It’s true that I’ve been incredibly fortunate to attend four conferences in the last three months, and as I dive into the fourth (Deeper Learning) at High Tech High, I am faced with the question of how best to share the information when I return to my home school. People are innovating; how best do I use my exposure to these conferences and school visits to inspire my fellow teachers at Lamoille Union? I think I may have stumbled upon the answer while listening to the amazing Eleanor Duckworth today.
“Telling people what to think is no way to get them to think it, too,” she reminded us. That is, use the power of inquiry to encourage people to come upon their own realizations and lessons, and then the true learning happens. When they come to the conclusions themselves, new pathways are truly formed in their brains and then change can happen. I know; it’s perhaps a simple idea, but equally profound.
So to that end, I offer up these:
So here is my question: how might we redesign our learning spaces so they encourage wonder, inquiry, and a sense of adventure? Subtlety has never been a strength of mine, so I’m not sure I am practicing Duckworth’s ideals as well as she might have intended, but I hope that these photos of High Tech High/High Tech Elementary, VIDA in Vista, and The Sycamore School in Malibu can start some conversation around learning spaces. What do you think? How does your school look different? In what kind of learning space do you want to teach and learn?
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.
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 bound 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
students 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.
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.
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.
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 an 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.
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!
Through the generous support of the Rowland Foundation, I was able to attend the annual Future of Education Technology (FETC) conference in Orlando, Florida last week. In a word, HUGE. Everything about that conference is huge. True, this is coming from a Vermont girl, but on day one, when I had to walk from the south concourse to the north to check out a second workshop, it was literally a mile and a half. I saw a Segway at one point and thought, “are you kidding me?” By the time I reached my destination however, I completely understood.
The good thing about huge is that there were a ton of great resources, and I’d like to share a few tools that may help to make your life easier, make your teaching better, and might even inspire you.
Google Tone: a Chrome extension that allows you to push out a URL to students in your classroom. Maybe you’re playing a game and need them to check out a site; try this instead of a QR code.
Polaroid camera: If you’re old enough to remember the Polaroid cameras of a few decades ago, this is the updated version and equally cool. Snap and print instantly. I remember it being a bit pricey, and this version is no different at $200 for the camera, SD card, and 30 sheets of photo paper on Amazon. It might be a great Donors Choose request, though. I’m seeing instant photos of students’ aha moments to share with parents, to document project work, to create an art installation in the hallway…
Raspberry Pi Zero: A five-dollar computer? For real? For real. For $300, you can spring for the full-on machine, but five bucks is a great way to get started. Makerspaces and code clubs, take note!
Breakout Edu: I have heard so much about this game platform in the last month, and it looks absolutely amazing. Open sourced, you can create the kit on your own or order one from the makers themselves. I love the idea of Escape Rooms, and so do a million other people who are out there participating in them, and this game platform brings the concept to the classroom. FUN! I can’t say enough how excited I am to get my kit in the mail. Yes, I might have ordered one as soon as I returned home from FETC. Maybe you should, too.
Smarty Pins: I am excited about the possibilities of this game not just for geography’s sake, but for my own game-making interests. The tagline is “putting trivia on the map,” which is exactly what they do. Random facts about the origins of history, people, places, etc. are presented for you to nail down on the map. I can see all kinds of ways to integrate this into classroom challenges, connecting it easily with readings about authors, events, history, etc. Their snarky responses when you miss an answer are good fun, too. Not that I missed any. Ever.
Keynote tools: Adam Bellow does all of his presentations on this platform. He shared two of the tools he uses most often: Magic Move and Instant Alpha. Magic Move is a transition tool that makes it look like an image on one slide is moving onto the next. Instant Alpha is a tool that allows you to remove the background from any image you want to use. Bellow usually posts his presentations on You Tube after he’s given them, so I’ll link it here when it’s available.
LMGTFY: “Snarky” might be Leslie Fischer’s middle name, and it works well for her. She had a slew of useful ideas to share, but I had to mention the one that allows you to have a little fun with people. As educators, we know that there are no stupid questions, but when you are out of the classroom and someone asks you a question that seems a bit too obvious, head to this website and type it in. Hand your device to the question asker. And smile.
FETC hosted some incredible speakers (Sean McComb and Leland Melvin–two fantastic storytellers–were a joy) and a plethora of resources. I was completely saturated by Friday night, but I left inspired and excited about possibilities. I also came away with an honest appreciation for the amazing things happening at my school every day, and the innovation happening just down the halls by people like Whitney Kaulbach, Marc Gilbertson, Chris Bologna, Patrick LaClair, and Katie Bryant. There were some incredible people at FETC, but our little Vermont school has some amazing human resources as well. Here’s to finding and knowing those in your school.
I 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 doors, 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.
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
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. 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.
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.
We 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 other 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 may 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) personalized 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?
“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.
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