A flying start – migrating into the new school year

It might not actually quite be the start of the school year anymore, but it is in its way a flying start. 

The end of school clear out inevitably means empty display spaces come the start of the new school.  This year I decided to make an immediate splash in the biggest space in the school with rapidly made charcoal drawings of birds made by the fourteen-year-olds I teach.

Now as we head into the autumn season of migration in the bird world, it seems appropriate to share the result online.  It’s not an easy display to photograph well, but in real life the transparency of the paper and the darkness of the images combine for ever changing results throughout the day as the light outside changes.

Getting twelve year olds to look carefully at Renaissance art and architecture…..at the end of the school year

Written at the end of last school year, but a nice post to start the year with……

The weeks are ticking away until the end of the school year.  Three lessons to go with the group of twelve and thirteen year olds that I teach. The temptation is to go for something passive and comfortably time filling.  But I want to give them one last push, but also engage them with a little fun.

The solution…..

The content

Renaissance art, and in particular architecture as it is found in the paintings of the period

The skills needed

Looking carefully

Some creativity

A little digital knowhow on at least one of the platforms we were using

The technical bit…..

Using, or learning to use one of the following digital design possibilities

  • Tinkercad.com
  • SketchUp online
  • Minecraft
  • The Sims (A new one for me in an educational context…I wondered if it would be a bit too restrictive in its possibilities. In the end I feel I was generally proved correct)

The class had heard a while back that I have been known to use Minecraft as a creative tool for building assignments.  They’d been nagging me a little bit to do something similar with them.  These last few lessons of the year were an ideal opportunity.

The assignment was a very simple one.  I had a PowerPoint of a selection of images or renaissance paintings, and in particular images that showed examples of Renaissance architecture.  The pupils simply had to choose one of the buildings and try and recreate it on their favoring design platform, and perhaps add to it a little in an appropriate way.

For SketchUp and Tinkercad I had to start with a short demonstration into how the software worked and what a few of the possibilities were. But with Minecraft and the Sims no assistance was needed. Within thirty minutes of the start of the first lesson the room settled down and we were off! Focused looks on the faces, mouse hand moving in its familiar erratic jumps.  And this point it was quite easy to leave the room to go and get myself a cup of coffee, on my return I could see the start of their Renaissance inspired worlds starting to take shape.

Minecraft is a favourite amongst the pupils. It is familiar and the idea that you are actually allowed to use it for a school assignment does have something of a special attraction.  But it is the work done on SketchUp and Tinkercad that I enjoy watching unfold the most. In both cases you create your own building elements, the software has more flexibility for refined work, and the icing on the cake as far as Tinkercad is concerned, we can make the final step of 3d printing the results.

Vacancies, vacancies and still more vacancies

In education there is always a certain amount of roundabouting. Teachers leaving one school and moving onto another.  The Dutch secondary school where I teach is no different in this regard.  Most years we wave goodbye to one group of colleagues only to say hello to another.  This year is a continuation of this pattern, and maybe a few more than we are used to are making this changeover. 

Are we unique in seeing a larger than normal switch around of staff looking for pastures new to explore?  Well, if I look at the number of advertisements for teaching posts in circulation my conclusion would very definitely be no.  Maybe even more indicative of a more general change are the number of art teaching vacancies that are passing through the Dutch art teaching Facebook groups I am member of.  Art teachers are used to having to wait and be patient for teaching opportunities.  The odd teaching posts that come by are often temporary, small in the number of hours offered and hugely oversubscribed for.  This year though is different, there is a positive deluge of vacancies!

What is going on?  What has changed this year?  Dutch education in general has a personnel shortage.  The work can at times be very challenging and the hours are long with a tendency to spill all over your life.  Added to this the classes are getting bigger, the administration workload more far reaching and the demands from government, parents, and the pupils themselves at times, is more pressing.  Getting new people into the profession is a constant necessity.  Or should I say, getting the right, talented, driven people into the profession is a necessity.

But the general shortage of teachers is a longer running problem.  This end of year, job circus feels different.  Like I said at the start, it feels like a roundabout, a game of musical chairs is perhaps also a good metaphor.  Most years it feels more like a situation of more mature colleagues leaving the profession at the top end, to be replaced by recent graduates joining it at the bottom end.  This year though, teachers at all stages of their working career are on the move, and as soon as one makes the switch it opens up another space that needs to be filled.  That will in turn perhaps tempt someone else to make the jump from another school, and so the rotation goes on.  This certainly seems to be what is going on amongst those much sought after art teaching posts.  The way new vacancies are popping up with just days to go until the end of the school year are evidence of this.

Is this all perhaps a consequence of the Corona years?  Are teachers less likely now to just stay put and make do?  Have the Corona years lead to an urge to work closer to home?  Were tough years of online, hybrid and generally chaotic education the final straw in a decision to leave education and head off in a different direction?  Or is simply a case of hoping that the grass will be greener on the other side of the fence?

I’m really not sure where the reason lines, one thing is sure though, I’ll have quite a few new colleagues on the other side of the summer holiday.  I will also be missing a few others who have been familiar and much valued faces in the staffroom.

Art lessons, homophones and Ukrainian homophones

It’s a bit of an end of year project for me with the 13-14 year-olds that I teach.  A short, essentially creative graphic design assignment with a language twist.  In short, we take homophones (a word that is pronounced the same as another word but differs in meaning), and design pictograms that illustrate the two different meanings.

I’ve written about the activity before, and that post can be found here:https://petersansom.wordpress.com/2015/03/26/homophones-clil-art-and-english-assignment/

This year I did much the same again, asking the pupils to produce a pair of matching pictograms that illustrate the contrasts in terms of language and meaning.  This year I offered the possibility to produce a handmade drawn result or a more graphic digitally made result.  Below you can see a few of the results.

All well and good you might say.  But for the last few months I have had two new additions to the class, Ira and Iryna from the Ukraine.  They’ve been two fantastic additions to the group.  Despite all that is of course playing out in their lives, they have been enthusiastic and extremely creative members of the class.  They have enjoyed the freedoms of the art lessons, that were rather different to the style of teaching they experienced back home.  I should also add that their level of English has allowed them to slip easily into the bilingual class that has been their educational home since arriving.

When I explained the homophones project to the class and set them to work on an initial bit of brainstorming and sketching out of possibilities I turned to Ira and Iryna, had they understood the project?  Had they grasped the eccentricities of this particular corner of the English language?  I didn’t have to worry, with an excited look on their faces they announced that they wanted to do the project using Ukrainian homophones, and off they went making plans for the illustrations for examples from their own language that they were able to share and explain to me and others in the class.

As it turned out there are homophones that the two languages share, such as organ (the musical instrument) and organ (the part of the body), but there were others that in English showed absolutely no connection at all!

A proper open day at last

Open days at school have been a bit of disrupted business over the last two years.  A chance for a school to show potentially new pupils what the school is all about, the atmosphere, building, and of course the staff.  For the first time since January 2020, we invited both parents and their primary school aged children into the school yesterday evening.

For the art department it’s a chance to show just what we are about and stage an extensive display of the pupils’ work, from the youngest in the school (aged 12) right through to the oldest (aged 18).  During the five hours of the open day, we welcomed around 300 ten- and eleven-year-olds into the main hall to show them round. 

But an art department wouldn’t be an art department if there wasn’t something to do and participate in.  Not an insignificant challenge when they are coming through in groups of up to twenty-four children every ten minutes or so.  The resulting activity is kind of formulaic, and maybe lacks a bit in the area of creativity, but it certainly had a good groups participation factor and a wow effect at the end!

For step by step instructions on how to carry out a similar large scale, pixelated portrait click on the link below to download the .pdf file.

Its a simple idea…..using photopea.com to look at colour and tone

Getting children to understand a bit about how areas of tone and colour can work to create form is a central task for most of those working in art education. The pupils generally get the idea of how line has a part to play rather quicker than these other two might combine to occupy the areas between the drawn line.

Also increasingly central to activities, at least in my art room, is how digital tools can also have a part to play and can be combined with more traditional approaches.

The following short assignment played very much into these areas, focusing on how form can be created using surfaces of colour, colour mixing and becoming familiar with how a few digitally editing tools can be used.  Those tools can be found in most editing software, and we were using the excellent (and free!) open source software offered on the photopea.com website.

The contextual background for the project that I did with my class of 12-13 year olds was transcriptions in art.  We had looked at a variety of artists’ work, but had paid particular attention to Velazquez Las Meninas and Picasso’s numerous interpretations of it.

Our focus was subsequently on the work of Vermeer for our own remakes.  The working process was reasonably simple and worked as follows:

  • Import the image that you want to remake into Photopea.com
  • Create a new layer above the image
  • Look carefully at the image and try to identify areas of colour that whilst not being identical are at least very similar
  • Use a selection lasso to trace round the area
  • Sample the ‘average’ colour in the selected area and fill the whole area with just that colour
  • Then proceed onto the next area

The pupils find this quite fascinating to do and work in an increasingly focused way, gradually building up their own image.  The result look a little like vector drawings that might have been created using a inbuilt filter, but it is very much a question of look, analyse and then carry out the digital steps.

For a group of 12-13 year olds the results have been excellent and has resulted in a feeling of considerable pride in the group.

The second phase was to use carbon paper to transfer the ‘vector’ drawing structure onto paper and then to paint or colour (using coloured pencils) the resulting simplified linear drawing.  At this point it becomes very much a colour mixing exercise where the subtleties of the digital image are transferred into a handmade version.

This part of the project is still at a relatively early stage, but the signs are good for some well made results.  But of course the real proof of the pudding will be in seeing whether pupils are able to take the lessons learning into future work, but hopefully without the digital step always having to be used.

Below is a link to a short PDF booklet that explains how the part of the project done using photopea.com works. It is written about portraits, but the principle and process is the same.

An unfinished CLIL plan, or is it PLIL? With thanks to Bruce Springsteen

I call it PLIL, because this is more like playing and language combined, rather than pure content as we are more familiar with from CLIL (Content and language integrated learning).

I’m always interested in finding new ways to combine a little extra culture and language into my lessons.  This is an idea that arose kind of by accident in an online exchange of messages a few weeks ago with a couple of friends.  The messages ranged through various themes, but as I remember it, Bruce Springsteen was mentioned, Cathy, one of those involved in the discussion is a big fan.  Also, rather randomly, a woman riding a horse was also mentioned……and that was, as it turned out, not an unimportant point.

To amuse myself and, I hoped, the others in the discussion, I decided to write a short fictious exchange between me and an imaginary stranger (the woman on the horse!).  The challenge I set myself was to try and squeeze in as many Bruce Springsteen song titles as possible into my short text.  I am reasonably familiar with Springsteen’s body of work, but after Googling his musical biography I was surprised by the sheer amount, but also the number that were going to be useful for this challenge.

The titles available dictated to a large degree where the narrative headed, but in a way that was the fun of this word puzzle.  It is all about playing with language and in my art and culture CLIL classroom that is very much the sort of area that I like to search out and make use of.  In this case selecting out the words and phrases that are loaded with possibility and then working out ways to link and connect them without altering any grammar or phrasing in the existing titles.

The result of my own puzzling went as follows:

I saw a woman on a horse yesterday,

I asked were you ‘Born in the USA’?

Yes, she said, in the ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’

And ‘Growin Up’ I asked

Mostly near ‘Harry’s Place’ she replied

So this isn’t exactly your’s or my ‘Home Town’ I remarked

No, not ‘This Hard Land’ she said, ‘I’m working on a Dream’

You ‘Walk like a man’ she went on,

I’m ‘Outlaw Pete’ I said as threateningly as I could

Am I being ‘Held up without a gun’?

I was hoping for some ‘Easy money’ I said

Go and jump in ‘The River’ she replied……and rode off.

I haven’t actually tried this activity in class yet, but I plan to soon. I’m not a music teacher, but within my broader culture lessons this can certainly find a place.  I think my third years (aged 15) could have a pretty good go at this.  We will doubtless end up in discussions about which artists and musicians are the best to use.  They’ll have their own favourites.  But it will be interesting to see if they offer such content and grammatically rich pickings.

In my work as an artist, I spend a lot of time playing with images and forms, working out ways to combine and connect them.  It is an approach I love to make use of in the classroom too.  It maybe with paint, collage or other materials, but I really don’t see this form of play with words as being so very different to that.

A classic poem in a CLIL context in the art room

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

Combing content and language in the learning process

For a while now monsters of one kind or another have been a feature of the lessons that I give to my groups of twelve-year-old pupils.  We’ve done various drawing assignments, made clay gargoyles, and dipped into art history by looking at the work of the likes of Hieronymus Bosch.

With these classes, being bilingual learners (Dutch children, being taught across their timetable in English in order to super-charge their acquisition of the English language), I am always looking for ways of enriching the practical lessons with elements of language beyond simply using it for instruction.  For example, recently I have had the class writing haikus that were inspired by the clay heads that we made together.

This year though I decided to branch out in a slightly different direction and make use of Lewis Carroll’s poem The Jabberwocky.  The monsters connection was obvious, but how to work with it with these children who are only eight months into their experience of bilingual education was the question.  Would they be ready to deal with this curious piece of literature?

I needn’t have worried; they were up to it.  When I asked them to read the poem for themselves and underline all the nonsense words, they were able to complete this first challenge without any problem at all, their vocabulary being sufficiently developed to spot the words in amongst the text.

Next, we spent time thinking of alternative words that could be used to replace the nonsense in the middle section of the poem.  Again, no real problem.  An occasional grammatical error or slip in the spelling perhaps, but they were definitely onto it, and understanding the intention completely.

The fun and laughter really started when I asked them to come up with their own nonsense words for the first and last verse.  At this point I wondered if the imaginary words they created might end up having an English or a Dutch feel to them.  It was of course all nonsense……but to me, the words that they were coming up with did have a distinctly English twang to it and they generally nestled perfectly well into the context of Carroll’s poem.

The link below allows you to download a step by step guide to the language part of the lesson.

With this language component of the lesson series complete, we moved on with enthusiasm to work on a more than five-meter-long group drawing of our own Jabberwocky.  The result of the drawing project can be seen here, but how exactly we arrived at the composition and in what order we did things, are details I’ll save for another post.

A small (post) Covid mile stone last week

I know that we might not yet be fully out of the woods with regard to reflecting on how Covid has got in the way of any number of things during the last two years. But there was last week, for me at least, something of a fairly large step forward.

For the first time since November 2019, I was part of a multi-day excursion together with a group of ninety twelve and thirteen year olds, and five colleagues.

Four days eating, playing, learning and relaxing together…..plus of course getting the pupils to bed and asleep in their 4-6 person bedrooms at the end of the day (always one of the most challenging parts of this sort of week).  Virtually all Covid restrictions have just been removed here in the Netherlands, so there was no one and half metre rule, no face masks and full buses to transport us.  Judging by the weeks immediately previous at school I had fully expected a small but significant number of cases to occur, but thankfully that was an absolute minimum.  One case during the visit and a couple in the days thereafter.

All in all the days away felt surprisingly normal, at least to the teachers involved.  We had all made similar trips before.  To many of the pupils it was all a bit of a new experience, with these sorts of extra-curricular activities being so scarce during the last two years. 

Normally we would head off abroad, but this Spring that was still just a step too complicated and risky in terms of planning and potential problems.  So, it was all nearer to home.  Easier to arrange, but sadly without the international dimension and the language challenges that come along with it.

We hope to take a similar group off to England in the autumn, we’ll have to wait and see what surprises the pandemic may serve up then.  We will also be facing up to the full-blown version of Brexit, with all the restrictions and complications for EU travellers for the first time.  But that is a completely different story and one that I wrote my irritations and frustrations about a couple of months ago.

Are there artists too difficult to use in educational projects?

Over the last few months, I´ve taught an extensive Pop Art related practical art project.  Pop Art is an easy hit in education, its accessible, eye-catching and technically not too challenging to appropriate.  We’ve dipped into the work of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Michael Craig Martin and others.  This year we started with a little observational drawing of pasta that later brought us onto designing repeating wallpaper-like still lives of everyday drawings, comic-book drawing and lettering techniques before exploring the making of multiples and repetition in the form of lino-prints based on the original pasta drawings.  It has been an excellent project that simply hangs together very well.  But like I said, Pop Art, in a school context seems to lend itself very well to such projects.

This appropriateness and ease with which Pop Art can be used has set me thinking in other directions.  Are there other areas of the history of art that are more, or even too difficult, for a school context?  The short answer to that is undoubtedly yes, the ones whose work dive headlong into truly adult content. but right now I feel the need to try and develop something new that perhaps goes off into more uncharted areas (for me at least).  Drawing on art and artists that are maybe a slightly trickier fit in the classroom.

Listening to a review of the new Francis Bacon exhibition at the Royal Academy in London has set me thinking further in this area.  Bacon’s work is confrontational and at times a little shocking, but I think his images could be interesting to the fifteen-year-olds that I have in mind.  Yes, they would have to be carefully selected and explained well, but I do see some possibilities.  The sexual references are, for obvious reasons, an area where we have to be careful in a classroom situation.  Art history is filled with references to sex and sexuality, but whilst the idea of a discussion about such a theme could be something I could imagine doing, the idea of taking it into a practical form is a minefield that I can’t imagine stepping into.

The brooding, slightly nightmarish quality of many of Bacon’s paintings with their twisted deformations are perhaps an area to explore in the near future.  I have spent time working with ‘violence in art’ themes with a similar age group in the past.  Representations of violence are of course, to the average fifteen-year-old, quite familiar territory, be that in the news, through movies or social media.  Opening up a discussion into how we respond to such images and doing it within the safe context of a classroom, does have persuasive arguments to support such a decision.

I see myself returning to the brutality of Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s work and others before getting as far as Bacon. 

Pupil work

This idea is very much a ‘work in progress’ at the moment.  I’m sure there are others in art education who have dipped into this area before me.  Maybe I’ll come across them in the weeks ahead.  But as I wrote at the start, a little Pop Art in the classroom is a more straight forward route, or a bit of analytical cubism, portrait or landscape work for that matter.