This past Thursday, it was time for the annual 8th grade parent night to discuss the assessment process students will undergo shortly after the winter break and what these rising high school students need to do in order to graduate in four years from Durham School of the Arts. Although it should be no surprise to anyone, it is often here that students realize our school's commitment to the arts as they are directed to start high school with two artistic focuses and that they need to follow at least one of them throughout their four years of high school. Since GAD and Digital Media are the only technology classes offered at DSA, I often find myself fielding questions about offerings of programming, engineering or information technology classes. As a result, I find this meeting critical for both families and the future of the digital arts at DSA as these are not the kind of technology classes our school offers.
Over the years, I have learned there are many reasons students choose to do an assessment for GAD. My hopes are always that they are truly interested in learning about digital art techniques or because they want to eventually enter a career in the game industry. However, that is not always the case. Sometimes students assess for GAD because they enjoy playing video games and want to take a class where they believe they will be doing so or they feel they lack the skills needed or interest to assess for a focus in the traditional arts. As a result, I often find myself telling 8th grade students that doing game design is one of the most difficult concentrations they can undertake because it requires an eclectic skill set and deep foundational understanding in the core curriculum areas as well as the skills of the traditional arts. And, despite learning the same information from students currently taking my classes, they occassionally do not believe me.
When students take my classes solely because they want to play games, it becomes clear from the first class, Scientific Visualization, that I require a lot of work to succeed in my class and there are no games being played. Since this is typically the first time they have experienced a digital medium, the initial learning curve is steep and can be difficult for these students as it is very fast paced and they often cannot do the assigned work outside of my classroom. Assuming they continue into Game Art & Design the following year, they find out quickly that the games they play are not of their own choosing and they are playing to gain an understanding of game theory and mechanics. This is a very different mindset than playing a game for fun. It involves critical thinking and dissection of the decisions that went into creating the game experience.
When students take my classes solely because they feel they lack the skill set, interest or knowledge needed for a focus in a traditional art class, they also have a fast awakening. The digital arts use the same understanding and basic techniques that traditional art classes teach students. They need to understand and gain skills in the use of design elements, principles and composition. I also require students to practice both traditional and digital drawing techniques, modeling and become comfortable artistic critique.
The main difference between traditional and digital art classes is that my students learn production art, not fine art. Fine art is often practiced for personal pleasure without regard for deadlines where production art involves using one's creative skills as part of a larger team to create a product for the marketplace. However, regardless of the end goal, it is still an artistic endeavor that requires the same knowledge and skills despite using a different medium. To quote Pixar's John Lasseter - "The art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art."
So, as the assessment process begins once again, I am hopeful for my freshman class. I spoke with several parents and students after intiially providing the information about my assessment requirements and they all seem perfect for my concentration area. And, we have been holding our annual DSA Game Nights again so prospective GAD students can interact with current students in the GAD concentration to get a better understanding of what we do. So, there is no reason for students to not understand what to expect of the process or what is expected of them as GAD concentrators. I hope this encourages and inspires students to at least try the digital arts at DSA. It's a challenging but rewarding series of classes!
As a teacher, it is often easy to get into a groove and stay there. After all, the state provides us with the content we need to teach. And, even though we often create new lessons based on updating the focus of our content, it can become very easy to just keep repeating ourselves. While this may work well for some curriculum...for instance, how often do writing strategies REALLY change in an English class...it doesn't work for all. Nowhere is this more true than teaching technology skills and knowledge.
This past week, I had the opportunity to take part in the first of two curriculum revision teams that I volunteered to join. Both Scientific Visualization and Advanced Game Design are up for changes. Ever since I started teaching the game design classes, I have wondered why the first course in the series is Scientific Visualization. I mean come on: do game designers REALLY care about things like X-ray crystallography or gel electrophoresis? The resounding answer is: NO! So, why is this course where it all begins?
Over the years, I have come to understand a little more about why this is the case. Despite several units of information that barely (if at all) relates to anything dealing with digital artistic production, this course provides students with several skills that cross industries. Specifically, an understanding of the design principles and techniques along with hands-on skills in creating/manipulating 2D and 3D graphics/animation. It should also be noted that the idea of a curriculum focusing on the idea of game creation was not something that officials who make decisions about adding new courses to the state offerings were open to putting into high schools at the time the course was conceived. So, we should all step back for a second and be grateful for this creative way of opening the door to where we are today.
Last Thursday, I had no idea what kind of reception from the selected team members I would be walking into with respect to their assumptions about the current curriculum. Were they big fans of Sci Vis as it stands and wanting to make minor updates to content or were they looking for new directions too? I simply didn't know. But, I clearly had my own thoughts on what we should do: scrap much of the content, keep the good parts dealing with design techniques and change the course title.
Although there was some intial pushback from our DPI representative, it quickly became clear that the team was on the same page as me. By the end of the first day of empassioned debate, we had arrived at a new title for the course which would effectively drive the resulting content more towards digital production than science. After two days, we had the core of a new blueprint established and roles for content creation.
This is not the first time I have assisted with altering a curriculum, though it is the most thorough. And, I believe this is a process that all teachers should, if provided the opportunity, take advantage of assisting with. For one thing, it helps teachers take ownership of the content their students are learning. I cannot count the number of times I have heard a teacher complain about something they are required to teach but when revision time comes around, they don't want to be the ones who do it. I liken this to people who refuse to vote and then complain about the person who is elected. Neither make an effort to change the results, so neither have a right to complain.
Another benefit of participating in revision teams relates to how educators are assessed as professionals. Standard 1 of the NC Teacher Evaluation Process states that teachers should demonstrate leadership in their classroom, the school and the profession, advocate for students and hold high ethical standards. While it is easy to demonstrate leadership in the classroom and school, doing so in the profession requires a bit more effort. In order to receive a distinguished (the highest) rating possible for leadership in the profession, a teacher needs to seek opportunities to lead professional growth activities and decision-making processes. And, with regard to receiving a distinguished rating for advocating for students, the teacher needs to actively participate in, promote and provide strong evidence for the implementation of initiatives to improve education. By assisting with revisions or the creation of entirely new curriculum, it is obvious to the community and one's supervisors that these standards are being met at the highest level.
So, in summary, while I am not at liberty to discuss the upcoming changes at the moment, I can say that I believe both students and fellow educators will be very pleased with the direction th Sci Vis curriculum is headed. More to come on content down the road...
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.