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.
Yesterday I went to Disneyland for the first time in years. I’ve written quite a few blogs about how Disney ideals and practices can positively influence our classrooms. I’ve read a few incredible books about applying Disney principles to life and molded them to fit education. I love Disney and yesterday did not disappoint.
My major takeaway for the day (aside from fun of course) was the way that Disney is always pushing and improving their parks even when they clearly don’t need to. Disneyland has increased tickets prices consistently over the last FOREVER but especially lately with the intent of keeping the crowds manageable. They could just as easily let the rides age and lower demand for the parks but they do not. Three experiences stood out and really helped hammer home my new focus on “always 1.0.”
First, I finally got to go on the updated Star Tours ride. Star Tours was the first ride at any park that blew me away. When it first opened there was nothing like it. The mix of motion with visuals in a simulation was unbelievable. The ride remained popular for years but Disney redid it anyway a few years ago (before their purchase of Lucasfilm I believe.) The new version was just as amazing as the original. The ride is still essentially the same but the resolution of the screen is now unbelievably high. It looked stunningly real – even through 3D glasses. The motion felt similar but just by updating the visuals it felt like an entirely modern ride. We don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel when we update our lessons. We just need to add in the newest tools we’ve picked up in our kits.
The second thing that stuck out was Cars Land. I knew nothing about it other than the concept art I’d seen for it years ago. It is incredible. The attention to detail astounds. From the way the pathways are paved and painted like roads to the freeway railings using to line the paths everything just oozes Route 66. One can easily see that the Disney Imagineers put every single one of their tricks of the trade into this design. It is the culmination of 60+ years of park design (and has me doubly excited for 2019s Star Wars Land!) I’ve never even seen Cars but I was there, in that world.
Especially in social studies we should be seeking to create that same experience. Our students often have little to no context of the topics we teach until we teach them. The more we can immerse them the more quickly we can draw them in. What little things can we do to add to the story? What about the color-scheme we use for a given unit? What about changing up the font to match the culture? What about the sounds? Can you hang posters or little decorations in your classroom? We probably can’t create Cars Land but we can use our tools to set the scene.
The greatest effect on me came from the Little Mermaid ride in California Adventure. I really can’t stand The Little Mermaid movie. I think it teaches girls perhaps the worst lesson of any movie I’ve ever seen. (If you are physically attracted to a guy you should disobey your father and sacrifice your very self to pursue him… ugh.) Still, I wanted to see how Disney Imagineers updated their traditional Fantasyland “dark rides” like Snow White and Peter Pan’s Flight. I’ve been on their other recent ones (Monsters Inc and Winnie the Pooh) but they really didn’t have much in the way of advancement. I wondered if Little Mermaid would just be a simple, paint-by-numbers attraction as well.
It’s quite amazing in fact. It opens with a simple light effect (it’s literally a projector shining on a mirror, I looked.) to simulate going underwater. Then you see Scuttle, the seagull, who looks like any of the other, much older, animatronic figures. It’s a solid opening to the story but is nothing special.
Then it just gets turned up to 11. You see Ariel who has a shocking number of points of articulation. Her hair, for example, despite being one big piece of plastic moves independently of her head giving it a sort of flowing motion (you are underwater after all.) Shortly after, you hit the main scene of the ride – a huge room of sea creatures performing Under the Sea. There is motion everywhere (it reminds me of a scene from It’s a Small World) and perfectly turned location-specific audio. You can hear specific animals playing specific instruments. When they do the sound originates from their spot in the scene. It isn’t just one audio track blasting – it truly feels like you are in the midst of the performance. It really needs to be experienced to be appreciated.
The ride closes with an extremely life-like Sebastian (his eyes are small LCD screens I think, they are far more expressive than plastic could be) and one last shot of Ariel and Erik and their incredibly articulated models. It really is impressive. Disney could have phoned this one in. I doubt the extra work they put into this ride sold a single extra ticket. Little girls who love Ariel would go and love the ride no matter how advanced it was. They could have cut costs and surely saved time but they went all in on making it the best ride they could.
Always 1.0 indeed. If Disneyland, who has little impetus to keep improving, continues to push the envelope further and further shouldn’t we do the same in our classrooms? Are you still delivering that awesome lesson from 10 years ago the same way you did when you first built it? Have you not learned any new tricks to spice it up? As I noted before, I’ve been very guilty of this. I’ve been shocked to see how much every single lesson I’ve done the last few weeks needed updating. I’ve learned a ton since I first designed many of my lessons and I haven’t gone back to apply those skills to them. I think we should.
I really want to get back to playing with location specific audio. I put together a lesson on Vicksburg a couple years ago that utilized Bluetooth speakers in various parts of the room to simulate cannons bursting all around. It worked well, especially for a first try, but I just haven’t tried it again. I feel like something as simple as having a hidden speaker playing random jungle sounds when I start the Mayans could really go a long way. Ultimately I want a multi speaker set up that I can manage from my phone. I want to be able to play a given sound from a given speaker on command. I’m a long way from that but that doesn’t mean I can’t do something with the concept (especially since I already have!)
Not everything has to be huge. It just has to keep getting better. Always 1.0!
Mary Poppins: Our first game is called Well Begun is Half-Done.
Michael: I don't like the sound of that.
Mary Poppins: Otherwise titled Let's Tidy up the Nursery.
Michael: [to Jane] I told you she was tricky.
In the last day I've had two new teachers ask me about how start to designing a new lab. I didn't really have an easy answer in either case so I'm going to do my best to explain it here.
First, go read Teach like a Pirate. It is focused on social studies but it is a fantastic tool for creating any new activity. The author, Dave Burgess, offers a series of questions to ask yourself to help come up with your hook for the lesson. That really is the hardest part so that would be a great place to start.
If, like me, you've read the and still find yourself stuck I'd say the next step is to think of your central question. Every good lab, in any subject, is centered around the question. That is what turns a lesson from an info dump into an investigation.
Did Julius Caesar want to die?
Should Andrew Jackson be removed from the $20 bill?
Were the Mayans really advanced?
How is marine biology different from whateverwordmeansnonmarine biology?
What happens if we use a number system based on 20 instead of 10?
What did Edgar Allen Poe's stories have in common?
Often these questions come from our standards or framework but they can just as easily come from outside influences. Many times I've been watching something on TV and heard a question or saw a topic that I felt my students would enjoy investigating. Other times my questions have come from looking at other lessons on the topic.
Once you have the question you can start to ask yourself the best way to help students discover the answer. Is it through a guided Internet search? Is it through analysis of graphics? A simulation? A game? An act it out? A modification of another lesson I've done? Sometimes it is as simple for me as looking at my calendar and seeing what lab types we haven't used in awhile. (It's been three weeks since we did a Digging for the Truth? Let's do that!) You surely have a huge tool box of lesson types and ideas that you've picked up in "teacher school" or through your time teaching.
With your question and general lesson idea in hand (or at least in head) you can start looking for additional media to bring into the lesson. You can check out Youtube for connected videos or fire up a Google image search. You can start to think of songs - old or now - that can connect to your lab. This is just window dressing though. Don't hold off on a lab simply because you couldn't spice it up with media. The core is the question and the delivery method.
When in doubt - crowdsource it. I'm a huge advocate of Twitter (less so since October but that's another story...) as professional development. For any subject the teachers at the #TLAP are wonderful. That is the community tied to Teach like a Pirate. It is a community of teachers who want to engage their students and their ideas are fantastic. It is one of the few communities that isn't overrun with political commentary. It is just teachers looking to drive themselves (and each other) to do the very best for their students. When I hit a wall and just can't think of something to do with a topic I'll take it to them. Sometimes they have exactly what I need. Other times I'll just get an idea that sends me in the right direction. And, yes, sometimes I get no response. Even that, though, drives me forward. That just means someone needs to make it happen and well, it might as well be me.
The key to it really is to just began. Mary Poppins was pretty spot on with her analysis. I'd change only one thing. I don't think the job even has to be well begun. I just think it has to be begun period. Burgess writes about the power of our creative brains functioning in the background once we've given it a question to grapple with. Start a Word Doc and put some ideas down. In a few years you may end up with dozens of file names like "Compromise Lab [unfinished]" like I have but you'll also find you end up with many completed labs ready to use, engage and hopefully share.
I highly recommend trying to design your own labs (which are really just inquiry based lessons) and see where it takes you.
I had a conversation with another teacher this weekend that left me thinking. He created a new lab based on one I had built previously and he made sure to tell me it was "very 1.0" implying that it still had work to be done on it. 1.0 in technical terms means a software version that is functional and ready for market. Naming it 1.0, however, indicates that revisions (1.1, 1.7, 2.0, etc.) are expected to come.
I responded that my labs are "always 1.0." I constantly change, tweak and rebuild labs in order to make them more effective and more engaging. I've written before about how some teachers are intimidated by what I do saying they could never do it themselves. I hope to again point out that what is do is A) never perfect and B) a result of lots of work. It isn't magic!
When I started teaching I can vividly remember thinking that in three years of teaching my curriculum I'd have it down. I'd drive myself crazy designing and lesson planning for those three years and then it would be smooth sailing until retirement. After year three I adjusted my expectations to year 5. By year 7 I realized that I never would hit that point of being "done" and if I did - I wasn't giving my students my best. I grow, I learn new techniques and my students are different every year. Always 1.0!
So, with that mindset I did my Digging for the Truth: Maya lab yesterday. I got this lab from a colleague many years ago. It's a great lab and has been from the start. The students get way into it and learn a ton, not only about the Mayans, but about how to get information from artifacts and make reasonable inferences from them. A few years ago I tweaked it a little to add a scripted narrative that led students through the exhibits. Then, last year, I added a guide sheet with sentence starters to help focus their thinking. However, the lab was essentially unchanged. It still looked the same and performed the same. If it ain't broke, why fix it? Right?
Here are all the marks I made on just page 1 of the script. With the mindset of "always 1.0" I found many things that could be updated and improved in the presentation and script. I simply kept track as I ran the lab of the things that looked like they could be better. Every time my mind wandered into "man it would be cool if..." I wrote it down. When I reviewed my notes at the end of the day I found that some of them were thing I've planned to fix for years (adding visual numbers to the slides so I could keep track of my place in the script.) Others were things that I've learned how to do since last hosting the lab (adding an animation of walking through the jungle.)
And, perhaps most importantly, some were things I couldn't do. I wanted to make the painting of the calendar look more like was actually an object hanging on the wall and not just an illustration. I played around with some of the 3D tools in Powerpoint but the image just isn't built for it. Even adding simple shadows didn't help. So, right now, it still looks like a painting on the wall. When I do this again next year I'm sure I'll be reminded that it is, after all, only version 1.0 and maybe by then I'll have learned how to do what I'm envisioning.
Now, the big question. Will any of the changes I made improve the learning that takes place in this lab? Honestly, I don't think they will. They will, perhaps, increase attention and engagement very slightly. Again, this lab was already very engaging. Students have loved it from the beginning. Still, the time spent is well worth it. I'll feel more excited hosting the lab next year. I'm always more interested when trying something with new elements than when hosting a lab in the same way as I have for years.
I encourage you to try out an "always 1.0" mindset the next time you do an activity you've done in the past. Step back and ask yourself what it would look like if you had no limits on your technical abilities. Then, go build to that point. Get it a little closer to that vision. Very good can still be better.
**Update - One Week Later***
Okay, so this 1.0 idea has proven to be a huge game-changer for me. Over the last week I've been more focused on not just making little improvements whenever possible but on analyzing my audience. Going in to each period with the idea of "this is 1.0, how do I improve it?" has really shifted my perspective on my lessons. I'm actively looking for those spots where attention starts to lull or the response isn't quite what I expected. I've been posting sticky notes and little scribbled notes all over the place.
Most of these changes have been very small and have taken only a few minutes to make. In some cases I've been able to pick up on the areas of improvement early in the day and fix them for the remaining classes. This is, of course, always something I've done but this focus has made it much more front and center.
I recommend for your next lesson have a Post-it stuck to your desk with "1.0" written at the top. As you host the lesson make notes about anything you think could be improved - no matter how big or small. At the end of the lesson make a quick note on what didn't meet your expectations.
This mentality is incredibly freeing. I don't feel the pressure to be perfect. I feel the excitement of knowing next time will be better. Always 1.0!
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!