Well-being and the arts (part two)

A couple of days ago I posted some thoughts on the significance of the arts and their general contribution towards our sense of well-being. I’ve had various pieces of feedback in response to it and I’d just like to share a couple that seem to connect so well.

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Firstly, a quote from Brian Thorne, Emeritus Professor and Director of the Centre for Counselling Studies at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

I count it essential that I visit the sea frequently, that I train my eye to observe the intricate design of trees and plants, and that I make friends with animals.  What is more, I am horrified if I discover I have let a whole week pass without having read a poem, listened to music, visited a beautiful building or feasted my eyes on a work of art.  I know that I need to do these if I am to cultivate a sense of deep connectedness to all that is, and, more importantly, if I am to retain a sense of awe and wonder at the marvels of creation, whether natural or human.

Secondly, a short film that relates more specifically to my work to encourage pupils to choose creative subjects to study whilst at school. The Tate Gallery in London has produced a film that addresses many of the points I try to make, plus a few more.

A couple of days ago I posted some thoughts on the significance of the arts and their general contribution towards our sense of well-being. I’ve had various pieces of feedback in response to it and I’d just like to share a couple that seem to connect so well.

Firstly, a quote from Brian Thorne, Emeritus Professor and Director of the Centre for Counselling Studies at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

I count it essential that I visit the sea frequently, that I train my eye to observe the intricate design of trees and plants, and that I make friends with animals.  What is more, I am horrified if I discover I have let a whole week pass without having read a poem, listened to music, visited a beautiful building or feasted my eyes on a work of art.  I know that I need to do these if I am to cultivate a sense of deep connectedness to all that is, and, more importantly, if I am to retain a sense of awe and wonder at the marvels of creation, whether natural or human.

Secondly, a short film that relates more specifically to my work to encourage pupils to choose creative subjects to study whilst at school. The Tate Gallery in London has produced a film that addresses many of the points I try to make, plus a few more.

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Well-being and the arts

Around this time of the year, and every year, I am involved in an advertising campaign.  My third-year pupils (aged 14-15) are busy pondering their exam programme choices.  It is the point where pupils have to choose which subjects they will continue to study to exam level at the end of their Dutch secondary education.  Pupils in the Netherlands take a still very broad collection of subjects through to the age of 18, so you would think that there would be plenty of scope to choose an arts subject.  This is indeed the case, virtually every student could find the space for art in their timetable.  So why the need for an advertising campaign to push my subject forward and encourage it to be chosen?

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It is an effort to win hearts and minds of those in the classroom (the children themselves) and those beyond (parents and colleagues).  It is, broadly speaking, a two-pronged attack.  Firstly, and perhaps more obviously, there are the children would have particularly strong and well-developed abilities where just maybe the studying of an arts related subject may help them in their route into further education and ultimately a career.  In these cases, I don’t have to do too much, they enjoy the subject, they want to extend themselves and they want to see just how far that they can push themselves.

The second group however, potentially a much larger group, is a much harder sell.  They too may well have a high level of artistic ability and interest.  However, somewhere, even at the age of fifteen a decision has already been made that an arts subject is a wasted and unnecessary choice on the railroad to their future and prestigious career.  The idea that everything has to be in the service of their future university study and career is a deep-seated one.  It is a perspective that is undoubtedly pushed by over cautious parents wanting the ‘best’ for their children.  But it is also reinforced all too often by the general advice that is consciously or unconsciously given at school.  This is the playing-field for the art department’s advertising campaign.

To this group of pupils my message is normally pretty straight forward to deliver; it is perfectly acceptable to choose a subject to follow for three years simply because you like and enjoy it.It might give you a good feeling, it offers a different perspectives and activities to many other subjects on the timetable, it broadens you view of the world, it combines theory, practical, creativity, design, social issues, history and so much more.

Would I dare to add to this that it can increase your sense of well-being? Well maybe, and I wouldn’t be alone in doing this:

British Doctors May Soon Prescribe Art, Music, Dance, Singing Lessons

It is ironic that the views that are presented in this article (that I whole-heartedly support) run counter to the difficulties experienced in the arts, be that the pressures creative subjects are under within educational institutions or funding towards our broader arts organisations across society.

The arts as a wide field of creativity offers so much to those directly involved as artistic practitioners, but infinitely more to the broader public.  Those of us involved at all levels of the cultural world shouldn’t be shy in pushing our agenda, it is a constructive and at fulfilling one. 

Two further articles exploring this area:

The arts and medicine

Medical schools and art classes

Pupils and their accessories – the ‘coffee’ cup

Is it just me, or do the pupils at my school seem to have a new accessory in their hands in the corridors and outside the classrooms?  Is it a new status symbol, a sign of who you are?

A few years ago, this would doubtless have been their mobile phone, but now everyone has one of those.  No, it’s rather more lo-tech than that.  I am seeing twelve and thirteen-year olds standing around waiting to go into lessons holding a disposable drink beaker from the coffee machine.

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We’ve had such a machine at school for ages.  Pupils have often sat around in the breaks drinking a warm beverage.  But something a little different seems to be going on.  I can’t say I’ve ever noticed them nonchalantly standing outside the classroom still holding (an often seemingly empty beaker). It might be my imagination, but it does kind of feel like this is some sort of performance. Are they trying to emulate or simulate something than they have seen elsewhere?

On my way to school each morning I am used to seeing the commuters grasping their first coffee shot of the day.  But my pupils won’t have made the same observation on their bike ride to school. Could it be that they want to be like their (incredibly cool) teachers who are regularly seen walking the corridors with a tea or coffee on the way to the next lesson?  I have to say, that also seems rather unlikely!

coffee2

I can’t draw many other conclusions other than to think that it is a somehow linked to all those informal celebrity photos of this star or that star snapped walking down the street clasping their own personal favourite brew.  A flat white or a macchiato for our pupils? No, I know for sure that the machine doesn’t dish out anything so exotic.  In fact, I would go further and say that it is still the age old favourite sugar shot of hot chocolate that they are buying.

 

An ex-pupil, art history and medical observation

It is always nice to run into an ex-pupil. It doesn’t normally make much difference whether they were a model pupil in the classroom or not. It doesn’t take long for enough water to have gone under the bridge to allow a nostalgic reflection on school or even individual lessons to be easily shared.

A while back I ran into Philippe, an ex-pupil from four or five years ago. Philippe always enjoyed being creative in the art lessons at school and indeed probably most other things that she did at school. After graduation she headed off to medical school.

As an art teacher you hope that you have given such a pupil some cultural baggage that will in the future be relevant or maybe even useful to a young person as they grow up. In the case of Philippe I don’t think I ever really doubted that. She was serious, curious and creative in class. Things would undoubtedly fall in place in the years ahead.

Even having said all that, when I ran into Philippe in the train a short time ago, I was still surprised and interested to hear a connection between our art and art history lessons at school, that we were reminiscing about, and her medical studies. She had been returning to looking at art as a part of her course. This might seem a little unexpected but there are precedents for it at Stanford medical school and others.

On her course, like at Stanford, art history was being used to hone and focus cognitive and observational abilities.

Sarah Naftalis, one of the art historians involved at Stanford outlines a few of the key points of this interdisciplinary overlap and how the “productive ambiguities of art,” as well as the benefit of engaged, close looking without “rushing to assign meaning to what we see.”

Topics of the course included narrative, body in motion, skin and tone, and death, with doctors from the fields of family medicine, orthopedics, dermatology, pathology and anesthesiology leading each session.

“Bringing medicine into the space of the museum was a great aspect of the course — simply allowing different bodies of knowledge to exist under one roof. The medical students would sometimes use clinical vocabulary or concepts to describe works in the gallery, making for an interesting range of language in our discussions.”

Contributes Yinshi Lerman-Ta, another art historian involved in the program.

One important takeaway for him from the course, was learning to observe without jumping to interpretation. “I was surprised at how strong the impulse was to interpret the work, before I had actually observed the entire piece,” he said. The exercises the instructors led us through, describing what we saw objectively without commentary, really forced me to slow down and really see what was in front of me, without jumping to conclusions or interpretation.”

Sam Cartmell, medical student.

Sections above from:

Stanford medical school article

These sorts of medical/cultural overlaps are further explored in this Artsy.net article (along with broader discussions related to other medical benefits an involvement with artistic and cultural practices bring:

Artsy.net article

As an educator, and in particular as an arts educator, you never quite know where the cultural foundations you are laying may take your pupils to and what future relevance may be found. Once in a while though, like with my discussion with Philippe, you catch a glimpse.

Remember this…the reverse perspective?

 

I’ve had a lot of interest in my previous post about reverse perspective. I’ve promised a number of people that I’d try and post some more detailed instructions, so here they are:

Firstly a few basic facts about how I worked……

  • I was working with classes of twelve year olds (of higher than average academic ability)
  • All in all it took about three hour long lessons to complete

Materials:

  • A4 paper, 120-160g drawing paper (it needs to be thick enough to hold its shape once folded, but at the same time not so thick that accurate folding of the paper becomes a problem)
  • Pencils, erasers, rulers
  • Coloured pencils…..as always, the better the quality, the better the colours and results!

reverse perspective diagram

Click on the link below to download this file as a .pdf that is suitable for printing

Reverse perspective diagram

I have included an A4 printout diagram here, I didn’t give my pupils anything that was printed out, I preferred to draw it all on the board at the front, step by step and explain as I went along.

The printable has all the lines that play a part in this assignment on it all at once, the PowerPoint that I have added shows a step by step series of photographs of the order that I carried out the various steps. Click on the link below for the PowerPoint.

Reverse perspective

I’ll be interested to hear how you get on if you give it a try.  Incidentally, the illusionistic effect works better with:

  • Strong colours in the drawing work
  • When multiple ‘rooms’ are lined up together

Good luck!

Peter

Reverse Perspective

Every year in my first year classes (12 year olds) I touch on the principles of perspective, at least in its one point form. We do a little art history, take a look at Masaccio and Mantegna. We make a drawing, or a painting that in one way or another makes use of one-point perspective. There are of course lots of ways in which this can be done.

Mostly for my own amusement I mix things up a bit on a yearly basis, and also a bit dependent on just how complex I dare to make it with a particular class (although it has to be said that with some classes the term vanishing point seems to refer more to an ability to follow instructions than a place on their drawing!).

This year I decided to tackle head on an approach I’ve pondered doing for a couple of years now. It makes use of the three-dimensional ‘reverse perspective’ that British artist Patrick Hughes employs. Like perspective itself, it is a bit of a visual trick, but one that invites us to look again and question our interpretation. Whether we are looking at the resulting artwork for real or on film, in summary everything seems to not be quite as you would expect.

The drawing assignment begins with an essentially quite straight forward piece of one point perspective of an interior space. The receding lines along the top and bottom of each wall converging at the vanishing point. The most important alteration in this familiar setup is the wedge in the gap between the wall and floor or ceiling (see link to a model below, where the light blue parts need to be cut away). By removing this wedge you are able to fold the paper so that a sort of pyramid form is made, one that has had its point cut off. This can be folded in such a way that the back wall of the drawn room is forced forward. In effect it sets up a conflict between the visual illusion of the drawing that places the back wall in the distance, and the physical reality of the three-dimensional form that has been created that places the same back wall actually closer by. It is this conflict that makes the illusion so intriguing.

reverse perspective2

The pupils this year followed the instructions carefully, added colour and folded. The results had something of a magical quality for the class. Judging by the number of views of the films that I made of the work and posted on the school’s Instagram account it had a fascination for many others too. Try it for yourself!

reverse perspective

Differentiation in the art room – are there things for other departments to learn?

I recently exchanged a number of mails with a former student of mine. She didn’t follow an arts related curriculum in her last years at school choosing a much more science related timetable. Eventually she left school to go to university to study physics and, if I remember rightly, astronomy.  During our digital exchange, quite unprovoked my me, she said that she and some of her fellow university students had been discussing the state of education recently, and had come to the conclusion that not all was really as it should be.

It short, at a distance of maybe three or four years, since they left, they had concluded that the secondary school education they had experienced had fallen short in a number of ways. She identified a number of areas:

  • The amount of time that is wasted sitting in lessons where you really are ready to move on with the teaching focusing on points that you have already fully grasped
  • The little opportunity there is to pursue themes and areas that genuinely interest you
  • The lack of challenge that there is in much of the teaching that is on offer. 

A bottom line to this discussion was one of the lack differentiation in the classroom. Differentiation as a theme has been a bit of an teaching hot potato of late, generating a lot of discussion along with moves towards more personalized forms of education. Matching education that you provide to the diversity of individuals in the class, the varying abilities and styles of learning being the aim. Whether my ex-pupil is aware of the background educational discussion I’m not sure.  But her point was, that whilst at school, a great deal of time was used and wasted (in her experience) solving fifteen maths problems when she was sure that after five she already understood what was necessary and was ready to move on (a perhaps over-simplification, but one she used to make her point). Others in the class may well have needed all fifteen, but ,in this case, she didn’t.  There lies the challenge for the teacher, how do you organize and practically cope with diversity when you are faced with a class of thirty individuals?

Alongside this observation she made an interesting point, and one that I’ve often thought about. In the art room, whilst working on a practical assignment, differentiation often happens almost automatically. You set a painting or drawing assignment and the more talented and able in the class simply challenge themselves more, both technically and creatively, than those less so. Pupils seem to have a good idea of their abilities, they try (generally) to push up against them to make small improvements, but have a reasonable idea of what are realistic aims for themselves. The result is a sort of sliding scale where, at least in theory, differentiation occurs with the pupils themselves controlling where their own learning boundaries lie.

This does sound a little to good to be true, but it is a process that I recognize and see occurring in my classroom. It begs the question, and this was my ex-pupils question too, how could you simulate something similar in other subject areas?

  • Less front on, one size fits all, traditional/classical educational approaches
  • Lesson material that incorporates a more elastic quality that stretches and challenges the pupils to challenge themselves
  • Different lesson material that incorporates a more exploration, challenge and, dare I say it, use of creativity in all subject areas
  • Digital text books that adjust want they offer depending on the strengths of the pupil
  • Timetables that are a little less rigid and along pupils more space to better cater for their strengths and weaknesses.

The school where I teach is in the process of investigating how we might incorporate a number of these types of ideas into a more personalized form of education, it is at least nice to think that we have the support of at least one ex-pupil in doing so.

An Artistic Odyssey….

I don’t often post a complete article written by someone else, but Edith Pritchett’s prize winning short story did make me laugh. The link below takes you to the Guardian article about the competition.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/04/edith-pritchett-an-artistic-odyssey-jonathan-cape-observer-comica-graphic-short-story-prize-2018

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The teenage photographic challenge

We live in a world where more photographs are made than ever before.  The teenagers that I teach are part of a generation who are barely able to live without their ever-present phone and photographic device in their hand. They are totally comfortable it would to record all around them and themselves for digital sharing on one of the many social media platforms.  It is all so easy and immediate.

As an art teacher it is fantastic to have the possibility to make use of the photographic medium so easily.  Yet experience shows that successfully getting worthwhile pupil work is surprisingly difficult to achieve.  Indeed, one of the problems I feel I face is the very casualness of the way many teenagers approach photographic documentation.  It is all so easy, point and shoot, endless quantities of images can be taken at no cost at all and the device of choice (the phone camera) always being with us in a pocket or bag. This same casualness brings also a sort of complacency or at less a much-weakened critical judgement.  Few teenagers ever look at their photographs on a screen bigger than that of their phone, fewer still bother to stop and evaluate the successes or failures of a composition.

Over the years I’ve experimented with a number of photographic assignments. Some have produced the results I hoped for such as a photographic exchange project and photographic art work reconstructions, others haven’t though and have resulted in mediocre or simply disappointing results.

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By David Hockney

This year’s photographic variation is a project based on the collages made by the British artist David Hockney during the 1970s and 80s. Hockney’s work used extensive sets of photographs that he had taken of various subjects, people, interiors and landscapes. These were reassembled in an overlapping fashion to document the view and made active use of distortions, disruptions and twisted perspectives that the process produced.

The resulting works are fascinating to see.  I showed my two classes of fifteen year olds a selection of Hockney’s work. I explained. They looked. Were they actually seeing and understanding what they were looking at and grasping the process? To be honest, in education I have that feeling more often. For most of them is was a completely unfamiliar way of working with a camera, but to be honest, I didn’t think that it was so complex or difficult!

 

A week later the pupils arrive with their own set of photographs at school. In most cases, still on their phones. There is a misconception that teenagers are technological able and literate.  In some areas maybe, but occasionally a surprise comes along…..in this case it seemed like more than half of the class had little idea how to get photographs off their phones and onto a desktop computer.  It seems a little symptomatic of a development I’ve noticed over last couple of years.  At the school where I teach all pupils have an iPad.  I’ve written before about how we in the art department make use of it.  There are new tools and new possibilities, but with it has undoubtedly also come a diminishing capability and familiarity with using a laptop or desktop computer.

I am digressing a little……. eventually the photographs the pupils have made are onto the computer and the creative process begins.  The room quietens, and the pupils gain that fixed gaze that comes when a computer-based activity engages them.

It is a puzzle, but a fascinating one to do.  In the end, the work is relatively quickly done.  The results in some cases are quite complex.  As always, you learn during the process, what are the extra directions that you need to give to guarantee a suitable set of photographs or maybe spend just a few more minutes looking at and analyzing Hockney’s collages in order to make sure the pupils have some insight in choosing appropriate subjects.  But overall the results are good, certainly interesting enough to have another go at it next year.

 

An educational luxury…..a little extra time

Twice in two weeks I’ve had the chance to work with groups in a workshop situation. There’s nothing so unusual about that, but in both cases the workshops have been for unusually long sessions.  Last week I worked with a group of twenty 12 year olds for a seven hour long art, language and creativity workshop (yes, with a couple of breaks!). Today I have had four hours with colleagues to try and use an afternoon to create new lesson material that combines lesson content and language learning challenges in imaginative ways.

The length of both workshop sessions are relatively unusual in educational contexts,  where so much is cut up into small pieces to fit a timetable or simply to make sure all subjects get their allotted amount of time.  Both children and staff are constantly switching, readjusting and having to start again. It is a system that generates a lot of wasted time and a great deal of disruption.  Breaks are of course important to refresh and clear the mind a little, but the normal school day (or the average conference day for that matter) it does at times feel like overkill. These are the reasons why these more extended workshop sessions feel so different and offer other possibilities.

For the children last week we were able to extensively play a series of language games, combine them with practical art activities and written assignments. The pupils got completely involved and spent the day consistently speaking English (their second language) after only having had a couple of weeks of bilingual education. The workshop had something of a pressure cooker effect, intensive input, active involvement and language rich output. Yes, we were all exhausted at the end of the day, but there is nothing wrong with that once in a while!

Today’s workshop with colleagues was rather different. Four hours together essentially with the aim of producing teaching material that can be put into use in the forthcoming weeks and months. This too, like last week, required energy and focus. But the unusual difference today is that we have been able to have time to work together. The more usual format being a workshop that presents a collection of ideas, the workshop ends, everyone goes home and you may (or may not) get a chance to return to workshop content a few weeks later when you get a moment, and that moment is very unlikely to be with your colleagues. Again, as so often in education the the breaks and disruption get in the way and potentially constructive work is lost as a result.

school-bellInterestingly, the school where I teach, are currently looking at the merits of personalized learning. It is a bit too early to say whether this will ultimately help in this area.  But it certainly will be interesting to see if it might be possible, in a readjusted school day, to see a timetable that might help in this area.  Could it result in more scope for pupils to work on particular subjects in more extended ways when it is possible to do so and perhaps be a little the slaves to the school bell?