1. The interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects. [From Greek sunergia, cooperation, from sunergos, working together; see synergism.] (via)
Every post in this blog is a collaborative effort. From the beginning I decided that student work would accompany, compliment, and possibly even direct the writing. I’ve described the process but if you think about it, I’ve established a pattern which is virtually impossible to maintain. Impossible, that is, unless my students continue to rise to the challenge, producing a wide variety of exceptionally imaginative, technically proficient projects. I believe the quality and scope of the of the work firmly establishes the Mac Lab as one of the finest high school new media arts classrooms in the world. Think I’m exaggerating? Go ahead and and look for yourself. Scroll down. Click the thumbnails. Look at the kids’ work. Click the previous entries link at the bottom of the page and repeat the process. The work speaks for itself, but there’s one thing I want to make clear… It’s not my doing. I’ve got a lot to learn about teaching. In many ways I’m still a novice, still learning this new trade. (I started teaching in 2002.) And no offense intended, but it’s not the kids either. I get the usual assortment of high schoolers. So what is it? What sets us apart?
In a word, it’s synergy.
I’m looking forward to exploring this topic during spare moments over the course of the next two weeks of our family vacation. No, if you’re wondering, I had no idea I was going to write about synergy when I popped open the computer this morning. That’s half the fun! Let me just say that Zack T’s spaceship hanger is a perfect, flawed example of what we’ll be discussing. He’s combined Illustrator, Photoshop, and Cinema 4D to produce a hybrid project. It’s a work in progress and will serve as an example for others who will follow in his footsteps, myself included, this fall. Sure it’s full of mistakes. Mistakes are part of the journey. It’s the combination of elements that holds the key. When the whole is greater than the sum of its parts… Think about it.
People are beginning to stir upstairs so I’ll have to cut this off now.
0804: Sitting in the garage of my father’s house mooching off a neighbor’s default Netgear WiFi (thanks!) as the sun rises over Watsonville, CA. (The prior post was from a fraternity brother’s kitchen table in San Luis Obispo.) Lots to say but since I could be cut off at any minute by early risers in the house, I’d like the address the usual assortment of high schoolers comment as it’s been bugging me. When I get my class lists, I look at each kid’s transcript (they’re online and easy to access). I get everything from the 4.0 crowd to the ones who’ve flunked nearly every class they’ve taken. Some are gifted, some are clueless. I imagine it’s like this for other media arts teachers as well. A few things that might be different… I have a great working relationship with the Special Academic Instruction department. While about 10% of the student body are in that program, over 20% of my students are SAI kids. The ones who struggle in a typical classroom environment usually thrive in the Mac Lab. I wind up with an inch-thick pile of IEPs and 504s but because the class is hands-on and to a large degree, self-paced and self-directed, these kids typically need less attention rather than more. Oddly enough, it’s the 4.0 student who sometimes gets lost (but that’s another story). English Language Learners are almost never placed in the class unless there’s another student enrolled who’s able to translate (thanks to the very hard-working head of the ELL department). The language barrier does pose problems sometimes and I modify the curriculum as necessary for these kids. Maybe 10% of the kids are ELL. I seem to attract the 1.0 to 2.5 GPA crowd. From this group comes some of my best students and many of the worst flatliners. As someone who didn’t like high school either, I’m incredibly frustrated that I’ve yet to reach so many of the latter group because I’ve tried so hard to make this class fun. Oh, to be sure, you have to work, but dang it, we’re creating cool stuff and I can’t understand why anyone would refuse to try. (Still working on that problem.) Every class has a mix of first, second, third, and fourth year students. I see this as a HUGE advantage (think synergy).
My brother just showed up. Gotta run. See you again in Lafayette.
0805: Greetings from the parking lot of the Sun Valley Pool. (Go Rays! Thanks for the WiFi.) The family’s sleeping, the sun’s rising, KFOG‘s on the radio, and life is good. We’re staying with a family we met about 13 years ago in Lamaze class. Fast friends forevermore. The reason I mention this is that Dave’s a teacher. He’s also the Principal Bass Trombonist for the San Francisco Opera, plays with the Symphony, Ballet, and records movie and video game soundtracks with orchestras at Skywalker Sound. If I list all his other accomplishments, I’ll never get to the point. (I’ll dedicate a post to it later in the year when we talk about the power of music.) Anyway, while our kids were getting swim lessons yesterday, Dave, myself, and a recent graphic design grad/swim coach named Warren were discussing teaching philosophy. (Warren loves working with kids and is considering entering the profession.) In the midst of the conversation, Dave says, It’s like Michael Jordan says: Don’t teach skills, skills, skills. Teach passion, passion, passion. Man, did that strike a chord! If there’s one thing that separates the Mac Lab success stories from the dreaded flatliners, it’s passion. Talk about a Stage One Moment! This not only helps me in my quixotic quest to reach every kid, it snicks into place as another piece of the synergy puzzle. Dave’s wife, Cheri (another teacher, former opera singer, and genuinely brilliant individual) also hit one outta the park with an observation about how so many people in our culture suffer from fear of failure. Snick. This post started with an observation about Zack’s project: Mistakes are part of the journey. I encourage the kids to experiment. Click the links in this post to check for yourself. If nothing else, read this (and watch the movies). Passion + fearless experimentation seems to be part of our synergy equation. The unexpected recognition we received (summarized in this post) can be traced to these qualities as well.
In case it’s not apparent, this post is a continuation of Thinking Out Loud. Sure it’s self-serving but if I can wrap my head around what’s at the core of our budding success story and build on that, it’ll help us take that next quantum leap. And a quantum leap in student achievement is the goal for the 09/10 school year.
Note to self: Next post should be about our motto.
0806: Will be updating as I write because the laptop just shutdown and hosed the post I was composing. Augh! And it was such a good post. Oh well, technology happens… Thanks to the Candlewood Suites in Medford, Oregon for providing the WiFi this morning. Yesterday’s wild and windy thunder and lightning rainstorm provided the reminder that there’s one thing I’ve definitely overlooked in trying to identify our synergetic puzzle pieces: classroom management. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING is more important than the classroom management policy. Harry Wong is right. The first days of school are critical to the rest of the year, especially in a computer lab! (Dropped connection. Dropped connection. Dropped connection. Augh! Moved. Thanks TownPlace Suites. Much better.) Rather than spelling out all the policies (and the reasons for each), just look right here (videos). I don’t like being a policeman but without fair and consistent enforcement of the rules, the rest is meaningless. The clipboard is crucial! Okay, now that that two and a half hour posting struggle is complete, lets move on to our motto…
Whether it’s You’re never done in the Mac Lab! or You’re never finished in the Mac Lab! the meaning is the same. I’ve spelled out some of it right here and a former student tells a wonderful version of his own but this has to be the second most important mind-set for the kids to embrace. We’re going to start the year with a series of projects that I’ll expect the students to return to and improve upon repeatedly over the course of the year. This doesn’t work, of course, if they don’t care so here’s where passion plays its part. Y’know, writing this down is really helping to plot out the start of the year. It’s amazing how it’s coming into such clear focus. I do hope that other educators are benefiting from this as well. Hard to know who (if anyone) is reading. One thing I do know is that about 250 kids are going to experience a hyper-focused Mac Lab about a month from now. More to write but the battery’s about drained.
Next up: Peer 2 Peer and 3 Then Me.
0807: Good morning from the parking lot of the SpringHill Suites (still in Medford). Will be updating as I write so yesterday’s fiasco won’t be repeated. A tip of the hat to the folks at Art Junction for the link in A Web 2.0 Workout (looking forward to exploring the rest of those blogs when we get back home) and a welcome to the Art Junction readers who clicked to get here. As you’re probably aware by now, we’re exploring the agents or forces (see definition at top of post) at work in the Mac Lab, trying to define and refine so that their combined effect may be even greater. Today, it’s the hands-off approach we’ll be focusing on.
A returning student commented on how I seem to vanish in the classroom (Harry lent me his invisibility cloak). I replied, but in all fairness, Chris’ observation is probably spot on. I’m sure there are students who get short-changed in the feedback category. I’ll be monitoring this aspect of my own participation more closely next year. The point, though, is that I’ll also be insisting on even more peer to peer interaction. The 3 Then Me component has already been strengthened. See for yourself how it will play its part daily and in student self-assessments. The kids will learn to depend on themselves and on each other more than ever during the course of the year. There’s never any confusion about what they’re supposed to do. It’s written on the board and/or in the blog. I record videos explaining their projects and I introduce, review, and remind in short presentations or pep talks in front of the class. Expectations are crystal clear. But the bulk of the time in the Mac Lab is structured so students can focus on their projects. I try to get out of the way and let them work. (Battery’s down to 7%. That’s it for today.)
Next up: Learn by doing.
0808: Writing that date just brought the memory back. Wow! I’d forgotten that day. It’s been 21 years. Time flies when you’re not blogging… On 080888 I won a key to a customized classic Mustang from a radio station. My key was number 81 (3 x 3 x 3 x 3) and together, being an 050555 guy, I figured the car was mine. Went with two of the three other 0402 amigos (another story) and the key… didn’t work. Oh well. But today the Internet works thanks to an Ethernet connection in a beautiful home (my wife’s aunt’s) rather than the front seat of our rented van. Enough of this rambling. On to the topic at hand…
On our way out of San Luis Obispo (where I wrote the initial entry in this post), we stopped at Cal Poly to show Noël the campus while sharing stories of how her mom and I met there. (No, I’m not wandering off-topic again.) By the time we left, Noël couldn’t stop talking about how she was going to go to Poly too. This, of course, gave us an opportunity to remind her of how important good grades are (and Noël reminded us that she got straight A’s last year). So why am I telling you this? Did you click the Cal Poly link? Did you notice the slogan? Seems I’m guilty of a little unconscious semi-plagiarism. I tell students they’ll learn by doing in the Mac Lab. The slogan I use more often, though, is show what you know. Either way, I’m a firm believer in hands-on learning. Student work reveals how much they’ve learned. I don’t test the kids. Ever. Why not? It’s all spelled out in the assessment videos on the Student Page (see Grading Policies). And while you’re there, check out the universal rubric I’m going to use this year. I tried it out on last year’s final project and it worked wonderfully. It’s mind-numbingly simple and that’s the beauty of it. Many of my peers (other educators) would probably condemn it as unprofessional. One has already suggested that I add more specifics. I know what a rubric is supposed to look like. I’m not concerned with following traditional methodology. My focus is the students. If this unconventional approach is easy for the kids to understand, if it enables them to self-assess with confidence and accuracy, it’s a successful rubric. (It’s also a work in progress and will be modified as necessary.)
One point I’d like to stress is that I’m not thumbing my nose at the tried and true practices in education. There comes a time, however, when one must venture into uncharted territory to make new discoveries. The measure of success and failure is revealed in the students’ work. I continue to modify my approach because not every student shines (yet). I believe in fairy tales. I’ve even written my own. But the house is stirring now and it’s time for me to join the family, so, until next we meet, dream a little dream of your own.
0811: Typing quietly from a spare bedroom (so not to wake the family) of a condo in the Seasons 4 (not the Four Seasons) in Mammoth Lakes, CA, the final stop on our roving vacation. I’ve been sitting here for over two hours doing this (first paragraph) while a perfectly good idea patiently waits for me to cease resisting and spill it onto the page. You see, some of this (especially the idea that’s about to have its coming out party) really feels like I’m bragging, that I’m full of myself, but that’s not the point at all. I’m just trying to share what makes the Mac Lab tick, to document what’s worked in the past and what’s cooking for next year. Heck, if any of this is of value to another educator, then it’s worth whatever embarrassment I’m suffering right now by putting it all online. Okay, enough stalling…
Yesterday, on our mammoth (pun intended), day-long drive from Oregon, ideas kept churning as the miles ticked by. I’m used to my high-wire act in the classroom, working without a net, inventing new routines along the way, but this year the kids and I will have an audience of sorts from the start. I seriously doubt that anyone else will be following day by day but the entire year will be documented. Like every year before it, I’ll be trying new strategies while mixing in new assignments to accompany those that have already proved their worth. The huge difference is that the projects and apps won’t be introduced one by one. Oh, we can’t escape the linear nature of time (illusion or not). One lesson/assignment will follow another. The difference is that I’m going to spill it on the kids all at once, showing them how each project is interconnected, explaining how nothing is finished even though we’ll have deadlines to meet and requirements to fulfill. I’m going to pack their minds with ideas, imagery, and information from the start. Each student will be plugged into the creative zone, whether they realize it or not. Subconsciously, they’ll be working on all of the assignments simultaneously. Many will discover new ideas of their own, unrelated to the projects I’ve assigned. Or at least that’s plan. The ultimate goal is to create a fertile environment for a creative explosion during the second semester, to amplify the synergetic nature of the Mac Lab.* This probably sounds like gibberish at this point but it’ll all be spelled out in the posts and videos to come. A purposeful, intelligently designed gestalt approach to teaching new media has the potential to transform the way kids learn. Purposeful, I’ve got. It’s the intelligently designed part I’m still working on.
* See The 5 Stages of the Creative Process as this is directly related.
0812: (On my 3rd modem today. Technology happens. Will post partial now and more later.) Finally finished Dune (for the umpteenth time) last night and was uplifted by the following on page 472… [They] had made the fatal decision: they’d chosen always the clear, safe course that leads ever downward into stagnation. It was one of those thanks, I needed that moments. You see, I too get nervous about some of my crazy classroom concepts — especially when I’m exposing my remotives (chapter three). Every once in a while I need to heed my own advice and dispense with the fear of failure. Yes, the plan for the fall is a profound leap beyond my typical yearly retooling but it’s obvious that the time has come for such a change.
0813: The Republic of Macedonia is the 112th country to visit the blog. Meanwhile, to put that quote from Dune (featured in yesterday’s update) in context, Paul (the protagonist) is making an observation about a large, powerful organization. When a teacher (who will remain nameless to protect his job) laments that his principal refuses to let him wander from edu-norms: I have been in education for 30 years. It has always been done this way. This way has been proven… I wonder if our profession is facing the same dilemma. The pressures on administrators are intense in these NCLB times. But is clinging to the known the most effective strategy? Or is this practice actually, as Paul contends, the clear, safe course that leads ever downward into stagnation? I think you know where I stand on this question. And I have been sooooo lucky to have been given a free hand to reshape the Mac Lab. From the beginning, I’ve made no secret that I’m learning right beside the students. It’s a joint effort that the kids, for the most part, have bought into. The world is changing so fast and if we don’t adapt and change to meet the challenge, we’ll be left in the dust. I don’t think anyone in education wants that.
Don’t get me wrong. I know there are passionate, dedicated teachers and administrators all across the country (and around the world) who are searching for better ways to reach their students. If you’re one of those and are involved in visual arts, may I suggest registering at Art Ed 2.0 and sharing your experiences? As of today there are 4,351 members.
How, you might ask, does all that relate to synergy in the Mac Lab? Well, when the kids understand that they’re part of something new and different, some of them actually become excited at the prospect of exploring the opportunities offered. Excitement leads to passion and passion was discussed in the 0805 entry (above). However, one thing that can extinguish excitement and passion in a computer lab is the software itself. I’ve worked hard to make the programs as easy to learn as possible. This year there will be something new. I seem to have a knack for making software easy to understand and I want to leverage this by changing the way assignments and apps are introduced. As I said in the second paragraph of the 0811 entry, projects and software won’t be introduced incrementally. I’m going to toss the kids into the deep end right off the bat and have them navigating between the Finder (operating system) and a wide range of apps so that they become accustomed to using the right tool for the job rather than relying on one or two familiar programs. Sure, this will be a bit overwhelming for some at first but I’ll be working overtime to address the problems as they arise. And — and this is a biggie — I’ll make it clear that they’ll not be penalized for their seemingly slow progress at first so long as they’re giving it their all. We all learn at different rates and the online nature of the curriculum in the Mac Lab ensures that students may work and learn at their own pace. I’m concerned with long-term progress and the reduction (and eventual elimination) of flatliners. This self-paced, seemingly disjointed approach is the sticking point for some parents and traditional edu-thinkers. How do you assess? Where are the online grades? This was answered in the second paragraph of the 0808 entry (see Grading Policies on the Student Page). You see, I really am trying to address the valid concerns of thoughtful individuals. To the naysayers, though, I have but one response: Look at the kids’ work.
0814: Yesterday’s update was written through a migraine haze. Afterwords, I let Sue drive to Tuolumne Meadows. Managed to aim and click the shutter alongside Noël (quite the budding photographer) while the sun threatened to split my head open with its piercing rays. Down and out while it was still light and up again at the same ungodly hour but this time feeling refreshed and alive. Even went through the morning tabs (first paragraph) for the first time since we left and am ready to begin the mad dash to the first day of school (September 8th).
The most recent addition to those tabs contained pearls of wisdom from Larry Becker (NAPP Director and all around good guy) that reminded me of a forgotten piece of our synergy puzzle. As it says right here: I wonder just how much of the obvious is hiding in front of me. And it doesn’t get much more obvious than this…
Of all the lessons in the Mac Lab, the most important have nothing to do with media arts. The most consistent, persistent lessons I teach revolve around personal responsibility and doing the right thing. (Remember, my favorite quote is Richard Bach’s: You teach best what you most need to learn.) I make no secret of the fact that I was a surly, arrogant, know-it-all (or at least I thought I did) or that I made foolish choices in high school. Above all else, I try to teach the kids to be responsible, reliable, moral, ethical, honest, dedicated, hard-working individuals. I encourage them to dream, to choose wisely, to learn from their mistakes, and to just do something! Above all, I try to persuade them to look within, to search for what it is they want to do in life, to find their bliss and work to make it a part of their individual lives.
Of course there’s more, but right now I have to pack and get the family home safely. I hope someone out there found this of some value. If nothing else, trying to define what it is that makes the Mac Lab rock was a huge benefit for me. So, thanks!