In the morning the head teacher stands outside of the local primary school greeting all of the families who mostly arrive by bike. She holds a big brass bell and rings it when all of the students should be within the gates she will then close. The parents of the 5-7 year old students accompany their children into the building every morning and head straight to the mud room to remove coats and muddy shoes then off the kids go to their classrooms. It’s the same at the end of the day, the halls fill with parents again and students check out books from the library and the little ones exchange the 2 books they read the night before with new ones. No library card, no deadline to return books, just the exchange of paperback books labeled with a color sticker identifying reading readiness. My son loves this. I imagine many primary school teachers probably do this informally in their own classrooms. I’d love to come up with a way to generate this kind of excitement for an art-making/reading about artists take away and return type of system.
Because this is a University town, the student population is both diverse and transient. I met with the principal of the primary school anxious to find a way to begin a dialogue between my students in New Jersey and the students in Cambridge, but was met with less excitement than I expected. It’s such a diverse population, there isn’t much of a need for multi-cultural exchanges with Americans. I’m not giving up though. I am beginning to get to know the staff better and am feeling confident that one of these teachers will be open to some kind of an exchange so that I can at least begin to find the best methods for creating communication between my students and their global peers.
The primary school in Cambridge is a school of about 250 four to eleven year old students. My six-year-old son’s teacher has both year 1 ( U.S. kindergarten) and year 2 (U.S. first grade) in the same class. There are about 25-30 kids in the class. There are two year one/year two teachers who exchange students as they work based on ability in different areas. Primary school teachers are required to teach art education in their classrooms as part of their national standards. There are two teachers in the school who oversee that these standards are being met. Art education and basic techniques in drawing, painting, sculpting and art history is part of the teacher training for all primary school teachers. The art lesson I recently observed was a 2 hour block and involved watercolor painting techniques, a lesson on British painter William Turner, and how to paint a landscape on fire with reflections in the water. The students have been entrenched in a study of the Great Fire of London which has my son absolutely enthralled.
I was especially impressed with the primary school’s environmental education class. Every 4 weeks an environmental education specialist comes to the school and takes the students outside for a couple of hours, rain or shine. I observed one of these lessons where the 5-7 year old students who were studying various properties of natural objects were challenged with first identifying a variety of species living in the area, then building a den for those animals out of the available natural materials nearby. Each group of students was handed the stuffed animal of a local species. They identified birds around them as they worked. The culmination of the event was the building of a bonfire and the roasting of marshmellows. Yes, a bonfire with 50 five to seven-year olds and marshmellows. I thought this was very brave of the two teachers.
Last week I began the first of several visits to a local secondary school. Middle schools are rare in England. Students attend a secondary school from age 11-18. 1,700 students are enrolled in this school and all are required to wear a uniform except those in their final year. The art department consists of one art teacher who is the head of the department, and four additional art teachers. There were at least four art rooms, a dark room, computers for the sole purpose of art making, and spray paint booths just outside the doors. It was a really interesting set-up and the work the students are doing is really impressive.
Although the students looked more formal in their uniforms and responded “yes Miss” and “yes Sir” to their teachers, all other behaviours seemed typical to any other middle or high school I’ve seen in the United States. Themes in the students’ chosen artwork ranged from unicorns to Trump memes. Students used the faces of many other political figure in their artwork as well. Many students seemed to want to share their opinions of leaders from all parts of the world including their own Prime Minister Theresa May. Political art and social commentary was a common theme. The art teacher introduced me to one particular student whose impressive work was based on transgender equal rights. This same student was very active in bringing in guest speakers to share the topic with peers. The school is very supportive.
Below: Political commentary seen among many of the students’ work:
Photography class for year 8 students using the Snapseed app.
Year nine students worked with mark-making and portraits, pen and ink drawings. Each class period lasted about 50 minutes. Students were required to go outside for 20 minutes twice each day for their break.
Some of the most impressive work came from the students in their final year of school who were taking what equates to an AP art course. The creative process that had to be demonstrated in a 24×36 white spiral-bound book was really wonderful. An outside company is hired to visit with each student at the end of the year and evaluate their work.
I’m looking forward to my next visit to this school. The staff was really open and helpful with all of my questions.
This Wednesday I’ll be meeting with the founder of the Red Balloon Schools who created a way of assisting students who’ve been the subject of bullying to the extent that they are unable to attend a traditional school. Stay tuned…