The long and drawn out tale of a Frida Kahlo painting

Back at the start of 2020 I made a plan.  It was for the group of adult amateur painters that I coach and guide in their creative activities once a week.  As a group we also make an occasional trip out to see an art exhibition that I feel would be both interesting and in some way aligned with the group’s own painting activities. Last year we visited the David Hockney and Vincent van Gogh exhibition at the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

My plan, back at the beginning of 2020 was that, as a group we could make a trip to the Drendts Museum in the northern Dutch town of Assen, to see the planned Frida Kahlo exhibition, Viva la Frida!, due in the autumn of 2020.  Without telling the group, and as way of introducing them to my plan, I set them a small painting assignment. 

I used one of the iconic portrait photographs of Kahlo, enlarged it and cut it into vertical strips, each about 40 cm tall by 2 cm wide.  To accompany each strip there was a wooden panel, larger (about a metre tall), but of the same proportions.  The task in hand was simple, use the blurry strip of black and white photograph to make a comparable blurry monochrome painted strip on the wooden panel.

To make it a little more technical I asked the group to do this using oil paints but making no use of black when mixing the grey tints that we needed.  The purpose here was twofold, firstly to challenge the group to experiment broadly with the mixing of chromatic greys, but secondly to result in more variation across the panels when the final composition was assembled.  One would hopefully be a slightly bluey mix of greys, another with more red and another with perhaps a purple edge.

We made a start, and all was going well. 

But then along came Covid-19, lockdown and the weekly painting sessions were suspended.  The painting was half finished, my painters still didn’t actually know what it was they were painting, but at this stage I told them the whole story and what my plans for the autumn had been.  In the meantime the museum in Assen had also had to change their plans.  The Kahlo exhibition was cancelled, or rather suspended, and has subsequently been rescheduled for the autumn of 2021……..I’m sure as a group we’ll be going.

Our group reconvened back in September.  Meeting as two smaller groups, strict social distancing in place and returned to the business of painting, and getting our Frida Kahlo painting finished. 

We almost made it!  Four weeks later, we are back in lockdown, hopefully not for as long as last time.  We are returning to our sharing of creative work in the app group and working at home on some group projects that I assemble as we progress.  Such projects help us all feel that we are still part of a group.  Our Frida work is all but finished, we’re just missing a couple of panels from the outer most reaches of the composition, but the work as it currently stands is a satisfying result and good approach work for the exhibition visit next year.

A mention for classes h3p and h3q

In the socially distanced classrooms that we are encountering in education at the moment a special mention should go out to my two 3rd year (14 year olds) classes.  Both are small classes an I find myself with no fewer than twelve empty desks in the room.  All the pupils in Dutch schools are being required to keep at least 1.5 metres of distance from their teachers.  Both h3p and h3q have taken this advice to the limit, they seem to care for my health and well-being to the extreme.  Every lesson they pile into the classroom and insist on making sure that there is a good four if not five metres between me and them, they couldn’t put any more distance between me and them if they tried.

Or……it could of course be that they are displaying the more recognised teenage behaviour of wanting to sit at the back of the bus, back of the hall, back of the cinema, back of the theatre, back of the bike shed, the back of anything else that is going, and yes, the back of the classroom! 

But on a more positive note, I do feel a general respect of my personal space from the pupils I teach, and if they do creep a little too close it is simply through enthusiasm for the drawings they want to show me, and don’t seem to mind at all to be reminded to take a step back.

Three weeks open again

Three weeks into the return to school, time to make up the balance a bit.  Three weeks of up to 30 children in the classroom and me the teacher trying to maintain a one and a half metre distance from them, in the classroom and in the corridors and also a similar distance from colleagues in the staffroom (actually probably the most tricky challenge!).

Front on teaching, teacher at the front talking and explaining (ironically the sort of teaching that for years we’ve been told is educationally the least effective) works fine. The tables in my classroom have been all moved back a bit to give me more ‘safe’ space at the front, so I have to shout a bit louder at times, but that is fine.  The first week or so was quite a bit of explaining so I left at the end of the first week feeling that distance had been maintained well. But then the practical activities started…..

Once again you explain from the from, examples on the screen and the pupils get started. Soon enough the questions and queries start to come. And after those come the specific enquiries about particular (often small) details on a piece of work.  You want to see, you want to help, you want to instruct and even demonstrate.  You quickly realise just how much of your job you spend shoulder to shoulder with your pupils, how often you stand amongst them. It is all part of classroom life and especially art classroom life. 

In some ways normal classroom life has returned, the faces at the desks. But at the same time that it is anything but normal. I find myself asking whole groups of pupils to hold up their work for me to check that they are roughly on the right lines whereas in the past I would have had multiple one in one exchanges.

The crucial teaching tool of your physical presence has been taken away. You can’t go and stand closely behind the unruly individual in the back row and teach from there (right into his or her ear!).  So much looks the same, but so much is different.  At the moment my pupils seem to respect my space, but we all know how forgetful pupils can be. Time to print a “don’t stand so close to me” t-shirt for the weeks and months ahead…..although I am fully aware when Sting wrote those lyrics he was referring to a very different situation!

How long will we be teaching like this? Well that is of course anyone’s guess right now. Right now its one week at a time, but I have to admit to often finding myself thinking about all the projects I want to offer this year, and wondering which ones to save and hold back for a potential online situation.

Some things would just never work in an online lesson

There are quite some contrasts in the emotions of being back in the classroom. I would be lying if I said that I was totally happy and comfortable to be back in the classroom. Having said that, it is great to be back doing some physical teaching and pushing the pupils to experiment and try activities and approaches that simply wouldn’t be possible in the distant learning situation.

One such example from yesterday.  The context was an initial session at the beginning of a series of lessons about abstraction in visual art.

Later on there will be assignments giving the pupils the chance to create abstract compositions that focus on dynamism and flow in an image, but today I wanted to get my group of fourteen year olds to loosen up, experiment with abstract mark-making and to draw a parallel with the abstract language offered by music.

Using eight different pieces of instrumental music and applying different ‘rules’ to each drawing a sheet of increasingly wild drawings was made.  We had fun, they smiled and laughed on seeing their own and the results of others. They were engaged and curious. The results made were maybe not of great artistic merit, but they were part of a process leading onto other things.

Would this lesson have worked online? Without a doubt it would not. Of course I could have played the music to them via the computers. I could also have asked them to have had paper and pencils ready. I could even have given exactly the same explanation about what they had to do. But still it would not have worked. Such a lesson (and there are many more in all areas of education) only work because you are sharing and participating together in an activity. It is perhaps not dissimilar to going to a theatre to watch a stand-up comedian or watching it alone on your laptop. The material might be the same but the experience isn’t.

We are social creatures and also social learners, being part of a group of peers, together with a teacher, brings a dynamic that rarely occurs in the online environment. In an art room context it is a dynamic that can be used to push learners further as they look over their shoulders and respond and react to the work that others around them are doing.

Reflections on the 2019-20 school year

And so we come to the last week of a bizarre educational year. 2019-20, the Covid year, the distance learning year, the struggling to keep in touch with your pupils year. It’s perhaps a good moment to reflect a little.

For me, in many ways the first seven months were very much a more of the same sort of experience. Familiar lessons and many classes I already knew. In the background though, as a school we were working on a new educational concept that was a long term project, due to be launched in the school year 2020-21. The aim of the new approach being to increase both the educational engagement of our pupils and their ability to work more independently. Little did we know that in many ways this aim for a more independent form of learning was about to be twisted into a new form and thrust, on not just a single year group to start with, but the entire school of 1600 pupils.

So, as all those who work in education, those who are pupils and those who are parents know only too well, around February, March or maybe April, the learning world gets turned on its head. Suddenly the schools are standing empty and pupils and teaching staff, like just about everyone else are left stranded at home.

Much has been written about the admirable educational response to the new challenges. Seen as a whole this is true.  It was amazing to see the way that a steep digital learning curve was climbed and how effectively many schools and teachers got their online lessons up and running.

A first post-lockdown group artwork, June 2020

Three months later, and with the Corona situation in Europe at least easing a little we are getting closer to seeing how effective our emergency sticking plaster form of education has been. As a school we have even been able to carry out an exam week for a number of our classes. I have also spent time chatting with groups of pupils during lessons as part of the partial reopening of school.  And last week we had a series of report meetings to talk about the progress in each class. 

So how have things gone so far, and how are they going as we head into our summer break? It is early days to be drawing real conclusions of course, but what is the initial anecdotal evidence?  Variable it would seem. Like some of the teachers, a section of the pupils have coped well and relished the new challenges of working and organizing themselves a lot more than the normal school week allows. They have enjoyed puzzling out and researching lesson material and getting on with what was necessary.  Others though have struggled in the very same areas.  These are the pupils who need the structure, the discipline and the educational presence of teachers, a fixed timetable and the environment that a school building offers.

There are no great surprises in these early reflections, and the end of year test results of the students my wife teaches in higher education seem to hint at similar conclusions.  The top students continue to score top grades, but the lower areas of achievement have slipped a little lower.  Is an increasing educational seperation the risk here?  It isn’t any great surprise to discover that many pupils need the structures, rhythms and rules that the educational institution provides.  It is what we in education have taught them to be dependent on.  Take it away and replace it with distant learning that they follow from in their bed and things are going to be different.

The winners here do seem to be the ones who can work, plan and organize themselves more independently, both the pupils and it should also be said, the staff too. The new approach to the education we will be starting to offer at the school where I teach when we return after the summer is aimed at exactly these points. Letting pupils make a few more decisions for themselves in how they tackle the educational material.  Challenging them to work a little further and faster rather than allowing a general ‘class tempo’ to be the dominant one-size fits all form of education.  It would be nice (an maybe a little unrealistic) to think that if we had made such steps five years earlier our pupils may have been more ready for the effects of the COVID 19 influenced forms of education. Whether that proves to be the case only time will tell, and whether we can get on with shaking up the education we offer without further interruptions is of course also very unclear.

An educational present

Yesterday I boarded the train with a colleague. Face masks on, making the short trip down the line, fifteen minutes or so. Our conversation was almost immediately interrupted by a cheery “hey, Peter”. I looked across the carriage to see a tall, lanky, bearded face, peering out from behind a generous mask. He had obviously recognized me, despite my face mask. Could I return the favour? It’s not always easy, but on this occasion I could, it was Niek, a now young man, who I had last taught eight years ago.

Niek immediately launched into the conversation wanting to know how it was at school and how we were coping with the Corona situation. He enthusiastically explained what he was up to, nearing the end of his Masters degree. It was a open and relaxed conversation, if only a relatively short one. I could still very much recognize something of the first year boy who had been part of an unusual class of 23 children back in 2007 or 2008 perhaps. It was unusual in the sense of being a class of 18 boys and just 5 girls. Sometimes odd details just stick in your head.

It was nice to see Niek again and hear that all was going well for him.  But the nicest thing was this……

Although I am an art teacher, I am also a teacher in a bilingual stream, giving my art lessons in English to Dutch children.  I am part of the bilingual program where language learning is combined with teaching other subject areas. When Niek boarded the train yesterday and recognized me, he just launched into our conversation in English, despite the  context of being in a Dutch train and the conversations around us also being conducted in Dutch.  His English was fluent, clear and spoken without hesitation or grammatical faults.

When my colleague and I left the train fifteen minutes later I could turn and say with all honesty, that is why we are involved in bilingual education.  It is an unusual hybrid in the educational world.  It requires the teachers and pupils involved to participate in a language ‘game’ that asks everyone to conduct themselves in a second language, when using the first language would simply be easier. But here was an encounter that underlines the strengths of this approach and why it is so worth teaching in this way.

So thanks Niek, for this educational present to one of your old teachers. In the last week of this most different of educational years it does give a good feeling.

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