Let them play! Recapture the adventure in learning

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Opening slide–credit Pasi Sahlberg

Yesterday, I was fortunate to have attended a discussion led by Pasi Sahlberg and Saku Tuominen from Finland at #SXSWedu.  They titled their talk, “Can the Finnish Education Miracle be Replicated?”  The talk was more a call to action shaped by these three Finnish cornerstones: 1. Let them play! 2. Prepare kids to be wrong and 3. Build on what works.  If we are to transform education in the US, then we must embrace these ideas and shift our culture to show that we value them.

As a proponent of game-based learning, I found these ideas validating, exciting, and inspiring.  The Finns embrace play as a regular part of the school day–everywhere–recognizing the importance of what Einstein once said: “play is the highest form of research.”  Play inspires curiosity and inquiry, and isn’t that what we want from our students?  For those teachers looking for a structure to bring playful inquiry into the classroom, games provide the necessary framework to both inspire and engage.  The Institute of Play created a list of seven game-like learning principles which, when carefully considered, paint the picture of an ideal classroom environment.

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Photo credit–Quest to Learn

Challenge, participation, learning by doing, feedback, iteration, interconnectedness, and fun are all recognized as pieces of the game puzzle, and also as solid classroom pedagogy.

So to answer Sahlberg and Tuominen’s call, let’s bring more games into classrooms.  Number two on Sahlberg’s list asks us to prepare kids to be wrong.  Not only do games provide students with a safe place to fail, but they also teach the idea that failure is really just iteration.  How many times have you seen students playing a simple game (either surreptitiously in class or elsewhere)?  They aren’t quitting when they don’t accrue the points they want, or when they fail to guess correctly.  Instead, they are motivated to try again and again to get it right, or get better.  Why?  Because it’s fun.  And fun has an important role in the classroom.

I think that some educators are reluctant to integrate games into their classrooms because they don’t believe that games can provide the necessary challenge inherent in deeper learning.  Perhaps they think that games are just filler for the end of the period, or to be used strictly as a review tool.  While those applications are valid, I’d like to offer some examples of games that require students to dig deeper and to actively use higher level thinking skills.

Paul Darvasi, an English teacher and NYU doctoral candidate located in Toronto, Canada, has experimented with delving deeply into game based learning, and has arrived at incredible results.  Darvasi took the plunge by using Gone Home, an award winning game completely devoid of zombies and killing, as the basis for literature study.
Brilliant!  Rather than reflecting on the narrative of a images-3bound novel, Darvasi asked his students to discover the narrative elements in this emergent media, complete with annotation and close reading tasks as well as video game review.  Essentially, he used the game as a catalyst for building critical thinking and writing skills.  Ever humble, Darvasi shares both his lessons and reflections on his blog, and invites other teachers to experiment as well.

Peggy Sheehy, a teacher from Suffern, NY, also dives deeply into games in her classroom.  With a focus on the hero’s journey, Sheehy, in partnership with the curriculum writer Lucas Gillespie, uses World of Warcraft as a catalyst for deeper learning.  Connecting three elements–the game, Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, and students’ real lives, she invites
images-4students to dissect the meaning of the hero’s journey as it plays out in each different arena.  Again, students engage in similar exercises as they would if they were reading a bound copy of a novel alone, comparing the game to other texts and media, writing creatively in response to game-based prompts, and drawing connections between their experiences in real life and those in the game.

As an English teacher, my bias is clear on choosing these two games on which to focus, but I believe in the importance of paying attention to games as a viable tool in the pursuit of deeper learning.  The third tenant of Sahlberg and Tuominen’s suggested path was to build on what works, so I encourage you to take the plunge, and if you do, please tell me about it!  If we are to embrace play and recapture the adventure of learning, games are the perfect vehicle.  Teachers can provide the opportunity for both the deeper learning they crave and the play that students so desperately need in our current educational setting.

 

 

We can do this: design thinking as edu-therapy

The state of Vermont adopted the Education Quality Standards in 2014 and thus set in motion an education overhaul.  We needed it.  Schools in Vermont have been working hard to retrofit our systems in order to meet these new requirements, and with the class of 2020 as the first ones who will graduate measured by their proficiencies (proficiency based graduation requirements), this shift is literally just around the corner.

The staff at Lamoille Union knows this, and when we met for inservice last Friday morning, it became ever clearer that this transition will be both complex and challenging.  Among the concerns for our staff were issues around communication to parents and community members, changes to our grading and reporting practices, a need for common language, and what will be required of students who receive a high school diploma from LUHS.  Although there were many concerns, I believe that this is the first law that holds genuine potential to truly change the way we educate our students.  Still, it’s intimidating.  It’s overwhelming.  And it’s happening next fall.

 

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Kate Selkirk and Leah Hirsch look on as Brad Parker explains his prototype.

So how do we as educators get a strong grip on the changes that need to be made and welcome them?  Our first solid go at it was inspired by design thinking in a workshop led by Leah Hirsch and Kate Selkirk, two teachers at Quest to Learn in NYC, and in conjunction with the Institute of Play, also in NYC.  With their guidance, our faculty experienced design thinking with an introductory wallet design challenge.  Pairing up educators who don’t often work together, we opened the door for connection and collaboration, and judging from the positive feedback and laughter, it was enough to break the tension created earlier in wondering aloud what these changes might bring.

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Crowded around the art supplies like kids in a candy store

The power of play once again leveled the field, and we were able to move on to the real work.  Teachers met in interdisciplinary, cross-school groups which provided them the opportunity to have rich conversations void of any baggage.  The result was therapeutic.  Given license to think about all of the challenges inherent in How might wean overhaul, plenty of sticky notes gave their lives to thoughts and concerns.  Grouping them was the next task, after which followed the key to the work: “how might we…?”  It is an incredibly empowering question to ask, as within its structure is the idea that the person asking the question already knows the answer.  It was the proverbial leather therapist’s divan

As expected, solutions to those problems abounded.  Teachers started to see what was possible, dream about how it might happen, and be inspired by one another.    The simple use of the word “might” freed us.  It wasn’t, “How will we…?” In fact, Leah and Kate pushed the idea of thinking big and bold.  So our staff dreamt, and we considered, and we collaborated.  We realized that this change could be incredible, and that we have the human resources to handle it.  We felt better.

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In the end, after we grouped our thoughts into categories and considered what prototypes we might create as we ran out of time, we left for lunch with some important takeaways:

  • change can be intimidating, but realizing just how talented the teachers with whom you work are is incredibly comforting as you’re facing it
  • approaching a problem with design thinking is good therapy; it reminds you that the answers to your problems lie somewhere within
  • trust and a willingness to roll up your sleeves to do the hard work are two incredibly important components to creating lasting change

While design thinking set us on our way toward school-wide change, it is also something that can (and might I suggest, should) be used on a smaller scale in the classroom.  Check out Saga Briggs’ collection of 45 design thinking resources for educators if you’d like some ideas about where to start.  I’d love to hear about your experiences; feel free to leave comments!

 

 

Love affair with design: Blue School in NYC

Blue School - 7I may want to live at the Blue School.  It’s only a slight exaggeration, but let me tell you a bit about what’s so beautiful there, and some ideas you might adapt to your own teaching space.

You may have heard of the Blue Man Group–that cyclone of creativity started in the early nineties.  Their mission to inspire creativity in a respectful environment fit perfectly into the realm of education, and in 2006, they set out on their journey with a parent-run playgroup.  As I write this, they are looking to expand their program next year through eighth grade.  Incredible success in just a decade.

What makes their school so amazing?  This is just one small-town Vermont educator’s opinion, but here is what caught my eye.  First, their space is amazing.  That design I found so beautiful at the Alt School is on steroids at Blue School.  The blue/white color scheme shouldn’t be a surprise; it is, after all, the Blue School, and they embrace circular shapes and airiness as a mainstay.  Circular windows invite light into classroom Blue School - 8doors, circular cubbies house little shoes (and the detritus of parents in this photo), and rolls of colored tape line a section of a maker-space wall.  The font they’ve chosen has a circular quality to it.  It gave me the feeling of continuity–like they are really going somewhere.

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Check out this maker space wall.  It’s begging you to play, right?

And that’s part of what is so great about this school.  Whether the students are 2’s or in middle school, they are respected for exactly what they bring to the table as well as for their potential.  It was a strong reminder to remember that every student comes to school with his/her own unique strengths, and what Blue School does well is celebrate them from the start.  In fact, black and white portraits line the halls next to each classroom door with students’ names and 4-5 adjectives supplied by parents at the start of the year.  What a beautiful way to adorn the halls, introduce students to one another, and set the stage for a place of learning that values everyone’s individuality.  The portraits remain

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Headshots for students.  So New York, right?

there for the year, I believe, and both teachers and students alike can
observe how those adjectives change and grow as their students do.

Time and again, I saw interesting ways to display student work in teachers’ classrooms.  A few ideas for displaying your students’ work in a beautiful, and therefore respectful, manner:

  • find yourself a 3-4 foot piece of relatively narrow driftwood (or grab something from out back in the woods), and suspend it from your tile ceiling with fishing wire.  Wrap fishing line around the driftwood; tie it to binder clips, and use those clips to display work.
  •  colored masking tape is an awesome way to frame student work.  use the tape to adhere it right to those concrete walls or columns outside your classroom.
  • string a line of yarn across a bulletin board and use those binder clips to showcase students’ creations.

I have just a few more things to rave about in terms of the space, and I’ll post again soon about their approach to learning–another equally cool venture steeped in project-based learning.  When you enter the Blue School, the small lobby is unpretentious, but two simple pieces of art caught my eye.  The first was their name–painted on the wall in those big, white circular letters–big and prominent to greet all who enter.  Blue School - 1 (1)The idea of murals on walls has great appeal for me, but the simplicity of the name of your school, placed dead center as you enter the doors really sets the stage.  Thoughts of student art contests to create designs brew in my mind.

Lastly, high up on a wall to the right of the entrance hangs a large poster full of brainstormed scribbles.  Upon further inspection, it reveals itself as a poster of values–words written by students and staff about what students do at the Blue School.  That’s a nice idea in itself, but they took it up a notch by creating word art out of some of those words–literally bending wire into words and suspending them from the ceiling to hang in front of the brainstorm as highlights.  My photo doesn’t capture it all that well, but I hope it provides enough of an idea to inspire your own version. Blue School - 1 (2)

At just under $40k to attend the Blue School kindergarten through middle school, this beauty comes with a hefty price tag.  But there are many takeaways from a design standpoint that can be adapted to just about any public school room.  It is clear that the Blue School respects its students not only by providing them with a beautiful space in which to learn, but also by highlighting their learning in creative and beautiful ways.  Blue School - 6

 

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