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Art as a Fresh Start 

In the early afternoon on Monday, Feb. 24th, in a small, nondescript-looking classroom Shawn Whistler, teaching artist and part of Arts for Learning's Digital Game Residency program, set up a few rows of desks with laptop computers and paper packets. The walls were adorned with various posters that spoke to the necessity of the versatility of this as a learning space. On the whiteboard, Whistler had written the objectives of the workshop: Identify 4 basic elements of game design; Define and apply troubleshooting; Explore creating a game for young adults; Assess how you can apply what you've learned outside of a workshop.

Using arts enrichment to further education is the mission of Arts for Learning. - ARTS FOR LEARNING
  • Arts for Learning
  • Using arts enrichment to further education is the mission of Arts for Learning.

Whistler presented a fun hands-on art and technology lesson, but there was a twist, made evident by his students' entrance to the classroom. The day's 11 students (all male) silently shuffled into the room in orange and white jumpsuits, hands held neatly behind their backs. They are young men who, in addition to being budding game designers, also happen to be incarcerated in the Hamilton County Juvenile Services Center.

Arts for Learning, which is the Indiana affiliate of Young Audiences, provides programming in a range of schools and community sites. Infusing culture into the curriculum, its work takes many forms. Jazz bands perform at daycares, skilled storytellers share international folktales at elementary schools, children paint to the beat of drummers in afterschool settings. And, at the Hamilton County Juvenile Services Center, kids who have run into some trouble find a chance to learn useful skills and channel their talents in new directions.

Development in Detention

From the outside, the juvenile center looks not unlike the fa├žade of a recently built high school. The entrance to the large brick building looks new, clean and inviting, but inside things are much more sparse. After all, in mid-February only 15 boys were present at the center though the population can rise to numbers in the thirties. The average tenure for an individual here is about 30 days, although this estimation doesn't take into account the wide range of time served among the boys. Some are here for several months, while others stay only a few days. The center houses boys from grades six to 12 from Hamilton County and beyond, but rarely are they younger than eighth grade.

For the youth that come into this center, continuing their education is a top priority, and because they often are coming from different schools across the metropolitan area and sometimes other counties entirely, each boy's curriculum and progress must be approached individually. No matter how long their stay, their schedules and behavior are monitored with attentive rigidity. Regardless of the nature of their crimes, the detention center seems to serve as more of a temporary step along the way to a more permanent situation, whatever that may be, while striving to keep their academic progress moving along as normal as possible.

And while academics are paramount, their days are not without extracurricular activity. It is in these instances where opportunities such as Arts for Learning's "Digital Game Design" workshop come into play. The program introduces students to the basics of computer game design through a series of instructional workshops. In this case, the workshop was five days long.

Students create games from scratch, using provided graphics assets and a basic game design software. - SHAWN WHISTLER
  • Shawn Whistler
  • Students create games from scratch, using provided graphics assets and a basic game design software.

Structure and Software

Moving from place to place, the boys adhered to the structure and expectation of order that one might expect to find in a juvenile facility. As soon as they eased into their seats in Whistler's class, however, the atmosphere turned into what could have been any other high-school classroom. Not surprisingly for their age, many of the boys proved to already be adept with a computer.

As the students explored the gaming software, Whistler surveyed the class, asking his students to describe the characters they saw, break down the elements of the game and inspect the structure of the games more closely. When a question was asked, the students chimed in individually with answers that were prompt and articulate. When no easy answer occurred, they worked through the problems together, aloud. The boys were attentive and engrossed in the activity, some so much that when the instructor would introduce a new concept, they revealed they had already skipped ahead several steps in the process.

At the end of the week, some boys had already come and gone from the center. But those who remained had each created their own interactive video games. Whistler believes that because of the restricted access students in a juvenile detention center have to technology, they are eager to experiment with the games, and thrive in an encouraging environment where they learn through trial and error. Students especially excel when the content provided has a rational and practical application.

But why teach video game design? What's the value in academic and developmental growth? Arts for Learning proposes that teaching classes like this takes a platform students are already interested in - video games and computers, technology - and turns it into a logical, problem-solving activity. Digital game design integrates art, music, movement, algebra, science, and language arts together for a practical application - creating a video game with characters, objectives, rules, and levels. By using open source software, students can return to the activity even after the workshop has ended. It is an avenue to both engage kids creatively and to help them develop a further literacy with technology and computers.

Arts for Learning offers services in a variety of locations for students. - ARTS FOR LEARNING
  • Arts for Learning
  • Arts for Learning offers services in a variety of locations for students.

Whistler explains, "The workshop forces students to reconcile preconceived notions of computers for entertainment, social media, Internet searches, etc. into a powerful, yet logical tool for artistic creation."

Perhaps, for some of them, the class is a first step in rethinking who they can be and how art might offer a fresh start.

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About The Author

Allison Stone

Allison Stone

Bio:
Allison Stone is a writer, visual artist and graduate of Indiana University living in Indianapolis.

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