Author Archive

February 19, 2013

Instead of, Learn the Tools, Perhaps, Discover the Poetry Within

Forestlight 001blogsizeAdobe, in their creative anthem, tell us that creativity is no longer an elective, it’s our future. I absolutely agree. They exhort us to learn the tools. Fair enough, that is one approach. I have had students who were software mechanics. They could not wait to discover a new technique, a new tool, a new method. These students were the masters of the menus and buttons. They were not necessarily more creative, but they were technically ahead. However, there is another approach.

Instead of learn the tools, I would suggest, discover the poetry within.

Several years ago I created a philosophy which has guided my teaching on a daily basis… Don’t teach theory, teach what you can do with it. We could apply that philosophy to this situation by focussing first on expression and then on learning the tools that would allow that expression to see the light of day. Expression first, tools second.

This semester I have a grade eleven class, all beginners, the majority of whom are struggling with school. School really is not their favourite thing. But – something interesting is happening. These students are showing up regularly (other teachers are just a little jealous). They are working. They are asking questions that only come from people trying to do better, to learn more, to express their inner visions. Granted, these inner visions are pretty limited right now. They are the seeds from which other, more complex and interesting ideas, will grow. At the start of the class I focussed on showing them what was possible. I then taught (and continue to teach) the tools that were and will be required. Expression first, tools second. This way works because it puts the students first. Motivation has to come from within, and I would suggest that feeding their inner visions feeds this process most of all.

I am not a software mechanic. I am and always will be, an artist. Opening doors to richer, more articulate self expression is what I try to do for my students every day. Adobe’s tools are and have always been, incredibly powerful, reliable and yes, complex. We need complex to create what we see in our inner visions. These are rich visions – they need and deserve this level of tools. But perhaps it is time for Adobe to embrace this broader perspective of expression first, tools second, one in the service of the other. I think this new message around creativity is an excellent start. Can we take it one step further? Discover the poetry within – the software itself, the incredible projects created by that software, and within the people using the software. If we want to encourage more people, new people, to explore and master this digital universe, perhaps we should start by reaching out to feed their inner visions. Expression first, tools second.

2:02 AM Permalink
April 9, 2012

“Please sir, I want some more.”

I have seen the future and it is a scary place, and many will indeed be saying, “I want more”.

Our school board is undergoing a major philosophical shift by adoping a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) approach to equipping classrooms with digital devices. Their intent is to;
– put their money into fewer and fewer computers, especially full classroom labs,
– encourage students to bring their own devices, thereby saving the costs for that equipment
– use more and more freeware as much as possible
– give students increased access to the internet, including Youtube which is now available to them
– buy school-based equipment such as laptops, notebooks and tablettes which will live on carts so they can be rolled to any classroom (and since the whole school is now a wireless zone cabling is not an issue) in order to offer this support to students unable to bring their own devices
– keep a few specialaized labs such as our two multimedia labs and two business labs, because of their unique technicala and ergonomic requirements

On the surface this is both scary and wonderful. I am heartily in favour of allowing students, even encouraging students, to work more independantly including using their own digital devices. The obvious downside is – they won’t have the “correct” software and there is no money for them to get it through the school. As budgets dissolve and needs increase this solution will be seen in increasing numbers all over the world. Yes, the school board has immediately recognized that they must, and in fact have, set aside money for laptops, notebooks and tablettes for the students who cannot afford them. And of course, those machines will be loaded with the required software. On the surface it looks very interesting. Score one for student and teacher freedom…. score one for budgetary restraint… not so sure about the rest….

The push to use more and more Freeware is also interesting, and problematic. On the positive side, every student will be able to now have the software used at school, and it will be free. You simply cannot get better than that, assuming it actually works, and that it allows sufficient growth for the students to buld their skill sets appropraitely. After exploring several free alternatives to Photoshop I found that both Sumo Paint and PixLr were kind of interesting. They really evoke the look and feel of Photoshop so using these tools now would still allow a student to transfer their skills to Photoshop at a later date quite easily, disarmingly easily. I was quite surprised at how similar they were. And no, they do not do it all. They are not the real thing. But they were surprisingly good. And they were free. As of this moment I have not seen a response from Adobe or from our provincial Ministry of Education regarding the modification of their province wide licences for Adobe Photoshop Elements 8 and or Premier Elements 8 and Adobe CS4 Web Standard such that students would be able to use this software on their own devices, versus the surrent status on school devices only. BYOD may demand that this arrangement be redefined.

There are many, many other areas of concern, but this at least recognizes a few to start. On the surface I am very interested, but under the surface I see many problems. I also see a re-arranging of the old world in which software companies will need to redefine how and where they make their money. Freeware is not great, but the students I know who use Open Office, for example, are very happy with it and their parents are delighted with the cost. Kind of makes you stop and wonder – doesn’t it.

6:17 PM Permalink
January 5, 2012

Self expression is healing

Self expression is healing . I know this because my students show me how true this is every year when they make their films.

For the record, not all of their pieces are like this, thank you! But every year there are students who come forward to tell me about their Adobe Youth Voices projects and I am frequently moved to tears by the hardships they are experiencing. There is the young lady whose aunt is an alcoholic – with unpleasant consequences, and the student wants to talk about this in an audio podcast and poster. There are the two students who discovered they had both been subjected to emotional abuse for years and they want to make a film about this. Then there is the student who cannot live at home – mom is a “bit of an addict” and dad – well, living with dad is simply not possible. She lives with a friend.  She is considering doing a piece about this experience. I am moved in ways that reach deep into my soul. I am overwhelmed that so much hardship goes on around us, in good old middle class Canada. And then I am honoured to be trusted such that they would want to talk about these issues with me and that leaves me feeling overwhelmed with the responsibility of seeing these projects through to fruition while also asking constantly… “Are you comfortable sharing all of this with the world?” because the students must also be protected.

I think about the software we use – Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 and Adobe Premier Elements 9 and I wonder if the software engineers ever think about what their programs address and create. If they were to see what goes on in my class as these projects gently unfold and grow, I suspect they would be amazed and perhaps, overwhelmed. It is truly awesome to watch and to nurture and mentor this whole process. I bet they never talked about this in engineering class. But this is what they are helping to create through their software. Thank you to all the engineers – you make great things possible. And out of some of that, comes healing. The healing that can only emerge from the release from some of your troubles and issues. It is a very neat journey. If any engineers read this, please be sure to pass it along to your comrades. And smile at what you help make possible. As for me – I am delighted that all of this is going on. I can’t change their pasts but I can certainly help to change their futures, and isn’t that what education is all about?

10:04 PM Permalink
July 11, 2011



There is a dark side to our digital world and it is called cyber-bullying. Our intervention is required.

Cyber-bullying is lethal but I did not appreciate the depths of this reality until I looked it in the face and saw the upset and nightmares it creates. I had read the articles about cyber-bullying. I had watched a video. I thought I was aware but I was wrong. It was only when it faced me directly, when one of my students was taken down that horrible path, that I fully understood what it is and why it must be addressed. It is the dark side of our digital world.

The student in question is a very quiet, intelligent, accomplished person, with wonderful friends and a bright clear future. When this student was away for many classes, I worried. The Guidance department then sent out a note to the student’s teachers explaining that medical issues prevented this young person from attending school and since it was near the end of the year would we each please contact mom and help the student to complete the year successfully, understanding that the student was not capable of doing everything normally at least for the time being.

I called mom – and learned the horrible truth. Her child had been the victim of a vicious cyber-bullying attack. This wonderful, quiet, young person was talking about suicide. Not as a “drama queen/king”, but quietly, intelligently… and that is when mom and dad sought emergency counselling and started round-the-clock care so their child would never be alone. When I was on the phone with mom she completely broke down. She was in tears, I had tears running down my face, and it suddenly was all too real. When I suggest that “lethal” is the only word to describe cyber-bullying, I truly mean it.

When I called mom I had a game plan in mind. I do house calls. I don’t do them very often, and I always have parental permission before I “drop in” and it occurred to me that this was the time for one of those visits – if the student could not come to me then I would go to them and the family agreed to this. It is very difficult to explain what it is like to see a warm, caring young person who used to look so good now looking like they were in Hell, but that’s what faced me. I said I was there to provide support and to show that their child meant the world to me. I didn’t care about the academics – they had a fabulous track record in my class and further work was not needed. I had taken the time to come over to prove that this teenager was a very important person and had every reason to live. That was why mom allowed me to come over. That was my whole message. The visit lasted about an hour. There were warm hugs all round, many tears were wept, some anger was vented, some details were shared. And I learned at point blank range just how destructive and horrible cyber-bullying is. Not “can be”, not “could be”… “is.” Period.

Teens don’t have a lot of inner resources with which to deal with life’s challenges and their executive function – well – it’s just not at an “executive” level yet. They depend heavily on their friends and peers for their identities and the internet is a large part of this. Watch some teens on their phones and you’ll see how distraught they become when they miss part of an online texting conversation. Not all teens do this at this level, but many do, and cyber-bullying preys on that vulnerability and dependence.
We do amazing things with amazing kids and it is a privilege and an honour to be a part of their world. Being allowed into someone’s home is an even greater honour and for that I offer a heartfelt thanks to that family. Thank you for letting me in. I am glad I could help in some small way. Like the title says, there is a dark side to our digital world and we must address it directly. It is time to create a curriculum that helps to undo the dark side. Please send your thoughts and comments – I would like to hear what you are doing in this regard.

Fortunately, there is also a bright side to our digital world. It is called student success. Here are a few examples from my past year of teaching.

Working in multimedia is wonderful and each year there are moments when we see kids succeed in ways that only these media allow. One young fellow has many learning challenges. Doing academic work is difficult for him. He tries but it’s not usually very successful. He was bailing on all of his classes, including mine… and then he completed his music video. What a breakthrough! He worked with a few friends and put together a movie using Premier Elements 9.0 and suddenly the storyteller that is locked away inside this young man was revealed. The video was far from perfect but it was a fabulous statement from him. I love Premier Elements because it does so much and is so accessible. Another student worked with her partner to tell the story of a monster that stole people’s dreams. Hours and hours of filming and scripting and editing (again in Premier Elements 9.0) finally came together in their labour of love. They were justifiably proud of their accomplishment. Over and over again I watched students tell stories and comment on their lives through the videos and posters they were making. The power of multimedia was very much in evidence all around my classroom lab. It was a joy to see the tools of our trade being used to create healthy, productive projects. As I look back on the year I was reminded that most kids in most situations do indeed do the right thing. When I was dealing with the cyber-bullying situation I needed to remember this.

My year ended on a strong up note when the bullied student showed up at school on report card day (they were back!!!) to say a very warm and deeply felt, thank you. It doesn’t get any better than that. I hope your year has been as warm and nurturing.

6:37 PM Permalink
June 30, 2011


An ultimate exam – can there be such a thing? If it is in a high school senior design class is the Adobe Digital School Collection up to the task? ABSOLUTELY – on both counts. My classes did it and the results were fabulous.

Our principal explained she needed a favour. She was the volunteer chair of our school board’s United Way campaign for 2011-2012 and she needed new posters for the campaign. The posters would be printed and distributed throughout the board (no small deal – we are one of the largest school boards in Canada) . I love authentic tasks. Having spent 20 years in ad agencies and design firms before moving into teaching I know the difference between textbook work and “real” assignments and this opportunity was incredibly real. Each year I have several students who are move into the design field in post secondary programs and for them to have first class published work in their portfolios would be fantastic.

To make it interesting I chose to do the posters as the final exam project in my senior design classes. Our provincial ministry of education allows us the freedom to create our final exams in whatever form best suits our courses and students and for me that always involves a practical design assignment. After all, we are a project driven, student centered creating, solving, building, testing and evaluating class so why not get the students to do exactly that as part of their exam. The challenge built in to this, however, is that because the poster assignment was being presented as an exam I would not be able to offer all of the feedback and assistance I would normally offer in a regular assignment. But – I had promised fabulous posters for my principal to use for the campaign. Would I be able to deliver as promised?

The software we use is the Photoshop Elements 9.0 (with Premier Elements 9.0, and Web Standard CS4 – Dreamweaver, Fireworks and Flash Pro). My senior students have repeatedly confirmed that this version of Photoshop is more than up to the task. So many tools and functionalities have been carried over from the CS4 version that it has become a powerhouse of its own. A full slate of layers functions – layer blends, clipping masks, layer masks – plus a broad range of colour functions and selection functions as well as a full range of filters means that there isn’t much you can’t do in this version. Obviously it is not the same as Photoshop CS4 or CS5, but it isn’t a pale junior version either – it holds its own and produces wonderful results. For high school classes getting into digital design I find it is a very accessible and accomplished tool.

A quick side note, should you chose to do this type of assignment – I helped many of the students with the words for the posters. We are not a creative writing class, we’re a design class, so helping them with the text really eased their concerns and allowed them to focus on what was important – their designs. Photos came from only – it allows users to use the images in almost any way imaginable and that was important to me since the school board was printing and distributing the posters and copyright issues could not interfere with this process. As part of this assignment the students also had to learn and meet the requirements of logo use for both the United Way and for our school board – yet another authentic element built into the project.

So – how did it all work out? My grade 11 classes created two posters each – one for an adult audience and one for a student audience (their choice of age range – elementary, middle school or high school). The grade 12’s did a similar assignment but had three posters to do – they also had to create a poster using typography (no illustration or photo). In all 200 posters were created – and I was delighted by the results! I presented the top 21 designs to our principal and she was totally blown away. She wanted to use all of them! Our superintendant was equally impressed and I was delighted. It had worked. A real task with a real client and a real deadline and real requirements. THIS was an ultimate exam – and in a few weeks I will learn which posters the committee has chosen so they can be prepped and printed.

One last important note. Like every other teacher I have students who bail part way through a course. It happens and sometimes you can try to overcome this but…. Well – apparently word got out to all of the students, including those who had not attended regularly, because every single student participated in the exam assignment. AND I am very pleased to say that included in that group of the top 21 designs were designs from the peripheral students. A couple of them had really come through and their work was exemplary. And isn’t that why we do what we do in our classrooms every day?

10:52 AM Permalink
April 10, 2011

The Cell Phone Experiment – Part 1

My goal – to finally bring cell phones and their amazing technology into the classroom as working tools, instead of as working distractions. This idea initially came to me a few years ago but the world was clearly not ready. “Get those things out of our classrooms!” cried many, many teachers and administrators. And who can blame them. Students were clearly distracted by them and demonstrated very little restraint (if indeed, any restraint at all) in using them even though they were strongly instructed to turn them off and put them away. Now – years later, there is no improvement in student behaviour, but something else has changed. We, the great collective “we”, being teachers, administrators and superintendants, seem to be finally realizing two important developments. First, phones are not going away. Period. Secondly, these phones and all of the devices yet to come, are only going to become more capable and even more commonplace. In our own high school we have recently had to revise the school’s Code of Conduct to reflect these changing times and realities.

When I told one of our vice-prinicipals that I wanted to utilize cell phones and their built in cameras as sources of images for videos the students were doing in class, she was positively interested. THAT was not an answer I would have received a few years ago. Her only concern was that many of my students would therefore be out in the halls filming and shooting. I came up with a solution to that – press passes. The students and I would create a version of a hall pass but it would be labelled, Press Pass and would state that the student wearing this pass was one of mine and had certain responsibilities and it included my class phone number so another teacher could immediately call me and complain or comment. As it happens, it was not the use of the cell phones that killed that part of my process. We have had a run of incidents with too many students out and about in our hallways so when I approached our prinicipal about this experiment she was accepting of my use of the cell phones but not of the students in the halls. All of their shooting would have to be done outside of school, which actually worked out well for the project. What was very interesting was that she then told me about the upcoming changes to the Code of Conduct based in part on requests like mine to make positive use of these machines in school. Clearly not all teachers are in favour of this shift but when my department met to discuss the proposed changes to the Code of Conduct, they supported my experiment and wrote in the required changes for me. The change I am after allows a teacher to use a cell phone camera in class. Previously we were told that was illegal… and now I am just waiting for final confirmation that the changes are accepted and passed. Change apparently takes a long, long time. Still.

But here is the kicker – I am having a huge problem getting the students to use their phone cameras for the project. I never expected this to be a challenge. I tried and tried to understand the reasons for this attitude, with no success. Then one day a student needed help with a particularly difficult picture so I brought in my Pentax K10 semi-pro DSLR. His comment when he saw the pics I took was, “Those are legit.” And that, it seems, is part of the problem. Cell phone cameras are not legit. Big DSLR cameras are legit. The movie cameras I have in my classroom with their microphones on top and cables and such are legit. They look, “pro”. Cell phones are not “pro”. They are commonplace and they are entertainment. The fact that many cell phones are much better than little point-and-shoot cameras is lost on these students.

At this point in the proceedings I am still confident that as we become increasingly engaged in this project, the students will buy into the use of their phone cameras and they will start to realize that “legit” comes in many, many forms. Funny – I thought it would our administration that might stall the project. As I said – I remain optimistic. We’ll get there.

Where to from here? One student is finally using his cell phone to shoot images for his storyboard – he is doing a digital storyboard. When I told him he was welcome to put together a digital version he was delighted! I guess it never occured to him that that would be possible. Funny how these digital kids can be so cautious about some things while launching into new apps and technology a the same time.

9:23 PM Permalink
February 15, 2011


The ideas for this article came out of my reviewing the whole Rome process and the resulting software. What I could not stop thinking about was the question, what exactly do educators want… in software, in the digital world in general, in any way?

I was immediately struck by the huge assumption, and therefore the huge error, built into the whole question right from the get go – “educators” are not a homogeneous group. You can ask what we want any way you wish, but, unless you are prepared to understand just how diverse and downright different we are, your question will never really be answered. That is why any good designer / engineer / problem solver will start by asking, who are we… not, what do we want. There are dozens of books out now that discuss the value of the design process and design thinking which places the target or audience of a product ahead of the product itself. First understand your clientele, then build the product.

Let’s start by looking at a typical high school. Our school has approximately 1500 students and 100 teachers. Of those 100 teachers we have about 20 teachers who are already immersed in various aspects of digital technology, another 15-ish who are wading into the waters in varying degrees and the rest. The “rest “ represent widely varying perspectives. At one end there are those who would venture forth with lots of support and mentoring (hand holding is required). At the opposite end are those who are angry and or afraid… it really doesn’t matter which because the end result is the dismissal of digital technology and all that is has to offer. I cannot give you numbers or percentages for these two groups at this point. I can only tell you they definitely exist and that those against are vehement about their anti-technology point of view. I strongly suspect, based on the war stories I hear from other schools, that we are pretty typical of most high schools. To put this into perspective – if you are building software that appeals to somewhat experienced users then you are building for about 35% of our teachers. That means you are not appealing to 65% of them. It is that simple, and these figures may be overly optimistic.

I offer this insight into our mix of teachers because what the most involved would want in their software is quite different from what the others would prefer. And you are going to tell me you are going to create one software product that appeals to everyone equally? And serves them equally? Interesting…  (I am told it’s good to have dreams. )

I suggest we start with the most basic aspect of any technology – the names of the tools themselves. As I saw with Rome, applying very technical names to these tools may be perfectly logical for the engineers and for those who are very well versed in the technology but even those of us who consider ourselves immersed in this digital world do not know all of these terms. How, then, will new users ever figure them out? More to the point, don’t you want to make every aspect of the technology inviting, easy to access and use? Calling a tool by a technical name is a quick way to push a new user away, while using a term from common language makes the tool more accessible and appealing. Oh – one more note – do not make the names cute. That is worse than technical – at least technical assumes we will figure it out (rightly or wrongly). Cute is just insulting. Straightforward works well, it assumes normal intelligence and is accessible to most folks.

When planning the software, think like a new user. Keep the operations simple, the result clear and the process direct and easy to use. For example – explaining how to adjust, add or subtract keyframes will not make a new user happy – too many concepts at work here, and way too much to know right from the get go. Instead, think…   the story opens with ______; then this happens_____, then this ______. Finally, it ends when this happens ______________. End of story. The sounds will be _____, and so on until its built. Make it simple. All of that will work wonders for the teachers and for any users in fact, that want as close to drag-and –drop story telling as possible. Now – to add an underlying power to this software, you would need to make the resulting timeline fully accessible to those of us who play with such things… but not up front. Tell us how to lift the hood, so to speak, so we can access these details. I liken the whole thing to operating a car. Most folks do not want to know the details. They want the car to start, go and stop easily with simple instructions, not complex technical explanations and controls. Assume that the new users know virtually nothing and want to know only a bit more in order to make it work, at least in the beginning.

Now – if you are able to create software that works like this, go one step further – make it so it runs on old and new systems equally. Our school is running Windows XP on a variety of machines. The old machines have slow processors and about 512 Mb of RAM. The new machines also run XP and have 1 Gb of RAM. Our best machines in the school have fairly fast processors and 2 Gb of RAM… and nowhere are there any signs that point to better machines running Windows 7. Having said that, I know there are schools running brand new computers with tons of RAM and Windows 7… makes it quite a challenge, doesn’t it? We are never on the same page digitally, and you must assume the worst scenario possible. That is our reality and since there are no programs anywhere that are stepping forward with the billions of dollars necessary to not only equip schools with better computers but to also maintain those labs at that level indefinitely, this situation is not about to improve. I suppose you could go one step further and add that certain governments have education budgets on their radar screens – they consider them excellent sources of revenue. How they manage to also sleep at night is quite beyond my comprehension. I always thought that it was society’s job to invest in its own future, but apparently I was wrong on that point.

So – building new software for touch-pad technology? Great – schools may have that by 2020… if all goes well. Schools, which should be so much closer to the cutting edge of technology, are still fighting the belief that buying good computers is a luxury, not a necessity. And you want to create software that serves all educators equally? As is said at the outset, it’s good to dream. Therein lies all of our hopes for the future.

The picture shows us looking down – is that where we are headed, or is that where we have come from? I prefer the latter – you?

2:29 PM Permalink
December 22, 2010

Finding the Voices Amongst the Noise

Welcome to my grade ten communications technology class. They are pure energy, talking and thinking and creating like a hive of loud, busy, bees. While grade nines may have invented “sociable” it took the grade tens to evolve it into a higher art form and they are continually polishing the concept. If you were to be a fly on the wall on any given day then you’d say, there is so much noise. And that is how it felt to me for the longest time, until they taught me otherwise.
Their project was a digital poster to be created in Photoshop Elements 8.0, to appear on our classroom TV’s (every class in our school has a 25” TV hung from the ceiling – we use them for our daily announcements and for school broadcasts). Our school was supporting the Toys for Tots campaign and it needed more publicity so I thought these posters would work well as a purposeful and quick end-of-term project. What I did not expect was how different their responses would be.
One created a design that was so simple and yet, so articulate and I was not prepared for that. Her design was in stark contrast to the other works that used every Christmas colour and seasonal font imaginable. It turns out she is also a wonderful singer, but that only came up because she suddenly, quietly, started singing in class. I would have never otherwise known. Another wanted more powerful colours – we explored the possibilities of layer blends together and she was delighted – that poster is still in progress but looking very promising (so much for deadlines!). Yet another was taken by the idea that there were students whose parents could not even afford food, let alone gifts and treats. How, in our school, could this happen? Very easily, as it happens, because we are a diverse community with many people in every demographic, including poverty. I am not sure she will ever finish her poster. I think her “poster” is still being formed inside her mind – a newly expanded and more aware mind than the one she had before. These are all voices being formed amidst the noise.
At our end of term Christmas concert I got to see that some of my grade 11 students are also well practiced musicians. Some may be struggling with Flash but when they are playing their instruments they sound fabulous and proud. I am so glad I got to see this other side of them. Their work in Flash made me think of a musician still learning the fingering for an instrument – initially very mechanical and not at all musical but later – fluid and intuitive. First we learn the basics – their voices will follow soon after and their “music” will flow from there. Once again, individual voices appear from amongst the noise of my classes.
It was meet-the-creature night (parent teacher interview night) and my interviews were done. I was chatting with another teacher when a couple came in and asked if anyone knew where they could find – me. It turned out they were the parents of a girl I was helping with her photography, and they wanted to express their appreciation for everything I had done. But – there was more. Mom was very concerned about how her daughter was going to earn a living as a freelance photographer. Her daughter has already found her voice – it is photography. We all know how important it is to her and while mom does not want to get in the way of her daughter’s dreams she also wants to be sure her daughter will be safe and secure. We talked about the realities of life as a photographer and faced the reality that there were no guarantees. At the end of the conversation she seemed better with it all. We’ll talk again. I will talk and work with her daughter and her daughter’s voice will continue to grow. Another voice will emerge from the din and the noise.
It is the end of the day and I am sitting alone in my lab surrounded by 30 very quiet, very peaceful computers. Everyone has gone for the Christmas break. The silence is wonderful, but strangely out of place. I miss their noise. As we pause for Christmas I hope you love the silence but also love the noise and all of the voices it contains. May they grow and learn and prosper.

3:01 AM Permalink
July 14, 2009

MEADOWVALE SAYS “NO!” TO VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN and Photoshop Elements helps bring it all to life

Sometimes an after-school project grows and takes on a life of its own. This project was one of those. For the past few years two teachers on Meadowvale’s Family Studies department have encouraged their students to speak out against violence against women. It is an issue that has engaged them and their students, and this year it went even further. One teacher has a drama background, including fabulous skills in makeup, and she proposed to the students that she would use makeup to make volunteers look as if they had been beaten, abused…. and they would be photographed and the pictures displayed in the school. The goal was to bring the issue to life in the immediacy of the school. These issues are often seen as being somewhere else. The teachers and students wanted to bring them right into our neighbourhood. They quickly secured the willing volunteers, they had the permission of the principal to display these images in the school, but they needed photographers. I run a photography club and we agreed to do the photo shoot. The idea of cross-club activities had never occurred to me before. After school clubs tend to run as independent entities, but this time we collaborated and the results were spectacular.
Five girls agreed to model, and five of our student photographers came out to shoot. The setup I created was intentionally dramatic and yet very simple. Using a large black cloth as a backdrop and a single light source at 45 degrees to the model (see the diagram to see how this worked), we were able to create dramatic images.
The cameras used ranged from two DSLR’s to little point and shoots with some exposure controls. The shooting started at 3:30, and it just didn’t stop. The models and the shooters worked nonstop for over two hours. Although I cannot show you the images of the students, I can show you images of Brenda MacKenzie, one of the teachers who also agreed to be a model. The photographers were encouraged to get very close to the models and the models did a superb job of holding still while the photographers composed their pictures and made their exposures. Having digital cameras is also so helpful because we were able to show the models some of the images as soon as they were taken, which helped to feed their understanding of what the photographers were trying to accomplish. We talk about engaging our students – THIS was one of the best examples I have ever seen in my ten years of teaching. The other teachers and I were blown away by the students and their deep desire to simply keep on going.
Eventually the makeup and the cameras were put away and the images were downloaded. Time for the fun to begin. This is when having at least one decent computer and a solid version of Photoshop makes such a difference. We used my lab which has good computers and Photoshop Elements 5.0, because that is what our province has licensed. Why more jurisdictions don’t do this type of licensing is beyond me. Instead of every community trying to negotiate separate licenses our province negotiates on our collective behalf, and everybody wins. We talk about the benefits and perils of standardized testing. We should also be talking about the benefits of standardized resources.
Photoshop Elements 5.0 (and this year the province has upgraded to Photoshop Elements 7.0 and included Premier Elements 7.0 to go along with the existing CS3 Web Standard licensing) is a powerful tool ready to do a lot of what a high school student needs. While it will never equal the full blown versions of Photoshop it was a very capable tool for our student photographers in this project. Cropping and adjusting brightness/contrast were the adjustments made immediately and then one of the students started playing with converting the images to black and white. b%26wprocesssmall.jpgNOW the images were literally jumping off the page. By delicately adjusting the red/green/blue balance we were able to convert many of the images and make them even more powerful than they had been in colour. In the end approximately fifty images were printed – about half were black and white. Printing, by the way, was not done on proper photo paper – much too expensive. We used a cover weight matte finish brochure paper from a local business supply box store – 150 sheets 8.5 x 11 for $35.00 – and adjusted our little HP bubble jet to high quality prints and went from there. Some images printed beautifully immediately, while others required some additional work to get high quality results. The processing and printing took an entire Sunday afternoon, but the results were worth every minute. When the teachers and students mounted the exhibit they filled an entire wall of our front lobby with posters they had created, all of our prints, and many explanatory pieces that talked about date rape, domestic abuse and similar violent issues.
The display was an incredible success. Hundreds of students stopped to read, examine and take in the message. A couple of teachers (who were not involved in the project) brought their classes down to experience the display. And most telling of all – there was no vandalism. None of the prints were damaged in any way. The principal also agreed to leave the display up for the grade eight parent orientation night when the soon-to-be-grade nines and their parents visit our school for an open house. The display spoke clearly of our students’ involvement and concern and of our school’s willingness to publicly tackle difficult, important issues. A job well done, and Photoshop Elements helped to bring it all to life.
A special thanks goes out to our teacher, Brenda MacKenzie, for her permission to use her pictures.

5:08 AM Permalink
March 20, 2009

THINKING Pt. 2 – Storyboards? Sort of…

If we are helping to build a non-linear world then why do we often insist on starting at step one?
This thought came to mind because I was coincidentaly privileged to be a part of two different projects which were experiencing very similar problems at exactly the same time. It was a moment in which I found myself challenging my own basic assumptions and the results were both eye opening and freeing.
ideas3 web.jpg
Project number one – Roxana Hadad, an AEL in Chicago was working with students under Greg Hodgson, an AEL in England, to teach Greg’s students game creation using Flash CS3. She was looking for volunteers to assist and I offered to cover using Flash’s drawing tools. The online session was fabulous, the conversation dynamic and the students were wonderful. The prospects for success looked solidly positive. I followed up a few weeks later and learned that apparently the students were very engaged when actually game building but were opposed to planning and storyboarding. Hold that thought.
Project number two – my own grade eleven students were planning their first full Flash animations. With lots of support and more than a little “nudging” by me they got their so-called storyboards done. There were a few well done boards but for the most part they were pretty haphazard – a poor showing with very little enthusiasm for this whole planning business. Hmmm-mm – this sounded a lot like Greg and Roxana’s experiences. Two entirely different groups of high school students were behaving in very similar ways when faced with a problem – was I missing something?
As I pondered this situation I realized a few things. First –I have years of experience doing this type of work. The students have very little experience. I not only know the software I also know the role and importance of the planning process, the problems these projects will likely encounter and how to solve most of those problems. In other words, I have learned on many, many levels, all about these projects. And – I did a lot of that learning by doing projects. I did not learn by reading books, watching tutorials, or listening to podcasts, I learned by doing. I freely admit that these supports were used occasionally but for the most part, I learned the most by doing, by falling flat on my face and by starting over – a little bruised but also a little smarter. It took years to learn the required lessons. If this was my process, then why should it be all that different for our students? Add to that the element of the creative process by which we come to our initial ideas and this situation becomes even more complicated.
Many seem to like using logic to find solutions to challenges. I have used that from time to time, but I have also had many solutions simply “appear” in my imagination, from out of nowhere, and I am not alone in this experience. If I ask my classes there will always be many who think logically and just as many for whom answers simply appear. What I love about this is the number of students who use both techniques – logic married happily to sudden insight. Shouldn’t we teach using both techniques combined with a lot of hands on experiences so that our students can slowly but surely build the skill sets they require in order to properly plan and storyboard? Does everything have to be done in the “correct order”? Would this approach work equally well with teachers who are just starting to learn this technology?
Twenty years in the ad agency business taught me the full value of planning, storyboarding, scripting and everything that goes with that. It also taught me to respect the creative process, a process that can be contradictory to the logic of planning followed by doing. Perhaps in this awkward reality there lies a better approach, an approach which tests some of my baseline assumptions about proper work flow.
What if students were required to create an initial, rough storyboard as a broad guideline for their project, followed by an intense period of hands-on building, experimenting and risk taking. Through this process they would generally follow their game plan while also trying and therefore learning, new techniques and ideas. Because they had to create an initial, rough plan the teacher should be able to avoid that dreaded student comment two weeks into a project… “I don’t know what to do, draw, write, build, create…”. (The comment that makes teachers crazy when it is repeated many, many times!) This is the approach I am currently trying with my grade eleven class, and the results so far have been encouraging. They are following their early ideas, for the most part but they are also allowed to revise those plans on the fly if they discover a better idea. The hands on process puts them to work quickly and they discover in very short order that their first plans may have sounded great but were not as great as they had hoped. There will be gaps, problems and issues galore but those will surface as the work unfolds. I will offer comments, support and critiques as they continue to put their projects together. At the conclusion of the project they will be required to do a reflective review of their project including a fully detailed storyboard for the “better version” of their project. That storyboard will not go into production. Instead, it will serve as an articulate statement of their learning and experience. It is a backwards way to teach storyboarding but I am hopeful that it will be a more engaging and fruitful process.
What if we were to not teach teachers, but engage teachers, when presenting this technology? What if we were to get them to use Photoshop to work on personal pictures and then turn those images into posters they create for themselves. What if we were to show them this technology can be fun and engaging as well as productive before we told them how to use it as a teaching tool? Would having fun reduce some of the barriers thrown up by fear and worry? I suggest, it would help to do so. Does getting people quickly engaged overcome other barriers to learning? My experience says, yes, but I freely admit to being a hands on person so I know my answers are skewed by this.
I know I am not alone in considering this backwards approach. The idea of backwards design, by which you first define the goal and then figure out how you are going to get there, has been around for a long time. Thinking up a solution through sudden insight and then working backwards to confirm that the solution really does everything you need it to do is yet another approach like this. If it engages the learner, prompts them to move forward on their own, to ask new and old questions and to actively learn in a positive environment, then I am for it. Whether it puts step one first matters les and less to me as I continue to test my basic, baseline assumptions about people, learning and school. I invite you to challenge your assumptions… it can be engaging, revealing and freeing. Do not just cut the grass.

9:48 AM Permalink