On a late-October afternoon, Bethany Cooper transforms her McCord art classroom into a graphic design firm, and each eighth grade student that enters takes the role of a professional designer. These young designers have been tasked with producing engaging and enlightening video biographies of famous people for junior high teachers to use as learning material. Each designer will succeed or fail based on their ability to engage a junior high audience while educating them. The thirteen year-old becomes a twentysomething professional.
This day is little different from Bethany’s frequent projects designed to make art relevant to her students. Last year, she unleashed her students on the world of social media by teaching them how to design and market t-shirts through the modern online producer teespring (Many actually made money; one, hundreds of dollars). Rather than merely hoping her students will have fun with art, Bethany hopes they will learn how it has both personal and functional value. Today, that means her students have entered a video editing lab in a graphic design firm.
After gathering her students at the front of the room for verbal and textual instructions and modeling, Bethany asks her students to go to their seats, log into their Chromebooks, and log into PIXLR, an online photo editing tool that provides a basic, free, web accessible alternative to Photoshop. Each student loads an image file of a famous person from some area relevant to a core junior high class. From the multitude of screens appear George Washington, John F. Kennedy, John Steinbeck, Walt Whitman, and a host of others. These images are .png-formatted avatars of the person students chose. At this stage of the process, each student is using PIXLR to “cut out” the avatar from its background with incredible precision. The separated avatar will feature in a full video with still images, video, visual effects, and sound to tell the biography. Imagine a cut-out picture of a person glued to a popsicle stick and used as a puppet. The same thing will happen, but through digital animation.
As the eighth graders work, the room becomes dark and quiet, with most students plugged into the music of their headphones and only a few quietly talking to one another. Bethany observes, “This is what real editing looks like, a bunch of people staring silently at screens.”
During the process, Bethany calls out guidance. Her advice sometimes reminds the students of their role playing in admonitions like “I’m telling you, as your boss in this graphic design firm, that this will not cut it,” referring to her model example’s roughness, and she continues with the word client to refer to the project’s audience. Each student understands that the process of art in this context is a relationship between a producer and a consumer.
Bethany also helps her students understand the tools they use, especially the difference between the processing power of a Chromebook and her own Mac, suggesting best practices for dealing with the tools available to them. Bethany is an expert in digital art, so she made sure to test her project on a Chromebook to learn its limitations. Each student is not only learning design through this process, but they are also learning the important and sometimes challenging role of technology in that process.
Two weeks later, when I revisit the class, students are producing the video featuring the avatar that they created in those early days. But now that the avatar is complete, the work moves from PIXLR to WeVideo, a simple video editing tool liked by many. Bethany takes the same instructional approach: direction, modeling, workshopping. She shows students how to “rip” content from YouTube and import still pictures from Google Images to use in their productions. She shows them how to manipulate the different clips into a whole on the WeVideo timeline, inserting and modifying titles, music, and visual effects. As the students apply these techniques, short snippets of assembled video appear on their Chromebooks, providing glimpses of a finished project.
The value of Bethany’s project comes not in her adoption of digital tools for video production, but in her career-oriented framework. No student in her class will forget that art is part of a process that involves business, aesthetics, teamwork, and stakeholder impact. And that message is not built because it will be “fun” for her students. In fact, one student explains that. “It’s not as fun [as traditional junior high art projects],” she says. “I understand the real world application, but it’s not what I thought visual design would be.”
Still, this young woman’s comments, made during the early stages of production, disappear into the background as completed videos begin to take shape. When students see the life of FDR expressed in a playful animation with rap narration and understand that the playfulness was their creation, the smiles and laughs take over. “Fun” is had, and Bethany has taught them a valuable and authentic lesson about the role of art in the real world.
Do you have questions? Contact Bethany at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out these helpful links!