language and literacy in the art room

People often think about art subjects as purely ‘doing stuff’ with paint, pencils and maybe the odd camera. However, there’s a lot of literacy practice which is specific to the art room.

When I visited the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, art room literacies were clearly in evidence. I saw :

(1)   Reading. Students are routinely expected to research artists and their work. This requires them to find a range of sources, including artist biographies and commentaries. These sources are on line as well as in books and magazines. At RGS, students regularly integrated reading into their project work.

(2)   Learning a vocabulary. Like all disciplines, the visual arts use specific terms for particular concepts. The lexicon ranges from descriptions of formal elements to ways of critiquing arts practice and cataloguing artists’ work.  Teachers at RGS taught and regularly used arts terminology with students.

(3)   Talking. Students have regular conversations with their teacher and with each other, Talking helps students to develop the idea they are working on. At RGS they present their work to their class. They might also offer a ‘crit’ of work from one of their peers.  While art classrooms are often quiet places, they are also equally often where lively engaged discussion takes place.

(4)   Listening. Talking also means listening. When students are discussing their work or the work of others, they need to listen carefully to the very many ideas and resources that are offered.

(5)   Writing. Visual art students keep track of what they notice and read and talk about, just like professional artists. They record how they develop an idea, test out approaches, find a line of investigation and produce a work, or series of works. At RGS, all students keep visual diaries from Year 7 onwards. They can record whatever they want in their visual diaries. I was told by many students that they carry their diaries everywhere with them. The students also produce formal documentation related to projects they are working on. Their formal documentation may include on-line as well as analog materials. The writing in the formal documentation always incorporates their reading and thinking/reflecting, expressed in the appropriate art vocabulary. 

 In art classrooms, many of these visual art literacy practices are interrelated and brought together.

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At RGS I saw many students who had their visual diaries open at a jotting about an idea – and who, at the same time, were researching on their laptops, taking a screen shot on their phone and had their documentation standing by so they could see where they were up to. They were also ready to discuss their current state of decision-making with their teacher.

It is this combination  that makes the language and literacy practices of the art room unique.

Post written by Pat Thomson

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seeing, observing, connecting

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her trip to Royal Grammar School in Newcastle.

During my visit to Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, Christine Egan-Fowler (one of the art teachers) invited me to participate in a life drawing class. This is a class she puts on for any interested student, whether or not they are studying art. The class runs once a week, after school, between 4.15pm and 6pm. As Pat Thomson has written, those of us who do ethnography love to participate, as it can often generate new forms of understanding. But when you only have a few days in a school, opportunities to do so are rare. So, despite my nervousness and rusty drawing skills, I jumped at this chance.

Once school was finished, Christine arranged the tables in her class into a square, with space in the centre for the model to pose. The model sat on a table on some material and different fabrics, with her one hand placed in a tank of water by her side. Students moved around the room at first, looking at the pose from different angles and analyzing the changing light. Once everyone was settled, we performed a focusing exercise, dividing the body up by moving our pencil into different positions – horizontal, vertical, up, down. Christine advised that we might only want to do part of the post, and she warned us that with the changing westerly light in the room, there were “highlights being chased across the body”. She also told us to “look for the shadowy areas. There is quite complicated light from above, all the way around, reflected light on the water”. We began to draw (or paint, for those using oils). Music played quietly in the background, and there was the sound of pencils being sketched, and paint being swooshed and swished.

During the drawing process I started to think about how we learn to observe, learn to see things in particular ways. This might seem obvious, in a life drawing class, but it is less obvious when you think about it as a research skill. I spend a lot of my time observing in schools, often in classrooms but also in dining halls and outside. Learning to look is a skill that has to be honed and developed. It is guided by research questions and ideas as they develop, but it also relies on conversations, where you can talk about your ideas. These ideas then shape how and where you look, when you return to observe.

While I was drawing, and shading with graphite, I began to wonder about the transferable skills from life-drawing to researching. I was incredibly focused during the class, concentrating, looking and re-looking, tentatively shaping a shoulder, then looking again. Once I had the outline I started to look again, at the light, at the shadows. Research observation is similar. You look, you look again, you take notes. Then you look again.

The following day I spoke to Christine. We talked about her experiences at the Tate Summer School in 2016, and how this had shaped how she approached her teaching. During our conversation, she explained:

“No longer am I a teacher who goes into the classroom and expects everybody to be able to come out knowing a skill but I am giving them an experience and I want to see the students connecting that experience to something else. It is the connecting that is more important than the skill. In that way the students start asking the right questions and treating you in the right way: they treat people as means to bounce ideas off of and not as getting every skill they can. I think that is really good for them because they discover things for themselves and then they can teach other people. Quite often in school now I will say ‘I don’t know but I do know that so and so did that last week’. So we’ve got this kind of interchange going on”.

To a certain extent, I had done exactly this during the life-drawing class. I certainly did not suddenly become a maestro with the pencil. But I was able to take the experience and connect it to other experiences and ideas I had – does spending time in a life-drawing class make me a better researcher? Does it develop my observational skills?

There is a lot of debate at the moment, both in our society and in our schools, about the value, place and purpose of art. I wonder if more people had the same experience life-drawing as I did, using it as a stimulus for thinking about how I do my own work, whether we might not think differently about the purpose and place of art?

 

a research participant point of view

Becky Reports:

Something which fascinated me, in my recent research visit to the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne, was the clear message the students articulated about developing their own practice. Students were using a vast array of resources to explore ambitious ideas and concepts and they valued the autonomy they were given to explore all the affordances of these materials.

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Christine Egan-Fowler displays a work in progress.

As you can see this ranged from creating computer growth codes to embedding autumn leaves in the fabric of garments and many things in between. Christine Egan-Fowler (Artist Teacher) commented that both she and the students enjoyed talking about their experiences as part of a research process:

I felt proud talking about my project with the researcher, she made me feel that my ideas were exciting and she knew we were all interested in each other’s work. I was nervous about being asked to take part at first but I really enjoyed the conversation, it went very quickly! and I like the fact that our work is being tracked. I love talking about my ideas and I am glad I am taking part. 

Year 10 student.

I didn’t really know what to expect from the school visit, we were being inspected in the same week! I found that talking about my own early Art experiences with the researcher yielded a pattern I had not thought of for a long time. I recalled being absorbed as a child in making things and in the magic of transforming materials into something different. It made me feel very protective towards early Art experiences and proud that I am able to offer my students an engaging studio environment where we can all enjoy learning and where we regard each other as artists.

Christine Egan-Fowler

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Experiments with computer growth code.