The art teacher, Dirk and a very old computer game

Sometimes it can feel like the educational world we as teachers bring to our pupils is an extensive construct that pupils know that they are expected to play along with. It’s not their real world, a kind of necessary evil, a means to an end. Many of them are very good at playing this game, they invest in it, engage and often enjoy it. However their ‘real world’ interests outside of school life often seems quite detached and at times hidden from teachers and the school context. It might be that they are totally into music, dance, a particular sport, spend hours watching movies, gaming or something similar. These are the things that does something different for them, it makes them perhaps more unique or independent from their peers in some way. I notice this in my own children, my son with his passion for running and writing, my daughter with her drawing book and guitar.

Occasionally though this line between school and outside of school gets crossed and blurred. Rarely was this more evident to me than in an incident when I was teaching a group of fifteen and sixteen year olds. Somehow in a discussion with the class we got onto the subject of earning money and the jobs the pupils do outside of school. One of the class asked me what I did as a teenager to earn some extra money. I replied that I worked on a fruit farm, but I also mentioned that I used to write and have published computer games for an early form of the home computer. This was met with a certain amount of disbelief, ‘but you’re an art teacher’ was kind of the rough direction of the remarks.

YOOGORP1Dirk, one of the boys in the class, was particularly interested. Dirk is a smart and generally engaged pupil, although I should say at this point that art and my lessons where never really his thing, he did what was necessary to ensure a satisfactory grade, but at least as far as I was concerned never more. In the course of my years of teaching Dirk I felt that we socially had a good relationship, we could joke and laugh together, but I rarely saw him truly ‘switched on’ by one of our activities. This was the case at least until I mentioned my surprising past as a published author of computer games!

Initially Dirk didn’t quite believe me, I needed some proof. It was a long shot but I decided to Google the name of the magazine that published the games I’d written. You never quite know what you might find on the net and sure enough I found a couple of sites that mentioned the magazine. A couple more searches and I had found a lot more. There seemed to be a complete list of the titles of all the games that were ever published by the magazine. I scanned the columns and there, sure enough, amongst all the other names, there I was. I called Dirk to the front to show him, I had the evidence. Dirk and others in the class were impressed, I felt my credibility rising!

Interestingly my name was one of the few hyperlinked names in the list. A click on the link and to everyone’s amazement and my absolute astonishment it turned out that it was possible to download the code for the computer program that I had written. In the classroom at school on our protected computer network it wasn’t possible to fully download the game, but I could clearly see that Dirk’s interest had been well and truly activated, in a way that his art homework had never be able to do. He left the lesson determined to see if it would be possible to get this thirty year old computer game working!

A few hours later I was checking my mail in the train on the way home. Amongst the mails suddenly appeared a very excited one from Dirk, “Mr. Sansom, I’m playing your game, it works!!”  I’m still not sure who was more amazed me or Dirk. But one thing is for sure, on that day there was a bridge built between my world, the world of school and Dirk’s interests and experiences outside of school.  These sort of bridging moments happen more often in education, normally when you’re least expecting them. They sometimes offer educational opportunities that can be built on, but even if they don’t they do provide a chance to get a little closer to your pupils, understand them better and perhaps just as important let them understand just a little bit more about you.

ZX81-leftFor anyone interested in the computer involved in this post it was a Sinclair ZX81, the techy details can be found here. (I should also mention that the game screenshot above isn’t of my game, but it does give a good idea of the graphics capabilities of the ZX81).

Language and creativity – content and language integrated learning idea (CLIL)

Most who work in education know that children generally respond well to games and puzzles. This is a short assignment that never fails to engage the attention and (particularly important for me) the creativity of the pupils. As I will explain the creativity comes in part with a drawing element at the end, but actually the area of greater creativity comes earlier in the part using language.

humunentBefore I start, I should perhaps explain that I first came across this idea in the work of the British artist Tom Phillips and in particular his book A Humunent: a treated Victorian  Novel. Although there are others who have subsequently used similar approaches such as Austin Kleon in his work and book entitled Newspaper Blackout.

Although these ideas come from a visual arts context do not get the idea that this is something only for the art department, as an assignment it has opportunities for language lessons and potentially other areas too. I often use it for cover lessons when I am absent from school for a day or have to fill in unexpectedly for a colleague.

Essentially the idea is very simple. You take a piece of existing text, from an old novel, a text book or newspaper article for example, and give the text to the pupils. Personally I love walking around at the start of a lesson ripping a book to pieces, it certainly succeeds in getting attention! It also ensures that everyone has a different piece of text, which I quite like, but isn’t absolutely necessary, copies from the copy machine are also fine.

Then, using the text that they have been given, and in the order that it appears on the page (so reading from top left to bottom right) they have to make a new version, a summary, a storyline or even a poem. The words that you don’t want to use simply have to be crossed out or better still completely obliterated. In the early stages it pays to be a little cautious, you don’t want to cross out anything that you later will want to use. Generally it quite quickly becomes evident that there are some words that seem loaded with meaning that just have to be used!

Imagine for a moment that the text below was the piece that you have been asked to work with:

One of the cardinal clichés about the English is that, as a nation, we are obsessed with trivial fluctuations in the weather. Lamenting the onset of a sudden shower could happily occupy two strangers on a railway station platform for several minutes – or, at least, that is the perception. Yet Weatherland, a beautiful new book by the British cultural historian Alexandra Harris, suggests that this cliché is a fair reflection of reality.

Moreover, the argument of the book, which examines how scores of great writers and artists have been inspired by English meteorological phenomena over the past two millennia, goes even further.

Summarizing assignment

Extracting the essence out of a text is the basis of writing summaries. This is the same here, but with an added language dimension, or if you prefer, restriction! It requires creativity and flexibility with the language options that are on offer, sometimes removing a single letter from the end of an existing word can make all the difference. Remember it’s all about summarizing the essence of the text as well as you can  with the text and words that you have to work with. The result might look something like this.

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A more playful assignment

For a more creative variation, perhaps more suited for a language lesson, give the pupils a free choice of coming up with the most fantastic, imaginative and inventive new storyline, as long that is, that the grammar used still fits together and is correct. Our same initial text might produce a result like this:

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The full creative assignment

For the full creative explosion of the idea combine the idea above with a drawing assignment where the whole design and layout of the page has to be activated to tell the storyline that has been created. At this point the sky is the limit, after an initial planning stage the pages used could be enlarged to open up the full creative possibilities.

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I’ve experimented a number of times with these assignments. They really do engage the pupils in language and creativity, particularly at the puzzling out with the text stage. Believe it is well worth trying, regardless of what sort of teacher you are and which subject you teach.

The examples above have been made on my iPad, an ideal tool for experimenting with this although for the full creative effect hand-made offers so much, as Tom Phillips shows in his original work. It is really worth taking a look at his site:

Austin Kleon talks about his work in this area in his TEDx presentation about his books Steal Like an Artist and Newspaper Blackout, also well worth a look.