'Animation Creates Life!'
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.
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,'"
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."
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.