A Reflection on Teaching – Some keys to success.

I want to share a success story I’ve been having with a Year 5/6 class. This year, I’ve been teaching them art, but the reasons for success may well have implications for other curriculum areas as well. I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

This term, I decided to focus on different techniques that artists use to create the illusion of depth, or perspective in their work.

My first lesson was on one point linear perspective. I showed the students a number of pictures, photographs and illustrations that clearly demonstrated the technique. The students were very responsive. They started to look more analytically and enjoyed finding the vanishing points and horizon lines in the various pictures. However, when asked to draw their own, many were resistant and uncooperative, declaring it too hard before they’d even attempted it. I insisted and we worked step by step. They each produced successful, simple one point perspectives with a high way disappearing into a vanishing point on the horizon line in the centre of the page.

For our second lesson, we watched this video:

We then worked step by step creating our own one point perspective rooms. I modelled the drawing on the board, while students followed each step at their desks. They found the ruler work quite challenging,  and again were quite resistant;  however, all came up with good results. But, in spite of their great results, the students were very self-critical, saying how bad their drawings were, that they were ‘dumb’ and ‘no good’ at art.

For our third lesson, I decided to introduce the idea of colour value. As things recede into the distance, the colours become fainter. Objects closer to the foreground have stronger and more vibrant colours.

I projected some of the images from this great website to demonstrate colour value to my students, and we observed the  value in  a number of photographs and paintings. Again the students were  fascinated by observing this. They weren’t used to deconstructing images and considering how the illusion of depth was created. As they started to observe the change in colour value they became quite excited.

I showed them this picture  from the fabulous Landscape and Figurative Art blog by artist Jim Shanahan,  and told them we were going to attempt to recreate it in paint.

aerial perspective3

The students were  very reluctant when I told them the task, and wanted to do something that they felt was easier and more achievable. This particular group are very reluctant to take risks with art.  I remained firm, and reassured them that we would do it together, step by step, and it wouldn’t be as hard as they initially thought.  They didn’t believe me but grudgingly cooperated, since they weren’t provided with a choice.

After modelling how to sketch in some basic working lines to show the placement of the mountain range in the background, the hills in the middle ground and the road, running from the fore to the midground, we started painting.

I showed them how to mix acrylic paint on the paper and to use sort of scumbling technique to create a cloudy sky, using the tips of the bristles, not the side of the brush. Within moments, the students found that not only could they use the technique successfully, it was enjoyable. A beautiful, sort of meditative silence fell across the room as the students became absorbed in their painting.

I then showed them how to mix some colours for the mountain range, and together we worked through recreating the image from the top of the page to the bottom of the page. Each student image was slightly different and that was okay. I was clear that our intention was to use colour and line to create a landscape image, not to create an identical image. The end results were magnificent, and some of these very self critical students were actually proud of their work. I would post photographs, but I haven’t sought permission to publish their work on this blog.

Lesson 5 focused on using size to create a sense of depth. I was on sick leave, but I left this Falling Back in Space activity for the casual teacher who replaced me. The final results were great and the students were able to tell me how they used size and foreshortening to create the illusion of depth.

For lesson 6, we watched this video.

Following the video, we recreated each of the 6  images using pencil and paper, then stapled them into a booklet which has become our perspective manual. What we loved about this video was the fact it was so simple. Each image was based on nothing more than a circle, but using simple techniques such as placement, overlapping or size, we could easily create a sense of depth.

Interestingly, for this lesson, there was a noticable change of tone in the classroom. Each week I’d found that class quite challenging. Many of the students lack confidence in art and for some, clowning is a good way of covering up their anxiety. Instead of making a genuine attempt at art and feeling embarrassed by the end result, some preferred to undermine things, joke around and deliberately sabotage their own work, as a way of saving face. It’s okay to fail if you’re not really trying.

However right from the outset of this lesson, the class were enthusiastic. Only one student attempted to disrupt things and the rest told him to be quiet, as they wanted to learn. It was gratifying to see this change of attitude, and that I didn’t have to use more controlling management techniques to achieve a better tone in the room. Instead it came as a result of their increasing confidence in the subject matter. All their work from the previous lessons was displayed around the classroom and it looked fantastic. What had initially seemed like unreasonable and unachievable tasks, now seemed possible. The students had also discovered that they enjoyed art and were fascinated by the use of very learnable techniques to create illusions. And so they had become intrinsically motivated and were moderating their own behaviour and that of their peers as a result.

The students’ next step will be to choose one or more technique to create their own picture with the illusion of depth. I showed them the stunning student created artworks on this website for inspiration. Instead of the resistance I encountered in earlier lessons,  I’m now being confronted by wild enthusiasm.

So what have been the keys to success here?

  • That while encouraging student voice and choice is important, there are times when we need to assert ourselves as experts, and that’s okay. If I had listened to my students objections to our earlier lessons, they would never have discovered that the tasks I was setting for them were achievable. Instead, by ignoring their protestations and taking them out of their comfort zone, I was able to show the students that  they were capable of learning. This is what has led to their enthusiasm and confidence in the latter part of the term.
  • That intrinsic motivation trumps methods of control every time. I don’t like using reward/punish systems of management with students, but for a while there, I was tempted to start using more controlling techniques. I’m glad I didn’t. Instead, by persevering with the program, and providing the right scaffolding and support for students to ensure their success, the group have discovered the intrinsic joy of creating art. The class have become self-managing because they’ve discovered for themselves the intrinsic rewards of learning new things.
  • That the internet is a marvellous,  wondrous thing. I won’t tell you how many years its been since I taught a stage 3 class, but let’s just say the internet was not as present in classrooms and there were no data projectors or IWBs in my classroom. The amount of resources so generously shared by artists and educators has made preparing my lessons so easy,  and the availability of YouTube tutorials has added an extra dimension as well, by allowing us to observe professional artists at work. So,  a huge thank you to all the generous teachers out there.