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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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
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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.

 

 

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.

 

Rowland, Rowland, Rowland

3“Better late than never” has never been one of my favorite aphorisms, but I feel the need to invoke it now.  I have been very fortunate to receive a Rowland Fellowship this year, and I have begun my adventure in earnest, but I am just now writing my first blog post.  I want to begin with a sincere thank you to Barry and Wendy Rowland.  Without their support and shared vision with Chuck Scranton, I would not be on this fantastic journey to bring the power of games and technology into more classrooms.  The Rowland Foundation is now forty-four fellows strong, and amazing work is being accomplished throughout the small state of Vermont because of them.  I step forward on this path in anticipation of making my own contributions, and will use this blog as a place to share my insights, ideas, and resources.

As a Rowland fellow, I will deepen my understanding of how the components of game-play are successfully applied to curriculum design and personalized learning.  I plan to design two humanities games based on the themes of Identity and Survival, as well as to create a template for games-based lessons that will offer time-starved teachers a faster, more accessible path to game-based learning.  My guiding principle will be to frame learning as an adventure as I increase the capacity of our Lancer One initiative and establish a mindset that embraces the wonder of games as powerful learning tools.

 

It is true that the world of game-based learning is ablaze with hot ideas and games being used successfully in the classroom, but from what I can tell, it’s only in pockets, and by no means pervasive.  I have had to ask myself why more people aren’t using games in their classrooms, and one of the reasons I’ve realized is that somewhere along the line, the ideas of adventure and fun as an expected part of learning were dismissed as incongruent with serious learning.  That conclusion is marred, and I will demonstrate that over the course of this blog.  Let me first start with a game that’s likely already taken hold of your students’ personal lives: Minecraft.

Minecraft is something that made its way into my classroom by request of my students.  During a unit on Utopia where I asked students to imagine their perfect schools, they asked if they could create the design in Minecraft.  I thought it was a great idea, and given the collaborative nature of the game, agreed that it was a perfect fit.  Students worked in groups to build their ideal schools in the Minecraft Pocket Edition on their iPads.  What I observed was complete engagement, and even better, genuinely thoughtful discussion about what makes a great school.  I should mention that I gave them no budget, so there were plenty of olympic-sized swimming pools and tricked-out dorm rooms, but the students’ conversation around what makes a great learning space (“We need more windows!”  “I think we need a dome so we can control the climate,”  and “Let’s make a place where we can just hang out when we get to school.”) was informed, insightful, and quite educational for me.

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A colleague of mine used Minecraft in her class during a unit of study on colonies.  Students were asked to create their own colonies, and they did so using the app.  Again, teamwork ensued, and creative discussion around choices and compromises were regularly taking place.  Minecraft offered us both the opportunity to encourage collaboration, creativity, and discussion in our classrooms.  I can see so many uses for this game in the classroom–exploring cells in Science either teacher-designed or student-designed, tapping into Common Core goals in math, exploring Westward Expansion in social studies (stake a flag and get building!), recreating classic works of art in pixelated form in Art class…just a few ideas.  Teachers might look at Minecraft as an equivalent to Legos, with the added bonus of collaboration built in, and no blocks to lose or clean-up when the bell rings.  Enjoy exploring!

*Game piece rider art credit to the amazing Natalie Reed