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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 other school."

"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" others.

"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 that."

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.

Read this and other articles at the Cleveland Plain Dealer


 
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