When needs must, Covid, creative and educational choices…Minecraft in and out of the classroom

For a number of years in the winter months I run a series of lessons with the fifteen-year olds that I teach about architecture that focus on aesthetic beauty in contemporary buildings.  We spend time looking at the architecture found on the streets of our local towns and villages as well as the work of leading architects on the world stage.  Most pupils are interested and surprised when being introduced to the work of the likes of Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Peter Eisenman, and seeing work that is a long way from what we find closer to home.

Once the theory and written assignments are out of the way we dive into what are some of my favourite lessons of the year.  Pupils begin work on a architectural design process that first involves them working out on paper a layout for the interior of a building, puzzling out how to make best use of a space with fixed parameters of a building’s footprint.  This is followed by a second part where following a short lesson on how to use SketchUp, the pupils use it to design the exterior to accompany their interior plans.  We sit for several lessons at the computers at school, first working on the basic form, and then focussing of pushing the level of detail and refinement in the design as far as we can.

This year though, with a lockdown in place and lessons being given online this practical assignment presented a problem.  Many of our pupils, when at home, only have access to their iPad, the chosen digital device that we have been using at school for a number of years.  There may be a computer at home, but during lockdown, the whole family may have claims on this.  To get round this problem, as an art department, we reorganized the assignment (like we have done many times in the last year!).  The new version offered a whole series of possibilities:

  • The SketchUp option (for those who could install and use computer)
  • Tinkercad 3D design software (that does work on the iPad)
  • A physical maquette made of wood, cardboard, paper, plastic, etc.
  • Two architectural drawings

Or, and this turned out to be the real crowd pleaser…..

  • Using Minecraft to design the building

I have to admit that was a little a little sceptical at the beginning.  Would the limitations of the Minecraft blocks simply be too much of a restriction and result in designs with little flair and imagination?  I need not have worried, encouraging the pupils to work big in their Minecraft worlds meant that this really wasn´t too much of an issue.  Pupils seemed only too keen to put the necessary hours in and show off the hours that they had already invested over the years mastering the building possibilities. 

video 20210425 93604 PM c36ea098 – YouTube

Ckv modern school building – YouTube

There has been much reinventing of the educational wheels this year.  Multiple assignments have been adjusted, redeveloped or simply thrown away to be replaced by others that may work in an online teaching world.  This is just one such example. 

An assignment to keep in for next year?  Given the choice I’ll head back to SketchUp with these older pupils.  But the idea of using Minecraft within an art program is a possibility for sure.  The software is a bit geared up for a particular type of architecture, but maybe heading off in a different direction altogether and using it to create abstract sculpture could be very interesting, and the pupils might be less drawn to following tutorials on YouTube.  I have also just thrown down a challenge to the 12 year olds I teach to try using Minecraft to recreate Renaissance architecture as it is to be would in the paintings from 500 years ago…….I’ll be posting the results in due course!

Story telling, illustration and digital books, language and creativity in the art room

For several years I have been working on refining an art project that involves a number of distinct phases.

  • Research an artwork from art history
  • Presenting the research about the artwork and artist involved in the form of an infographic
  • Writing a story aimed at primary school aged children where the researched artwork plays a central role
  • Illustrating the story using a variety of drawing and/or painting techniques, traditional or digital
  • Designing the layout of the pages of the book where images and text have to be combined
  • ….and finally, the presenting a completed book

I will write about the use of infographics as an alternative to report writing on another occasion, but here I want to focus most of all on the story telling, the illustration and the designing of an online book.  Due to the uncertainties of the way the school year was going to develop I decided early in this lengthy project that I was going to encourage the pupils to aim for a more digital based working process.  In the end virtually the whole class chose to go virtually completely digital.

The story, once the research was completed, was hammered out on the iPads the pupils work with.  Incidentally, I should mention that we are talking here of pupils aged 14 or 15 mostly, and as part of a bilingual education stream, the pupils are working in English, their second language rather than their native Dutch.

Digital illustrations were produced using a variety of drawing apps, before these were then uploaded into the Canva app (also a pc application) to work on the page layout and overall design.  Even working on the relatively small iPad screen the pupils were able to produce some interesting and varied work. 

When all the pages are complete a .pdf can be exported of the complete book.

The pièce de résistance comes in the form of the Yumpu.com website that allowed the pupils to upload the raw pages to the site to generate an online digital version with three dimensional pages that can be turned. 

Click below to take a look at some of the possibilities the project offers from this year’s results:

Book One

Book Two

Book Three

Once we reach this point it is over to their teacher to grade the work on four criteria:

  1. The interest, complexity, and engagement of their story writing
  2. The use of English and grammar
  3. The quality of the illustrations
  4. The quality of the layout of the book

It is a lengthy project.  But in a world where we are all (and in the art department) are having to lean heavily on digital means, it is a project that offers interesting online possibilities for classes that have a little digital know how.

Art, language and typefaces (a design project with a CLIL extension)

Since the restart of the school year back in August I have been working on a quite extensive art and language project with two of the third year groups (aged 14) that I teach. Essentially it is a design module that focuses on the fonts and typefaces but has involved:

  • A photography assignment
  • A black and white, graphic typeface design assignment
  • A painting assignment exploring more painterly approaches
  • A poetry assignment
  • Digital illustration assignment
  • A page design/layout assignment

Often with such a long drawn out assignment the challenge is to keep the energy going, but in this case, with the diversity of activities, I have never felt that to be a problem.

A brief summary of the art and design activities and a few of the results:

Typeface design made using found objects

Create a coherent font using objects that you find at home. Arrange at least five letters that clearly belong as a set and make use of the same types of objects.  The most significant challenge here is to get the pupils beyond the stage of using five pencils lying on the table to spell out a set of easy to create letters.  There are so many possibilities but it does require a kind of mental leap to bring the pupils to a point where they start to see the design possibilities.

Typeface design using only black ink

This is the most purely design related step and before we get as far as using the ink we go through a series of design steps that first involve sketch designs of three quite different design ideas. One of these is then chosen and a series of design refinements using different types of letter are made. Finally we arrive at the ink work where a series of five or six letters from there font are inked in using brush and pen work.

Painterly letters

After the graphic work of the previous assignment things become considerably looser in this coloured in and painting assignment as the pupils build on and further develop their design work.

Poetry assignment

To include a significant language element into the assignment I ask the pupils to chooses the names on at least two typeface names (and there are so many to choose from!).  These names, be they Broadway, Cairo, Baskerville, Freestyle, etc. are the starting point for the creation for writing a short poem.  The names of the letter types have to actually be a part of the poem’s text, and ultimately when the poem is presented for marking the typefaces referred to must be used.

H3P going where few classes dare to go

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a slightly tongue in cheek post that mentioned my third year class H3P (mostly 14 year olds).  The post referred to how they sit down the back of the classroom, seemingly trying to get as far away as possible from me, which in the Covid classroom is, in some ways, quite welcome.

But H3P deserve a mention today for a completely different reason.  They are just over two years into their bilingual education. About 70% of all their timetabled lessons are taught not in their native Dutch, but in English.  We work hard at school with our classes to break through the tendency pupils have to slip out of English and back into Dutch.  Being a native speaker of English my own use of English is 100%, but even with that sort of input, some classes have to be pushed, cajoled and bullied into full participation.

Today during my lesson with H3P at the end of the afternoon I had to pop out of the room to go to the copy machine.  On returning to the art department I entered the corridor, the door was open and from the far end of the corridor I could already hear the class.  They can be a rowdy and chaotic bunch, especially when they think that I am not looking!  I crept up to the doorway to have a listen to hear what all the noise was about before entering the room.

The class seemed to be shouting and arguing with each other.  Nothing too heavy, it was all good humoured.  I listened on.  It was fascinating to hear my group of fourteen year old Dutch children arguing with each other in English, shouting to each other in English, joking in English. 

Two years ago I traveled to England with the very same children.  A trip that we use to try and help the children over the psychological barrier of daring to speak their first English words and broken sentences.  And now, two years on, the same group is arguing amongst themselves in English.  I stood outside for a while, it was fantastic to hear!

A mention for classes h3p and h3q

In the socially distanced classrooms that we are encountering in education at the moment a special mention should go out to my two 3rd year (14 year olds) classes.  Both are small classes an I find myself with no fewer than twelve empty desks in the room.  All the pupils in Dutch schools are being required to keep at least 1.5 metres of distance from their teachers.  Both h3p and h3q have taken this advice to the limit, they seem to care for my health and well-being to the extreme.  Every lesson they pile into the classroom and insist on making sure that there is a good four if not five metres between me and them, they couldn’t put any more distance between me and them if they tried.

Or……it could of course be that they are displaying the more recognised teenage behaviour of wanting to sit at the back of the bus, back of the hall, back of the cinema, back of the theatre, back of the bike shed, the back of anything else that is going, and yes, the back of the classroom! 

But on a more positive note, I do feel a general respect of my personal space from the pupils I teach, and if they do creep a little too close it is simply through enthusiasm for the drawings they want to show me, and don’t seem to mind at all to be reminded to take a step back.

Three weeks open again

Three weeks into the return to school, time to make up the balance a bit.  Three weeks of up to 30 children in the classroom and me the teacher trying to maintain a one and a half metre distance from them, in the classroom and in the corridors and also a similar distance from colleagues in the staffroom (actually probably the most tricky challenge!).

Front on teaching, teacher at the front talking and explaining (ironically the sort of teaching that for years we’ve been told is educationally the least effective) works fine. The tables in my classroom have been all moved back a bit to give me more ‘safe’ space at the front, so I have to shout a bit louder at times, but that is fine.  The first week or so was quite a bit of explaining so I left at the end of the first week feeling that distance had been maintained well. But then the practical activities started…..

Once again you explain from the from, examples on the screen and the pupils get started. Soon enough the questions and queries start to come. And after those come the specific enquiries about particular (often small) details on a piece of work.  You want to see, you want to help, you want to instruct and even demonstrate.  You quickly realise just how much of your job you spend shoulder to shoulder with your pupils, how often you stand amongst them. It is all part of classroom life and especially art classroom life. 

In some ways normal classroom life has returned, the faces at the desks. But at the same time that it is anything but normal. I find myself asking whole groups of pupils to hold up their work for me to check that they are roughly on the right lines whereas in the past I would have had multiple one in one exchanges.

The crucial teaching tool of your physical presence has been taken away. You can’t go and stand closely behind the unruly individual in the back row and teach from there (right into his or her ear!).  So much looks the same, but so much is different.  At the moment my pupils seem to respect my space, but we all know how forgetful pupils can be. Time to print a “don’t stand so close to me” t-shirt for the weeks and months ahead…..although I am fully aware when Sting wrote those lyrics he was referring to a very different situation!

How long will we be teaching like this? Well that is of course anyone’s guess right now. Right now its one week at a time, but I have to admit to often finding myself thinking about all the projects I want to offer this year, and wondering which ones to save and hold back for a potential online situation.

Reflections on the 2019-20 school year

And so we come to the last week of a bizarre educational year. 2019-20, the Covid year, the distance learning year, the struggling to keep in touch with your pupils year. It’s perhaps a good moment to reflect a little.

For me, in many ways the first seven months were very much a more of the same sort of experience. Familiar lessons and many classes I already knew. In the background though, as a school we were working on a new educational concept that was a long term project, due to be launched in the school year 2020-21. The aim of the new approach being to increase both the educational engagement of our pupils and their ability to work more independently. Little did we know that in many ways this aim for a more independent form of learning was about to be twisted into a new form and thrust, on not just a single year group to start with, but the entire school of 1600 pupils.

So, as all those who work in education, those who are pupils and those who are parents know only too well, around February, March or maybe April, the learning world gets turned on its head. Suddenly the schools are standing empty and pupils and teaching staff, like just about everyone else are left stranded at home.

Much has been written about the admirable educational response to the new challenges. Seen as a whole this is true.  It was amazing to see the way that a steep digital learning curve was climbed and how effectively many schools and teachers got their online lessons up and running.

A first post-lockdown group artwork, June 2020

Three months later, and with the Corona situation in Europe at least easing a little we are getting closer to seeing how effective our emergency sticking plaster form of education has been. As a school we have even been able to carry out an exam week for a number of our classes. I have also spent time chatting with groups of pupils during lessons as part of the partial reopening of school.  And last week we had a series of report meetings to talk about the progress in each class. 

So how have things gone so far, and how are they going as we head into our summer break? It is early days to be drawing real conclusions of course, but what is the initial anecdotal evidence?  Variable it would seem. Like some of the teachers, a section of the pupils have coped well and relished the new challenges of working and organizing themselves a lot more than the normal school week allows. They have enjoyed puzzling out and researching lesson material and getting on with what was necessary.  Others though have struggled in the very same areas.  These are the pupils who need the structure, the discipline and the educational presence of teachers, a fixed timetable and the environment that a school building offers.

There are no great surprises in these early reflections, and the end of year test results of the students my wife teaches in higher education seem to hint at similar conclusions.  The top students continue to score top grades, but the lower areas of achievement have slipped a little lower.  Is an increasing educational seperation the risk here?  It isn’t any great surprise to discover that many pupils need the structures, rhythms and rules that the educational institution provides.  It is what we in education have taught them to be dependent on.  Take it away and replace it with distant learning that they follow from in their bed and things are going to be different.

The winners here do seem to be the ones who can work, plan and organize themselves more independently, both the pupils and it should also be said, the staff too. The new approach to the education we will be starting to offer at the school where I teach when we return after the summer is aimed at exactly these points. Letting pupils make a few more decisions for themselves in how they tackle the educational material.  Challenging them to work a little further and faster rather than allowing a general ‘class tempo’ to be the dominant one-size fits all form of education.  It would be nice (an maybe a little unrealistic) to think that if we had made such steps five years earlier our pupils may have been more ready for the effects of the COVID 19 influenced forms of education. Whether that proves to be the case only time will tell, and whether we can get on with shaking up the education we offer without further interruptions is of course also very unclear.

An educational present

Yesterday I boarded the train with a colleague. Face masks on, making the short trip down the line, fifteen minutes or so. Our conversation was almost immediately interrupted by a cheery “hey, Peter”. I looked across the carriage to see a tall, lanky, bearded face, peering out from behind a generous mask. He had obviously recognized me, despite my face mask. Could I return the favour? It’s not always easy, but on this occasion I could, it was Niek, a now young man, who I had last taught eight years ago.

Niek immediately launched into the conversation wanting to know how it was at school and how we were coping with the Corona situation. He enthusiastically explained what he was up to, nearing the end of his Masters degree. It was a open and relaxed conversation, if only a relatively short one. I could still very much recognize something of the first year boy who had been part of an unusual class of 23 children back in 2007 or 2008 perhaps. It was unusual in the sense of being a class of 18 boys and just 5 girls. Sometimes odd details just stick in your head.

It was nice to see Niek again and hear that all was going well for him.  But the nicest thing was this……

Although I am an art teacher, I am also a teacher in a bilingual stream, giving my art lessons in English to Dutch children.  I am part of the bilingual program where language learning is combined with teaching other subject areas. When Niek boarded the train yesterday and recognized me, he just launched into our conversation in English, despite the  context of being in a Dutch train and the conversations around us also being conducted in Dutch.  His English was fluent, clear and spoken without hesitation or grammatical faults.

When my colleague and I left the train fifteen minutes later I could turn and say with all honesty, that is why we are involved in bilingual education.  It is an unusual hybrid in the educational world.  It requires the teachers and pupils involved to participate in a language ‘game’ that asks everyone to conduct themselves in a second language, when using the first language would simply be easier. But here was an encounter that underlines the strengths of this approach and why it is so worth teaching in this way.

So thanks Niek, for this educational present to one of your old teachers. In the last week of this most different of educational years it does give a good feeling.

Back to school…how have things changed?

Three weeks ago secondary schools in the Netherlands were allowed to reopen.  This reopening was under strict restrictions concerning the general organization within the school building and that a 1.5 metre social-distancing was required.  The school where I work decided to generally continue with online lessons in the mornings in most subject areas and on a rotating basis to allow a few classes to come into school in the afternoons. The ‘at school’ sessions consisted mostly of an outside sports lesson, a form teacher/mentor lesson and an art lesson (that’s my part!) or perhaps a bit of extra English. 

We have had close to three months out of conventional schooling.  One of the motivations behind choosing physical education and arts lessons to be given the afternoon, was that the social contact and social exchange they allow was seen as desirable to facilitate. A sort of restarting of the background chatter, and for me hopefully the reintroduction of the humour and laughing that go on in a physical classroom but seems almost completely absent in the online classroom. 

I have been giving these rather make-shift, end of year lessons for a few weeks now, and it really shouldn’t be underestimated how the social dynamics within groups has changed.  Yes, they are smaller groups, only sections of classes, but I have been completely taken aback by how quiet and seemingly shy the groups seem to have become.  

Much has been written about how the removal of the school based social contact teenagers have been missing may be effecting or even damaging them.  My own (and my colleagues too) small scale, anecdotal evidence would certainly point towards a social change within groups that will undoubtedly have its own effects (small or large) as we head into the next school year.  Something has shifted, it may be connected to a certain amount of end of year reduction of energy levels, but the buzz of contact within groups has changed.  I feel also in myself that the reestablishing of the old rhythms and patterns as and when we return fully to school is something that is perhaps going to take more time than you might expect. 

Materials problems and online art teaching

After two and a half months of distance learning and online lessons during the Corona crisis a few things, in my art department at least, are becoming clearer.  One of these relates to the materials we use and difficulties we face in not having them available to us. In a well-equipped art studio, or even an only relatively well-equipped one there are choices enough on offer as lessons are planned. 

Once the children are based at home though, it is a completely different ball game.  Yes of course some children have plenty of creative stuff at home, but there are many with very little.  Within some classes I find myself assuming that some may only have a pencil and a sheet of paper…..and thankfully also their iPad.

While on the short term this is not insurmountable problem, I find myself looking ahead to after the summer holidays and realizing that this distant learning variety of education might actually be with us a bit longer. The follow up question is how might the temporary emergency solutions of the last couple of weeks, be slowly transformed into more meaningful and structural curriculum elements next year as and when they are needed?

During the lockdown period of online lessons, I have found myself particularly engaging with collage in its various forms as a way of getting beyond just the simplest of drawing assignments.  Collage relies on simple materials that all children should be able to lay their hands on.  I do always feel that you first must get past the idea in the heads of the kids that collage belongs at primary school. Although as the examples here show my pupils seem to be making this step.

We started with two, technically seen, extreme opposites. A digital collage to create a fantastic and impossible building using iPads and the limitless resources of online imagery of buildings to cut, paste and combine.  We then moved on to a more playful form of collage, piles of clothes arranged on the floor and used to recreate existing artworks from museum collections.

The clothes experiments proved to be an excellent warm up and introduction to the more fully worked out transcription collages that I have been doing with the same groups in the last week or two.  I made a couple of demonstrations films to lead the classes into the assignments, that undoubtedly helped.  There was a degree of choice on offer; create a transcription based on the work of either Magritte, Hopper, Hockney or van Gogh.  All highly suitable for the collage challenge.

It has also been interesting to see over the last couple of months how several pupils (particularly boys) have taken time to produce some very good work.  Are they less distracted now than they usually are in the classroom situation…..or is an over-enthusiastic parent doing the work?  I guess we will never know for sure, but I do know that I am providing and art education for someone out there!!

Collage work has been a much bigger feature of my teaching during the last weeks than it normally is.  I and other art teachers are looking for solutions to difficult technical challenges.  Perhaps the biggest one still to be got to grips with is three-dimensional work.  If when we return to school in the autumn online lessons are still a significant factor (as seems likely), addressing how to work with more spatial challenges are likely to become more necessary.