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.

More Time Warp!

posted May 15, 2019, 6:24 PM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated May 20, 2019, 5:23 PM ]

Two more Time Warp games are ready to play. I recommend you copy each of the files in the folders below to your own Google Drive (File > Make a Copy) to avoid any network issues. You will need to update the links in the main Play file and at the end of each chapter to match the new URLs of your copied files. When you create a share link you can change the "EDIT" word in the URL to "PRESENT" to have the file open in show mode.

Time Warp 1: Transformation

Time Warp 2: The Explorers
Google Drive Folder
Time Warp 3: Going West

Time Warp 4: Civil War Lives

Analysis Guide <- Download this file and print for each student

New Breakout!

posted Apr 9, 2019, 12:34 PM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated May 4, 2019, 4:49 PM ]

We did our new Underground Railroad Breakout yesterday and it was awesome!

I have not figured out the best way to share these as they are so intricate. I think this one is simpler than others I've done in the past. Almost everything you'll need can be found in this file:

You'll need to make your own Google Form "Lock" document and you'll need to either create your own "slave bags" or change those puzzles to something else. If you can manage to make them I highly recommend it as the physical artifacts added a ton to the experience.

This lab started with a request on Twitter. Someone asked for an Underground Railroad Breakout. I loved the idea and dove in head first. It led me to discover the show Underground (currently streaming on Hulu!) which allowed me to make this hype video!

I asked my colleagues for ideas and Mr. Gomez had the incredible idea of using glow-in-the-dark stars to make the Big Dipper to use along with Follow the Drinkin' Gourd. That idea drove the rest of the design as it was just so cool I had to make it the focal point.

Another colleague (go teamwork!) told me he had some "slave bags" from Colonial Williamsburg that he used years ago. He wasn't sure if, or how, I'd use them but he let me know anyway. I'm glad he did. The bags became another key part of the experience. I've written before about the value in making things real and I think one of the missing pieces to most Breakouts I've seen is that real piece. When I did an Escape Room every puzzle was based on something tangible. There's something fun about manipulating real objects to solve a puzzle. The slave bags gave me that element.  They are quite simple. They are just drawstring cloth bags with a few items in them that slaves might have been able to grab to take with them - a ribbon, a couple socks, a wooden spoon, a shell, a chain, a bill of sale, a flint and a piece of steel. 

And then I added one final touch of realia to the experience.

I hung this lantern outside the day of the lab with the light turned on. I wasn't sure kids would notice. They did. I had kids I'd never met asking me what it was for. Perfect!

I set up the room with glowing stars all over the ceiling (and a glowing moon in the center which proved to be a useful red herring.)  In the corner above the closet I put the ceiling stars in the shape of the Big Dipper and placed a large, cross-like star on the wall above the closet to represent the North Star. Inside the closet I placed a small treasure chest with the Freedom (from an Assignment) papers and some candy for the eventual winners.

On the front table I had my lock box with the code set to the answer to the Rebus puzzle. Inside the box were six black light flashlights and six sheets with the lyrics to Follow the Drinkin' Gourd. We're set!

I started the lab by providing every student with a copy of the letter which sets up the narrative. In this case, the Department of Timeline Security, which my kids have worked for all year, need help understanding the secrets of the Underground Railroad so they can use them to help free their captive American brothers in the future. The narrative also outlines the basics of the UR.  On the back they had a copy of the "How Codes Work" information sheet. I realized during my last attempt at a Breakout with this group that they had almost no experience with codes whatsoever. This sheet, which I will use a variant of in all my Breakouts from now on, helped to set the stage.  It also contained their first puzzle clue.

Next, I put them into groups and gave each a packet with the remaining info sheet. They had 10 minutes to review the sheets before I gave them access to the locks. I told them to look for, and underline, anything that stood out like numbers or strange words. This is something I will again be sure to do for all future breakouts. Giving them this time just to read ensured that they actually did.

They got right to work. They solved many of the puzzles quickly (which showed me they actually had read) but all seemed to struggle a bit with the map one. Eventually, one group got the Rebus Puzzle and then opened the box. By the time they realized what they were looking for two more groups also had their lights.

Finally, with literally seconds left, the first group to get the light found the Big Dipper, the North Star and the treasure chest.

The lesson was a resounding success. Three of our teachers have done it now and all reported high engagement from their students. What I am most satisfied with, however, is the amount of content they picked up. I always end up making my own Breakouts because the ones I find are so content-light. It is hard to balance the need to content with the desire to make it fun. This lab hit both points very well. 

Now I've got a bunch of stars on my ceiling begging to be used for something else... I do have the pirate unit coming up... perhaps another Breakout?

Improv in the Classroom

posted Apr 8, 2019, 1:05 PM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Apr 8, 2019, 1:06 PM ]

Turtle Talk with Crush is one of Disney's best kept secrets. It is a digital puppet show that takes place in the Animation building in the Hollywood area of Disney California Adventure. The technology used never ceases to amaze me. I've seen the show probably 20 times and I still don't know how they manage to pull off the live digital puppetry. Crush's face shows proper emotion, he moves to proper locations and it is all seamless and happens in context. When a baby cries and you see Crush's face contort before asking "Did anyone hear that very angry dolphin?" it is one of those powerful Disney How-Did-They-Do-That? moments. That is very cool but not the reason I keep going back. I've seen the show as many times as I have because it is never the same show. It is improv-based using audience interaction to make for a new, and frequently hilarious, experience every time. 
There's something very cool about being part of a show that will never be repeated. Disney used to have an improv team known as D.U.H. - the Department of Untapped Hilarity that performed a few times a day on the stage in the Hollywood Backlot. I would frequently come to the park after lunch and sit down for the 1 PM DUH show and literally no do anything else until 5 PM after their last show. I had a great time being part of the show offering my ideas that they performers then improvised off of. I, being a perfect middle schooler, tried to throw them off with the most random ideas I could - bochi ball for a sport, cardboard box for a hat, etc.  They always rolled with it and made it fun. The shows were incredibly funny but the uniqueness of each the emphasis on audience participation made it endlessly repeatable.

As someone who puts on the same show at least four times a day I see the importance of making sure they last one if just as engaging as the first. Can we use improv to enhance the experiences for all our classes? I think we can!

One of my favorite little activities is part of each of our Unit Walkthrus. These are simple introduction activities where students look at graphics relating to the upcoming unit and answer basic comprehension questions about them. The idea is to begin to create a visual schema for the students. They aren't particularly fun and by the end of the day I'm not very interested in participating along with the students. So, I added a part with improvised interactions. The first question always asks the students to describe an image in great detail. I started doing this early in my career when I found out that many of our EL kids were not moving forward on their EL levels because they struggled with descriptions. On the old CELDT they were shown a picture and told to describe it. They could, and usually did, get the description right but didn't write enough to show their overall level had improved. 

The improv part comes when I have them read their descriptions back to me. I take their descriptions and draw them exactly as they read them. If they leave out a piece of the description I just interpret it as I see fit. This leads to awesome drawings like:

Amazing right?

Some of their details that led to this monstrosity were:
"She has a bun but like in the back of her head."
"She has layers of clothes on."
"There's like a pattern on her dress."
"She has a double, no wait triple, chin."
"She has a crown that's like 3 upside-down ice cream cones."
"Her nose is huge."
"She has two strings of hair that come down past her shoulders."
"She has really big eyebrows way up on her forehead."

It is always hilarious to see the kids hesitant to share their details at first and then progressively become more interested as they are sure their detail will somehow make the drawing right. I also love hearing the groans at this point in the year when students give a really vague detail. The kids know that I'm going to make is something absurd to fill in the gaps. They've gotten much better at their descriptions throughout the year as a result.  Every period comes out differently. I take pictures and share with the other periods as they always want to know what they missed. That's the power of providing a unique show!

Activities like this can get boring very fast. Describing a picture isn't exactly the most stimulating experience. However, by using the elements of improv and playing off the audience it becomes something my kids look forward to all year long and so do I.

Improv also can play a less formal role in our classrooms. Being willing, and able, to roll with a random question that comes up in class, or my favorite, jumping into a student's conversation in the halls, can result in some uniquely funny experiences. 

How else can we use improv to keep our classroom fresh throughout the day? I'd love to hear more ideas!

In case you're curious, here's the image they were describing. 

Disneyland Hates Busy Days

posted Mar 22, 2019, 8:55 AM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Mar 22, 2019, 9:44 AM ]

Uh... what?

I'm reading Window on Main Street by Disney Legend Van Arsdale France. It retells his experiences in the opening of Disneyland. It's full of fun little back stories and details that I haven't read anywhere else. Last night though I read something that I not only haven't read before but that really surprised me.

Disneyland, at least in the early days, hated busy days.  They quickly learned that those days were the least profitable for the park. It is quite simple really. As France quotes Dick Kunis, another Disney Legend, saying "people waiting in line aren't spending money." 

At that time the entry fee to the park was pretty low so the majority of revenue was made from people buying merchandise and concessions. While I don't know if that it still the case I firmly believe it is. Not only do I believe the entry fee is still pretty low (just, wait, hear me out!) but I firmly believe they are making way more off merchandise and concessions. As far as the price being low I know it is popular to complain about how ridiculously expensive the park is but I don't see it. A movie ticket costs up to $20. A ticket to a 3 hour Lakers game will run you $200+ most nights. Concert tickets? $80+ if you're seeing a big act. Hamilton? Ha, forget it! Disneyland is comparable in price and offers a significantly longer (and I'd argue better!) experience. I think that's why people spend so much more money in the park throughout the day. Balloons for $8? Sure! $28 cheap plastic popcorn holder? Why not? $4 water bottle? No, don't, water is free (with ice!) at any restaurant window. The point holds though that if you're standing in 2 hour lines you aren't buying any of those things.

Put simply, busyness is bad business!

So, of course, this led me to reflect on the busyness in my own classroom. My classroom is extremely busy by design. When I first started teaching I quickly learned that down time and transitions were behavior killers. Simply for management's sake I started to design my lessons to take just a little bit longer than the class period allowed. My students having a task waiting for them every day before they walk in. They know they are to start it whether I'm in the room or outside welcoming students. If they are not working before the bell rings they are considered tardy. I start them on the lesson promptly after that. As I said, those lessons are often designed to take a bit longer than the period allows. This causes me to rush through parts and really doesn't leave much breathing room for questions and the like. I've done most of them so many times now that I can easily find time when I need to but it is still a constant push to get through. If they somehow finish my overly designed lesson before the period ends they have "Side Quests" on our class LMS page to work on.

The pressure to keep busy isn't just due to management though. All of us in education are under constant pressure to teach certain topics before The Test. One of things I love most about teaching AVID is that those pressures really aren't present. In Social Studies though they absolutely are - especially in the 7th grade World History Curriculum. As I tell parents at the beginning of the year all we have to do is teach the history of the entire world over about a 2,000 year period. No problem! California's new Framework was supposed to alleviate some of the struggle but instead went to add three more huge world cultures - India, Persia and Mongolia to a list that already includes Rome, Christendom, The Renaissance, The Enlightenment, Mayans, Aztecs, Inca, Japan, China, Arabia and West Africa. Uh huh. Sure. We are constantly pushing to get through all the topics while doing them some kind of justice.  The only way to do that is to be busy, busy, busy.

France's comment has me wondering what cost I paying to teach the way I do. Yes, my kids are exposed to all these cultures but do they really learn much about them? Honestly, no. They'll forget the basic tenets of Buddhism as soon as we're on to our next religion. We covered it in 3 days alongside 2 other Chinese philosophies. Without a doubt we were busy those three days. I lectured. We read a story. We discussed scenarios. We made a comparison chart. We did it all. We did it fast. We were busy. But, we sure didn't have much time to shop.

In another section of the book France describes how worried some of the Disney management team were about the opening days - and especially the days after Summer ended and the kids all went back to school. They feared that the park would be empty and investors would flee. They initially wanted the park to be packed because it makes it look popular and therefore a good investment. I have to wonder how quickly they realized the busy days only looked good on the outside and were not particularly effective on the inside. I know there's an element of that in why I am busy. I take pride in "getting through" all the Framework in a year even though I'll readily admit my kids don't actually learn all of it (or at least retain it.)

How can we, can I, make time for our kids to breathe? To shop for souvenirs (which is based on the French word meaning "to remember!") and to digest what we've taught? Exit tickets are one idea but honestly, to me, they've always felt like busywork and, as a result, I rarely use them. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe that last 5 minutes should be just as valuable as the first 5 and we should find a way to make it so. I don't have any answers for this one - at least not yet. I just know this is something I'm reflecting on deeply now and I think others might as well.  What is our busyness costing us?

New and Improved Google Earth

posted Jan 14, 2019, 6:21 PM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Jan 14, 2019, 7:13 PM ]

Last Summer I attended the Courageous Creativity Conference at Disneyland. It is designed for art teachers but I didn't care - it was at Disneyland. As I said at the time, it was incredible.  One of the (many) highlights of the trip was a backstage tour of Soarin' Over the World at California Adventure. The whole experience was incredible but the history teacher (nerd) in me was especially jazzed by the little handout we were given at the end. It was a simple printed sheet with the 13 destinations the ride goes to along with their latitude and longitude. Forget art, now you're speaking my language! That night in the hotel I started putting together a map hunt activity using the coordinates with the intent that I'd use it early in the year. 

Well, it took a little longer than expected but it is done!

It is quite simple as far as lessons go. I broke my students into 6 groups and assigned each a pair of coordinates. I made 6 versions of the instruction sheet above - one for each group - and posted them to our class LMS. As a group they put the coordinates into Google Earth and answered the very short analysis questions. I really just wanted to give them questions that encouraged them to play around with Earth. These ended up working perfectly for that. After analyzing both they answered one more comparison question. The groups had really good discussions about terms that I usually just gloss over like terrain and site. They debated how best to describe the landscapes and which nearby attractions were important enough to list. Mostly though they were just very engaged in playing with Earth and exploring their destinations.

When they were finished I had each group briefly share their findings while I showed their destinations on the big screen.  If you plan to do the same here's a .kml file that you can important into Google Earth with all 13 destinations already tagged. The file will look like techno-gibberish when you click on it. Just click the download button and save it to your Google Drive. Google Earth has an option to import .kmls directly from your Drive. After they saw them all we discussed ideas for how they were connected. Nobody got it exactly right but there were plenty of good ideas and some recognized that they were all connected to Disney somehow. I think next time I might give some more hints like playing the Soarin' theme song at some point during the class. I also might close with a ride video as it turned out many of my kids (way more than I expected) had never ridden Soarin'! Still, many enjoyed the reveal of the connection.

One thing I found by putting this together is that Google Earth is way, way cooler than the last time I used it. Nearly everything is 3D mapped now and the most well-known sites, like the Eiffel Tower, are incredibly detailed. It also has automatic animations now when you fly to a destination. It defaults to orbiting around the search but you can change it to a slow zoom or a "cinematic view" which sort of combines the two. It's so much more visually interesting than the older version that just showed a flat, motionless satellite view. The desktop version is still better for building tours and such but the browser version is now more than sufficient for most class activities.

I'm really happy with how the lesson turned out and I'm excited to use it early next year to help introduce continents and mapping but even here later in the year it worked well. We can do pretty amazing things with technology these days - especially if we spice it up with Disney magic!

Gamified Everything

posted Jan 5, 2019, 10:25 AM by Kevin Roughton

Last weekend I went to a board game cafe in Los Angeles called Gamehaus. You pay $7.50 for the day and get to play anything from their ridiculously vast library of games. It was a ton of fun (and the food was delicious) but what stuck out to me most was this:

Well, not actually this. When I bought my lunch the cards were different. They asked "Who was better?" with the choices being John McClain of Diehard or Kevin McCallister of Home Alone. It was the same idea, however, two tip jars. There was no sign saying "we appreciate your tips" or anything of the sort. Just a very simple game to encourage people to tip.

And it worked. Every person I saw put a tip in one of the jars. I would have tipped anyway but I know I tipped more because I really wanted a Kevin to win. I even got into a debate with my brother and the cashier over the choice. It mattered!

What makes this a game? The simple act of choice. I've been thinking a lot lately about using choice as a game element. What I've come to understand is that choice isn't just an element of games - it is the defining elements of games. Without choice you don't have a game. 

Candyland is the perfect example. It has become a running joke among my students to suggest Candyland when I ask what game they want to play. They know it is the one thing I won't ever play - because it isn't a game at all. There is no choice. Candyland is determined the minute you place the cards in the stack. At least Chutes and Ladders has a spinner that I can choose to spin with varying force. Candyland has nothing. It isn't a game.

Adding choice adds that game element our brains crave. Even Netflix is getting in on the action with their latest Black Mirror episode "Bandersnatch." Throughout the episode you make choices as the viewer that guide how the story plays out. I was enthralled throughout despite the absurdity of the story. I had so much fun playing it out.

This leads me to wonder where else I can fit choice into my lessons. My "either-or" experience with the tip jars leads me to believe that simply adding a few more vocab words to a flashcards assignment and letting students choose among the words would a simple and effective change. Of course, it also makes me want to double down on my recent Adventure game lessons. I've got one in the works on the Age of Exploration that is coming together nicely!

I've also had interesting discussions with colleagues about how much choice is too much. The concept of "decision paralysis" says that given too many unclear choices many people will often choose none. I've seen this in some of my own students with my Choose Your Own Adventure projects. Some kids, especially in the last few years, are just not prepared to make choices on their own. They've had everything chosen for them for so long that given the options they just choose nothing. I've had to develop more specific menus of assignments and topics and even then I sometimes just have to tell a student which one to do. 

So, like anything, choice isn't the magical pill to make everything in our classrooms better but I think the simple application of it as shown by Gamehaus can go a long way toward directing our students to the behaviors we want from them.

Point and Click Adventures in History Class

posted Dec 6, 2018, 3:36 PM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Jan 26, 2019, 10:38 AM ]

I wanted to design a lesson to highlight some of the more complex changes that happened as a result of the Reformation. I ended up with a fairly pretty looking Powerpoint that visually contrasted 10 different topics from the Medieval period to the Reformation. It was simple but looked nice and I think it would have worked fine. 

Then I saw a post from Amanda Sandoval (@historysandoval) about using Hyperdocs via Google Slides in history classes. I've long wanted to build a Point and Click Adventure using PowerPoint but the problem is that my students use Chromebooks and can't run PPT files. (They can use PPT online but it often has small issues with the Chromebooks that I can't quite fix.)  Amanda's presentation inspired me to try to do it with Slides. 

I immediately ran into an issue.

PowerPoint has a mode called "Kiosk" which disables mouse and keyboard clicks so you can control exactly how your audience advances through your presentation. Slides doesn't have this mode so if students clicked on the slide it would advance to the next - even if I didn't want it to. For a Point and Click to work students need to be able to click on pictures and text boxes to advance to specific slides. Slides can do that but it can't easily prevent kids from just clicking somewhere else to advance to the next slide. So, I had to find a work around.

Amanda directed me to another teacher who had started a similar project. Looking at his file gave me an idea - and it turned out to be really easy. For each slide I just added a transparent box that covered the whole thing. I made that box a clickable link that just linked back to that same slide. So, if the students clicked on the "wrong" object it would just seem like nothing happened. I then put the hyperlinked boxes and images on a layer above that transparent box. It worked perfectly!

HOT TIP #1: Complete your entire story and animations before adding your hyperlink layers!

With the technology figured out I had no excuse not to pursue the idea any more so on we go!

I took the 10 topics and tried to figure out which would most easily turn into a story. I started with the changes in Indulgences. I quickly settled on the idea of having two (or more) characters to choose from which immediately doubled my workload. I hadn't considered the fact that every choice I added meant two versions of every future slide. 

HOT TIP #2: Reuse as many story slides as possible in your various pathways and save your "choices" for later in the story!

This first story came out great but very short. It's 17 slides of work on my end but the students will only ever see 6 or 7 of them depending on their choices. That is a casualty of the medium but, on the plus side, it encourages players to play through the game again so see what they missed.

I continued with the other chapters, quickly realizing 10 wasn't going to happen. I settled on the 5 I felt I could do best as interactive stories. While I'd like to go back and add a couple more deadlines exist and it was go time for this lesson so it has 5 right now. I also learned how much better the game looked if I used timed animations on each graphic and textbook. Yes, it was a little thing but it added a ton to the presentation. 

Always be plussin'! (Paraphrased from Disney Legend Marty Sklar)

When the chapters were "done" I created a guide sheet for students. Originally, I had planned to make it far more in-depth. It was going to have boxes to circle showing which character they chose and a section to summarize what happened to them along the way. I ultimately decided that I didn't want to constantly pull their attention away from the game. I didn't take any notes while playing through Breath of the Wild last month and I can still recount most of my 30ish hours I spent on the game because I intensely engaged. If the game is good enough it shouldn't need extra notes to force attention. (This is also true of videos we might choose to show in class I might add.)

I ran a quick beta test on one of my student's Chromebooks and found a few broken/missing links right away. In one case a silly typo in a hyperlink had me stumped for nearly 10 minutes. Even with this test I still ran into a couple more once my students got their hands on it.


Enter the game. Kids came in today to play for the first time and I was greeted with a huge smile from one of my girls who said "I already loaded up the game I can't wait to choose my character!" I hadn't said anything about it other than the link to it on our class LMS page. I briefly went over the controls and passed out the guide. I was originally planning to play through the first chapter with them but I could see how excited they were to play so I just let them go. It was awesome. They were so into it. I heard literal gasps and "No!"s around the room when bad or unexpected things happened. 

I even had one student say "Hey, this is like those Tell Tale games." Yes! Exactly!

Only one asked me where to find the answers to the questions. Most were happy to read the content embedded in the game. I had envisioned them locking in silently to play through the game but within a few minutes the noise level started to pick up. I let it happen because every conversation was "What did you choose on this one?" or "how did you get that to happen to you?" I heard plenty negotiating with one another deciding who would play each story because they wanted to know what happened. They were truly engaged and excited.

I saw kids reading intently with some even softly speaking every word out loud. There is a great deal of text here but making it feel like a game made them happy to engage with it.

HOT TIP #4: Let them play!

It took most students about 25 minutes to play through the 5 chapters and answer the questions. It worked perfectly for our 30 minute minimum-day schedules. For a full 50 minute period I'd add a solid bellwork activity and a 5 minute debrief to fill out the period. I may go back and create a couple more chapters for next year but 5 felt just about right. You could also just have kids replay the chapters with different choices as an extension.

I had mine do a short survey after finishing that I'm eager to see the results of. Until then I'll have to go on my snapshot of asking for thumbs up if they'd like to do a lesson like this again. I got a near unanimous yes. My only no came from one student who apparently doesn't want to do anything requiring any reading at all.

Time Warp: Transformation - Ch1 Indulgences

Here are the file links if you'd like them for yourself. Just go to File > Make a Copy to add it to your Drive. Also, you will need to update the final links on each chapter as they are currently linked to open the file on my school drive. If you click on the button you can change the link by clicking on the chain link looking icon in the top right corner of Google Slides. Alternately, you can just delete that button and just provide students with links to each chapter.

I am excited to create another one of these once I find the right topic. I think various explorers could work well except that is the next unit already and I'd rather not do them so close to one another. It could honestly work with just about any topic. It is just a matter of finding something you want your students to experience (like in this case change) that isn't easily experienced physically.

Give it a shot! It is definitely a ton of work but at least for this first run seems well worth it.

UPDATE 1/26/19

I've completed a second game. This one is about the Age of Exploration. This one is set up a little bit differently. It is designed to require only one starter file - the tutorial. From there you are automatically linked to the other explorers. Here are the files!

The Haunted Classroom

posted Oct 31, 2018, 6:41 PM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Oct 31, 2018, 6:49 PM ]

It's Halloween at my middle school. My kids are already loaded with sugar. Teachers are hiding in corners praying for the day to end. Yet, in my classroom students are engaged more deeply in a lesson than they have in been in weeks. What is going on..?

In my opinion The Haunted Mansion is Disneyland's most fully-realized attraction. It isn't my favorite (Space Mountain) but I am always amazed by how much there is to it. From beginning to end the guest is immersed in a very specific experience and it never deviates from that. This immersion turns what is a rather boring ride at it's core - sitting in a slow moving ride vehicle that doesn't really do anything more than follow a track - into an incredible experience.

It starts at a distance. Just seeing the old style mansion rising up above New Orleans Square starts the draw. While it doesn't outwardly look haunted it feels just old enough to tease that feeling out. The line for the attraction winds through the front yard leading you past a terrifying looking old carriage and through a graveyard. There's some fun Disney joy in the names on the tombstones that brings some levity but it still is building tension for the experience.

At the end of the line you enter a waiting room which is dark and mysterious - lit only by a few flickering lamps. The doors open and the ride soundtrack ( begins with a slow, plodding, mysterious organ track. Your "ghost host" points out that in this chamber "there are no windows and no doors" as it begins to slowly stretch. This segment ends with the chilling "of course... there's always my way..." line followed by total darkness and a piercing scream.  It took me years to realize what the host was referring to. If you don't know, don't let me spoil it for you. Let me just tell you that next time you ride look up!

You then walk the hallway with the famous hologram heads that watch your every step before finally boarding your own "doom buggy" and the ride begins. The ride itself is a special effects showcase that hides an unbelievable level of depth. I see something new nearly every time I ride. It ends with a couple of "hitch hiking ghosts" and an eerie hologram crying out "hurry baaaaack." You finally exit after a 14 minute soundtrack and however long you were in the line and only then are you removed from the experience. 

When did the attraction actually begin? Was that the beginning of the ride or was the elevator? The waiting room? The cemetery? The magic of The Haunted Mansion is that the entire experience from beginning to end builds on itself. Yes, there is a "ride" portion but it truly is an attraction from beginning to end.

Being Halloween I wanted to bring a Haunted Mansion experience to my classroom. I've been doing my Black Death History Mystery on Halloween for about five years now. It seemed like a good fit. I've been adding to it annually to make it an attraction from start to finish. Like the Mansion is it hard to pinpoint exactly where the experience begins. My students first were introduced to it on Monday in their weekly calendar reflection. Today's entry reads:

*SPECIAL EVENT* History Mystery: The Black Death - You thought it was gone? Think again! Prepare for an incredible experience involving a tragic mystery of history.

I rarely use the SPECIAL EVENT tag and haven't yet this year so that stood out to them immediately. Then yesterday I reminded them that it was coming up and would be unlike anything they'd ever done in school. Today, they arrived to the find the front door marked with a red x, biohazard warnings and a label reading "QUARANTINE" in the door window. My kids learned about the quaratines a couple weeks ago when learning about the disease. 

I shut off all the lights and open the door to greet them. I am in full costume as a plague doctor - historical yet creepy! Their reactions are excellent. Some are scared, most say "that's so cool!" (On that note, thanks Fortnite for making plague doctors cool!) This isn't the first time they've seen me in costume so it doesn't have a sense of pure novelty but it again is adding layers to the experience. 

They come in and, for the first time this year, find the room surrounded in flickering LED candles. 

I bought a bunch on Amazon for like $10 and placed them at each of the exhibit stations around the room. It was a small, simple, cheap addition and it added a ton to the feeling of the activity. With the lights off the room is fairly dark but light enough for students to work. Still, nearly all of them picked up a candle at some point and used it to light their papers or exhibits. They didn't need it, they were just so immersed they wanted to experience every available option. 

That's when you know you've got them! Once they sit down and do their daily agenda a video begins on the screen. I show the first few minutes of the 2010 movie "Black Death." It shows a monk in a monastery who has been locked up after having been possible exposed to the Disease. It is tense and closing with a sharply rising musical stinger and a late title card that simply reads "Black Death." Perfect!

We review the instructions and I send them out to the exhibits. 20 minutes of calm working with no more surprises right? Wrong! Last year I played some scary music softly in the background. This year I created a video loop of Pieter Bruegel's The Triumph of Death to run in the background. I added some fog effects to make the painting a little more sinister (if that's possible.)  The soundtrack is a typical Halloween track of howling winds, thunder and the like. Then, after a couple minutes an eerie girl's voice comes on singing "Ring Around the Rosie" which always freaks the kids out.  One of the exhibits they examine discusses the origins of the rhyme and its possible connections to the Black Death so kids slowly get the connection as they go through the lab. 

When the exhibits close students write their evidence-based conclusions on the cause of the disease and we discuss the most recent findings. They ask all kinds of questions because they are truly locked into the subject. They are in!

I guarantee this is an experience my students will remember. If the lab were just the lab itself it would almost certainly get lost among the costumes, candy and general excitement of the holiday. Adding the extra touches of sound, anticipation and lighting really makes it unforgettable. Disney did it with the Haunted Mansion. I did it with the Haunted Classroom!

The Power (and joy) of Role Play

posted Oct 9, 2018, 6:44 PM by Kevin Roughton

On my last trip to Disneyland I had an experience I'd never had before. (As an aside, that's part of the magic of Disneyland. I've been dozens of times and always have something new to experience!) While exiting Space Mountain my group crossed paths with two Storm Troopers. Seeing characters in costume is nothing new at Disneyland but this time they stopped us. They pulled my brother aside and told him he was under arrest for supporting the enemy. They then pointed at his shirt. He was wearing a Buzz Lightyear shirt. (I, of course, was left alone as I was sporting my official Story Trooper Pew Pew shirt.) They pulled him aside for questioning as a crowd gathered as we laughed hysterically. My brother played right along defending himself from their accusations. 

We talked about that experience for the rest of the day and still now months later. It was such a small thing but by putting us all in the moment and letting us role play as citizens being accosted by Storm Troopers we were given an experience we will never forget.

Role play rules!

This week in my class we're doing two big role play activities. My 8th graders are living out the Constitutional Convention while my 7th graders are experiencing the first Crusade. The Constitutional Convention sim is modeled after one from TCI and is the highlight of my Constitution unit - if not the entire year. Students are each assigned a delegate to the convention that they must represent throughout the 3-day activity. They read background information on their person and the state which they represent. They are told throughout that if the final results of the convention match their character's true wants then they will earn extra points. My kids this year in particular have really gotten into it. 

The lab opens with a meet and greet where they go around introducing themselves to the other delegates. I require them to bow to one another in greeting and to speak very formally and properly. It's fun. It's silly. It's a joy! I play the role of George Washington and go WAY over the top in my greetings to really set the stage. Like with those Storm Troopers, if the person you're playing with goes all in it encourages you to do so the same. My kids start to amp up as I do. By the end of these few minutes they are into their character. It really helps set them up to want to live out their character. 

In the next phase the students, acting as their assigned delegates, debate the options for representation in the new government. My kids this year really grappled with what the various options meant for themselves and their home states. It was awesome. The small state delegates passionately argued that their rights would be trampled while the large state delegates argued just as passionately that the government existed for the people not the states. They really got it. When Mr. Sherman introduced his compromise they understood exactly why the government needed two separate houses. The debates were intense, but respectful. They loved it. 

For the Crusades role play I play the monk leading a village of peasants on a journey to the Holy Land. It begins with me dramatically unrolling a scroll and reading it in my best (worst) British monk voice. I have an Applause sign that I hold up at dramatic moments (unannounced of course) which the kids absolutely eat up. We set up the rules for our adventure (no talking, St. Benedict wouldn't approve!) and we head out. We travel the school with me leading them around in circles (bad maps after all) until we arrive in Jerusalem where... nothing happens. We were too late! The battle already occurred. We return to Europe and each students reads an individual fate letter that determines their ultimate fate. 

Both activities are exhausting for me - much like I imagine it is for character actors at Disneyland. Staying in character all day long isn't easy. The engagement and learning though are well worth it. Allowing students to play a role engages them in deep, meaningful ways that build historical empathy and understanding at a tremendous rate. 

Designing such a lesson isn't easy either but here's a few tips that may help.

3 Tips for Successful Role Play

1) Make it Real
Disney character actors look the part from beginning to end. The costumes, obviously, are key but they learn the mannerisms of their character as well. For the princesses that means even mimicking their voice. Using costumes and voice in your simulation can add a layer of realism that really sets it apart. For the ConCon sim I dress as George Washington, complete with an over-the-top colonial wig. For the Crusades I dress as a monk. When I greet students at the door dressed that way they are already in. Speaking in an over the top accent only makes them feel even more like they can be someone else as well.

Rearranging your room (or leaving it like with the Crusade sim) can also help add to the realism. For the ConCon I make small adjustments like arranging the desks into small groups based around the state delegations. I also cover the windows add put up a sign that says "Do not disturb, Constitutional Convention in progress." Adding music or murmuring voices as audio backing is also an easy and cheap way to make the room feel different. Those little touches that students experience before the lesson even begins go a long way.

2) Make it Fun
Fun doesn't have to mean a game but fun has to be present for a good role play. Debate can be fun. Reading extremely over-the-top situations that happen to your character can be fun. Having to bow to your fellow classmates to show your etiquette can definitely be fun. Find the fun in your story. It's always there, we just have to look and make sure it fits.

3) Make it Meaningful
Debriefing your role play is a necessity. I love how TCI debriefs with a 2-column chart. In the left side they list the various aspects of the simulation and on the right students write how those aspects represent events or ideas from history. With the Crusades role play, for example, one thing we write is "Walked all over school." In the represents column students would write "the very long journey to Jerusalem." Having students make these connections is vital in turning these experiences from simple fun games into true learning opportunities. It also helps these ideas stick in a way they simply don't in a traditional lesson.

I will have kids referencing back to these lessons all year long. They will remember them when we do our end of the year class evaluations. Role Play is simply powerful and joyful and we should try to find as many ways as possible to fit them into our curriculum.

The Power of Fun

posted Sep 7, 2018, 6:53 AM by Kevin Roughton

I think my favorite of Mickey's 10 Commandments is "For every ounce of treatment, add a ton of fun." As I pointed out in my end of the the reflections I lost a lot of that last year. I was so focused on getting my kids to perform up to my vision that I kind of forgot what my vision really is. What I really want kids to leave my class with is an appreciation of history - the deep understanding will come in time. Fun is a way to bring that appreciation.

Today we did my barbarian ordeals lab. I honestly do not remember the origin of this activity - only that I made it over 10 years ago. It was one of the first "fun" activities I made for 7th grade. The goal of the activity is to get students to truly appreciate the importance of a legal system based on laws like the Romans had. At their age they really can't even comprehend another system existing. I explain that all cultures have had to figure out who was telling the truth.

The lab begins simply with a reading. 

There's nothing flashy about it. It is a reading about barbarian ordeals and how they work. It is fairly high-interest as it talks about wonderful things like boiling people's arms and throwing them into rivers to see if they float. Immediately, without discussion, they complete a 10 question "quiz" about the material. 

A few of the questions are absurd but most are straight up comprehension questions from the passage. It ends with: "True or False: Mr. Roughton is the amazing."

The reading and quiz take about 10 minutes - then the fun begins!

I show a short video clip about ordeals from History Channels The Dark Ages and then talk about how the ordeals worked. The clip is only about a minute long and is definitely not necessary. I do like the visual it provides but I did the lab for years without it just fine.  I announce it is time the grade the quiz. I read question 1 aloud and leave it hanging with that oh-so-powerful teacher skill of raising my voice slightly at the end so they know I want them to volunteer to answer.  I choose a student who I know will be comfortable in front of the class, they answer confidently, and then I get pensive. I ponder with a nice "Hmmm..." then sheepishly wonder aloud " can I know if he's telling the truth with this answer..." Then it hits me! "Ah! We'll appeal to the gods!" I call the student up to the front and announce their ordeal.

Here's a list I've built up over the years:

-Stand holding a book in each hand

-Speak the alphabet backwards

-Push ups

-Balance a pencil

-Stand without blinking

-Balance a book on your head


-Spin around then walk down the aisle without touching another desk

-Count by X to 100

-With eyes closed name 15 people in the classroom

-Tear paper in half with one hand

-Fold a paper in half 7 times

-Hum a song with nose plugged (impossible!)

-bottle flip x times

If they complete it successfully whatever answer they said becomes the right answer (even if it is technically wrong.)  Alternately, if they are not successful their answer is wrong.  It doesn't take long for the sense of injustice to kick in. "But A is right Mr. Roughton, it says it right here!" "But the gods clearly have shown us A is wrong. That's why he failed the ordeal."

This continues and, invariably, more and more hands go up. Kids want to try to pass the ordeal.  Some get wise and they'll purposefully pick a wrong answer and try to fail the ordeal on purpose. I'm fine with that. It helps teach the absurdity of the system.

The capper is the final question. If the volunteer says "True" (which they usually do) I make it seem like the gods have given me an incredibly arduous ordeal for them. I say "You will have 2 minutes, and only 2 minutes, to blink at least one time. You may blink more but if you can blink at least one time in 2 minutes we'll know the gods have determined that I am amazing."  If they false I say they cannot blink for 2 minutes. In each case, hilarity ensues. We close with a brief discussion of why the Roman system of courts and judges was superior.

The whole thing takes 30 minutes. I could easily cut it down to 20 if I needed to do something else. In that time students are reading a fairly complex text, answering text based questions and experiencing the value of a Roman system of laws. None of those things are easy and none of them are necessarily fun. By adding this small touch of fun to the end it completely flips the lesson and makes it one of the highlights of the year. The students have a blast. I have a blast. They truly come away understanding the value of a system of laws (which, in our modern culture is a miracle.)

Once again, it looks like those Disney Imagineers are on to something...

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