When you have time on your hands…..

In the days when I was a student I had the habit for a while of watching old movies on a Sunday afternoon. As a young art-student I had the feeling that I had a whole load of culture to catch up on and dipping into the history of film making was part of that. It was kind of a weekend luxury that I enjoyed, and in a way, whenever I watch films from the Hollywood output of the 1940s and 50s I am taken back to my Sunday afternoon student days in London when college was over for the week.  I had time on my hands and enjoyed familiarizing myself with the cinema of the past, it was all a little like reading a good book on holiday.

I still like watching old movies and regularly dip into watching one when I have time. Mostly that will be online or on a DVD at home. The chance to watch them on the big screen comes along less often. But in the last week of the school holidays, a day in Amsterdam visiting the museums ended with a trip to the Amsterdam Eye to see Double Indemnity, part of the Billie Wilder season being shown there. Screen 3 wasn’t full, but there was a pretty good turnout for the early evening screening. The lights dimmed and instead of the curtains pulling back for the full wide screen effect as they normally do, they shuffled almost apologetically to a slightly narrower aspect for the old screen format……before the black and white film began to roll.

In my work in education I have to work hard at times to convince the 15-year olds that the technological advances, that are a constant feature of the film world, aren’t the be all and end all when it comes to quality. Many at times seem convinced that the newest films, with all their computer aided opportunities and effects are, by definition, going to be a better film. Why anyone would choose to watch a black and white movie when vivid colour is so obviously so much better is beyond them. They are only fifteen, and maybe at least in part thanks to the lessons we are able to spend looking at films outside of their normal film consumption, some of them at least will open up to a broader and richer view of the cinematic world that is on offer.

Whether this will ever result in any of the turning up to watch an early evening showing of a film noir classic such as Double Indemnity I’ll probably never know. But if they don’t they’ll be missing the performances of Fred MacMurray and the captivating Barbara Stanwyck and the razorsharp Raymond Chandler script.

 

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One day I must do this in class…

It’s been a while since I’ve visited the Cardboard box office blog. For any film lover it is worth dropping by to Lilly and Leon’s site. Although, nowadays it is also Orson (yes really!) and from the most recent posts, also little Elliot. The new arrivals do perhaps give an understandable reason for rather less frequent posts than in the past.

Ever since stumbling on the site a few years ago I have been toying with the idea of how I might do something similar in a school/education setting with a heap of cardboard, some lamps and a whole load of duct tape. Maybe in some sort of a project week, because trying to build such scenery spread over twice a week art lessons for a number of weeks is one sure way to fall out with colleagues as they battle their way past all the cardboard in the store room!

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Scan through the site, and you’ll soon find you’ll have your own few favourites. I think that my own personal favourite is King Kong, but there are so many others that catch the eye.

I think if I stop to analyse it a little there are two main things that I like so much about the ‘installations’ that Lilly and Leon construct. Firstly, there is just the lovable silliness of it all. They clearly love the film world and want to use their own creativity to engage with it in some way. And that leads nicely onto the second reason, that being the amount of creativity and inventiveness they show in making their ‘screen shots’.

As an art teacher creativity is an often talked about subject. We like to encourage our pupils to be creative with their materials, you try to design lessons and assignments that challenge your classes creatively. But Lilly and Leon’s installations display a visual inventiveness that requires a particular mindset that teenagers enjoy seeing but find surprisingly difficult to dare to explore in their own work.

I saw this inventiveness a little during an animation project that I did with groups of fifteen-year olds last year, once they realized that they had to go looking at home for suitable materials to animate, a bit of a creative lid did seem to come off.  I’m hoping to see something similar with a forthcoming project where pupils will be photographically reconstructing old master portrait paintings.

Visages Villages (Faces Places) – a film review….and educational possibilities

Agnes Varda film maker and JR the French photographer and installation artist make an unlikely couple. One is an 89 woman who originally made her name as a filmmaker during the French New Wave, the other a 34-year-old photographer/installation-maker with a well-established name in both the world of street art and the more conventional art circuit.

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But in the film Visages Villages or Faces Places if you prefer the English title, a couple they certainly are, travelling around the French countryside in their van that is dressed up to look like a giant camera.  They visit a variety of places discussing, bickering and interviewing before getting down to the business of creating and installing a series of artworks using JR’s preferred installation method of pasting often huge scale photographs on exterior walls, sea-containers, trains and even a disused and crumbling relic from the second world war.

The film presents a fascinating insight into the working process.  JR largely takes the lead, but the constant input from Varda deflects and contributes to the creative development.  She brings the perspective of a long life, creative insight and a certain historical perspective that clearly fits well with the younger artist’s own interests.

The passage through the film builds a heart-warming picture of what seems to start with as a rather unlikely friendship.  There is a certain about of teasing that goes on between the two, but also a tremendous amount of respect and warmth as they discuss their work, their lives and their differences.

Technically the film is a documentary and has seen as that when it has won various film festival awards.  But it is also very much a road movie as we travel along with the leading characters on their journey of discovery.

As an educator I think that there is a good chance that I will be showing my older pupils this film in the future.  It gives a revealing view into the artistic process.  My pupils are interested in street art and the way it intervenes into the world around us.  Perhaps slightly unusually for this sort of public space work though, these are images that often provide us with a subject, an ordinary person, to look at and think about.  JR and Varda often choose the humdrum, the ordinary person and the elevate them to often quite huge scales.  Yes, I feel sure that this film and JR’s other work can be an interesting route to explore with my pupils.

There is also no doubt at all that I see possible practical assignments that may be possible to challenge my pupils with.  Certainly, photographic installations that we could make virtually on the computer, but who knows, maybe a few real installations could follow.

Related JR links:

JR Photographer

JR street artist

Previous street art related blog posts:

Street art and illegality

Street art in the classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related post:

Hieronymus Bosch, Chris Berens and Oss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last year’s project

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Sometimes you just don’t need to explain……

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

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

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

For further analysis of the film see the following link:

Donkey – film analysis

 

Music buying habits of teenagers, copyright and my quietest lessons of the year

For the last few years, during the art and cultural awareness course that I teach to my fourth years (15-16 years old), I have included a series of lessons that focus on the theme of the remix in all areas of culture and how the copyright laws affect both creators and users of culture.

It is an area that is close to the pupils and leads to interesting discussions. I asked them this week about their music buying habits. When I was at school as a teenager, everyone spent money on actually buying the vinyl or CDs of their favourite bands. This week in one of my classes of twenty-four pupils, just four had ever paid directly for a music track (either in the form of a physical object or legal download). A number of others pay indirectly by using Spotify but the majority either download from ‘other’ sources or simply make do with YouTube or (and I still find this slightly surprising) listen to the radio.

The content of the lessons certainly doesn’t just stop at our music buying and listening habits though. I focus more on the creative people whose work in their field could be described as a form of remix and the collisions this may or may not bring with the laws of copyright. This may be in music, film, visual arts or design.

The core of the whole series of lessons is try and get the pupils to evaluate their own position and opinions in just how creative any form of remix is and how this may compare to comparable but ‘non-remix’ work forms.

When I present them at the start of the module with the question of who is being the most creative; someone who takes a box of watercolour paints and makes a picture, someone who plays a Mozart piano sonata or someone using a computer to make a remix? Almost without exception they all choose for the painter. Not that surprising maybe, but it’s just an initial thought in opening up their minds to the world of the remix in all its forms and what it actually means to be creative. In doing this we touch on the laws of copyright, intellectual ownership, the lengths that some cultural practitioners go to in order protect their work and the impact the digital world has had on this complex and changing field.

I make use of some excellent online material such as the films below:

Having presented them with a range of examples and situations to consider I also ask them to have a go at creating their own remix.  I have two main assignments that I make use of.

The first is a digital graphic design assignment. It sounds straight forward enough. They have to design a poster for a music festival. I provide them with a limited collection of image material, a set of about twelve varied pictures that they may use. They are allowed to rework work them, crop, filter and add colour to them. They are also required to add the necessary text to advertise the festival, but the twelve images are the limit, they are not allowed to source any of their own images.

Of course at the end of the design process there are recognizable elements and overlaps in all of the posters. But what is interesting to see, and the pupils see this also clearly for themselves, is that some have been a whole lot more imaginative and varied in their use of the basic material.

The second practical assignment is to use one of the online remix studios and sound libraries to create their very own remix. I use www.soundation.com or www.looplabs.com. They both offer similar possibilities, extensive libraries of sounds and rhythms. Each fragment is just that, a fragment, mostly very short. These have to be combined and built up into a composition.

Let me be clear, I am not a music teacher, this is a little outside of my field. However, in a sense, it is not about producing a beautiful, complex and immaculately combined track. It is about giving the pupils a chance to work with preexisting sound fragments, to order and manipulate them, to challenge them to see just what they can achieve in this very new area of creative practice for them.

soundation

They respond well, once the headphones go on I get my quietest lessons of year. Eyes are glued to the screen, tongues often nipped between lips of concentrated faces. We subsequently spend a lesson listening to the results. Some can really be quite impressive, combining varied sounds and subtle transitions, others, if I’m honest, sometimes sound like a kind of brown, musical soup!

Whichever assignment is chosen, the most important question of all comes at the end. Whilst working on your remix or poster design, making use of ‘other people’s stuff’ as your raw material, ‘did you actually feel like you were being creative?’

Swept along by a film assignment – feel free to use the idea!

Teenagers love a movie. A good film during lesson time is, in the eyes of many of many pupils, about as good as it gets. Because of this I normally start the broad art and culture awareness course that I teach to my fourth years (15-16 year olds) with a module on film making.

The series of lessons is built up essentially of three separate parts.

  1. A few theory lessons that look at the history of film and explore the craft of the filmmaker, along with a little shared group analysis of filmmaking techniques.
  2. We subsequently watch a movie in class, discuss it as a group before the pupils write their own analysis and evaluation report of what we have seen. I use various films for various classes, favorites from the last few years have been Senna and Amy from Asif Kapadia, great for teenagers with an aversion for documentary films. Alongside these two, Catfish and The Babadook have also been greatly enjoyed.

For a little more reflection on watching films in class, take a look at the links below:

Three film, three reactions

Finding the right film

  1. The final part of the module is a practical assignment. The aim of this practical is essentially to get the pupils out of the classroom, and to experience in a more conscious and hands on way, the possibilities of camera use, and alongside this, the importance of the edit.

This third part, the film practical assignment, is without doubt one of my favourite activities of the year. To start with it is a little complex to explain to the class, but once they have got the idea they just love doing it.

The assignment

In bullet points, this is the working process:

  • I choose an existing short film (one that is about five minutes long)
  • I divide my pupils up into groups of about five (often this is done across three or four classes together)
  • I divide the film up into sections (the same number of sections as I have groups)
  • I allocate each group a section (normally 20-30 seconds long)
  • The groups produce a detailed story board of their fragment. This involves making screenshots, notes about what the camera is doing, notes about the performances being given and very importantly exactly how long the individual shot lasts
  • The pupils then head off to reproduce each individual shot as precisely as they possibly can
  • The pupils then edit their own work to result in a fragment of the exact same length as the original section that they had been allocated
  • The groups hand in their piece of work.
  • I then join all the fragments together in the correct order
  • I rip the soundtrack of the original film and drop this onto the pupils’ version, add some titles at the beginning and the end and the job is then essentially finished.

This year’s pupil film:

Based on the following original:

 

A few footnotes

For someone with a little knowledge of even the most simply video editing software this is not an overly complex project. However there are a few things to watch out for. Most importantly is the choice of original film. Script that is spoken ‘on camera’ makes the process a lot more complex. The marrying up of the sound of the spoken text from the original and the pupils mouths is difficult and often requires numerous small adjustments. To limit this, choose a film with a narrator, or simply one with the absolute minimum of speech.

This is an incredibly fun assignment to do. It is a carefully framed up activity, and leaves the pupils with a very clear task to carry out. The results can be fantastic and leave the pupils desperate to see the final version, that in my case, is often made by a group of close to one hundred pupils.

We show the finished product at a social event where both parents and pupils are present. It is a great hit every year!

Below are links to the same assignment from previous years:

 

Lovesick II

Black Coffee II

 

One letter switch – language and graphic design, a CLIL (content and language) assignment

Studying a little graphic design is part of the broad art and culture course that I teach my classes of fifteen and sixteen year olds. Their world is full of this type of visual material in the form of websites, magazines, posters, packaging and video.  However it never fails to surprise me just how little they have actually stopped to think about it and how good design can influence them.

With this in mind I have constructed a series of lessons that explore various forms of graphic design it features interviews with designers and analysis of their work. I like to support this sort of theoretical work with a practical assignment that encourages the pupils to try and get to grips with design issues themselves. It’s a kind of ‘doing is the best form of learning’ approach, a standpoint I am definitely a supporter of.

The assignment

I wanted to set the pupils the task of designing a movie poster. It’s an area of graphic design that they are all familiar with and one that by and large has a number of design elements that come back again and again, ones that they could also be applied in their design work.

The image part of the poster I decided to turn into a small photographic assignment. All photographic imagery had to be made by the pupils themselves, nothing was to be sourced from the Internet.

The language challenge

However before any photography or design work could be started the language element was going to be crucial in determining the direction that the final design would take. The rule I imposed for the fictitious film that they were to design a poster for was simple; they had to take the title of an existing film and then create a new, and completely different direction for it by switching just one letter in the title for a different letter. No other variations were allowed, it was just one for one.

brotherbearI gave a couple of examples to get the ball rolling a little, Pirates of the Caribbean  could become Pilates of the Caribbean or Saving Private Ryan could become Raving Private Ryan. One letter in each case, resulting in film titles that head off in completely new directions and would produce very different posters.

This sounds too simple to be much of a language challenge, but when I watched the class engage with the challenge it soon became clear that it offered more than I expected. The pupils searched through countless film titles on their phones seeking out word and letter switches that could work. It almost reminded me of a classroom of pupils trying to puzzle out crosswords as they juggled with letter and word combinations.

For most there seemed to be two pressing criteria that developed.  Firstly and perhaps most obviously, that the new title had to produce an idea that could also result in a photographic image that they felt that they could actually make, but also the presence of humour seemed important.

I realize now that in terms of creativity I should have shown them one of my favourite, crazy film related websites, Cardboard Box Office. It doesn’t exactly play along the same language related lines, but it is not far off.  In terms of taking a film related image and theme and twisting it in a wonderfully creative way there are few sites to beat it!  I think it would have almost certainly lead to greater creativity in arranging the photographic material. A note to self……next year make use of the cardboard box office!!

setpostersOn the level of extensive content and language integration (CLIL) this is a fairly modest language assignment. But it was a language element that was certainly enjoyed by the pupils. It engaged them and caused a form of creative play that was a positive diversion from the more standard report writing that they are more often involved with.

I’ll be posting a second assignment that continues, in a slightly more complex way , in this direction in a week or two, follow the blog if you’d like to hear about it.