A year ago I wrote about the educational reworking of a Robert Rauschenberg work that was aimed at doing this in the following post:

Grabbing the attention…..and making a point

It’s nice if you get the feeling that your art lesson has succeeded in being interesting and quirky enough to be talked about at the dinner table later that evening. In this case, first impressions are important and worth making that extra effort to grab the attention.

A series of lessons about Surrealism that I teach has offered a variety of contexts to do exactly this lately. I want my class, from the start, to start to understand something of what Surrealism is all about, an unexpected world where things can be rather different to how we might expect. I also want their full attention and I want discussion and engagement from the very start.

One way of doing this goes like this.

As the class are entering the room and sitting down I am busy putting a chair on a table. Without saying anything I climb up and sit down on the chair. The class at this point have often hardly registered that their teacher is sitting on a chair on a table and continue to talk. I reach into my bag and pull out my lunch box, open it and take out a sandwich. I inspect the sandwich carefully. The room starts to get quieter, pupils are nudging one another and starting to look my way. I reach back into my bag and take out a needle and reel of cotton. I carefully thread the needle without saying a word. The room gets quieter still. I then start to sew the two pieces of bread that make up my sandwich together. I continue as long as it takes for the first questions or statements come that I can use to pitch into my Surrealism theme.

The class have had a memorable and engaging start to the lesson, one that they will hopefully remember, but more importantly they are already starting to engage with the idea of what might be considered surreal, we are talking about it and the class are traveling with me into my lesson.

 I’ll be posting again in the coming weeks about what Hywel Roberts in his book Oops! Helping children learn accidentally calls ‘the lure’, the approach of beginning a lesson with an element that draws your class in, turns them on and engages their attention.