The art teacher, Dirk and a very old computer game

Sometimes it can feel like the educational world we as teachers bring to our pupils is an extensive construct that pupils know that they are expected to play along with. It’s not their real world, a kind of necessary evil, a means to an end. Many of them are very good at playing this game, they invest in it, engage and often enjoy it. However their ‘real world’ interests outside of school life often seems quite detached and at times hidden from teachers and the school context. It might be that they are totally into music, dance, a particular sport, spend hours watching movies, gaming or something similar. These are the things that does something different for them, it makes them perhaps more unique or independent from their peers in some way. I notice this in my own children, my son with his passion for running and writing, my daughter with her drawing book and guitar.

Occasionally though this line between school and outside of school gets crossed and blurred. Rarely was this more evident to me than in an incident when I was teaching a group of fifteen and sixteen year olds. Somehow in a discussion with the class we got onto the subject of earning money and the jobs the pupils do outside of school. One of the class asked me what I did as a teenager to earn some extra money. I replied that I worked on a fruit farm, but I also mentioned that I used to write and have published computer games for an early form of the home computer. This was met with a certain amount of disbelief, ‘but you’re an art teacher’ was kind of the rough direction of the remarks.

YOOGORP1Dirk, one of the boys in the class, was particularly interested. Dirk is a smart and generally engaged pupil, although I should say at this point that art and my lessons where never really his thing, he did what was necessary to ensure a satisfactory grade, but at least as far as I was concerned never more. In the course of my years of teaching Dirk I felt that we socially had a good relationship, we could joke and laugh together, but I rarely saw him truly ‘switched on’ by one of our activities. This was the case at least until I mentioned my surprising past as a published author of computer games!

Initially Dirk didn’t quite believe me, I needed some proof. It was a long shot but I decided to Google the name of the magazine that published the games I’d written. You never quite know what you might find on the net and sure enough I found a couple of sites that mentioned the magazine. A couple more searches and I had found a lot more. There seemed to be a complete list of the titles of all the games that were ever published by the magazine. I scanned the columns and there, sure enough, amongst all the other names, there I was. I called Dirk to the front to show him, I had the evidence. Dirk and others in the class were impressed, I felt my credibility rising!

Interestingly my name was one of the few hyperlinked names in the list. A click on the link and to everyone’s amazement and my absolute astonishment it turned out that it was possible to download the code for the computer program that I had written. In the classroom at school on our protected computer network it wasn’t possible to fully download the game, but I could clearly see that Dirk’s interest had been well and truly activated, in a way that his art homework had never be able to do. He left the lesson determined to see if it would be possible to get this thirty year old computer game working!

A few hours later I was checking my mail in the train on the way home. Amongst the mails suddenly appeared a very excited one from Dirk, “Mr. Sansom, I’m playing your game, it works!!”  I’m still not sure who was more amazed me or Dirk. But one thing is for sure, on that day there was a bridge built between my world, the world of school and Dirk’s interests and experiences outside of school.  These sort of bridging moments happen more often in education, normally when you’re least expecting them. They sometimes offer educational opportunities that can be built on, but even if they don’t they do provide a chance to get a little closer to your pupils, understand them better and perhaps just as important let them understand just a little bit more about you.

ZX81-leftFor anyone interested in the computer involved in this post it was a Sinclair ZX81, the techy details can be found here. (I should also mention that the game screenshot above isn’t of my game, but it does give a good idea of the graphics capabilities of the ZX81).

But I already know what I want to make……

image

As a footnote or extension to my previous post concerning creativity within a limited range of possibilities another art room assignment comes to mind and one that touches on many other subject areas within a school. This being a poster design assignment.
The presentation of information has changed a lot in recent years, particularly in the increasingly hot area of info-graphics. The prevalence of digital technology within the school setting offers the possibility of teenagers producing work of near professional quality. Yet when the pupil sits down at the computer and opens up the design software they are so often overwhelmed by the choice, quite simply almost anything is possible. So many interesting effects and layouts are possible.
The idea that it might actually be a good idea to pick up a pencil first and produce a few thumbnail design layouts of extreme simplicity is important but at the same time, in the eyes of many pupils, an unnecessary waste of time, when they either “know what they want to do” or simply want to sit do at the computer an start to fiddle around the possibilities.
I have found that a more “dirty fingers” approach can work well in establishing an initial design idea. Giving the pupils the following for instance:
A white A4 sheet
An A5 sheet of coloured paper
A piece of imagery printed out in two different sizes
A title text printed out in two sizes
A couple of blocks of text simply cut out of a newspaper or magazine
The assignment is, within these extremely limited means to produce an interesting and dynamic layout design on the A4 sheet.
Allow a whole class to try this assignment it can be surprising what they come up with. Lay all the designs out on a table at the end of the session and the pupils will see for themselves just how creative the solutions can be, particularly with the possibilities offered by a simple sheet of coloured paper. These rough collages can of course then become the springboard for the digital work that may come later.
This is another simple but clear example of an assignment framed up with quite tight restrictions that can successly encourage the creativity of pupils or students in a wide range of age groups.