This past week, our community experienced a very scary tragedy. A gas line exploded just outside the boundaries of our campus. It was close enough that every building on campus felt the force of the blast and the building where it took place was completely leveled to the ground resulting in one casualty, several injuries and a number of buildings exhibiting exterior damage at best and being condemned entirely due to major structural damage at worst. This event has forever changed the face of the streets surrounding our school.
While this is clearly a tragic event in terms of the losses for the community, one thing that worries me as a teacher is how it will affect both students and staff at our school specifically, especially those in the building closest to the explosion. Our school was closed for several days, mainly due to our inability to access the campus. However, I am sure everyone appreciated the time to process what had just occurred as well. Our school system used the time to offer counseling to anyone who felt the need to talk with professionals about the loss as well. Many of our students and staff frequented Kaffeinate regularly and came to feel welcomed by the shop's owner and staff. So this will be a particularly difficult time for them.
Now that the area is being cleared and safety around it is restored, we are returning to school tomorrow on a delay. So this is when we start asking those big questions such as:
These are hard questions to answer. While most teachers have adjusted to helping students through any number of hardships in life, this kind of tragedy is not something teachers are trained for providing assistance to our school community. I don't know what will happen next, but I do know this tragic event has had an effect on all of us at DSA and will continue to do so for quite some time. One thing that I am grateful for is that nobody associated with our school was hurt in the blast and despite the close proximity, none of our buildings were damaged. For me, this is a good starting point for helping everyone I come into contact with at school cope with the events of this past week.
I recently received a copy of Schoology's annual report on the state of digital learning and found the contents to be interesting, though not necessarily surprising. You can read it for yourself to see how schools across the US are looking at tech in the classroom. But, one thing I found interesting was the top three challenges high school teachers reported facing to integrating technology in their lessons. These included:
This is a major problem as I am sure most school districts are similar to ours in terms of requiring teachers to incorporate more technology into their lessons. However, without the proper training, teachers often fall back on the outdated technology tools and skills they have been using for over a decade. Things like: create a PowerPoint presentation on xxx or having students use word processors such as MS Word or Google Docs to write a report and then share it with the teacher when submitting their finished product. And then comes the item I normally hear: I'm using an interactive board when I lecture, doesn't that count as using technology? On that last question, I often tell the teacher something like 'Sure...if you only want the students to see technology. But, how are you preparing them for the modern digital world by using technology?' While these uses might meet the barebones requirement in meeting district mandates, they are certainly not the most interesting or sometimes even the most relevant way to do so in our current educational environment. And, they do nothing to really prepare students for the modern world outside of the classroom.
But, there is good news: there are a lot of free resources online that teachers have access to, if they only make the effort to do so. And, while this may not be true in all school districts, many offer teachers the opportunity to put this personalized training into use towards license renewal by converting the time spent into continuing education units (CEUs).
Teaching at a magnet school with an art-based focus, we use a lot of the Adobe products in terms of digital tools, as well as a few more specialized tools for my class. Adobe offers (some) free tools as well as their popular CC Suite subscription service. One such free tool is Spark, which allows users to create graphics, simple videos and webpages using their own individual Adobe ID, which can be created for free as well! They also offer free training that is incredible through their Education Exchange. I have been encouraging educators at our school, and beyond, to check out this amazing free resource!
Another way teachers can incorporate technology in their lessons involves using a learning management system (LMS) such as Schoology. While I have explored several LMSs, I have found Schoology to be among the best available. It allows me to interact with my students both inside and outside of the classroom and has become an essential tool in how I communicate with parents as well. Many teachers and school districts are using Google Classroom for a lot of the same reasons, but personally, I find Schoology to have more and better functionality. At least it better fits the needs of myself and my families.
A third and final essential category of digital tools that teachers should incorporate into their lessons are project management tools. While there are lots of free options out there, the one that I use in my classroom is Trello. Tools like this help prepare students for real-world project management tasks, they are great for both individual and group projects, and if used effectively, teach students the time management and collaborations soft skills needed to succeed both in the world of work and often, life in general.
These are just three of the many ways that technology can be brought into the classroom in a more interesting and effective manner. As I said before, there are plenty of free resources out there if teachers take the time to look for them and put them to use.
I guess the important take-away from this report for me is pretty simple: educators are both being required and want to use technology to prepare students for the 21st century but they need appropriate and up-to-date guidance in what to use and how to use it effectively. Teachers may complain that we are required to participate in too much professional development as mandated by our schools and/or districts, but this isn't the problem when it comes to technology. The problem is that the PD tends to be outdated and ineffective in terms of modern digital tools.
I have always loved snow days. When I was in school, it meant a day off to play and frolic in a winter wonderland. We would build snowmen and snow forts, have snowball fights, go sledding and just spend the entire day enjoying everything that winter had to offer in New England.
Now that I am an adult and working in education, I find these days to be mixed blessings. Sure, I still enjoy the opportunity to take a day off and catch my breath, but there are consequences to doing so that I never realized as a kid. Sure, I knew we would need to make up the day, usually by extending the length of the school year, but there is so much more to it now that I am the one in front of the class.
Instead of taking a day off to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery, I find myself spending time re-arranging the lessons I had already planned out thoughtfully for timing and deadlines. Everything needs to shift...somewhere, some how. And usually we still need to cover the same material by the same quarterly deadline. Instead of the school year being extended for these days off, Durham works make-up days into the middle of the school year. Plans you make today for an extended break such as the Winter or Spring Breaks may need to be changed as you cannot always count on having the full time as originally shown on the calendar. However, I also use these days to create new activities for my students, catch up on grading, and sometimes (like now) do a little reflecting on how things are going at a much more relaxed pace than I would have if we were in school. I also make sure to take at least a couple of hours off from doing work, as I know I will be losing a day off at some other point in the school year.
It's not all bad. I hope my students and their families have enjoyed this extended weekend and used it to spend some time catching up on rest, catching up on work and spending time together as a family. Yes, there are definite mixed feelings about snow days as a teacher, but in short, I think they are the universe's way of saying 'I know you need a break, let's take one today!'
The freedom of summer break is coming to a close and it's disappearing faster for some of us than others. I've been in school all week, where I spent loads of time working to get my classroom ready for my students and assessing the last few students who got into DSA over the summer lottery. It has taken me four days, but I am seeing the edge of being prepared for everyone's return. It took days, but both the Adobe CC Suite and the Unity Game Engine have the latest and greatest versions installed on all 25 machines! And, several gigabytes was recovered on each machine by purging old student profiles and files saved to the desktop. Remember when I said you need to save your files to a safe location? If you failed to do so, it's gone now.
So, you might be asking yourself, what else is new? The game design concentration at DSA has made a couple of changes since last year. Here's a short list of things you will see this upcoming school year, by course:
Anyway, as I stated earlier, with just over a week left in summer break, we'll be back to our regular routines again soon. Enjoy what is left of summer and I look forward to seeing everyone in just over a week!
Image Reference: https://makeameme.org/meme/end-of-summer
Even though the Game Art & Design class focuses mainly of the creation of 2D games and their assets, there are also a number of 3D modeling techniques included in the curriculum. One of them involves rigging a character for animation. You can ask any student who has previously taken this course to list what they consider to be the most frustrating activities they completed in that course and my bet is that 9 out of 10 of them will say rigging a 3D model. And, it is with good reason that I would expect this response.
Rigging involves adding bones to your model, connecting them to one another and then making sure the falloff for what they affect works as expected. It can get highly detailed and is definitely not a task for the casual modeler. Most students enjoy modeling but rigging, that's a whole different ball of wax. However, this year, I think I might have found a solution even though it is far from perfect.
Enter Adobe Fuse and Mixamo. Fuse is Adobe's answer to the 3D modeling. It allows the students to create a bipedal character using various body parts that are already modeled, then using slider controls, one can make adjustments to the character. It also has several outfits one can choose from to skin their model. In short, it makes creating a human character exceptionally easy.
Once created, you can save the model to your Adobe libraries for additional manipulation. From there, you can pull the model into Photoshop and by using the 2D Essentials workspace, you can gain easy access to the materials on it for quick and easy personalization of the model's skins.
Now for the best part: rigging! One can pull the model into Mixamo from their Adobe library or if that was problematic, simply export the model from Photoshop into a standard 3D format such as and OBJ file, then import it into Mixamo and utilize their automatic rigging system! You simply define where specific key points are located on the model (chin, wrists, elbow, knee and groin) and the program does the rest! It even has several predefined animations that you can apply to your newly rigged model, then export it as FBX for use in other applications such as the Unity game engine. It couldn't be simpler. The only downside - it only works with humanoid bipedal models. So, if you want to rig anything else, a monster, vehicles, etc., you still have to rig it from inside a program like Autodesk 3ds Max. But, for getting down the basics, this process should work.
Now for the real test of this change in how I teach rigging and skinning: letting the kids try it out. The modeling part went well and several got into skinning it in Photoshop quickly. Next up when we return to school: getting it rigged. I hope it goes as well as I predict, but more on that later.
This may seem early to you, but we are already starting to plan for next school year even though we aren't halfway through the current year! One of the things I have am responsible for as department chair is verification of courses and descriptions in the registration booklet for the upcoming year. I just completed this task on Friday and thought everyone might like a sneak peek of the upcoming changes to the Game Design concentration.
For starters, the course titled Scientific Visualization will no longer appear as a main course. The title replacing it is Digital Design & Animation. This is the revised course which is taking the place of Sci Vis statewide and focuses more on the creation of digital artwork and other topics that are important to modern artists using technology as their medium. That being said, while it is still awaiting official acceptance from the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), all official paperwork (such as report cards) will list students as taking Sci Vis.
We've also added the replacement for Scientific Visualization II. This is a course that wasn't added in the past due to it's heavy focus on science curriculum since we are focusing our attention at DSA on game design. However, it is being replaced at the state level by Digital Design & Animation II which directly follows the content from its namesake's predecessor curriculum. The entire course is designed to focus on increasing one's skills and understanding of 3D modeling. This means the new course fits right in line with our program. Students in DDA-II also have the opportunity to earn certification as an Autodesk 3ds Max Certified User. This is professional recognition of their skills which can be used on both college applications and added to their resume when applying for employment.
Next, students have been asking why there are no honors level courses in game design for quite some time. They know my expectations of them far exceed that of the state curriculum, so I have always thought of this as a valid question. The problem with it revolves around what can and cannot receive honors designation as set by DPI. Mainly, this involves any course currently in field test or pilot status, which has been my more advanced classes for many, many years.
However, this year things are different. I have permission from the CTE instructional management coordinator to add honors designation to the Game Art & Design course in DSA's registration booklet while I complete the necessary paperwork for approval. GAD will continue to be the student's first opportunity to dive into creating their own games with a main focus being on 2D techniques once the basic tools are learned in the previous two classes but by adding honors designation, they will receive a GPA benefit for going above and beyond the required curriculum.
And finally, as a senior, students can take Advanced Game Design as their finale in the concentration. To the best of my knowledge, this course will remain in pilot status next year without any major changes. But, I do know changes are coming down the road and once it is taken out of pilot status, I plan on applying for it to be considered honors level as well. AGAD will continue to focus on 3D game development and associated skills.
While this new alignment is perfect for this year's freshmen, I do realize there are students who have been in the program for a while and may not want to follow this direction. For them, we will continue to offer CTE Advanced Studies (an independent study where students can delve deeper into a topic or tool they learned in previous classes), they can opt to take DDA-II since all students have taken Sci Vis or they can take Digital Media with Mr. Maya in order to complete a concentration in Game Design at DSA.
I believe this is a good change both for our students as well as the program in general. If you are curious about any of these curriculum, you can learn more about them on the About pages above (coming soon) or contact me via email with your questions.
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:
It is hard to believe that tomorrow is the start of the 2017-18 school year. But, we all knew that summer had to end at some point! Over the past week, I have been actively working to get students' lessons ready well ahead of the materials being needed instead of only working on them on demand. And, for the moment at least, I believe I am ready for most classes through the first semester. Will things change? Of course, they always do! But it feels good to be ahead of the curve for once.
On a related note, we held the DSA open house a couple of days ago which allowed me to speak with returning #dsaGAD students and meet my new students who are coming into the program. They all seem as excited to start the new year as I am. While I am mainly teaching classes I have taught before, I am excited to be piloting the new Fundamentals of Design & Animation. This update to the Sci Vis curriculum is LONG overdue and while it still needs a bit of massaging to be great, it's got an amazing skeleton for learning goals and material!
One final thing I want to mention is the addition of two new resources for students at DSA. The school is finally stepping into the current millennium with its use of social media. We have added a couple of news resources in the form of a new DSA Facebook page as well as a Twitter handle for @DSA_DurhamNC. If you haven't connected with one or both of these resources, I recommend doing so. It will allow you to get all the latest news about what is going on at school in the fastest possible manner!
But now, it's time to do some more prep for this week. I can't wait to see everyone tomorrow!
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.