approaches to teaching art

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

During my time on this project I have witnessed many different approaches to the teaching of art to young people. At Richard Cloudesley School in Islington, I was impressed by the various ways art teacher Lucy Pook has adapted her teaching in order to allow her students to experience art, and make art. Richard Cloudesley is a school for young people with physical disabilities and additional sensory needs. Many are only partially verbal, others use sign language and there are clever communication books students can use to explain their needs and wants to teachers, staff, and carers.

While I was at Richard Cloudesley, I got to experience just how this communication works during an art class. The class was focusing on the work of Robert Rauschenberg, and had already begun creating multi-media art works. That day the class was going to create clay figurines and then make tyre tracks to add to these particular works, in the style of Rauschenberg’s Monogram 1988-56. Lucy Pook, the school art teacher, put up a photograph of Rauschenberg’s work on the projector. She explained to the class that the idea is to get “lots and lots of layers” on the work.

After identifying their work, students and staff all gathered around the two tables in the centre of the room and Lucy provided each student with a piece of clay. Each student was tasked with choosing an animal to make from the clay. There was music playing and there were adults (teaching assistants and carers) helping and working with all the children. The atmosphere was relaxed and everyone talked easily. I worked with one student who uses a ‘pod book’ to communicate. These books are made up of rows and columns related to various themes, and each block contains a particular picture or word. You read down the column and then along the row, giving the student time to respond and say what they are thinking or want. The girl I worked with eventually told me she wanted to make a parrot, as these are her favourite. (One of the other teaching assistants warned me that sometimes she just likes to go through the book, saying no to everything, as a form of entertainment). Some of the children simply held the clay while the teachers created the creatures they’d chosen, while others shaped the clay into animal shapes, and some students got to poke eyes and other details into the clay. Everyone was involved to some degree, depending on their fine motor skills. Eventually there was a whole troop of clay figurines left to dry on the windowsill.

During my time at Richard Cloudesley, I spoke to Lucy about this collaboration-as-art I had participated in. She explained that she thinks it is important but that:

“I’m also aware that I don’t want to take the projects away from them and it is a constant challenge. Even after three years if you are working with a student who takes a long time to respond you have to rein yourself in and not do too much for them. I’m not sure how successful we are at that but we are supporting each other’s projects. My favourite bit of those projects is including the students from the other school because the work that we’ve done with them has been for big events and I think, with our students, and especially doing kinesthetic stuff where you are all moving around together, they get very enthusiastic about it”.

Lucy was clearly aware of the need for patience as part of the collaborative work the students and staff did. There was also a need for flexibility, which is how Lucy approached her planning.

“Whatever I plan to do I leave it so open so that I can see how they are responding and I’ve just realised that that is the only way that you can do it really. So within a lesson structure we have a window of time when everyone is supported and I will try and do most of the activities then. I’ve been teaching literacy a lot but I’ve also wanted to look at design and performance art and the process of performance. I’ve been trying to create projects because our groups are so mixed and we have profound and multiple learning difficulties in with some quite able students. So it is quite disparate and I try to create something that everyone can access on some level and then we’ll see what happens. I leave things to chance to some extent and that is often where the nicer things happen actually”.

Art lessons at Richard Cloudesley were therefore approached in a particular way, clearly focused on student need and interest. Lucy is able to adapt her programme of learning to meet student requirements.

 

understanding theatre as collaboration

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her visit to The Bridge School in London.

When I visited The Bridge School (a special school for children with severe, profound and complex learning difficulties), I had an unexpected opportunity to accompany the 6th form to the theatre. On the day that I visited, they had been invited to attend a matinee performance of Ghost at the Lilian Baylis Studio. The production was put on in collaboration with people from the Daylight Daycentre and the Samuel Rhodes School – these were performers with various disabilities, acting on stage with others.

The performance was wonderful to watch. There were fantastic costumes. People came on holding colourful lights that then designated the space they danced in. The scene where Sam, the main male character, is shot and dying in the hospital (and realises he has become a ghost), was made much lighter by a fabulous dance routine of surgeons and nurses in scrubs. There was a live band on stage, who sometimes helped fill the silence if someone was late on or forgot their lines briefly.

During the performance I noticed the audience’s reactions to the different scenes, and different actors. Some of the performers were old students from The Bridge, and the young people I was with recognised them – telling me excitingly that so-and-so was on stage. They especially seemed to enjoy the music – clapping and singing along at various points. This theatre trip formed part of the students’ Arts Award activities.

The following week I returned to The Bridge to complete my 2-day visit. I spoke to Steven Mills, the music and drama facilitator, about the importance of such theatre experiences for their students, and the purpose of completing a qualification like Arts Award.

I think what is really nice about the Arts Award is that they get something at the end of it and it is something outside of the school and it is country wide so they are getting the same award as every other student who achieves it in the country. I think that is really good.

As part of the Arts Award, the students were interviewed about their trip to the theatre. They came up with the questions as a group and then individually answered them, giving their honest opinions about the experience. One of the girls summed it up perfectly when she commented: “the show was good because it was about life”.

Arts Award forms part of a much wider approach to a creative curriculum that teachers at The Bridge follow. I spoke to Ryan McClelland, the art teacher, who explained:

[We follow a] more creative curriculum which meets the very diverse needs of our kids. So it is very student led and we do have accreditation but it isn’t as stringent as GCSE or A Level and we decided to go with the Arts Award from the Arts Council because it is a little bit more flexible and interesting. […] We are finding a lot more sensory needs coming in [to school] and I suppose my practice, as an art teacher, has evolved to meet those needs. Over the last few years I’ve dispensed with the idea of an autonomous art work and I’ve been encouraging much more group work because I think that can encourage relationship building and it shifts the emphasis onto the staff as well and I expect the staff to treat the work as their work as well and whether that is supporting a child to make the work or them modelling something. I also think that the way the world is going I think this cult of the individual is going to be superseded and there will be much more of an emphasis on group work. Especially for kids with SEN because they are always going to need some sort of support in their lives and so we need to equip them with the skills to be flexible and to work with different people. We try to promote that through art, music and drama because they are the subjects that they access best.

The theatre production illustrated how this collaborative and group art might work between people of differing abilities. It gave the young people a chance to see similar people to themselves performing on a stage, and also provided me with the perfect opportunity to understand how Ryan’s ideas of collaborative and group work might work in practice.

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?

 

mistakes are often the basis of creativity

Esther Tyler-Ward, from Digitech school in Bristol, is a teacher of art and photography who is participating in the Tale research project. Here she shares her reflections about her engagement with the Tate’s Common Projects project:

community-session

Tate’s Common Projects 2015/16 was a year long project that brought together artists, educators and curators to explore art education. At our initial meeting a group of teachers, including myself, shared how we saw ourselves as artists as well as educators, through visual snapshots of our practise as artist-teachers. This immediately set the tone for the professional development I was hoping to achieve through participation.

This wasn’t a course to help get the grades now that photography grade boundaries are extraordinarily high, or how to support low ability boys with poor behaviour in the classroom; this was bigger, (and dare I say, more exciting) than that: an open-ended conversation about how and why art education is important and how and why we teach and engage with it.  

The sessions were organised by Sarah Jarvis and Anna-Marie Gray from the Tate. I met up with other art teachers at Tate Modern or Tate Britain alternately, where Sarah and Anna-Marie facilitated workshops in response to the key question, ‘What could happen if for one year the classroom, gallery and studio talked to each other?’

The focus soon became how we see art as empowering and also the importance of play to help develop confidence and creativity. However, seeing art in this way and teaching in this way can often be two separate entities!

We responded to our initial thoughts and discussions by creating a mess, I mean playing!  Scissors, glue, paper, string and a pair of nude coloured tights worked to create a long line of playful experimentation growing out from our key words. Straight away the theme of ‘play’ struck a guilty chord. I worked my last GCSE group so hard last year in order to hit exceedingly high target grades, that I felt the fun, (the play) had been wrung out.  Also, the  ‘expert teaching matrix’ delivered at my last school inset had no area for ‘play’. And this is why the course was liberating – discussing art education outside of the boundaries of UK art curriculum and assessment criteria meant I was able to approach teaching art from a new set of creative parameters, (or possibly no parameters!)

Other inspiring sessions included:

One of the most memorable sessions I attended on the course involved working with the artist Judith Brocklehurst, who facilitated the creation of our own after-hours mini cinema in the Tate Modern. Working in teams with basic materials, we designed a structure in response to the artworks in our room. The whole process was recorded and then projected onto our cinema structure at the end of the session. Team-work, recording, experimenting, responding to other contexts – this hit so many of the assessment criteria required for GCSE or A-level. But would I dare attempt this at school for fear of the whole thing falling into chaos? In our short-for-time curriculum there is no room for error…and yet mistakes are often the basis of creativity.

On reflection, one specific idea that I have subsequently introduced to my students is ‘failure sketchbooks’. These are little folded mini accordion sketchbooks of one length of paper. Students work in these alongside their main coursework in order to try out ideas, complete experimental homework, or just doodle without the pressure of constantly creating successful, beautiful coursework, where all work clearly links together and is in context, ready for assessment. This encourages students to play, create, keep and collate their experiments, and is a physical reminder that failure is just one step towards success.

The Tate Common Projects course has reminded me of my younger, enthusiastic NQT aspirations of creating an art studio, (rather than classroom) where all students can access opportunities to create their own ideas at their own pace. Such ambitions have been gradually eroded during my decade working in schools due to the increasingly hard system-flogging towards target grades. However, I am now inspired to reconsider the bigger picture of art education and literally play around with my schemes of work for next year at Digitech school!

Tate’s Common Projects’ thoughts and experiences are loosely collated at https://tatecommonprojects.wordpress.com.

seeing and assembling

During my second research visit to Thomas Tallis school I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to observe an artist, Dafna Talmor working with year eleven and thirteen photography students. Dafna’s recent work entitled, Constructed Landscapes is described as consisting of:

staged landscapes made of collaged and montaged colour negatives shot across different locations that include Israel, Venezuela, the UK and USA. Initially taken as mere keepsakes, landscapes are merged and transformed through the act of slicing and splicing.  The resulting photographs are a conflation, ‘real’ yet virtual and imaginary. 

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 Dafna Talmor: Constructed Landscapes

Dafna explained her current practice to both groups, adapting what she foregrounded skilfully. Big questions arose about the value of the art and whether it was original or authentic. Challenging the students to question what is meant by these terms, Dafna suggested that in her work she explores the idea that ‘a photograph is supposed to represent something truthful.’

I observed Jon and Dafna working together to move the year eleven students quickly into trying out the splicing and slicing techniques. Armed with scalpels, found slides of holidaymakers and landscapes and light boxes the students embarked on a process of assembling which was clearly captivating. Resources such as pens, paint, nail-varnish remover, tape and typex were also used to make marks and add colour and texture. What I found especially fascinating was the way in which the affordances of the process pushed the students to continue to think about these questions, by challenging their creative routines. The use of found images in slide form shaped what they were able to do in very productive ways.

I watched as one student spent the entire three-hour session, creating her composite slides without ever seeing what they looked like in the slide projector.

I watched other students make tiny adaptations and then view their images before developing and refining them further. The projectors became a site of dialogue where teacher, researcher, artist and student shared responses to each image, images that could only be seen once projected on the back wall of the classroom. It was impossible not to get drawn in to responding to the students’ work as it surprised both them and us. They grew bolder in their choices and took more risks creating images that were dark, surreal, eerie and irreverent.

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One student, who was previously preoccupied with the monetary value of Dafna’s work, became adept at meshing bold colours in geometric designs with the ghostly figures of holiday makers hovering in the background.

Jon reflects on Dafna’s visit as part of a thought-provoking wider programme, including his response to the Tate summer school here.

My field notes were fast and furiously written as I observed this rich, dynamic process. As Pat has reflected in a previous post, I wanted to get ethnographic and join in more! Yet, watching the students looking, seeing and assembling in an intuitive way, creating images over which they had to relinquish some element of control, was compelling. The work was underpinned by the Threshold Concepts Jon and a colleague have developed for Photopedagogy which emphasise ideas in photography such as chance, context, abstraction, technology and time.

Interestingly, although the students had experimented in their assembling they ‘just knew’ when they had an image they liked. This led to powerful discussions – ‘Why? ‘What worked?’ ‘What didn’t?’ Jon had to push the students hard to move beyond ‘it just does’ and in doing so we could see tangible developments in their ability to make critical observations of the form and content of their own work.

close encounters

Earlier in the year I was in Halewood School, visiting Art, Photography and Graphics staff and students. I was lucky enough to visit on a day when some of the students had returned from a trip to Barcelona. It was clear that the art, the galleries, the architecture and the food had all made an impact on the students:

I just liked walking around and seeing how other people interact.

It was a completely different culture.

I tried to look under the surface of their enthusiastic responses to understand the way that these young people engaged with challenging contemporary work for the first time.

The students reflected on the way they had been prepared for the visit by staff from school and in the galleries:

There were paintings I didn’t understand. But there were art students who explained, so it broadened my thoughts

The preparation was clearly key to the visit and it was refreshing to see the students being given space to honestly discuss their responses. They were encouraged to say what they thought.  Some of the year ten students expressed some uncertainty about some the work they’d encountered:

It [the art] didn’t really have any relevance.

We all had our preferences – some we found a bit strange.

But 6th form students articulated their responses in more depth and made strong arguments for the need to engage with art face to face.

It’s one thing seeing a piece on a computer screen but seeing it in person you see more.

Seeing it online the pieces can be diminished. You don’t appreciate the size.

 The students also made it very clear that, for them, seeing art isn’t all about admiration and appreciation:

 We went to see Banksy’s work and I’d seen all the pictures but when I saw the actual work it was different. It shocks you.

Having many and varied opportunities to access art through school and in their own city clearly has value, enabling students to explore their own responses and draw inspiration for their own self-expression. I’m not sure they would be able to do this in the same way if the premise for every visit was to invite them to simply admire and appreciate the exhibitions. Indeed as Head of Art Liz Shelbourne describes, the school invites the students to question and challenge what art is, making links to the Turner Prize in doing so.

At the schools’ preview of the Tate Modern’s new building and collections I caught up with the Halewood students again, as they encountered the new spaces. In observing their responses I saw everything from curiosity, surprise, boredom and enjoyment expressed as they encountered new work and new ideas. Trying to get a sense of the whole experience from the point of view of the students reminded me of their descriptions of the reasons they loved their visual arts lessons – it was the freedom of expression of ideas and the independent thinking that was expected of them.

Both at school and in gallery spaces the students’ own ideas about what they were experiencing were respected and listened to, and as a result they expressed genuinely diverse opinions,. They also demonstrated their understanding of subjectivity:

Two different people could be looking at the same painting and one could say ‘oh I get this from that’ and the other might not even know what it is.

The students described their own creative processes in art at school as being where they can try and make anything they want to, as long as they can justify or explain their decisions and ideas. When I asked them what they learnt from doing art, one of the students suggested:

It helped me in other lessons especially in GCSE. In art you have to link it back [to an idea] and in English you always have to link things back to the question – to show meaning and interpretation.

Liz Shelbourne and her team at Halewood, clearly also have high expectations of their students, ensuring they critically examine their own responses and develop these ideas in their own work.

My encounters with Halewood students having their own encounters with art, creativity and culture has lead me to reflect on the importance of having opportunities to see the art and culture of European cities at close quarters, to access contemporary art in prestigious cultural spaces and to be given the space to respond freely.