A flash back to my place in the classroom as a teenager – creating a safe learning environment

Last week we had a teachers’ study day at school.  A day off for the pupils and a day to work together with colleagues without too many distractions.

The theme for the day was ‘Didactic coaching’, or put another way, improving the flow between pupil and teacher, clearer instruction, clearer feedback, and better understanding of the educational processes at work from both sides.

Photo: Wendy de Jong Thijssen

One particular aspect of the day has lodged in my mind in the intervening week.  It was related to the themes discussed I suppose, although didn´t get a specific time or place for debate.  It relates to the need for a `safe` classroom climate, a climate where all individuals feel secure in the knowledge that successes and failures are both part of the process.  Safe in feeling that getting a question wrong, or your work being used to illustrate a maybe less successful aspect than you may like, is acceptable, and as I said, all part of the group learning process.

Why did this point hit home for me last week?  Well, that has to do with the sensation I experienced when involved with a group discussion involving all 100 or so of my colleagues.  At this point our guest speaker was posing questions to us, his audience, and asking for us to reflect on and share our thoughts.  He was doing this in a perfectly reasonable way.

But here’s the thing, in such circumstances I find myself doubting, have I interpreted the question correctly?  Is my answer relevant?  I find myself wondering whether my mastery of the Dutch language (my second language) is going to let me down or has led me to misunderstand what is being asked (I should say that this is possible, but probably rather unlikely nowadays)?

With these doubts kicking around in my head I find myself sitting rather uncomfortably……just as I used to as a rather shy teenager in the classrooms of my secondary school.  It was quite a confronting flashback.

The experience has left me pondering how many of the pupils in my own classes might be experiencing something similar.  Are there children just waiting and hoping not to be chosen to join the discussion?  Or are the learning environments that I create more open and relaxed? 

I’ve asked small groups in my classes this week for their thoughts and views in this area.  The initial reactions are thankfully good.  But I’m only too aware that children often feel a pressure to give the socially acceptable answer and that, in effect, criticizing the teacher is probably as hard as it gets!  So, I’ll be probing again this week.  I like to think that everyone feels that I treat them equally and openly.  We spend time laughing together, sharing stories of what is going on inside and outside the classroom.  I think this all helps, but I’m not yet completely convinced and will be trying to speak some more to the quiet, shy ones this week.  The ones who I recognize parts of myself in!

Can’t see the trees for the drawings – the start of the school year

All the work was actually done at the end of the previous school year.  In fact, a significant part was put in place during the tail end of the last lockdown that we had in schools here in the Netherlands back in the spring as this previous post documents:

Preparatory tree project work

But once back in school, with whole classes back together, what started as a walk in the countryside and photographic assignment, could take on a more ambitious drawing and painting character.

The idea was relatively simple. I wanted, after months of disruption and children following my lessons on their laptops and iPads at home to do a fairly loose group project that would deliver a result that was significantly bigger than the individual parts.  It was also obliquely connected to the Surrealist’s Exquisite Corpse drawing game where elements of drawing connect vertically without one part actually being made with the intention that it should seamlessly connect.

Our ‘corpses’ weren’t to me figures, but trees. Linked together by a vertical trunk that ran through the drawing.  The pupils had spent time outside looking at trees and photographing them.  We had made small digital collages connecting various sections of diverse trees into an arrangement that hinted at where we were going.

But still, the greatest challenge was to get the pupils (14-15 years old) to loosen up a bit and dare to start on the relatively large-scale drawings I was asking them to make.  To help reach the point where we got quite high contrast drawings there was really only one material to use and that was charcoal.

After a few nervous minutes at the beginning the class soon got into it.  I kept hammering on about daring to draw and being a bit aggressive in their mark-making.  Also, I kept again and again repeating to make sure that they got different scales of mark in the drawings, from the thick and lumpy trunks to the lace-like finest twigs and everything in-between.  We used the photographs made earlier as a reference point to make sure that nobody slipped into the ways of drawing trees that they may have used when they were at primary school.

Charcoal delivers fast results, and it was very quickly clear that the drawings that were being made have qualities that were going to mean that my hopes to make a larger group display of them was likely to be a possibility. 

The speed of the drawing process meant that in subsequent lessons we moved onto similar work, but this time drawn out in paint.  The pupils were working with a freedom that I rarely see, not just from the ‘artists’ of the class, but pretty much right across the room.

The resulting work now hangs in the hall at the main entrance to the school, backlit from the light outside and against a backdrop of real trees.

A bilingual start to the year – art and language workshop

It has become a regular day out in September for me.  A trip to the Merlettcollege in Cuijk to spend a day with the new bilingual class giving them the full on immersion experience of a solid day of intensive English language use and practical activities.  It is a day that makes use of a whole variety of approaches designed to unlock the pupils prior knowledge in the areas of language and art and to stretch them into new areas.  My own use of English, and only English, is chosen to try and prevent the pupils slipping back into Dutch and by only slightly modifying my own use of vocabulary I hope to stretch the class into new areas that are perhaps just a small step beyond their current level.  This does mean that perhaps the pupils occasionally miss a small part of the instruction.  But then, we all miss pieces of instruction from time to time even when we fully understand the language used.   But it is in this way, where we struggle to make the very best use off our current knowledge, that the learning process is often at its most effective. This sort of ‘in at the deep end’ is at the basis of the bilingual classroom and where it really comes into its own. 

This year’s group in Cuijk was been a good one. A class of 30 twelve year olds who are just two weeks into their bilingual journey and receiving the main part of all their subjects at school in English for the first time.

It was rapidly clear from initial reactions from the class that it was a day where I would be able to work at a considerable pace.  I was making few extra adjustments in my teaching.  Many of the day’s activities had a game-like quality and the pupils were only too pleased to play along and show off their knowledge and ability in English.  We talked about art, we wrote poetry, we discussed journeys and travelling and we drew pictures, bouncing freely from one activity to the other.  The day seemed to fly past.

I have two personal favourite activities from those I used. Firstly, there is the Haiku poetry writing where I can stand back and watch the children searching through their own English vocabulary, whispering words to themselves and counting the syllables of each possible word on their fingers, looking for the perfect fit for their poem.  Then there is the picture drawing activity when someone else is describing what you have to draw. This second activity always brings a lot of laughter with it, whether it is me describing and the children drawing or the other way round.  Both variants involve pushing the language abilities into new more precise and descriptive areas and connect this with picture making….the ideal combination for the bilingual art teacher!

International educational opportunities in the time of Covid

I grew up in the UK and I didn’t cross borders into another country until I was fourteen, on a school trip to France.  Education has an important part to play in broadening the perspectives of young people.  Many schools (including where I work) promote themselves on their international activities and relationships.  Exchanges, trips and cross border projects and activities are all part of the packages that are offered.  Internationalization in education is as important as it has ever been to broaden understanding and appreciation between different cultures and traditions. 

Yet in this Covid influenced world (and in my own Anglo/Dutch Brexit influenced context) the challenge is just how to do this.  We have school trips from the Netherlands over to the UK lightly pencilled in again for this school year.  Whether these plans come to fruition remains to be seen.  I’ve just made my own first trip across the North Sea for twenty months.  The preparation and research of how to do the journey took me the best part of two days to finalize and has involved multiple forms and declarations and the booking of no fewer than three Covid tests for a four day visit. If things are still so complex when the time comes for our school trip, I can’t see how we will be able to organize things, not for the staff, and less still for the pupils. 

Logistically, international school trips have always been complicated, but what is now required is of a completely new order, the travel landscape has changed.  Where and how educational internationalization fits in to this, at a time when international cooperation and understanding is as important as it has ever been, is unclear and a massive challenge. 

How can we give our pupils real international experiences and firsthand relationships when it is such a struggle to do it for ourselves as adults?  The days of traveling with whole classes will surely return, but in the meantime can we afford to let the international component of our education slide amidst the rush to get our general education back up to speed after all the interruptions of the last 18 months? 

There’s no quick fix here, but surely there are possibilities.  Smaller, less ambition steps that, given time and the right structure, could develop real educational value.  A few years ago, I worked on a modest border crossing photographic project that linked my pupils with a group in Finland to produce some collaborative work.  I’m hoping to run a similar activity with others schools this year in a language/writing/painting and drawing project.  I’m also pondering other creative projects that might link pupils’ drawings together and result in an internationally touring (amongst the schools involved) art exhibition. 

These are in comparison with a full-blown week long exchange with a return visit later quite small gestures.  But with the right framing they aren’t meaningless or without consequence.  Our pupils need to see, understand and engage with the world beyond their own safe and familiar environments.  We must find ways or edging them beyond their own little worlds, even in these Covid restricted days.     

When needs must, Covid, creative and educational choices…Minecraft in and out of the classroom

For a number of years in the winter months I run a series of lessons with the fifteen-year olds that I teach about architecture that focus on aesthetic beauty in contemporary buildings.  We spend time looking at the architecture found on the streets of our local towns and villages as well as the work of leading architects on the world stage.  Most pupils are interested and surprised when being introduced to the work of the likes of Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Peter Eisenman, and seeing work that is a long way from what we find closer to home.

Once the theory and written assignments are out of the way we dive into what are some of my favourite lessons of the year.  Pupils begin work on a architectural design process that first involves them working out on paper a layout for the interior of a building, puzzling out how to make best use of a space with fixed parameters of a building’s footprint.  This is followed by a second part where following a short lesson on how to use SketchUp, the pupils use it to design the exterior to accompany their interior plans.  We sit for several lessons at the computers at school, first working on the basic form, and then focussing of pushing the level of detail and refinement in the design as far as we can.

This year though, with a lockdown in place and lessons being given online this practical assignment presented a problem.  Many of our pupils, when at home, only have access to their iPad, the chosen digital device that we have been using at school for a number of years.  There may be a computer at home, but during lockdown, the whole family may have claims on this.  To get round this problem, as an art department, we reorganized the assignment (like we have done many times in the last year!).  The new version offered a whole series of possibilities:

  • The SketchUp option (for those who could install and use computer)
  • Tinkercad 3D design software (that does work on the iPad)
  • A physical maquette made of wood, cardboard, paper, plastic, etc.
  • Two architectural drawings

Or, and this turned out to be the real crowd pleaser…..

  • Using Minecraft to design the building

I have to admit that was a little a little sceptical at the beginning.  Would the limitations of the Minecraft blocks simply be too much of a restriction and result in designs with little flair and imagination?  I need not have worried, encouraging the pupils to work big in their Minecraft worlds meant that this really wasn´t too much of an issue.  Pupils seemed only too keen to put the necessary hours in and show off the hours that they had already invested over the years mastering the building possibilities. 

video 20210425 93604 PM c36ea098 – YouTube

Ckv modern school building – YouTube

There has been much reinventing of the educational wheels this year.  Multiple assignments have been adjusted, redeveloped or simply thrown away to be replaced by others that may work in an online teaching world.  This is just one such example. 

An assignment to keep in for next year?  Given the choice I’ll head back to SketchUp with these older pupils.  But the idea of using Minecraft within an art program is a possibility for sure.  The software is a bit geared up for a particular type of architecture, but maybe heading off in a different direction altogether and using it to create abstract sculpture could be very interesting, and the pupils might be less drawn to following tutorials on YouTube.  I have also just thrown down a challenge to the 12 year olds I teach to try using Minecraft to recreate Renaissance architecture as it is to be would in the paintings from 500 years ago…….I’ll be posting the results in due course!

“Do you think everyone will actually go for a walk?” – getting the landscape into the classroom

Pupil “M” in one of my third year (14-15 years old) is always good for a quote.  She has the habit of saying out loud exactly what she’s thinking.  Her comment related to my new art assignment.  I wanted to get the pupils doing some work that connected to the landscape around them, where they live and go to school.  Also, having had so many online lessons sitting behind their computers this year, I decided to try and be as specific as possible and actually send them out for a walk as part of my lesson.

That was the plan and I carefully put the idea of a walk into an artistic context by showing the work British artist Richard Long has made in the past documenting walks and using maps in his artworks.  My assignment was broken up into several parts with a few specific criteria:

  • Your walk must be a minimum of 1km in length, I was tempted to say 5km, but I did want the walk to be potentially able to be completed in one of my one-hour long lessons
  • Your walk should take you to a mature, full grown tree that you must photographically document with a series of 20 photographs that will later be used as a part of the documentation of the walk
  • Record the walk itself in the form of a hand drawn, imaginably presented sketch map

In my mind these were relatively simple instructions, and ones that would undoubtedly be easiest and quickest to carry out by doing the walk with the camera of the pupil’s mobile phone close at hand to photograph the tree plus a few other points on the walk.  Which was why I was a little surprised by the “Do you actually think everyone will actually go for a walk?” comment. No, actually I wasn’t surprised at all, teenagers are a contrary lot and most teachers and parents alike will recognise the way many choose to take an alternative route, even when the recommended one is easier.

Remember, some of these are the same pupils who complain sitting behind their computer all day doing online lessons is boring.  I already have some evidence that some have tackled my assignment by, you’ve guessed it, by spending some more time in front of the computer screen, searching the internet for sets of photos that look like they could be made of a single tree on their walk……some more successfully and believably than others!

Others have of course done exactly what was asked and will I’m sure produce good work.  I’ve seen some nice photographic collages; GPS tracks of walks and the hand drawn maps will come.  We’ve already moved onto some tree drawings when it is the turn of particular small groups to physically present in class, good artistic results will, in due course, come.  But it would seem, for some at least, sitting at home behind the computer isn’t so bad, at least, not quite as bad as having to go for a short walk!!

On the same wavelength it would seem

Two weeks ago I wrote a post about my observations of the unbalanced Dutch educational system and the choices it forces teenagers to make. At the time it was a personal reaction to having sat in a report card meeting that felt rather lopsided to say the least:

https://petersansom.wordpress.com/2021/04/15/sitting-quietly-at-the-back-of-the-digital-report-card-meeting/

Today on the website of the Dutch national broadcast channel an article by Koen Koopman appeared that covers some extremely parallel lines of thought. It’s nice of course to feel that you are in tune with others! It is nicer still to know that such educational issues are at least being discussed in the national media, and who knows, maybe in the future may bring about some refinement in the situation.

https://nos.nl/artikel/2378737-pushende-ouders-te-jong-kiezen-veel-decanen-niet-blij-met-profielkeuze

Sitting quietly at the back of the digital report card meeting

It’s been another week of report card meetings for me the last few days.  All online meetings, discussing the performance of our pupils in these extraordinary online educational times.  Academic achievement stands central in the discussions.  And in the Dutch educational system, a child’s ability in the area of Mathematics stands towering above everything.  You may be a gifted language expert, a pupil totally engaged by historical perspectives or on with tremendous creativity in the cultural world, but if you struggle at Maths, you are in trouble.

Time and again the Maths or Physics teachers are asked for their perspectives on the chances of a particular pupil being able to perform well enough to be able to progress to the next school year or remain studying at their current level.  The art teacher, sits quietly in the background, but if I’m honest, so do the history, geography, social studies ones, and often also the language teachers. 

If a child really struggles with languages, even in the multi-language learning Dutch system a slightly lighter learning route can often be found, but struggle with Maths and the options are limited.

Coming from the British system of A-levels this has always struck me as strange.  In my final two years of school in the UK I did the standard three A-levels.  In the British system, it is really not that unusual for pupils to drop Maths altogether for the final two years of their secondary education.  Choosing just three subjects it is inevitable that you are going to let go of something that others may see as crucial.

Ironically, for my argument here, I didn’t drop Maths or Physics and took them as A-level alongside Art.  I did however drop English and History, which on reflection may actually have been more useful to me in the long run.

The truth is, you more often than not simply don’t know what is going to be useful to you, and what is equally true is that just because you don’t choose a particular subject at school, doesn’t necessarily mean that a whole chapter of your life is going to be closed off.  My lack of English lessons at school hasn’t held me back from becoming an effective teacher of English within my art lessons in a Dutch bilingual teaching stream. Interestingly in the Dutch education system you can go on to study many subjects at university level without even having them as one of your final exam subjects.

Surely we should be aiming at creating more rounded and genuinely broadly educated young people and ones who at the age of fifteen seem stricken by the stress of choosing subjects that they seem to perceive as being the ones that will set them on a direct railroad to their final career.

 In order to this there has to me a greater awareness and value placed on the skills, knowledge and insights that are gained inside all the classrooms and for that matter outside the classroom too.  It depresses me hugely to see pupils who feel like they are failing at school because they are struggling in maybe one or two subject areas, whilst they are achieving excellently in the remaining eight.  It just feels like or educational focus is simply out of balance, and the pupils are the victims.

Lauren Martin’s excellent article covers a good few of my Art teacher frustrations in this area:

https://www.learningliftoff.com/10-reasons-arts-in-education-important-kids/

Hybrid lessons….three weeks in

Do I look at the eight or nine faces spread evenly across the classroom, or do I stare into the lens at the top of my laptop?  Do I try and spread my attention between the pupils physically present with me and those sitting at home?  Do I offer the same materials and activities to all or do I differentiate between the two learning contexts?  All hugely relevant to my current educational situation.  Welcome to hybrid teaching!

A couple of weeks ago the Dutch government decided that it was time for the secondary schools to return to the classroom.  Or at least, to return to physical lessons for all children for at least one day a week.  If we set aside for a moment whether this was the right decision or not for a moment and focus on the practicalities and how hybrid lessons are working in particular for us in the art department.

My school like many in the Netherlands has chosen to split each class in three groups.  Each day, one of the groups are at school and physically present in the classroom, and the other two groups are at home and following the lesson online.

The net result for the teacher is a sort of split personality of teaching practice, a near impossible challenge of knowing where to aim your focus, and yet another opportunity to overhaul teaching material to give it a chance of working in this new situation. 

Three weeks in, and at least for me in my art room role, a few things have become clear:

  • After the months of totally online lessons and having to rely only on materials that the pupils have available to the at home, I want to offer those physically present the chance to work with some of the more interesting materials that we have on offer at school.
  • Spreading your attention evenly between the two groups is near impossible.  As a result, hardly surprisingly, you find yourself participating in small talk with those present, and risking neglecting those at home. Avoiding creating “second-class learners” at home is a challenge.  The home-based groups receive certainly less attention than they got while the teaching was fulling online.
  • I have decided that I simply need two assignments for each class.  One for home lessons days and a second (related, but different in terms of materials and practicalities) for the at school days.  The home assignment is designed in such a way that pupils can essentially get on with it independently, while I give more attention to those present in the classroom.

This set up of split assignments seemed to me to be the only way to go, especially with classes where there are sometimes ten pupils in class and twenty following at home. 

The only exception to this rule has interestingly been the youngest class that I teach.  Twenty-six 12-year-olds do seem able to be taught in one group.  That has been partly down to the assignments that I have been doing with them, but a bigger factor here has been the openness and chatty active participation levels of the younger children in comparison to their camera shy 15- or 16-year-old fellow pupils. 

So, my conclusions after these first three weeks of hybrid education?  Well, when looked at in terms of the quality of the education being offered (in terms of content) has not been improved, when compared to the fully online lessons. 

What we have now is a hugely complex learning situation where everyone is battling to find focus and the best way to do things.  But was this change to hybrid ever actually about the content?

It feels more like it has been an attempt to offer a degree of ‘normality’ in our pandemic world.  A kind of ‘look everyone, the schools are open again’ sort of statement.  Although the more pushed narrative is one aimed at increasing the social contact of our young people.  I have no problem with this second perspective, our pupils need to meet up, to socialise and re-establish old weekly rhythms. 

However, the ”return to normality” viewpoint is considerably more problematic, especially in the context of rising infection rates and neighbouring countries being still very much in lockdown.  Could it just be that there was a political motivation to the reopening that was connected to the general election last week? 

Digital presentation of pupils work, PR possibilities and a future assignment

Most schools in the Netherlands have open days during the mid-winter. Many schools have something of a pitched battle against nearby rival schools in the effort to attract a good number of new pupils for the forthcoming school year. The school where I teach is no different, we must be seen to compete!

Such open days are all well and good, if a little exhausting and long at the end of the teaching week. But with the current lockdowns and need for extreme social distancing the normal packed school with hundreds of children and their parents simply is not an option. As a result, things are moving online.  Most schools are frantically putting together a new online presence/digital open day. Films are being shot, interviews recorded, and websites constructed.

As far as the art department is concerned, in my school we were looking for a way to present a collection of pupils’ work.  Collections of photographs or films of pieces of work were of course possible but we wanted something a bit more immersive and interactive, and amongst all the other films that were being made, we simply wanted something that stood out as being a bit different.

The need of the situation, as with many other things in education in the last year, has forced me and a colleague to explore the possibilities more than we perhaps have done up until now.  The online exhibition possibilities offered my artsteps.com where something that I have known about for a while but have never fully explored up until now because I simply have not fully felt the need to.  But now was the time, was this going to be what we needed?

Well, the short answer to that is a resounding yes, absolutely. A week later I have built three online, three dimensional exhibitions of pupils’ work that are going to serve our purposes fantastically well. The links below will take you there and allow you to pass through and view the work. 

Exhibition one —————- Exhibition two —————- Exhibition three

Of course, it is not as good as walking around an art room in a school taking a closer look for yourself but given the circumstances it really isn’t a bad substitute for our 10- and 11-year-old visitors and their parents.

Having put it all together, what would I say are the pros and cons on offer here?

Positive points:

  • The learning curve for using the software really is not too step. Invest a little time and you should find your way.
  • Creating a stylish and well-ordered look to the exhibition is both possible and straight forward.
  • It is free and everything is online (apart from the photos and films you want to upload) with no software having to be downloaded or installed.
  • Videos can also be part of your exhibition.
  • You can design your own rooms.
  • But above all is just fun to create and fun to visit!

Negatives

  • Three-dimensional work is difficult to include.  3D printer designs can be unloaded and included, but documentation of a tradition sculpture can only be done using a film of the object or photographs of it.
  • I do not seem to be able to get the films to work on mobile devices. Although walking around the spaces to look at the pictures on my iPad works perfectly.
  • Visiting the exhibitions on a mobile phone is, it seems, possible on some phones and not on others.

The ease with which the software works leaves me thinking of the future possibilities.  I see opportunities for asking a group to curate their own exhibitions on selected themes.  They could visit the websites museums of the museums of the world gathering the artworks that they need.  I have done this before and set poster design assignments as a part of the project, but now I see the additional installation of a 3-dimensional digital exhibition as a fantastic extension of the project.

It is strange how necessity can be the mother of invention, forcing you to explore new possibilities. This has certainly been the case in the past few weeks.