A proper open day at last

Open days at school have been a bit of disrupted business over the last two years.  A chance for a school to show potentially new pupils what the school is all about, the atmosphere, building, and of course the staff.  For the first time since January 2020, we invited both parents and their primary school aged children into the school yesterday evening.

For the art department it’s a chance to show just what we are about and stage an extensive display of the pupils’ work, from the youngest in the school (aged 12) right through to the oldest (aged 18).  During the five hours of the open day, we welcomed around 300 ten- and eleven-year-olds into the main hall to show them round. 

But an art department wouldn’t be an art department if there wasn’t something to do and participate in.  Not an insignificant challenge when they are coming through in groups of up to twenty-four children every ten minutes or so.  The resulting activity is kind of formulaic, and maybe lacks a bit in the area of creativity, but it certainly had a good groups participation factor and a wow effect at the end!

For step by step instructions on how to carry out a similar large scale, pixelated portrait click on the link below to download the .pdf file.

Its a simple idea…..using photopea.com to look at colour and tone

Getting children to understand a bit about how areas of tone and colour can work to create form is a central task for most of those working in art education. The pupils generally get the idea of how line has a part to play rather quicker than these other two might combine to occupy the areas between the drawn line.

Also increasingly central to activities, at least in my art room, is how digital tools can also have a part to play and can be combined with more traditional approaches.

The following short assignment played very much into these areas, focusing on how form can be created using surfaces of colour, colour mixing and becoming familiar with how a few digitally editing tools can be used.  Those tools can be found in most editing software, and we were using the excellent (and free!) open source software offered on the photopea.com website.

The contextual background for the project that I did with my class of 12-13 year olds was transcriptions in art.  We had looked at a variety of artists’ work, but had paid particular attention to Velazquez Las Meninas and Picasso’s numerous interpretations of it.

Our focus was subsequently on the work of Vermeer for our own remakes.  The working process was reasonably simple and worked as follows:

  • Import the image that you want to remake into Photopea.com
  • Create a new layer above the image
  • Look carefully at the image and try to identify areas of colour that whilst not being identical are at least very similar
  • Use a selection lasso to trace round the area
  • Sample the ‘average’ colour in the selected area and fill the whole area with just that colour
  • Then proceed onto the next area

The pupils find this quite fascinating to do and work in an increasingly focused way, gradually building up their own image.  The result look a little like vector drawings that might have been created using a inbuilt filter, but it is very much a question of look, analyse and then carry out the digital steps.

For a group of 12-13 year olds the results have been excellent and has resulted in a feeling of considerable pride in the group.

The second phase was to use carbon paper to transfer the ‘vector’ drawing structure onto paper and then to paint or colour (using coloured pencils) the resulting simplified linear drawing.  At this point it becomes very much a colour mixing exercise where the subtleties of the digital image are transferred into a handmade version.

This part of the project is still at a relatively early stage, but the signs are good for some well made results.  But of course the real proof of the pudding will be in seeing whether pupils are able to take the lessons learning into future work, but hopefully without the digital step always having to be used.

Below is a link to a short PDF booklet that explains how the part of the project done using photopea.com works. It is written about portraits, but the principle and process is the same.

A classic poem in a CLIL context in the art room

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

Combing content and language in the learning process

For a while now monsters of one kind or another have been a feature of the lessons that I give to my groups of twelve-year-old pupils.  We’ve done various drawing assignments, made clay gargoyles, and dipped into art history by looking at the work of the likes of Hieronymus Bosch.

With these classes, being bilingual learners (Dutch children, being taught across their timetable in English in order to super-charge their acquisition of the English language), I am always looking for ways of enriching the practical lessons with elements of language beyond simply using it for instruction.  For example, recently I have had the class writing haikus that were inspired by the clay heads that we made together.

This year though I decided to branch out in a slightly different direction and make use of Lewis Carroll’s poem The Jabberwocky.  The monsters connection was obvious, but how to work with it with these children who are only eight months into their experience of bilingual education was the question.  Would they be ready to deal with this curious piece of literature?

I needn’t have worried; they were up to it.  When I asked them to read the poem for themselves and underline all the nonsense words, they were able to complete this first challenge without any problem at all, their vocabulary being sufficiently developed to spot the words in amongst the text.

Next, we spent time thinking of alternative words that could be used to replace the nonsense in the middle section of the poem.  Again, no real problem.  An occasional grammatical error or slip in the spelling perhaps, but they were definitely onto it, and understanding the intention completely.

The fun and laughter really started when I asked them to come up with their own nonsense words for the first and last verse.  At this point I wondered if the imaginary words they created might end up having an English or a Dutch feel to them.  It was of course all nonsense……but to me, the words that they were coming up with did have a distinctly English twang to it and they generally nestled perfectly well into the context of Carroll’s poem.

The link below allows you to download a step by step guide to the language part of the lesson.

With this language component of the lesson series complete, we moved on with enthusiasm to work on a more than five-meter-long group drawing of our own Jabberwocky.  The result of the drawing project can be seen here, but how exactly we arrived at the composition and in what order we did things, are details I’ll save for another post.

A small (post) Covid mile stone last week

I know that we might not yet be fully out of the woods with regard to reflecting on how Covid has got in the way of any number of things during the last two years. But there was last week, for me at least, something of a fairly large step forward.

For the first time since November 2019, I was part of a multi-day excursion together with a group of ninety twelve and thirteen year olds, and five colleagues.

Four days eating, playing, learning and relaxing together…..plus of course getting the pupils to bed and asleep in their 4-6 person bedrooms at the end of the day (always one of the most challenging parts of this sort of week).  Virtually all Covid restrictions have just been removed here in the Netherlands, so there was no one and half metre rule, no face masks and full buses to transport us.  Judging by the weeks immediately previous at school I had fully expected a small but significant number of cases to occur, but thankfully that was an absolute minimum.  One case during the visit and a couple in the days thereafter.

All in all the days away felt surprisingly normal, at least to the teachers involved.  We had all made similar trips before.  To many of the pupils it was all a bit of a new experience, with these sorts of extra-curricular activities being so scarce during the last two years. 

Normally we would head off abroad, but this Spring that was still just a step too complicated and risky in terms of planning and potential problems.  So, it was all nearer to home.  Easier to arrange, but sadly without the international dimension and the language challenges that come along with it.

We hope to take a similar group off to England in the autumn, we’ll have to wait and see what surprises the pandemic may serve up then.  We will also be facing up to the full-blown version of Brexit, with all the restrictions and complications for EU travellers for the first time.  But that is a completely different story and one that I wrote my irritations and frustrations about a couple of months ago.

Traveling to the U.K. with school children – tales of isolationism

For years I have travelled regularly with pupils from the where I work in the Netherlands to the UK.  In recent times these have been groups of around 100 children and eight or so teachers for an intensive week of bonding this large party of twelve-year-olds as a group, immersion in the English language, building a sense independence (for many a first trip away from home) and a first taster for many of a culture different to their familiar Dutch background.  There is so much to win from this intensive five days away from home each autumn.

COVID has of course thrown many obstacles in the way these last two years.  Such trips simply haven’t been possible to organize.  But as a school we are waiting for our chance to come again, and surely with time, it will.  But through the thick mist of Corona, in the way of so many educational activities at the moment, we catch glimpses of how the post Brexit world has changed the familiar playing field of our school trips to the U.K. The view that we are getting is one of absurdly complex regulations and requirements. The Guardian article below expands on this, and how the flow that for as long as I can remember has become a thing of the past.

Guardian article end of December 2021

Whatever your opinions may have been about Brexit, education opportunities have turned out to be a serious loser in the new scenario. Whether like my school you are trying to take children to the U.K., or maybe you are a young British person longing to spread your wings and pursue educational opportunities in mainland Europe, or perhaps one traveling in the opposite direction looking to experience British perspectives. There are undoubtedly many other educational losers to be found here.  It is very difficult to see where exactly the educational winners are.

Like the Guardian article says,

Morag Anderson of ETSUK, another British homestay company, said the government’s stance was short-sighted. “Give me a child at 12 years old on a school trip to the UK,” Anderson said, “and I give you a future higher education student, employee, researcher, entrepreneur, tourist – with family and friends … And a future parent, encouraging a future child to travel, work and study in the UK. Once this cycle is interrupted, there is no going back.”

I was very definitely not in favour of Brexit. It felt like the work of political opportunists pushing forward arguments that suited their agendas, and failing to see the broader consequences, consequences that now a year on, are becoming only clearer in a range of sectors.

In education our job is to deliver understanding, insight, and awareness in a variety of fields. Experiencing other cultures, societies and people is part of this.  In this regard Brexit has brought increased and maybe, in our case, insurmountable bureaucracy.  How can the depriving our young people of the chance to broaden their educational experience and their perspectives on the world be a step in the right direction?

Cooperative and collaborative learning – lessons from the artroom

Arguing, discussing, instructing, squabbling…..call it what you will, it is all communication.  And communication is a crucial and live part of any classroom and in particular the bilingual classroom.  Here we are encouraging the pupils to practice and use the second language (English in my case) as they participate in my art lessons.

A well-constructed group/collaborative project forces communication, discussion, and consideration with others.  I often find myself saying to the Dutch teenagers I teach how much I love when I hear them arguing in English, it underlines how far that they have come in their mastery of a new language.

A well-constructed collaborative project may have relatively modest artistic aims but could have a very significant goal in the use of clear and concise communication within the group.

A class reworking of Guernica using collage of war related images and text

Such projects are a work-form that I have made a lot of use of over the years, I found myself hanging one up on the walls in school only last week.  But beyond the communication issue there are several other educationally sound reasons to be making use of such projects.

  • The result is ‘greater than the sum of the parts’ argument and a chance to produce something big with a wow effect!

There are many reasons why in art lessons we often find ourselves working on a relatively small scale.  Storage limitations, costs of materials, time pressures, large classes, the necessity for pupils being able to take work home with them, they all play a part.  A group project allows the pupils to see something different.  A large-scale project spreads across the classroom floor at the end of each lesson, slowly taking form and seeing how their own section of it contributes to the big visual statement that is developing.

  • It seems to force the underperformed in the group to up their game

Every class has them, the pupils who are content to do just enough in their work to gain a (just) sufficient grade.  It continues to surprise me how working within a group project, where their contribution is visually so obvious, the result is often that these very pupils feel the pressure to up their game.  There is, it seems, nowhere to hide, rather different perhaps than with a written group project. 

  • It shows pupils that often very complex and ambitious work is possible if it is broken down into smaller parts…..rather than feeling overwhelmed by the challenges ahead

This is perhaps most a benefit to those who are the more interested in art and want to produce the best possible results in their own visual work.  They suddenly realize that given time, and perhaps a slightly more systemic approach than they might usually use, could lead them too towards making more impressive and resolved individual work.

Tim Rollins and KOS

And on a personal note, it allows me to borrow from an important art educational influence, one who is responsible in part for me making the step into working with young people, Tim Rollins and KOS.

While I was still studying for my fine art degree, I watched a documentary about Tim Rollins and the Kids of Survival.  At the time I didn’t really have any plans to enter education, but the film gave me a glance into what might be possible.  I found it fascinating and inspiring.

About a decade later I was lucky enough, while doing my teacher training course in Utrecht, to observe a guest workshop given by Rollins to other students.  If there was ever anyone able to demonstrate the power of the group project it is Rollins, and a fantastic example of the “result is greater than the sum of the parts” argument I mentioned earlier.  Fantastic to see, and for a teacher in bilingual education, all the more inspiring for the way in which language, text and literature found its way into the work.

Tim Rollins and KOS on Artsy

A flash back to my place in the classroom as a teenager – creating a safe learning environment

Last week we had a teachers’ study day at school.  A day off for the pupils and a day to work together with colleagues without too many distractions.

The theme for the day was ‘Didactic coaching’, or put another way, improving the flow between pupil and teacher, clearer instruction, clearer feedback, and better understanding of the educational processes at work from both sides.

Photo: Wendy de Jong Thijssen

One particular aspect of the day has lodged in my mind in the intervening week.  It was related to the themes discussed I suppose, although didn´t get a specific time or place for debate.  It relates to the need for a `safe` classroom climate, a climate where all individuals feel secure in the knowledge that successes and failures are both part of the process.  Safe in feeling that getting a question wrong, or your work being used to illustrate a maybe less successful aspect than you may like, is acceptable, and as I said, all part of the group learning process.

Why did this point hit home for me last week?  Well, that has to do with the sensation I experienced when involved with a group discussion involving all 100 or so of my colleagues.  At this point our guest speaker was posing questions to us, his audience, and asking for us to reflect on and share our thoughts.  He was doing this in a perfectly reasonable way.

But here’s the thing, in such circumstances I find myself doubting, have I interpreted the question correctly?  Is my answer relevant?  I find myself wondering whether my mastery of the Dutch language (my second language) is going to let me down or has led me to misunderstand what is being asked (I should say that this is possible, but probably rather unlikely nowadays)?

With these doubts kicking around in my head I find myself sitting rather uncomfortably……just as I used to as a rather shy teenager in the classrooms of my secondary school.  It was quite a confronting flashback.

The experience has left me pondering how many of the pupils in my own classes might be experiencing something similar.  Are there children just waiting and hoping not to be chosen to join the discussion?  Or are the learning environments that I create more open and relaxed? 

I’ve asked small groups in my classes this week for their thoughts and views in this area.  The initial reactions are thankfully good.  But I’m only too aware that children often feel a pressure to give the socially acceptable answer and that, in effect, criticizing the teacher is probably as hard as it gets!  So, I’ll be probing again this week.  I like to think that everyone feels that I treat them equally and openly.  We spend time laughing together, sharing stories of what is going on inside and outside the classroom.  I think this all helps, but I’m not yet completely convinced and will be trying to speak some more to the quiet, shy ones this week.  The ones who I recognize parts of myself in!

Can’t see the trees for the drawings – the start of the school year

All the work was actually done at the end of the previous school year.  In fact, a significant part was put in place during the tail end of the last lockdown that we had in schools here in the Netherlands back in the spring as this previous post documents:

Preparatory tree project work

But once back in school, with whole classes back together, what started as a walk in the countryside and photographic assignment, could take on a more ambitious drawing and painting character.

The idea was relatively simple. I wanted, after months of disruption and children following my lessons on their laptops and iPads at home to do a fairly loose group project that would deliver a result that was significantly bigger than the individual parts.  It was also obliquely connected to the Surrealist’s Exquisite Corpse drawing game where elements of drawing connect vertically without one part actually being made with the intention that it should seamlessly connect.

Our ‘corpses’ weren’t to me figures, but trees. Linked together by a vertical trunk that ran through the drawing.  The pupils had spent time outside looking at trees and photographing them.  We had made small digital collages connecting various sections of diverse trees into an arrangement that hinted at where we were going.

But still, the greatest challenge was to get the pupils (14-15 years old) to loosen up a bit and dare to start on the relatively large-scale drawings I was asking them to make.  To help reach the point where we got quite high contrast drawings there was really only one material to use and that was charcoal.

After a few nervous minutes at the beginning the class soon got into it.  I kept hammering on about daring to draw and being a bit aggressive in their mark-making.  Also, I kept again and again repeating to make sure that they got different scales of mark in the drawings, from the thick and lumpy trunks to the lace-like finest twigs and everything in-between.  We used the photographs made earlier as a reference point to make sure that nobody slipped into the ways of drawing trees that they may have used when they were at primary school.

Charcoal delivers fast results, and it was very quickly clear that the drawings that were being made have qualities that were going to mean that my hopes to make a larger group display of them was likely to be a possibility. 

The speed of the drawing process meant that in subsequent lessons we moved onto similar work, but this time drawn out in paint.  The pupils were working with a freedom that I rarely see, not just from the ‘artists’ of the class, but pretty much right across the room.

The resulting work now hangs in the hall at the main entrance to the school, backlit from the light outside and against a backdrop of real trees.

A bilingual start to the year – art and language workshop

It has become a regular day out in September for me.  A trip to the Merlettcollege in Cuijk to spend a day with the new bilingual class giving them the full on immersion experience of a solid day of intensive English language use and practical activities.  It is a day that makes use of a whole variety of approaches designed to unlock the pupils prior knowledge in the areas of language and art and to stretch them into new areas.  My own use of English, and only English, is chosen to try and prevent the pupils slipping back into Dutch and by only slightly modifying my own use of vocabulary I hope to stretch the class into new areas that are perhaps just a small step beyond their current level.  This does mean that perhaps the pupils occasionally miss a small part of the instruction.  But then, we all miss pieces of instruction from time to time even when we fully understand the language used.   But it is in this way, where we struggle to make the very best use off our current knowledge, that the learning process is often at its most effective. This sort of ‘in at the deep end’ is at the basis of the bilingual classroom and where it really comes into its own. 

This year’s group in Cuijk was been a good one. A class of 30 twelve year olds who are just two weeks into their bilingual journey and receiving the main part of all their subjects at school in English for the first time.

It was rapidly clear from initial reactions from the class that it was a day where I would be able to work at a considerable pace.  I was making few extra adjustments in my teaching.  Many of the day’s activities had a game-like quality and the pupils were only too pleased to play along and show off their knowledge and ability in English.  We talked about art, we wrote poetry, we discussed journeys and travelling and we drew pictures, bouncing freely from one activity to the other.  The day seemed to fly past.

I have two personal favourite activities from those I used. Firstly, there is the Haiku poetry writing where I can stand back and watch the children searching through their own English vocabulary, whispering words to themselves and counting the syllables of each possible word on their fingers, looking for the perfect fit for their poem.  Then there is the picture drawing activity when someone else is describing what you have to draw. This second activity always brings a lot of laughter with it, whether it is me describing and the children drawing or the other way round.  Both variants involve pushing the language abilities into new more precise and descriptive areas and connect this with picture making….the ideal combination for the bilingual art teacher!

International educational opportunities in the time of Covid

I grew up in the UK and I didn’t cross borders into another country until I was fourteen, on a school trip to France.  Education has an important part to play in broadening the perspectives of young people.  Many schools (including where I work) promote themselves on their international activities and relationships.  Exchanges, trips and cross border projects and activities are all part of the packages that are offered.  Internationalization in education is as important as it has ever been to broaden understanding and appreciation between different cultures and traditions. 

Yet in this Covid influenced world (and in my own Anglo/Dutch Brexit influenced context) the challenge is just how to do this.  We have school trips from the Netherlands over to the UK lightly pencilled in again for this school year.  Whether these plans come to fruition remains to be seen.  I’ve just made my own first trip across the North Sea for twenty months.  The preparation and research of how to do the journey took me the best part of two days to finalize and has involved multiple forms and declarations and the booking of no fewer than three Covid tests for a four day visit. If things are still so complex when the time comes for our school trip, I can’t see how we will be able to organize things, not for the staff, and less still for the pupils. 

Logistically, international school trips have always been complicated, but what is now required is of a completely new order, the travel landscape has changed.  Where and how educational internationalization fits in to this, at a time when international cooperation and understanding is as important as it has ever been, is unclear and a massive challenge. 

How can we give our pupils real international experiences and firsthand relationships when it is such a struggle to do it for ourselves as adults?  The days of traveling with whole classes will surely return, but in the meantime can we afford to let the international component of our education slide amidst the rush to get our general education back up to speed after all the interruptions of the last 18 months? 

There’s no quick fix here, but surely there are possibilities.  Smaller, less ambition steps that, given time and the right structure, could develop real educational value.  A few years ago, I worked on a modest border crossing photographic project that linked my pupils with a group in Finland to produce some collaborative work.  I’m hoping to run a similar activity with others schools this year in a language/writing/painting and drawing project.  I’m also pondering other creative projects that might link pupils’ drawings together and result in an internationally touring (amongst the schools involved) art exhibition. 

These are in comparison with a full-blown week long exchange with a return visit later quite small gestures.  But with the right framing they aren’t meaningless or without consequence.  Our pupils need to see, understand and engage with the world beyond their own safe and familiar environments.  We must find ways or edging them beyond their own little worlds, even in these Covid restricted days.