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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A classic poem in a CLIL context in the art room

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

Combing content and language in the learning process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A small (post) Covid mile stone last week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guardian article end of December 2021

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

Like the Guardian article says,

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

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

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

Cooperative and collaborative learning – lessons from the artroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Rollins and KOS

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

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

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

Tim Rollins and KOS on Artsy