Work: Teaching Archives

November 13, 2006

Quick workshop postmortem

I just taught a cartooning workshop at a school for kids with learning difficulties in Assen. Since I'm going to do the same at another school like that as part of the same project in a week, and three of my studio-mates also do the workshop thing or have been approached to do so, I'm going to put down a few notes on my experiences today.

The project is part of an anti-racism, anti-discrimination education program to use various forms of cultural expression to spread the idea of equality. I have always had my doubts about the effectiveness of such programs, but if they allow me to teach my trade and get paid (rather well) for it, I have no problem putting those doubts aside and doing what I can.

Today's class was my first within the project, and just happened to be one of two schools for kids with learning difficulties that booked me. They weren't kidding about the learning difficulties part: most of the students, who are fourteen or fifteen, function at the level of a child of nine or ten. The class's teacher, who was present throughout the workshop and helped me through several difficult moments, told me in advance to lower expectations, and then lower them more.

The tricky aspect of this is that I'm trying to teach two things at a time, one of which is too abstract for this particular group, and the other of which they come to with neither ability nor confidence. The other tricky thing is that the organisation sponsoring the work wants to exhibit the output of the various groups of students in one for or another. I had to get some results. This proved very difficult, but, to the surprise of the teacher, I did at least get a finished comic strip out of each of them. One problem is that few of the finished comics are on-topic, and I'm going to have to have a word with the organisers about expectations.

Here's what I learned from teaching this group:

— I talk too fast and am too animated when teaching. This distracts students at all levels somewhat (I'm aware of this), but it distracts groups like this one too much. I must teach and force myself to stay in one place.

— I should engage students by asking them questions, rather than just talking. Again, doing this will improve the effectiveness of the class at all levels, but it will help kids with learning difficulties more than it will help the bright students at Atheneum level. One problem is that it's harder to get answers out of this group than it is with others, so I have to teach myself to get pushy, repeat my questions and probe students individually. It would help if I could memorise their names more quickly.

— I had already taught myself in my other classes to pay attention to the quieter kids; they may be happily drawing away and not need any extra help, or they may be completely stuck and too shy to ask. This goes double if the quiet kid is autistic and the only way to tell if she's paying attention at all is to get her to repeat the last thing I said back to me.

— More than in any other group, topic drift is unallowable. By all means, let them talk a bit while working, but cut them off if the chatter strays from the work for too long. I'm not a bossy sort of teacher, but with these kids, I had to be.

— What I sometimes do as a last resort for kids who can't get started is to come up with detailed storyline suggestions and ask (but really tell) them to draw that. With these students, I did that for over half of the class, and arguably should have done it for another two or three of them. When I told my mother I'd be teaching kids with learning difficulties, she told me that they might turn out to be gifted with creativity to compensate. Not in the real world, Mom. There were one or two kids with normal drawing ability for their age, but they were the exception.

— It is all right to cut the class short if the kids' attention span demands it. Teacher told me so:)

The above may sound harsh; some of it may turn out to be wrong when I teach the second group of kids with learning disabilities. I did enjoy teaching these and would come back to the school in question if asked; it's just that the work is very difficult and exhausting, and if the regular teachers come away from it wondering what will become of these kids like I did, it must be very discouraging. In any case, let's see if I do better next time.

November 16, 2006

Workshop Postmortem 2

Before this morning's cartooning workshop at a secondary school in Gieten, I'd had a phone conversation with the class's art teacher, who mentioned that that class had been giving her a hard time recently. That sort of thing always makes me worry, and so even before I'd met these kids, they'd grown, in my head, to a bunch of violent, screaming, crack-smoking monsters.
Fortunately I followed up that conversation with a chat with one of the project organisers, who I wanted to warn that the finished work from the first workshop might not be up to his expectations. He told me not to worry about that, and as for the next workshop, he reminded me that there are "a lot of tired people in education". That helped, but I still found myself dreading the class a bit.
I got out of bed at an ungodly hour to catch the Qliner to Gieten (which, as it turned out, was delayed - the bus terminal in Groningen is a bit of a nightmare right now), found the school easily, and met the class teacher, who was more cheerful in person but did say again that this class was a difficult bunch, prone to arriving late and arguing with one another in class... but when I asked what year and level they were in, she replied they were first-years, added a four-letter acronym to describe their level, and said they were twelve.

I did have that written down somewhere, but in my head, they'd got older and bigger.

Now, I may be a bit out of my depth teaching special-ed teenagers, but first-years at a secondary school aren't that different from the Group 7/8 kids that I've been giving workshops to for 5 years. I can handle those. I switched to using my basic lesson template for group 7/8, with a few tweaks based on my experiences from last Monday, and mostly breezed through the workshop. Class was happy, teacher was impressed, art was produced. There were some disruptions, but nothing like what I had envisaged. No finished work, though, as the class had in fact arrived slightly late and the art teacher wanted to use Friday's class to catch up. We'll get the work soon enough.

Next stop, Diever, I think. Transport will be the biggest problem. If not Diever, then it's the other special-ed school I've been booked for, for which I'd better be very prepared.

November 21, 2006

Workshop postmortem the third

Today started rather badly: I was spending a lazy morning at home, convinced that I wasn' t going to need to do anything before getting on the bus at 11:17 to teach a cartooning workshop at a Praktijkschool in Emmen. At about 10:30, the phone rang. It was the coordinator at the school, telling me she was afraid of this, that she'd meant to call to confirm yesterday and that I was supposed to be present at the school for a 105-minute workshop at that very moment. Oops.
The prospect of missing one of the workshops was pretty much my worst nightmare all month, a black cloud hanging over me all these weeks, and now it's happened. Why?
Mistake #1: I didn't write the appointment down on paper immediately after the morning block was booked (it was booked after the afternoon appointment).
I'm crap at taking notes. To compensate for this, I rely on my email inbox to tell me when all my appointments are. This would have worked well enough (not as well as actually owning a calender to write appointments down in, but just about adequately, considering that I look at my inbox several times a day, and the last time I had a calender, it languished at the bottom of my rucksack) if it weren't for mistake #2:
Mistake #2: I put the wrong value on the cost of a new motherboard and an afternoon spent installing my PC. Two weeks ago, My PC broke down with all my administration stuff still on it. I was given the option of buying an inexpensive replacement motherboard instead of waiting for the warranty replacement to come in. The €50 cost wouldn't have been a problem, but I thought I was really too busy to do the follow-up work - reinstalling everything just to make sure it would work properly. Wrong choice - having my data back earlier would have been totally worth the hassle, no matter how busy I was.
I've taken steps to rectify this mistake, but I won't get my system back until Thursday, no matter what.

Having apologised profusely, I went on to doublecheck everything, finding in the process that for one thing, taking the 11:17 Qliner to Emmen would have resulted in me being late for the afternoon workshop as well! So I took the 11:02. Later, I would find out that I really ought to have taken the 10:32... but if I had, I'd have missed the coordinator's call and I'd have had a nasty surprise on arrival.

Lessons learned:

1. Public transport in southern Drenthe is even worse than I remembered from my three years commuting there every day. It's tempting to say the Qliners are crap; they are not. The real problems are that there are no passenger trains between Groningen and Emmen and that the Qliners have to use the sclerotic N34 road just like all other vehicles. If I wanted to design an infrastructure with the goal of keeping the peasants in their place so they don't get uppity, the road and lack-of-a-railway system between Groningen and Emmen is exactly what I'd come up withy.
2. All your contacts must have your cell phone number. I know that's a no-brainer for everyone else just like keeping proper notes is, but I still don't quite trust the damned things, even though I've been using mine more and more. I just might be in the market for a cell phone with a calendar function, now that I mention it...
3. Online travel planners like Totally not to be trusted.

So there I was at the train station, calling the already quite harried coordinator to ask her to pick me up because the connecting bus didn't actually leave in time to get me to the school on time. I was in a bit of a panic by then, feeling that the spirit of Murphy had dropped down from the heavens, pointing his finger at me and going "Your turn." But that was where the misery ended; the coordinator showed up, we arrived in time and even had an opportunity to discuss teaching techniques and the qualities of my students before getting down to the nitty gritty of pumping young heads full of mad artistic skills.

And I'll admit, that went rather well. Compared to my first shot at teaching at a Praktijkschool, I was better able to communicate to the class, keep their attention, and pitch the workshop to their ability. Improvements included modulating my voice so it was low-pitched, high-volume and slow-paced; keeping my hyperactive movements under control and bringing back to the class a lot of what I do in my workshops at primary schools. I also waited to introduce the anti-discrimination theme until the second half of the class, figuring that it would be better to focus on the art for its own sake for the first hour and that the class would not be able to remember it long enough anyway. This worked, and even earned me praise from the class's regular CKV teacher.
I still find the actual introduction of the theme awkward to do; the fact that I'm expected, in practice, to teach two things, one of which I'm not a specialist in, makes it difficult for me. In addition, I have found over the years that classes respond negatively to having themes dictated to them, and this one was no exception. Themes are abstract, leading the students' imagination away from what they can handle into some kind of mental wilderness. In fact, now that I think of it, adult artists also often have problems with themes, as studio-mate Edmond's experiences as the showrunner for 21 themed issues of the zine Gr'nn have shown.
Nevertheless, my paycheck says the workshops have to result in art about a theme, to the best of my ability to wring it out of the students. Luckily, I now have one catch-up class scheduled for next week, in which, at the advice of the regular teacher, I will do for the students what they themselves can't quite do - turning the theme into a subject and giving them concrete instructions for a sequence of four or five panels. These kids need those extra instructions.
I learned some more about the Praktijkscholen:
1. I'd refered to them in English-language communication as "Special Ed"; but in fact, they're one step above Special Ed proper. Many of the kids in the system do go on to a higher level of vocational education (source: a newspaper article pinned to the walls, about the problems kids from a Praktijkschool experience when they progress through the education system).
2. Nevertheless, the expected attention span in a Praktijkschool class is about 20 minutes. Regular classes last 20 minutes to half an hour. The fact that I kept them engaged for the better part of my 105 minutes is quite an achievement. I might make the catch-up class slightly shorter, because the final quarter of an hour got a bit chaotic, but for the most part, I'm now doing fine.

Once again, I got results out of the class. I'll need to do some sifting before I hand everything over to the organisers, but art was created, most of it was finished, and all of it was on-topic. Like I said, a big improvement to my previous attempt.

On my way back on the Qliner, I sat behind a candidate MP! Socialist Party candidate Rosita van Gijlswijk was busy making calls to the media to arrange several appearances over the next 24 hours. I spoke to her briefly, joking that I hadn't expected to be traveling on a campaign bus. I liked the fact that she traveled by public transport - not that a limousine would have got her to Groningen any faster, this being the N34... It was fun to listen to her working for a while; she's clearly very experienced at working with the media. Rosita's place on the party list is in the zone where she might get elected if the polls are correct, and she seemed to be in a winning mood.

November 22, 2006

Workshop postmortem IV.

A change of pace today. I went to a regular customer, a school in Haren, to give a cartooning workshop to HAVO/Atheneum 4 students as part of their annual cultural project.
Prior to the workshop, I had a talk with studio-mate Jeroen who is setting up a series of classes for media students aged 16-20, which starts tomorrow. We exchanged tips for working with the various audiences. I advised Jeroen, for example, to keep comparisons with other media in mind; for example, building a cast of characters could be exemplified by pointing to the cast of a popular TV series like Seinfeld. Jerry Seinfeld is a Tintin-like figure in that he's a fairly blank character surrounded by secondary characters who are more colourful visually and characterisation-wise. The setup is slightly more nuanced than Tintin because Jerry has his quirks and is a stand-up comedian, but the principle is the same. What with the recent flap about the actor playing Kramer losing it onstage and hurling racist invective at his audience, I got to see and read more about these characters than I had in a while, and I could see that in the Letterman interview about the affair, Jerry Seinfeld still had a thoroughly nondescript face.
Jeroen, for his part, helped me with my difficulties about introducing a theme, encouraging me to let my students free-associate for a bit. Today's workshop did have a theme again, so I got to try that out. I decided at the last moment to take a copy of Groningen bij Nacht along, because the theme was "The City".

The workshop itself was a surprisingly difficult gig. I knew in advance that I'd be working with a class without interference from the teacher, and this hadn't been a problem in previous years, but this class was unbelievably talkative and impossible to get quiet. There were factors that contribute to restlessness in these classes. There were a dozen other workshops going on at the same time, including a dance class in the recreation room. So everyone has the urge to flutter from one room to another, while the classes are being taught by guest teachers who can't impose punishment. I'm a bit envious of the artists who teach more physical classes; while it was clear to me that the students in my room wanted to draw, they clearly found the sitting still that inevitably goes with drawing too difficult.
But those factors are present every year, and this year the talkyness was exceptional. Feh. Luckily, these kids have a little more in the brainbox than the ones I've been teaching lately, so they can multitask. They did absorb what I told them, even when they didn't appear to be listening. But man was it tiring, especially having to repeat the organisational instructions all the time.

The kids also balked at the idea of having 13 hours of homework assigned to them, which I can understand. Comes with the activity these workshops are part of, though, so all I can tell them is that if they weren't spending those 13 hours on this, they'd have to spend it on some other homework.

I did again split the class in two, mentioning the theme briefly at the start but leaving it there until after the break. Seems to have worked; the kids could focus on the theme, and did some pretty good free-associating. In fact, they did a better job at tying their work of the previous hour in with the theme than classes at that level did at previous workshops. So I'm sticking with that method.

Again, the class ended with sufficiently developed work from the class, as well as the formation of groups of students who will cooperate on comics. So, difficult though these two hours were, they got results. I'll be back at the same school tomorrow, teaching a mixed group of HAVO and Atheneum students, Years 4 and 5. I'll be bringing more copies of Groningen bij Nacht. Hopefully, the next group will be a little quieter.

November 28, 2006

Fifth in a series of workshop postmortems.

I didn't have much to say about Thursday's second workshop in Haren with Regular Client School. It didn't go smoothly, primarily because my own concentration was flagging a bit. Some nice work got made though, and I'm sure the kids will do all right for the rest of the project. Nothing out of the ordinary happened.

Nevertheless, I think doing three workshops in a week helped me hone my skills for my return to the Praktijkschool in Emmen. I did a lot of things better than last week: I engaged the kids more from the start, showed more, and more relevant examples, was more responsive to questions from the group even when the questioners didn't always speak clearly. And —most significantly— I eased the class into working with a theme. After three attempts at trying to get the theme into the heads of kids at this low level of academic achievement, I finally figured out how to get them on board with writing stories on the discrimination/social exclusion theme. Like I said last week, working with themes is always a hurdle, even with bright kids or adults. I think it worked this time, because I brought up the sponsors' plans for an exhibit and then said the exhibit had the theme, rather than introducing it as an arbitrary restriction on the class itself. And my examples and introductory talk (again, with lots of questions to the class and some prodding of the more vocal kids in the room - if they're gonna talk, let them talk on-topic) were clearer and more relevant to the kids this time.

In all, win. This class wasn't the easiest to keep order in, but I'm learning to accept a certain level of background noise. If I was a regular teacher giving a course, I'd keep the length of the classes closer to that of the kids' attention spans, but that's not an option right now, so my next best option is to ride the ebb and flow of attention, finding the precise moment when the kids need some centralised control, providing it, and then letting them loose again.

Two more to go, both next Thursday, in Diever. Weather allowing, I'm taking my bicycle on the train, getting out in Assen, and cycling the rest of the distance. It's a very difficult location to reach, or so I'm told.

November 29, 2006

Cognitive Seduction

Cognitive Seduction and the "peekaboo" law offers a good explanation why drawing on the blackboard in my cartooning classes works so much better than showing the students the finished art (say, from the previous hour, kept on a flipover) or handing out printed examples. It's not just a matter of them observing the process, it's a matter of them also puzzling together what it's going to end up as and activating their brainmeats while doing so:

In learning, the more you fill things in and hold the learner's hand, the less their brain will engage. If they don't need to fire a single neuron to walk through the tutorial, lesson, lecture, etc., they're getting a shallow, surface-level, non-memorable exposure of "covered" material, but... what's the point? Obviously this doesn't mean you just never tell them anything period. This is about graduated hints, mental teasing, cognitive treasure hunts, sparking curiosity, etc. Things that engage the brain. (This is part of the brain-friendly strategy we use in our books.)

Whether you're trying to get someone's attention, keep their attention, motivate them to stick with something, or help them to learn more deeply and retain what they've learned, leave something for their brain to resolve. Do something to turn their brain on.

January 10, 2007

Bluffing my way into teaching.

I've always thought that the saying "those that can, do; those that can't, teach" and variants thereof were bullshit, but today I sort of proved it by, er, teaching a life drawing class, and doing it in a way that was fun and interesting for the students. Or so they say. My spies within the school will confirm or deny it by this time tomorrow.

It happened like this: yesterday, Jeroen called me to Shanghai me into taking his place as a workshop teacher at a school in the southern part of Groningen, so he could go on honeymoonpick his girlfriend up from the airport. To be quite clear on this, he didn't literally feed me drunk so he could shove a contract under my nose and have me wake up the next morning with one leg chained to a nude woman and the other to an easel, though he's perfectly welcome to do so the next time. Instead, he appealed to my rapacity and greedsense of collegiality. "But", I said, "I don't know all that much about life drawing, I only do the unguided classes at the VOIC once a blue moon when not overworked, sick or amnesiac."
"Nevermind that", he said, "The students won't know this."
And so it was that later that afternoon, I discussed the purpose and content of the workshop with Jeroen, and early today I did some web research on teaching life drawing classes, and at 13:30 I stood before a group of teenagers telling them, in a not quite focused manner, what life drawing was for and what they were going to do when the model came in (she arrived at two).
Apart from the talk at the start, which I really need to practice more if I'm going to do more teaching on the subject, the workshop went really well. The model was cooperative and good at holding her pose and the students themselves were serious and motivated. There wasn't any of that "hur hur hur we're gonna draw a naked woman" stuff that the websites I did my research in warned of. They knew they were there to draw and learn to get better.
I alternated between having them draw from observation any way they liked and giving them special exercises in which they had to draw just the outline of the model, start with an action line and build the drawing up through a stick figure stage, exaggerate the model's features, or draw the model with nothing but oval shapes. Most of the time, I used ten-minute poses, but for some of the exercises, I used five-minute poses instead. Jeroen warned me that the students might complain about having so little time to do the work in, but I didn't hear much of that; I think I had made it clear enough in advance that I was hoping for them to build up speed among other things, and in any case it was clear after the first five-minute exercise that when I asked them to draw something in five minutes, they could do it in that time. Most of them, anyway.
It was very interesting to see how some of the students progressed within one session, losing some of the hesitant, scratchy quality in favour of more assured lines. I'm sure Jeroen will be able to see, with most of the students, in what order the drawings were made. He returns to the school tomorrow, with a different model, so he'll get to see those drawings and take the class to the next level.

In all, fun. I'd do it again, and in fact, the organiser was interested in putting together a series of evening classes with me and the model. We'll see how that pans out. It would require for me to do some more serious study of life drawing myself, but that's always a good thing.

For a school, this one's a very flexible sort of organisation, so they could set this up at short notice. It was interesting to see the inner workings of another school, and hearing of the hassle of getting parental consent for their seventeen-year-old students to look at a nude model. And of course, the payment arrangement. This school only works with freelancers, which seems like an expensive way to do things, until you realise that the freelancers only get paid for actual teaching hours, with all the marking and evaluation being done by a skeleton staff. An interesting way to do things, if you can get it organised.

Another thing that was different from what I'd expected, possibly as a result of listening to former studio-mate Edmond too much in the final months he was with us, was that there was a tremendous appreciation among the students, including those who weren't in the life drawing class itself, of good drawing. Everyone was very interested in what was produced during the class. And it does seem like there's a bit of a resurgence of the craft of drawing going on, among all the other factors that have been making the art workshop market such a booming business recently.

January 22, 2007

Friday's workshops

I did another bunch of workshops on Friday. Increasingly, the teaching is the one part of my activities that I can say is going well, without any reservations or qualifying, bet-hedging comments. In fact, I'm increasingly thinking of making it my main activity.

Friday's workshops were the regular 1-hour introductory classes for kids in Groups 6-8, i.e. the 9-to-12-year olds that also make up the age range of the readership of my comic for Hello You!, Gang of Four. I'm doing about 11 of those classes this month, bought in bulk by one of Groningen's Vensterscholen.

The school I taught at on Friday is a Dalton-certified public primary school, housed in a large building that is also home to a community center. It's a very nice place; I liked the fact that the community center's bar room also served as the teachers' room. There's a meeting room where a bunch of old folks were playing bingo during the school's afternoon break. A very welcoming, inviting environment - the guy at the bar offered me free sandwiches, which definitely endeared him to me.

Wikipedia has surprisingly little to say about the Dalton Plan. Dalton International has more, some of which I should remember in case I ever teach at a Dalton school again. From teaching at this school, I can at least say that the kids there were very well-behaved, keen and motivated. I liked these classes a lot. Compared to the trouble I had with some of my classes five years ago, it's like night and day. But then, age and experience are definitely making it easier for me to get a classroom full of children to do what I ask them to.

One thing I noticed was there wasn't a lot of gender segregation within the class room. In most schools, boys and girls at that age start separating themselves out, choosing to sit in single-gender groups. Here, boys and girls sat in mixed groups. I don't know whether the schools encourage that or if it's simply a consequence of the way Dalton schools socialise the kids, but it was a glaring difference compared to the "traditional" schools I've taught at. Or maybe it's the general environment of the school and community center.

And they could draw! I saw a lot of very steady hands at this school.

February 19, 2007

Little Kiddos

THE HOOORRROOOORR!!!!! .. No just joking. Last thursday I taught my very first comic drawing lesson ever and it actually went quite well! I teach 6 boys between 9 and 12 years old and they are a very enthousiastic bunch. At first I tried to teach them some standard comic-emotions, but they were so full of Manga (miss will you draw me a figure from Dragonball Z?!!), that I decided to focus more on the art of making manga. So next thursday I'm going to teach them how to draw a manga head, with hair and everyting. And maybe already start with the body.

The only problem I incountered with the boys was that they were a bit loud in their enthousiasm, but as long as they listen and pay attention, I don't mind...

Yeah I know, it is a bit of a boring story, but maybe next time they'll wreck the whole place and you will be able to read some dramatic yet exciting stuff... :D

Follow-up cartooning classes

Following up on Jelena's teaching report, below: my own recent teaching experiences have been fairly routine, though it was interesting a few weeks ago to visit the same school on two consecutive days. It was a big difference; on Thursday, I felt like a rock star, while on Friday, I felt like a wannabe stand up comedian on open mic night. I didn't do anything particularly different between those two days (five classes in all), but for some reason I could grab the kids' attention and whip up a lot of enthusiasm on day one, and not on day two. The most likely cause was that on Friday, the kids had had a sporting event in the morning, so they had this big old adrenaline/endorphin cocktail running through their veins and weren't as sharp as they would otherwise have been.

I still manage to enjoy teaching even when the kids are being a bit difficult, though. Which is useful because last Thursday's follow-up class at the same school was a difficult one. I had a classroom full, after school hours, of kids who normally sat in different home rooms, with no regular staff member or volunteer present. I wasted a lot of time getting one particularly noisy little girl to shut up and get back to work, and as a result forgot to ride the waves of the other kids' attention spans. You know, normally while a class is working on a project, you can tell when the class starts buzzing a bit, and it's time to get them off the task they've been carrying out and on to something new. This time, I got distracted, so so did several of the other kids. Of course, a class that large is going to be quite heterogeneous, and there were quite a few who just quietly got on with the work and had some rather neat comics ready at the end of the hour.

I don't mind having to deal with loud kids, personally. It's a skill I think I should learn to get better at. But on the other hand, it's not fair to the other kids if one or two of them drain all my attention while I'm learning this skill. So for the second follow-up class, at another school, I'm going to ask if one of the volunteers can be present to keep an eye on things. If they don't have any available, I'll just try the best I can. Shouldn't be as many kids in that one anyway.

It's interesting that Jelena's Thursday class was filled with Manga fans; mine wasn't. One could offer the self-selected nature of Jelena's group of students as an explanation, but my group at this point was self-selected as well, unlike the groups at the introductory workshops. Of the 18 or so kids, some liked manga, but most predominantly read the classic comics - the same ones I read as a child. European and American comics such as Donald Duck, Asterix, Suske & Wiske. Maybe the fact that I do give these introductory workshops to whole classrooms causes a wider group of kids to sign up for the after-school classes...

About Work: Teaching

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