NYC: design at the Alt School

designWe are hardwired to appreciate beauty, and to recognize symmetry as such.  What is perhaps not innately hardwired is the fact that we sometimes devalue the importance of beauty in education. To clarify, design is incredibly important, and it hasn’t been until the last five years that I have recognized this.  Indeed, our current students are growing up in a visual world–with visual communication often being their primary mode of choice.  So why do some of us as educators take so little time designing our lessons with an eye toward how we present them?  The content is just one part of what we give to our students; in fact, by handing our students something that doesn’t look good, we lose some degree of credence.  If design is not intuitive for you, I can empathize, but what I have also learned is that there is a plethora of tools out there to help. Recognizing its importance is the first step, after which you begin to really observe what works well and what does not.
I recently visited the Alt School in New York City, a school launched by Google execs in San Francisco and recently expanded on the east coast. Among many othlogo_altschool_smaller things, it’s clear that the people at the Alt School understand the importance of quality design, and implement it with amazing fidelity.  I’d like to outline my time spent in a short tour of their facilities, and offer up how you might use their work as inspiration for your own classroom.
Despite the fact that I am somewhat challenged with directions, I found the tiny door that led upstairs to the tiny Alt school.  They take “micro-school” very seriously, both in that they serve the youngest students (pre-primary through third grade at present), and they also operate in a small space–a space they make welcoming, inspirational, and beautiful.  The first thing I noted is the color scheme–the ubiquitous gentle blue and white color combo that permeates the location.  To complement that, birch wood furniture filled just enough area to make plenty of room for movement as well as working space.  Creation tools enveloped the classrooms, complete with copious compartments for storage whose open design invited little hands to help themselves as needed.  While you 1447962509278-2may not have the luxury of ordering these ergonomically designed chairs, you likely have the flexibility to create room for movement and flow in your own classroom.  Without exception, each Alt School classroom had a space at the front of the room devoid of furniture, usually with a comfortable rug, and populated the remainder of space with chairs at small tables.  The rooms were small, but the design elements were apparent.  It’s true that the Brooklyn-based Alt School serves pre-primary through third grade at present, but the need for movement and a common space within any classroom is important.
What was perhaps most striking in the area of design at the Alt School was the work they are doing in personalizing learning through the use of tech tools.  Each student has a “playlist–” that is, a list of “cards” (or lessons) unnamed_copy-1424925296-1428754005-1428759519-2personalized to each student under a broad category of study. When teachers want to create lessons on any given topic, they have not only their own imagination to call on, but also the collective resources of all Alt School teachers.  They have, in essence, designed their own database that is organization-wide.  Teachers co-teach classes of about fifteen to twenty students, and work together to create cards to add to students’ playlists.  Using the Common Core as a guideline for skills, they work with students and the outside community to design a slightly varied experience for each student.  Teachers work with templates designed by Alt School’s own PED (Product, Engineering, and Design) team. Spoiled, right?  What an incredible opportunity it must be as a teacher to have someone readily available to beautify your ideas.
Right.  Public school teachers don’t have such extravagances.  (As an aside, the Alt School is on a long-term mission to change that.)  However, I see some of the same potential in the use of Schoology.  The interface is different, for certain, but it does offer many of the same tools.  Seeing what Alt School had to offer led me to ponder how underutilized Schoology is in my own classroom.  Connecting and collaborating with other educators is possible through this LMS.  How many of you are connecting regularly with others through Schoology?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments.  Additionally, creating a unit in your resources tab around certain learning goals is not so different than what’s happening at the Alt School.  Schoology offers the ability to push out a variety of formats/assignments to personalize experiences for students as well.  These are just a couple of the possibilities.
While I left the tour quite enamored with the beauty, incredible supports, and promise of the Alt School, I came away inspired to at least try to replicate some of what they are doing by doing a few relatively simple things:
* simplify my classroom: remove what isn’t necessary, and encourage creativity by arranging easy and constant access to materials
* cannonball (a.k.a. deep dive) into Schoology: connect with educators outside of my classroom walls, perhaps by using Twitter as a first resource
* make friends with a web designer–can’t hurt, right?
*Alt School photo credits to the Alt School

Rowland, Rowland, Rowland

3“Better late than never” has never been one of my favorite aphorisms, but I feel the need to invoke it now.  I have been very fortunate to receive a Rowland Fellowship this year, and I have begun my adventure in earnest, but I am just now writing my first blog post.  I want to begin with a sincere thank you to Barry and Wendy Rowland.  Without their support and shared vision with Chuck Scranton, I would not be on this fantastic journey to bring the power of games and technology into more classrooms.  The Rowland Foundation is now forty-four fellows strong, and amazing work is being accomplished throughout the small state of Vermont because of them.  I step forward on this path in anticipation of making my own contributions, and will use this blog as a place to share my insights, ideas, and resources.

As a Rowland fellow, I will deepen my understanding of how the components of game-play are successfully applied to curriculum design and personalized learning.  I plan to design two humanities games based on the themes of Identity and Survival, as well as to create a template for games-based lessons that will offer time-starved teachers a faster, more accessible path to game-based learning.  My guiding principle will be to frame learning as an adventure as I increase the capacity of our Lancer One initiative and establish a mindset that embraces the wonder of games as powerful learning tools.

 

It is true that the world of game-based learning is ablaze with hot ideas and games being used successfully in the classroom, but from what I can tell, it’s only in pockets, and by no means pervasive.  I have had to ask myself why more people aren’t using games in their classrooms, and one of the reasons I’ve realized is that somewhere along the line, the ideas of adventure and fun as an expected part of learning were dismissed as incongruent with serious learning.  That conclusion is marred, and I will demonstrate that over the course of this blog.  Let me first start with a game that’s likely already taken hold of your students’ personal lives: Minecraft.

Minecraft is something that made its way into my classroom by request of my students.  During a unit on Utopia where I asked students to imagine their perfect schools, they asked if they could create the design in Minecraft.  I thought it was a great idea, and given the collaborative nature of the game, agreed that it was a perfect fit.  Students worked in groups to build their ideal schools in the Minecraft Pocket Edition on their iPads.  What I observed was complete engagement, and even better, genuinely thoughtful discussion about what makes a great school.  I should mention that I gave them no budget, so there were plenty of olympic-sized swimming pools and tricked-out dorm rooms, but the students’ conversation around what makes a great learning space (“We need more windows!”  “I think we need a dome so we can control the climate,”  and “Let’s make a place where we can just hang out when we get to school.”) was informed, insightful, and quite educational for me.

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A colleague of mine used Minecraft in her class during a unit of study on colonies.  Students were asked to create their own colonies, and they did so using the app.  Again, teamwork ensued, and creative discussion around choices and compromises were regularly taking place.  Minecraft offered us both the opportunity to encourage collaboration, creativity, and discussion in our classrooms.  I can see so many uses for this game in the classroom–exploring cells in Science either teacher-designed or student-designed, tapping into Common Core goals in math, exploring Westward Expansion in social studies (stake a flag and get building!), recreating classic works of art in pixelated form in Art class…just a few ideas.  Teachers might look at Minecraft as an equivalent to Legos, with the added bonus of collaboration built in, and no blocks to lose or clean-up when the bell rings.  Enjoy exploring!

*Game piece rider art credit to the amazing Natalie Reed