MODESTO -- Imagine a bullet: A cold gray cylinder flying toward
no, wait. Make that a shiny metallic gray. It should spin while it flies. And if it hits the alien, let's put in an explosion blood all over but if it hits the ground, it just disappears.
Imagine a teenager: Eyes glued to the screen ahead, mouse hand twirling the scroll wheel as he works
no, wait. Something's wrong. Eyes dart, assessing options. Try again. Think it through. Try again
"Aha!" moment. Carry on.
High school teachers would kill for that level of commitment. Fortunately, they don't have to. Johansen High School's 75 multimedia broadcasting students put their love of high-tech high jinks to work in the real world, learning real skills.
English teacher Jannell Sabatini-Trinidad said she taps into tech to bring sometimes-dry language lessons to life. "I think of the core standards as the cake and the technology as the frosting," she said.
Imagine a zombie: knees locked, he grunts, growls and howls his vocabulary. In the hands of creative teachers, this sci-fi fascination became a macabre context for a wealth of academic exploration.
In English, students read expository articles about the Black Death, a 14th century plague that killed roughly half of the people in Europe, and then dived into novel writing and research papers. Assignments included creating a zombie dating bio, inventing historical fiction starring zombies and penning a persuasive essay about immunization with zombies seen as the consequence of an infectious disease.
Even SAT vocabulary prep got in the act first word on the list: pustules.
"They were supposed to do a debate on immunization, but we ran out of time," Sabatini-Trinidad said. "So we didn't get the speaking standards in there this time, but we hit multiple reading, writing and research standards on this maiden voyage."
History classes studied the migration of the disease, mapping it and analyzing its consequences. The historical fiction assignment tied to English and history classes. Biology classes included labs on blood-borne pathogens and blood types, discovering the types most susceptible to the plague.
Choreographing the curriculum doubles or triples the times and ways information is presented, bringing it to 360-degree life and putting a fresh spin on core courses. Teens in the program take most classes together, adding a social twist to daily academic turns.
Biology teacher Joseph Inacio said he tied in cell biology and study of the body systems with the zombie theme. "The level of interest this brings, and the skills," the veteran teacher said, watching students work on virtual zombies.
Teens created the 3-D figures from pictures of themselves, locking in skeletal accuracy Inacio would have spent many hours detailing in lectures while eyelids drooped.
"It's all trial and error and problem solving," he said. "It's not abstract they see it."
Inacio was visiting the tech-laden lair of Brad Cornwell, the elective or frosting portion of the program.
Cornwell's classes include digital arts, Web design, special-effects art, video game programming and, in the near future, hand-held device programming and the broadcasting portion of the new pathway. Reading between the lines of whiz-bang titles, it's hard to miss the dollar signs.
Building career skills
Cornwell wants students to see them, too. "In the high-tech industry, tons of jobs go unfilled," he said, pulling up a jobs site listing 85,286 openings for programmers. Most of those start at $70,000 to $100,000, with experience quickly multiplying that figure. That's the carrot.
"These are career skills and career paths. But it's also what they need to get through high school successfully," said Cornwell, a 1997 Beyer graduate who drifted uninspired through school. He said the bottom line is getting students engaged, motivated and learning.
He hopes his students become the George Lucases of the future, but Job One is to raise graduation and college-going rates.
As he talks, Cornwell keeps an eye on one of two large screens on his computer, one with 38 miniature windows into the screens of his Web-zooming students. It's the only way to monitor the monitors; he shrugs. They're teens.
In the back row, two kids collaborate on a problem. Others call out questions; still others step up with pointers. Cornwell's lectures use an overhead screen and lots of give and take.
Several class members said they plan to go into programming. One wants to put her art skills to digital use. Others wandered in and stayed.
"It just seemed interesting," said freshman Ricardo Loreto, who plans to be a police officer. "I've always liked being on computers."
Jonathan Estrada, a freshman, was intrigued by the classes. "I thought, 'Well, I like video games what a good idea,' " he said.
Video games are the hook but a hook that works.
"People say, 'Oh, video games,' " Cornwell said. "But (students) are having to use architecture. They're having to use engineering. They're doing a ton of math to make it connect and be to scale."
Johansen's new pathway, formally on hold until state finances improve, has teachers committed to its philosophy moving ahead and making it work.
"The projects that I create can be much more effective and adaptive with the support of the other subject-area teachers, and vice versa," Sabatini-Trinidad said. "The only difference that I can see in this pathway is that I'm not in it alone. Four other teachers are right there with me."
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2339, and on Twitter, @NanAustin.