April 20, 2015
Every month in our UCCI newsletter, we feature one of the extraordinary educators we have worked with at the UCCI Institutes and in the UCCI Teacher Exchange. We started this feature so that we could have a way of publicly showcasing how creative, innovative, and smart California teachers are. We archive every issue of the Teacher Spotlight here, on the UCCI website, at our Teacher Spotlight page.
This month the spotlight is on John Pellman, Digital Media
Production Teacher and Academy Coordinator, Pleasant Grove High School.
We recently chatted with John about his background in theater and his experiences as a Digital Media teacher.
How long have you been
teaching, and how did you decide to become a teacher?
I am in my ninth year as a full-time teacher. Prior to becoming a full time teacher, I taught in Graduate School, got several grants to teach theater in the Public Schools and taught for a year in the Community Colleges. It was in 2005 that I made the decision to pursue a career in education. Like any major decision it was a combination of factors. I had come to a fork in the road with my theater career. I had outgrown the theater company I was directing and knew a change was needed if I was going to continue my work in the arts. I was now married with one child and another one on the way. I was also at a point in my work in the theater that I felt accomplished. I came to understand what a life in the arts was going to mean and could not balance that with my role as a father and husband. After much searching and consideration, I decided education was my next career. At the time I thought I was going into teaching because I wanted to be a Principal. I decided on Special Education English because I wanted to make a complete break from theater, which felt like the right thing at the time. After six years as a teacher I finished my Administrative Credential and was considering what admin jobs I might apply for. But the day I finished my Admin Credential, I was asked if I would like to develop an academy program based on digital media, and I jumped at the opportunity. I have often found it a strange twist of fate that I made a conscious decision to leave work in the theater, work centered around craft, artistry and creativity, and now in my job as teacher I am working to develop craft, artistry and creativity in my students.
We love that your background is in theater… what drew you to theater and do you have a favorite project that you worked on?
My father was an actor and as a child, I often went to rehearsals, plays and musicals with him. I enjoyed watching him perform and seeing live theater, but I didn’t think of it as a career option. I graduated from American University with a BA in Political Science in 1989, worked on some political campaigns while in school, thinking I would embark on a career in politics after AU. Then I decided to live abroad. I moved to Israel, and spent my time there constantly writing, first journals and then later short stories and scripts, and I started reading a lot of plays. Being on my own allowed me to discover something that was more meaningful to me than a life in politics, and that was (at the time) a life in the arts. After 5 years, I felt ready to try and ‘make it’ as playwright director so I moved to NYC, where I had some success. I wrote and directed two plays which were staged in a Greenwich Village theater, the Grove Street Playhouse. I received my MFA from UC Davis in Theatre Arts. I ran a small theater company in Sacramento and had my biggest success--which was also my favorite production--in 2003, when I worked with a group of breast cancer survivors for 8 weeks, talking to them about their experience of living with the disease. We did some improv exercises as well, and from that I was able to write an original play called Survivor Diary. The premiere had over 300 in attendance and we raised over $25,000 for a local breast cancer support group as well as the theater company I was working for at the time. I revised the play and later staged the production at California Stage in Sacramento.
You were one of the Grantees of the 2012-13 UCCI Pathways Grant. Please tell us a little bit about the courses you developed as a Grantee.
When I came into the position of Media Teacher, I wasn’t given much in the way of curriculum but what I was given I could see was out of date. When video was first taught in schools, video production involved a camera and editing software at the most basic level. Because of the way technology has advanced, the whole process has become more user friendly and less expensive - that whole function of shoot and edit can be performed on a smartphone. Intermediate and more advanced levels of media production involve more tools. To create media projects today, a person would use editing software as their main tool, but they would likely also use an effects program to supplement the content, they might use an audio program to repair, improve or enhance audio, and they could use Photoshop to add additional elements from animation to motion graphics. So a videographer who is only familiar with editing software is not adequately prepared for the industry. These ancillary tools have a vocabulary unto themselves, for example with Photoshop you are dealing more directly with Elements of Art and Principles of Design. With After Effect (depending on how you use it) you could need to know Principles of Animation, be skilled in observation, and have a more refined aesthetic to create motion graphics and compelling titles. The basic process has not changed: Pre-Production, Production and Post-Production are identical. But now with so many more tools, crossing over in so many more art disciplines the process is more complex, so it seemed that the curriculum needed an update to reflect this new landscape.
In addition to wanting to update the curriculum, another critical change was needed. Video, initially, for schools was seen as a Technology course. Today we all know that film/video production can be an art form just as much as painting or sculpting. I wanted to create a course that captured what is happening in the digital media industry as well as ensuring that students were getting the Art credit they deserve for their efforts. The results are Digital Media Arts 1 and Digital Media Arts 2, both given “f” credit by UC as well as a capstone class, Advance Production and Broadcasting, which earns “g” credit.
You’ve had some challenges with credentialing. What are your thoughts/ideas on this process?
The credentialing process is one of the biggest barriers to job satisfaction for teachers and out of sync with what teachers need for adequate preparation. There is a myth that what makes a good teacher is subject competency. While knowing what you teach is important, it is not what students need most from a teacher. What separates good teachers from bad teachers is a person who loves teaching and is willing to be there for the students. Any dedicated teacher will learn the material in time but what cannot be taught is an interest for the intellectual, social and emotional development of young people. Our credential process has this entirely backwards. It puts subject competency first and foremost, forces teachers to take tests and complete separate credentials based on the discipline or the age of the student. Just because you are at the top of your field - a great writer, mathematician, filmmaker - that does not in any way guarantee that you will be a good English, Math or Media teacher. But if you are a good teacher, chances are you can teach most any subject and most any student.
Our credentialing process does not recognize this basic truth of the teaching profession and because of this it makes it very difficult for professional educators to expand and change, because the process to do so is so onerous on the individual if they want to teach a new subject. One reason people leave the teaching profession is that they get locked in to a subject and grade level. There are some people who want to teach the same subject for 30 years, but many people want to be able to change things up. While teaching I have had to earn a Special Education Credential, a Special Education Clear Credential, a CTE Credential, a CTE Clear Credential now an Art Credential and General Education Single Subject Credential in addition to having to pass subject competency (CSET) tests in Social Science, English and Visual Arts. One credential should cover it, this constant treadmill of one credential after another, simply because my interests change, is not what makes me a better teacher, what it does is take me away from my students and teaching. What makes me a better teacher is teaching and collaborating with my colleagues with well-developed professional development programs.
You’re interested in a UCCI Institute focused on Special Education. Why do you think this is needed?
My first assignment as a teacher was working in Special Education, and in my six years spent in Special Education, I’ve mostly taught English. In that time I never had the access to the grants and high quality professional development that I do now as a CTE teacher in Digital Media. Because I worked in Special Education, I have a fairly good understanding of how the classes work and how these students move through high school. In the course of developing and reading over UCCI English and Media courses, it was apparent to me that it would not be that difficult for a Special Education English Teacher to take a UCCI course and modify it, changing only the English content and leaving the media portion as is, so that students on IEPs could have the same access to these innovative courses as the students not on IEPs have. There is a theory that students in Special Educations programs learn best when lessons are hands-on; this is an excellent opportunity to deliver hands-on curriculum to students in Special Education. Additionally, it could be a way to get these students learning a skill, which everyone agrees is vital to give these students a chance for success after high school. Bringing these kinds of courses to the Special Education classroom could provide access and opportunity to a group of students that often gets pushed to the side. If successful, it will also be a way to bring “a-g” classes to students who usually are shut out from this curriculum.
What first drew you to UCCI and integrated curriculum?
It seemed like an interesting approach to curriculum, though I cannot honestly say I knew what I was really getting into, and I certainly had no idea how it would dramatically impact me professionally. I was a new media teacher; I mostly thought it would be a good way to connect with other media teachers and learn from them. It would not be an exaggeration to say it set me in a new direction professionally. Everything about the process was exciting to me: the opportunity to collaborate with other educators, merging disciplines, getting support from the UC and creating something new all put me on a new path that I was eager to share with others. It gave me a focus as a media teacher - that my work could support the work of core teachers. It got me thinking about how my academy could develop and it made me see the need for teacher collaboration. Having been involved UCCI for the last three years, it has been one the best things I have done for myself professionally. In addition to all I have learned and continue to learn, it’s been wonderful to get to know the outstanding and dedicated UCCI staff. I am confident my involvement with UCCI is one of the reasons my academy was award SSP planning and implementation grants.