Wednesday, June 22, 2011

LAUSD Cancels Aeronautics Electives

The LAUSD district choose to cancel the aeronautics elective school wide on a day that USA Today ran a cover story about the urgent need for up to 500,000 pilots globally in the next twenty years. There are at least two aeronautics programs citywide that have shown great success.

John Burroughs Middle School teacher, Charlie Unkeless, was taking his students into the wild blue yonder before his class was cancelled leaving over 200 enthusiastic students grounded in their overcrowded classrooms.

Unkeless taught aeronautics and computer technology to 7th and 8th graders at John Burroughs Middle School. He used Microsoft Flight Simulators hooked up with a Joystick and a classroom PC. A creative teacher who delivers content in unique ways, Unkeless has seen his Aviation class become one of the most popular elective courses offered at Burroughs.

The past and present Principal at his school both supported his methodology. New rules put in place recently by the district will not allow the principal to authorize him to continue teaching technology.

In Unkeless’ own words:

“Students learn to fly a Cessna and read all the gauges. They keep portfolios and organize all their missions, journals, and worksheets. We take field trips to airports and study aviation history. It is a busy semester and the kids who sign up know my class is challenging but they are motivated and responsible students. Last year I arranged for my top students to fly a plane with a pilot instructor who donated her services.”

Regarding the cancellation of his elective, the teacher adds:

“Kurt Vonnegut couldn’t have dreamed up a more absurd situation. We need to create bridges to 21st century careers. The district is shortsighted and uninformed about what good things are actually happening in their classrooms.”

Charlie Unkeless’ story is one of the faces that can be put on the current crisis at the L.A.U.S.D. It’s a powerful, moving story that adds a human dimension to one of today’s most vital issues.

USA Today - Demand for Airline Pilots Set To Soar

Sunday, April 03, 2011

There are a thousand stories in the naked city. . . . . and mine is just one.

Charlie Unkeless
John Burroughs Middle School
Technology Lab and Aeronautics Instructor

Two weeks ago I received a Pink Slip along with 4500 other teachers in the LAUSD. I'm told that even if my RIF is rescinded, I won't be allowed back into the computer lab because the Principal will no longer be able to authorize my ability to teach technology. My credential is multi subject k-8, and I am deemed unqualified to teach a technology class.

A Little History

In 2003 I was recruited to teaching by the LAUSD District Intern Program. This program offered me a chance to become fully credentialed after a three year internship. LAUSD was recruiting professionals who wanted to bring their life experiences into the classroom.

I had been a lighting designer for Oingo Boingo, led by Danny Elfman, for 20 years before he disbanded the group. I also worked as a lighting designer and operator for other artists including Barry Manilow, INXS, Debbie Gibson, and radio station KROQ. These accounts required me to design elaborate lighting rigs using CAD software and operate them using complex computer controllers.

I became a PC nerd in 1985 with my first Commodore 64 , and went on to work on Mac’s, PC’s, and UNIX workstations as a computer graphics artist while continuing to design lighting systems. I was self taught and became and independent producer of animation for commercials and live events. By 1998, I was employed as a lighter, animator, and modeler for TV shows and movies and worked in that field for the next five years.

At the age of 51, I decided that becoming a teacher was more attractive than being a freelance artist because I was always looking for the next production gig. A teachers salary isn’t great, but I also wanted health benefits and a path to a pension. It helped that I had a degree from UCSD and a good memory for math and science. I was deemed highly qualified.

How hard could teaching be?

Well, it was plenty hard. Facing classes of 40 teenagers 5 times a day and delivering interesting and rigorous lessons is the most difficult and rewarding challenge I have ever faced, and I was good at it. I have been recognized by me peers and my administrators as a creative educator who delivers content in unique and creative ways.

I was hired at John Burroughs Middle School to teach 6th grade math and science. I experimented with using flight simulators as an enrichment strategy to teach earth science. Since kids love video games, it offered me a chance to teach them a challenging kinesthetic skill, while embeding science, technology, engineering, math, and literacy standards all at the same time. For example, we studied the topographic maps and aerial photography of Mt. Shasta. Then my students would fly around the mountain sightseeing and making notes about the glaciers and landforms.

I wrote a grant in 2007 and was funded by the California State Assembly to teach aeronautics as a career technical education course. My Principal signed an authorization to allow me to take over the computer lab at John Burroughs Middle School and teach aeronautics as an elective as well as an introductory computer course.

However, the grant was underfunded and the lab contained 40 Windows 98 computers that were underpowered. In the last four years I have been the force that pushed for donations, grants, and a settlement from a Microsoft lawsuit to revitalize Room 230 into a great and productive lab. I put a lot of sweat and my own money into it as well.

Now you may ask, “are you a pilot?” “No, I just play one in the classroom.” Actually, I have taken flying lessons and trained in flight simulators. My program was mentored by a pilot instructor who provided my initial syllabus. I use the Microsoft Flight Simulator hooked up to your average PC and away we go into the wild blue yonder. The kids love it and I am teaching 4 crowded classes this spring semester 2011. Students learn to fly a Cessna and read all the gauges.

They keep portfolios and organize all their missions, journals, and worksheets.

We take field trips to airports and study aviation history.

They develop note-taking skills, write summaries, and reflections about their experiences. It is a busy semester and the kids who sign up know my class is challenging but they are motivated and responsible students. Last year I arranged for my top students to fly a plane with a pilot instructor who donated her services.

What kind of culture would throw away the value I have added to my school? I feel like a character caught between Catch 22 and 1984. These cutbacks will affect class size, curriculum and damage the future of our children. Does, “value added,” only apply to the metric created to judge student performance based upon standardized test scores? Do these tests encourage innovative thinking or are they just a scorecard in a multiple guessing game that we have been relying on since the IBM punch card era?

Mine is one of the stories in the naked city and it's breaking my heart to be thrown out of a classroom which I worked so hard to revitalize. I’m sad for our children whose experiences will be diminished by overcrowding, over-testing, and a lack of opportunities to take enriching courses that support their core subjects.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Samba meets Jazz

The fabulous Bill McHenry take a great solo at the concert Friday night, August 6.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sigraph Show LA - July 28

Michael E. Goss, software engineer for Google, demonstrating Building Maker at the Sigraph show in Los Angeles July 27.


Charlie Reporting from the Sigraph show in Los Angeles this week.

Picasa Gallery from Sigraph

Sigraph is the yearly compendium of everything in visual computing including scientific, game, and special effects graphics. It was held in Los Angeles this year, only a couple of miles from my house. I could only wander the show for a day but Google had a booth. I met Michael Goss, software engineer for Google, who demonstrated,"Building Maker." What fun my 7th and 8th graders are going to have constructing buildings in Los Angeles. The area in which sets of oblique photos allow for the wrapping of geometry matches where most of my kids live. There are many other cities where the oblique views allow construction using the simple and intuitive tools Google has provided. Bravo!

Check out Google's building maker:

I also talked with another engineer from Google who was showing a real time OpenGL web render which looked like melting chocolate. Kids can grab the source code, modify the parameters and create special effects while learning some code.

I met Walt Disney's talent development supervisor, Deb Stone, about mentoring and providing guidance to my middle school students. Living in Los Angeles in proximity to animation studios, special effects boutiques, scientific institutions and such should give them exposure to 21st century career opportunities and goals. Rhythm and Hues, Blue Sky, Pixar, and Autodesk have booths as well.
I stopped by the exhibit galleries and took some photos of inexpensive rapid prototyping machines build with Arduino microboards by the Makerbot community. To quote their site, "Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It's intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments." This is fantastic stuff and they are doing it really inexpensively. The prototyping machine takes models created in cg programs and turns them into real objects. Jay Leno was profiled recently because he make plastic parts for his classic cars that are unavailable anywhere else. We need this stuff in our schools! Kids should be building machines that are run with microprocessor controls. It is not that expensive but I have encountered so much resistance by administrators so I better not hold my breath.

There are many vendors of books and dvds there and I bought a documentary on Syd Mead, a futurist visionary, who among other things created the concept sketches for Blade Runner. He was at the show and signed a poster for me and the insert to the dvd. I am starting a new computing class in the fall and plan to show the documentary to all my students. I also stocked up on books about Blender, my favorite Open Source 3D animation software.

Freely distributable open source programs like SketchUp, Gimp, Blender, Open Office, and cloud programs like Google Docs, and Sumopaint are available and wonderfully robust. The tools are sharp and we really need to step up our game to give kids the introduction to the world of visual computing.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Storm over the North Rim

Rain curtains over the North Rim of the Grand Canyon shimmer and undulate with the afternoon light.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Tuesday, February 10, 2009