Game on! Personalized learning, meet your new bestie.

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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.

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Class agreements, hero style.  Nice use of chalkboard paint.

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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.
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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.

Designing learning spaces to inspire adventure

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.

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Eleanor Duckworth & Rob Riordan

“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:

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HTH International (above) HTH elementary (below)

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VIDA Maker Space in Vista, CA

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Da Vinci School in LA

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The Sycamore School in Malibu

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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?

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!

 

 

Tech share: a few quick ideas for your classroom

IMG_5107Through 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.

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Adam Bellow introducing Tech Share.  Check out his “Buddy, I’m Good” parody on tech overload.

Adam Bellow absolutely lit up the place, along with Kathy Schrock, Hall Davidson, and Leslie Fischer in their Tech Share.  It was rapid fire tech gadgets and tools thrown out by these four tech gurus.  Here are a couple that I’d revisit:

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.

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Sean McComb reminded us of this important fact.

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.

 

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