Friday, September 14, 2012

Nothin' Up My Sleeve ...

Rocky and Bullwinkle. Ward Anderson and Scott, 1958.
Unique ideas and creative solutions for education (or anything else for that matter) can resemble the act of pulling a rabbit - or beast - out of a hat. Is it really that hard to come up with something completely original? Has creativity died?

Every now and again, I get stuck when coming up with an interesting, unique and creative set design for our school's theater productions. While I teach full time, and direct the extracurricular technical theater activities, I still want to create the newest and coolest contribution to the theater world. So I sit and think, and then I doodle, and after that, I open up a new SketchUp document, and play around with shapes and lines .... and then I turn on the TV and see what's on ... and then I get hungry and make dinner.

It's after I do all of that when I start searching the internet for ideas.

I don't search the internet to use someone else's design. (I've done that once, with the designer's permission, and it proved to be way more work on the backside of the process.) I search to see mostly out of curiosity what has been done before. What I find are some really great set designs - and not necessarily by professional designers. (In fact, it's hard to find Broadway designs online.) I also find some designs that lack inspiration, and at the risk of being designer-snarky, some that are just deficient of good design basics. These help in the "what not to do department." The common denominators of the research are the elements demanded by the script: things that are necessary for the progression of the plot or character interaction. After that, the designs diverge into their "good, bad and ugly" designations.

Draughtsman's Compass. Tudedude,2010
What inevitably happens to me - and to other scenic designers that have admitted so - is that I find one element here, and another element there, and combine them with my own idea or interpretation of what the set should look like. Theaters are built in different shapes, sizes and configurations, so rarely will one set design work for another theater. It's practically guranteed that it will be more work forcing the design to work in our theater space than creating a new design - but that doesn't mean that certain elements won't work at all. This is evidenced by a recent conversation I had with my Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer:

I am at my computer, straining to create a brilliant set for our next production. My Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer is looking over my shoulder with a smugly disdainful look on her face.
Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer: Hey, that looks familiar!
Me: Be quiet.
Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer: No, really. The staircase is straight out of Guess Who's Comming to Dinner. I can practically see Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn walking down it together!
Me: Leave me alone. I'm trying to concentrate.
Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer: Who else are you ripping off?
Me: I'm not ripping off anyone! I'm simply ... paying homage ... to great set designers.
Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer: Ah! The ol' "paying homage" dodge. You know what you should be paying? Money. These people design for a living. They can't eat "homage."
Me: I'm only using the stairway - and besides, I had to re-design the damn thing to make it fit onto our stage.
My nemesis.
Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer: Uh huh. I see that you are also "paying homage" to the archways in Casablanca, the furniture layout from Act I of Phantom of the Opera, the transom doors in The Odd Couple, and the baracades from Les Miserables.
Me: Those aren't baracades. They're potted plants.
Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer: Yeah, whatever. Look, if this is how you define creativity, that's your problem, but people will notice their stuff in your designs sooner than later.
Me: I'm not copying! I'm not! It's just a ... um, sampling. You know, a mash-up? Right? Sure!
At that moment, an older man with thick mop of white hair and black rimmed glasses bursts in.
Spencer Tracy: Hey, jerk! Whaddya think you're doing with my staircase? You give that back right now, or I'll show you what an old-school mash-up is all about!
And then Spencer Tracy beats the living daylights out of me.

Here lies the conundrum: is this the theft of intellectual property, or paying homage to a clever designer?

Jeffery Davis
Creative consultant Jeffery Davis writes about "The Creative Thinking Myth" in his April, 2012 article on The Creativity Post. His contention is that there's more to creativity than original thought. Environment and a person's physical condition has as much to do with creativity as "right brain cognizance." He refers to several different researchers who have done work in this particular area. From my own experience, I would agree that he's on to something. I won't pretend to understand every single aspect of his work, but there are times when I'm not motivated to create or design - and it's usually when I'm tired, or hungry, or if I'm somewhere where I can't work undisturbed. When I do start cranking out ideas, it's when I'm in a good space both physically and mentally. It makes sense. And I'm not just referring to set designs - this applies to creating assignments, units, rubrics and other material for my Language Arts classroom.

Recently a colleague introduced me to this video series. "Everything is Remix" comes from Kirby Ferguson, and is in four parts. It's worth the view for those who are consumed with trying to be completely original. (Spoiler alert: stop trying.)

Everything is a Remix Part 1 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

And here is Ferguson presenting at a TedTalks this past June:

So the pressure is off, it seems. Just as long as I keep most of my creative juices going, I can accept that my designs - be it sets on stage or lessons in the classroom - are remixes that meet the needs of those I work with.

What sorts of remixes have you created to fit your learning environment?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

It Was a Slap in the Face How Quickly I Was Replaced

Sure, we were all there once: "Splitsville," "Dumpedtown," and the Greater "It's Not You, It's Me" Metro Area. We've all had a sour relationship. (Or five, but who's keeping track, right? I'm pretty sure I don't.) No one feels great after the break-up, and while time heals all wounds, time tends to move a bit more slowly. We go through a process of grieving, and we come to terms with the change in our lives. Certainly, we've all been the benefactor of some well meaning friend's or colleague's cliche-esque wisdom:

"Nothing lasts forever."
“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.” 
“It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything.”
"Better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all."
And my all-time favorite:

"I don't want to say I told you so,  but I told you it would never last."

Perhaps that last one is a bit more brutal than the others, but it's the one that resonates with us the most when it comes to accepting new technology into our lives and classrooms. We are told that as soon as we purchase/acquire a new technology, it's already obsolete. And with technology, an area of our lives that we intertwine with more each day, it's a lead-pipe cinch that change will happen.

Which is why I sort of panicked when Google SketchUp became the property of Trimble. I suddenly felt like the father of a lovely sixteen year old girl who has been asked out on a date by a new boy - one I had never met before.

The scene: I am with my Imaginary Sixteen Year Old Daughter as she is preparing to go out on a date. 

Me: And just who is this Trimble kid?

Imaginary Sixteen Year Old Daughter: He's a guy I met the other day.

Me: Is he a new kid at school, or have I met him before?

Imaginary Sixteen Year Old Daughter: No, he's been around for a while, but I just met him. He's really smart, and he does a lot of stuff with GPS and he's into construction, and - OH! he has this really cool laser optical thing, too. He's really technology savvy.

Me: OK, but what about Google? I mean, I thought you really liked him. I know I did.

Imaginary Sixteen Year Old Daughter: Dad, puh-lease! Everyone liked Google. I mean, every time he did anything, people fawned over him. I just got tired of it.

Me: But he's such a stable kid - the kind that will stick with you.

Imaginary Sixteen Year Old Daughter: Trimble says he'll be just as true to me as Google was - and since he's smarter than Google is in certain subjects, he's just a better fit for me.

Me: Uh huh. And what does Google think of all of this?

Imaginary Sixteen Year Old Daughter: Oh, he's cool with it, totally. In fact, he's the one who introduced us.

Me: OK, but I just have a few more quest-

I am interrupted at the sound of a car horn. Outside of my home, a flying DeLorean equipped with a Flux-Capacitor pulls up.

Imaginary Sixteen Year Old Daughter: Oh, he's here. Gotta go, Dad. Love you, bye!

And they fly off to God knows where, leaving me with a screwy look on my face.

So, here is one of my favorite applications - SketchUp - one which I've used in the classrooms since v.4.0 with a lot of success, and now it's someone else's baby. Google's philosophy was to make it free and to make it user friendly. Most of the time, it was; but even when it wasn't, it was still worth teaching and learning because it was doing some really cool advanced drawing maneuvers. I'm hoping that Trimble will follow suit, and that some of my worries are all for naught.

But really what I'm hoping for is that some of the shortcomings regarding SketchUp are addressed. Namely:

  • The application itself is not Web 2.0, which limits collaboration on models.
  • The self-paced tutorials are OK, but not easy to get to, and are short on some of the more advanced features.
  • 3-D Warehouse is sometimes not accessible to older models
  • Models in 3-D Warehouse are not consistent with scale I use in my drawings (which is something I can fix myself, but to me, it seems like it could be easily remedied.)
  • Shortcuts seem more complicated than need be

I suppose that this wouldn't worry me as much if it hadn't been for the fact that Google is doing away with iGoogle in the near future. I really like my iGoogle page. I know there are other things out there that will do the same thing, but - well, we've been together through so much. I got my MA with iGoogle, and I use it to prepare for my classes, and to use with my hobbies .... I'm just not sure how I'll do without her.

(Sorry. Lost it there for a moment. I know this sounds like a cheesy break-up story. I'm sure I'll be fine without her. I mean it. Be fine without it.)

This reminds me of my fondness of a suite of programs by Claris at the start of my teaching career. Claris Cad was a great little two-dimensional drawing program for the Mac, FileMaker was a powerful database, and ClarisWorks was the Mac contender to the early version of Microsoft Works. It ran beautifully on the Mac Quadras, and the the PowerMacs, and then the very earliest versions of the iMac ... and then it all came to an end. Claris got rid of everything but FileMaker, then renamed itself that same moniker. In short, Claris dumped me. Most of my files had to be converted to MS works files for the Mac, and since then have been replaced by files created by the updated, incompatible versions of current applications. Like the past love letters of so many (read "few") girls in my past, there are no longer any more Claris compatible files in my life. That's probably a good thing ... I think.

And that's where my trouble with SketchUp lies. What will become of her? She already has replaced the shallow 2-D drawings of my beloved Claris, and seemed so safe under Papa Google. Now this heart-throb Trimble comes along ... will he whisk her off to the sophisticated sunny beaches of AutoCAD, or the glitzy, high-rise world of TurboCad (motto: "What happens inTurboCAD stays in TurboCAD"), or will he just move her to the lovely landscapes of the Terminal Update Cove, where she will languish the rest of her days as v.8.0? Maybe she's just too good for me ... I'm so confused.

Learning and teaching technology is not like learning and teaching History or Algebra. It's not likely that The War of 1812 will turn into The War of 1814, or that quadnominal expression will have anything but four terms; and while new aspects of history, math and science are always being pursued and presented, it doesn't demand that sort of quick-change attitude that technology does. Technology is always moving, even when you're not changing or upgrading a favorite and trusted application. Chances are your students are already paying close attention to the latest changes and upgrades, so you need to move with them. The 21st Century classroom needs to reflect those moves, no matter where your comfort zone lies. I'll continue to use SketchUp and implement its upgrades and changes as I see fit in my classroom, but I'll keep a wary eye on where it's heading so that I can move with the changes.

My hope is that SketchUp will keep evolving to take advantage of the faster processors in computing devices, and computing devices will keep developing faster processors to provide SketchUp (and every other app out there) the room to grow. Someday, though, it's rudimentary three-dimensional model-making capabilities will be replaced by a hot new commodity that is attractive in every 3-D modeling way. And, just like days of yore, I'll fall for her completely and devote all of my drawing energy toward here in an effort to forget my dear SketchUp.

And if she winds up saying that we "should just be friends," I know I'll just get hurt in the end. Again.