I warn my readers now: some of what I write today might not be the most popular with many people, but I feel this is an important topic in need of being addressed with families and students, in particular.
Every year, I have at least one (and usually several more than one) student(s) who asks me a question I truly despise: is this good enough for a 100? This dreaded question has already been presented to me a couple of times this school year and I am sure I will be asked it many more times before June. Every time a student questions me in this manner, I respond the same way: I honestly don't care about the grade, I care that you learn the tools and techniques being taught in the lesson. If you are only concerned about the grade, I provided a rubric. Have you compared your work against it? If you learn the tools and techniques, the grade will follow. Now, allow me to explain this response.
Over the years, while working in education and before, I have seen a shift in mentality among policy makers, educational institutions (both higher learning and secondary schools in particular but it is now creeping into primary schools as well), parents and students. Once upon a time, a grade was supposed to indicate both what you currently know and what you need to spend more time focusing on in order to be prepared for what is to come. Nothing more, nothing less. These days, that thought has morphed into all that matters is the final number.
The message started at the federal level and has been working its way down through local educational policy makers for several years now. All students should expect to attend college. And, colleges tend to use each student's final average as their overall (or at least major) indicator for acceptance vs. rejection. So, it is understandable that the grade has become the focus for many parents and students alike. Every parent wants their child to be successful and in today's world, attending a good college often coincides with this desire, although it is not the only way to be successful. But, of equal importance, should be a deep understanding of the material being taught. If a student only learns in order to receive a grade, they are not looking at the larger picture and are not truly prepared for later classes or activities that build upon the earlier lessons while in high school. Quite often, they end up lacking the basic understanding that college/university professors assume their students already have based on their acceptance to the school. What results from only having a relationship with this information on a surface level is that these students typically struggle over time. In other words, when only the numerical grade is the most important feature of learning, students are being set up for a hard fall later on and possibly failure.
In order to succeed in my classes, students need to have a deep understanding of the tools and techniques presented to them in my lessons. This starts in their first class with me, Scientific Visualization, and continues straight through the following years if they decide to stick with the Game Art & Design concentration. In Sci Vis, students learn the basics of visualization techniques: how to effectively communicate visually through the use of design elements/principles and the basics of working with digital 2D graphics tools (Photoshop and Illustrator) as well as 3D tools (3ds Max). In subsequent years, those skills are reinforced, not retaught, in order to deepen the students' understanding of them while new tools and techniques are added to their list of skills, tools and techniques they need to master. If a student has only learned the material on a surface level to get a good grade, they will struggle throughout their remaining time in my classes. I have seen this in action time-and-time again. Will they pass the class? Quite likely as they have earned the grade and district policy puts such a high weight on the final exam. But they will struggle to keep up in subsequent classes.
When a student is fully engaged in their lessons, even if they are only successful with a portion of it, they realize the importance of learning the information presented on a much deeper level. They see the interconnections between what we are doing in class and what they want to do for a career down the road. And, they commonly make a conscious effort to overcome their deficiencies so they continue to grow, even if they know doing so will not effect their grade. And, because they have or develop a passion for what they are learning in my classes, they tend to enjoy the work we do more than those who are only focused on the grade.
We are now two weeks into the current school year and things are starting to settle back into the normal routine. Gone are the days of nervousness over speaking in front of a new group of students and I am finally getting close to having all my new students' names committed to memory, though I am still slipping at times. As part of my personal education plan (PEP) for this year, I decided to work on reflecting on classroom activities and my personal thoughts on education. Granted, I do this on a daily basis regardless but I have rarely done so in such a transparent manner as posting my thoughts publicly on a blog! So, this will be the first of many posts where everyone will be able to see the sort of things I struggle with when thinking about my lessons and their effectiveness in teaching my students.
Currently, students in both my Scientific Visualization (Sci Vis) and Game Art & Design (GAD) classes are examining the historical advancements related to their respective curriculum. And, as we all know, one technique often used in classrooms when learning about historical events involves having students create timelines. Last year while working on a Kenan Fellowship, I was introduced to ChronoZoom, an open source, online digital tool designed to make creating timelines more interesting and informative for students. It allows students to create exhibits (historical events) and provide multimedia artifacts as evidence of the event, then place them together in a single historical timeline to show relationships and relevance. It seemed easy to use when I first learned about it and more interesting than the index card timeline which is recommended for this activity in my curriculum guides. Besides, ChronoZoom involves the use of technology and I try my best to run a fully digital classroom. So I decided to give it a try.
All I can say about this experience last year was that it was "mostly" a disaster! I didn't understand the tool as well as I thought I did and most of the kids experienced a wide variety of problems. Artifacts and exhibits were lost and the students spent many hours trying to create their timelines both in school and at home. I truly wondered if this technology was buggy or if it was our understanding of it. I now feel it was mostly us.
Not being an individual to quit after one bad experience with a tool, I decided to give it another shot this year. First, with my students in Game Art & Design who had used it last year in Sci Vis and then with my new students in Sci Vis. The students in GAD quickly repeated the same mistakes. After just two days, they were so frustrated that we abandoned using it in their class. I created an alternate assignment for them based on their skills in Photoshop and they adjusted to the change quickly.
However, my students in Sci Vis have not received the same instruction on Photoshop yet, so I moved forward with demonstrating and instructing them on ChronoZoom, including some of the information I learned from last year's experience. But, I hedged my bet on it this year. Instead of requiring them to use ChronoZoom, I explained that I would like them to try it as one technique for creating a timeline but if they wanted to change after trying it out or if they experienced problems, they could use any technique they wanted. However, all timelines, regardless of creation method, needed to meet the same requirements: minimum of eight exhibits which they felt held the greatest value in the development of visualization techniques, each containing 2-6 artifacts as supporting evidence and information. Besides taking into consideration potential technological problems or difficulty that some students may have with the tool, this allows students some freedom of individual choice in how they complete the assignment.
As the Sci Vis students began to work, I moved around the room helping them with various problems they encountered within the tool. Most were simply issues related to trying to add exhibits outside the confines of the time span they originally set. Some of the questions related to the information they were including in their artifacts. So I provided some guidance when asked wanted to leave my response as open ended as possible in order to make the students consider the importance of the item they considered including. By the end of the period, everyone had saved their progress and were well on their way to completing the assignment.
When I checked email the next morning, I had my first message from a student asking about using a different technique. She had the same problem some of the students experienced last year: altered or disappearing exhibits and artifacts. This concerns me as I was thinking we had moved past that issue this year. This will need further examination as to what students are doing to cause this problem as I have yet to be able to duplicate it myself. But, seeing this happen a second year in a row, I may have to move to another tool once again for this activity. At this point, I am curious about how many other students experienced this problem.
If you have used ChronoZoom and experienced this issue but found a solution, I would love to hear what you did. Please comment below if you know what causes this to occur or how to stop it from happening with students.
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.