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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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