Game on! Personalized learning, meet your new bestie.

IMG_5556
Me in all my sweaty glory under a tree that smells heavenly.  Can anyone tell me what it is?

So I am training for another half marathon, and beating myself up about not running enough, but when I do run, it’s in some incredibly sweet places: up the side of Mt. San Jacinto, through Golden Gate Park, and alongside the unparalleled pacific coast most recently.  Aside from getting in shape, these miles are for processing.  For some things in my life, there just aren’t enough of those miles, but I do accomplish some decent planning for school.  On a recent run, I recalled my visit to Epic–a middle school in its second year of awesomeness.

Epic is aptly named.  Francis Abbatantuono, their director of personalized learning, took a significant chunk out of his day to meet with me and two of my colleagues on a recent visit to NorCal.  His passion for game-based learning and education in general was apparent, and I sat in awe listening to him recall his journey over the last few years as a founder of Epic.  It kicked into high gear when they won a Startup Edu competition, and has grown into a successful middle school model with future plans for growth into high school.

What brought me to Epic was their focus on learning through and with games, and they do so with a focus on the hero’s journey.  Students receive their handbooks in the late sIMG_5620ummer, but in contrast to the standard thick brown envelope full of multi-colored random pieces of paper to be signed, their handbook is beautifully crafted, and sets the tone for the school year with a story: “…you are one of the chosen ones,” the story tells students in its opening pages.  Framing the challenges ahead as a call to action, the story acknowledges the work ahead, but ends with questions about identity.  “How did you become who you are?  How did you achieve all that you have?” and the story’s answer is this: “In time, you will reply, ‘I became Epic, because our world needs heroes.'”  How awesome is that?!  That’s adventure, right?  In the pages that follow, you meet Epic’s sages, like Francis here, who are all tricked out in game gear and looking epic themselves.  Now that is an introduction to the school year from which we can all take some cues.

In fact, it has me wondering about how we can apply this to our personalized learning plan (PLP) process in Vermont.  I hear plenty of whining these days from students about PLP’s, and it’s clear that there is a disconnect between the intent of PLP’s and their implementation.  At Lamoille Union, we are fortunate to have some rock star teachers planning the rollout, and they have offered many resources and inspiration in an admirable attempt to support faculty in this venture.  Still, students are complaining.  So I’m wondering how might we adopt some of Epic’s awesomeness and take the power of narrative and games for a spin when we launch the second year of PLP’s?  How might we reinvigorate the PLP’s by deeply thinking about next year’s launch?  What if we framed the school year as an adventure quest?  (I’m picturing our school entrance and lobby designed with student engagement and inspiration in mind.  There is art.  A lot of art.)  How might we integrate badges into PLP’s?  Using a platform like Schoology, it would be relatively seamless.  How might we integrate the power of games into our classrooms and programs in order to increase student engagement?IMG_5586

Epic grants badges for various accomplishments tied to their three foundational principles: safety, responsibility, and respect.  Each badge has its own rewards, and some badges can be combined to create a new badge that holds higher level rewards.  For example, the Hacktivist badge is earned when a student has a Maker and a Catalyst badge, both of which are earned separately for their own demonstration of skills.  What if students were combining their PLP badges to demonstrate proficiency in transferable skills?  “Look, Ma!  I earned a physical health badge for the marathon I ran, and a community service badge for my erosion project.  I can demonstrate grit with these!”  Badges give students something concrete to connect their learning to their goals, and thereby help them understand how to tangibly demonstrate skills acquisition like creative problem solving, grit, and communication.

Some people run for the same reasons they play games: competition, strategy, skill, coordination…I run to think.  And I think I might be on to something with layering game principles onto our PLP’s.  We know games are engaging.  As a state, Vermont has set out to personalize learning in an effort to reach all students.  The two ideas seem like a natural fit.  Many thanks to Epic (and my Brooks) for the inspiration.

IMG_1271 (1)
Class agreements, hero style.  Nice use of chalkboard paint.

IMG_1276

WTH VT?

Maybe that’s coming on a little strong.  Let me explain.  I recently returned from SoCal with a team of amazing educators and admin from Lamoille Union.  While there, we attended CUE, visited four schools, and attended Deeper Learning.  It was an amazing experience full of inspiration in the form of real people doing some incredible things in schools.  From innovative learning spaces–open space devoid of desks, materials at the ready, seats built for movement, etc–to deeper learning through projects driven by student curiosity and choice, to design thinking the way to a better educational experience for students and teachers alike.

IMG_0720And they are doing it with 34 students in their rooms.  No joke.  Really–34 students packed into smaller rooms than those we are lucky to have at Lamoille, and students are engaged.  Often times when I stepped into a classroom, the teacher was difficult to locate.  In one instance, the teacher was at a desk in the corner looking through designs that her students had recently submitted for a competition, while the students themselves worked on prototypes.  In another case, where students were guiding a 6,000-piece robot around the room by remote control, the teacher wasn’t even there that day.  No spitballs in the air, no fires in the maker space–just a few super engaged boys tweaking their basketball-throwing robot.

Perhaps you’re thinking these are pipe dreams–something only the wealthy districts can afford to do, but that wasn’t the case, either.  In fact, Vista Innovation and Design Academy (VIDA) was an absolute mess just three years ago.  Gangs were prevalent as was gang culture throughout the small school, complete with fighting, graffiti-laden school furniture, and students who didn’t believe their school was a school.  Three years later, with the leadership of Eric Chagala Ed.D, that school has a much different story–one where students are engaged, digging deeply into the design process to bring projects to life, and finding joy in learning.

IMG_0749So, Vermont, what is holding us back?  So many of us are fortunate to have class sizes of less than twenty.  Time and again, tour leaders pointed out how great it was that students could “get plenty of one-on-one attention” when their class sizes were just shy of thirty, or in one case, when the other half of the class was on a field trip and there were only eighteen students with one teacher.  In a state that has just passed a law requiring us to personalize learning, what excuse do we have to do anything but embrace it with fervor?

As a Rowland fellow, I constantly shoot out new findings to my steering committee, hoping that they don’t just hit “delete” when they see my name.  They never disappoint me.  In fact, two days after I purchased our first Breakout Edu box, Pat LaClair was using it in his Latin class.  A few weeks later, Chris Bologna had designed a Breakout lesson around Africa.  This week, Whitney Kaulbach took it for a spin in conjunction with the Russian revolution.  I am not so naive as to believe that every educator has the energy to cannonball new ideas as these three; they are, indeed, exceptional.  However, what is stopping us from pushing the boundaries more often?  My theories, and their answers, below:

  1. Time.  There is never enough time.  Instead of saying, “I just don’t have the time to [fill-in-the-blank],” try reframing the thought.  How about, “What can I accomplish in the few minutes that I have?”
  2. Resources.  If you are teaching in a public school, there are never enough of these either.  But if you’re teaching in Vermont, at least at my school, you’re lucky.  You have what you need, and when you want something new, ask.  What harm is there in asking?  And if the admin denies you, check out DonorsChoose.  Find a way.  Be resourceful.
  3. Apathy.  On the part of the kids or on the part of the teachers?  Maybe it’s both.  Either way, take a look at the system in place.  It’s been around for over a century.  We don’t live like we did a century ago, so no wonder we are apathetic about school.  Remember why you started teaching, even if it was years ago.
  4. Ambivalence.  Some teachers find it easier to just keep doing what they’ve been doing for so long.  They’re right about the ease–change is difficult.  But really, if we continue teaching the way we have over the last 100 years, with the teacher at the helm driving everything about the experience, we aren’t educating our children to become thoughtful, creative, innovative citizens of our world.
  5. Fear.  There are plenty of things that could go wrong when you try something different.  If you lived by that credo, however, you’d still be eating plain cereal and drinking from a sippy cup.  Dig as deeply as you need to in order to recapture that curious, playful child within and trust in him/her to guide your explorations.
  6. We ARE doing amazing things, but we don’t talk about it enough.  Honestly, I think this might be the key to what’s happening in VT.  This sabbatical has given me time to visit classrooms and talk to teachers about the amazing things they are doing in their classrooms.  I think they are so busy prepping awesome lessons and doing the insane work that great teachers do that they don’t have time to go the extra step to get it out there–by website, by newsletter, whatever.  The Alt School has a documentarian on staff to capture many of the great things they are doing.  Perhaps we can invite students to help us in this quest by asking them to use their social media prowess to help us get the word out.
IMG_1134
Kaulbach & Bologna with their IGNITE awards–inspiration for us all

It’s time for people from around the country to start visiting us.  There are incredible things happening in our classrooms; documenting and then publicizing them helps us celebrate our successes, inspire others, and push one another to be the change.  Let’s start focusing on the bright spots and leave the five excuses above in the dust.