Cleveland Plain Dealer
Angry Birds, graffiti and Mars colonies make good lessons at Cleveland's digital arts school
By Patrick O'Donnell
CLEVELAND, Ohio - When Cleveland's High School for the Digital Arts
needs to teach a few math and physics skills, it looks to Angry Birds.
To teach governing and more math skills, a video game about colonizing Mars did the trick.
And even graffiti - limited mostly to computer screens, mind you - made a great topic for a graphic design lesson.
The High School for the Digital Arts is perhaps the most unique and
non-traditional of the specialized high schools the Cleveland school
district has created over the last few years.
Though students have some classes where they hear lectures from
teachers, the school is based on creating games, sound, video and
visual projects. Done right, those combine the traditional "three Rs"
along with digital production skills that can help land jobs in the
21st Century job market.
It's also more fun.
"This model is for students who love the digital arts, want to try
something different and what to be where your school doesn't look like
other schools," said Principal Jasmine Maze. "You can participate in
things like film and video design in your regular day. It's things that
kids are interested in."
William Drevicky, a freshman at the school, is typical of many students
at the school. He has an interest in filmmaking and says he would be
bored and lose interest in a standard classroom.
Here, doing projects and learning early skills for his possible career made the school an easy choice.
"It's different than most schools," he said. "You're not going to learn
how to design your own game, film a movie or record a track at any
"You have to go to college for that," he said. "To do that in high school? That's a big step."
Junior Adam Muscovich has an interest in filmmaking and designing video
games and thinks that the challenges of learning those skills as a way
to dive into traditional subjects makes the school "a step above"
"If I could go back and choose another high school, I wouldn't and probably just choose this one again," he said.
The school, which started in 2013, was championed by Marsha Dobrzynski,
of the Center for Arts-Inspired Learning, a Shaker Square non-profit
formerly known as Young Audiences. After running an after-school
program for students, she thought that building a school around digital
arts like video game design, recording, film and graphic design would
spark students' interest and be a hook to teach them core subjects.
The result is a school where students work in groups and do most of
their work by computer - or on high tech equipment like the school's
television studio or recording and mixing studio. Students rely on
graphic design programs more than they do on textbooks.
It's also a year-round school, where students have no summer break but have a month off after each 13-week quarter.
And it's a school that places a premium on teachers of all subjects
working extra hard to plan strategies and find ways to teach students.
They don't just plan their own lessons. They plan together a way to
integrate all subjects over a quarter.
The Angry Birds lessons are a prime example. The popular video game
shoots birds through the air to crash into obstacles and destroy them.
Game design teacher Dan McGlaughlin said that made it perfect for math
and physics lessons about parabolas, force and gravity.
His class created a clone of the game that shoots stones into stacks of
logs. That involved programming the game and also testing out how
different weights of rocks, different gravitational forces, and
different power for the slingshot affect the flight.
"The projectile has a mass and it has drag and gravity that affect it,"
McGlaughlin said. "It's a real hands-on way to teach about these
effects in a virtual environment."
Math teacher Kelly Fedak combined math lessons with government lessons
in the fall by having students plan a colony on Mars. Students had to
sort out how to govern the large colony, with either a Federalist and
nationalistic approach or an anti-Federalist model with more rights
left to each region.
Then they had to sort out laws, how to make money and provide for residents.
Fedak's class worked through multiple calculations of budgets to solve that problem.
"At the amount of money we had, there was an amount of people that we can afford," she said.
Fedak said some may object to students spending their school days playing video games, but she disagrees.
"I don't think that they play all day," she said. "You're not playing
something that's already created. You create it. There's work behind
Next door to McGlaughlin's class, students work in a recording studio
and with editing equipment on a project that combines history and
recording skills. Teacher Vencott Palmer had students combining
recordings from different wartime eras into a single file.
"It's reinforcing their history knowledge and recording too," he said.
And while students are not reading many novels at the school, they are
instead reading lots of "informational text" - a major goal of the
multi-state Common Core learning standards - in the form of "how-to"
manuals for technical work.
Last year, because students talked about admiring the work of some
famous graffiti artists, the school had students design graffiti-style
art digitally in a graphic design class. One design is now being
painted on a wall in the school.
"We're trying to use student interests to guide what we're doing," Maze said.
So far, the school has not had academic success. Its last state report
card, like the district's, was dominated by F grades. It did not even
have strong scores for academic progress.
Maze, who joined the school at the start of this school year, hopes to
change that. Several students said the school was often disorganized
before she arrived as it struggled to find its footing, but has much
more order now.
She also believes scores will rise as students that don't often fit in
at schools where sports, not "geeky" and "nerdy" things like programing
and gaming, determine the social structure.
Maze, herself a longtime gamer herself, says with a laugh that the students and staff are "a group of dorks" and proud of it.
"We have these targeted interests and we share them together and we want students to feel more at home here," she said.
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