Confessions of a first-year teacher (20 years later)

jeremie-cremer-4419 Jérémie Crémer

I should have taken a few years off after college and done some traveling, exploring, and growing up,

but instead, I landed my first teaching job.

I thought that getting a job was the next logical step in the whole new world of adulting, so I took the first offer that came to me.  I was to be one of four teachers on a freshmen “team” teaching high needs students and providing the wraparound support they needed.  These students hated school, weren’t accustomed to success, and just wanted to get through the day.  Fresh off my student teaching experience with college-bound juniors and a short gig teaching motivated ski-racers, I was sorely unprepared for this first real gig.

In short, they ate me alive.  But let me back up a minute and tell you a couple of things about myself: first, I’m 5’2″ (on a good day–maybe with my clogs on), have the nasally voice of a prepubescent teen, and have a pixie-like face.  I blend easily with a crew of high school students.  But at 22, I didn’t want to blend.  I wanted to differentiate myself from my students, because I thought that teachers had to be separate if they were to be respected, and how could one teach in a class without some semblance of a line between teacher and student?

Traditional classroom
Okay, maybe it wasn’t this bad.  But you see how clear the roles are??

So I trucked myself to Barbara Moss (I’m dating myself, and also admitting my poor fashion sense…I’ve improved, I swear) and bought as many dresses as my meager salary would allow, bought my first of many pairs of clogs, and refreshed my make-up supply (minimal is an ample description).  I wore my long, blonde hair in a tight bun at the base of my neck and tried to act professionally, which at the time meant following the lessons of my mentors and establishing strict ground rules with my students.

I wasn’t fooling anyone.  Those students knew that I was in over my head, and much to my surprise, many of them tolerated it.  They endured my vocabulary lists, listened to me “go over” the readings from the homework they didn’t do, and failed test after test that I gave them.  In our team meetings (teachers, not students–we hadn’t figured that out yet), I defended my grading policies of creating a system that rewarded only the hardest worker (read: student who completes all required tasks) and penalized those who didn’t.  I asserted that I had high expectations.

Really, I didn’t have a clue about education, learning, or what those students needed.  So hung up on my own need to establish authority, I failed to see my greatest strength–I was only seven years older than my students.  I could relate to them in ways that my mentors could not.  I could leverage the small gap in our age to help them learn.  The adversity they dealt with in their everyday lives (broken families, homelessness, drug issues, teen pregnancy, etc.) couldn’t hold a candle to what I was trying to teach them about literature, and I missed the boat.  I wasn’t even in the same sea.

To those students, I want to say I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.

missedop

It took a while for me to loosen up in the classroom, but I did begin to get a clue the following year.  Assigned another challenging group of sophomores, I started to let down my guard ever so slightly.  I took the time to talk with each student; I showed films that took me out of my comfort zone but engaged them; I started a mountain bike club to share one of my passions.

Through these small risks, I built relationships.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized the importance of doing so, but I did see improvements each time I invested in them.

Adversity is a teacher in and of itself.  The situations that new teachers face–isolation, unmotivated students, cluelessness about school culture–seem to be the norm.  How I wish I could go back to those days and help those students in my classes–help them see that their opinions matter, that there is more to life than homework (but reading a good book is one of life’s pleasures), that they could learn to be better communicators without writing the standard five-paragraph essay multiple times in a semester.  I wish I could go back to my former self and give permission to lighten up.  But I can’t.  What I can do, however, is do right by the students I have the good fortune to teach now.  I invest in relationships with them.  I blur the line between us–recognizing that it’s not sacrificing respect but building it.  I take risks in an attempt to reach them, to challenge their thinking, and to lead them to new learning.  I get it now.  I’m pretty sure.

Game design & Proficiency Assessment: LUHS students capture the adventure of the Renaissance

Are games really a viable option for assessing student learning?

The social studies department recently invited me to a meeting to deliberate this question.  Lively discussion ensued about how one might really assess learning by asking students to create a game.  Among the comments were these:

  • There is already a great game out there about trade.  Maybe we should just have them play Catan (formerly Settlers of Catan).
  • How much time is this going to take?  A test will only take part of the period.
  • I don’t know how it will look.  What do I tell students if they ask me questions about how to design a game?  I’m not sure I know how to do that.
  • And finally: we agreed to try this.  Let’s do it and see how it goes.

I understand the fear.  It is disquieting to ask students to do something that you don’t necessarily feel comfortable with yourself.  But.  BUT.  Sometimes that’s exactly what you have to do, and you agree to figure it out together.  (See Innovator’s Mindset: risk taking.)  Here’s the thing: games are a second (or first?) language for our students.  They speak game fluently.  They know health; they know roles; they know many things about games you’ve never heard of.  The most important thing you need to know as teachers?

Students love games, and they can and will take your content and turn it into a game if you give them the time and some guidance.

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Trade routes & settlements: a game board in design

“I get it,” one teacher said to me when I walked into his room later that week to find groups in deep and eager conversation about their game design.  He looked at his room full of engaged–no, empowered–students, looked at me, and said, “I see what you’ve been trying to do.”  I’ve been working to help teachers take games seriously over the past couple of years, and it’s a goal often lost in the proficiency/personalized learning shuffle.  The real work has been in showing teachers that games aren’t something in addition to the changes they are making to implement Act 77; they ARE the change.  Just one piece, but one that deserves attention, because

games and game-like learning are excellent vehicles for meaningful content delivery and assessment.

Take the social studies proficiency that was the focus for this unit: P.I. 9 (Economics): I can analyze how economic globalization and the expanding use of scarce resources have contributed to conflict and cooperation within and among countries.  Perfect platform for a game, right?  Yes, Klaus Teuber already created something awesome, but let’s see what the students can do with this.  

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Classic Monopoly remade: Renaissance resources dictate a new take on an old favorite
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Candyland revamp: the Renaissance magic is in the cards
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Playtesting a take on Trivial Pursuit

While some students modeled their games after board games we know and love, some embraced their creativity and truly went rogue.  One group created a game where Heaven and Hell were the ultimate end–dictated by choices and currency exchange, often connected to churches.  (Interesting social commentary, too.)  Another group created a game based on settlements and trade routes whose success is dictated by not only the resources accrued but also by luck and happenstance.  While I reminded students of the importance of starting any good game with the ultimate learning goal, I also asked that they elect one member of their group to be the “fun police” (originated and coined beautifully by the Institute of Play).  They had a great time creating game mechanics that left players “dead” or headed back to start because of plague or other catastrophes.

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Bad eggs lead to death.  Good life lesson?

 

Sure, the games look good.  But are they good?

What are students really learning through game design?

Let’s talk about the proficiency first.  I took a stroll around the room of game designers and asked them to tell me how their game would teach players about scarcity, trade, conflict and cooperation.  Yes, there were blank stares.  But when I prodded a bit further, every student was able to explain in vivid detail how their game play addressed exactly those concepts.  Whether it was the act of trading resources of varying value, losing valuables to thievery during the New Age and gaining advantages as the culture shifted, or dictating card values based on resources, the students were able to explain how players would engage with the content.

A quick google form to garner feedback and reflection post-game creation also allowed students to reflect on the proficiency:

proficiency reflection

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Travel through the Ages: resource allotment from Renaissance to Reformation

That content holds a place in students’ overall education, but in my mind,

the true power of game creation is in the focus on transferable skills.

Here’s what two students had to say about how game design helped them practice communication skills:

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And problem solving:

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Is it worth the time commitment?

If you want students to delve into deeper learning, you have to provide the time and space for them to do so.  While you may not know how long it will take, or how it might look as things unfold, or if you’ll have the answers students seek, I implore you to

 give yourself permission for things to get messy

for there are tangible rewards on the other side.  Take the risk.  Cannonball.

 

Resources:

Institute of Play’s Game Design pack : in-depth game design guide brilliantly designed & executed

Game design handout for students : the handout used by the social studies department for this unit.  Thanks so Amanda Denison for creating it!