The day I met Anselm Kiefer – Using narratives and personal history for getting attention in class

“Look at me, listen to me, be quiet, this is important” thinks the teacher quietly to themselves at the start of the lesson. Yes, that’s what you want, but anyone who’s tried starting a lesson like that will know that it doesn’t often work, certainly not on a week to week basis. So how to start?

In his book, Oops! Helping children learn accidentally Hywel Roberts talks about the importance of the lure….doing something to draw children into learning. A kind of educational strategy that grabs the attention of the pupil and leads them towards the intended learning experience, maybe via a roundabout route, but by using a successful ‘lure’ you capture the attention, imagination or focus of the learner.

‘Tell a class a story’ you are often advised during teacher training. Yes, kids live a good story. For me it’s often a chance to sneak a bit of art history into my practical art lesson, a real or made up story connected to a theme being studied works fine. But I would go one step further, the best lures or educational hooks at the start of a lesson are the ones with a strong narrative line, but the very best ones are the ones with a personal narrative line.

The natural inquisitiveness of a class can be unlocked by a teacher seemingly opening up a little personal history to them. Discovering the teacher has a life outside of school seems to me to be the ultimate lure, the challenge for the teacher is to link something out of their own biography to the lesson material.

I certainly wouldn’t claim everything out our personal lives can be used! But carefully thought out small doses can work fantastically well. We all have incidents and encounters that make for an engaging storyline. A few of my personal favourites that regularly find their way into my lessons are:

  • My brush with the immigration authorities and foreign police when moving to the Netherlands and what I did when told that I would have to leave the country very soon
  • Being first on the scene of a fierce house fire at midnight
  • Going to the cinema and being completely alone in the auditorium
  • Rolling my friends glasses up inside our tent and stuffing the tent into my rucksack at the start of a month long holiday…..with the worst results
  • Meeting world famous artist Anselm Kiefer and discovering after one sentence I had no idea what to say next
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Anselm Kiefer, Zweistromland (1986-89)

I could go on, each one of these basic storylines in a lesson situation can be built into the most captivating and lesson related narratives. Yes, with a bit of extra embellishment from time to time, but does that matter? It’s all about bringing the class to the point that you want them to be so that the most effective learning can take place.

I would also add that a little bit of metaphorical undressing of your personal biography rarely does you any harm in terms of a good working relationship with a class.

More on getting the attention of a class can be found here.

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5 May – Liberation day and an exhibition

In the Netherlands freedom and liberation are celebrated in the 5 May. On 4 May at 8pm a reflective two minutes of silence is held across the country to remember and reflect on those who died during the Second World War and conflicts since. Wageningen, the town in which I live, is in party mood today, the somber remembrance ceremony that I attended last night is followed up with a festival and processions that will draw tens of thousands to the town.

It is not an inappropriate day to be visiting an exhibition in the far north of the country though, before I too return to the Wageningen celebrations. In the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden in the north west of the country an exhibition entitled Burdened Landscape is on display until 5 June.

The exhibition explores how landscape can function as a sort of physical memory storage for history, and in particular, parts of history that while not being occasions that we should forget, are periods that don’t make for easy reflection. As the exhibition guide puts it:

“Violence, war and conflict leave their traces, even in the landscape. The past is visibly and invisibly gouged into the soil. Some places have become tangible monuments to history. However, more innocent-looking locations can also bear heavy burdens. Time and again, memories give the ‘crime scene’ its charge.”

It is an interesting and engaging collection of work, covering locations such as the landscape around Auschwitz (Oświęcim), Kuwait, Hanover, Ukraine, Armenia, Stalingrad and most recently, the Mediterranean Sea and its role in the suffering of migrants because of conflicts in North Africa.

Discovering works by Anselm Kiefer within such a context isn’t perhaps that surprising but there are plenty of less familiar works that open thoughtful windows on their own landscapes.

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Hans Citroen’s photographs show intimate corners of domestic landscapes, between vegetable gardens perhaps, yet there between the slightly overgrown fences are the remains of a railway line. The track lies, seemingly forgotten, in Oświęcim a short distance from the nearby Auschwitz. You are challenged, no, forced to reflect on those who passed through this space towards such a terrifying and uncertain future. Yet now, here it is, the line slowly being reclaimed physically by the landscape, but at the same time a landscape that is so heavily loaded by its history of seventy-five years ago.

The way landscape recovers and reclaims is also visible in the large-scale series of photographs by Sophie Ristelhueber. They show images of the Kuwaiti desert and the way it holds a physical record of the Gulf War (1990-91). In some images the relics, the evidence is slowly being covered over, fading from view.  In others though you can’t help feeling that these remnants will remain every bit a revealing in the distant future as Hadrian’s Wall is to us today.

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On a more recent note, but maybe more disturbing for it, the video work Liquid Traces the Left-to-Die Boat Case by Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani tells of the tragic fourteen days adrift at sea experienced by a group of seventy-two refugees from Libya. The result of the two-week period without rescue, was that only nine of the seventy-two survived to recount their experience.

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The exhibition deals mostly with the traces that war and conflict leave on the landscape, but departs from this a little to end with the image of Frenk Windels, sitting next the place he, without the necessary permits, buried his wife after her death. The result is a small domestic landscape with a huge emotional charge.

Back home in Wageningen, the landscape that surrounds me is beautiful, green and for the most part peaceful.  But look at little more carefully and the same Burdened Landscape can be found. There was heavy fighting on the nearby Grebbeberg in 1940 and the parachute landing for operation Market Garden of A Bridge to Far fame occurred just north of the town. These and other periods during the 1939-45 conflict are still all too present and 4 and 5 May of all days are the days to reflect on this.