Five Questions with Jeffrey Brown

Published by Chris Coyier

I first met Jeff when he emailed me in early March of this year introducing himself as a High School Web Design Teacher at Damascus High in Maryland. He told me he makes his advanced students subscribe to this blog! Jeff is passionate about teaching and web design, and I wouldn't be surprised if his 4-Year curriculum at Dasmascus was the best in the country.

As part of the Advanced Web Tools class, Jeff brings in speakers from the professional world to talk to the students. I was lucky to be included in his all-star lineup for Spring 2009.

I got the chance to interview Jeff and ask him some questions about his experiences and education.

CHRIS: A lot of us web designers like to complain about the state of education in design, and I saw speaking to your class as an opportunity to put-my-money-where-my-mouth-is. Do you think that sentiment helps you get these other web workers agreeing to speak?

JEFF: I think it does help, but I am lucky enough that I haven't ever had to convince someone to speak to my students. I usually send an email explaining who we are and invite them to speak and most of the time I get an ecstatic "yes" back.

I think we all like to complain about the current state of web education, and for fair reason. To initiate change, we need to connect professionals to education and you can do that through methods other than speaking. You can simply contact your local middle school, high school, or college and just say hi. Ask them about their web program and how you can get involved, ask what they teach and how you can support them, ask if you can sponsor a student or teacher to attend a conference, or just otherwise connect. You may choose to share resources with them like the WaSP Interact Curriculum or The Opera Web Standards Curriculum. But try to be friendly and open; avoid the "everything you are teaching is wrong" approach, at least until you build a relationship.

But yes, we need more people like you, Chris, who are passionate about Web Design and Development to speak to youth and teachers. Not to mention the self educative bread crumbs you are leaving for anyone who wants to learn by reading your blog or following your screencasts.

 

CHRIS: Are there particular things that you find more difficult to get across to your students than others? For example, CSS is clearly a very practical skill, and it's fairly easy to explain what h1 { color: green; } means and why that is so powerful. Whereas explaining about arrays or database table relationships I would imagine is a lot tougher and take up more time. Do you always have to consider the time-to-teach / how-valuable-is-this ratio?

JEFF: Abso-freaking-lutely. With my 2nd year students, when we get to web programming some of them turn cross-eyed. I find Javascript is a bear to teach. Imagine you were them, so far they have learned Digital Design Production (fairly straight forward, you tell a program what to do and you see your changes instantly), HTML (extremely straight forward, you write it and it shows up), and CSS (you change it and it changes on the screen). Then all of a sudden here is this beast that is capable of complicated thought, you can't always see the changes you make in your site, and if you type a single character incorrectly it could break it. Not to mention its syntax is unlike anything they have seen thus far. It is a big jump and often we (web professionals) are too quick to lump JS with HTML and CSS. It falls in the same category but it doesn't teach or learn the same way.

I make them stick it out with JS for a solid month or two, then just when they think they can't process any more JS I show them JQuery. They always say the same thing, "Why didn't you show us this first?" and I always say the same thing, "Because you need to know how to write JS on your own and not rely on a third party library." They still hate me, but at least they know the basics of Javascript. Jquery works for them, as with many of us, because of the use of the familiar CSS selectors.

This is just one example, in this case, it takes longer to teach than normal and they get frustrated with it but I know it has a high value so I stick it out. Not fun, but they are better web heads because of it.

 

CHRIS: In my college design program, several of my professors openly backed away from teaching us specific technologies. They preferred instead to have us focus on ideas and core artistic fundamentals. To the extreme that I left college never once touching CSS. I'm not sour though, I'm grateful to have been forced into valuing fundamentals over specific skills. What is your feelings and approach on this?

JEFF:I think you have to have core knowledge of theory, however, I have to keep in mind that these are high school students. When I teach in the evenings at a local community college I teach entire 4 hour sessions on theory and principals of web design. At a high school level, they need to get their hands dirty. In my district these classes are electives, if I lecture for a week on the theory of surveying and critiquing websites then indirectly I will be killing my program. From my own high school experience I remember electives being wood shop, art, gym, etc, classes where I was getting up out of my seat and moving around or actively making things. This is what my students want as well, I try to keep this in mind. However, I also think that teaching software specific skills is inappropriate. I like to think I'm somewhere in the middle in my high school classroom.

For example, I teach progressive enhancement and graceful degradation by teaching them to separate their HTML, CSS, and JS, then later in the year I show them their sites with CSS/JS turned off. Things like that where I am teaching them methods or theory and they don't even realize it until I shed some light on it.

I teach Photoshop and Fireworks because I think its hard to design without knowing how to use those programs, but that is really the only software I teach. We write HTML, we don't learn to use Dreamweaver. I should clarify, we do use Dreamweaver, but I only allow them to use code mode and I never teach them how to use any of the buttons or commands to insert code for you. I teach them to write CSS, not to use Dreamweavers CSS tools. And likewise with JS, I even got my district to install Notepad++ just to expose them to other editors. I do teach the Dreamweaver Site Management, but that is really it.

So I do think you need to teach theory, but I try to make it work for my high school classroom.

 

CHRIS: Do you have any fun "success stories" of kids you have taught to go on to be web workers?

JEFF: One story I am particularly proud of is a recent graduate who went on to University of Maryland who came back to visit. He was a very talented young man but chose an alternative route for study in college, he freelances in his free time. He told me about a website his friends were "woooing" over, saying how awesome it was. He took a look and quickly told his friends that the site "sucked". He said, "You should have seen it Mr. Brown, they used Flash for the navigation and didn't offer alternative content for screen readers, used tables for layout, and the design wasn't really that good anyways." My heart grew by three times that day.

If my students leave my class needing to look up how to create a three column layout because they forget but can spout off stuff like this young man, I can live with that.

In addition, you probably have a picture of this student in your head. A pocket protector, glasses, computer science major. Wrong, this is an athlete, well liked by all, former prom king, leader of his youth group, Information Sciences major. I like to impress upon my students that web designers are everyone, athletes, thespians, nerds, artists, and any other clicke. He really has been a great example of this.

 

CHRIS: Have you been seeing other High School programs start to pick up on what you are doing? You freely distribute your teaching materials over a Creative Common license, have many other teachers hit you up for those materials (that you know of)?

JEFF: The success our program has had isn't really about me. It's been a perfect storm of my students interest, my schools understanding and willingess to work with me, my districts support, and being pitted with other like minded professionals I mention below. Take any of those out of the equation and the program wouldn't be what we have now.

The stats show that my assignments are being downloaded but not too many have reached out. Don't hesitate to reach out, I only display the assignments for that semester, if there's something you are looking for I probably have tried to teach it and would be willing to give it to you.

A good friend of mine, Zac Gordon, teaches at Springbrook High School which is in my district. He does a fabulous job over there with his students and program. You can check out his class site at http://dabrook.org.

My mentor, Jason Leveille, used to teach in my district. He introduced me to web standards, up until then I was using tables for layout and damn good at it if I might add. He fell so in love with web development that he quit his job and started working full time for a local company as a senior web developer. His ghost lives on in the district with his award winning high school site he designed for Quince Orchard High School. Jason played a large role in the district as well, and he offers his assignments freely to teachers.

However, aside from my area I don't know any other high school teachers who teach a similar web program in high school. Not because they aren't out there, just because I haven't met them yet. Web standards are still new, there are colleges that don't even teach them yet so I think its understandable that I haven't met many others.

Again, reach out. Progress has happened in my area because there have just happened to be a couple people together who are crazy passionate about web design. Get involved!