Well, there's no denying it at this point: Summer is Over! However, it's not something to be sad about. Sure, I know we enjoy those lazy days of sitting by the pool, but we can't just lay around forever. Personally, I am looking forward to the return, though there will be some challenges for me this year and there are definite changes.
For starters, we have a new digital art teacher, Mr. Lucas Gearhart. He comes to us from Las Vegas with a background in teaching digital arts for over a decade and a formal training in the fine arts. So, I am certain that I will learn a lot from him and look forward to working closely with him in the future development of our digital art programs.
Another change is the addition of a middle school course in the digital arts. While it is solely intended for students in the 8th grade, my hope is that there is enough interest in it at the middle school level to justify bringing in a third CTE teacher down the road. Only time will tell! This will be the first digital arts course offered at DSA for middle school students in close to a decade. And, we are catering the course to provide students with an understanding of some of the basics involved in our high school curriculum. So there will be a lot of work involved with this addition.
So, I wish everyone a good start to the school year and hope that sentiment continues throughout the year. I can't wait to see you all tomorrow for Day 1!
One of the things I have long struggled with is the idea of flipping my classroom. And, after reading the article Flipped Classroom: What to Know in 2019 by Elizabeth Trach, it got me thinking about it again. Maybe it's my age or the way I experienced school as a child, but even with the best of intentions, I have a hard time with letting go of classroom instruction in favor of instruction solely taking place outside the classroom. Perhaps, it's a trust issue that the kids won't do their part and then I will cave in and do it in class anyway. I'm not 100% sure. But, every time I come back to this point, I always intend to flip at the start of the year and then back off as the year progresses. Maybe it's the routine of past experience? I know that part of my concern is for students who lack access to the technology needed to see the instruction. Again, I am at odds with this. I constantly tell students:
But, I have a solution!
Rather than completely flipping my classroom, I do a partial flip. By a partial flip, I mean that I still spend face-to-face time lecturing my students, usually in the form of hands-on demonstration with accompanying explanation, but all of my materials are also shared through Schoology, either in written or video formats. That way, students who miss a lecture can still access the information outside of my classroom to stay up-to-date with the rest of the class.
Despite still taking time for lecture, the majority of my in-class time is spent doing hands-on activities where students work through the tasks presented at their own pace, within certain deadlines. Most activities contain a video tutorial demonstrating the skills needed to succeed and students can pause and repeat portions as needed until they understand the tool or technique being used. And, this instructional method allows me the freedom to help those in most need in a one-on-one manner while those who don't need personal attention continue working on their assignments and learning at their own pace.
So, while the odds of me completely flipping my classroom still seems far off, I plan on continuing to use the portions of this great technique that I feel work best in my unique situation. Maybe some day I will completely flip my lid (don't ask the kids, they'll say that already happened!)
DSA always has the best graduations. We hear this every year along with encouragement to attend as graduation celebrates both our students and our success as teachers in helping them make it to this major life transition. Plus, the kids love to see us there supporting their achievement! After 16 years of teaching, I am proud to say that I have attended 14 of these annual ceremonies. The only graduations that I have missed were for one class where I really didn't have a connection with any of the seniors very early in my career as an educator and the year my son graduated from Northern High School. While the core of each ceremony is the same, there are subtle differences between them as well. And, the same goes with each graduating class.
Although I see a small percentage of any one graduating class in my classroom, I get to know my students in ways that most teachers rarely do as my seniors generally stick with me throughout their entire time in high school. So we tend to form strong bonds, both professional and personal, over the course of their four years of exploring game design. In this year's class, I saw amazing artistic talent with both digital and traditional artistic techniques, great leadership and collaboration, amazing and (at times) surprising growth, I watched as individuals came out of their shells to rise in personal confidence and yes, I worried about whether a couple of them would make it to graduation or if they would be back in my classroom for an extra year. But, through all the ups and down (and there were a lot of those roller coasters throughout this year), this group of students showed amazing growth and perseverance. They were a great group and the lack of their presence in my classroom will be missed.
I wish all of this year's graduates the best in whatever life has to offer them now that they have passed this first hurdle toward independence. I see great things ahead for them!
Walking into my classroom this week, I could feel it, the end is near! Parents know it, teachers know it, and the kids DEFINITELY know it. This is the time of year when one of two things always happens: kids either start to lose their minds in anticipation for summer break or they realize just how close we are to the end and buckle down to finish strong. For some students, especially freshmen, it can be this final push that determines whether they move forward into the next class or repeat the one they are currently in. Unlike many of their core classes, there is no opportunity to make up lost credit for any of my classes during summer school. So, my hope is that everyone stays focused and finishes strong.
It is also a time for students to remain focused outside of school in preparation for exams. Although my classes don't have a state mandated exams this year (one benefit to courses being in pilot status), my students will still have an exam that counts for 20% of their grade, unless they meet the exemption criteria discussed below. This gives me a little more flexibility than the state exams in determining what my students have taken away from the school year. State exams in CTE consist of 100 multiple choice questions. While many students find these exams to be quite easy, I do not like this manner of determining mastery of the curriculum. My reasoning - some students fully understand the concepts, tools, and techniques they learned throughout the year but they simply don't test well. However, in having the freedom to create my own exam, I have a solution.
This year, my classes will do a three-part exam. They will still be expected to identify important terms based on various scenarios presented in a multiple choice test but they will also be given a piece of digital art to create (hands-on demonstration of skills) and a written reflection to show mastery and understanding. While this will make grading their exams a much slower process for me, I believe it will give students a better opportunity to demonstrate what they learned this year.
In case you are wondering about exam exemptions after reading what your exam will look like, you need to satisfy two criteria: grade and attendance. If a student has an overall grade of an A for the year, they must have no more than six absences to be exempt. If they have an overall grade of a B, the attendance requirement is no more than four absences. However, it is also important to know that while this allows a student to skip the exam, they may also opt to take it as it will not harm their grade and if they are close to jumping to a higher grade (for instance, they have a high C average for the year and only need a couple of points to jump to a B) they may want to take it anyway. Doing so can boost their final grade and while it may not seem like it at the current time, this boost in grade can help raise their overall GPA down the road, which matters for college applications.
So, in summary, while the end of the school year is very close, it is important to remain focused and finish strong. These last couple of weeks can determine what you are doing next year. Save the rest and playing around for summer break, not now.
This past week, our community experienced a very scary tragedy. A gas line exploded just outside the boundaries of our campus. It was close enough that every building on campus felt the force of the blast and the building where it took place was completely leveled to the ground resulting in one casualty, several injuries and a number of buildings exhibiting exterior damage at best and being condemned entirely due to major structural damage at worst. This event has forever changed the face of the streets surrounding our school.
While this is clearly a tragic event in terms of the losses for the community, one thing that worries me as a teacher is how it will affect both students and staff at our school specifically, especially those in the building closest to the explosion. Our school was closed for several days, mainly due to our inability to access the campus. However, I am sure everyone appreciated the time to process what had just occurred as well. Our school system used the time to offer counseling to anyone who felt the need to talk with professionals about the loss as well. Many of our students and staff frequented Kaffeinate regularly and came to feel welcomed by the shop's owner and staff. So this will be a particularly difficult time for them.
Now that the area is being cleared and safety around it is restored, we are returning to school tomorrow on a delay. So this is when we start asking those big questions such as:
These are hard questions to answer. While most teachers have adjusted to helping students through any number of hardships in life, this kind of tragedy is not something teachers are trained for providing assistance to our school community. I don't know what will happen next, but I do know this tragic event has had an effect on all of us at DSA and will continue to do so for quite some time. One thing that I am grateful for is that nobody associated with our school was hurt in the blast and despite the close proximity, none of our buildings were damaged. For me, this is a good starting point for helping everyone I come into contact with at school cope with the events of this past week.
I recently received a copy of Schoology's annual report on the state of digital learning and found the contents to be interesting, though not necessarily surprising. You can read it for yourself to see how schools across the US are looking at tech in the classroom. But, one thing I found interesting was the top three challenges high school teachers reported facing to integrating technology in their lessons. These included:
This is a major problem as I am sure most school districts are similar to ours in terms of requiring teachers to incorporate more technology into their lessons. However, without the proper training, teachers often fall back on the outdated technology tools and skills they have been using for over a decade. Things like: create a PowerPoint presentation on xxx or having students use word processors such as MS Word or Google Docs to write a report and then share it with the teacher when submitting their finished product. And then comes the item I normally hear: I'm using an interactive board when I lecture, doesn't that count as using technology? On that last question, I often tell the teacher something like 'Sure...if you only want the students to see technology. But, how are you preparing them for the modern digital world by using technology?' While these uses might meet the barebones requirement in meeting district mandates, they are certainly not the most interesting or sometimes even the most relevant way to do so in our current educational environment. And, they do nothing to really prepare students for the modern world outside of the classroom.
But, there is good news: there are a lot of free resources online that teachers have access to, if they only make the effort to do so. And, while this may not be true in all school districts, many offer teachers the opportunity to put this personalized training into use towards license renewal by converting the time spent into continuing education units (CEUs).
Teaching at a magnet school with an art-based focus, we use a lot of the Adobe products in terms of digital tools, as well as a few more specialized tools for my class. Adobe offers (some) free tools as well as their popular CC Suite subscription service. One such free tool is Spark, which allows users to create graphics, simple videos and webpages using their own individual Adobe ID, which can be created for free as well! They also offer free training that is incredible through their Education Exchange. I have been encouraging educators at our school, and beyond, to check out this amazing free resource!
Another way teachers can incorporate technology in their lessons involves using a learning management system (LMS) such as Schoology. While I have explored several LMSs, I have found Schoology to be among the best available. It allows me to interact with my students both inside and outside of the classroom and has become an essential tool in how I communicate with parents as well. Many teachers and school districts are using Google Classroom for a lot of the same reasons, but personally, I find Schoology to have more and better functionality. At least it better fits the needs of myself and my families.
A third and final essential category of digital tools that teachers should incorporate into their lessons are project management tools. While there are lots of free options out there, the one that I use in my classroom is Trello. Tools like this help prepare students for real-world project management tasks, they are great for both individual and group projects, and if used effectively, teach students the time management and collaborations soft skills needed to succeed both in the world of work and often, life in general.
These are just three of the many ways that technology can be brought into the classroom in a more interesting and effective manner. As I said before, there are plenty of free resources out there if teachers take the time to look for them and put them to use.
I guess the important take-away from this report for me is pretty simple: educators are both being required and want to use technology to prepare students for the 21st century but they need appropriate and up-to-date guidance in what to use and how to use it effectively. Teachers may complain that we are required to participate in too much professional development as mandated by our schools and/or districts, but this isn't the problem when it comes to technology. The problem is that the PD tends to be outdated and ineffective in terms of modern digital tools.
I have always loved snow days. When I was in school, it meant a day off to play and frolic in a winter wonderland. We would build snowmen and snow forts, have snowball fights, go sledding and just spend the entire day enjoying everything that winter had to offer in New England.
Now that I am an adult and working in education, I find these days to be mixed blessings. Sure, I still enjoy the opportunity to take a day off and catch my breath, but there are consequences to doing so that I never realized as a kid. Sure, I knew we would need to make up the day, usually by extending the length of the school year, but there is so much more to it now that I am the one in front of the class.
Instead of taking a day off to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery, I find myself spending time re-arranging the lessons I had already planned out thoughtfully for timing and deadlines. Everything needs to shift...somewhere, some how. And usually we still need to cover the same material by the same quarterly deadline. Instead of the school year being extended for these days off, Durham works make-up days into the middle of the school year. Plans you make today for an extended break such as the Winter or Spring Breaks may need to be changed as you cannot always count on having the full time as originally shown on the calendar. However, I also use these days to create new activities for my students, catch up on grading, and sometimes (like now) do a little reflecting on how things are going at a much more relaxed pace than I would have if we were in school. I also make sure to take at least a couple of hours off from doing work, as I know I will be losing a day off at some other point in the school year.
It's not all bad. I hope my students and their families have enjoyed this extended weekend and used it to spend some time catching up on rest, catching up on work and spending time together as a family. Yes, there are definite mixed feelings about snow days as a teacher, but in short, I think they are the universe's way of saying 'I know you need a break, let's take one today!'
Creativity is a process. Creativity requires skill. Creativity involves risk.
In recent years, there seems to be a belief that there are big creators and there are small creators. Generally, the category that you fall into is based solely on the number of online followers you have. The #NoSmallCreator movement, which was started by influencer Cody Wanner, wants to put an end to the myth that there are big vs. small creators. All creators do the same thing: pull ideas out of their heads and drop them in a public forum for their audience's pleasure and/or scrutiny. Every creator has an impact on those who see their artwork, regardless of the medium used to create it. It is important to realize that while the number of one's online followers can be fickle, the process a creator goes through is not.
The creative process, regardless of who the artist is, involves realizing they have something to share, planning how to share that idea, CREATING it, and finally sharing their creation with the rest of the world, typically in some kind of online format these days. EVERY creative endeavor is a big deal. It doesn't matter if the artwork takes the form of video games, photography, sculpture, video, music, creative writing, or whatever. Creativity is an intimate look into the artist's innermost thoughts and feelings. For many of us who are creative, coming out of our personal protective shells is not an easy task and accepting criticism is difficult to handle. Doing so requires a lot of bravery. So, this is no small feat, especially for high school students.
So the next time you create something and share it with the world, remember: you ARE having an impact on someone, you WILL improve from the feedback you receive, and you are not a small creator regardless of how many people see your creation.
For more on being a creator, check out this short video from Cody Wanner in celebration of the unofficial #NoSmallCreator day:
As you may have read by now, I have been doing a lot of courses through the Adobe Education Exchange. I absolutely LOVE working with the Adobe applications and consider these free courses to be a form of both relaxation and potential source of lessons for my classes. This week, Adobe held it's annual MAX conference. This is an event where thousands of digital creatives get together each year to learn about the latest and greatest changes coming to the Adobe products. The other night, I was listening to the live stream when I got prompted to update my software. I like to stay abreast of the latest changes and therefore did so without hesitation. Well...that may have at least partially been a mistake this time around!
This evening, I decided to complete my second 360 degree video for the VR in the Classroom course I am taking. I opened Premiere and opted to import some footage I captured last weekend while hiking Pilot Mountain here in NC. To my surprise, the only thing to come into Premiere was the audio!
Panic mode set in immediately. So, I took to the Adobe Generation Professional Facebook group of which I am a member and through out an all call for assistance. Not being one to wait too long, and seeing another Adobe friend online, I asked what he knew about importing 360 footage and described my situation to him. As I pointed out, I had done this before and now none of my footage, even footage that didn't give me any problems, was experiencing this issue. His response: reinstall the older version of Premiere! His suggestion was quickly echoed by another expert from Adobe. Personally, I hadn't realized one could run multiple versions of the software simultaneously. Jim also shared a Spark Page he created explaining the process of doing so.
After a few minutes spent downloading and installing the previous version of Premiere, I was off and running again without any more glitches. Although I knew where the problem originated, it was good to learn that one can run multiple versions of the software without any conflicts. My finished video is below if you want to check it out.
This weekend, I had an amazing opportunity, I joined a small group of teachers from across North Carolina at Epic Games in Cary, NC to learn about the Unreal Game Engine!
Our visit started off with a tour of the facility or at least the areas that we were able to see, that is. The first stop was a hallway lined by framed examples of products put out by Epic Games over the years. I never realized just how far back Epic's history went. It all began with a map on paper in 1991 and a game called ZZT with all of Epic Megagames titles distributed on floppy disks. I was thrilled to see Jill of the Jungle from 1994 on the wall which I had received in a mail order package of games back when I was in college. Somehow, I never realized it was created by Epic! The "wall of fame" identified several game titles such as Jazz Jackrabbit, Unreal Tournament, Gears of War, Infinity Blade, Fortnite, and of course, the release of the Unreal game engine.
The hallway opened up into a large open space where we were first shown pictures of Epic's teams located in offices all around the world. Epic is a private company but they have several worldwide offices including teams located in Germany, China, Canada, the Chair team, and so forth. But, their Cary headquarters contains the largest collection of employees in a single location.
This large space was also their cafeteria. We were informed that at Epic Games, all of the food and drink in the cafeteria is completely free. Employees can work long hours and Epic doesn't want their employees to have to worry about leaving the site to grab a bite. This is especially important at crunch time, when employees are likely to spend very long days in the office. I also noticed they had some areas to help employees blow off a little steam: there was a climbing wall, a slide from the second to first floors and several tabletop games such as air hockey. It looked like the game room also gave employees a place to play video games but it was nice to see they had options that allowed them to do things away from a screen if they wished. I'm sure that is important when you spend all day looking at a screen and a break from it might be nice at times.
When our tour ended, we returned to a conference room for the meat of why we were there: getting some hands-on experience with the Unreal game engine from the experts who created it! The conference room itself was amazing. They had set up laptops with separate keyboards and mice for us to use along with snacks and swag to take home. The hospitality they expressed was amazing and something that we, as teachers, are not accustomed to receiving. It was definitely appreciated!
We spent the next several hours going through the game engine. We explored interface basics and how to move around in the engine, creating a basic projects, basic workflow and standard naming conventions, working with objects (actors) and using blueprints for coding actions. To be honest, it was a ton of information and I could have easily spent several more days just getting my feet wet with it. But, a few things were abundantly clear to me from this experience.
For starters, using Unreal is a lot easier to understand than the Unity game engine, which is what we currently use in Game Art & Design as well as Advanced Game Art & Design at DSA. A lot of the features overlap between the two engines, especially when when you look at creating environments. And, the basic tools are similar to other software students learn, such as 3ds Max. But, the biggest thing that students struggle with in Unity is understanding the basics of programming using the C# language. This is often the point of contention for most of my very artistic students and while they can follow the steps in a tutorial, I often find they don't understand why they are keying in what they type despite several weeks spent on learning C# coding. Unreal helps to destroy this barrier of entry using a method known as blueprints. Blueprints are a node based method of writing code using a more visual interface instead of keying in line after line of text. In other words, it is very intuitive. That being said, one can access the code itself and code away to their heart's content, but they don't have to for the majority (or even any) of the game development process unless they really want to. This by itself makes moving to the Unreal engine highly enticing.
The next thing I noticed about the Unreal engine was the level of immediate functionality it provides to young game designers. Almost immediately, a student can get a game up and running simply by dropping any of the predefined actors into a level. Support is provided for common player modes including: 1st and 3rd person, puzzles, wheeled and flying vehicles, and even virtual reality! Creating the environment is as simple as painting what you want on the mesh using tools that are easy to understand. The same is true in terms of materials/skins and using particles, though the student will need to edit simple and easy to understand parameters as well. In short, students can get the basics down in a matter of minutes, not weeks!
Another important thing to note with respect to teaching young developers involves having access to up-to-date resources regarding the tools they are learning. Unreal has this mastered in a neat and easy to use online compendium of resources. One of my biggest complaints with Unity has been how they keep adding more resources with minimal updating for the current engine version they offer. In other words - they leave old tutorials relevant to earlier versions without providing easy to find information on how or even if they work with the latest version. It's a growing list with minimal replacement going back several versions that makes finding relevant resources more difficult, though not impossible. So, I am not a fan of their support site.
As a teacher, another area of importance to me is how well a company supports education. Epic has done an amazing job with this! The sheer magnitude of educational resources provided, access to in-engine assistance, and having expressed a willingness to help educators and students in person really fits the bill on this issue. Representatives from Epic games have been helping local colleges for quite some time now and we were the first group of high school teachers they have worked with but they expressed interest in continuing the conversations with us over time. Personally, I am looking forward to this and commend Epic for putting such effort into educating young game designers!
Also on the educator side, CTE teachers are constantly being told about the importance of making local industry connections for our students. Epic is a worldwide company that is directly relevant to our curriculum and students AND they are located right in our own backyard! On top of that, they are the creators of what is arguably the most popular game in the world at the moment. What more could a game design teacher want in terms of creating connections between content and industry outside of the classroom setting than to make a connection with them?
At the end of the day, I left mentally exhausted with a ton of reflect on. But, one thing is certain: I am completely sold on the idea that making the shift from the Unity game engine to the Unreal game engine is something we need to seriously consider. The cost is right (Unreal, like Unity, is completely free to use and contains no information sniffers, so privacy is ensured), it has a lower barrier to entry for learning, and with the company being local, especially when Unity is not local, makes Epic Games a great hands-on inspiration and resource for both students and educators. But, making this move is not without difficulties.
The Unreal game engine really needs a higher quality computer than what we typically have in our classrooms. My student machines are running with an i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and an older NVIDIA Geforce GTX 680 graphics card. I have tried running Unreal on this setup before (and plan to test it out again soon) and as I recall, the experience was excruciating! The engine lagged, it stopped running at times or had graphics issues and it crashed, quite a bit. Maybe I need some assistance tweaking settings to make it operate more efficiently and plan on reaching out to Epic once I verify our specs, but the laptops we used in the training were i7s with NVIDIA 1070 cards in them. I forgot to ask how much RAM they had. Testing the engine on my personal laptop with an i7, 16GB, and an NVIDIA 1060, it runs smooth. So, we need to think about what we purchase when replacement machines are due for labs teaching game design. On the bright side, the cost of such high quality hardware continues dropping every day and finding a system with the specs to run Unreal for a reasonable cost shouldn't be too hard by the time we are due for replacement machines.
A second concern is the discussion of 2D vs. 3D games. Unreal is designed mainly for 3D game creation and we didn't discuss the possibility of 2D in our training, but there are some options for game modes that imply it can be used for such. This is just something that will need additional investigation. But, I wouldn't let this stop me from using Unreal in my classroom.
In short, nothing is perfect, especially when talking about using technology in a public school system setting. But, I believe the pros of making a switch from Unity to Unreal far outweighs the downsides. So, I'm going to make a concerted effort to ensure we can and do make this change, supporting a local NC business while that same local business supports our education efforts.
I am a high school Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher located in Durham, NC with a focus on game art and design. This blog provides a place for reflection on relevant classroom practices.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer or anyone else associated with Durham Public Schools.