Friday, 18 September 2009

Does a bird have horns?

Georges Seurat
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (Detail)
Oil on canvas
207.5 x 308 cm
Art Institute of Chicago

Today I found a short post at Teaching isn't for wimps:

Is George Washington still alive? Asked by a 6th grade girl today. She was serious. She did not know. I'm supposed to teach her world history this year.

A silly question?

The child's question seems to be utterly stupid, given the fact that this sixth grade girl certainly learned before about George Washington being one of the founding fathers of her country.

To my experience the question is not that silly. As a teacher of art I often have to rely on historical knowledge garnered in history lessons. I have learnt not to reckon with any historical knowledge at all, despite the respect I have for my excellent colleagues of the history department, no kidding!

Seurat's painting

One of my favourite questions when dealing with famous paintings of the past is about how we can estimate the juncture of its materialization by inquiring into the content of the painting. The picture on the left is a detail of a famous painting by Seurat, late nineteenth century. I like to ask my first formers (11 or 12 years old): 'We know the painter depicted a Sunday afternoon as could be experienced in his days. When was this painting made?: A: Ten years ago; B: About a hundred years ago; C: About a thousand years ago.' They have to raise their finger at the right answer.

Of course there always is a knowledgeable, clever kid who can explain why B is the best answer: in the background a steamboat is to be seen, a steam engine couldn't possibly be used in medieval times because it hadn't been invented yet, and nowadays the steam engine has been superseded by other propelling devices. Other arguments can be found in clothing and behaviour of people represented in the painting but the steamboat argument is most conclusive. Any stylistic argument cannot be expected of pupils at that age.

History or Mystory?

Nevertheless, a lot of students are at a loss with such a question. They have no clue whatsoever.

I find it extremely interesting to probe into such a failure with students individually. A panoply of causes results. For example: the student didn't even hear the question, or did not see the steamboat at all, or the shape of the ship had not been recognized as a steamboat, the student thought it had something to do with the monkey in the picture which took his interest, "Ginny was distracting me" and so on. More germane to our subject at hand are two main causes:

  • Lack of transfer between school subjects. Children have learnt something within the context of a classroom with a teacher, for example in the history lesson about the invention of the steam engine and its importance during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, and the knowledge can be regurgitated in that context but is not available in other situations.
  • The students have the required knowledge but it is meaningless, it is something out of a textbook which has not been integrated in a body of general knowledge and everyday awareness.
Especially the second one is crucial. Awareness of time is yet inchoate in students in primary and secondary education. The youngest live in mythical time, in which even distinction between past en present are blurred, in which the concept of future is indistinct. It takes a lot of learning experience to develop a personal timeline which can be communicated with others. Even the adult I am can have trouble indicating when a particular event happened ("Eeh, oh yess, hmm, well, it happened about a year after I bought my first house, so it must have been in, say, 1989, give-or-take.") The timeline of 11 year old students is extremely limited. We cannot expect them to have recourse to a shared cultural timeline spanning thousands of years. Such knowledge and awareness must be instilled, and we have to accept that this implies just meaningless rote learning for a long time during which no wonderful answers to tricky questions can be expected, questions such as the as the one I flabbergast my first formers with. It is perfectly normal for them to have no clue and I am really surprised when students can come up with an answer.


This doesn't make my question meaningless. Actually I contribute to their timeline by attaching the steamboat in Seurat's picture to it.

In my view asking "Is George Washington still alive?" is something to inquire into with the student, the question is neither strange nor stupid. Such a question is the source of teaching and learning.


The strangest question I ever got was from a thirteen year old student who was drawing a bird. "Does a bird have horns?" she asked. Alas, I failed to delve deep into that question as I had to quash the taunts of her peers in the classroom. I know strange things can happen in your mind while drawing and I would have liked to learn which convolutions in her brain triggered that question. I would have been disappointed if she just had meant to refer to the existence of weird creatures like the hornbill. Albeit, life is more surrealistic than an artist can dream of, let alone this teacher. In particular children's questions can make me aware that my mind has deteriorated into tunnel vision while they still wonder about the time they are to witness.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

My Mark

A nice scale

At his blog Mr. Teacher quotes a wonderful scale of marks by Dr. Terry Haydn with which I can rate my lessons on a scale of 1 through 10, which is the usual range for marks in The Netherlands.

A colleague observes my art room. She considered this to be a very organised lesson in a happy atmosphere. But I can have other ruminations: did they learn what I taught them or are they just happy with smearing paint on a paper while chatting with each other?

Mark your teacher

Until now I have been using a different system: Once in a while I distribute small papers to all students and exhort them to scribble their mark for my performance on it before leaving the class room, anonymously of course, "just drop it in the box on my desk".

I only do this when I actually don't know how they experienced my lesson. Every so often a lesson is extremely joyful and interesting with wonderful communication among students and their teacher, lots of curious questions and excellent results in images. I know that I deserve a 9 then. In other instances I know that I blew it completely. I had to expel a student, which made the rest of them restive and disobedient, or the artistic quality of the work is so meagre that I can only conclude that all my efforts came to no avail. Then I know I deserve an insufficient mark, ranging from 1 to 5, depending on the depravity of the experience.

The Questionnaire

Of course my school asks me to use regularly a questionnaire in which students can tick off their assessment of my work on an extensive list of qualities. This gives detailed information over a prolonged period. The results mostly match my personal view on the particular group of students. Most students think I am a good teacher, but I definitely have some flaws. For example: I am rather chaotic and my mood changes quickly which can make them feel insecure at times. Those aspects can not be changed easily as they are embedded in my personality, but at least I can try to work on them. Sometimes a group makes me aware of a sore spot: "No group work at all this semester?," no, indeed, I didn't even think of it. I just lost track. But such a thing can be repaired instantly.

But the questionnaire can not replace the quick marking at the end of a lesson which gives immediate feedback on the fifty minutes before.

My mark

So I can compare my personal rating system with Dr Terry Haydn's. The best I can get from my students after a lesson is an average of 7. Haydn's list would rate my lessons with an 8. But in the Dutch rating system a 10 is virtually unattainable, in Haydn's system it is. I know some colleagues who definitely deserve Haydn's 10. So let's settle for my mark at 7.5. I guess that would be a B in the Anglo-Saxon marking range. Not too bad. It leaves something to strive for.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

A first lesson

I had them work in pairs on a composition which combines a static background with dynamic foreground.
They produced quite creative solutions.

What I like most of my job is the adventurous side of it. One never knows what's going to happen in a group of teenagers. Teaching can be compared to driving a formula I racing car. One wrong move and you have to collect your bones out of a wreck. Experience does help, but never to the extent that you can allow yourself to lose your concentration for one moment. After thirty-two years of teaching the biggest mistake is the idea that you have seen it all and can keep everything in your stride. You are going to be surprised then.

In particular the first lesson of the year in a new group of pupils I have never met before in the art room is challenging. I prepare such a lesson meticulously, knowing that I will need all my senses and my alertness to perceive and appraise these new kids. I don't know their attention span so I keep the amount of information I have to communicate at a minimum while the task must be challenging enough. Above all I have to establish my routines in the classroom.

It turned out to be a doddle this morning. Nice children, willing to pay attention, no special needs students so far detected. One boy offered me the opportunity to set the routine "How To Apologize Neatly And Ask Meekly For Being Allowed To Enter The Classroom In Case of Oversleeping," (You have to come up with a really good story, do not dare to mention the real reason, at this school oversleeping just does not occur). The group cleaned up properly and without whining. Albeit, some groups start testing the mettle of their new teacher from the very first moment, while other groups appear torpid until some weeks later when hell breaks loose. We will see.