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'Animation Creates Life!'

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A Virginia educator explains how the use of computer animation has the power to engage students in a way that is unique among classroom technologies.

'Animation Creates Life!'ROBB PONTON NEVER GUESSED that a routine stopover at a local bookstore would start him down a path to the widespread use of animation in his 10,000-student school district. Yet that's just what it did, and now animation technology is an integral part of teaching and learning in Virginia's Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools, where Ponton serves as an instructional technology resource teacher.

During the bookstore visit, which he still recalls some 15 years later, Ponton spotted Fun With Architecture. Published by New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the book came with several rubber stamps of different shapes and sizes that kids could use to create pictures of castles and buildings. A middle school computer lab teacher at the time, Ponton thought he could translate this activity to the computer for use in his classroom. He accomplished that by creating a collection of shapes in digital form for use within ClarisWorks, an early Apple drawing program then employed by his district.

Students could use the program to duplicate the shapes or manipulate them to make structures such as buildings and castles. Those who finished assignments early began creating rockets, cars, and other images. "The kids really excelled at that," recalls Ponton. "Everybody could do it, not just the students who were good artists."

By showing his students how to break down objects into their component shapes-- ovals, triangles, etc.-- Ponton helped them move beyond a dislike or fear of drawing to create their own images. But having learned how to create images, the students wanted next to animate them, a capability that ClarisWorks didn't have. "They were saying, 'This would be fun if we could get this to move,'" recalls Ponton.

So he began looking for animation programs. At about the same time, the district moved from Macs to PCs, which forced Ponton to search for an alternative to the Mac-based ClarisWorks. He knew he'd have to start out modestly, since the district couldn't afford the triple-digit price tags of some of the higher-end products on the market.

During his extensive research, Ponton came across Serif DrawPlus, which contained drawing and animation software in the same box. Even better, the company, which is based in the UK, offers free, downloadable older versions of its software on its website. Ponton called the company's US headquarters in New Hampshire, which agreed to license Serif's lastgeneration version of DrawPlus for $9.95 per license.

"For $250 I had my whole lab outfitted," says Ponton. "Right away, I knew this was it. Once the kids had the power, almost like a god, to bring life to these figures, then they really bloomed."

In 1998, Ponton left the classrom to become one of Williamsburg-James City's instructional technology resource teachers and began to share his animation know-how with other teachers and students. Ponton's job now requires him to help teachers incorporate a variety of technologies, but he says that animation is unique among them in the powerful, instant engagement it provides for both teachers and students.

"Animation creates life!" he enthuses. "Most students and teachers enjoy creating something using the draw or paint tools, but when you show them how to animate what they have just drawn, you have really grabbed their attention. They are the creator of that movement."

Often, Ponton says, a first response from teachers about the use of animation in the classroom will be, "But I could never do that." So he shows them the animation process using three simple pictures: a monkey's face, the same monkey's face but this time with a tongue showing, and a third image that shows the monkey's face again without the tongue. If the images are run in quick sequence, the monkey appears to be sticking out its tongue. After seeing that, teachers' fears subside. "They say, 'Is that all there is to it?'" Ponton says. "It's the same with the kids. I have kids who have created animations with well over 200 frames. You literally have to kick them out the door."

During a meeting with a chemistry teacher at a high school, Ponton asked, "What's a lesson that's difficult, that you're not getting much success with?" Her answer: chemical compounds, their formulas, and examples of how they're used in real life. Ponton decided to spend a week helping two of the teacher's classes create short animations that showed the chemical makeup of each compound along with brief cartoons demonstrating its uses.

Working side by side in a computer lab, the teacher and Ponton spent the initial class period introducing the topic to the students, explaining chemical equations and reactions. In addition, the students did their own research using a textbook and online resources. On the second day, the students completed their research and Ponton gave a brief lesson on the basics of the DrawPlus program. "I can teach them 75 percent of what DrawPlus does in 20 minutes," says Ponton. "Then I can walk around the room and be a facilitator."

On the third day, the students began building models of their chosen compounds, conjuring up story ideas, and working up a storyboard for the animation. By the end of the week, most of them had finished their cartoons, and the teacher had covered a lot of the learning standards for chemical compounds required by the state of Virginia. Says Ponton of the outcome, "The chemistry teacher was very happy."

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Instructional Technology Resource Teacher Robb Ponton's animation portal links to free and low-cost animation resources. Visit here.

In the district's fourth-grade classrooms, Ponton has worked with teachers on creating engaging lessons about amendments to the US Constitution. "Amendments can be a boring topic," says Ponton. "I told the teachers, 'This is how we can jazz this up.'" The students were assigned an amendment and had to brainstorm ideas for illustrating it. Next, they drew the amendment in DrawPlus and then animated it.

A classroom of English language learners who were having difficulty understanding the concept of verbs also saw the benefits of animation. Ponton said to the ELL teacher, "Verbs mean action-- let's animate!" Ponton asked the students what they liked to do, and with the teacher acting as interpreter, the kids responded with activities such as Rollerblading and dancing. Over three class periods, they animated their favorite pastimes by learning how to use DrawPlus. Ponton used clip art to expedite the lesson and also showed them how to add music. "It was very successful," he says.

According to Ponton, once the students have learned how to apply animation in one class, they tend to find applications in others. The interest shown by students, along with annual "Tech Trek" weeks that help Williamsburg-James teachers learn about new technology initiatives in the district, has allowed teachers to see the power of animation. Now every school in the district, with the exception of two new campuses, is running DrawPlus in its computer labs.

The latest version of the program, X2 Graphics Studio, includes the ability to do keyframe animation, where one object appears to morph into another object. "You can draw a rectangle on one frame, then another keyframe could be a circle," Ponton explains. "Then DrawPlus will make the in-between slides for you to blend the rectangle into a circle. The program does all the calculations." Since the price for the newer software is a bit steeper, Ponton recommends that each teacher buy a copy of it and then outfit students' machines with the free version of the program, which he estimates can do 80 percent of what X2 can do.

VIEW ANIMATION CREATED by students from Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools (VA) at these websites.

Ponton's advice for others curious about adding animation to their bag of instructional tools: "Start simply-- use the free programs online. Get a product like DrawPlus, where the kids can create and they're motivated because they're creating. Instead of the kids just learning from you, they learn from each other. The learning in the classroom increases exponentially. There are 25 active imaginations, 25 experimenters, 25 inventors, and 25 teachers in the room all sharing together. Now that's education."

Dian Schaffhauser is a freelance technology writer based in Nevada City, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.

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