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.     

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.