The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Friday, March 25, 2011

Days 9 and 10 - A vibrant school, two extraordinary artists, and a LOT of flower blossom tea

On Wednesday I spent the day at Beijing City International School, where the Visual Arts teachers, under the leadership of a feisty, funny, fearless and very thoughtful Englishman called Richard Todd, are doing some really exciting work with their students, from the Elementary grades (starting with tiny 4 year-olds) through to the 12th grade IB Diploma students.

I loved my day at this school.  Richard and I had a great time planning a possible artistic exchange unit which would involve our respective Year 10 and 11 students in exchanging and altering photographs, to share their sense of cultural and personal identity across two countries, and many cultures and backgrounds. More of that later! The school is a really dynamic place: a not-for-profit international school, established with the idea of ‘giving back to China’, located in central Beijing, not far from the extraordinary ‘Today’ Art Museum. I have been so impressed by the students in the three international schools I have visited thus far – they are mature, responsive, yet independent; trusted and trusting in their relationships with teachers, and able to engage as respectful equals in dialogue with adults. I think there is much in the IB approach to pedagogy which encourages this autonomy in students as learners – learning frameworks are absolutely explicit, student profiling is the norm, and students are not competing with each other in quite the same way as happens in many of our schools.

Richard is passionate about student (and teacher) reflection, and has designed a unit of work for his 9th grade which explicitly, through art, is about teaching the skills of purposeful reflection. He has been designated an ‘Apple Distinguished Educator’ for his creative use of ICT in project based education, developing a system of Year 9 individual student blogs, which function as a ‘Learner Profile’ for the Middle Years Program in the IB, in which they record their reflections on their learning in every subject, upload samples of their work to show growth, record their feelings about successes and failures, identify where they have taken a risk, and where they have used specific thinking skills. This is really metacognition in action! Richard has developed a system of ‘tagging’ to retrieve, classify and file all the multiple layers of information which the blog will hold.

Basically we talk all day, over lunch (duck and noodles) in the cafeteria; in between my observation of classes such as his Year 9 group, who work most independently, finding all the information and materials they need on the Year 9 Visual Arts class ‘wiki’; and discussions with his 12th grade students about their interesting and experimental IB bodies of work; and thought-provoking meetings with other members of the creative arts team.

I am very impressed by one 11th grade student, in particular, who is working on a series about the social stratification in Beijing. She has interviewed all the school’s guards, cleaners and ‘servants’ about their lives, recording these interviews with an interesting video. She has then photographed each person going about their daily tasks, but in a most sensitive manner, where they are depicted with great dignity – it is not at all obvious or naive. Her intention is to make a point about the way in which the city relies on the labour of these individuals who are so often invisible to those whom they serve.

As I walk out into the evening street and hail a taxi, I am thinking about the tangible and intangible factors that make some schools so dynamic and interesting for both teachers and students. One of these is of course the passionate engagement and commitment of the teachers, and I have just witnessed that to a very significant degree at BCIS, evident in the meeting of the Creative Arts Team, planning a cross curricular project involving students from Years 6 to 9. This promises to be a multi-media extravaganza based on a range of ‘monster’ themes including ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ with a composer in residence, and a Japanese Buhto Theater expert, and the sheer creative energy of the team (e.g. “Can we have an 8th grade student abseil down the start of the building to start the show?”!!!) It is also evident in the passion of the newly appointed Visual Arts leader of the Elementary School, and the beautiful environment she has created for her small student; and in the students working around the school in a range of areas into the evening. In many respects so similar to my own school, where both staff and students give so much of their time and dedication, but also such a contrast in terms of its multiplicity of cultures and languages, and the richness that can bring.

Tomorrow I will write about my meetings with the extraordinary young artist Liang Yuanwei, described by a journalist as ‘one of China’s best painters under 35’, and with the deeply spiritual painter Hu Qinwu, whose Buddhist sensibility permeates every aspect of his work. I spent Thursday at the studios of these two artists, interspersed with a visit to the ‘Three Shadows’ Photography Gallery, and the Art@F2 Gallery, both of which had particularly interesting exhibitions. The day finished with a dinner at a most beautiful restaurant, designed to resemble a Qing Dynasty courtyard house, with beautiful Chinese furniture and views into the courtyard – apparently it is particularly beautiful under snow, but today I have even seen a few magnolia trees in bloom, so spring is on the way. Everywhere that trees are in blossom there are people taking photographs of them – clearly it has been a long winter!

In the city streets the red lanterns and strings of fairy lights sway in the strong wind, above the discarded plastic shopping bags which blow around every corner.