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!
Winter break has come and gone and just like my students in the new year...I'm back! Currently, I sit here looking out the window at blue skies and cold temperatures due to our first winter weather event of the season. I suspect it will lead to an extended weekend, but for that we will have to wait and see what happens. Regardless, we have recently experienced a lot of free time out of school which has allowed me to reflect on how I will alter the direction my students will be taking the remainder of the school year in order to keep my instruction relevant and up-to-date with industry skills and knowledge.
Over the years as a game design teacher, I have had the good fortune to be involved in numerous conversations and interactions with professional game designers. This has allowed me to consider the relevance in the content I teach, particularly in terms of the groundwork being laid in Scientific Visualization. As a result, I often change the lessons and instructions used in connection with this curriculum. This is one of the main reasons for my willingness to volunteer with this particular curriculum's pending revision. And, while I am thrilled that this course was able to open the door for classes like Game Art & Design and Advanced Game Design, a lot of the information included in Sci Vis is simply irrelevant to careers in the game industry.
Besides the name of the course, one of my concerns has always been the amount of science my artistic students receive in Sci Vis, which takes up the better part of the first semester. I have heard other teachers openly state that they completely skip this material. But I find that behavior irresponsible of anyone who claims to be an educator. There is some useful knowledge and skills in this part of the material and students need to understand it for their exams at the end of the year. This material also speaks to CTE's inclusion in STEM. However, such material often demotivates my artistic students from wanting to continue with me into game design as they fear such material will be droped into future courses as well. They take my classes because they want art, not science! But, we are past all that now and can fully focus on digital artistic skills for the remainder of the year. The areas of focus is the use of industry standard 2D and 3D digital tools, such as Photoshop, Illustrator and 3ds Max.
One of the first things I learned about the artistic portion of Sci Vis is the minor amount of focus it places on 2D digital tools. Photoshop and Illustrator are both very powerful tools and used widely throughout digital studios by professionals. They are the industry standards for all 2D artwork and there is a lot of it in game design. But, when I originally examined the curriculum, I came to realize several serious problems relating to the expected instruction of these tools when compared with how they are used in the game industry.
For starters, more attention is given to vector than to raster graphics. While this may seem logical due to constraints imposed on rescaling raster graphics along with differences in file size, the game industry rarely uses vector images outside of creating high quality components that are brought into raster images. Such items include graphics company/game logos, game icons, menu items, etc. In other words: most games tend to entirely use raster graphics and vector graphics only supplement the quality of the artwork.
The next problem I noticed is that the majority of the raster tools discussed in the curriculum focus more on skills used by photographers than those used by digital artists. Yes, it is important to know how to mask, crop, use filters and so forth, but there is little-to-no instruction on the use of drawing/painting tools in Photoshop. And that is where and how most 2D artwork is done by game production teams!
So, what am I changing this year? I am dropping much of the focus on vector graphics. Don't get me wrong, students will still be introduced to Illustrator and how they can use it create clean, scalable graphics. But our focus throughout the year has been and will continue to be on raster graphics and the use of Photoshop techniques to create digital artwork and paintings. That is, at least until we get to 3D modeling.
Another important change involves the use of drawing tablets. In the past, select students have used a drawing tablet in my classroom but I have never instructed them in doing so or how to customize the Photoshop interface for painting, instead of using the default workspace and settings which are more geared towards graphic design and photography. This year, that all changes.
A lot of the information that I am using with my students comes from a very useful and informative website: Ctrl+Paint. The site author, Matt Kohr, is a video game concept artist who is highly skilled in the use of Photoshop. His website provides an excellent resource for beginning digital artists by covering both traditional and digital drawing techniques. And, he explains everything in detailed and easy to understand video tutorial format...for FREE! In terms of painting with Photoshop, this is the absolute best resource I have ever found online.
So far, I have used Kohr's tutorials to help teach my students about the different principles of design through the use of orcs. I was also able to use the same techniques to teach them a lot of Photoshop skills and tools in a short period of time. Being a first-go at this method of teaching the material, I found out fast that I tried to cram too much instruction and skill practice into too little time. While I think this was a good exercise, I need to make several changes to it for future use. Now, we are gearing up to focus on digital painting techniques and I need to account for this being a new skillset for both my students and myself.
One concern I have involves some technological problems I have encountered with using the website's tutorials. I often like to provide students with direct access to video tutorials for use as a resource in my classroom. It helps them when they get stuck and I am busy assisting other students with problems they are encountering. Having access to such resources allows students to solve their own problems without relying on others, such as the teacher. However, we have a pesky Internet filter installed that blocks all kinds of useful tools erroneously and these videos are no exception. There are two commonly used websites for hosting video content: YouTube and Vimeo. Kohr hosts his videos on the latter. The problem comes in with the ability of the school system's IT department to control access to individual videos using the filter. They can control direct access to YouTube videos but not Vimeo and refuse to unblock the entire site due to some materials posted there not being school appropriate. I truly get it, but it is also very frustrating that students are limited in their lack of ability access a great resource because IT cannot effectively use the filter to block inappropriate material posted on the site..
The other problem that I have run into involves our drawing tablets. My classroom is outfited with several Genius MousePen tablets that were generously donated by a former student's dad. They are great for drawing solid lines but we have always had a difficult time with using pressure sensitivity to paint in a more natural manner. Even after updating the drivers and replacing pen batteries, some will not apply pressure sensitivity while a few simply refuse to work altogether or on specific computers. One solution I found involves moving the cable from one USB port to another in the computer or rebooting the computer. Generally, this helps when a tablet stops working. But, it is still hard to paint effectively without pressure sensitivity. We can simulate this by changing the flow and/or opacity settings on the brush tool, but it is not the same either in terms of natural painting techniques or overall quality. Perhaps it is time to request new tablets and move to a more industry standard item like a Wacom?
I hope it is clear from the discussion above that I put a lot of thought into keeping my students up-to-date both in terms of skills and content. I know I will be doing a lot of reflection on the importance and techniques used to teach digital painting skills to my students. So, look for more on this topic in the coming weeks!
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...
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.
It is easy to tell when a project/assignment has truly motivated a group of students. To ensure this result, one must make certain there is a clear purpose behind the lesson and students understand that purpose. One of the best ways this takes place is by using hands-on, community service-based projects that take on meaning outside of a number in a teacher's gradebook. This is certainly the case for my CTE Advanced Studies students who are working on the VR Prison Flip project.
This past Monday, while all their classmates were enjoying an extended weekend, eight students rose out of bed early to meet me at DSA for a trip to the prison site in Scotland County. Each knew we were leaving campus at 7am and agreed this trip was essential to our success, despite the sacrifices they needed to make. After a two hour drive, we arrived and began put the plan we established the previous week into motion in order to gather all the measurements needed to complete our modeling of the prison. The students were divided into two teams of four with each individual having a distinct job: two were to take the physical measurements using both tape and laser measuring tools, one was to record those measurements on hand sketches of each building and the fourth was to photograph everything possible to get a sense of textures and physical space. Since we only need to be concerned with one building's interior, one team was assigned to measure it while the other would start measuring every other building's exterior on the site.
It was decided that our first area of focus would be the old cell block building. In terms of projected purpose and complexity, this was the most important building on the site. Besides being oddly shaped, this was the only facility that required interior measurements. So we knew we would be spending the majority of the trip on it. Growing Change envisions this building being used as a museum/conference space as well as housing for visitors of incarcerated family members just down the road at the new prison facility.
Once inside, the students had to plan how to attack small rooms, hallways, and how measure locked areas. It was quickly discovered that the building was completely symmetrical, making the task at hand much easier than originally expected. They measured everything they could including individual cells and the objects contained within them. They could then transfer the measurements quickly to the other side of the sketch and before they knew it, they were done! Still, due to the importance of precision, it took them a couple of hours to complete their assigned location.
On the outside, the building had more walls than the average building with twists and turns at nearly every 30 feet! Students also realized it was important to locate every window's location. They did this by measuring a single window and then identifying how far it was from the edge of the building to the center location of each window along the wall. This way, they could center the windows on that spot and require fewer numbers to crunch when we returned to campus.
After a short break for lunch, the students tackled the remaining buildings at the prison. The goal was to complete the rest of the facility as fast and accurately as possible so we could make it back to Durham ahead of schedule. The site was split up and each team knew what they needed to do. Luckily, the remaining buildings were generally rectangular in design, making the afternoon work much easier than the morning. And by mid-afternoon, we were back on the bus and headed home arriving on campus at 5:30!
The trip made for a long and busy day together but it was also very productive. So, what did the students take away from this trip? Besides collecting the remaining measurements needed to complete the project, they put skills learned in math class to practical use. Some of the buildings were too tall to measure by hand as we didn't have access to a ladder, so they had to estimate roof angles to calculate actual height. Besides typical class lessons, students learned the importance of attention to detail and planning. Much of the interior was glossed over in terms of content capture until we discussed what needed to be measured to get an accurate vision of the site's current state. And, they saw how coming together as a team with a plan can help them all benefit in completing this ambitious project. I think it is fair to say that sacrificing our time off to work on the VR Prison Flip project was a day well spent!
Last Friday, the students in Game Art & Design attended the US2020 STEM n Art Expo at The Frontier in RTP. This was the second US2020 field trip I have taken students on in the past couple of years. This expo presented them with an opportunity for them to learn about different ways that various STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers use art to accomplish their goals. The event was split into three experiences: Path to the Park, Speed Mentoring and a Food Truck Rodeo for lunch.
Most students seemed to really enjoy the speed mentoring the most. In speed mentoring, students had an opportunity to speak with four to five different individuals while discussing what they do in four minute bursts. It was interesting to see the kids move around quickly to interact face-to-face with complete strangers while not being distracted by each other or their technologies. This may be something I can use in my classroom, though not in a mentoring fashion.
In Path to the Park, several displays were set up featuring a wide variety of careers. Students got to take part in a wide variety of hands-on exhibits ranging from scientific research to audio and graphical work. As one would expect, the display to draw the largest interest from both my students and the kids in attendance in general was display on virtual reality. This booth allowed students got to experience an HTC Vive by using Tilt Brush to paint in 3D space. This display was was the most relevant exhibit to game design, though they did have a hacking Minecraft display as well.
While you would expect an hour of downtime for lunch during the Food Truck Rodeo, I was pleasantly surprised to see they had set up one more display outside. While the focus for most kids was on eating during this time, several explored a display on robotics. They also enjoyed checking out the makeshift shop they put on-site.
The only surprise, or downside, to this event was that there weren't any representatives from the game industry present. Seeing as we have such a large game industry in the RTP area, this really surprised and disappointed me. But, overall, this field trip was a success as kids got to see that the skills they learn as game design students can be transferred to a wide variety of careers. There seemed to be a lot of younger students in attendance. This makes me wonder if I should take Sci Vis kids next year instead of Game Design...or maybe both. Regardless, I would definitely consider taking students again next year, depending on the topic of the event.
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.
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.