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.

Story telling, illustration and digital books, language and creativity in the art room

For several years I have been working on refining an art project that involves a number of distinct phases.

  • Research an artwork from art history
  • Presenting the research about the artwork and artist involved in the form of an infographic
  • Writing a story aimed at primary school aged children where the researched artwork plays a central role
  • Illustrating the story using a variety of drawing and/or painting techniques, traditional or digital
  • Designing the layout of the pages of the book where images and text have to be combined
  • ….and finally, the presenting a completed book

I will write about the use of infographics as an alternative to report writing on another occasion, but here I want to focus most of all on the story telling, the illustration and the designing of an online book.  Due to the uncertainties of the way the school year was going to develop I decided early in this lengthy project that I was going to encourage the pupils to aim for a more digital based working process.  In the end virtually the whole class chose to go virtually completely digital.

The story, once the research was completed, was hammered out on the iPads the pupils work with.  Incidentally, I should mention that we are talking here of pupils aged 14 or 15 mostly, and as part of a bilingual education stream, the pupils are working in English, their second language rather than their native Dutch.

Digital illustrations were produced using a variety of drawing apps, before these were then uploaded into the Canva app (also a pc application) to work on the page layout and overall design.  Even working on the relatively small iPad screen the pupils were able to produce some interesting and varied work. 

When all the pages are complete a .pdf can be exported of the complete book.

The pièce de résistance comes in the form of the Yumpu.com website that allowed the pupils to upload the raw pages to the site to generate an online digital version with three dimensional pages that can be turned. 

Click below to take a look at some of the possibilities the project offers from this year’s results:

Book One

Book Two

Book Three

Once we reach this point it is over to their teacher to grade the work on four criteria:

  1. The interest, complexity, and engagement of their story writing
  2. The use of English and grammar
  3. The quality of the illustrations
  4. The quality of the layout of the book

It is a lengthy project.  But in a world where we are all (and in the art department) are having to lean heavily on digital means, it is a project that offers interesting online possibilities for classes that have a little digital know how.

2020 – Looking back on some creative online group projects

I coach a group of enthusiastic part-time painters.  We have been meeting up one evening a week for years, except of course in 2020.  In mid-March this year our painting sessions, like so many other things came to an abrupt halt.  We were temporarily able to restart for a period of four weeks in the autumn, before once again having to stop again.

I’ve done what has been possible to keep the group active (at least for those who wish to carry on at home), and the group themselves have retained contact via our app group, sharing what they are up to in the area of creativity and artistic interests.  It has, all-in all, worked well.  The group does still feel like a group and the stream of creative output certainly hasn’t dried up. 

In terms of “going online”, like my other area of work in mainstream education, it hasn’t been quite the same.  The commitment to an online lesson at a specific time didn’t feel like the way to go.  Instead, what seems to have worked best has been a series of group paintings/projects.  Anyone who wanted to, could easily contribute, and I worked on grouping things together.  Some have been very loose, and in a way, not much more than a collection of paintings and drawings around a theme, while others have been quite structured in their approach.

Looking back complete 2020 set, it is surprising just how productive the group has been, and how well this loose online approach has worked.  We are all of course hoping for better things in 2021, but as a record of 2020 it certainly shouldn’t be a year best forgotten by the group as the results below show.

Art, language and typefaces (a design project with a CLIL extension)

Since the restart of the school year back in August I have been working on a quite extensive art and language project with two of the third year groups (aged 14) that I teach. Essentially it is a design module that focuses on the fonts and typefaces but has involved:

  • A photography assignment
  • A black and white, graphic typeface design assignment
  • A painting assignment exploring more painterly approaches
  • A poetry assignment
  • Digital illustration assignment
  • A page design/layout assignment

Often with such a long drawn out assignment the challenge is to keep the energy going, but in this case, with the diversity of activities, I have never felt that to be a problem.

A brief summary of the art and design activities and a few of the results:

Typeface design made using found objects

Create a coherent font using objects that you find at home. Arrange at least five letters that clearly belong as a set and make use of the same types of objects.  The most significant challenge here is to get the pupils beyond the stage of using five pencils lying on the table to spell out a set of easy to create letters.  There are so many possibilities but it does require a kind of mental leap to bring the pupils to a point where they start to see the design possibilities.

Typeface design using only black ink

This is the most purely design related step and before we get as far as using the ink we go through a series of design steps that first involve sketch designs of three quite different design ideas. One of these is then chosen and a series of design refinements using different types of letter are made. Finally we arrive at the ink work where a series of five or six letters from there font are inked in using brush and pen work.

Painterly letters

After the graphic work of the previous assignment things become considerably looser in this coloured in and painting assignment as the pupils build on and further develop their design work.

Poetry assignment

To include a significant language element into the assignment I ask the pupils to chooses the names on at least two typeface names (and there are so many to choose from!).  These names, be they Broadway, Cairo, Baskerville, Freestyle, etc. are the starting point for the creation for writing a short poem.  The names of the letter types have to actually be a part of the poem’s text, and ultimately when the poem is presented for marking the typefaces referred to must be used.

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.