Portrait of an artist

8th February 2008 at 00:00
Explaining the tortured genius of Vincent Van Gogh to children without traumatising them stretched new teacher Matthew Friday. But their reactions surprised him.

My first teaching placement was two days of art with a Year 2 class. Loving history and storytelling as I do, I opted to create a lesson to meet the first two objectives: for the children to learn about Vincent Van Gogh and understand something about the time he lived in.

Only one catch: Vincent was one of art's most tragic masters. He suffered from bouts of depression and famously cut his ear off. This presented a dilemma: expose the children to the tragedy of Vincent's life, and in doing so risk spoiling two supposedly happy days of art, or avoid the more tragic elements, but feel like I would be lying to the children.

I couldn't lie to the children. I decided to take the risk. The only way to reduce the likelihood of problems, I reasoned, was to make sure there was some fun within the sad story.

Not an easy task given that Vincent shot himself and died in his brother's arms, convinced he was a failure. I wrote his story in a manner six-year-olds could relate to. I emphasised Vincent's lack of friends and how this made him unhappy.

The fun part became interactive maps of Europe ("who can find Holland?"); a discussion about what they didn't have in the 1850s (toasters, iPods and cars); key paintings showing Vincent's developing artistic vision ("how do you think he feels in this painting?") and a quiz halfway through the story. Five questions about Vincent. Everyone got 55. The children were having great fun.

Then came the truth about the ear cutting incident, which I delivered with an appropriately gory slicing gesture. Waves of horror from the class. So many children suddenly holding their ears. Then, a few slides later, the final closing tragedy: Vincent shot himself. More looks of horror and cries of: "No way!"

For the activity I asked the children to make get well soon cards for Vincent, who was recovering at home after losing his ear. I asked the children to create cheery messages and a happy painting.

The resulting work was fantastic: lots of colourful pictures and messages, such as: "Would you like to come and have tea with me and play on my Wii?" Out of 28 children, only two got over-excited with the red pencil and drew blood.

At some point during this activity work, the headteacher came into the class with two parent visitors. "I hear you're learning all about Vincent Van Gogh. Who can tell me some interesting facts?" One boy put up his hand and said: "Vincent cut his ear off and shot himself." Gasps from the class on being reminded about the grisly truth.

"Oh. How very dramatic. Anything else?" A girl raised her hand and said: "Vincent didn't have any friends and was a very sad man." "That explains the business with the ear," said the head.

For a moment I thought my lesson had failed. The children had remembered nothing about the 19th century, where Vincent had lived and, most importantly, the way he painted. But I was wrong. Over that day and the one following, the children spontaneously reported back to me everything they had learned. The grisly details had captured pupils' imaginations.

And the head asked for their cards to go on display, along with the other great art from the two days, in the school reception for all parents to see.

Matthew Friday is a trainee teacher at the School Centred Initial Teacher Training Centre at Swaffield Primary School in Wandsworth, London.

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