Drawing my work place

I draw quite a bit.  Whenever I travel one of my drawing books travels with me. In my studio work I plan and prepare using drawings (on paper or digitally) to plot the way ahead.  Yet in we’ll over twenty years working in education I have never turned my attention towards my working environment in the form of drawing it.

A while back I decided it might be an interesting challenge to pick up, and so a series of drawings began.  I’m still working on the series.  I don’t think they are ever going to become more than a series of drawings; I’m not expecting to take them into a series of paintings.  But they are starting to become something of a ‘complete set’ in my view.

In many ways they are fairly detached from the paintings I make.  Although they do share a certain geometric quality.  The architecture of the buildings l work in have plenty of interesting angles and lines.  Maybe that’s what kept me interested while I have been drawing.

A full display of the series, online, and quite possibly within the school is likely to follow quite soon, but while I’m finishing things off, let me put this first on of the series out there as a taster

A Chess set and a social experiment

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post entitled Collaboration, social flow and a search for a school vision.  It was prompted by an afternoon of brainstorming by the teaching staff about the sort of school of the future that we wanted to achieve in the forthcoming years. At the table I sat at, with a group of five of us we found ourselves focussing rather on the social aspects of education.  Exam results are important, but the feeling we had was that a well-functioning social environment is also extremely important.  The sense of well-being, at all levels, of an educational institution also has a significant role to play in a healthy learning environment.

My own personal feeling is that the general levels of social engagement should be given more priority and we should be considering ways of facilitating interaction and in the long-term improving a feeling of wellbeing between pupils and pupils, staff and pupils and indeed also amongst the staff.

I left the discussion afternoon with the feeling that I wanted to do something.  I reflected back on my own secondary school days and remembered with fondness the inter-year football league that was played during the lunch breaks and featured a couple of teams made up of the teaching staff.  It did, back then, undoubtedly bring the school together. 

I’d been sitting on an idea, not unrelated to this, for a while.  A modest step that I could perhaps individually realize.  I decided I was going to make a large-scale chess board and accompanying pieces and then just one day leave them standing in the hall at school, take a step back and see what happened.

Two weeks later after many before and after school drawing, sawing and painting sessions I was finished, plywood pieces on a 120×120 cm board.  I carried it down to the hall after the lunchbreak.  A few groups of pupils were sitting around, taking it easy during a free lesson.  I set it up, took a photo for myself and withdrew to the balcony around the hall to look down on my handy work.  I really wasn’t sure, were the pupils at the school really waiting for a giant chess set?  Would they play?  Would there respect the pieces and leave them where they are meant to be?  Would it just become an ornament that nobody touched?  I had no idea.

I needn’t have worried, literally within two minutes the first game started. The early signs were good!

Since then, we’re a week further on, the board has been in virtually constant use, from early in the morning until the very end of the day. Serious players, beginners and everything in between, often with large groups watching and discussing the action.  It has been such a pleasure to watch.

Often it really hasn’t been the groups of pupils that I’d expected to see.  The problem cases, required to stay behind at the end of the school day have been playing, the youngest in the school, the oldest and yes, the staff too.  I really seems to be working the way I hoped, its fabulous to see, dare I hope that it will continue?  The signs are good, but I’m realistic enough to know that we will have to wait and see!

I find myself pondering what to do next. I have a number of possibilities, but perhaps first up is a sister board for the chess set, but this time the popular Dutch game dammen, comparable to draughts, but played on a larger board and a few small differences in rules. An extra job for after the Christmas holidays!

A treasure hunt, art history and language (CLIL assignment)

When you make an artwork, I’ve always felt that you need to create some sort of hook of fascination in the work that the viewer latches onto quickly and that will hold them long enough to take a proper, more considered view.  Good lesson material is similar, in that you need to catch the learner’s attention, once you have that you then take them to the content that you want them to encounter and understand.  Below is an example of such an approach.

Over the years I have written a large amount of lesson material, my OneDrive and the various websites that I have created are full of it.  One of the problems that arises with this is that you sometimes forget or overlook something that you made at some point that was good material and worked well.  I rediscovered this week exactly such an example.

With the twelve-year-olds that I teach I include a series of lessons that are centred around Renaissance and Northern Renaissance themes.  For our practical lessons we look at one-point perspective and we make a clay monster inspired by Hieronymus Bosch.  The “forgotten” lesson material though was a little art history lesson based around the Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder from 1563.  I´m not required to teach anything about this particular painting, it certainly isn’t in a fixed curriculum.  This is simply about encouraging pupils to look and to think carefully about pieces of art, trying to show them that art history doesn’t have to be a dry and stuffy place.

The Tower of Babel is great for this.  It has a simple story that is not difficult to understand, it is painted in a very realistic way, but above all, it is packed full of action and detail.  It is this level of detail that is the vehicle for this simple language and art history assignment.

Basically, my aim is threefold:

  • Get the pupils to look carefully and in detail at the artwork
  • Ask them to create language output inspired by the discoveries they make in the artwork
  • Create a fun and playful way of learning that has a gentle form of competition to it using a sort of scavenger-hunt principle

The whole lesson is hung up around the availability of extremely high-resolution photographs of artworks that can be found at various online locations.

Tower of Babel high/resolution image

I ask the pupils to get this image open on their laptop screen and first have a good look round the picture, zooming in and zooming out, taking a good look at everything that is going on.

Then I start my PowerPoint up at the front of the class.  Each slide shows a very zoomed in piece of detail from the painting, along with an arrow pointing above, below or to a side of the detail.  There is also a word, maybe `climbing` for example.  The idea is simply to±

  1. Find the detail in Bruegel´s original work
  2. Look just beyond the detail in the direction of the arrow
  3. Describe or explain what is going on in this `beyond` area, but the sentence that you form MUST include the given word in exactly the form it is given

Returning to this assignment for the first time in a few years it was great to see the pleasure that was had by this particular group of twelve-year-olds, They were searching around a nearly 500 year old painting, laughing at some of the more quirky discoveries they made.  They were enjoying looking at and exploring for themselves a jewel from art history.  Added to this they were also constructing often quite complex English sentences in what is their second language.

I´ll be doing my best not to overlook this half hour activity again next year!

For anyone interested in trying the assignment, my PowerPoint can be found below.

“What did you do to the children?”

…said the British customs team as we left the British passport control in Dunkirk. As the last of our group of seventy twelve-year-olds disappeared through the door, all five members of the customs inspectors burst out laughing.  “You could have heard a pin drop as you brought your children through, we have never seen, or heard such a well-behaved school group, it so quiet” she said between her laughs.

Yes, even seventy Dutch twelve-year-olds can be quiet and serious!

Travelling with large groups of school children has its moments.  The chaos, the noise and the feeling that you are heading a flock of sheep.  But occasionally something like this comes along.

As a teacher it does give you a good feeling to get such a compliment!  Was it our very serious (and possibly slightly over the top) instructions? Was it the uniforms of the serious looking customs men and women staring down from their desks? Was it a bit of both? 

Either way, we were happy, the customs people were happy and the kids were quiet…..what is there not to like?

My first post-Covid and post-Brexit international school trip

This really does seem a note-worthy moment to post. So much has happened in the last three years.  In the autumn of 2019 I travelled with 80 or so pupils and a team of colleagues for the last time, the journey being from the Netherlands to visit the U.K. for just under a week.  It was before the pandemic and before the Brexit deal was finalized.

Now three years later we have just repeated the visit for the first time. This time with two groups, one of 71 twelve year olds accompanied by seven teachers and a secon group of 60, mostly fourteen year olds and five teachers. On the program were various outside activities at the location were we stayed as well as a day trip to Oxford, and for the older children also a visit to London.

Reflecting now, from the comfort of having returned, what is there to say, what has remained the same and what has changed?

We’ll leave aside the fact that our travel agency, who organized the main logistics of the trip, let us down to a serious level,. Leaving us with many situations where we were forced to improvise, be creative or simply hang around in the cold waiting for a bus at five in the morning. But what about Brexit or Covid issues?

The main Brexit difference was that now, every single child is required to have a passport, and not just a EU Identity card.  The extra expense of this change was  born by parents and thankfully due to notifying them of it months in advance presented no unexpected problems.  We were also fortunate to have no pupils in our group with complex nationality issues.  Visa requirements have become significantly tighter since Brexit, this is doubtless a bridge that we will have to cross another time.

The Covid part of the story in the end worked out reasonably well, but did leave us a little on edge at times.  There are no real Covid restrictions to travel between the Netherlands and the UK at present.  However the idea of setting off on the trip with people in the bus who were testing positive was a concern.  We didn’t specifically ask pupils to test, I’m pretty sure that we are actually not allowed to do that.   It was the health issues amongst  the staff that was the main concern.  The days before we travelled, one of my colleagues had two family members at home who were testing positive, what if there were more cases amongst the teachers pop up at the last minute?  We needed the full team, and a fully fit team!  It really is an excursion that needs you to be at the top of your game in terms of health to cope with the 16-18 hour working days.

Right until the morning of our departure teachers were testing, thankfully in the end all with negative results.  Did we have pupils with us who might have tested positive?  Quite possibly yes, sitting amongst us in a crowed bus for hours on end.  Did we have an outbreak of pupils feeling under the weather and maybe ill?  Well, that’s a no, despite the tightly packed bedrooms that the pupils slept in. 

Some colleagues were at times definately a little effected by symptoms that could easily have been a relatively light case of Covid.  Did we test whilst in the U.K.? That’s a definite no.  There seemed little to be gained by knowing. We just ploughed on with the excursion.

All in all the trip as a whole felt remarkably similar to the trip of three years ago. There was a bit more hand washing go on before eating, but to be honest, that is about as far as the Covid measures went. But also about as far as the measures really could go in such crouded conditions. Hopefully we’ll be making the same trip again next year, and hopefully the Covid situation will have eased still further, the situation/rules at the border crossing, given the current state of British politics, is anyone’s guess!

A flying start – migrating into the new school year

It might not actually quite be the start of the school year anymore, but it is in its way a flying start. 

The end of school clear out inevitably means empty display spaces come the start of the new school.  This year I decided to make an immediate splash in the biggest space in the school with rapidly made charcoal drawings of birds made by the fourteen-year-olds I teach.

Now as we head into the autumn season of migration in the bird world, it seems appropriate to share the result online.  It’s not an easy display to photograph well, but in real life the transparency of the paper and the darkness of the images combine for ever changing results throughout the day as the light outside changes.

Getting twelve year olds to look carefully at Renaissance art and architecture…..at the end of the school year

Written at the end of last school year, but a nice post to start the year with……

The weeks are ticking away until the end of the school year.  Three lessons to go with the group of twelve and thirteen year olds that I teach. The temptation is to go for something passive and comfortably time filling.  But I want to give them one last push, but also engage them with a little fun.

The solution…..

The content

Renaissance art, and in particular architecture as it is found in the paintings of the period

The skills needed

Looking carefully

Some creativity

A little digital knowhow on at least one of the platforms we were using

The technical bit…..

Using, or learning to use one of the following digital design possibilities

  • Tinkercad.com
  • SketchUp online
  • Minecraft
  • The Sims (A new one for me in an educational context…I wondered if it would be a bit too restrictive in its possibilities. In the end I feel I was generally proved correct)

The class had heard a while back that I have been known to use Minecraft as a creative tool for building assignments.  They’d been nagging me a little bit to do something similar with them.  These last few lessons of the year were an ideal opportunity.

The assignment was a very simple one.  I had a PowerPoint of a selection of images or renaissance paintings, and in particular images that showed examples of Renaissance architecture.  The pupils simply had to choose one of the buildings and try and recreate it on their favoring design platform, and perhaps add to it a little in an appropriate way.

For SketchUp and Tinkercad I had to start with a short demonstration into how the software worked and what a few of the possibilities were. But with Minecraft and the Sims no assistance was needed. Within thirty minutes of the start of the first lesson the room settled down and we were off! Focused looks on the faces, mouse hand moving in its familiar erratic jumps.  And this point it was quite easy to leave the room to go and get myself a cup of coffee, on my return I could see the start of their Renaissance inspired worlds starting to take shape.

Minecraft is a favourite amongst the pupils. It is familiar and the idea that you are actually allowed to use it for a school assignment does have something of a special attraction.  But it is the work done on SketchUp and Tinkercad that I enjoy watching unfold the most. In both cases you create your own building elements, the software has more flexibility for refined work, and the icing on the cake as far as Tinkercad is concerned, we can make the final step of 3d printing the results.

Drawing on/for memories

I ended the last school year making a series of drawings of the school building where I work.  The idea was to make a series of images that may turn out to be useful for the forthcoming year, a vague plan I have for a series of lessons.  As it turned out the series of three drawings became combined to make a card I gave to a few departing colleagues as a memory of what they are leaving behind as they move on to other things……(any colleagues who have moved on to other things, and I didn’t get as far as dropping a card in your pigeon hole, if you’d like one let me know, I’d be more than happy to send one through….pure disorganisation at the end of the year!)  The fact that our school will be celebrating its 75th anniversary gives the ink and wash drawings an extra meaning perhaps.

I’ve subsequently spent the summer holidays travelling around Orkney, the island group between the Scottish mainland and Shetland.  Here too I have spent my time recording, documenting, and committing to memory the world around me in an extensive series of watercolours and drawings.  The activity makes me look hard, experiment a bit with what I can achieve on a small page of my notebook with a very limited set of artistic tools.  It is a good exercise, but above all, it is a fantastic way to record the experience of travel and to be able to return to it in the future.

Vacancies, vacancies and still more vacancies

In education there is always a certain amount of roundabouting. Teachers leaving one school and moving onto another.  The Dutch secondary school where I teach is no different in this regard.  Most years we wave goodbye to one group of colleagues only to say hello to another.  This year is a continuation of this pattern, and maybe a few more than we are used to are making this changeover. 

Are we unique in seeing a larger than normal switch around of staff looking for pastures new to explore?  Well, if I look at the number of advertisements for teaching posts in circulation my conclusion would very definitely be no.  Maybe even more indicative of a more general change are the number of art teaching vacancies that are passing through the Dutch art teaching Facebook groups I am member of.  Art teachers are used to having to wait and be patient for teaching opportunities.  The odd teaching posts that come by are often temporary, small in the number of hours offered and hugely oversubscribed for.  This year though is different, there is a positive deluge of vacancies!

What is going on?  What has changed this year?  Dutch education in general has a personnel shortage.  The work can at times be very challenging and the hours are long with a tendency to spill all over your life.  Added to this the classes are getting bigger, the administration workload more far reaching and the demands from government, parents, and the pupils themselves at times, is more pressing.  Getting new people into the profession is a constant necessity.  Or should I say, getting the right, talented, driven people into the profession is a necessity.

But the general shortage of teachers is a longer running problem.  This end of year, job circus feels different.  Like I said at the start, it feels like a roundabout, a game of musical chairs is perhaps also a good metaphor.  Most years it feels more like a situation of more mature colleagues leaving the profession at the top end, to be replaced by recent graduates joining it at the bottom end.  This year though, teachers at all stages of their working career are on the move, and as soon as one makes the switch it opens up another space that needs to be filled.  That will in turn perhaps tempt someone else to make the jump from another school, and so the rotation goes on.  This certainly seems to be what is going on amongst those much sought after art teaching posts.  The way new vacancies are popping up with just days to go until the end of the school year are evidence of this.

Is this all perhaps a consequence of the Corona years?  Are teachers less likely now to just stay put and make do?  Have the Corona years lead to an urge to work closer to home?  Were tough years of online, hybrid and generally chaotic education the final straw in a decision to leave education and head off in a different direction?  Or is simply a case of hoping that the grass will be greener on the other side of the fence?

I’m really not sure where the reason lines, one thing is sure though, I’ll have quite a few new colleagues on the other side of the summer holiday.  I will also be missing a few others who have been familiar and much valued faces in the staffroom.

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.