Lockdown Learning - An interview with Will Pym from Queen Elizabeth High School

15 March 2021

Compendium, Lockdown Learning - An interview with Will Pym

We spoke to William Pym, an art, graphics and photography teacher at Queen Elizabeth High School in Hexham, to find out what his experience has been teaching secondary school pupils creative art subjects over the course of the pandemic. 

We also get Will to showcase his students' work and share some of his favourite resources, along with telling us all about the challenges he has faced.

How has remote learning worked for the different age groups within the school? 

'We’ve had to vary our approach a little bit from years 9 & 10 to those in years 11 and 13. The uncertainty of not knowing what would and wouldn’t be assessed has been tough on the older year groups. But luckily, those year groups usually do a personal investigation project which does see them working more independently, so that has been a plus. So we’ve encouraged them that you can be creative and use what you have and still have great results. 

Regarding the younger years, live teaching has helped and actually, there have been some enjoyable things as a teacher. Such as setting up a visualiser, and the students can watch the teacher creating something, and they can be working along with you, and we can all see each others’ work in real-time has been nice.'

Can you talk us through some of the different creative projects you have done over the past year? 

'So we have done lots of different visual art projects in different ways, and in many ways, we have adapted what we would usually teach. For instance, the year 12 students worked on a Transposed project, where they took an image of a famous masterpiece then merged these images with their own photography to augment the image to change its meaning and create a new and unique piece of art. This allowed the students to create pieces like a dog dressed up as the girl with the pearl earring and similar. All of these pictures were incredibly creative and great fun.'

Image: Year 9 students re-created famous artworks. 

'The most recent project that my year 12 photography students did was called ‘Making it up'. This involved creating alternative realities, either by taking photography or using apps. As well as creating some brilliant artwork, the project has brought up some interesting conversations around our need to make positive realities for ourselves whilst at the same time visualising the negative ones. 

In year 10 art, we usually create interesting collages at this time of year using magazines, printed images etc. Still, not all students have access to these resources at home, so instead, we have had the students create a collage from objects they have found in their home, and they have used their imaginations to create some fantastic work. 

The topics we have covered during remote learning have been the same as in school, as we don’t want students to have to reinvent their education.  We want them to be more independent and creative, able to adapt tasks and find new connections.' 

Has the school been able to provide resources to students during the pandemic? 

'The school has tried to be supportive. We have made sure that any software we are using is free and accessible to everyone. We also sent out baskets filled with art materials for students, and our GCSE textile students were provided with fabrics to use. 

Whatever we did, we can’t say it was enough, and that is one of the sadnesses of trying to do creative subjects during the lockdown.'

Image: The first and third images were made by year 11 Textiles students during lockdown at home and the middle image is by an A-level graphics student. 

What online platforms and resources have you found helpful? 

'The Teams platform that we use is very creative and allows us to have students work in groups or do 1-2-1 sessions, which has helped. We have also used lots of different photo and digital editing apps, including Pixlr, which everyone could access.' 

Image: Artwork created by year 10 graphic students using the app Pixlr

'Also, I think it has been good for the students to see that the teachers are learning new technologies, apps, and tools. I think that has given them more confidence to use and try new things. We have also used Instagram, and the students have enjoyed Grayson Perrys Art Club

But it’s not all about online. We also set a landscape competition that encouraged students to get outside and explore nature. This was partly for pastoral reasons, thinking about mental health as we know it’s not good always to be indoors. 

With this in mind, we asked the students to take a photo of something they saw on a daily walk and create a piece of artwork based on that. After that project, we received lots of emails from parents saying that they loved this, and they were pleased to see their children getting outdoors.'

Image: Year 13 fine art student sketches of local landscapes in lockdown

How have GCSE and A-level students coped with the uncertainty of exams? 

'I’ve been trying to find a metaphor for this, and it’s a bit like furlough! If you’re furloughed, you can’t go to work as you have always done, you worry about your job, will you have a job to come back to? This causes a lot of questions and anxiety. 

And the students have felt a very similar thing too. Their whole life has been going to school, and in their last 2 years, they spend a lot of time working towards exams and, then, they were told those exams were cancelled. 

Then young people had to wait a long time to find out what would replace those exams, which has caused many worries and brought up many questions. We can’t underestimate what it has been like for the students. 

Yet, the positives are that the students have been incredible, and they continue to believe in their work and projects and continue to be independent. Sadly, there are students who may not achieve the grades we would have expected them to gain if this hadn’t happened, and that will forever be sadness for the teachers that they are leaving the classroom without having the experience that they should have had.'

Image: Year 10 fine art students portraits in pencil. 

Has the pandemic affected the choices of the sixth form creative students that are in their last year of school? 

'I have been struck by the number of students applying to do their art foundation or go to art college. As there are 19 students in total, we know this because we have set up a support group for them to help them develop their portfolios, and we’ve been helping them create online portfolios and prepare for their interviews. As some have had online interviews whilst some will be in person, so we just want to support them, so they are ready for every eventuality.' 

What has been the biggest challenge for the school teaching during the pandemic? 

'The biggest challenge has been keeping track of the student’s progress, trying to find out what students are learning from this experience and getting in contact with the students who are not responding. Tracking their progress and getting in contact with students who are not responding can be challenging. 

There are lots of students who have excelled with remote learning, and it’s not just our top student’s. Lots of students have done well, but some haven’t, and that’s the worry.' 

Image: Year 9 students created faces using folded garments.

What key learning points have come out of lockdown learning for you? 

'As a department, we will always want to look over the students’ sketchbooks to see how they are progressing, but having students upload photos of their work to online groups and galleries have been great. 

That kind of digital exchange aids conversation. However, the natural exchange of ideas in the classroom and going around the classroom and giving support and guidance to students in a lesson is very important. Particularly with creative subjects, it is important to look at things together, share ideas, and give praise in person. 

We will continue with some digital learning, such as bringing experts into the classroom via video link is so easy, and that’s something we would like to do more of in the future. But at the moment, I’m just really looking forward to getting back into the classroom and seeing the students in person.'

What is your favourite Compendium Resource? 

'I love the Tate website for younger students, it is a great introduction to researching artists, older students use the gallery search function to find relevant material about the artists they study’

You can find Tate resources on our Compendium website here.

If you want to see our video interview with Will Pym simply click the image below: