Roughton Recommends

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.

Donuts and the Power of Drafting

posted Apr 13, 2018, 6:40 AM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Apr 13, 2018, 8:35 AM ]

Drafting is one of my favorite game mechanics. I'm not talking about iterative writing I'm talking about choosing the cards/pieces you want for your game plan from a shared pile among the players. Whether it's Magic the Gathering, Dominion, Sushi Go or, now, Go Nuts for Donuts, there is just something really fun about trying to build your own strategy while other players are doing the same.  I think we can find some great ways to use this mechanic in the classroom.

I picked up Go Nuts for Donuts on an Amazon recommendation a couple weeks ago. I was ready for a new game to play with my lunch kids. I saw that this could support 6 players and I know my kids love donuts so the theme would be an easy sell.  It has quickly become their go to game choice.

The game is a bit of a cross between a draft and an auction. Each Donut has a point value or ability printed on the card. There are multiple strategies to win. You can try to build a small stack of donuts and then get huge point bonuses from having Old Fashioned in your stack. You can try to collect every Donut Hole as they grow in value exponentially as you collect them. I figured most of my kids would stick to the tried and true "pick whichever donut on the board has the highest printed point value." They largely have not - and that's the beauty of the draft mechanic.

Each round you lay out enough donuts for each player plus one. Then each player secretly picks the donut they want. If no other player picks that donut, they get it. If any other player picks it that donut is discarded. Nobody gets it and it is gone. So, if multiple people go for Powered because it is an easy 3 points it ends up being essentially worthless. This adds a deep strategic and social layer to the game yep keeps it simple. Where the game really shines is in the simplicity of how the draft/auction plays out. You don't have to worry about tracking any currency. Just pick a donut and go (nuts.)

The game is ridiculously fun and surprisingly deep. For an under ten dollar game it really is impressive.

So, how do we use it for learning?

Many years ago I did an activity with my GATE and AVID kids called "Solutions Draft."  It was based on the video game ScribbleNauts but with an added draft mechanic. I would pose a problem to the groups such as a beached whale. We then went from group to group drafting objects to help solve the problem. As soon as one group picked an item (bulldozer for example, then no other group could.) They then had to write out their plan to save the whale. It was very fun but also very abstract. As a result I couldn't really find a way to use it with my on-level learners. 

Go Nuts got me thinking how it could work for them. One thing that immediately came to mind is argumentative writing. We do a ton of that in social studies now. Every unit ends with it. On the day before the test we do an activity adapted from the DBQ Project that we call Bucketing. Students are given a list of the likely evidence they will want to use in their argument. It is a list of 16ish terms/people/concepts from the unit. They also get a digital chart (basically just a T-chart) with the two options for the argument on either side. One of our questions, for example, is "Who had a larger influence in Europe between 1400 and 1700, the Medicis or Martin Luther?" So, the chart would have one side for Medicis and one for Luther.  They can then use any of the 16 terms as their evidence on the test.

This often results in students using the same 5-6 terms throughout the day. They tend to pick those that stood out the most - even if they aren't necessarily the strongest evidence. If I added a draft mechanic it would do a few things.  First, it would force groups to really debate which evidence is most important. Once the added pressure of "if that group picks it we can't" is added then the pressure really builds to pick carefully. Secondly, it requires them to really learn all 16 terms since they might not get to use just the few they personally knew best. Lastly, it adds fun! Challenging kids, especially higher level ones, to fit their evidence in ways they hadn't planned can be a lot of fun.  

I could also see the draft mechanic being used for creative writing in Language Arts. Draft a character, a conflict and a setting then write the story. Story Cubes might be a good tool to make this even feel more like a game. Maybe in math students could be given a specific value or concept to represent and then have to draft numbers and math symbols to do it. In science what about having a bunch of random objects that students have to tie to Science concepts?  In each case these are activities that have been done before but adding that extra draft mechanic layer turns it into a game.

How else could we use this simple mechanic to increase engagement in our classrooms?

5 Takeaways from CCSS18

posted Mar 26, 2018, 7:04 AM by Kevin Roughton

The California Council for the Social Studies state conference has just wrapped up and it was quite an experience. I’ll likely write about many of the great ideas I picked up in detail but I wanted to get some first impressions out quickly.  Here’s some of my major takeaways - the good, the bad and the ugly!

1. Reading is a Real Problem Statewide

Multiple sessions were offered on how to tackle the problem of limited (or non) readers needing to grapple with difficult historical texts. I saw lots of interesting ideas with my personal favorite - mostly because it can be implemented and integrated with what I do already very easily - was an add-on for Google Docs called The Highlight Tool.

While I much prefer print reading to digital the sheer amount of text I have to deliver via print is becoming difficult to manage. I will not use our textbook for various reasons and I imagine whatever new text we adopt will be just as problematic. That means I’m providing articles for my kids to read and annotate. When I provide them digitally students can do a bit of marking up/close reading using the Comment tool and the like but Highlight goes even further. You can set up specifically colored highlighters for each activity and attach it to the doc. When students open the doc (assuming they have the add on) the highlighters and opened too. You can have them focus on specific things in each reading - a big plus.

I also saw a presentation by Dr. Bill McBride that outlined a series of pre-reading and post-reading activities to help kids learn to read (more than to help them with a specific text necessarily.)  It takes time but I’m further and further convinced that time spent teaching reading is time well spent. He had a lot to say about how the digital world has shifted the brain’s ability to focus and decode. I’m eager to look deeper into his work.

It’s frustrating to know that our kids are coming to secondary not only with almost no history knowledge but with very low reading skills as well but that is what it is. It is something we all need to come to terms with and work on.

2. We need each other

Seeing what my fellow teachers are doing with the students was the exact spark I needed. I’ve been frustrated with the lack of progress in education in general and particularly in my own classroom the last couple years and I hadn’t realized how much it has slowed down my creative progress too. I saw some amazing, simple, things that have me inspired to do more.

A session about the scandals of Jackson, Clay and JQA has me excited to create some kind of video intro based on ABC’s Scandal. I haven’t done a new TV theme in quite some time. My original ones like House have almost no connection to my students. Time to refresh!

A session on inquiry in the classroom by Susan Myers and Katherine Rand was inspired in part by my history mysteries. The two of them have really run with the concept expanding it into mock trials, congressional hearings and act-it-outs. Meanwhile, I’ve completely stagnated on these. Honestly, stagnation would be an improvement. This year, largely due to the reading issues mentioned above, I’ve done very few of my History Mystery labs. They are my best, deepest, Common Corest lessons and I’m hardly even using them - let alone growing them. Seeing what others are doing has me eager to get back to designing these incredible experiences.

I’m quite plugged in to the social studies community. I’m active on Twitter. I work with a great group of colleagues. Still, I have fallen into hiding in the 4 walls of my classroom. We need each other to show us what we are missing. Then we take it, use our own creativity and run with it.

3. We Need to Teach Presentation Skills - and Not Just to Students

One thing Dr. McBride said that stuck out to me was “oral competency outpaces reading competency by about two years.” His point was that reading out loud so that kids hear proper reading is key in struggling readers. To me it goes a bit further than that. My kids talk to each other a ton in my room but I don’t really take time to teach them how to present their ideas - even to a partner. If reading is such a struggle then we should take advantage of what their brains ARE better able to do. We need to teach them to use their speaking and listening skills to present information clearly.

But we really don’t. We might teach “academic conversations” or using “scholarly voice” in their discussions but we don’t teach them how to present ideas to a group.

Why not? I think we don’t know any better. I’ll be frank - I saw more than a couple bad Google Slide presentations in my sessions. In some of them they were given by very dynamic speakers whose message was clouded by a less-than-stellar presentation. If teachers, people who spend an incredible amount of time presenting to an audience, don’t know how to design an effective presentation then our kids won’t either. We need to model it for them.

So, why aren’t presentation skills taught in college education courses? Well, I mean have you seen how most of those professors present? They don’t know how to do it effectively either! Our teachers (and our kids) see bad presentations so they make bad presentations. We are battling for their attention. Bullet points and grainy clipart are not going to get the job done.

I’ve been beating this drum for awhile now but Google Slides has made the fight even harder. It is just ugly. Powerpoint on PC or Keynote on Mac are beautiful canvases on which to work. Google Slides is functional. That’s about it. The average Google Slides presentation looks like it was made in Powerpoint 2000. Powerpoint has gone through 3 major revisions since then and countless yearly iterations to make it look better. And yes, looks do matter! I will again highly recommend The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs as a guidebook.

That said, I saw more GOOD presentations this year than I’ve seen at any conference I’ve attended, (including tech focused ones) so there is some hope. A few of my sessions used their presentations strictly as a way to put big pages on a screen so we had a common visual to discuss. That’s great! We don’t need the text. Just give us the visual and let your voice be the text. Remember, our oral competencies are way ahead of our reading!

4. Fun Still Matters

Scandals, mysteries, VR 360 images, collaboration, drawings, and games! Oh my!

When you’re in a room full of teachers for a training what makes them most excited? What changes the room from heads down, grading papers, half-listening to engagement? It’s fun. I saw that time and time again in my sessions at the conference.

I played some awesome, quick, simple and completely non-digital games with Wendy Rouse. She had a room full of adults arranging puzzles and stacking cups. At the end of one game one group was so engaged with their task that it took nearly two full minutes for them to realize the rest of the room was moving on to the next game!

I played some awesome, quick, simple and completely digital games with Stacy Yung and Amanda Sandoval. They had a room full of adults eliciting audible “oohs” and “aahs” while looking at 360 images. They had us racing to finish a trivia game on Star Wars (I won’t forget this Henry.) They even had us playing a variant of Heads Up called Charades to reinforce vocabulary. And the room loved it.

If fun can help engagement with a group of adults who were choosing to give up their weekend to hear this information imagine what it does for our kids who, in some cases, don’t want to be in our rooms at all. Fun is the gateway to engagement and we need more of it at every level.

5. Teachers Aren’t Always the Best Models

The closing event of the conference was a Gubernatorial Forum. Instructions explicitly stated that all applause and booing was to be held until the end of the Forum. I had the pleasure of sitting behind a group of high school students who were attending the forum and the displeasure of sitting next to four teachers.

The high school students were models of civility. They listened. They focused. They followed the rules. They were well-dressed. At times they’d turn and whisper quietly to a neighbor in response to a point made. Meanwhile, the 4 teachers next to me showed up in T-shirts and sandals, cheered loudly, clapped wildly, booed, shouted out their own questions and yelled out “shame on you.”  Light applause out of turn is one thing. We’re human, we get emotional, but come on. It was, quite frankly, embarrassing to me and caused me to hide my conference badge. I simply do not want to be associated with such behavior.

If we can’t model how to disagree civilly how can we expect our kids to do the same? There were some things stated that I wildly disagreed with in the forum but there is a time and a place to voice those disagreements. These 4 teachers tried to make the forum about them. It wasn’t.

The forum otherwise was informative and well-run. I knew very little about the 4 candidates before the forum and came away with a very clear picture who each was and what they stood for (and believe me, to the two candidates who failed to show up, good luck ever getting my vote.) It is disappointing a handful of teachers caused an unfortunate end to a great conference.

Special thanks to the team who put this conference together. It was inspiring and endlessly useful. Thanks to the 700+ attendees who gave up their weekend (and for many, the first weekend of their Spring Break!) in an effort to be better for their students. Thanks to the 60+ people who attended my session, especially those who said such kind things to me about it as they saw me throughout the day.

Time to start planning for Costa Mesa in 2020 and Design Like Disney 2: 3 More Tips!

Everything Starts with a Story

posted Feb 27, 2018, 2:45 PM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Feb 27, 2018, 3:08 PM ]

Disneyland vs. Knott's Berry Farm - the never-ending argument - right? Wrong, of course. The only people who choose Knott's are those who hate crowds. Disneyland is light years ahead of typical amusement parks in design (as evidenced by their prices which are equally light years ahead.)  

The secret to their design? Everything starts with a story.

Attractions (rides) start as storyboards - just like any movie would. You are taken through the ride bit by bit, room by room, with the story being told all along the way. In the case of many of rides like Indiana Jones that story is being told while you are in line before the ride even begins. Sometimes the story is very clear (like in say, Peter Pan's Flight) and in others a little more of a backstory that  you have to work to discern (like Big Thunder Mountain) but it is always there. Every attraction starts with a story. So too do their restaurants, shops, music choices, walkways, trash cans, restrooms, food options and hotels. Walt Disney was a story teller at heart and it shows.

The Haunted Mansion, an attraction deep in story, recently was overhauled to make the story even more a part of the experience. The basics of you becoming one of the 1,001 "happy haunts" has not changed. Madam Leota still speaks from her crystal ball and you are still beckoned to "huuuurrrryyy baaaack" by the ghostly bride as you exit the ride. In between though you see much more of the bride's story. You see how she turned on her husband (or husbands depending your interpretation!) and how things ended in a rather grisly manner. Nothing is ever stated directly - it all comes through visuals - but a close eye will reveal the story.

We can do story in our classrooms as well. I've talked about this in the past when talking about thing like Imagineering a DBQ but I was reminded of it again this week. This week we experienced my Digging for the Truth: The Tomb lab. I built this lab two years ago as an introduction to our Diffusion unit. It is an investigation into the tomb of Shi Huang Di using pictures of the artifacts found there. Students analyze the artifacts to learn what they can about China. They learn that they understood metallurgy, had a form of writing and were unified under this emperor. It has a sense of danger as they see video clips discussing the traps originally built in the tomb and the high amounts of mercury measured down in the tomb. The video clips, from History Channel's China's First Emperor, are fantastic. The narrator has a foreboding tone and the animations and recreations are top-notch. I was quite happy with the lab already.

But it didn't really have a story throughout.

It had a narrative intro. It started with a plane landing in Xi'an China and a short description of the memorial hill built for the emperor. It told the story of the tomb being discovered by a farmer digging a well. Then though, it was just kind of a series of artifacts. My student teacher, who ran the lab for most of periods, commented after his first run through that he wanted to tell more of a story as it went along as it felt like just going through the motions. Of course, I agreed. We worked out a story for each of the exhibits that helps drive home the danger of the investigation while still getting to the content we want the kids to learn.  In fact, having a scripted story allowed me to go even deeper with the content. For example, I added a description of how we could determine the material an object is made of. 

The investigation now closes with this observation: We never found the body! This deepens the mystery and helps to set up the final video clip where it explains why the inner tomb has not yet been opened. 

So, while the lab was already pretty good it is not much better. It's not just a roller coaster, it's an attraction! I have no doubt it will be more engaging than before and will draw students in even deeper. It was an easy switch too. It didn't take much to add the narrative to the lab.

Where can you add a story to spice up your lessons?


posted Feb 23, 2018, 8:52 AM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Feb 23, 2018, 9:15 AM ]

Mickey's 4th Commandment: Use a Wienie!

In just over a month I'll be presenting my show, Design like Disney, at the California Council for the Social Studies Conference in San Diego, CA. This has further driven my focus on, and love of, Disney Imagineering and the techniques they use to engage their guests.

One of my favorite of their 10 Commandments is "use a wienie!" The story goes that Walt came up with this term while explaining how to lead people through an experience. Apparently, he used hot dog wienies on stage to guide animals around. We can do it with people!

The most famous is Sleeping Beauty's castle in the center of Disneyland. You can barely see it before you enter the park then it magically appears at the end of Main Street beckoning you to go forward. You have to see it up close!

On my last trip to Disneyland I went out of my way to look for wienies and the way the Imagineers drew attention to specific information in the park. The one that stood out most to me was while waiting in line for Soarin' Over the World at California Adventure. 

I was the last person in my "plane" which gave me a great view of the crowd. We stood there waiting for a couple minutes. People chatted, kids played on phones - it was definitely noisy. I wish I had taken a picture before the video started at all as this one doesn't quite do it justice but trust me, they weren't paying any attention to the screen.From the pic below you can see people are looking every which way doing their own thing. A few heads have turned toward the screen which just switched from a looped title slide to an actor saying "Hullo!" 


There's the wienie! The video drew the attention of everyone in line immediately. The chatting stopped, the phones went dark. Everyone watched the screen. (Well, except me of course, I was watching the magic of the Imagineers!)


This is the picture just seconds after the video started. Full attention. The video proceeded to give the ride safety instructions - something Disney wanted to be sure everyone heard. Without the wienie most people would not have heard it. The video drew their attention.

How do we draw attention in our classrooms?

Well, for one, we can use video too!

Video intros do a great job of making students excited to learn. This is my intro for my modified DBQ Where Am I? We just did this earlier this week and, as usual, the students couldn't wait to start it. One of my kids who rarely does his work commented "this is going to be awesome!" right after the video ended. 

Wienies in the classroom can take many forms. In Teach like a Pirate Dave Burgess calls these hooks. Even Madeline Hunter knew about Wienies calling them the Anticipatory Set. They can be as simple as a thought-provoking bellwork question on the board or a clever use of clipart on a worksheet.  They can be more elaborate like coming to class in costume or placing a mystery box in front of the room.  

You may not be able to build a full scale castle in your classroom or even a 1/3rd scale mountain like the Matterhorn but you can create wienies. Our kids can be led to greater and greater experiences if we can follow this great commandment.

If you want to learn more, register for CCSS18 here and then add Design Like Disney to you schedule!

Let's Play: Provide or Conquer?

posted Sep 3, 2017, 8:10 AM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Sep 14, 2017, 9:04 AM ]

I've recently finished creating a classroom decision-making game based on the fall of the Roman Empire. If you've played my 13 Colonies game it will look fairly familiar. 

I have yet to play this one with students but I've tested it myself and it all seems to work properly. I'll be playing it with my kids next week so I'll update from there. Until then, enjoy Provide or Conquer!

Provide or Conquer

Time to play: 45 minutes

Materials: Scoresheet, game presentation, projector

Set up: Either print scoresheets for each team or provide them with the electronic version. The electronic version is highly recommended as it will track points automatically for students.

How to win:

-The goal is to earn as much gold as possible by the end of the game.

-Gold is earned each turn based on the team’s population. Tax is collected at a rate of 5 gold per population each turn.

-Gold can also be earned at various decision points in the game but tax collecting is the primary method.

Game Terms:

-Order: A representation of how peaceful and safe your nation currently is. It has very minor effects during the game but a huge effect at the end. Players should not be told how Order will affect them.

-Population: A representation of the size of your nation. More people means more opportunity to collect taxes. For the Romans expansion was essentially necessary. They needed the spoils of war and increase tax collection to pay for their massive government projects.

-Gold: A representation of the power of your nation. While not necessarily a good one it was often how nations measured themselves in relation to one another. Plus, it’s easy for kids to understand that more gold is better than less gold.

How to play:

1.       Divide students into teams. Any size would work for this game. It can be played individually but debating choices amongst the team is more valuable.

2.       Begin Round 1: 50 B.C.

3.       To start the round teams choose to Provide or Conquer. This decision is recorded in the second column on the score sheet by writing either “Provide” or “Conquer.”

a.       Provide is based on the idea of “bread and circuses” which the Roman emperors used to pacify the people.  This choice adds 1 Order to the team. This is recorded in the third column (Order Change) of the score sheet by writing “+1.”

b.       Conquer simulates Roman conquests of barbarian tribes. This choice adds 2 Population to the team but subtracts 1 Order (Order can, and often will be, negative.) This is recorded in both the third and fourth columns of the sheet.

4.       Once all teams have made and recorded their choice reveal the first Event.

5.       In this event Julius Caesar has just conquered the Gauls. Your teams must decide what to do with the conquered people. They will choose A if they want to accept them into the empire or B if they want them kicked out. There is a 30 second timer than you can start at any point if they are taking too long to decide. Their decision is recorded in column 5 “Event Decision” on the scoresheet.

6.       Once all teams have recorded a decision or time has run out reveal the results on the next slide. The results are designed to reflect historical reality of their choices. They record any losses or gains in columns 6, 7, and 8.

7.       If you are using the electronic sheet the 50 B.C. round is over, the spreadsheet calculates all points automatically. Repeat for the remaining rounds. If you are on paper it’s now time to do math.

*This is possible to do on paper. I’ve done a similar game before. I wouldn’t recommend it. It makes the game take at least twice as long. But, if that’s your only choice here’s how to do it:

a.       In column 9 “Order Total” teams calculate their Order lost or gained for the turn from both of their decisions. They start at zero so this turn they just write whatever the change was.

b.       In column 10 “Population Total” they do the same but they start with a Population of 5. So, a team that had +2 Pop in column 4 would write a 7 (5 + 2) in column 10.

c.       In column 11 “Taxes” they multiply their total from column 10 by 5. In the above example, they would write 35 (5 x 7.)

d.       In column 12 “Gold Total” they write their total gold so far in the game. At this point this number will be the same as the number in column 11 Taxes.  Next turn, however, they will add their previous turn’s gold to any gold earned that turn (through taxes or event decisions) for their new total.

8.       Plays continues until the final round, 476 A.D. At this point final checks are made based on the Order stat. Final gold calculations are made and a winner is declared.


The Power of Simplicity

posted Aug 18, 2017, 7:49 PM by Kevin Roughton

"This is so fun!" - Student from the back of the room while doing an activity about learning the continents.

Anyone who knows me knows that I basically hate maps. I mean, not actual maps. They are awesome. I have them framed and hanging on my walls at home. I mean maps in history classes. Far too often we teach maps without any purpose. We have this vague argument that they "need to know where things are" but I don't think we really believe it. Asking kids to be able to identify the Great Lakes by name, for example, seems pretty pointless to me.  I think the truth is many of us teach maps because that's just what we expect of a history class. 

As a result, I really don't do much with maps in my class. We use them as documents in DBQs and not much else. I do, however, realize that my students do need some kind of mental picture of what I'm saying when I reference Europe or Asia. So, a few years ago, our team designed an activity that was fun, simple and a great way to give students a mental picture to work with regarding the continents, and I nearly skipped it this year.

In this activity students imagine the maps of the continents as clouds in the sky. The whole point is that when they see a picture in a presentation that has a map of Europe they'll go "oh ya, that's the claw grabbing the dinosaur, must be Europe."
What is amazing about it is how much the kids get into it. All day long I had hands jumping up and reaching as high into the sky as they could. I had kids begging to go up to the screen so they could point out little details in the map that reminded them of all sorts of strange things. We were talking about maps and they were absolutely loving it. 

When we are constantly bombarded with rigor, rigor, rigor (and rightfully so) it is easy to forget that simple activities can still be inquiry-based and rigorous. Watching the students try to convince one another that what they saw was the right thing was hilarious.  Seeing kids who hadn't said a word in the first 9 days running to stand in front of the class was simply fantastic.  Having one literally say from the back "this is so fun!" is amazing.

And again.. we were learning maps - the only thing in history that rivals vocabulary in boredom!

Simplicity and play are such basic tools that I know we often feel like we aren't teaching correctly if we use them. We really need to get over that. Simple designs can still lead to deep and engaging learning experiences.

So, why did I almost not do it? Time. We had some new things to do schoolwide to start our year this year and something had to go for me to keep up my pacing. Luckily, more schedule changes necessitated me finding a 30 minute activity versus the full hour one I had planned for today. In the Clouds fit perfectly and I'm so glad it did. It has me reconsidering the other simple, playful activities I dropped from the beginning of my year in the name of progress. They just might have to come back somehow.

Turns out simplicity is pretty powerful.

Here's the full lesson plan:

In the Clouds

This is a shockingly simple yet effective activity. Students get excited about learning the continents in a unique way. Most importantly it teaches them that the importance of learning the continents is not just memorization but special awareness.

Purpose: Help students learn to identify the continents by look not just by name.

Time: 30 minutes

Materials: none


On a new paper titled in the clouds try to list the names of the 7 continents. If you don’t know for sure, take your best guess!


Explain to students the concept of cloud gazing. Ask them what the example cloud looks like to get them thinking.Tell them that today they are going to imagine looking at clouds in the sky and figuring out what they look like.

Show the first map (Europe.) Students are to write a sentence explaining what it would like if it were a cloud in the sky. They should explain their reasoning. They may not say “It looks like Europe!”


                -An alien claw reaching down to grab a dinosaur

After writing give students time to share with a shoulder partner and then with the entire class. Ask them to come up to the map and point if necessary.

Repeat with the other maps. (Currently Australia and Antarctica are not included in this activity.)

After going through the 5 maps it is time to test the students. Use the remaining slides to quiz them rapid fire.  Show the image and ask them as a class to chorally say which continent it is. When they get the wrong (and they will) remind them “That’s South America, remember, puppy begging at the table – South America.” I continue this for about 5 minutes. By the end they’ve pretty much got it.


Basic History Through Play

posted Jul 21, 2017, 10:10 AM by Kevin Roughton

If you ask a student coming out of elementary school what a historian does I think they'd answer:
-Make vocab flashcards
-Color maps
-Build missions out of sugar cubes

If you asked the same student after high school they'd likely answer:
-Make vocab flashcards
-Color maps
-Take multiple choice quizzes

But what does a historian really do?  They:
-Gather information
-Analyze the information to form conclusions
-Share their conclusions in writing or verbally

That's what I want my incoming middle schoolers to think of from the very beginning of my class. And, while GAS, would be a great acronym to use with 12 year olds we instead use the 3Cs (which I made before the C3!).


All year long that's what my kids will be doing so I want to introduce it right away.  I do it through three days of play each focused on one of the Cs. I've had these labs for awhile now but realize they need more explaining. So, here we go!

I start with the simple claim that truth exists. Something happened in the past. We may not be able to be 100% what that was, but it still happened. As historians, we need to support our view of the truth. That is the core of my classroom.

I then go into an analogy comparing a historian to the legal system. The Collect step is the police officer at the scene. He takes pictures, asks for testimony and gets any relevant documents. He may do some minor analysis of those things but ultimately his job is "just the facts ma'am."

The first activity is Crush.  Students imagine a scenario most experienced on day 1 already - there's a really cute person they want to learn about. They brainstorm ideas of how to do so without talking to the person (because they are so gorgeous you're afraid you'll drool on yourself if you try!)  Inevitably they make a list including asking others about them, searching for them online, and observing (stalking) them. I excitedly exclaim "that's exactly what we historians get to do! We stalk dead people!"  I then go over how we can do that.

Activity 2 gets into how we collect his information starting with archaeology. In this part each student is given 2 toothpicks, a rainbow chip cookie and a plate. They are given 3-5 minutes to "dig" (with the toothpicks) out as many of the "artifacts" (colored chips) from the "dirt" (cookie) as they can without breaking them. Of course, at the end they get to eat whatever is left. Some end up eating nothing but cookie dust. This leads to a discussion of why so little historical information is available to us today from antiquity. It teaches students to have an appreciation for the primary sources that are available. Also, it's fun.

Activities 3 and 4 are much less fun. In these I teach students how we do close reading and marking the text in my class. I made sure to pick a relevant but interesting reading. They need to know that reading is a key skill for any successful historian.

Activity 5 is a simple race using Google search. I've found that most kids have no idea how to do a search quickly. This simple game lets me teach them simple tricks (like, you know, not typing the ENTIRE question into the search field...) to get them going.

The Consider step in our law analogy is the detective. He cross-references witness statements with physical evidence to build an idea of what happened. He is building off the work of the police officer.

Activity 1 is a class jigsaw puzzle. Each student is given 10-15 pieces of a 500 piece puzzle. Using their pieces and by looking at those around them they are to try to decide what the puzzle is. I ask very detailed questions about the scene such as "What time is it?" "Is the sun rising or setting?" "Is that a river, ocean or stream?" depending on the puzzle. At first the kids think it is impossible. They get frustrated that none of their pieces fit together. Yet, they always get really close to the actual puzzle once they talk about it. Analysis is powerful, even when we don't have all the pieces just like our broken historical record.

Activity 2 continues Crush. In this I ask them to imagine they've gotten hold of the person's backpack. They dig inside and pull out 3 items. They need to decide what each item individually, and then all 3 in concert, tell them about the person. I follow this up with the clip from the Little Mermaid where Ariel brings Scuttle the "human stuff" that he has to analyze.

Activity 3 is a series of scenarios where students must explain the motivation behind what a person is saying. This is our introduction to bias.

Activity 4 starts with a still frame from a video clip. Students must write what caused it and then what happened after. I show the clip and ask how close we were.

Activity 5 is an introduction to picture analysis using a technique where a picture is analyzed piece by piece instead of all at once.

Our legal analogue here is the lawyer. She takes the information from the detective and communicates it to the jury in a way they will understand. 

Activity 1 is a simple drawing exercise. Students draw a random object in the room. This is to show that writing is not the only form of communication.

Activity 2 involves sharing your drawing with a partner to see if they can guess what it is. Communication requires sharing your information. This also shows that we can communicate verbally.

Activity 3 outlines our process for writing an argumentative paragraph in history.  We start with a simple argument that anyone can understand: Cats vs. dogs.

Activity 4 wraps up the Crush. In it students write a note professing their deep admiration for this person based on the conclusions drawn from the artifacts. The essentially write the boring, sterile love note in history. It's a great cap to the week!

These activities for a memorable base for my students. Throughout the year I say things like "remember when you dug into the cookie?" or "remember the crush?" and they get it. The connections work. My students go from having no idea what a historian does to being mini-historians in just a few days and they love it. It is a great way to spend some time in your first couple weeks!

Gamification Year 2 Part 2

posted Jul 20, 2017, 8:43 AM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Sep 27, 2017, 3:35 PM ]

As I noted in part 1, I don't think gamifying my classroom to the Next Level has increased engagement in my classes. I've had light game layers for years. Unifying them all into one central theme had made it more coherent but I'm not sure it has made a difference for the kids. I think that my failure to properly implement the reward system is part of the issue.

Turns out rewards are hard. 

My reward system operates on both a class and individual level. Classes earn points for behavior and the like to compete against the other classes. Individuals earn XP to unlock Power Ups.  The class layer works great. The individual layer has been the challenge. I've redone the skill chart at least half a dozen times but here's the one I plan to use in the upcoming year:

As shown in part 1, as students earn XP they get Skill Cards which they can turn in to use the power ups in the chart above. I made sure all students earn level 1 and 2. I called each of them up to my desk, showed them the XP chart and gave them their reward. My idea was that once they'd experienced engaging with the reward system they'd do it more consistently. 

They kind of did. I had more engagement with it than in year one but still, overall, only about 30% of my students used any of their rewards last year beyond the level 1 and 2. 

So, why was that?

1) Many of the rewards were pointless. I made the reward chart just before we completely redid our assessments. There was a Power Up that let students redo a test - but then we made all tests infinitely redoable anyway. There was one that let them use their cell phones for 10 minutes during a quiz - but then we went 1 to 1 and Chromebooks were used all the time in every quiz. I've redone the rewards to make them all much more desirable this time around. I'm also considering changing it from 2 rewards per level to 5-6 rewards per level chunk. This would give kids more options and allow them to reuse a Power Up they really enjoyed. That would likely increase their engagement with this layer. 

2) The fear of limitations. Some students horded their tokens, waiting for the perfect moment to spend them. Then the year ended and they were stuck with nothing but laminated strips of paper. I totally sympathize with the kids on this one as it is how I play video games as well. When I unlock that awesome limited use power up I NEVER use it.  I don't know what the solution to this is other than maybe putting a time limit on each Power Up. That would require more tracking on my part and I'm not sure it would do enough to push them to use them anyway.

3) I didn't re-explain it often enough. All year long I'd have random kids asking me "How do I get my Power Up cards?" "How do I level up?"  Of course, I'd gone over all this in depth on Launch Day in August and posted the rules online and on the classroom wall but these are 12 year olds we're talking about. I need to do full class reminders much more often. I'll try to do it every time I post a new leaderboard as that puts the game front and center.

I think these are all problems that I can lesson if not completely solve.

The classroom layer is much more effective. Classes earn (or lose) points all week and then use those points to play The Bonus Round at the end of the week. 

The game is pretty dumb. It's 6 doors that the class can spend points to open and get random rewards or punishments. It takes max 5 minutes but they absolutely LOVE IT.  My entire classroom management system boils down to me picking up a marker and walking toward toward the scoreboard. That's all it takes. Those class points are gold to them. 

Whenever a class hits 1000 points (which takes about 2 months on average) they earn a class reward like donuts or cookies and the points reset. 

I think the game works so well, despite it's simplicity, for two major reasons:
1) It's a shared experience
2) It's always in sight

One student leads each week. They are the only person I listen to in terms of which doors to open. The rest of the class always helps the person decide and they cheer and jeer as a unit. Plus, using their own individual rewards students can influence the game even if they are not the leader by blocking bad moves or doubling up good ones. 

The scoreboard is right on my front whiteboard. Everyone sees it all the time. It's not like an XP sheet online. It's always there. The class layer is always in sight and therefore always in mind. I've tried to do that with the individual layer by adding the Wall of Champions but I'm not sure it has done much. We'll see as it grows.

All that said, I learned something very important at the end of my game this year - they aren't that important. My students loved my game - both on the class and individual layer. When they reached the end and saw the closing video and credits 2 of my 3 classes burst into cheers unprompted (not sure what was wrong with the last one...)  In their year end reflections many commented on how they liked playing as an Agent, including many who never cashed in their rewards.

It makes sense of course. I haven't played hundreds of hours of Tetris in my life hoping for an extrinsic reward. I just really enjoy getting better and the game. I don't spend weeks playing through an RPG to make a powerful character, I do it to see the narrative of the game. Those are the rewards.

So, yes, rewards are hard, but so what? If only half of my kids engage on that level that's half as many rewards I have to dole out. If they are all engaged in the game (and more importantly the class) anyway, so what?  I'll leave the rewards out there for my eager achievers and completionists but I won't stress too much if not ever player cares!

Gamification Year 2 Part 1

posted May 28, 2017, 11:56 AM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated May 28, 2017, 12:22 PM ]

After two years of running my gamified classroom The Fracture Crisis, I feel really ready to talk about the process of gamifying your classroom. I plan to do so over a series of entries here alongside posting all my materials on the Fracture Crisis site.

First, two notes.

1) You do not need to buy anything to run a gamified classroom. I've spent a bit of money paying artists to do voice work for my game videos but that's it. I'm tired of seeing teachers selling pieces of their games like power-up cards and tracking sheets. If you want to sell a book, whatever, go ahead, but then you had better include the pieces needed with it. Most don't. Everything is my game is free and there's tons more out there free as well. Don't spend - share.

2) I don't think gamifying my classroom has made any measurable difference in student engagement. That's a hard thing to admit given the work I've put into it, but it's the truth. I never had an issue with engagement though. Some kids have really enjoyed the game layer and I'll happily continue it but it hasn't led to any noticeable shifts in my classroom feel. "Playful learning" has always been a part of my room, even if it wasn't fully a game.

So that said, let's dive in part 1!

Part 1: Tracking

The absolute toughest nut to crack with gamification is tracking player progress in the game. There are website options such as ClassDojo and Classcraft but if you're like me you're required to use a certain grade program already. I was not interested in recording all my information twice so using a 3rd party site was a no go for me. 

Year 1 to keep things easy I just had a 1:1 connection between points earned in the gradebook and XP levels in the class game. That worked fine but really didn't contribute to the game feel. No matter how hard I tried I just could not break the hold of "points" and "grades" in the minds of my students. That is a functional method but not an elegant one.

Year I wanted to do more so I created a spreadsheet to track XP that could be gained from a variety of sources. 

The sheet went through multiple revisions and it still isn't quite where I want it. Despite my deep knowledge of PowerPoint I know very little about Spreadsheets so I'm learning as I go. The last thing I really want to do is make it easy to change the XP required per level without updating the entire sheet - but that's what Summers are for.

As it stands it is pretty simple. Column R (Mission XP) is the amount of points currently in the gradebook for each student. My gradebook program has an export to spreadsheet option which gives me a nice column in an Excel sheet that I can simply copy and paste into this one. I don't have to manually input each score (which is what I did in Year 1.)  Column S (Bonus XP) is done by hand when students complete optional sidequests or just do something awesome.  Those two columns are automatically summed up in Column B giving their total current XP. Then, the boxes change colors when each XP threshold in Row 3 is met. This allows students to very quickly see their growth and progress over the course of the game and see where they stand in relation to the other players. 

This visual format was still not clear enough for some of my students. Next year I will explain how the chart works to them in detail. I think part of the reason why many players did not engage with the level up system is that the never quite understood how it worked. I assumed given their experience with games on their phones at the very least they'd get it. My fault for assuming anything with 7th graders I suppose.

Still, after all my fiddling this is, by far, the fastest and clearest way I've devised to track the XP in the class.

Here's what it looks like in use:

This version I have all the columns visible for reference but when I post it to our student page I turn columns R and S white so they disappear. No student knows where the other students' XP has come from. This helps maintain privacy if anyone is concerned about such things (and optional code names helps too.)

Once students have leveled up I had to find a way to track their use of power ups. Some teachers give each student a baseball card holder sheet and print out card-sized power-ups. I think this is a fine idea it just seemed like a lot of work for me when I was really just trying to get my game actually going. I may work on this over the Summer but what I went for instead was something small that students could keep in their ID holders on their lanyards.  I started with Subway-style punch cards. That was a mistake. They were way too easily lost and didn't have enough pop.  So, I ended up making little skill cards that would fit in the holders (half way to the card sized ones!)

Here's a sample:

I laminated each sheet and had then in a container on my desk. When a student leveled up it was his or her responsibility to come to me and pick up their skill cards. I then marked "completed" on the tracking sheet and they could use it whenever they chose. While the system worked great for me and for the players who actually engaged with it  I still want a better way. It just wasn't in their face enough to interest the fence-sitters. 

Next time I'll discuss the rewards I used and how I think I can adjust that part of the game to interest more players. Until then, I highly recommend playing around with the score sheet above. Even if it doesn't meet your needs it should give you an idea how to build one of your own without spending unnecessary money to do so (save that for the rewards!)

I hate, yes hate,

posted Mar 22, 2017, 12:50 PM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Oct 20, 2017, 11:24 AM ]

Those of you who know me know I'm actively, vocally against the who idea behind TeachersPayTeachers. My previous dislike (now hatred) goes way back. Very early on the site owner tried to sell pictures she had taken of a movie set to the teachers who produced materials on the website. She presented this in an email to all her producers as a gift to them to help work within copyright. Then she SOLD THE PICTURES. These are the producers who make the site work. She could have just provided the pictures and made the money on the back end from their ridiculous percentage cuts. Nope, she tried to sell them. That was my first clue that the site exists not to help educators but to make money for a select few.

Please understand, I'm as capitalist as they come. I mean, I have an infatuation with Ayn Rand for goodness' sake. I, however, am not for capitalism veiled in lies that takes advantage of our kids. In the spirit of providing perfect information here are more reasons why I now hate, yes hate,

1. These People

Apparently there are some sellers on TpT who realized how great of a teacher I am and decided to steal my lessons and sell them themselves. 

One guy has a perfect 4.0 rating (I'm flattered) and calls himself "A Social Studies Professional." He has over 23000 ratings and 4000+ followers on the site. That's a lot of teachers, and an exponentially larger amount of students, who have been ripped off by the site and this guy.  

He claims it was all accidental but that just makes my point all the more. I've seen very few actual "new" ideas on TPT. Everything is a remix of someone else's idea. Ideas that are shared freely and then stamped with some clipart and given a price tag. It's disgusting.

Another took some of my CYOA ideas, made them a heck of a lot worse (I mean, at least she didn't blatantly copy the sheets I guess) and then decided to sell them. I'll be interested to see if she responds.  I'm sure she'll claim that somehow it was an accident and that she came up with assignments exactly like mine with the exact same names all on her own. 

2. "Free" Stuff

TpT defenders tell me frequently that there is plenty of good, free material on it if you really search. I'm sure they are right. My problem is that the TpT owners make it as hard as possible to both list and find free materials. As a producer I am constantly reminded when I post a free item that I should probably not list it free if it is over a certain size (more than a page).

As a consumer I have to go through multiple clicks to change the search parameters to show free items.

Compare this to any legitimate app store like Apple's who literally have an entire section dedicated to their most popular free offerings. Good luck finding such a thing on TpT.

3. Normalization of Bad Behavior

"Kids who don't share on the playground get a lecture. Teachers who don't share get paid!"  That would be an appropriate tag line for TpT. TpT makes it okay for teachers to not share, in fact it is a lauded act now. "I paid for a cruise!" one marketing email from TpT blasted to it's producers. Congratulations, you profited off your colleagues and their students. You also likely deprived many other students of access to your great lesson.

Are we in education in this together or not? Do we really care about kids or not? We manage to all wear black to protest a Secretary of Ed we fear is trying to profit off kids and then we turn around and do it ourselves? We wear red to protest budget cuts then force our colleagues to pay for ideas that could help their students? Something just isn't adding up.

It's sad that Twitter, which used to be my main form of PD and connection is now basically unusable for those things. The tags I'd previously relied on, particularly #sschat, have become nothing but marketing vessels for various TpT Sellers. Where I used to be able to ask for ideas and get great discussions going I'm now offered $4 lessons that I could have made myself.

Not cool.

I don't know what I hope to gain by finally posting this - just venting at least I guess - but I'm ready for a movement. There are TONS of great, free resources out there that I hope people will start to use.  Please stop using TpT and support them instead. Even better, go produce for them and share your awesome ideas. We need them!

And keep an eye on the Daughters of the American Revolution at as they will soon be seeking help on creating their own open, free database on American History lessons. I'll be taking part for sure and I hope many others will too.

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