22-23 was somehow my toughest year of teaching yet. Obviously, the lockdown years were awful and last year was an exhausting mess. This year though, yikes. It wasn't exhausting. I just felt very irrelevant all year to my students and school. Anyone who knows me knows that doesn't work for me. I work way too hard and do way too much to be irrelevant. That feeling made it very hard to push myself to create new things knowing that few people would care. Still, I managed to create a few that I'm very happy with. So, here are my top 5 new creations of the last school year!
Top 5 New Lessons of 2023
5. Escape from Batuu - Demand and Supply Breakout/Escape Room
This year I really pushed myself to use narrative frames for my new lessons. With my various Escape Room/Breakouts I’ve always done that to an extent, but I really pushed it this year. This Breakout, based on demand and supply, contains the full arc of a story - beginning, middle and end.
I bought a “galaxy” light projector for the classroom that, along with a looping background on the projector, my other LED lights around the room and an ambient Star Wars soundtrack, really helped students get into the setting of the story. They, generally, enjoyed the puzzles and, for once, actually read the accompanying materials!
That was the biggest “new thing” in this particular game. I added a mission-briefing document that contained all the content-specific information students would need to solve the puzzles. They still had to connect and use that information, but this meant they had access to it at hand. I saw nearly all of them read it and reference it multiple times. Learning is the goal after all, so that is likely something I’ll be adding to my other similar lessons going forward.
However, maybe because of having the information directly available, the puzzles were solved much more quickly than usual. Often my students are pushing to get even one group finished in the 40 minute play time. In this one, I had only one group all day not finish, with one finishing in just 25 minutes. I’ll likely make some small puzzle tweaks for the next go of it, but that’s the easy part. The narrative worked. Students were engaged. Learning happened!
4. Media Literature Mini-Unit
Okay, I’ll admit, choosing 5 lessons is kind of cheating, but oh well, it’s my blog, my rules.
I’ve longed toyed with the idea of a media literacy unit. My problem has always been that the resources I’ve found just never seemed like they’d work for my students. I found them fascinating, but my students, frankly, couldn’t care less about the news media.
Then, I saw a really cool lesson at SpringCUE, that was built around students creating their own criteria for determining truthful media. With that idea as a starting point, I dove in hard. I found Checkology from the News Literacy Project which formed most of the backbone of the unit. They had plenty of ideas to work with, but lots of it still seemed like it would be too dry for my students. Then I remembered HBO’s The Newsroom. A show I loved and thought maybe could get me something. After pushing past the shock that the show came out in 2011 (over ten years ago?!) I rewatched it and found it incredibly relevant to today. I had forgotten that one of the core themes of it was the value of the traditional news media versus internet media. That would be a great discussion point to jump from. So, I mixed clips from the show throughout the lessons.
Then, literally as I was working on the lesson, Midjourney's AI image generator blew up and the ability to create fake photos was immediately available to nearly everyone. I felt like every day I was adding new articles and examples to the unit. Then, the Wall Street Journal came out with a mini-doc on how the algorithm in TikTok works to “rabbit hole” users into more and more extreme content. Yep, that’s gotta go in too…
In the end, I had 5 lessons, nearly all of which were impossible to finish in a day. That means next year I either make some cuts or expand the unit. I could honestly go either way. I’m seriously considering starting my class with this unit as well (instead of ending with it as I did this time) as the value is immeasurable.
The individual pieces of the lessons didn’t all hit quite as hard as I’d hoped, but it was with seniors at the end of the year, so who knows the real cause? Still, students were mostly engaged and we had some good discussions. If nothing else, this is a very strong base to build from going forward.
(And, if you insist on me picking just one of the 5, lesson 3 wins!)
3. Time Warp: Govts Thru Time - Government types game
While teaching middle school history I created a series of point-and-click adventure games where students took on the roles of various historical figures and tried to successfully navigate through a historical situation. Government and Economics don’t have quite the same focus on individual stories, so I wasn’t exactly sure where I could fit this type of lesson in.
When brainstorming how to get students to better understand the different types of governments, I realized that just reading about them wouldn’t get the job done. I have a lesson that briefly simulates a few of them, but that only focused on how they make decisions, not what it is like to live in them. In a time when students can, and are, fed propaganda from all sorts of people online from fascists to anarcho-communists, they need some sense of what it is like to live in such systems.
That’s when I realized that Time Warp could work here. Instead of playing as historical figures, they’d play in historical situations. After many different attempts to make it work, I ended up with a setup where in each case, students choose a character to play throughout the level. They learn quickly about which roles have power in which governments (for example, playing as a peasant in an autocracy is not going to go well) and how rare democratic power distributions have been throughout history.
My students greatly enjoyed playing through the games, and often referenced them later in the year when we’d bring up discussions of government types. “Like when I played as the tourist in that one level…” That was a huge improvement over the very limited learning retention with my previous reading based lesson.
One note here, I frequently get share requests from students when teachers assign this lesson to them. I cannot grant share requests to your students. The files are already shared. Many districts do not let students access publicly shared files. If your students are in that situation, you will need to make a copy of each level to put into your district drive then update the various links for your students for that to work.
2. Election Day in the Comic World - Election process, voter registration, electoral college
In October I read a post on Reddit from a young teacher who was considering the idea of teaching a lesson on comic book publishers as an analogue for political parties. I immediately fell in love. I offered him a few ideas, but what I already knew was that I’d be building it myself. So, I did.
I created a story that the United States was under threat from an outside force and we needed to elect a new superhero and sidekick to defend us. Students are divided into 3 publisher groups (two major parties and independents) then further divided into teams (to represent states.) Each team nominates a candidate and then each party selects their nominee and sidekick after a primary vote. Then they debate with the other publishers, create a series of campaign pieces like buttons, advertisements and even a song.
Then, we do a simulated vote complete with voter registration. After the votes are counted, I count again by dividing the class into electoral districts to show the effect of the electoral college. Students had a great time and some got WAY into defending their candidate.
Most importantly though, I did a survey at the end of the lesson and every student said they were more likely to vote after going through our simulation. It took much of the fear of the unknown out of the situation and did so in a fun, memorable way. It is a great lesson that I’d gladly use with nearly any level of students learning about presidential elections.
Escape from Scare City (Intro to Economics)
Okay, I know I already have an Escape Room on this list, but oh well, both were great. This one, in particular, might be my most complete, Disneyfied classroom experience, which makes it the top new lesson of the year.
Last Summer I rethemed my three Economics units. The first unit became Economic Things with multiple ideas, intros and designs inspired by Stranger Things. It worked well overall and I’m looking forward to deepening the connection and theming next time. I knew though, it needed a powerful, memorable ending. I’ve talked a lot about the importance of using the basic 3-part story structure in our lessons and units this year and this was a chance for me to put those ideas to work.
I decided early on I wanted to do an escape room. I had grand visions of shadows of Mindflayers on the ceiling, all my decor turned upside-down and an immersive story unlike any I’d done before. The shadows didn’t work and I ran out of time to do a full decor flip. However, the story definitely came together.
In this Escape Room students are trying to save the kids from Stranger Things from the Mindflayer. One, Maxine, has been trapped in the Upside Down, but they have to save the others first. I set up the room with a red glow of LED lights and a looping, red ambience video complete with tense, creepy music. The game opens with a video setting the stage for the game (taken directly from the Stranger Things mobile game - it’s amazing how well existing content works sometimes!) and then drops students into Hawkins, free to investigate the various locations around the city as they wish, looking for clues to solve the content-based puzzles.
I finally learned how to make a clickable Google Slideshow WITHOUT the navigation bar (only took like 4 years of trying) and that let me do some things with hidden links that I couldn’t before. The puzzles were challenging, but most groups were able to solve them. The final puzzle was especially fun. Students opened a box which contained a UV flashlight. They were given a clue that gave them an incomplete URL and a hint to find the rest in the Upside Down. One of my many mandated wall memos, which had sat there all year, untouched, was flipped upside down. Groups had to recognize that paper, flip it over and read the invisible ink message behind.
When they did, they were given the final URL which they were instructed to input into my teacher computer. When they did, they reached a final message which said they’d found Max, and now had to go save her. They were instructed to make sure the speakers were turned up, then hit next. That immediately queued up the incredible scene from season 4 of the show where << NO SPOILERS>>. The energy was huge and it put a perfect ending to this perfect ending lesson.
As I always make sure to tell teachers who come to my PD shows, lessons like this are not the norm in my room. It’s easy to think they are since they are what I highlight, but I'm limited in time and energy just like you are. The important thing to note is that a lesson like this, or any of the 5 on this countdown, can help you gain buy-in to the other day to day stuff we do. Students, though surely not all, will appreciate the extra touches and effort. Plus, even if they didn’t, it’s fun to create stuff like this. Or, as Walt Disney said, “it’s kinda fun to do the impossible!”
Here’s to hoping next year is an improvement (and hopefully a big one), but, even if it isn’t, I’ve got 5 lessons I know I can look forward to!