Saturday, 23 February 2013

Artists in the making...

Met oorverband
Vincent Van Gogh 1889
Courtauld Institue of Art, London
At the end of last year, I taught a short unit about Vincent Van Gogh. Very short! In just under two weeks we learnt a little about him as an artist and person, viewed a number of his pieces and recreated one. Well, we didn't so much as recreate it as use his style to create our own.

Van Gogh is a great artist to look at in terms of engaging student interest. For a start he was mad! Not in the wearing funny clothing and liking alternative music way but in the needing professional support way. The children in my class were quite savvy about issues around mental health and were all very curious to know exactly what he was experiencing. Of course, we'll never know for sure but these students had plenty of suggestions (most of them sensible).

And of course, building on this point: cutting off a body part to send as a token of affection aimed at winning back an old girlfriend is always likely to capture the attention of middle primary students. Yep, that's the story they heard and ran with... Let me share that they didn't hear this story from me but another staff member at the school who was visiting our room at the time. My version, whilst not quite as exciting, seems to be the prevailing belief in the art world at the moment though: he'd been drinking with Gauguin and suffered from something like an epileptic fit brought on by the absinthe and accidentally cut off his ear. I'm pretty sure they'd have enjoyed that story too! 

Following this discussion we listened to Starry, Starry Night. (As proof that my husband is correct in claiming that I rarely listen to the words of the songs I enjoy, I never realised that Starry Starry Night was about Van Gogh. Yep, I just admitted that publicly. I'll never live it down now.)  

We viewed and discussed a range of art in small groups and discovered that over time the colour palate changed and so did the subject matter. I found outlines of a number of pieces so that we could see the way Van Gogh used lines to create movement and shape. 

 Stilleben mit 12 Sonnenblumen
Vincent Van Gogh 1888
Neue Pinakothek, Munich

Examining the sunflowers
Finally, we moved to our own creation. It was early summer at the time so the husband who'd laughed so mightily at my earlier ignorance redeemed himself by having sunflowers delivered to our classroom for us to examine before and as we created our own versions of  Van Gogh's Sunflower series.

I purchased a canvas for each child so that we could double up and use these as the end of year gifts for the families. (In a school with such high enrollments of children from religious backgrounds other than Christianity I was pretty keen to send home a gift that wasn't exclusively about Christmas.) I guided the children through the drawing of the horizontal line and a rough vase shape and then encouraged them to create their own interpretations.

I'd never heard such quiet painting!
Cooperation in colour blending.

The children rotated through our wet area in small groups in almost absolute silence as they painted their sunflowers. They cooperated to mix paints, and shared beautifully. It was an absolute joy to watch.  (And terrifying at the same time, the potential for trouble was HUGE!)

Most children chose to outline and add detail to their painting with a fine black pen.
 Each painting is unique yet remains a tribute to Van Gogh's work as inspiration.  Here is just a small selection of the finished works.

 Pretty amazing aren't they?


The start of this school year was one of quite some developments in this household. Our eldest child started high school and our youngest child started kindergarten and I... Well. I started nothing. Actually, that's a lie. I just didn't start the school year with a class like I'd hoped to do.

I have, however, started working on a project with my dear friend AJ.  AJ and I met rather fortuitously at the orientation day for our kids' high school and then a couple of days later in a classroom on my second day of teaching. She's been around to see me stumble travel through my first few months of teaching, including six weeks during which she was my friend AND the parent of one of my students. (And she's still my friend!) We discovered that we work well together and our learning styles mesh well. So, we've decided that we should put our combined super-powers (mwa ha ha!) to good use.  

Having both experienced firsthand the challenge of parenting gifted children and noting the likelihood of that particular special need being addressed by most schools our initial goal was to look into developing a gifted programme that could be easily implemented. We're not ambitious at all!

We've kept that overriding goal in mind, but our practical efforts have become quite directed at the planning process for developing units of work. 
  • How do we plan? 
  • What should a unit plan look like? 
  • What should a unit plan include? 
  • How can we make the most of the hard work we - as individual teachers - put into these plans?

If you've not read this book... READ IT NOW! 
In looking to bring some clarity to our thinking we've both been somewhat captured by the ideas of McTighe & Wiggins in Understanding by Design.  

(In a super simplified nutshell: start with the desired understandings and plan your assessment tools first. Plan whatever learning activities you will need in order to help your students reach the understandings you identified at the beginning.)

We're reading quite widely on the planning process and most recently AJ has been looking at the International Baccalaureate process. 

Alongside the reading, we're trying to act on our findings. I've put together a unit of work that addresses the Earth & Space Sciences substrand of the Year 5 Australian National Science curriculum, while AJ has worked on one for the Biological Sciences substrand for Year 4. It's fascinating to see the different approaches we've taken considering we're working within essentially the same planning framework. 

Working independently but collaboratively; this is how I imagined the profession of teaching to be. I'm so pleased I've found a collaborative teammate and that we live in the time of such wonderful tools as DropboxSymbaloo and Blackboard Collaborate (not to mention the considerable communication we engage in over Facebook). I'm also really pleased that we're both working in classrooms again. (AJ has a contract and I'm doing more relieving than I thought likely at this time of year.) Our project may not be the fastest moving creation in the word but it's certainly valuable in helping us develop and maintain our professional practice standards.

I'm curious to hear... How do other teachers plan?