Yesterday was our first district-wide training day of the current school year, requiring teachers to select an instructor-led session from several options offered across the district. These sessions are collectively referred to as Out of the Box training in Durham Public Schools. It's an initiative to allow teachers to lead and select their own professional development (PD) based on their interests and needs. I always try my best to either lead a session or attend one being offered at Durham School of the Arts, for simplicity's sake. This time, I selected an offering on digital literacy being offered in our media center, since training in this area has been made mandatory for license renewals starting in 2019.
This session was the first in a four part series being offered over the next two years. So, I guess I know what my Out of the Box PD selections will be for quite some time to come! It focused on the requirement area of Leadership in Digital Literacy. According to the description, teachers are expected to demonstrate leadership accelerating their integration of digital teaching and learning pedagogies. When broken down, this area states that teachers will:
One way teachers can demonstrate their mastery of technology is through the use of virtual learning communities. A virtual learning community (VLC) is a group of like-minded or goal oriented individuals who meet up online to discuss important information relevant to the group's overall topics or goals. They can include anything from technology education to game design/development to chicken farming. There are literally thousands of possibilities and everyone can find something relevant to their needs or interests.
The first VLC discussed involved using Twitter. If you are reading this post, odds are you know I am relatively active on Twitter as well. I have long known about searching for hashtags (heck, I use #dsaGAD for every post I make about my classes) and that there are lots of regularly scheduled group Tweet-chats which employ them for ease of communication. However, I did walk away with a valuable reference guide from the training containing a pretty comprehensive list of Tweet-chats and their schedules related to education specifically. It was recommended to keep track of our participation in them as evidence of our working with other teachers from around the state, nation and even world. I also shared how one can use of Tweetdeck in these conversations, which allows for filtering on hashtags and makes participating in them MUCH easier to follow.
The next tip provided was to use Listserv. Once again, there are tons of Listservs one can choose from based on interests. These collaborative conversations have been around for quite some time and are probably the grandparents of modern chat VLC groups using other, more social-oriented media. The difference is that they are shared via email, rather than in real-time, and this can quickly fill one's inbox. To be honest, Listservs don't appeal to me for that very reason.
The third tool we were introduced to was the Google+ Communities. I did a little searching through them and again I did not find them to be as useful for me as Tweet-chats. But, I can see them as a resource to use and perhaps direct students towards for advancing their knowledge. This conversation also included some introduction to Google Hangouts, which are similar to a Skype conference where you can chat in only text or include video.
Some additional resources for developing understanding of tools and techniques included Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) along with several options available through the school system and the Department of Public Instruction, though the use of NCCAT and Kenan Fellows were overlooked. If you search for MOOCs in association with related terms for your content areas or interests, you can find LOTS of free courses offered by colleges and universities as well as independent instructors for free. While you don't get credit from the schools for taking such courses, there is no reason to be confused on the tools and techniques one teaches given the possibilities.
How can teachers succeed in demonstrating leadership in digital literacy to meet the new licensure requirement? One method suggested by Dr. Reuben R. Puentedura is known as the SAMR Model. In SAMR, you begin by Substituting traditional instructional methods with digital alternatives while not making any changes to the activities. Next, you Augment those activities with functional improvements. Once improved, you begin working on Modifying the activities through significant changes to them utilizing technology. Finally, you Redefine what kind of activities are used which were not possible without the integration of technology.
So, where do I stack up in all of this? I use a number of tools to meet the various needs of this model. I use a learning management system (LMS) to distribute and collect work. I do my best to avoid the use of paper, which speeds up grading and provides students with access to my materials anywhere they can access the Internet. Activities like matchings, quizzes, tests, and so forth are augmented because they get graded immediately by the system and allow students to make attempts as many times as I want them to while randomizing questions and answers and providing immediate feedback when set up to do so. My students submit their work digitally and are involved in collaborative groups which allow them to work on simultaneous editing using tools like Google apps as well as communicate in individualized group settings. They also utilize websites for planning like Trello. These tools allow them to work in groups within the same class, different classes or even different schools/locations! Student collaboration and group work has never been easier!
This is also true for teachers and one reason why I always push using Schoology in their classrooms. Adding technology to instruction isn't only good for students, but it makes the lives of teachers easier as well. Automated grading, no papers to carry home for school breaks or weekends and transparency for all stakeholders in their students' education are just a few of the benefits teachers can experience.
So, to answer that earlier question: where do I stack up in all of this? I would say I am pretty far along in terms of being a leader for digital literacy in my school and well beyond! But, what else would one expect from a technology education teacher?
As a teacher working in the digital arts, the first thing that comes to mind when someone says transparency is being able to view one object within or underneath another object in a scene. But that is not exactly the kind of transparency I am referring to in this post. What I mean is the ability for parents and other adults invested in their student's education to see what goes on in my classroom. And, to that note, I have no problem stating that I most likely have the most transparent classroom at our school thanks to a couple of tools I use on a regular basis.
Probably the most effective tool in my bag is Schoology. Schoology is an online learning management system (LMS) that I integrate into every class I teach. This is the third year I have used this LMS and each year I learn a little more about it. Last year, I started sharing parent access codes with those who requested one. A parent access code allows parents to view their student's class in Schoology in much the same way the student can. This gives parents access to all of the resources I provide their student but it also allows them to view assignments/projects along with the associated rubrics, quizzes, tests, online discussions, two different formats for the event calendar, and comments between myself and their child. Unlike PowerSchool which provides parents with final grades on the various items I assign to their child, Schoology shows in high-def clarity the manner in which that final grade evolved.
This year, I emailed every parent their student's parent access code with a detailed explanation of how to create their account and why doing so is important. And, when a parent contacts me looking for clarification on how their student earned a specific grade, I typically point them right to Schoology and recommend they create an account if they haven't already done so. Parents who access their student's work in this manner typically have few questions for me and often find they don't need to have a face-to-face parent-teacher conference.
The next important tool is this blog. While I recognize that I do need to post more often (the goal is weekly), I use this site to reflect on what we are doing in the classroom, what I am doing as a teacher and how effective it seems to be working. If you want to know more about my inner thoughts on my classes, this is the place to find them.
Of course another important tools involves maintaining my class website. There are numerous tools and resources on the various menus above. Student resources holds information about my class and the tools I frequently employ and career and college tools are just that: a place for students to find useful items and information about careers and colleges offering degrees in game art and design.
The final and probably least specific tool I use to maintain transparency is Twitter. While I do not post a lot about classes specifically or my thoughts on teaching, I do share information relevant to the game industry as well as making some personal posts. This gives the reader insight into both the career of game design and my personality as an individual outside of teaching.
So, why is it important to have such transparency with my students and their families? If the students know me as more than their teacher, I can make a better connection with them and they will be more invested in succeeding in my classroom. For parents, it helps to build their investment in their children's education and hold their student responsible for their own success. Parents can see all the tools and techniques I employ and I believe that helps them understand just how invested I am in their child's success as well. And in the end, isn't student growth and success what education is all about in the first place?
While it was slow for me to get back into the mindset that another school year has begun, things are now back in full swing! It appears that I have a great bunch of students who are all focused on learning the skills needed to make games. However, we are still in the honeymoon phase of the school year.
This past week, each group of students had a slightly different experience in my classroom, as one would expect. Students in Fundamentals of Design & Animation (FDA) got accustomed to Sketchnotes (a more creative way to take notes), set up accounts for Schoology, had several lectures and completed their first set of assignments. Students in Game Art & Design (GAD) refreshed their memories as to the skills they learned last year, demonstrating their understanding of bitmaps, vectors and 3D modeling. In Advanced Game Art & Design (AGAD), we hit the ground running with career exploration accompanied by some of the best and quickest class presentations I have seen in my 14 years of teaching! And the CTE Advanced Studies students dove right into their independent projects. We are now gearing up for more detailed information in my earlier level classes and I hope all of my students keep their current enthusiasm as the year progresses.
Coming up this week in the GAD classes:
Last week, I had the privilege of presenting at the annual CTE Summer Conference. I will admit that in the past, I have not held this conference in high regard. I had been told many years ago by a mentor teacher that it was a complete waste of time with very few, if any, useful sessions. And, my first experience of attending the conference definitely verified this statement. So when I was asked back in the Spring to present on the virtual reality work we did this past year at DSA, my only thoughts were:at least I will earn CEUs towards my next license cycle and this will be another professional presentation to add to my resume. Boy, was that line of thinking wrong!
I spent the first day of the conference locked in making presentations. I gave two talks in the morning on using VR in the classroom followed by assisting another member of the Scientific Visualization revision team with two more talks in the afternoon discussing the changes the curriculum is taking as we prepare to go into pilot status. But, I spent the second day attending sessions that caught my attention or I thought may be of use to me in the coming year.
Before I talk about the sessions I attended, let me state the four presentations I took part in were very well received. Being a Technology Education teacher, I was surprised when I learned one of my talks on VR had erroneously been placed in the Marketing program. But, the audience was standing room only! So, I adjusted on-the-fly to cater the presentation to their knowledge as much as I could while still serving the Technology Education teachers in the room. And, the two talks on the revision brought about many comments from the audience thanking us for making the changes we discussed. All in attendance agreed that the alterations were very much needed and right in line with what the students would need to know to succeed down the road. So that tells me we did something right!
On the second day, I attended three talks. The first discussed teaching coding to high school students. And, while it focused on things I previously considered to be below my high school students' level, like the Hour of Code, teaching Scratch, Snap and using Khan Academy, it did give me some ideas for getting my students started with coding logic prior to diving into C# with the Unity game engine. After last year's experience in Game Art & Design, I am thinking smaller baby steps are definitely in order this year as I learned what I thought would be an easy resource for learning coding was a little more than some students could handle.
The second talk I attended had nothing to do with my program area but I thought it would be interesting: Modernization of the Electric Grid. And, I was right! While it focused on engineering topics and some of it went over my head, I still found the conversation to be fascinating. And, this talk provided me with an idea for a new activity this year in terms of game creation. The content I learned definitely lends itself to students creating a video game about the grid and how it is being updated with smart technologies.
The third talk I attended discussed teaching skills to students using Adobe Illustrator. While I have taught Illustrator for a number of years now, I am in no way an expert. I tend to prefer using Adobe Photoshop whenever possible as nearly every graphic in the game industry is a bitmap, not a vector. But, I still need to make sure my students understand the basics of vector graphics and it is always nice to learn a new tool inside of an already familiar application. And, I walked out of this talk with a new understanding of some tools that I have never used in class. So, this was another successful session for me.
So, did my attitude about the conference change? Not entirely, but I do see attending in a more positive light at this point and will likely attend again in coming years. There were still a lot of sessions that I wouldn't find useful but there are a lot of different program areas in CTE and they all need to be served during the conference. The quality of the talks increased as did the types of topics presented. So, I was very pleased overall with the conference.
Well, we've reached the end of another school year and what a year it's been! Where do I begin? I've taught six classes a day (instead of the normal five), my students explored the possibilities of virtual reality, my advanced students attended the East Coast Game Conference, both students and myself formed relationships with people in the game industry, I helped create a new curriculum to replace Scientific Visualization for use across the state, I assisted in the selection of finalists for a Department of Education contest, and I presented to other CTE teachers at the annual tech ed conference. And none of this even begins to touch on making sure my students succeeded in my classes...phew!
So, where do I go from here? For starters, I've already started planning for next year. I know it's hard to believe as we have haven't even been out of school for a week, but what can I say? It's what I do! I've already started thinking about how I can improve how I teach my students and update what they need to know to succeed in the game industry, if that is what they pursue after high school. While this is true of all my classes, it is especially important that I start prepping early for my introductory class because it seems the course I worked on this year will indeed be ready for pilot testing next school year and allow us to FINALLY replace Scientific Visualization!
So, I guess I have a pretty busy summer ahead of me. But, for now...it is time for break! I hope all of you have a relaxing and yet, still productive, summer! Watch for an occasional update on here but in general, just have a great summer break and I look forward to seeing everyone in the Fall!
This week, we drew a little closer to the end of the CTE Advanced Studies students' VR Prison Flip Project. Wednesday evening, the students shared their experience this year with family, friends, outside team members and guests from DPS/DSA. They had the opportunity to share a short video about what this year has meant to them as well as explain their roles and individual benefits. But, probably the most important thing they did, if you ask the students, was provide the guests the opportunity to experience the project first hand. This helped family members understand what their students have been doing all year.
However, as a teacher, I believe having this kind of event is important for a very different reason. One of the most important things a student can leave high school with is a good understanding of communicating ideas/accomplishments. While my students present in class on a regular basis, presenting to outside individuals is a very different thing. By holding events like this, students get a chance to share important accomplishments, reflect on the process they went through to meet a goal and lets the larger community know about the important progress they are making and why that progress matters. Being effective with such skills is an important thing to take away from school as they will be using their communication skills throughout college, their career, and life in general.
I have not posted a new blog in quite some time as I have been very busy since our return from winter break. But, I want to share some information about one of the items that has kept me in that loop of constant work and why I believe it is an important topic.
A number of weeks back, I received a true compliment that speaks to the direction my advanced students in the GAD concentration have been focused on since the start of this year. I was contacted by a representative from the US Department of Education and asked if I would be interested in serving as a reviewer for this year's EdSim Challenge! Although I was a little hesitant at first, since I had not personally sought to assist with the competition, I feel that being asked to join their review team is a true honor. I believe they approached me as a result of being a CTE teacher with students' using of virtual reality in the classroom and thanks to my participation in the Keenan Fellows program. I say this because this year's challenge is focused on the use of virtual reality, gaming and the future of the tech ed curriculums.
So, what was my role in the competition's process? Participants in the challenge submitted proposals around the topic theme in hope of winning a rather substantial cash prize earmarked for prototyping their idea. And, like most competitions, there are multiple rounds that occur to be considered for the prize. I was asked to be part of the first round of those reviews. While I cannot go into specifics about proposal content or review criteria, I believe it is safe to say that I received several amazing proposals to examine. Overall, I found the review process to be interesting. It gave me an opportunity to see how other educators around the country want to use the new technologies of virtual reality and incorporate gamification into their curriculum. For more information on the EdSim Challenge, see the link provided above.
By now you might be wondering what is gamification and how/why is it important in education? Gamification involves using game mechanics and design techniques to motivate individuals with some end goal in mind. There are industries outside of education which have been using gamification for years. For instance:
Virtual reality can bridge the divide between where kids are at and what we want them to learn. It allows them to "experience" lessons and attempt skills from a first-person position by creating a powerful, interactive learning activities. Students can help Washington maneuver his troops during the American Revolution, make important design decisions on a construction site, fight off a virus in the human body, and explore any number of other concepts that are hard to conceptualize in a traditional classroom setting. Rather than just listening to the teacher explain concepts or lessons, they become a part of those lessons, learning through hands-on experiences.
In short, taking part as a reviewer in the EdSim Challenge has both encouraged and energized me with regard to the direction education is taking. I was also encouraged to note that the Department of Education sees the value in using this kind of technology in classrooms. I hope the use of virtual reality continues to grow around the country and across curriculums, not just in the world of Technical Education!
During the summer of 2015, I spent my time at NC State learning about nanotechnology and sensor devices under the tutelage of Dr. Jess Jur and Dr. Elena Veety as a Kenan Fellow. During my time there, we explored using the Texas Instruments SensorTag CC2650STK to explore the use of sensors in collecting experimental data. As part of the program, we had to create a lesson that could be shared with teachers around the state. I used my experience with the SensorTag to create a lesson to be used by CTE teachers. The overall goals of this lesson included:
During the school year when I first implemented the lesson, I spent a lot of time on the background information. We took several weeks learning about sensors, their uses and why they are important before getting into the meat of the assignment on data manipulation. This year, I trimmed out a lot of the time spent on sensors. I had students research sensors and create infographics, but we forewent guest speakers and extra exercises that involved a lot of data manipulation outside of the actual lesson. By doing this, I trimmed down the amount of time we spent on material that was not part of the lesson and streamlined the completion of the unit on data visualization as whole.
This week, students will only be in school for two days as it is Thanksgiving week. They will spend today and early next week after returning from the break collecting sensor data based on their own experimental design. They will then have slightly over a week of hands-on experience with data manipulation, writing a short report about their data, creating an infographic based on that report, and presenting their results to the class.
Understanding how to manipulate data is important in a wide variety of industries. So, why did I try my best to speed up how we explore this important topic? Being at a magnet school with a focus on the arts, my students took an interest in game design with the expressed interest in artistic side of the industry. While data manipulation is important for game designers when examining the marketability of their game concepts, most of my students are interested in the artistic side of the industry. Up to this point, a lot of the work my students in Sci Vis have completed is related to science and/or other areas outside of art. It is well-passed time to make the move into examining the more artistic side of the curriculum. Besides being the reason students took my class in the first place, doing so as early as possible also encourages them to stay in my concentration right before we start looking at next school year's scheduling in the early Spring. If they do not get some art before then, they may not see the larger picture where it is important to take this class prior to getting into working with games next year. And, that worries me.
As a Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher, I understand how powerful it can be to expose our students to industry experiences. And, over the years, I have done so at every possible opportunity. This is one of the reasons I take my advanced students to the East Coast Game Conference (ECGC) every Spring. At the conference, they get to hear from and interact with industry leaders in the game industry. But, I also want my younger students to have this kind of exposure as well, even though I know they are not ready for the freedom and responsibility that I provide to students attending such a large scale event.
Last year, I took my students in Game Art & Design to the US2020 RTP STEM Expo, which focused on the game industry. This event had the feel of ECGC on a much smaller scale. It gave students access to both industry professionals and colleges/universities that offer degrees in game design, allowing them to hear about the various topics that matter to the industry while exploring industry careers and the higher education needed to attain them. The size of the expo made it more suitable for my younger students and easier to supervise them. I will be taking this year's GAD students back for their second expo in a few weeks which is focusing on the use of art in STEM careers. While it's a more general topic than the previous expo, it still equally relates to our game design concentration.
Another way I can expose students to industry professionals involves inviting guest speakers to visit my classes. Although this does not always work out as I often have two classes of the same curriculum separated by one or more periods each day, I haven't had any issues so far this year. My schedule is really convenient for guest speakers staying for multiple classes for the first time since I started teaching. Over the past two weeks, students in Sci Vis have been introduced to two industry professionals who spoke about using visualization techniques in their individual careers.
The first to visit my class was assistant director Richard White. He has worked on films such as Terminator: Genysis, 300: Rise of an Empire and the upcoming Max Steel as well as several TV shows. He explained to the students how digital effects are an integral part of the film industry, even at those moments when you think they are using live special effects such as bullet shots. He also explained how they use digital mock-ups of scenes for previsualizations in order to make the live shoot go much smoother and to make directorial edits before involving the entire film crew and actors.
They were also visited by Colin Dwan from Prologue Games, located right here in Durham. He discussed what skills are used in the creation of his narrative style games, which are currently being converted to VR. He provided real-world advice that mimics the information I give my students about employment in the game industry from a position of personal experience. This is something I am unable to do for them and it is always powerful for them to hear about how difficult it is to work in the game industry as well as the skill set they need to develop and how it connects with what I teach them over their four years in my classes. He also explained the tools that are used in the creation of his games, most of which are learned by students in the GAD concentration throughout their time in high school.
However, hearing from industry professionals is not solely important for my younger students. My CTE Advanced Studies students are working closely with the team from Lucid Dream VR in creating their virtual reality experience for Growing Change. In doing so, they get to learn how the same tools that create video games can be used outside of the game industry. They also learn what it is like to have real-world clients, how to work as a small design team, and how to overcome project difficulties as they arise.
Down the road, I have plans to bring several other professionals into my classroom. My daughter, Melanie Fisher-Wellman, who not only graduated from DSA herself but is the creative director for Boostopia B2C can speak as a graphic designer on the importance of understanding how to use the design principles as well as elements of design. Pierce Freelon of Blackspace Durham, a hub for Afrofuturist thought, can discuss his creative ventures in support of African-American youth. In the past, I have brought in Dr. Chris Hazard of Hazardous Software who works in the field of game theory both in terms of his own game company and as a contractor for the federal government. And, having such a huge connection to the game industry in our area, I am currently attempting to make some connections at Epic Games as well.
Each connection with industry professionals that I can provide gives my students a unique perspective on the creative industries and how the digital art are used outside of a school setting. While I hope these connections inspire my students to be even more interested in my curriculum and aware of how the skills they learn in GAD relate to more than just video games, hearing from industry professionals can also provide direction to students who might not be sure about what they want to do some day after high school.
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.
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.