Well, there's no denying it at this point: Summer is Over! However, it's not something to be sad about. Sure, I know we enjoy those lazy days of sitting by the pool, but we can't just lay around forever. Personally, I am looking forward to the return, though there will be some challenges for me this year and there are definite changes.
For starters, we have a new digital art teacher, Mr. Lucas Gearhart. He comes to us from Las Vegas with a background in teaching digital arts for over a decade and a formal training in the fine arts. So, I am certain that I will learn a lot from him and look forward to working closely with him in the future development of our digital art programs.
Another change is the addition of a middle school course in the digital arts. While it is solely intended for students in the 8th grade, my hope is that there is enough interest in it at the middle school level to justify bringing in a third CTE teacher down the road. Only time will tell! This will be the first digital arts course offered at DSA for middle school students in close to a decade. And, we are catering the course to provide students with an understanding of some of the basics involved in our high school curriculum. So there will be a lot of work involved with this addition.
So, I wish everyone a good start to the school year and hope that sentiment continues throughout the year. I can't wait to see you all tomorrow for Day 1!
One of the things I have long struggled with is the idea of flipping my classroom. And, after reading the article Flipped Classroom: What to Know in 2019 by Elizabeth Trach, it got me thinking about it again. Maybe it's my age or the way I experienced school as a child, but even with the best of intentions, I have a hard time with letting go of classroom instruction in favor of instruction solely taking place outside the classroom. Perhaps, it's a trust issue that the kids won't do their part and then I will cave in and do it in class anyway. I'm not 100% sure. But, every time I come back to this point, I always intend to flip at the start of the year and then back off as the year progresses. Maybe it's the routine of past experience? I know that part of my concern is for students who lack access to the technology needed to see the instruction. Again, I am at odds with this. I constantly tell students:
But, I have a solution!
Rather than completely flipping my classroom, I do a partial flip. By a partial flip, I mean that I still spend face-to-face time lecturing my students, usually in the form of hands-on demonstration with accompanying explanation, but all of my materials are also shared through Schoology, either in written or video formats. That way, students who miss a lecture can still access the information outside of my classroom to stay up-to-date with the rest of the class.
Despite still taking time for lecture, the majority of my in-class time is spent doing hands-on activities where students work through the tasks presented at their own pace, within certain deadlines. Most activities contain a video tutorial demonstrating the skills needed to succeed and students can pause and repeat portions as needed until they understand the tool or technique being used. And, this instructional method allows me the freedom to help those in most need in a one-on-one manner while those who don't need personal attention continue working on their assignments and learning at their own pace.
So, while the odds of me completely flipping my classroom still seems far off, I plan on continuing to use the portions of this great technique that I feel work best in my unique situation. Maybe some day I will completely flip my lid (don't ask the kids, they'll say that already happened!)
DSA always has the best graduations. We hear this every year along with encouragement to attend as graduation celebrates both our students and our success as teachers in helping them make it to this major life transition. Plus, the kids love to see us there supporting their achievement! After 16 years of teaching, I am proud to say that I have attended 14 of these annual ceremonies. The only graduations that I have missed were for one class where I really didn't have a connection with any of the seniors very early in my career as an educator and the year my son graduated from Northern High School. While the core of each ceremony is the same, there are subtle differences between them as well. And, the same goes with each graduating class.
Although I see a small percentage of any one graduating class in my classroom, I get to know my students in ways that most teachers rarely do as my seniors generally stick with me throughout their entire time in high school. So we tend to form strong bonds, both professional and personal, over the course of their four years of exploring game design. In this year's class, I saw amazing artistic talent with both digital and traditional artistic techniques, great leadership and collaboration, amazing and (at times) surprising growth, I watched as individuals came out of their shells to rise in personal confidence and yes, I worried about whether a couple of them would make it to graduation or if they would be back in my classroom for an extra year. But, through all the ups and down (and there were a lot of those roller coasters throughout this year), this group of students showed amazing growth and perseverance. They were a great group and the lack of their presence in my classroom will be missed.
I wish all of this year's graduates the best in whatever life has to offer them now that they have passed this first hurdle toward independence. I see great things ahead for them!
Walking into my classroom this week, I could feel it, the end is near! Parents know it, teachers know it, and the kids DEFINITELY know it. This is the time of year when one of two things always happens: kids either start to lose their minds in anticipation for summer break or they realize just how close we are to the end and buckle down to finish strong. For some students, especially freshmen, it can be this final push that determines whether they move forward into the next class or repeat the one they are currently in. Unlike many of their core classes, there is no opportunity to make up lost credit for any of my classes during summer school. So, my hope is that everyone stays focused and finishes strong.
It is also a time for students to remain focused outside of school in preparation for exams. Although my classes don't have a state mandated exams this year (one benefit to courses being in pilot status), my students will still have an exam that counts for 20% of their grade, unless they meet the exemption criteria discussed below. This gives me a little more flexibility than the state exams in determining what my students have taken away from the school year. State exams in CTE consist of 100 multiple choice questions. While many students find these exams to be quite easy, I do not like this manner of determining mastery of the curriculum. My reasoning - some students fully understand the concepts, tools, and techniques they learned throughout the year but they simply don't test well. However, in having the freedom to create my own exam, I have a solution.
This year, my classes will do a three-part exam. They will still be expected to identify important terms based on various scenarios presented in a multiple choice test but they will also be given a piece of digital art to create (hands-on demonstration of skills) and a written reflection to show mastery and understanding. While this will make grading their exams a much slower process for me, I believe it will give students a better opportunity to demonstrate what they learned this year.
In case you are wondering about exam exemptions after reading what your exam will look like, you need to satisfy two criteria: grade and attendance. If a student has an overall grade of an A for the year, they must have no more than six absences to be exempt. If they have an overall grade of a B, the attendance requirement is no more than four absences. However, it is also important to know that while this allows a student to skip the exam, they may also opt to take it as it will not harm their grade and if they are close to jumping to a higher grade (for instance, they have a high C average for the year and only need a couple of points to jump to a B) they may want to take it anyway. Doing so can boost their final grade and while it may not seem like it at the current time, this boost in grade can help raise their overall GPA down the road, which matters for college applications.
So, in summary, while the end of the school year is very close, it is important to remain focused and finish strong. These last couple of weeks can determine what you are doing next year. Save the rest and playing around for summer break, not now.
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.
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.