Welcome to my blog. Anything that I can't find a place for elsewhere will end up here. My goal is to provide specific recommendations of lessons and products that I've found useful in my instruction.
My students really enjoy the Culture Shock labs I do for World History. It is an opportunity to discuss daily life and some of the more unique aspects of a given society. I have them play charades to simulate the language barriers of the Columbian Exchange, build houses of cards to simulate to loss of knowledge after the Fall of Rome, perform Sumo wrestling rituals, speak to them in French to simulate Latin in the Catholic Church and analyze multiple paintings of daily life among many other things. They are always engaging and memorable.
I've sadly found it harder to do that with U.S. history. Spending a full year on one society doesn't leave a ton of room for uniqueness. I noticed though that I had a bunch of little mini-activities for the Early Republic period that I couldn't make into a full lab. So, why not see if I could make a Culture Shock with those? I did and I'm excited to try it when we get back.
Culture Shock: The Early Republic (Download the file and run it through PowerPoint to see it all properly)
Here's the break down of how each Shock works if you want to try it.
Shock 1: Use it or Lose It
Last time I used this activity with a short reading on the Sedition Acts. I like it here better. The set up is that students need to use their rights for them to really matter. We've just learned about the Constitution, Bill of Rights and the Sedition Acts. They will write a formal protest letter to the principal. As they are doing so I will walk around the room and censor their papers with a black marker (without warning of course) and explain that their words are just too harsh to be taken seriously.
Let the indignation flow.
Shock 2: Time to Party
Students read a paraphrase of some incendiary editorials against John Adams in the 1800 election. They then write their own against a new candidate for president: SpongeBob SquarePants. This worked out extremely well. The students had a great time turning his flaws into absolutely tyranny. It also helped to get them to see how tense things had become between the early political parties and why the Sedition Acts, crazy as they were, made some sense to the Federalists.
Shock 3: More Cartoons
Students analyze a political cartoon blasting a Democratic-Republican as a tool of the devil. Avoid saying too much about the cartoon. Most of it can speak for itself. I over-explained and weakened some of the analysis.
Shock 4: Dating Advice (From a Real Man)
Students take a Cosmo-style dating quiz hosted by George Washington. This is built on a letters he wrote to his grand-daughters from www.mountvernon.org. There are great video clips there from Martha Washington giving her own dating advice. My students had a ton of fun doing this. It was a good way to a sense of some of the more "normal" day to day life at the time.
Shock 5: Leaf me Alone!
Students will go outside and find leaf, rock, stick or other object from nature. They will then draw and describe it in a Lewis & Clark Journal-like way.
Shock 6: Name that Animal
Students will try to figure out what animals were being described in various entries of the Lewis and Clark Journals.
I'm not at all convinced that I'll get through all these in a period. In fact, I'm quite sure I won't. I'm not sure which I'll cut yet. I'm wishing I had done the Sedition Act simulation already as that would make it an easy fit but it also flows well into the other two. In the sure-to-come-eventually version 2.0 I'd like to add one more activity dealing with the political parties (maybe a "Which side are you?" kind of quiz?) and move the two Lewis and Clark activities to their own day and build them out further. For now though, this is it and I think it will be a great back-from-vacation lab to kick the new year off.
Merry Christmas! Here's a bonus lesson I'll also be doing when I return. I stole the idea from my colleague Anthony Gomez who is doing some amazing design work as a relatively new teacher. It is modeled after the DFTT: Caravan lab I built last year. His lesson was so in-depth I actually am breaking into two different ones so my simple brain can manage it! Here's the first part.
Last year for me was all about presentation and design. I redid nearly all of my PowerPoints to be more animation heavy and text light. While that process has continued this year I've focused much more heavily on creating games to use in my classroom - particularly with my 8th grade US History course. Let's face it, teaching the Constitution for 6 weeks can end up being a little bit (maybe a lot) boring. I wanted some games to spice it up.
So, last week my kids played through a bunch of games on iCivics. While I realized I allotted more class time for them than necessary I'm still very pleased with the results. The students came away with a strong understanding of how each branch of the government operates and how difficult each really is to run. They had a great time playing the games and it has led to some excellent discussions in class. I highly recommend Executive Decision if nothing else. That game is tense and really helped kids realize how much it takes to be president.
Then today was the culminating game - one that I designed myself based on an iCivics lesson: Political Agenda.
My goal was to create a game that mirrored the many levels of agendas a typical government representative would have. There were individual agendas, group (or branch) agendas, and also a full class agenda.
The class goal for the game was to create a new lunch menu for a school.
The District Representatives (Legislative Branch) were trying to create a menu with a certain enjoyability rating simulating the role representatives play in directly representing the desires of the people.
The Executive Chef Staff (Executive Branch) was trying to create a menu with a certain cost and difficulty rating simulating the responsibility of the Executive in making sure laws are actually executed. (NOTE: I almost immediately eliminated the difficulty ratings. Just having cost was plenty for the Executives.)
The Nutritional Judges (Judiciary Branch) was trying to create a menu with a certain level of nutrition simulating the role the court plays in ensuring the health of the government by ensuring the Constitution is followed. (A stretch, I know, but it worked.)
Then, each individual player had their own hidden agenda. Some earned bonus points for having specific items on the menu, some earned a bonus for getting things done quickly and others, the saboteurs!, actually won the game if no menu was created. I based (stole?) the idea from an expansion set to the game Resistance entitled Hidden Agenda. The idea of trying to complete a goal that is unique to you and is hidden from other players is a great game mechanic that I knew my students would enjoy. It also served to simulate how different government officials have different agendas.
The game started with the Representatives having 5 minutes to create a proposed menu (a Bill.) My big fear was that it would be too confusing and they'd just stare at each other. Well, that didn't happen - at all. Instead, it turned into chaos almost immediately (a perfect simulation of Congress!). The Speaker of the Representatives, who was chosen by random hidden agenda, was a quiet girl who had no control over her group. Next time I might choose that position myself or have him/her be elected. It wasn't a problem though. They got right to work on trying to create their menu. They ran a bit over their 5 minutes but as soon as I gave points to the other teams (simulating political pressure to get things done) they had a menu ready to present.
That menu went on to the Executive Staff. Once they realized that the president did not have to have a majority vote and could just decide on her own whether to veto or not the menu was signed and sent on to the judges.The judges did have to vote and quickly voted the menu down (apparently Jamba Juice, French fries, pizza, milk and salad is not the healthiest menu) sending it back to the Representatives to start over.
This time the menu was vetoed by the Executive.
A third menu made it to the judges but was once again voted down. Time ran out and our game was over. We failed! We had no menu to present and the only people to successfully complete their agendas were the two saboteurs (Conservative republicans who were happy to see that the government would not get involved in menus.)
It turned out that one of the saboteurs was the most vocal in his group and kept purposefully suggesting terrible menus just to waste time. I didn't build it into the game but apparently it was such a spot on simulation that even filibusters made it in!
We closed with three debrief questions. When I collect and tabulate them I'll add student responses. This was absolutely a beta test so I'm eager to see what they had to say.
1. Summarize your experience with the game. Did you meet your goal? Why or why not?
2. As you were playing the game which agenda were you most focused on completing - the class agenda, your team agenda or your personal agenda? Why do you think you focused on that agenda most?
3. The Constitution was designed to limit the power of the government. Explain how our game shows that separation of powers makes it hard for the government to create new laws.
For me, everything seemed to go pretty well. I need a much clearer and simpler "HOW TO PLAY" instruction sheet for all players going forward and I might tweak some of the values and win requirements to make it more possible to create the menu - though my group came close and might make it on a second play through. I think I might remove the "look these words up" when it isn't your turn component of the game. I was very concerned that teams just wouldn't do anything during other team's turns. That didn't happen. They were actively listening to the groups debate and then frantically calculating whether they would support the proposed menu or not. I did have a few kids "opt out" of their discussions but I think giving them the terms to look up actually exacerbated their lack of participation as it gave them a reason to opt out.
Still, even the opt out were paying attention - they just weren't vocal about it. It was also one of those activities where some of my students who normally aren't super involved absolutely were. They relished using terms like veto (and even asked about impeachment!) even though the game doesn't really require it. They were just way into their roles, even those who normally aren't so involved in class. That's exactly the reason for using games in the classroom.
After my 5 days of games I feel very confident that my students understand the 3 Branches of Government. They appreciate the difficulties faced by each branch and how hard it is to make laws. Our essential question for this unit is "How does the Constitution limit the power of government?" and I'm confident that when they face their test next week they'll be very ready to answer it.
Games are cool. Use them!
If you're interested in trying this one here's a link to everything you'll need: Political Agenda. As always, it is free. Just print and play!
A couple weeks ago I did my first BreakoutEDU with my students. Essentially it is an "Escape the Room" game with an educational twist. I loved the idea of what is essentially a mini-Alternate Reality Game (ARG.) Breakouts combine game-based learning along with story-based learning in a very unique and exciting way. Solving puzzles, especially those with a good mystery behind them, is fun. Still, I was hesitant.
There are a good amount of pre-made games on their site and I've been watching it off an on for about year. I just couldn't pull the trigger because I just didn't see enough of an educational component to them. This summer I started designing one for my AVID class (where doing things just for the sake of community, fun and inquiry is encouraged.) I bought all the locks and boxes basically to force myself to make it happen.
At the same time I was watching through Turn: Washington's Spies about George Washington's Revolutionary War spy ring.
Cue the lightbulb moment. What better topic could there be for a series of cryptic puzzles than a spy ring?
Two months later I had my BreakoutEDU ready and chock full of educational value. Here's the folder with everything you'll need to use: BreakoutEDU: Washington's Spies.
Here's the guide to the various locks and puzzles (kids no peeking): Washington's Spies Guide
My biggest change from the Summer plans to the final version was the switch from physical locks to digital ones. I ended up using just a few of the physical locks and instead used Google Forms to create digital locks. This way I could have different groups working on the same puzzles without having to fight over the locks. All the fighting would be saved for the last few links in the puzzle chain when I knew they'd be so amped up that they'd be ready to battle to win.
I started the whole thing with this:
I had this set up on Wednesday - 5 days prior to the planned activity. It originally said "Monday" instead of "TODAY" but was otherwise the same. Almost immediately students started trying to crack the code. They asked me what year I was born, what my favorite year was and all sorts of weird questions. Some even tried important historical years like 1776. Just by putting the box out early I was building excitement and interest.
On Monday I split the class into 6 groups. Each received a manila envelope with the printed clues and a link to the digital locks (which linked them to the remaining digital clues.) The clues all came from readings about the workings of the spy ring. I've never seen kids read with such purpose! We've all heard of close reading but this was really CLOSE reading.
The excitement and interest was truly unbelievable. My classroom is often full of energy but this was another level. When one girl yelled out "Oooh, I got it!" her partner quite literally jumped out of her seat to go see her computer screen. Even she noted 'Wow, I actually just jumped out of my seat!" At another point one of my kids called out excitedly, and rapidly, in Spanish. He never does that. He started laughing immediately. His guard was so stripped away by the activity that he dropped into "home mode" right in the middle of learning. That's the feeling I always want them to have.
Ultimately the final clue led to a 3 team mad dash to the last puzzle. One group literally had their hand on the clue more than once. Finally, one figured it out and successfully broke the final lock.
Notice the group in the back still frantically trying to break their locks as well...
This point did lead to some frustration among my more competitive non-winners but they got over it quickly enough. Maybe next time I won't just have one winning group. I don't know. I don't mind them recognizing that not everyone wins every time.
There were some other minor weaknesses that I'd fix on a next go. I think I'd change the lockbox clue. I made it purposefully vague but it just led to them randomly guessing years between 1776 and 1783 which is not what I wanted.
Overall though, it was great and I am excited to start planning the next one (Jefferson's secret code cipher to Lewis and Clark? Civil War coded telegrams? Mayan numbers?) for my students. I do kind of wish I hadn't spend so much on the locks as the digital version seems much better. I'm glad I had some but probably don't need all 10 I bought. I especially am happy with the Dictionary Safe. That part was awesome. It did take awhile to figure out how to make the digital locks work but BreakoutEDU has some great tutorials on their site showing how to set it up. I also think I might try building one for the whole class to do together. I do worry about kids not participating and the more enthusiastic kids driving everything too much (which wasn't an issue here when they were in small teams) but I love the idea of them succeeding or failing together.
The main thing, which I think the team at BreakoutEDU is starting to come around on, is that the educational component is key. If I'm going to justify using time in my class for games I have be able to point to very specific learning goals. Providing clues through informational (and primary source!) texts is a great way to do that. You just may need to make them yourself.
Yesterday I launched Purpose Projects/Genius Hour in my AVID 8 Class. I used this presentation and really used the day as a day of inspiration. You will want to download the presentation and play it back through Powerpoint as Google Slides just doesn't handle the layered animations very well.
I didn't hand out proposal forms yet or go into much depth about how we'd be using our time. I just wanted to wind them up and see what happened.
Before I actually find that out (and with the possibility of absolutely nothing happening...) I wanted to outline how the day went. It felt right and I don't want any potential negative outcomes to color my initial view of it so here we go!
On the board since last week I've had a running countdown. I never said a word about it and neither did the kids. I don't know if they noticed but I think little things like this help to build anticipation and, even if sub-consciously, I think many of them wondered at least once "why are there numbers counting down on the board...?" Today, I wrote the word Launch! in giant letters at the end of the countdown and drew a rocket (terribly) on the board. I still didn't address it but I know they noticed it now.
For the last couple weeks my class has been reading through I am Malala and writing their own autobiographies. We've been talking around the edges of purpose and passion for the first three weeks. I also had these same kids last year for AVID and we talked plenty about sparks and Growth Mindset. They really couldn't have been more prepped. Providence, however, found a way. It just so happened that we were on chapter 21 of Malala which is the chapter when it all goes down. It's short so I continued on and we read 22 as well which is when it all continues to go down. It is intense and emotional and led perfectly into the challenge I was about to lay out for them.
So, directly from there I went into the presentation. It starts with a few questions about one's willingness to stand up instead of stand by - again, perfect flowing from Malala. It then rolls into a countdown video to just continue the build (and tie back to the countdown on the board.) I've said it before but countdown videos make everything more exciting. They just do.
I continued through the presentation and they kids really reacted well. I hit the high point with the quote from Malala's UN Speech.
"One Child, One Teacher, One Book, One Pen can change the world."
I said "we've got tons of books, pens everywhere. I'll be the one teacher. All I need are some childs." (Yes, I said childs on purpose. It worked, they noticed. They were paying attention!)
I then went through the second half of the presentation which explains what Genius Hour is and briefly outlines what will be expected of them. At this point they looked shellshocked - which I completely expected. Combined with my extra chapter of Malala we ran a bit longer than I planned which also worked out wonderfully. We hit our period break right at the Objection! activity of the presentation. I told them that I could see they were overwhelmed. I told them that I could see that, if I was lucky, about 4 of them were absolutely jumping with excitement on the inside ready to take on the world, and the other 28 were just sitting there thinking about all the reasons why they couldn't do this. I had them all write down at leasts one reason why they personally could not do this. I told them to take 5 minutes to decompress and chat and that when we came back I'd address every single one of their objections.
I think this objection activity was by far the most important and powerful segment of the whole day. If you're going to launch a project like this I highly recommend taking the time to do this.
During the break I was beyond pleased to hear many of the students already talking about ideas. I also heard the immediate fixed mindset response of "no, that's too big" and "I don't think we can do that..." But I also heard "Imagine if we really did cure Asthma..."
Now, that's what I want to hear!
So, we came back in and I randomly chose a student to read out their objection. I heard almost all of the anticipated fears.
-I don't have a big voice/audience.
-I won't have time
-My parents won't be able to support me.
-Nobody listens to kids
-I don't know as much as adults
-If doctors/scientists can't do it, how can I?
-I'm terrible at public speaking.
-I have no idea what to do.
I took the time to answer every fear as best I could. I was giving them the time. We would work on building audience. Kids have a huge voice because nobody says no to a cute kid. We don't have to know everything, maybe we can raise money for the people that do. We'll practice speaking - a ton. We'll do an idea factory on Monday to get you going.
I asked if there were any more. This was there chance to be negative (which I pointed out is a key ability of teenagers.)
Then I heard the most honest one of all:
"What if I fail?"
I responded very honestly and said "That's exactly why it has taken me two years to finally launch this project. I kept asking myself that same question. But, I finally decided you're worth it and the world is worth it. If I fail miserably, oh well. I can take it. The world needs me to try. It needs you to try. Don't you believe the world is worth taking a risk?"
I wrapped up the presentation by talking about two charities that raise money by playing video games (my true passion.) I pointed out that if they can raise money with what seems like an absolutely worthless passion then we can find a way for you to use your passion too. You are a genius in something and we need you.
Four times I asked "are you with me?" And, while there was still some normal teenage nervousness I heard plenty of voices saying yes.
We were in, but now what?
Now all my fears could set in. What if the idea factory didn't work? What if I take too much time to get it going and lose this momentum? What if they can't find projects? What if they don't do it? Etc.
Then I woke up to this email (sent at 10:13 PM)
Mr. Roughton can I just say that your presentation was spot on because I have been thinking about it all day! I have a lot to talk about. I'll tell you about it tomorrow but I just wanted to let you know that I can't wait to start my project! Of coarse I don't know what to do yet but I have a lot on my mind ! Good night .
Well, I can't ask for anything more than that can I? I know that if one was willing to take the time to tell me then other students are feeling it as well. I doubt I have all of them yet, but I will. We're going to do this. We're going to change the world.
And by the way, that email came from the same student who just hours before asked "What if I fail?"
Last week my student played through my 13 Colonies game - The Settlers of America. This was only my 3rd time running the game and first in two years.
I made two major changes. First, I created a Spreadsheet that students could use to track their decisions throughout the game. This Sheet did all the calculations on population and British relations for them. This was a massive improvement over the first two times I ran the game where students had to track it all on paper and do the calculation themselves. It didn't help, of course, that the original score sheet was missing a couple boxes here and there (so too was the digital form it turns out), but the whole thing was just too cumbersome anyway. I mean, it worked... eventually. It just took a good half a period to get them to understand it. This time there was no confusion and no need for a long explanation.
The second change was that I didn't prepare at all other than to build that sheet. I wanted to see how the game ran if I didn't spend a ton of time prepping beforehand. Basically, I wanted to see if it was clear enough to be run by other teachers without requiring a huge amount of explanation. Turns out, yes and no. The game ran just fine without extra prep but it quite complex. So, I'm going to try to create a step by step how to play guide.
Step by Step How to Play Guide
1. Divide your students into teams. I played with 6 but 4 would be better. 6 can work if you have a limited number of devices to access the digital score sheet. With 6 it was too easy for kids to "opt out" of the decision-making process.
2. Provide each group with:
3. Use this presentation to introduce the game and explain the rules. Note, this version is missing the video intro. I do suggest you make something to hype it up. America: The Story of US has some cool clips that might work. Download the file and run it through Powerpoint if you want to see the animations properly. Google Slides will work, technically, but it is limited.
4. After reviewing the rules give them 7 to 10 minutes to complete the pre-game tasks. Make sure the slide showing the map is on the screen. They will make a name for their colony, choose their location and create the first 3 laws to govern their colony. These go into a chart on the far right side of the score sheet. They may need to scroll over depending on their screen size. Their laws really don't matter. It is just a chance to start the discussion on what things are important for a new settlement. They *can* have an effect, for example if they provide the right to bear arms then that will count as them have defense for their settlement. I do not tell them any of this.
5. Click to the next slide "Spring 1623" and begin the first "build" phase. In this phase teams have 3 options:
Teams record their decision in the first column on the score sheet then put in their gains in the next columns. This *should* cause their population and relations totals to update automatically.
Check all the computers or score sheets to make sure everyone has added things correctly.
6. Announce the first event phase. Click to the next slide and read the scenario. Give teams about 30 seconds to discuss and then click forward to start the 30 second timer. I tell them at this point that any team continuing to talk when the clock hits zero will have their population score reduced. At this time teams record their answers in the Event Decision column. Click to the next slide and read the results. Teams record their gains and/or losses in the following columns. Again, this *should* automatically update their population and relation scores.
7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 for the next two seasons.
8. In season 4, Winter 1624, teams do not have a build phase. Instead, they have a council meeting and can add one more law to their list. There is still a normal event phase for this season.
9. The story then jumps ahead 50 years. Teams will get an automatic bonus to population based on their location. This information goes in the "50 Years Later" line.
10. That's it. That's the gameplay loop. It goes on following this cycle for the remainder of the seasons. It will end in the Summer of 1776 with teams deciding whether or not to sign onto the Declaration of Independence. This serves as a great interest-builder on that document.
You can award winners however you choose. The game starts with population as the goal but the idea of freedom builds organically throughout and then is finally measured in the final event. You may choose to reward that if you wish. I use it strictly as a discussion starter.
I highly recommend checking the game out. It helps to get across many of the issues facing the colonies in the run up to the Revolutionary War and they really enjoy it. Empathy is a powerful learning tool (I'd argue the most powerful) and putting the in the shoes of the decision makers really helps drive the concepts home.
Plus, it's free, so what have you got to lose?
I spent a ton of time this Summer thinking about how to improved my gamified classroom and make Fracture Crisis a better experience.. Then, I made no changes.
A new variable entered the equation that I felt I simply could not account for. Any changes I made might be just as quickly undone in this brave, new world. The change is that my school went 1:1. All students now have a Chromebook and each teacher their own page on a LMS. Since my biggest struggle last year was how to track all the various parts of the game in an analogue world I hoped this would solve most of the problems.
In a sense it has. In another sense it has highlight other weaknesses in the game. Overall, it is off to a much better start than last year but the same major problem remains.
How can I keep the game front and center in the players' minds?
Necessity stepped in yesterday and helped me a ton. I did our first digital walkthru and my students in period 3 finished it way faster than I expected. I had two honors classes coming up next and I figured they'd finish even faster. What to do? How about bonus XP?
I loaded up my LMS page added Bonus XP missions to the sidebar (I eventually came up with the very witty and original idea of calling them "side" quests!) that they could do when they had extra time. Originally, I just added a couple. One was a Youtube video with a reflection question and the second a simple, fun question about Rome. I decided to add some tension by limiting the number of students who could earn XP from each quest. I'm not entirely sure that is the way I want to go (maybe just limit some of them) but it was a last minute thing so sure, why not?
They were all over it.
I had answers flying into my inbox like crazy. I kept adding more quests and they kept sending more responses. Unfortunately, the "they" in this case was only like 6 students. I'll take it though. Those 6 really engaged with the game layer of class for the first time. They were able to see their XP totals going up in (nearly) real time as I added their bonus XP. It was the closest I've come to hitting that state of Flow that games seek to create. I was operating as game master and they as players.
I did this again for the next day's activity and had much greater participation. By the end of the day almost all of one of my classes had completed their first level up. Last year I had only a handful of kids who ever bothered to level up. The side quests gave them a reason to visit the game page which leads me to the second advancement I've made: The digital leaderboard.
Last year I tracked my leaders by printing a list to post in class. I only had time to post it about once every 6 weeks or so. I'd put XP lists a bit more often but they were just ugly lists of data on the wall. It didn't drive any participation. This year we have a homepage for each class where I've posted a Google Spreadsheet that I can update very quickly and easily. I've color-coded it in such as a way as students can immediately, at a glance, see what level they are. I'm working on some further steps in hopes of adding an "XP needed to Level Up" column but for now it is just a simple sheet. Still, it is definitely helping. Once kids started seeing COMPLETED! pop up next to their classmates names under the Level 1 column they wanted their level up too.
I just have to keep coming up with reasons for them to visit the homepage. Someone on Twitter suggested adding narrative pieces of the game to that page which I think is brilliant. I'm excited to see where that idea goes.
One more new layer I added is the Naming Day. When students reach level 1 I send them a private email outlining how they will go about choosing their name for the game. So far I've not had any of the students respond with their name choice. I was hoping the email would be enough but I may have to make an announcement in class and perhaps even give them class time to do it. I think this will further help drive engagement with the game.
Problems remain in the game, of course. My on-level class is far less engaged in it. They simply do not have much extra time in class to visit the page. I will almost certainly have to go through the naming process with them. The game isn't overly complicated it is just that they are brand new 7th graders who are used to doing exactly what they are told (in contrast to honors kids who often are encouraged to think and go beyond.) I want to break them from that and I think the game can help but I've got to get them into it.
So, I'm making progress. The game layer is better than it has been at any other point to date. The next major hurdle (after getting more on board of course) is their skill usage. That's where things really went off the rails last year and I'm not sure I've done enough to keep it on course this time around.
But hey, at least I should have way more beta testers!
I just finished Play Dead's Inside for Xbox One and I have no idea what just happened. I never played their last game, Limbo, which I understand to be pretty similar. Inside is a 2-d Puzzle-Platformer. It is essentially a series of puzzle rooms. Most rooms are built around a theme that is stretched and pushed to it's boundaries before introducing you to a new element. I didn't know the game was even coming out (a rarity for me given my intense consumption of gaming media) but there's no way you can avoid hearing about it now. It was all over every gaming podcast for the last two week. It isn't my typical kind of game but I wanted in on the ground floor on this one.
The game is only about 4 hours long and I finished it in 4 sittings with the last being a nearly 2 hour push of me saying to myself "just one more room." I think I liked it. I honestly don't even know what else to say about it. It is something that must be experienced.
Still, as I was playing I viewed it through my teacher lens. My first thought was "too bad, another game rated M so I can't use it in class." The game's rating, it appears at first, is strictly due to the violent deaths you will suffer. It really wasn't clear why these deaths were even in the game at first. It builds a bit of tension I suppose but it is as minor as can be. There's almost no penalty for dying save a 5 second load time and perhaps a need to replay about 30 seconds of a puzzle.
It seems to me, and I could be way off here, that the violent deaths are there precisely to ensure the game is rated M and the "right" people play it. A kid would not enjoy this game. I feel like the developers were saying "we know who our audience should be." The violence isn't to appeal to that audience but to target it.
Or, maybe it is gratuitous and I'm over-thinking it. In any case, unfortunately, the game is not classroom appropriate. However, the developers make three assumptions in the game that I think we can all take back to our classrooms.
1) They assume this isn't your first video game.
The game just starts. You're a boy. There's a wall on your left. Good luck. There is no tutorial whatever. You are never told where to go or why to go there. It is also close the opening of Super Mario Bros. as one can get. This game though doesn't even have a clock counting down. You could just stand there forever if you felt like it.
The devs know though that if you found this game on the Xbox digital store you've played games before. The game will give context clues here and there (basically lights on various objects) but at no point does it tell you how to play the game at all.
Why should it? You already know.
Think about what this means for how we give instructions in our classrooms, especially these first few days of school. Why do we spend time teaching students how to be students?
They already know.
I wrote about this last year and I'm more convinced than ever. If you are spending time going over rules and procedures the first few days of school you are simply doing it wrong. Teach the procedures as they come up and assume your students know how to be students. Most of them do and the rest can learn by watching. Why would I post a rule like "Respect Others" on my wall? Isn't that an expectation of all students, in all classrooms throughout history?
I mean, Inside could have told me to push A to jump over the (SPOILER) first tree stump but they knew I've been pushing A to jump since, well, Super Mario Bros.
Rules and tutorials aren't engaging. They aren't fun. If they aren't absolutely necessary - drop them! I still have rules, of course. I just send home a flyer with them and then we're done. I don't have discipline problems. My kids know I respect them as students precisely because I don't waste their time.
2) They assume you can figure things out.
A few times in the game I wanted a hint system. A few of the puzzles I just stared at them not even able to figure out what I supposed to be figuring out. I've played plenty of games in the past where eventually the object you can interact with will glow, pulse or otherwise say "HEY I'M RIGHT HERE YOU CAN DO THIS BRO!" This game doesn't do that. It doesn't help at all.
Three times I went outside the game and I got extra help from Walkthroughs. In one of the cases I felt justified - like I just would not have gotten what the game wanted me to do. The other two were more "d'oh!" kind of moments. After the 3rd time I realized that all I had to do to solve every puzzle in the game was ask myself "What is different about this room than the last one (or ten)?"
The game doesn't really repeat any puzzles but it has many variations on the theme. The developers assume you'll figure out what new wrinkle they've added without telling you "Hey, we added a new wrinkle."
I think in our classrooms we are too quick to answer questions. I know, I know, we want to help. It's in our blood. It is why we are teachers. I hate seeing my kids struggle to the point of frustration. I do not want them to reach the point where they want a Walkthrough! My fear of that though has too often led me to simplify things and thus remove some of the excitement and learning potential in them.
I've gotten to the point where I almost never answer a question. I will simply respond with another question. Some of my students hate me for it. Cindy was so annoyed by it that she started doing it to me in return. She stopped talking to me altogether except to ask open ended questions! 7th graders are needy. They will take any help I offer and more. By very early showing them that I assume they will figure most things out I eliminate many of those needy questions. A little bit of struggle is good for them. I am very careful to watch for that frustration point but I have to risk letting them hit it.
Games wouldn't be very interesting if every puzzle piece just glowed for you - our classrooms wouldn't be either.
3) They assume you will learn.
The game's first puzzle (push A to jump over the log) is not particularly exciting. It would be much less exciting if that were also the game's second, 18th and last puzzle. Some games beat you down with repetition. They figure, this mechanic was good enough once we should use it over and over again. Inside really doesn't do that. The developers rarely re-use a mechanic and every single time they do there is a twist to it. They assume you'll learn how to use this new version of the mechanic just like you learn to use the original one.
Do we assume our kids will learn?
Are the activities you build for May the same as the ones you built for September? Mine often are and it is something I need to greatly work on. My kids struggle mightily at the beginning of the year. I put tasks in front of them unlike any they've seen before. I trust they'll figure it out. They do.
But, then what?
I put very similarly styled tasks in front of them for the next 9 months. Sure, the content changes and my expectations for their products go up but I don't really twist or advance the mechanics. As a result by about January my class is seen as the easy one. I know it isn't, I know it is still comparatively difficult but why don't I push them further?
The game just keeps building and building until a final 30ish minute segment that is a treat to experience. The final set of puzzles seemed very easy to me. I rolled right through them with only one minor hiccup. Stepping back though these puzzles were WAY more complex than any in the game previously. They mixed mechanics in brand new ways and never once doubted that I had learned enough along the way to figure it out. The sequence is built brilliantly on momentum and simply would not work without the assumption of my learning.
I'm not sure I loved the game but I definitely loved that closing sequence.
I hope my classroom can be set up in that same way this upcoming year. I want it to feel like a building momentum until we hit the final segment and roll strongly to the end. That is only going to happen if I can, right now, in the planning stages, assume my incoming kids will learn along the way.
I do recommend playing the game (it will be out on PC via Steam next week) and considering what it has to say about learning and progress. If nothing else it will leave you thinking!
Over the last couple years I've heard over and over about how awful lecture is as a method of instruction. It has mostly stemmed from this post by Grant Wiggins (of backwards design fame) and a push toward flipped instruction. I consider myself very forward-thinking in terms of educational methods but I find this to be utter nonsense. Why, in a time when podcasts are more popular than ever, are we saying that the spoken word is not a good way to deliver stories?
Before I get into why I feel lecture is still a very valid method of instruction lets briefly consider the alternatives. In this post on Wiggins' blog we hear from what, apparently, is Wiggins' suggested alternative. I'll spare you reading it all and simply say it is "reading" and suggests textbooks more than once. The author argues that we teachers love history because we discovered it on our own terms. Find me one person that discovered a love of history through a textbook. Good luck.
The other option, though it works hand and hand with textbooks often, is the flipped classroom idea. That is, short lectures are provided via video for students to view as homework. These lectures are often not specific and instead are links to various Crash Course videos that may, or may not, tell the story you really want it to tell. Classroom time then is used for students to explore the content on their own with you the teacher serving as their guide. While I'm all for this idea (see CYOA for example) I am not behind doing it all or even most of the time. I am the expert in my room - both in history and in educational methods. If my students aren't taking advantage of that they are missing out.
I compare it to Disneyland versus Knott's Berry Farm. Disneyland is the most planned out theme park in the world. Every step you take or thought you think while there has been guided by Imagineers. Did you know they literally pump vanilla smells into the air near the ice cream shop on Main Street? Did you realize that every land that opens up from the main spoke hub of the park has a huge entrance item to draw you in except for one? Fantasyland has the castle, Tomorrowland the rocket pods but Adventureland - the one land about finding your own way - can't be seen around the bend? All of that is by design. You are being told (and sold) a story and you love every single minute of it.
Knott's (or any Six Flags), on the other hand, doesn't have that level of design. It is much more the flipped amusement park. The rides are incredibly thrilling but thrown about the park without a thought other than "can we fit this new thing here?" You are given a map when you enter and you had better take it. There is no rhyme or reason to the layout. You're on your own to figure it all out.
There's a reason Disneyland can charge over $100 for a day's visit while Knott's and Six Flags cost roughly half that. A guided experience makes all the difference.
Lecture, when done right, is that guided experience.
Of course there are bad lectures (and lecturers) out there. That can be true of any instructional method though. I've seen really bad games and simulations too - that doesn't mean we shouldn't use them.
But, don't take my word for it. Here's what some of my students had to say about taking notes in my 7th grade World History class. Most of these, interestingly enough to me, came not from my honors kids but my on-level ones and many of whom were struggling readers.
"I enjoyed notes because they are easier and more fun than notes in other classes." -Abby
I honestly don't know what she means by easier. I do color-code my notes based on importance - that's all I can think of. My kids write WAY more notes than they do in other classes. As far as more fun, definitely. I make sure my lectures are full of jokes, short interactive segments called Brain Snacks, videos, animations and stories. If I'm bored telling it they'll be bored hearing it!
"I liked doing the notes the most because they were really fun to do and I learn better when I'm actually interested and laughing from time to time." -Vanessa
I guess you don't need a doctorate to understand how kids learn best. Turns out they have a pretty good idea of it themselves.
"The activity I liked most were the notes because the mini things added in like the "terrible jokes" Mr. Roughton says about the unit." -Priscilla
If there's one thing I've learned from Vine (and believe, it is only one thing) it is that middle schoolers are easily entertained. They love bad jokes! You don't even have to be a comedian to make them laugh a little bit. Make jokes, be human and your lectures will be much more effective.
"I liked taking notes because the class goes faster." -Juliana
Far from the "Anybody...? Anybody...?" of Ferris Beuller, a good lecture can make time fly for students. If they are hooked by the story there's no limit to their attention span. Well, maybe there is but I can promise it is beyond 45 minutes.
"I liked notes the most because I can write it down and then study at home." -Diana
A surprising amount of my kids said something to this effect. Kids are not going to study their textbook at home. It is dull and boring. Those 10 minute Crash Course videos? Also not that interesting. Notes certainly can interesting and don't have to boring. PowerPoint is awesome if you learn how to use it.
"In my point of view the notes helped because there were a lot of animations which helped me remember." - Isaiah
Animation should help to tell your story. Don't use any animation other than a simple fade unless you have a story or design-based reason to do so. There's a reason you never see any other types of cuts in movies (Star Wars aside). Simple movement animations are way more effective than the random pop ins and zooms that PowerPoint, and even worse Prezi, are known for. Words can be hard to remember. Animations help students build a memorable framework in their minds. Your kids should not have the "I just read this whole page and don't remember a single word of it" problem with your lectures.
"The type of activity that I like the most was doing notes because we could learn different things about countries or people." -Diego
"I liked notes because I like to learn about history." -Nikki
"I liked notes the most because I liked learning information about different places." -Kellcie
As I said, podcasts are more popular now than ever before. People purposefully choose to listen to long lectures (and these with no animations!) on a number of seemingly dry topics. Why? Simple. Learning is fun. Our brains like to learn. If our lectures are providing real information - not just facts and vocabulary - kids will enjoy them not in spite of the learning but because of it. We get to take them via our lectures to times and places they will never go. The Roman Empire is interesting. If I can bring my kids there they are going to love it and learn from it. If all I bring to them is a list of emperors... not so much.
"Notes because it's different. Its not like notes out of the book. You make it fun and make us want to do notes." Tanyah
Our kids often do essentially the same thing 4 or 5 times a day. They read something and write some simple responses to it. Imagine a world where notes are seen as a breath of fresh air! Apparently, that's my classroom.
"Notes because there were stories." -Juan
This was from a student who did very little work all year but did great on his tests and participated in every class discussion. He was hooked on the stories. He didn't care about much else. I think that is true of many of our under-performing students. They do care - just not about some of the nonsense we ask them to.
"I liked the notes because the PowerPoints were very creative and got me engaged." Isabel
If you are doing PPT slides with 3 bullets and a graphic or two please stop. Go watch a presentation by Steve Jobs to see what your presentation software should have. By no means are my presentations perfect (as evidenced by me redoing them all again for about the 7th time) but the kids see the difference in mine versus the others they see. Many of them commented on the effort I put in to making sure they looked good and were engaging. No stock designs, no blown up blurry images, clean matching fonts and small touches of animations goes a long, long way.
"I enjoyed the notes because Mr.Roughton designed them in enjoyable ways with animations and many teachers do boring slides filled with note-taking facts." -Angelina
Her words, not mine.
"I liked notes because they made us think about it and put it in our own words. I also like history." -Priscilla
I spend a good amount of time at the beginning of the year teaching my students how NOT to copy notes. I teach them to shorten things significantly and use their own words. Most of them don't. Most end up copying anyway. Those that do figure it out (usually the honors kids quite honestly) find themselves learning so much more. Copying does almost nothing for brain activity. It is the main reason why we experience the "but I taught them that!" syndrome so often. We may have told them that but we didn't ask them to think about it.
I was honestly surprised by how many of my students selected notes as their favorite activity. I always get a pretty good amount but this year it was over 25% (the rest divided pretty evenly between Choose Your own Adventure and labs) and nearly 1/3rd. I suspect it has something to do with the shift in instructional models in their other classes. Common Core has our kids reading and responding to articles almost every period in almost every class. Well presented notes can be a great break from that for them. It just so happens we have the perfect subject for it. History is story, period. I hope lecture never exits the history class. Lecture is how history has been taught for thousands of years prior to the recent arguments against it. Can it be done poorly? Of course. It is usually done poorly? Probably. But, it doesn't have to be that way. Any of us can add humor, art, creativity and interactivity to our presentations to make them student friendly.
The Fracture Crisis is over - for now. I went into the year with grand plans about gamification. I spent a ton of time last summer building the elements for the game. I launched huge on the first day of school. I had power-ups, renamed lessons, cool posters and an amazing intro video. I figured out exactly how many points my kids could earn throughout the year and set XP breaks for level ups accordingly. I came up with a punch card system so we could track their use of power-ups without needing a digital interface. I even re-themed every single PowerPoint presentation for my entire year with new intros and graphics to fit the motif. I did it all.
Then, about a week into school it all started to fall apart. The tracking wasn't working, kids were already losing their cards and I was already behind my anticipated point totals. The theme was strong at least... Two months in I had solved the tracking problem and made the leaderboards a much more prevalent part of the in-class visual experience. Things were looking up. By the semester break I was pretty much done with the overall point tracking. The last unit I filled in for the class was the Dark Ages which ended in November. Getting to track their own XP was working great. The parts of the game that required me to track their cumulative XP were not.
And, my biggest frustration, nobody was using Power Ups. And when I say frustration, I mean utter relief. Whenever one was brave enough to use it it was a nightmare. They had to find their card, I had to verify their reported XP and they had to pick a power-up from a way-too-big list. The list is smaller now and I learn to just trust their reports. Still, that is the element of gamification that most makes it feel like a game and it just didn't work. Since the kids seemed to give up, so did I. I kept up with the theme and actually started to build more of the narrative into their daily learning. But it all just then kind of ended.
I didn't think twice about it ending but to my great shock - they did.
I had some interesting things said to me on the last day of school.
"I thought you told us when we had enough points..."
This came from one of my kids who was most into the game. She talked about it regularly and loved feeling like she was part of something greater. She did a video project and themed it all around the game. She was in the world and loving it. Yet, somehow, she had no idea how the skill system worked.
Somehow. Maybe it was because I didn't know how it worked or maybe it was because I changed it more than once. Maybe it was because I had 5 periods and just didn't explain it properly to her class. Maybe she was out sick they day I did. Whatever the case there are way too many maybes. A good game doesn't have maybes. It has clearly laid out rules that are only broken for specific purposes. Everything the game offers doesn't have to be clear from the beginning but it does have to be clear at some point (especially if it is central to the experience.)
Recently I've been playing a PC game called Dungeon of the Endless. The game has a very limited tutorial that does just enough to get you going and then leaves you with the following warning.
There is much more to this game that you will discover as you play. And you will die. Alot.
That is the exact feeling I want in my game. In some ways I front-loaded too much. In other ways not enough. I need to figure out just what is essential to get them into the game world and worry about specifics later. By providing information on-demand (something games also do really, really well) and in context I hopefully will avoid having my players go all year without actually knowing how to play!
"So, did we win?"
"Ya, Mr. Roughton, I expected some credits with nothing but your name in it."
To which I replied "Uh, yeah, you won, good job."
My game had no ending!
Just before playing Dungeon of The Endless (which may or may not have an ending, I'm honestly not sure, I die alot as promised) I finished Far Cry: Primal. This game was savagely reviewed but I love the Far Cry series and the setting (10,000 BC) was intriguing. I loved the game - until it ended. I was going right along taming wild animals, fighting off cannibals, and learning new skills until boom, game over. I finished a random mission (which is all the game has) and then it was over. Some credits rolled and it said I won. Great. What did I do? Stories, even bad, ones, need endings. Despite about 20 hours of really enjoying myself I was left thinking pretty negatively about Primal simply due to that abrupt end.
Fracture Crisis should have had an ending. I mean, it has a very specific goal so I had set it up to end quite smoothly. I had set a goal at the beginning of the year for them to clear 1.2 million Fractures in order to win the game. I thought this would drive cooperation and lead to students encouraging one another to do more than the minimum required work. I wanted a shared goal to drive them to great things. The problem, I think, was that their progress was just not clear enough. I had a small poster in the front of the room that tracked Fractures cleared by unit. This meant that every 6 weeks (which was more like 8 by the time I did all the math) they got a single update on their progress. Plus, as I mentioned, I stopped tracking it entirely after the second unit. That's not nearly enough. Games constantly update you on your progress.
Still, at least a few students, cared. They wanted to see that progress. They wanted the narrative to advance (which it never did.) That's going to be my big focus for next year's version. (Yes, despite all my failings I'm going to do it again!)
The truth is I thought having a great intro would be enough to carry my game. I felt that once I had them hooked I'd figure out the rest along the way. I did figure out a whole bunch but often after that portion of the game had passed. Of course it wasn't going to be perfect the first time through (honestly this wasn't even a Alpha, it was pre-Alpha meaning the content was still being built) but I had hoped for more.
I've learned a few techniques for tracking and spending rewards (one teacher does a pay day where he gives them raffle tickets based on their current level - I love that idea) and we are going fully 1 to 1 next year so I may be able to digitize and automate many of the processes. I'm excited to try again knowing everything I know now. I hope you have found my reflections over the year to be helpful as you consider your own possibly journey into this world. I hope you'll follow along next year as we try Fracture Crisis 0.2 (not a typo, we're definitely not even to 1.0 yet let alone 2.0!)
One final note. One of my readers this year said I was being too critical of my progress this year. I am my own greatest critic (and I believe we all ought to be) because I want the best from myself for my students. Despite all the failings I think the game was worth running. I know I'm very good at what I do and I will take the next couple weeks to share all the GOOD that came out of my class this year!
Our social studies team has been rewriting our scope and sequence all year long to align with the new California framework and to attempt to integrate the C3 to at least some degree. This is our first full revamp since I started 13 years ago. We've put together an outline that we are very happy with and now the real work begins.
Whenever one builds a new framework like this he is left asking where his old stuff fits in. Some of the labs and lessons I've designed in the past just don't seem to apply particularly well any longer. While we are teaching the same cultures we are doing so with, in some cases at least, a very different focus. This means that things like my Culture Shocks don't have nearly as much of a place as they once did.
So, I've been considering what to keep and what to toss. It hasn't been fun.
Then, as I often do, I thought about Disneyland.
When California Adventure opened some years ago it was a pretty big deal. I was a season pass holder at the time and the promise of a whole new park was quite exciting. California Adventure is, however, an example of everything that can go wrong when one lets theme dictate everything.
No one can deny that the park had a theme and stuck to it. It was designed to allow tourists to experience all of California in a single day. It had lands based on the Redwood Forests, Hollywood, Napa Wine Country, and the beach boardwalks. It had thrilling attractions like a bunch of agricultural equipment, a sourdough bakery, and a 10 minute-ish long documentary on the history of California. Even the food areas were California themed with a great area based on the San Francisco wharf and a snack station named San Andreas Shakes. Everything was California and almost nothing was Disney.
And it was really, really boring.
There were constant complaints that there just wasn't anything to do there. My personal routine whenever I visited was:
1) get a Fast Past for Soarin' over California and eat a huge cinnamon role from the bakery shaped liked a modern passenger train
2) Play Who Wants to be a Millionaire Play It!
3) Watch the improv troupe D.U.H.
4) Watch D.U.H. again.
5) Eat at Award Weiners
6) Play Millionaire again.
7) Use Fast Past for Soarin'.
8) Cross back over to Disneyland proper for the next 4 hours since Adventure closed at like 6 PM because, once again, there was nothing to do.
Additionally, the park wasn't particularly kid-friendly. The best example of this was the Hollywood Limo Ride in the Hollywood Backlot area. This was a traditional dark ride where you sat in a car and went through a tunnel experiencing various scenes. It has tons of weird jokes about celebrities and strange caricatures of them in place of the usual Disney characters. It was quite surreal.
It was also closed almost all the time. I think I only ever went on it twice. I don't know if it was constantly closed because it broke down or because celebrity lawyers were complaining. The ride was certainly interesting but kids would get no enjoyment out of it despite it's appearance. It was a trick - though I imagine an unintentional one.
Since that first year Adventure has undergone not one but TWO billion + dollar renovation projects. (The original Disneyland cost $17 million in 1955 for reference.) The first wave overhauled much of the park. Disney characters were added to many of the locations. A theater opened showing first the Lion King musical and then Aladdin. The agricultural area became A Bug's Land. The Hollywood Limo ride disappeared from memory and is now a Monster's Inc. ride that has nothing to do with Hollywood whatsoever. The Buzz Lightyear ride opened up on the Boardwalk and a Little Mermaid dark ride opened up in the middle of nowhere. The second wave added the incredibly popular Cars Land to the park.
As a result, Adventure today bears little resemblance to the park that opened in 2001. It is completely Disney and much truer to Walt's original vision of a place where families could play and all have a good time. Still, it has kept it's distinct feel. It isn't a mini-Disneyland. It is a California-themed park that has all the touches of Disney magic that make us willing to pay $100 a day just to experience it.
I don't want to create a 2,001 California Adventure in my classroom. While I do want to stay true to our new framework I do not want to lose the little bits of magic that make my class what it is. I've decided that when an activity doesn't fit with the new structure, I'll do it anyway. Sure, I may have a Monster's Inc. ride in my Hollywood Backlot or a Little Mermaid ride in the middle of nowhere, but it will be engaging. As we move forward in this new era of social studies we can't forget what made us love it ourselves. It wasn't doing constant DBQs and finding evidence to support claims. It was getting down in the weeds and experiencing the excitement of the stories from the past. Lets make sure we don't lose that.
The truth is, 2,001 California Adventure was actually pretty cool. For 21-year old me it was a great hang out. It was relaxed and I secretly loved the 10 minute history documentary. I could have watched (and did) D.U.H. perform 4 or 5 times in a row and laughed every single time. I was absolutely addicted to the Who Wants to be a Millionaire game (I made it to the hot seat 4 times with my best performance getting me to the 250,000 point question.) It had great things to offer any guests - even little ones - it was just not clearly apparent. DBQs are pretty cool too. They just aren't cool all the time. Our classes can, and I think should, be based heavily on document analysis and citing evidence. We just shouldn't drop the fun along the way. I recommend really thinking hard about your themes going forward and when it is appropriate to let them go.
Lastly, as I said, we are very proud of the outline we have put together. I feel like we managed to take the ridiculous new framework (which I really hate by the way) and make it into a coherent series of stories that will appeal to students. We've still got some work to do on it but I'll share it within the next couple weeks assuming all goes to plan.
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