When I first encountered Skype over ten years ago, I thought about its practical uses on a micro-level: I could reach out to my grandmother in Florida, my colleague in Texas, or my college buddy in Chicago. We could see each other and spend a different sort of time together. And then I realized its implications for the classroom. How enlightening would it be to connect with classrooms around the world? For the students in my small, rural Vermont school, Skype had the potential to build cultural understanding of places they’d likely never visit. The headlines in the last few days remind me of the most important purpose behind flattening the classroom walls and reaching out beyond our small corner of the United States: empathy.
Webster begins the definition of “empathy” with: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another… Because we have 1:1 iPads in our school, we have the power to reach out, and I believe it’s more important than ever to make that happen. It seems that others are feeling the call as well.
Rachel Mark, a PD Coordinator for the Tarrant Institute, reported on one such teacher. In a lesson designed to help students understand more about the refugees who were slated to relocate to our state, Charlie Herzog looked to virtual reality as a vehicle for empathy. Without the ability to physically visit countries in need, the next best option might be to access our nearest VR headset and visit one of them virtually. As demonstrated in Sophia’s response, her previous superficial understanding was replaced with a deeper awareness of the refugees’ plight: “I knew that they had it bad, but I didn’t know how it actually worked and how they would experience everyday life, so I thought that [VR] was a big help in understanding that.”
Even if we want to avoid bringing politics into school, empathy can be built around shared cultural tenets. Take the example of the hero’s journey–a global story structure familiar despite cultural differences. Tie that together with a love of games and a few video chats, and we have the makings of this multi-place Breakout Edu. Two of my colleagues teaching overseas and I used game-based learning to inspire connections across cultures, and in so doing, taught students not only about the hero’s journey, but also about its cross-cultural appeal.
Some teachers have used our 1:1 capacity to talk with authors and some have dabbled in Mystery Skype. This is a solid beginning, and I plan to build upon that capacity by culling student feedback about how best to reach out beyond our walls during a lunch series, by encouraging use of video chat tools and providing links to inspiration and possible classroom partners in my weekly Tech Update email, and by taking the simple step of committing my time to talking with teachers and providing individual support around building empathy. I have to believe we can change our world for the better, and starting with empathy feels like the best way forward.
Every hero’s journey begins with a call to adventure, and we answered it with a Breakout game. My teaching partner, Whitney, and I cannonballed a long-distance, multi-place game that took our students through a bold “edventure” of their own.
Here I take you through day by day, sharing our experience and offering up lessons learned.
Our goals were to connect Vermont students with students in the Dominican Republic, to teach them the story structure of the hero’s journey (HJ), to explore facets of Identity, and to inspire their love of learning through games. We created a ten-puzzle prototype that led students from the call to adventure through the journey to an eventual return home.
Our most daunting task began before the game even started: to take something of value from our would-be student heroes. Thinking abstractly, we decided to “steal a memory” of a proud moment from their lives. Requests were sent to parents to contribute to a form letter that could be printed and kept as a final prize. With this task underway, the game began.
Day One: Students took their seats and we explained that our goal in the next two weeks was to discover the power of the hero’s journey through game play, and that they would work together to do so. We encouraged them to be curious, to ask questions, to collaborate, and to persevere. Then, because setting up the game properly is incredibly important, we paused for a moment, adopted a sober tone, and started with this:
“I have been informed by The Hero that something of personal value has been taken from each of you. You may not know what it is yet. You may not be aware that it is lost, but it has indeed been taken. It is my understanding that you will receive the object upon successful completion of difficult challenges.
A message has been sent to you with further instructions.”
This was a risk. Students have to believe in the story of the game. They have to be curious. They have to want in. And we have to risk being out of the ordinary. We hoped to see confused looks and curiosity piqued, and we did. Students dove into their emails looking for “further instructions,” and there found a primer for the game: a link to a dossier.
The dossier triggered a gmail confirmation: see the game master for the next challenge. When approached, we gave each group an envelope with numbered puzzle pieces of the respective flags of Vermont and Dominican Republic, a small Breakout box, and an iPad with the Locks app set to a color code lock. The game was in full motion.
Students scrambled to make sense of the puzzle and the first connection between our two groups. They eventually discovered the relation between the flags and the numbers, and successfully broke through their first lock.
We set the color lock to open a Chatterpix, which told students to run! to their library with the clue GNFYANG. Some realized that their clue was a call number which led them to copies of American Born Chinese by Gene Yang, inside of which was a QR code linked to challenge questions. The reading of the graphic novel took our class through the remainder of the first Breakout day.
Day Two was rife with challenges for the most patient heroes. After finishing Yang’s novel and accompanying reflections, students traced a clue to the lock opening the small Breakout box. Inside, they discovered a black & white copy of a map, a flashlight used for reading invisible ink, and another QR code linked to Petra. Our daily lesson tied the Hero’s Journey to one element of identity (spirituality), to guardians, and to journey. Google Street Treks (Petra) provided a virtual tour of this place that has drawn many a hero over time.
At this point, we as game masters presented the large Breakout Box complete with a hasp and three locks on a front desk, giving students a sense of the scope of our study and game. Students smiled (or gaped) and returned to the heady work of the Petra challenge, using this guide to locate map points related to the directional lock.
As with any class game, play it through first so you can anticipate where students may struggle and have answers for them. Thus we saw necessity in revisiting the guardian stage and the journey through a portal to a special world.Students savvy with the invisible ink/ flashlight enjoyed searching the room for their portal: a table oftalk times with students from the other country.
Day Three: students reviewed the structure for conversations and plunged through a portal/ video chat with students from another country. For all involved, these video chats were one of the very best parts of the game. Each country had a question and half of a URL needed in the next challenge, but only revealed it after discussion about the meaning of true heroes. By combining each half of the URL students could move to the next lock.
Day Four: With the URL now in hand from their long-distance partners, students discovered a seven-minute physical challenge and choices to explore gender as it relates to heroism. Digging deep to find the part of themselves that defeats self-consciousness, they risked push-ups and planks in front of their peers to follow the calling.
Day five: My long-distance partner, Whit, was ready to test our heroes’ patience. After solving the riddle buried in Google’s Arts and Culture Institute, students faced finding a grail within the school. Although they wanted to tear through the halls looking for it, we offered them a structured challenge to earn the location: work together to create a HJ word wall, and in return, receive pieces of a photograph showing them the way.
The grail held the key to another lock on the hasp. The final word lock was revealed in a Padlet exchange–an asynchronous meeting as compromise since we could not find another time to meet live. There, we shared both clues and photos of our ideal heroes. And in the box was the final clue: a rhyme hinting at the location of that which had been taken in the beginning of the journey.
Day six was our heroes’ return home. Students were invited to the highest offices on campus where administrative teams met them to unveil the letters. Admittedly some students were hoping for candy, but all who read the letters blushed with amazement and joy, some even shedding tears. A few nodded as they understood the deeper level of what this experience represented, and requests were made to keep the game going.
This prototype of interactions, communications and problem solving was so much more than a box of locks or a reading and a graphic organizer. It was an experience–an adventure, even. Already we are exploring changes and collaborations with schools in other countries for next year. Everyone teaches the HJ; why not make it a truly shared experience?
In a word, creepy. That’s what it was. It was my first thought as I ventured into the unknown territory of The Fullbright Company’s award-winning game, Gone Home. I’m not a gamer, despite the fact that I understand the value of games in the classroom. Although video games are not my forte, I have had an incredible time playing and learning along with a group of seniors this month.
I sent out an email to a colleague sharing the inspiration I had stumbled upon in Paul Darvasi’s all-encompassing approach to incorporating games in his classroom. At first, she replied kindly and expressed her appreciation and fear at the idea of using a video game as a text. I didn’t hear back from her. Until a few weeks ago. There is something about the end of the school year that gives teachers a certain sense of freedom to try new things, and I was so happy to hear it.
Her trust in me allowed us to jump right in. Our focus would be on character development through game play. How do game developers create and develop characters? How is it similar and different to an author’s approach to the same task in a novel? How might you “play a story?” These questions guided our exploration.
Briefly, Gone Home is a first person video game where players discover the story of the Greenbriar family. Kaitlin Greenbriar, the main character and player’s point of view, has just returned from a one-year trip overseas. When she arrives home (late at night during a storm), she discovers a note from her younger sister Sam and an empty house. The endgame is to discern what happened to Sam, who has disappeared. Through exploration of the Greenbriar mansion, players learn about the family, the house, and eventually, what happened to Sam.
I borrowed heavily from Darvasi in order to get started, following his suggestions to stick to the foyer on the first day and encourage limited exploration in order to familiarize ourselves with the game and gameplay. I had a crew of ten seniors, two of whom were accomplished gamers, so sticking to this creed was a challenge at times. I wanted to level the playing field for at least the first day, inviting gamers and non-gamers alike to understand the mechanics of the game: arrows move you around, fingers on mouse pad to look around, control to crouch or stand up, and shift to pick up objects. Those well versed in game play had the two main commands down in a second; newbies (like me) took some time smoothing out movement through the house. There were many things to discover within just the foyer, and in fact, play starts outside of the house with a locked door. The first real challenge is figuring out how to get into the house in the first place!
With the lights turned off in our small lab of Macs, we adopted Darvasi’s approach to annotating the game and started collecting evidence of our discoveries. (Screenshots for objects were challenging on the Macs because the commands to do so were the same commands needed to control the game movement. We punted; students used their iPads to take photos of their screens when needed, and it worked beautifully.) Students dove in, and the room became eerily quiet as they bravely opened doors to dark rooms, hunted around for light switches they couldn’t see, and tried not to spook when the thunder clapped in their ears.
We took a few moments at the end of the first class to talk about what they had discovered. They noticed that like any good story, the exposition becomes clear with quick exploration of just the foyer itself. Players meet the family and are provided with hints of possible conflicts to come. By the end of the period, our seniors had a clear idea of the characters, conflict, and mood of the game and were champing at the bit to keep playing.
Because the foyer is really the only place in the house that is somewhat contained, game play from this day on was simply guided exploration. Again following Darvasi’s lead, I asked that students choose a group of characters to explore as they made their way through the Greenbriar mansion. Students took screenshots, practiced annotation, and collected evidence of character development, all of which was demonstrated on this doc. In all honesty, the actual document wasn’t completed until the final day because they couldn’t. stop. playing. Struggling to engage and challenge learners? Here are a few snippets I overheard as students discovered the many intricacies of the Greenbriars’ story:
“This house is huge.”
“I found the kitchen!”
“OOOOHhhhhh! I knew it!”
“I’m starting to wonder if this is a mystery or not. Whoever created it could be leading me astray.”
“Clues could be anywhere.”
And finally, one of the best: when bell rings: “I wanna keep doing this!”
On our final day, we circled up and processed. “It made me cry,” one of our senior boys said. “I was just so caught up in her story. When I got to the end, I cried.” We talked about how the game creators had to have mastered character development in order to evoke that kind of emotion. We discussed how the characters were created through found objects in the game, organization of the house, and audible journal entries. Multimedia approaches to character development were prolific, and it was absolutely delightful to hear students as they discovered secret passages, revealing letters, and those heartbreaking journal entries.
Video game as narrative is a valid form of media in the English classroom, and if Gone Home is any indication, we should be paying close attention to games as new media. (This game in particular is probably best used with older students, as there are some mature themes and discoveries along the way.) Using games as true content delivery methods has long been an interest of mine, and I was so appreciative that one English teacher was willing to take a chance on this. I’d encourage you to do the same.
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 summer, 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?
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.
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.
And 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.
So, 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:
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.