Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Using plants for artistic inspiration: Primary Art CPD Conference – Jenny Hulmes

At the back of some art cupboards in schools, there are intriguing yet daunting art materials, which hardly ever see the light of day. These might include bottles of Indian ink, printing paints and rollers, oil pastels and graphite sticks.

The Education Team at the Botanic Garden runs a fantastic art CPD conference to boost primary school teachers' confidence with working with an eclectic mix of unfamiliar art materials in unique and adventurous ways, and of course, using plants for inspiration. I was fortunate enough to attend the conference led by Emma Williams, Primary Education Officer at the Garden who has a background in fine art.

I joined primary school teachers, some of whom were art coordinators in their respective school, in exploring the Botanic Garden and its glasshouses for leaves, flowers and fruits, which would make for exciting artworks. Plants are both intriguing and beautiful, so it's not surprising that artists throughout history have chosen to celebrate, adapt and distort for effect, their alluring colours, textures and shapes.

Whilst in the lily house, we were confronted with a vast array of plants made up of all different shapes and sizes. We discussed that pupils engaging in art often find it tricky to find a starting point when asked to carry out a drawing from direct observation, especially if the choice can be overwhelming. 

Exploring the lily house

Emma described various techniques she employs with school groups, geared at providing them with a sufficient amount of direction and guidance without being too restrictive or imposing. One technique involves giving each pupil in the group a sheet of paper with a printed shape at the top of it. The shape could be a star, heart or raindrop; the pupil has to then sketch a leaf which shares that shape. Another technique involves handing out a sheet of paper which has a specific colour (not green to make for more unique and vibrant artworks!) printed at the top of it; the pupil then has to sketch a leaf using predominantly that colour. 

Throughout the conference, we got to grips with using oil pastels with coloured ink washes to achieve a wonderful batik effect. We also learned how materials within the school and classroom could be recycled to make textured printing blocks. One teacher made an impressive multi-textured block comprising string, corrugated cardboard and bubble wrap. We also etched images of plants into polystyrene pizza bases, which when used, resulted in brilliantly crisp and detailed prints.

Print workshop with Emma

As well making me want to rush back home to my neglected box of oil pastels, the conference helped me appreciate how important it is for schools to have green spaces so pupils can draw and study plants from direct observation. Seeing plants close up and personal (as opposed to seeing them in 2D representations) will help children to engage with them on a more tangible level as they are prompted to use their sight, touch and smell to become fully acquainted. This multisensory exploration has the power to encourage an interest and excitement for plants which can then enable artistic creativity and experimentation to flourish.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Teaching Ancient Egypt for Key Stage 2 at the Ashmolean – Aisling Serrant

One of the main things I wanted to get out of my traineeship was to become comfortable with independently delivering schools sessions in a museum setting. Having the confidence to deliver a session to a group of whatever age or size, out in the gallery spaces is one of the most important attributes needed to be an Education Officer – it’s the backbone of the job. 

On my first placement, at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, I gained a reasonable amount of primary school delivery experience through the project Making Museums. This was great practice in everything from remembering session content to class management. However, as most of the taught sections take place in designated education areas, it was still quite different from teaching right in the middle of the galleries with lots of things going on around me. Also, during Making Museums I was always team teaching whereas for the Ashmolean schools sessions I was teaching independently and was also responsible for the smooth running of my group’s day – greeting them and making sure they were clear on the structure of the day and had everything they would need.

The session I taught was Life and Death in Ancient Egypt. This choice was made mainly because it is by far the most popular primary session booked at the Ashmolean Museum which would allow me plenty of time to observe it and also plenty of time to repeat deliver it. Practice makes perfect which is why, before I had even taught my first session, I was glad to be booked in to teach seven more! Beyond the practicalities of the session I was pleased to get the chance to teach about Ancient Egypt. Growing up I always wanted to be an archaeologist and this was largely fueled by a passion for Ancient Egypt. My interest continued as I grew up and learnt more, both during my Archaeology of Ancient Civilisations degree and when I was lucky enough to visit Egypt and see some of the amazing sites for myself. I feel so lucky to be working in a job where I get to be surrounded by the very things which inspired me to choose the path I have taken – and to be able to pass on this enthusiasm to a class of excited children is an amazing feeling. 

In preparation for the session I observed 3 session leaders and the Project Co-ordinator teaching it. This was great as watching such experienced deliverers meant I could pick up tricks from them, but also seeing a range of styles meant I could pick up the bits of content and the techniques that best suited me. 

Aisling preparing for her session
There are lots of things to think about when teaching out in the gallery - where to sit the children so they’re not in the way of anyone, where to stand so that you can be seen and heard by all and trying to project you voice above the general chat of the public. I was glad I got to see some experts tackle these issues before I had a go myself.

When it came to my first session I felt a little bit nervous but ready to give it a go. The group was great and I soon got into the swing of the session leading them through the different parts including whole class teaching, group activities and object handling. An hour and a half flew by and before I knew it we were done. I got good feedback from the teacher and Neil my Project Coordinator. Though they gave me some clear pointers I could improve on. The main things were my timing as I took too long on some earlier parts and ended up having to rush through the last section. Also my voice projection as the teacher commented it was sometimes a little difficult to hear when there were other visitors talking nearby. Neil gave me a good tip for improving this which is to try to talk straight at the whole group instead of aiming my voice one way, for example, if answering a question from a child who is sat at one side of the group. I was more conscious of this in the following sessions I taught and, after Jo, Head of Education came to watch parts of my third session, she told me that volume wasn’t an issue in the bits she saw so hopefully this is something I have improved on. 

Aisling in front of Taharqa's shrine

I really enjoyed teaching the primary sessions and am looking forward to the ones I have coming up. It feels satisfying to be able to confidently lead an hour and a half session on my own and I look forward to using the skills and confidence it has given me in my next placement and hopefully in a job after that.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Arts Award Discover with SS Mary & John CE Primary School ’Art & Science’ at the Museum of The History of Science – Hannah Eastwood

I have had the wonderful opportunity to be part of the Arts Award project with SS Mary & John Primary School at the Museum of the History of Science. The project ran during the Autumn term of this year with children and leaders from their after school Art Club.
Children began the term by considering their own experience of the arts and mapping their responses visually.

The next week, the group visited the museum and were given a short ‘highlights’ tour of some unusual objects on display. These included the museum’s unique spherical astrolabe, the revolutionary clock, amazing sundials, orreries and telescopes. The children interviewed a member of the museum’s staff whose work includes planning and designing exhibitions and publicity. There were lots of interesting questions such as:

What is the oldest object in the museum?
What is the best part of your job?
Did you always want to work in a museum?
What is the biggest object in the museum?
How far can you see through this telescope?
Do you have to be a scientist to work here?

During their time at the museum the children used digital cameras to take photographs of fascinating and unusual objects on display which appealed to them. They later used the images as inspiration for their own artwork during the term. 

Back at the weekly art club, the children each chose an object which had inspired them. They discovered more about their chosen object by researching it online, then made drawings. They also researched artists which might have made work using this subject.  Next, children began to construct 2D or 3D responses using a variety of media including chicken wire, modelling clay, wood, metal wire, and papier mâché.

Responses included:

- a model of an anatomical theatre made from wood, inspired by stories about the anatomical demonstrations which took place in the Museum’s old basement gallery
- a version of the Museum’s lodestone which takes the form of a jellyfish instead of a crown
- a fully functioning camera obscura
- a prosthetic hand inspired by armour and the brass prosthetic hand in the basement of museum. 

Prosthetic hand inspired by Museum of The History of Science

In December, we held a final presentation of the objects and outcomes created by the children. Their artwork was displayed on the large oak table in the basement gallery of the museum. Parents, carers, family members and other visitors enjoyed seeing them and hearing the children explain how and why they were made. The children also held a sharing assembly at school to describe the project and their work to other children at SS Mary and John CE Primary School.

Display of the children's creations at Museum of The History of Science
The sheer technique in their finished final pieces was astonishing. They used a variety of techniques in their model making which was really impressive to see. By placing their work in the museum, their creations really did stand out and the display looked wonderful.

During the presentation event, I had handed out a sheet which I designed to encourage feedback for the students. Adults and children were asked to fill in a short sentence next to the children’s art work about what they liked about it. This gave the children a great sense of achievement and it also proved that they had shared their work when it came to the assessments for the certificate. 

Comments included:

3D astrolabe
‘What an inspired piece. Scholars in the past worked very hard to achieve this- and you just did it!’

Mechanical Hand
Excellent glove- reminds me of a suit of armour, it really looks like metal.
‘Wonderful! Scary! Does it work? I wonder who wore a hand like this?  Looks really good’.

It was really useful to be able to put my Arts Award training into practise again and being able to look closely at all of their work was a very special privilege.
I was amazed by the student’s responses and the standard of work produced all from being inspired by the collections at the museum. This is sometimes a very tricky collection to make connections with as often the objects are puzzling and complex but they overcame this so easily and ran with their ideas confidently. 

Students were able to explain their ideas coherently and enthusiastically. One parent had commented on how brilliantly they could convey the science behind their chosen object and the language they had used was very advanced for their age. Literacy and language was quiet an unexpected outcome of the project!

Parent at the presentation event

Parents were obviously very happy with the project from their feedback:
‘This has been a fantastic project, the combination of using scientific artefacts as a starting point the approaching the museum in an art/ creative way was really nice. The children really got to know their objects by re- creating them. They have ownership of them and a relationship with them. They have all responded in completely different ways. Making it yourself in 3D was great- in school you don’t get to do so much 3D work. Being able to do it as a long term project with input from adults was really good.’

The plan now is to find a space for them in the museum to go on display in their own mini exhibition to show case all their hard work and I will look forward to coordinating this.