Game on! Personalized learning, meet your new bestie.

IMG_5556
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.

IMG_1271 (1)
Class agreements, hero style.  Nice use of chalkboard paint.

IMG_1276

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.

IMG_1000 (1)
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:

IMG_0985
HTH International (above) HTH elementary (below)

IMG_0973

IMG_0988

IMG_0742
VIDA Maker Space in Vista, CA

IMG_0743IMG_0744

IMG_0709
Da Vinci School in LA

IMG_0714

IMG_0683
The Sycamore School in Malibu

IMG_0674IMG_0673

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

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 9.16.07 PM
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.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 10.04.34 PM
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.

 

 

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.

Blue School - 1
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

Blue School - 2
Headshots for students.  So New York, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NYC: design at the Alt School

designWe are hardwired to appreciate beauty, and to recognize symmetry as such.  What is perhaps not innately hardwired is the fact that we sometimes devalue the importance of beauty in education. To clarify, design is incredibly important, and it hasn’t been until the last five years that I have recognized this.  Indeed, our current students are growing up in a visual world–with visual communication often being their primary mode of choice.  So why do some of us as educators take so little time designing our lessons with an eye toward how we present them?  The content is just one part of what we give to our students; in fact, by handing our students something that doesn’t look good, we lose some degree of credence.  If design is not intuitive for you, I can empathize, but what I have also learned is that there is a plethora of tools out there to help. Recognizing its importance is the first step, after which you begin to really observe what works well and what does not.
I recently visited the Alt School in New York City, a school launched by Google execs in San Francisco and recently expanded on the east coast. Among many othlogo_altschool_smaller things, it’s clear that the people at the Alt School understand the importance of quality design, and implement it with amazing fidelity.  I’d like to outline my time spent in a short tour of their facilities, and offer up how you might use their work as inspiration for your own classroom.
Despite the fact that I am somewhat challenged with directions, I found the tiny door that led upstairs to the tiny Alt school.  They take “micro-school” very seriously, both in that they serve the youngest students (pre-primary through third grade at present), and they also operate in a small space–a space they make welcoming, inspirational, and beautiful.  The first thing I noted is the color scheme–the ubiquitous gentle blue and white color combo that permeates the location.  To complement that, birch wood furniture filled just enough area to make plenty of room for movement as well as working space.  Creation tools enveloped the classrooms, complete with copious compartments for storage whose open design invited little hands to help themselves as needed.  While you 1447962509278-2may not have the luxury of ordering these ergonomically designed chairs, you likely have the flexibility to create room for movement and flow in your own classroom.  Without exception, each Alt School classroom had a space at the front of the room devoid of furniture, usually with a comfortable rug, and populated the remainder of space with chairs at small tables.  The rooms were small, but the design elements were apparent.  It’s true that the Brooklyn-based Alt School serves pre-primary through third grade at present, but the need for movement and a common space within any classroom is important.
What was perhaps most striking in the area of design at the Alt School was the work they are doing in personalizing learning through the use of tech tools.  Each student has a “playlist–” that is, a list of “cards” (or lessons) unnamed_copy-1424925296-1428754005-1428759519-2personalized to each student under a broad category of study. When teachers want to create lessons on any given topic, they have not only their own imagination to call on, but also the collective resources of all Alt School teachers.  They have, in essence, designed their own database that is organization-wide.  Teachers co-teach classes of about fifteen to twenty students, and work together to create cards to add to students’ playlists.  Using the Common Core as a guideline for skills, they work with students and the outside community to design a slightly varied experience for each student.  Teachers work with templates designed by Alt School’s own PED (Product, Engineering, and Design) team. Spoiled, right?  What an incredible opportunity it must be as a teacher to have someone readily available to beautify your ideas.
Right.  Public school teachers don’t have such extravagances.  (As an aside, the Alt School is on a long-term mission to change that.)  However, I see some of the same potential in the use of Schoology.  The interface is different, for certain, but it does offer many of the same tools.  Seeing what Alt School had to offer led me to ponder how underutilized Schoology is in my own classroom.  Connecting and collaborating with other educators is possible through this LMS.  How many of you are connecting regularly with others through Schoology?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments.  Additionally, creating a unit in your resources tab around certain learning goals is not so different than what’s happening at the Alt School.  Schoology offers the ability to push out a variety of formats/assignments to personalize experiences for students as well.  These are just a couple of the possibilities.
While I left the tour quite enamored with the beauty, incredible supports, and promise of the Alt School, I came away inspired to at least try to replicate some of what they are doing by doing a few relatively simple things:
* simplify my classroom: remove what isn’t necessary, and encourage creativity by arranging easy and constant access to materials
* cannonball (a.k.a. deep dive) into Schoology: connect with educators outside of my classroom walls, perhaps by using Twitter as a first resource
* make friends with a web designer–can’t hurt, right?
*Alt School photo credits to the Alt School