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.

Let's Play: Provide or Conquer?

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

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

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

Provide or Conquer

Time to play: 45 minutes

Materials: Scoresheet, game presentation, projector

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

How to win:

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

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

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

Game Terms:

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

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

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

How to play:

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

2.       Begin Round 1: 50 B.C.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Power of Simplicity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turns out simplicity is pretty powerful.

Here's the full lesson plan:

In the Clouds

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

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

Time: 30 minutes

Materials: none


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


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

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


                -An alien claw reaching down to grab a dinosaur

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

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

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


Basic History Through Play

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gamification Year 2 Part 2

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

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

Turns out rewards are hard. 

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

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

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

So, why was that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gamification Year 2 Part 1

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

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

First, two notes.

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

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

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

Part 1: Tracking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's what it looks like in use:

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

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

Here's a sample:

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

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

I hate, yes hate,

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

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

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

1. These People

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

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

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

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

2. "Free" Stuff

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

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

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

3. Normalization of Bad Behavior

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

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

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

Not cool.

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

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

Fake News? More like Old News!

posted Feb 27, 2017, 3:25 PM by Kevin Roughton

I’m sick of hearing about fake news. I get it. I’m a history teacher and for some reason this is supposed to greatly bother me. It just doesn’t though. I just do not care about fake news. More accurately, I don’t care about it any more today than I did 5 years ago. We’ve been looking for “fake news” in history for at least the last few decades. It is kind of what we do. If we didn’t look for flaws in the accepted historical record then no new history books would ever need to be written.

Fake news? More like old news!

Today’s lesson reminded me that at least since I discovered SHEG five or so years ago I’ve been teaching my kids to both spot and evaluate fake news (or at least fake history.)  One of the first SHEG lessons I found was one about Atahualpa and the Bible. The historical record (at least the textbook in my classroom) states that Atahualpa was given a religious book but, not being familiar with books tried to listen to it (it was the “word of God” after all), held it up to his ear to hear it. This is the same story I’d heard before and had seen in the movie Royal Hunt of the Sun. The lesson includes two accounts written near the time period addressing the event.

I modified the readings to make them much more readable for my 7th graders and found a 3rd document – this one from the perspective of the Inca. All three sources directly addressed this situation and none of them quite agree on what happened. Interestingly, the Inca source paints the Spaniards as the agitators in the situations. It claims that the Spanish were offered a traditional drink by Atahualpa which they rejected by pouring it out right in front of him. This led to his anger and his rejection of the Bible. My kids all day long have been able to make the connection that the Spanish accounts make the Inca look bad and vice versa. They’ve posited that the Spanish would want to justify their attacks by making the Inca look ignorant and anti-God.

These labs always work fantastically. My students work well together on them and really dig into the source. I had one today who kept saying she wanted to argue that he did listen to it but couldn’t find the evidence no matter how hard she tried. When I explained that maybe her opinion wasn’t correct then a lightbulb seemed to light up. My kids didn’t just take the information being fed to them. They’ve went well beyond the stated information and questioned why. This is all that is really needed to combat fake news – a critical eye toward the source.

I’ve since gone on to design a few more lessons in the Legit or Legend series. I’ve got one on whether Columbus really died believing he had reached Asia and another on whether or not Davy Crockett died while fighting to the death at the Alamo. Any historical claim that has taken on legendary tones is a great topic for exploration. Asking students to challenge commonly accepted historical narratives is a great step in teaching them to question all information sources. The problem with fake news isn’t the fake news. Fake news in my view is no worse than wrong news – and wrong news happens all the time. If our students are taught to evaluate sources for bias and to corroborate the claims of any source then fake news is a lot less of a problem.

The Legit or Legend model does a great job in combating this problem. I’d love to see other teachers try it and design their own. If you’d like a topic I’d love one on whether or not Martin Luther actually nailed the 95 Theses to the church door!


Cars Land, The Little Mermaid and Always 1.0

posted Feb 14, 2017, 1:19 PM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Feb 15, 2017, 1:32 PM ]

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 isn’t.

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!

Well Begun is Half Done

posted Feb 6, 2017, 4:55 PM by Kevin Roughton

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.

Always 1.0

posted Jan 24, 2017, 11:44 AM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Jan 31, 2017, 12:24 PM ]

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!

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