My speech about my experience with VTS at the first european symposium, held in Amsterdam september 2012.
VTS in an educational perspective in the Danish school system
VTS Symposium at The Reade Center. September 27th 2012.
By Monica Langelund
I am very happy that I’ve been invited to speak at this symposium. VTS has since 2009 grown to be more than a method to me and it’s a joy for me to be able to share this with an audience like you.
I will be talking about VTS in an educational perspective in the Danish school system in this speech, but let me start by introducing myself: My name is Monica Langelund, I’m from Denmark. And so far I’m the only one practising VTS in Denmark.
First, I’d like to give you a short introduction to how I found VTS, living in a tiny country on the other side of the world from the home country of VTS.
I have a background being a teacher in an elementary school, where the children are from the age 5-10. I was an art teacher for 6 years but stopped teaching back in 2008. From 2008-2011 I took a master degree in child- and youth culture with an antropological perspective focusing on aesthetic development and during my study I came across VTS. I first read about VTS through the website of the Eric Carle Picture Book Museum in Massachusetts. This museum has developed their own method with inspiration from VTS. I then googled VTS and it was clear to me that this method was something I had to learn so I read everything I could about VTS on their website and decided to go to Seattle to participate in the first course out of three.
I knew from the very first day at the course back in 2009 that VTS was ‘the answer’ to a lot of my frustrations I experienced as a teacher. Like how do I create an honest, true dialogue with my students? As a teacher I often ended up asking my students questions where I somehow had what I thought was the right answer in the back of my mind. I knew I wanted it to be different but I did not know how to approach this dilemma. VTS offered a concret method to keep focus on what the children actually would have to say, and not what I wanted them to say in a discussion. I guess you can say that VTS made it easier for me to focus on my own role as a teacher and at the same time I realised how difficult it is to change your routines and professional behaviour.
With this in mind I went back to Denmark and got in contact with a school where I made an arrangement with a couple of teachers about doing VTS with their students once a month – on a volunteer basis. I started out with 3 different classes, but after one year I only continued with two of the classes.
The first half year was very frustrating for me on a personal level since I wasn’t working at the school. I never knew what room we would be in and sometimes we would end up in the library surrounded by a lot of noise. Once we even sat at the stairs and obviously it did not work at all. One of the classes had huge problems and ended up fighting in my one of VTS discussions. All in all I spend the first half year learning that to do VTS you need to create routines and have a suitable psysical room. So simple, yet so important. When I managed to have this arranged I experienced a group of children being really exited about VTS. I always started the discussions by repeating ‘remember you can’t say anything wrong here and I’d really like to hear what comes to your mind when you see this image...’. over time I experienced most of the children taking part in the discussions.
One story I like in particular is about a boy from the middleeast. Clearly he was skeptical about me being there so he tested me in the beginning. He had what I would call rather ‘silly’ comments about the image I showed the class but I paraphrased his comments and I think he realised that I respected him. Once he said something like they were all high and drunk in the image and the rest of the class disagreed but I let him speak. He ended up participating in the discussions, slightly insecure but still willing to try. Obviously he wasn’t used to this kind of attention and I realised he hardly had a language apart from the offensive language he had used in the beginning. I told his teacher that he participated and the teacher was supprised. Hussein? She would ask. And she was a good teacher but I don’t think she had the time – or dare I say skills - to actually see this boy’s ressources. I always enjoy telling this story because to me this is indeed an example of the power of VTS. But it is also an example of how teachers tend to not give all students a fair chance even though the intention is to give all children a chance. The more I practise VTS, the more I integrate the essense of VTS in my life in general, the more I realise how we as teachers often have our own agendas even though we talk about dialogue based education.
I’ve taken this approach with me into my personal life too. I have an 11 year-old daugther. She loves all kinds of art and even though I’ve never done an actual VTS discussion with her she understands the essence of VTS. Earlier this year she said to me: You want to know what children see and what they think. You really like children.
I thought that was a nice comment because it said something about what’s important for a real dialogue, seen from a child’s perspective. Children need to feel seen, they need to feel safe to speak up. But as adults we tend to forget this in our eager to focus on the content of the dialogue. The content of a discussion seems to become more important than the participants. Quite often to a degree that makes the teacher do a monologue to make sure the so called important things will be said.
Shortly after my first visit to Seattle in 2009 I had a workshop with a group of teachers, introducing them to VTS. The workshop was arranged by a theatre organisation that wanted a better collaboration with the schools. It did not go very well, to be honest. Not only was I insecure. I did not understand the essence of VTS myself at that point. So, all the teachers were skeptical and holding back, obviously afraid of making a fool of themselves in a place outside their comfortzone.
Honestly, I felt like an idiot after that workshop but in reality I learned something very important. Most adults are not that different from children. Once we leave our comfort zone – nomatter where or what that is – we still need some kind of security. The framing of a VTS discussion offers that kind of security, I think. Because there’s room for all comments.
I’ve also realised that teachers can be really difficult to impress. I don’t know if it’s a danish thing but teachers are introduced to so many new ideas and programmes that I believe it’s a natural mechanism to avoid an inner meltdown. They HAVE to be critical. After all they deal with the education of the children on an everyday basis and they can’t integrate all the programs they are being introduced to. It’s just not possible.
Introducing VTS as another dialoguebased method to teachers doesn’t seem to impress them. There’s enough of that already. But once you focus on the role of the facilitator it is my experience that they will listen differently.
It’s taken me more than 3 years to fully understand the difference between VTS and other dialoguebased methods myself. I’ve met lots of critique and skepticism. But it’s quite clear to me now how VTS offers students a real chance to be heard in a safe environment. And the reason for this is the fairly strict role of the facilitator that ensures that the facilitator doesn’t end up taking the discussion into a direction he or she personally finds interesting. Which is probably what most teachers still do nowadays. Because it is how we are trained as teachers. Even in 2012.
Let’s go back to my experience doing VTS at this school.
It wasn’t only Hussein that had something to say about the images. I had specifically chosen a school with a high number of bilingual students that struggled and what I learned from doing VTS at this school was that a lot of the bilingual students had something to say about the image selection from VUE. I remember I had talked with the VTS staff whether the images would be suitable for danish school children or not, having this multicultural theme. It turned out it was a perfect selection for these children coming from such different cultures. It was quite often the bilingual students who were mostly engaged in the conversations, probably because they could relate to the images in a different way than the ‘danish’ students.
And this is where I have to add a critique of the Danish ministry of education. I had a meeting with them in january this year where I told them about VTS. I was quite honered to even get this appointment. They found the method to be interesting but they were very sketical about the images. I told them the images worked well but obviously some images by Danish artists would be relevant too.
There’s an image with a mother sitting with what could be her naked child, wrapped in a blanket. The ministry of education said that they were worried about the reactions from the parents to these bilingual students, because the child was half naked.
In my opinion there’s nothing disturbing about that image and I tried to tell them that the particular image was very popular among the bilingual students because they could relate to the culture depicted in the image. They noticed details I had not even noticed or seen as important. But the ministry was not convinced. The same thing happend with an image of a Mardi Gras festival.
The ministry claimed that the children would not be able to relate to this image, it was too american. I told them the children had lots of things to say about that image. They talked about the clothes, the expressions on the faces, festivals in the streets, the houses. All the details in the photo. The children did not care if this was an american tradition or not. They made sense out of what they saw in the image. And they saw lots of things.
I think it’s relevant to tell about this meeting because to me it sums up where the official Denmark is in terms of dialogue based education. Apparently we still want to ‘control’ not only what’s appropriate to talk about. We also seem to know what children have to say about art and how they see the world they live in. As adults we still know better.
I left the meeting with the Ministry of education with them suggesting I’d make a new method out of VTS, specifically developed for bilingual students. It took me half a day to think this over and my conclusion was: why change something that works? And why develop something for a specific group of children when the good thing about VTS is that anyone can participate. And learn from each other. The discussions I had with the children at this school became interesting because the children had such different backgrounds.
I was pretty desillusioned after this meeting because I felt very alone with this experience of what VTS offers. I adressed this frustration to Oren Slotsberg from the VUE in an email and he replied something I keep reminding myself. Oren had learned over the years that people higher up in the hierachy are less open to new ideas unless it is their own ideas. Oren, I hope it’s okay to quote you for this. I think it is very very true and it’s good to remember when you work outside the system and try and introduce something new.
This is why an event like this in Amsterdam is so important. To keep focus and stay inspired despite the challenges we meet on our way. And adding to this I feel like telling that I tried to get the official danish school magazine to write about this event and focus on VTS but they replied that it did sound interesting but they would only write about things that were already integrated in the danish school system. And the experience I’ve done with VTS so far does not count as a valuable experience because I did it on a volunteer basis and there’s been no one to report back to.
I know the dutch school magazine wrote about VTS because they called me and made an interview with me. And thumbs up for ‘daring’ to look new ways in the dutch school system!
I’ve also tried doing VTS with these school children where they had nothing to say about the image I showed them. Very frustrating! This was indeed a challenge for me. Maybe I personally found the image I showed them really interesting. Maybe I had been looking forward to this particular image and I wanted the children to have a nice discussion about this image. But I’ve decided right from the start of doing VTS that I wanted to practise the method as it is and not make up my own rules along the way when something seemed to be ‘not working’. This is not because I’m against creating new methods out of existing methods but because I know that it takes a lot of time to become a really good facilitator. And I know that if I had taken on the traditional role of the teacher when I met this silence from the class, I could loose what I had just created with this group of children. Mutual trust. The children understood within a few VTS-discussions the premises for VTS. They would often start by asking: What’s going on in this picture? before I even did.
The funny thing is that the children never had a problem with their silence if there wasn’t much to say about an image. And I guess there’s a lesson for children in that as well: they don’t always have to say something just because we as teachers want them to. That is a good reflection in itself.
I also did VTS with a group of kindergarden children in the age 5-6. Children usually start school at this age in Denmark and this group of children was about to finish life in kindergarden. One group was best friends and loved doing VTS-conversations. They had lots of things to say and their level of reflecting was surprisingly high. They did not only list things, but reflected on what they saw. I did my master thesis focusing on this group. They were 9 in all, 5 boys, 4 girls. I noticed how lively they were when they talked about the images. I found it disturbing but I ended up allowing them to get up to find out why they did it. They would get up, they would use their bodylanguage and they would interact with eachother. I knew this wasn’t part of the VTS-method since it’s a cognitive method focusing on aesthetic thinking, but what I learned from this group was that aesthetic thinking for this age is closely linked to their bodylanguage. They use their bodylanguage to express themselves. Because this is the language they are familiar with from physical play. When they play robots they become robots and act like robots. The development of a childs spoken language is closely linked to their physical movement. In our VTS-discussions the boys would get up and act like a jumping horse or a man with one leg and it would make it easier for them to find the words they were looking for. One day one of the boys couldn’t find the word he needed and he would look at his friend that could imitate a cowboy using a gun.
Now I still quite don’t know how to integrate this knowledge with the ‘traditional’ VTS-discussions. You obviously can’t have a large group of children jumping around while you’re doing VTS. At least I can’t. But if you as a kindergarden teacher learn the idea of VTS you may be able to use VTS in the daily conversations with the children creating room for physical movement while you talk.
I also went to a museum with both the school children and the kindergarden children. The kindergarden children had pen and paper with them and I gave them a drawing assignment after a VTS discussion. We had discussed an Alexander Calder mobile and the children had seen a rocket, a banana, a helicopter and other things in this mobile and I asked them to draw what they saw. It engaged them in the visit really well. The school children on the other hand did not get pen and paper and I found the visit to be missing something. I would like some day to make a project doing VTS for a whole year with a class, going regularly to the museum. I only had time to go once and I only had time to do writing samples with the kindergarden children because I was working in the kindergarden. So I can’t not ‘prove’ the change with the school children but I noticed growth.
This was one of the many frustrations of doing VTS as a volunteer - I couldn’t plan anything. I completely depended on the teacher’s interest in my project. And since the teachers I collaborated with didn’t get paid for their part in the project they did not have much time or energy for the project. One of the teachers had a class with so many problems that we had to stop the VTS-discussions but I couldn’t help thinking what VTS could have done if the teacher or someone working at the school could do VTS with the class. That was indeed a class that needed to see and listen to eachother. The school principal at the school I did VTS at didn’t show any interest in the project. I did try to tell him about the project but I was basically this stranger that showed up once a month So I’ve also learned that working on a volunteer basis is good and noble and all, but if you want attention and respect and to be taken seriously you HAVE to get paid for what you do.
I do think though that the children liked the fact that I was someone from outside the school. I was different and I didn’t focus on their daily doings like homework etc. They always came to me and showed excitement. This proves to me how children react to VTS. Some days it seemed to be the logistics that was the biggest problem.
A teacher wrote a note to me after the first year of doing VTS at the school. She talked with her class and this is what they said about VTS:
We learn to listen to eachother, what we all have to say
We learn words we didn’t know to begin with
We learn to look at images
And everything we say has value and that is such a nice feeling.
The teacher hardly knew anything about VTS, but she would without doubt have been an excellent facilitator though - so this is indeed the childrens’ own words.
While I find it a challenge to get the ‘VTS-method’ through to the schools, the cultural world shows a different interest in VTS in Denmark.
A lot of work is done these years focusing on how to create better collaboration between cultural institutions like museums and theatres - and schools. Like most other contries Denmark has a lot of focus on test and good results within the school system. There’s another freedom within the arts to be less test-focused. The children’s theatres in particular find the VTS-method interesting. And as I mentioned already my very first VTS-job was in collaboration with a theatre foundation. I’ve done VTS a couple of times with a class after a theatre play. It worked really well, I think. One class was the class I knew from the school where I did VTS. Even though a VTS discussion based on a play and not an image is far more abstract the 4th graders did not have any problems participating in the discussion. The theatre group had some themes they hoped would be brought up by the children. And the children did bring up those themes by themselves. But they also talked about other things, that a more controlled dialogue would not necesarilly have left room for. For a lot of the children coming to the theatre was a whole new experience. They usually go to the cinema. So they had a lot of focus on the scenography, the costumes and the props and they managed to link these aspects of the play with the story.
It is my experience that what we as teachers need to get used to when doing VTS is the lack of conclusions and how a VTS discussion can end up in several unexpected directions. Control is definitely something we as teachers need to learn to let go of. Or redefine. Because most often I find that a VTS discussion ends up slightly chaotic and by that I mean without one red line going through the discussion. But I also have no doubt that new thoughts and a new understanding will come from this so called chaos.
I think we are in the middle of a paradigm shift in western education. And I believe VTS is part of the future. After I did my master thesis I’ve been contacted by students from 3 different Danish universities. They wanted to read my master thesis. Some studied communication. Some studied psychology and some pedagogy. It tells me that there’s a growing interest for doing things differently.
As a final note:
I tried doing VTS with a group of adults at a museum for a while. They were very well educated, they knew art history much better than me. They started out the first time as if it was a ‘I know more than you do’ competetion. But when they realised that it wasn’t the agenda they relaxed and we had some really interesting conversations where I found my role to be irrrelevant after a few discussions. One of the participants came to me and said. I go to museums on a regular basis. I’m in an art-group at my job but I’ve never before looked at art the way I do now. He was 60 years old.
In fact I often find myself seeing the world through VTS-glasses. Whenever I see conflicts, in the media or my daily life, VTS comes to my mind. How we need to learn the skills that VTS offers.
So I know I may sound slighty religious whenever I talk about VTS, but as I started out saying: VTS has become so much more than a method to me.
See the images mentioned in the speech HERE - you will find them under my name: Presentation Monica Langelund.
See a five minute clip of co-founder Philip Yenawine talking about VTS at the symposium HERE.