An app as a serious story-telling device

Screenshot 2019-04-11 at 07.01.31Today, for the first time ever in one of my lessons I had a whole class active on their phones, headphones on and experiencing a piece of serious thematic lesson material. We were using an app that connected strongly with our current lessons based around how artists and other creative people tackle subjects such as immigration and refugees in their work.

For more than half an hour there was silence in the room and eyes were fixed on the small screens as the pupils were challenged to make decisions for an imaginary refugee fleeing persecution in Malaysia.

The app that we were using was ‘Finding Home’ made by the UNHCR a couple of years ago to give users insights into how the life of such a refugee is and their dependence on the communication opportunities offered by a smartphone.

It is an interesting approach and engaged the pupil’s attention fantastically well.  The app, in effect, takes over the phone of the user and makes it work like the phone of the refugee in the story.  The app presents a story in which there are choices to be made by the user that will alter what happens and the course of events.  In a sense it is not unlike some forms of literature that offer the reader the chance to make decisions and choices as the story progresses.

The app goes a step further though in that it also offers access to the photos, video and phone calls of the user, thus making it a much more immersive experience, one that continually engages you with choices, new developments and lurking in the background a constant feeling of danger.

The reaction of the pupils at the end of the lesson was positive.  The narrative that drives the storyline that the app develops was engaging and held their attention. There was even a suggestion I feel that they would actually have liked the app to have had even greater complexity and length, a positive, I think.  It will be a while yet before I ask the class to make a comparison between the various cultural media used to deal with these sensitive political issues.  It will be then that truly find out what the whole class thought of the way we spent the lesson and how the experience weighs in against immigration narratives developed by filmmakers, writers and visual artists in the other examples that we will be looking at.


A motivation and reward discussion in class

In a recent discussion with my fourth years (15-16 year olds) we touched on the issue of why we choose to do what we do and what we hope to get back for doing it. It was in the context of a lesson where we were considering the motivations the people caught up in the current migration flux of people from Syria, Afghanistan and North Africa. I wanted to get the pupils to think for a moment about what circumstances might cause them to want to relocate to a different country.


For my groups of fifteen year olds the idea of going to live in a different country because it offers a better paid job is an apparently very easy and obvious step to make. What is perhaps more interesting is to see how they almost believe they simply have a right to pursue such a route. Whether they accept it as a right for others is often somewhat less clear.

The immigration related discussion is of course a complex and heavily charged one. But a lighter exchange also took place when I reminded the class that I too was an immigrant having moved from the UK to the Netherlands back in the nineties. “What was your motivation for coming here sir?”.  I think most of them actually already knew, but teenagers normally like to hear a bit of personal biography from their teachers.  Initially I said that I came to the Netherlands because I liked Dutch art so much, but not surprisingly, they didn’t believe me, so I set about recounting the love story that did bring me this way. It’s a nice story to tell how my wife and I met, but it does also illustrate well how as a student you can temporarily be abroad, meet someone, and all of a sudden the route of life can take a sharp bend and you too, as I found, can be caught up in your own immigration story. I know for sure that when my wife travelled to England, in her early twenties, for her university placement he wasn’t anticipating coming back with a new relationship that was going to have such far reaching effects!

These pupils sit on the cusp of great changes in their lives. In two years many will be on the point of also setting off on the journey through a university education. If we return for a moment to that initial question of what motivates us to do what we do. The financial angle is always the first one that pupils name, they all want to be wealthy and own big houses and nice cars. But I would always ask them to consider other motivations and rewards they might hope for, and can offer a few of my own. One such reward is the very possibility to be able to talk with them about these sort of issues. By doing so you hope to open their eyes a little to different perspectives on the adult world that they, in the not too distant future, will be stepping into. It is so enjoyable and rewarding to engage with them in this way. They are all entering a period of a number of years of transition.

I was all too reminded of this earlier this week when I waved my own son (aged 18) off on a post exams adventure with two friends through Scandinavia and on to Saint Petersburg.  He will learn so much from this three-week journey. As a parent this isn’t always easy when you are used to being close at hand to offer help and advice when needed.

I really shouldn’t complain though, how out of touch am I with the group of young travelers?  They’ve been away for five days, we’ve engaged text messages, photos have been posted on Facebook and I can see exactly what the weather is like where they are. I made a similar trip nearly thirty years ago with two friends. We set off around Europe and in three weeks I don’t think I contacted my parents once, we just turned up again one day. Sorry mum and dad, I’m feeling increasingly guilty about that this week!

The immigration issue and the role of education

20110427-immigrationI’ve posted before about a series of lessons I teach to my 15-16 year old pupils on the theme of immigration and how artists have related to, and worked with the subject. When I initially started to put this module together about four years ago my main intention was to try and show my classes how art can be used to engage with real world issues and show that it has a contribution to make in difficult and complex areas.

I have also written before that my immigration theme seems to becoming more and more complex year on year as I teach it each spring time. There seems to be additional dimensions to add and discuss each time round. I am planning to teach it again in late May and my mind is already wandering and pondering how to bring it to my pupils. The module seems to have become so much more than it was when I started. I have gathered so many artistic work forms that have tackled the broad theme of immigration; films, books, visual art and photography.

How exactly the various cultural practitioners have tackled this issue is my first port of call. Most of the work approaches the theme in a fairly non-judgmental way, observations are sensitively presented and more often than not the viewer is asked to come to their own opinions and positions. I would say that this is why it is such good material to be showing to my pupils, it focuses on individuals, real world narratives, storylines that they can relate to. The news and media often seem to have little time to tune into the individual story and perhaps more importantly to ask the question ‘what would you do in such a situation?’ Such an approach doesn’t offer answers of course but it does offer important perspectives that maybe broadens the minds of our young people and enables them to come closer to making their own minds up in a balanced and informed way.

Inevitably it also raises questions of a political nature which I try to answer as best I can. The world seems to be full of dramas on so many different fronts at the moment but the political rhetoric regularly seems to be brutal and sweeping in its nature.

It all begs the question, what should we be offering our pupils in turbulent times?

Immigration isn’t a new issue. There is constant crossing of borders and relocation for so many different reasons. From the Netherlands where I now live, back in the first half of the twentieth century there was significant immigration to the US and Canada, I myself am an immigrant, having made the relatively small trip from the UK over to the Netherlands back in the early 1990s. My own subject of art and culture in a secondary school offers good possibilities to broach this difficult subject sensitively and with integrity. But language lessons could do the same and geography, history and religious studies could all have a part to play in contextualizing the issues that confront the impressionable minds of our teenagers.

Many of us in education are, in various ways, idealists. We’re in there with intentions and dreams for a better world for our young people. These are difficult issues, often way outside of our normal teaching comfort zone, but can we afford to ignore them?

If you are interested in the cultural materials that I draw from, many of them are enlarged on at the link below:



The contemporary world in the art lesson – a content and language integrated lesson idea (CLIL)

I’ve written before on this blog about how I have worked contemporary issues around the theme of immigration into my art and culture lessons. Immigration as a social theme is one that has always been with us. But I hadn’t anticipated when I first started putting lesson material together just how big an issue it was about to become and how it was going to touch European social and political structures in so many ways.

arrivalI am fortunate to teach a broad artistic and cultural education subject here in the Netherlands that allows me the space to show my pupils how various creative people and groups have tackled the contemporary immigration subject using visual art, photography and film. Some documentary of this previous work can be found using the links below:

Illegal Immigration and Art

Struggling to extend the teenage world view

Immigartion – Pupil work and feedback

Apart from exposing the pupils to areas of new experience in the art and cultural world part of my teaching task is also to strengthen their grasp of English. I teach in English, the pupils’ second language, and deliver my content in a dual learning approach known as CLIL (content and language integrated learning). I am constantly looking for new ways to bind the arts material of the lesson to language learning opportunities without compromising the content.

With this background in mind I will this year I’ll be adding a new element in the immigration module that offers some new language possibilities that I haven’t explored before. I should first though say thank you to Kathrine over in Kansas for pointing me in the right direction for this new source of material. It concerns a book called The Arrival by the Australian artist, writer and filmmaker Shaun Tan. The Arrival is a graphic novel, it follows the story of a man who flees his homeland, leaves his family behind and arrives in a new and unfamiliar place. What makes Tan’s novel rather different is that the whole story is told without the use of text. We are not told specifically what he is running from, clever visual devices are used to clue us in to the fact that he is trying to escape something that hangs like a specter over society there. Each page on the A4 format book is made up of multiple drawings (often twelve or more on a page) each sensitively and realistically drawn.

arrivalconfusedmanThe book (like other graphic novels) could open the door to practical assignments linked to depicting stories using multiple images, but what of the language driven opportunities? The fact that each page carries so much information and communicates so much content is where the CLIL learning opportunity lies. Tan’s approach tells a story that on many pages that can be laid down next to the current events that we are seeing across Europe, we bring our own baggage and opinions and add them to the story being played out in The Arrival. I find myself thinking of several possibilities here, not necessarily working with the whole book, loose pages may well be enough.

The strength of Tan’s work is that it challenges us to think and interpret, he doesn’t feel the need to resort to speech bubbles or extra direction. We are asked to form our own narrative, to fill in the gaps and the pages would challenge our pupils to do the same. Pupils could be asked to:

  • Write their own narrative text to accompany each image
  • Write a narrative based on what the man himself is thinking and reflecting on the world around him
  • Write a short poem that documents a fragment of storyline
  • Write a newspaper article that reports the man’s plight
  • Write the questions that they would use if they had a chance to interview the man – a second pupil could then try and answer the questions

These are obviously all language driven assignments, useful in challenging pupils articulation of complex themes. But for me as an art teacher interested in showing the importance of the arts in engaging in contemporary and relevant issues the chance of encouraging to place themselves in the position of the main protagonist in the book and in doing so maybe gain a little more understanding of the refugee situation confronting Europe is where the real gain lies.

Immigration – Pupil work and feedback

Two months ago I wrote this post:

Struggling to extend the teenage world view

20110427-immigrationIt was a post about the issue of illegal immigration and in particular how art and culture can be used to make us consider it in a different way to the mainstream news routes. In the post I wrote the following:

“I feel very confident of the quality of my examples and indeed of my lesson material. Yet somehow, this year perhaps more than in previous years, I don’t quite feel like the message is getting through. When I reflect a little on this situation my conclusion is that perhaps for too many in my current groups the intellectual and emotional step that they must make to reach an appreciation of the plight of illegal immigrants is just too big.  They’re aware of the problem, they’ve heard it mentioned in the news, but it’s just not their issue.”

At the time I was reacting possibly to a couple of less responsive lessons, where I was perhaps trying to provoke a reaction from my 15 and 16 year olds. We had all seen the reports of the immigrants trying to cross the Mediterranean in their leaky and over filled boats, and just last week there were a number of trucks stopped at Harwich International Port in the East of England containing sixty-eight people from Afghanistan, China and Vietnam.

68 found in Harwich containers

poemBut somehow, despite the real life news stories, my lesson material and my best efforts during the lessons themselves, I had the feeling that I hadn’t quite reached my pupils the way I wanted to.

To be honest I should know better. In education, a feeling of immediate feedback from pupils is relatively rare, normally you have to wait. You have to wait for the work to be done, the report written or the artwork made. Sometimes you have to wait for years, you find yourself talking to an ex-pupil and they recount a specific detail from a specific lesson as being important to them in some way. It’s great when it happens, but you do have to be patient for such feedback!

My doubts about my immigration module have been largely disproved by the quality of the work that I have been getting in the last weeks. Some of them almost sound thankful for being given the insight! Showing the film The Visitor has certainly helped. It has provided an individual narrative that the news stories fail to have.  In particular the poem I asked my Dutch pupils (writing in English,their second language) to produce about the plight of the immigrant was particularly enlightening.

Struggling to extend the teenage world view

The teenagers that I teach grow up in a relatively small provincial Dutch town or the villages in the fields around it. It is essentially, and for most, a very secure and familiar background. The task of showing these young people that they have a place in a bigger picture, a global village if you like, is at times a difficult challenge. A colleague put it something like…”it’s difficult to take our school into the big wide world, but maybe we can bring the world into the school”.

I would definitely connect with such an aim. As a visual arts teacher I see my function to stimulate the pupils’ enthusiasm for art, develop their practical abilities and to show how art and culture has a contribution to make in helping us to engage with important issues around us.

20110427-immigrationIt is with these sorts of thoughts in mind that I have been designing and teaching a series of lessons to my 15 and 16 year olds about how the subject of how illegal immigration has been dealt in the arts. I make use of the work of two Dutch visual artists, the excellent huge scale drawings called Faith, Fear, Face by Carlijn Mens and the photographs Henk Wildschut. I have written about the relevance of their work before on my blog.

For more about Mens and Wildschut click here:

This year though I have also added the film The Visitor, written and directed by Thomas McCarthy

All three in their various forms give us insight into the lives of illegal immigrants in European or American contexts. All three are fine examples of how various cultural disciplines can engage us with important social and political issues of our time.

I feel very confident of the quality of my examples and indeed of my lesson material. Yet somehow, this year perhaps more than in previous years, I don’t quite feel like the message is getting through. When I reflect a little on this situation my conclusion is that perhaps for too many in my current groups the intellectual and emotional step that they must make to reach an appreciation of the plight of illegal immigrants is just too big.  They’re aware of the problem, they’ve heard it mentioned in the news, but it’s just not their issue. It all seems a million miles away from their daily bike ride to school, the hockey club and shelf stacking in the local supermarket.  I am asking them to be ready to make that conceptual leap and to tune in to the bigger picture. There are a few in the groups I teach who are ready and willing to try to do this, but I have to be honest, I feel with plenty of others I am struggling to help them make this switch. At times there almost seems to be a pride in some in choosing to not engage. They simply don’t feel it is a world that has anything at all to do with their existence.

The truth is, that in some ways they are right. At the moment the connection is slight, an article on the news, a film in a lesson at school. And yet, for some the possible moment when they are confronted with the laws and issues of immigration could be closer than they think, as I’ve been trying to make clear this week. Most of the same pupils out of my classes will, in three or four years time be safely embedded in University life. Many are likely to find themselves doing courses that offer the chance to do placements or work experience in some pretty exotic places. I also know, from my own experience, that such trips can also, from time to time, result in meeting new people and forming emotional relationships that will take them to areas where the state might start to have something to say about the way they want to live their personal lives.  My own story of immigration from England to the Netherlands grew out of exactly this sort of scenario and had its own moments of difficulties and frustration, but these were not nearly so complex as those experiences encountered by a friend who met his wife whilst on a visit to Peru and ultimately wanted to return to the Netherlands with his new partner. Their situation turned out to be a much longer and complicated affair.

As a teacher you dip into all these sorts of personal resources to try and make your point when teaching. But the simple truth is that so much can happen, and so much has to be learnt as an adolescent becomes an adult. Mainstream education has a part to play, you try to lodge some useful baggage in the back of the minds of your learners, to give them some perspectives and insight that might be useful to them in the future. But as a teacher, you also have to accept that it is often a case of planting acorns and hoping for oak trees, you might, but perhaps more likely, you might not be there to see it happen.

Two months later I wrote the following post reflecting on what I wrote above:

Immigration – Pupil work and feedback

Illegal Immigration and Art

Many years ago I gave a series of creative workshops to children of asylum seekers at an asylum seekers centre that is on the edge of the town where I live. I can’t remember a great deal about what I did with these groups of children in terms of activity. But there are a number of things I do remember about the experience.

I found it very difficult, they spoke many different languages, they were all very different ages and they weren’t (it seemed to me) used to someone coming to draw with them. All or these are very challenging factors to someone trying to give some kind of structured recreational/educative/creative activity. All the more so when, as was the case for me at the time, you have virtually no experience of teaching or group leadership.

But looking back these are not the things I remember most of the experience. What sticks in my mind years later is the feeling of “otherness” I had of the environment within the fences of the centre.

It wasn’t (and still isn’t) a closed fences centre, the people there are allowed out into the area and local town, I regularly see them still. But within the centre I felt that I was somehow in a sort of dislocated place. The building that these people lived in was unmemorable and grey, but it was set in the calm and tranquil beauty of woodland that stretches out beyond the centre for miles. This context was one that I felt very strongly, and it was coupled with an air of uncertainty in the future that you inevitably feel in such a place.

The experience as a whole was for me a relatively short one, lasting only a few weeks. But it was one that has stayed with me and has coloured and filled in my thoughts on the issues of asylum seekers and immigration.

Immigration is a theme that I have been working with in my art lessons during the last weeks, in combination with my social studies colleague who is dealing with the issue simultaneously in her lessons. It’s a major subject and one that is important to discuss.


I do it using the excellent work by Dutch artists Carlijn Mens and Henk Wildschut. Both have produced work that deal with the subject of illegal immigration head on. The challenge for us as teachers is to try and open the eyes of our pupils to a subject that is so far from their world for virtually all of them as they make their daily bike ride through the countryside and town to school. Virtually all of the them, because I have also had young people from Iraq and Afghanistan who were still in the immigration process in my classes in the past.

To help bring the theme a little closer to home I am now sitting in a train, along with forty-three fifteen and sixteen year olds and three colleagues heading towards The Hague and the exhibition centre called the Humanity House. Here we will be participating in two activities aimed at engaging and confronting the visitor with the issues of refugees. The kids are excited about the day out it will be interesting to see their response to what we encounter.

 Six hours later

In the train again for the two hour ride back home with forty three generally very enthusiastic teenagers. Two activities completed, both engaging, informative and in their own ways entertaining in an enlightening sort of way.

The humanity game involved letting teams of pupils divide aid resources across scenarios based on real disaster situations.Volcanic eruptions in Indonesia, flooding in Pakistan, chemical poisoning in Bhopal and an abnormally cold winter in Mongolia all played a part. It was all about judging priorities, gauging what is most needed. Simple enough but extremely engaging.

 In the skin of a refugee took you on a journey through the experiences of a person fleeing a place for whatever reason. You pass through a series of alienating spaces that simulate the feeling of having to rapidly depart your home, to flee into the unknown. Interrogation, confrontation, questions of trust and loyalty all played a part.  Parts of the experience left you feeling uncomfortable, possibly scared, but also, greatly informed in an extremely activating and stimulating way. 

In the context our project at school we couldn’t have asked for more. For myself as an art teacher there is the extra layer that I’ll be talking about in the lessons later in the week when I refer back to the work of Mens and Wildschut. Their work deals with a tremendously serious social issue, and in the case of Mens, one with tragic consequences. Showing pupils how art can be relevant and a carrier of information and opinions about the most up to date of issues is always so enlightening and valuable to show.