Teaching Criticism With Spam

In the near future, I’m going to be sharing some spam with my students, and not for the reason you’d think I’d do it. While teaching how to tell the difference between actual important emails and unsolicited commercial and/or malicious emails is important, that won’t be the primary goal.

In addition to everything else I teach, part of my curriculum involves criticism. We as a culture of consumers frequently elevate critique itself into an art form – one so high that we generalize its practitioners into a league of toga-clad experts, giving thumbs up or down as various creative works battle it out in their arena. (The critics loved it! The critics panned it! The critics said it wouldn’t do well but look at the box office numbers, so what do they know?!)

You might think that things are different now that there are services that crowd-source ratings, and you’d be right. Rotten Tomatoes and Yelp are the first that come to mind, but Amazon’s reviews and YouTube’s Like and Dislike buttons also come in to play here.

Unfortunately, not all crowd-sourced criticisms are created equal. The goal of my upcoming lesson will be to improve how well my students articulate themselves when critiquing things they like or dislike.

The main example I intend to show will be a little gem from this very blog’s spam filter:

Seems like a nice bit of commentary. I mean, they’ve told me I have room for improvement, but they lead with something nice to say so the comment seems thoughtful and well-rounded.

What’s my point?

Guess which post they were commenting on.

This comment could more or less be attached to any of my posts where I explain something and still have it mostly make sense in context. There’s nothing in here to show that the person who wrote it actually read anything on my blog other than the tag line, and that we can only guess because their name and web address (which I censored since I’m not giving their college loan site free advertising) have something to do with education. OK, it was probably a bot that posted, but technically the bot still reads key words.

This is a common attribute for spam, but this is not something I expect from students.

I’ve recently ramped up the amount of time spent doing peer critiques in my Media Arts classes. The main setup is the subject of a blog post for another day, but one of the hurdles we have to navigate involves generic criticism.

It’s all well and good to say that you liked a video. It’s also OK if you say you didn’t like it, since not everyone has the same tastes.

But neither of those opinions works well in a critique setting if you don’t say WHY. The more my students dig down into their reasoning, the less likely they are to give criticism that would get caught in a spam filter.

That’s the goal, anyway.

We’ll see how well it works.

Game Design With PICO-8

The more time I spend on Mastodon, the more I like it. It reminds me very much of the pioneer days on Twitter, but without  all those issues of @ signs meaning nothing, retweets being something we had to copy/paste, not having a decent phone app…

Never mind that.  Mastodon isn’t even the subject for today’s post. I only bring it up because today’s little gem comes from something  I saw ON Mastodon.

I was intrigued, so I went and looked it up. Apparently PICO-8 is like getting an old-school Atari 2600 for $15 that runs on Mac, Windows, & Linux,  but with user made games.

…And a built-in game design engine. With the ability to edit game music as well. And purchasing it also gives you a site license for your school. And students who want to use it at home can buy it at a discount.

No, really.  This is on their own website:

Every copy of PICO-8 comes with a site-wide license for an entire school, workshop or other similar educational space. Discounted take-home licenses for individual students are also available.

Naturally, I was intrigued. Since it comes free with  their voxel based game Voxatron, I bought that for $20 and got PICO-8 tacked on as a bonus download. I immediately loaded it up,  typed “help” to see the menu, entered the editor…

… and had no idea what to do from there.

I mean, I know you can code behaviors with the LUA programming language, but the rest of it reminded me of the first time I opened GIMP and wondered what all the buttons did.

It was glorious.

I’m not going to say that I will master PICO-8, but I’m not going to say that I won’t learn it at all, either. It’s something new, the games people are making with it are interesting, and should I learn enough about it to feel comfortable, you can bet I’ll be sharing it with my students next year.  The install file for it is literally  small enough to fit on a floppy disk, so I know getting it to run on my older lab computers (the ones that crash when exporting HD video) shouldn’t be an issue.

And who knows? Maybe next year, one of my students will use PICO-8 to record their own homebrew machinima for our county Film Festival. The rules about trademarks prevent most forms of videos made of recorded gameplay, but if you make the game yourself, that should be an easy way around the problem.


Download NASA Photos, Videos, & Audio For FREE!

One of the (many) cool things about NASA is that, as a government-run organization, media created by NASA is  considered public domain. There are a few exceptions to this (mainly when NASA works with a company or university, the resulting works might be copyrighted by the other party…), but it still makes NASA a wonderful  source for legal content that students can include in their projects.

And now, you can search through all of their wonderful images, videos, and audio files on the official NASA website!

This is a great resource for any (multi-)media project with a STEM STEAM slant to it., made better by the fact that you can even narrow your search by a range of years using the slider on the left.

Oh, one last tip: Looking for something that can just be a cool wallpaper? Search for the word “nebula.”

(Source:  DIY Photography)

Edit Video For Free With HitFilm Express

I blogged a while back about OpenShot, which is open source, cross-platform, and still not bad for some things. Are you stuck with 32bit computers? Use OpenShot. For everything else… use HitFilm Express.

HitFilm Express is a robust, cross-platform, non-linear video editor capable of rendering multiple tracks of audio and video, applying chroma key, moving/cropping where video appears on the screen, and a bunch of other effects that I’ve never needed.

Oh, and it’s 100% free. Free as in teachers should get their hands on this.

Now HitFilm DOES have a business model. They have a Pro version that does even more, and the Express version has special effect “add on packs” available for purchase, but I’ve personally never needed these. (WANTED is another verb that I could use, but then I’d be lying.)

Setup isn’t as straightforward as OpenShot, but it isn’t painful.

  1. You will first need to make a free account on their website. I suggest using a school email address – you will see why in a bit.
  2. During the setup process they’ll ask you to post some text to a social media site. I’ve used Twitter for this, but if you’re hesitant to advertise for a product you haven’t tried, last I checked Google Plus was also an option. Let’s face it, almost no one actually looks at Google Plus.
  3. You can start downloading and installing HitFilm right away, now. You may have gotten that option before Step 2, but it’s been a while since I made my account so my memory’s fuzzy.
  4. When you first run HitFilm it will ask for your account information. (The one you made on their website, not the social media one. They’ll never ask about that one again.) If you don’t put in account information You can still play with HitFilm, but exporting will be an issue. This is more or less how they keep their licensing limited to one computer per account. For most people this is fine. If you have a computer lab… read on.
  5. Now here’s the really cool part. This rep from their company explains it better than me…

    Thank you for contacting HitFilm.
    As a company we want to support the education of the next generation of filmmakers. We can provide you with a free license for HitFilm 4 Express, to cover as many computers as you need. We just need some information to get you set up.
    Email address (Official school email only): https://hitfilm.com/register
    School Name:
    How many computers:
    Mac or PC:
    What country:
    Please start by creating an account using the official school email you wish the licenses to be linked to. Then, if you can please submit a ticket from that account with the other info requested above, we can get you set up.
    HitFilm 4 Express add on packs can not be accessed by the students or staff. Should a student or staff member want the add on packs, they will need to have their own personal account.

    Axel Wilkinson

    FXhome Support

    That’s right, while a personal account is limited, setting up a school account means this software can be on all of your computer lab’s machines for free. No more Adobe subscription fees for you!

The only downside is that the interface DOES take a little time to get used to it. Fortunately, I made a tutorial series to help you out.

Gave In To The Dark Side (Facebook)

After a long hiatus and much thought,  I now have a presence on Facebook again, though this time it’s a page meant as a companion to this blog.

Content on both will be of a similar nature, but what I put here will be in a longer form than anywhere else. It will also be slightly different from my Tumblr, since I also sometimes post more personal things   over there. (I’m also on  Mastodon, though I use that site in a similar fashion to how most people use Twitter.)

Basically, I wanted to provide another means for people to follow what I’m writing, and I know how popular Facebook is as a platform. If FB is your thing, why not visit and give the page a like for me?

Either way, thanks for your time. Actual content here resumes tomorrow.

How Much Of Your Photo Is Your Choice?

“It’s not the camera that takes the photo, it’s the photographer.”

This or something like it is said a lot by photographers. Sure, a really expensive camera can help, but give an experienced photog a point-and-click disposable film camera from a bygone era and they’ll still crank out a few shots worth remembering.

So I was kind of shocked when I, first learning the difference between taking a good photo and wasting developer fluid, learned that my camera was already doing some of the thinking for me.

You see, at some point, someone sat down and looked  at a whole bunch of good photos, then averaged the lights and darks and decided they equaled about 18% gray. I haven’t found evidence of this beyond what my photography teacher told me, but it’s a nice story.

What’s true, however, is that any camera sophisticated enough to have a built-in light meter looks at whatever’s coming through the lens and tries to over- or under-expose your shot to hit that 18%. This is why that shot you tried to take in a low light situation ended up more blurry than you expected, or why that image where a lamp was in the shot left everyone else in the picture looking like they were in a dark shadow.

More experienced photographers know this and adjust accordingly, sometimes using “gray cards” to help calibrate their cameras for shots that are more true to  the lighting situation on hand, but this is working AROUND the camera more than it is working with it.

Which brings me to this neat little article  on PetaPixel. Apparently light balance wasn’t enough, someone made a camera that does a lot more of the thinking for you.

The Trophy Camera is an experimental camera powered by artificial intelligence that can only shoot images that it deems to be “award-winning.”

There’s a lot more to it than that. This invention is meant more as a statement on the more formulaic and “questionable” (to quote the inventor…) nature of photojournalism than a useful tool for amateur shutterbugs that can’t be bothered to learn which end to point at a subject.

The article is an interesting read with several useful links for more information,  but it also brings to mind some common thoughts about education: There’s the right answer, then there’s everything else.

We fall into this trap all the time. Multiple choice answers are easier to grade, so that’s what we put on tests.  We’re hardwired to look for differences, so it’s easier to grade worksheets when the finished ones all need to look the same.

This is fine, if you’re just pointing your camera at things and hoping it’ll go click.

… but what are you doing to get around making all of your students 18% gray? What’s your equivalent of a “gray card” in your classroom?

Is Sharing Still Theft If It’s A Site Feature?

If we don’t teach our students about respecting the copyrights of artists, who will?

Although this case is a bit of a grey area.

“I attend breaking news stories across the county of Sussex as my role as a full time bonafide news-gatherer,” he wrote in a letter to the court. “In this case one of the firefighters asked if he could tweet a picture of mine I said yes, he did, and this is the picture that Sky News embedded on their website, for their own gain, in respect of web hits.”

Twitter gives us the code to embed tweets in other web sites. The information is stored on Twitter’s servers, and the person who posted the tweet arguably has control by leaving up or deleting the tweet. Just like posting to Tumblr implies you’re OK with someone reblogging you, posting to Twitter (or telling someone else they’re allowed to post your photo to Twitter…) implies you’re OK with embeds … though not everyone knows this is a feature.

Either way, it would make for an interesting classroom debate on ownership and permission. Getting students to think about it is the first step towards getting them to understand it, and cases that aren’t cut-and-dry are more likely to lead to interesting discussions.

I Didn’t Know About The Great Social Media War

This article on Mashable reads like it was written by a petulant teen.

Schools may provide students with a wealth of academic knowledge, but do they really think they have what it takes to outsmart children when it comes to social media?

What’s worse is … they’re kind of right. While many educators are more forward thinking about cell phone use in the classroom, there are a lot of old school (pun intended) individuals that see any distraction as an affront to their station and duty.

Problem is, fighting against social media use (or cell use in general) is like holding back the tide with a sieve. You’re better off harnessing that power for good and building lessons around its use.

Archive.org screen capture

Free Art Books on Archive.org

Archive.org screen captureI’ve loved Archive.org for a lot of reasons over the years. Many of my early podcast files are hosted there for free,  their Wayback Machine lets you see older versions of almost any website (but not my first site, as it went down before they  could get to it, THANK GOODNESS!),  I have lost far too much of my free time to their large collection of emulated DOS games (Oregon Trail? Oregon Trail!),  but now I’ve found out about THIS.

Apparently the  Guggenheim Museum has the rights to a number of visual art books, and they’ve uploaded them to Archive.org for our enjoyment.  The books can be viewed online, of course, but also downloaded in a variety of formats including pdf, ePub, and Kindle.

This reminds me of that bygone era when my primary role as an educator more likely than not had me ending the day covered in paint. I frequently displayed images in the classroom from a variety of sources. If I was lucky I’d have a transparency that I could place on our overhead projector while we worked, but sometimes I had to resort to holding open a large art book and walking around the room while students tried to take a glance at the image   we’d be emulating that day.

The books are gone, donated to my school’s visual arts classrooms after a move into a smaller apartment left little room for storage,  but now I can get my pop art fix whenever I want it.

(via DIY Photography)

Obligatory Spinner Opinion

Animated Fidget Spinner

Fidget Spinner

TL:DR: I  haven’t banned fidget spinners yet, and I don’t expect that I’ll have to do so.

Long version:

Spinners: Kids love them, teachers demonize them. They’re a distraction! They’re disrupting the classroom! They’re fine for autistic kids, but to everyone else, they’re toys! I won’t have them in my classroom! We’ve banned them on the district level, and good riddance!

… sound familiar?

Like any thing else that comes around and finds its way into a school setting overnight (remember the era before dabbing was a thing?), we teachers seem to get polarized  in less than half that time.

And I really don’t mind   seeing them in my computer lab.

Look, I’ve banned all kinds of things in there. Food, drinks, gum, and lip gloss are forbidden items. I’ve had too many close calls (including one harrowing event involving a tube of petroleum jelly lip balm) for me to feel comfortable allowing them near the school equipment. But spinners? Really?

“But they’re a distraction,” you say. “My students won’t do their work if they have these.”

Yes, you’re absolutely right. A fidget designed to help keep autistic children attentive  does the exact opposite when placed in the hands of anyone not on the spectrum. OR, and this is just me thinking back to my own experiences, maybe sometimes accommodations for those who need them most can also benefit those who need them slightly less.

In my youth, shortly after the invention of paper, it was a commonly held belief that doodling was a sign that a student was off task. My high school visual arts teacher encouraged us to doodle  in our notebooks during other classes for purely selfish reasons (more drawing meant increased skill), and we readily agreed because one authority figure telling us to ignore another authority figure was more or less a teenager’s idea of heaven.

It turns out that my old visual arts teacher was ahead of his time, and doodling in my more difficult classes may have helped more than it hurt. I won’t be so bold as to say that he saw this coming, but I do know that I’m more likely to remember details if I’m doing something with my hands.

Which brings us back to spinners. A student with a spinner in my lab is most likely going to play with it until I tell them to stop, and maybe not even then. While they’re doing that, there’s a few things they’re less likely to be doing:

  • Unplugging classmates headphones/mice/keyboards
  • Using the LED lights in the mice as flashlights and laser pointers during instruction
  • Throwing crayons (Oddly enough, that problem is exclusive to my   middle school classes.)
  • Spinning headphones / house keys until they hit something/someone

The list could go on if I really wanted to inflate my word count. All of these are things I have to deal with on a not uncommon basis, but they’re in decline among the students who bring spinners to class.

Oddly enough, the spinners seem to be distracting students from other forms of distraction. 

My point here is that whatever the perceived distraction, it’s something that causes much smaller hassles  than the other things a child will do when they feel the need to do SOMETHING other than sit perfectly still and stare at whichever wall we’re using with the projector.

So far, I’ve taken exactly one spinner from a student. In his case it certainly was a distraction, and he didn’t get started on his project until after his spinner was in my back pocket. This same child has used his chair and desk as distractions before. The spinner wasn’t the lowest common denominator here.

I won’t judge you. If you don’t like spinners, don’t allow them in your room. I don’t like when students sing off-key to the songs playing through their headphones, so I don’t allow that. Just don’t insist that it’s  ruining your ability to provide instruction.

Meanwhile, I’ll be over here making my ballpoint pen click over and over again. Not all of us prefer fidgets that spin.