June 15

Working On A Science Cartoon

My newest project is a Youtube science cartoon for kids.  By new I mean it’s something I have always wanted to do but have finally made a little time for it.  And by time I mean the five minutes I have after putting the Bambino to bed and falling asleep myself.

I have used cartoon characters for quite awhile when teaching.  There is a cartoon version of me, my two dogs, and well anyone in my life who might be able to help me in one of my animated adventures.  It feels like now is the time to seriously develop short science animations that middle grade kids will find both funny and interesting.

This is the intro for the new cartoon.  If you can’t tell by this short segment, I have been heavily influenced by old school Hanna-Barbara, Looney Tunes, and of course, Tom and Jerry.  Of course it will be necessary to do a considerable amount of research to be sure this done correctly.  Therefore, I think I will use my extra five minutes, tonight, to catch a few Tom and Jerry episodes on Boom.

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May 12

Creativity

Creativity, in my opinion, is the best possible reason to be a teacher. Don’t get me wrong.  Many, many other things fall under this umbrella: student engagement, student growth, excitement, and so much more.  But for me, it all starts with the amazing gift of being able to be creative in your classroom.  It’s so exciting to be able to create another world for your students to exist and operate within. To be able to test their knowledge by setting them free and letting them learn to fly with the knowledge you’ve given them.  Honestly, there is nothing like it.  I am beginning my 20th year of teaching,  that’s right 20,  I was just walking down the aisle to get my diploma last week, where did the 20 years go?  Either way, I have worked in a middle school for all 20 of those years.  I have taught social studies, science, and language arts.  I have been fortunate enough to teach social studies and science each year I have taught.  I have taught kids identified on an IEP and kids identified as gifted.  The bottom line, they are all kids who need to know you care.  My favorite quote:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel?”

– Maya Angelou

At the end of the day, I hope I show a child what is possible.  Not what is necessary but what is possible and that, is anything they can possibly dream.

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April 30

A Blast From The Past

This post started my journey through the process of gamification.  A few years later, as I begin to reevaluate this path, and take it to the next level through the work on my PhD, it seems like a good time to review it.

Finding Your Groove

A few things happen when you have twenty years of teaching under your belt.  You realize you have shoes older than most of the kids you are teaching and therefore you can relax a little.  Having only been on the planet for  eleven or twelve years, I commonly tell my students they have not earned the right to roll their eyes or shrug their shoulders yet.  It’s ironic that this sense of calm comes toward the late afternoon of one’s career.  I am getting ahead of myself, let’s call it a late lunch.  A relaxing, late lunch with iced tea on a sunny veranda.  That’s better. That’s where I am, sunning myself on a veranda drinking tea while I faintly hear my name being called over and over again. As we all know middle school students have no social boundaries and proceed to call your name as many times as they possibly can until they have your full, undivided attention.

And here I am faced with the challenges of the middle school student.  Their bodies are changing literally in front of your eyes.  Pants become shorter, voices change, all in one class period.  Boys cry. Girls cry. We all cry.  Through all of this we have to grab their attention, keep it, and assure their parents that none of us are going crazy.  I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

While attending a professional development and looking for possible solutions, a colleague asked the question, “How do I get them to be interested in the boring stuff?  All they want to do is talk about Minecraft.”  My response to her was quick and easy.  Why wasn’t she using Minecraft to her advantage?  Why not use what the kids loved?  In education we all learn not to fight the wave but to roll with it.  And then I realized I needed to take my own advice.  Enter Sid Meier’s Civilization V. After playing the game for over a week, nonstop, I decided to incorporate it into my social studies class that predominantly focused on ancient history. By a stroke of luck, the day I had planned  to show the game to the students and begin discussing it, there were tech glitches.  The only time I can truly say I was happy that the tech did not work. We decided instead to form teams, essentially our own city-states, define roles for each member and discuss the ideal land on which to settle.  The discussion was wonderful and inspiring.

That night I created the basis for what has become an elaborate game that has been going on for five weeks now.   This endeavor has plunged me into researching game theory and gamification in the classroom.  This journey is a careful balance between curriculum and game play, between too easy and too hard. This is the story of my journey.  Stay tuned!

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April 25

Is It Okay To Play In The Classroom?

 

Why are we taught that school is all business and no fun?  Why do we have to be serious to learn?  Where did this idea come from?  We didn’t have a methods class on the seriousness of school.  Perhaps it was the endless testing and threats of termination that have scared all of us into the idea that the only way to teach is the classic row by row, lecture and note scenario.  We all survived it.  Why can’t they, right?  Let me state that again.  We all survived it.  School should never be something we survive.  It should not be something we can’t wait to leave.  School can be so much and its our job to make it everything it possibly can be.

In the myriad of today’s regulations, testing, and teacher evaluation, how do we go about having the courage to do this?  A better question is how do we not have the courage to do this?  We work with our students daily and see their lights slowly but surely go out as we continue to teach them in ways they are unable to learn.  As adults we see the urgency and do not understand why the students are apathetic. Meeting after meeting, the comments are always the same:

“I don’t understand why they can’t do it.”

“Am I supposed to do it for them?”

“What else can I possibly do?”

“They just don’t care.  That’s not my problem.”

“They are not going to do it.  They are lazy.”

Something we have to remember as educators is that these are essentially children, no matter the grade you teach.  We are the professionals.  The ones with training. If a student is not mastering the content it is our fault. Trust me, I have caught a lot of heat about that last statement.  It’s how I feel.  I chose this career path and not because I wanted the summer off.  I should have the skill set to help any struggling student. Every student has a hook.  Finding it is often like locating a treasure.

Students can be hooked by passion and play.  If they know you are passionate about your job and your content, it becomes contagious.  They want to know why on earth you love it so much.  They start to explore the content themselves and find information to share with you.  The students know what your subject means to you and they take it seriously.

Play is so important for the classroom.  Students learn best when they are actively involved in an activity.  Personally my heart is drawn to simulations.  My fondest moments as a child were of me and my friends playing make belief in the woods or on an old boat.  Transporting ourselves to another world and playing out elaborate scenes.  Why can’t we do that in the classroom?  Why can’t we recreate ancient Mesopotamia and let the students live in a city-state?  Why can’t we create a full size space shuttle in our room and let them be astronauts?  The sky is the limit and nothing can stop us.  Nothing should stop us.  Our students are depending on us to make their experiences memorable.  I always say that our kids deserve amazing memories. I plan to give them just that.

Be a Pirate!

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April 23

Bringing Gamification To Your Classroom

Gamification has changed how I teach.  It’s a game-changer so to speak. There are many ways to bring gamification to your classroom.  Deciding to start small is often a good choice but don’t be afraid to throw yourself into a game whole heartedly.

After presenting to a group of teachers recently, the overwhelming feeling involved a sense of reluctancy.  “I’m not a gamer.  There’s no way I can bring games to my classroom.” Being a professional gamer is not a prerequisite to bringing gamification to your classroom. I had played a few video games in my time.  I’m not sure however, that my high score on Galaga in the late 80s would be helpful in this situation. Regardless, the idea is to create a meaningful learning experience for your students.  Classroom learning need not always be text book/worksheet driven.  Personally, if my room never sees a worksheet again it will be too soon. Gamification allows for creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, and most importantly, if done right, powerful situations that will allow the students to acquire the content and have it stick with them.

When my journey began a few things needed to change about my classroom.  I needed to give some of the control over to the students, and why not?  This is their education.  They needed to be in the driver seat, making choices and interacting with the game.  Once I let this go, my students became fully engaged. An engaged classroom is messy and loud.  It is full of collaboration and discovery.  It is a powerful environment to experience.  The clock moves swiftly and the days pass quickly.

How to begin?  Start small with a well known game.  I started with a garden sized Jenga game. Be forewarned, it is quite large and makes quite a sound when it comes crashing down.  The sound the kids will make however, is much louder.  Taking time to color the end of the pieces makes the game much more versatile.  We were working on a unit review.  Using a set of twenty multiple choice questions the students pulled pieces.  The color on the end of the piece was matched with a set of questions.  The students then decided which question they wanted to complete.  If we completed the entire question set without the tower tumbling, the entire class received extra credit on the unit test. The reaction of the students was nothing short of amazing.  Their level of engagement was incredible.  It was all I needed to start adding more.

As a teacher of ancient history, it is often difficult for students to understand the concepts related to the ancient world. Sid Meier’s Civilization immediately came to mind.  After purchasing the game on a rainy weekend and essentially playing for hours on end, I knew there was something to pulling my students into a simulation.  Monday morning I put the students into pre-history hunting and gathering groups and asked them to choose where they would settle on an oversized game board I created.  The discussions in their groups were phenomenal.  The geography skills they had just learned were resurfacing in their engaging conversations.  The class period flew by and the energy was contagious.

This began the process of my first game.  Each week I would outline the ideas I wanted my students to master by the end of the week.  After this, I would look at the game mechanics that would allow them to acquire that information.  Students need to move and interact with the curriculum.  They need to experience it instead of observe it from afar.  Week by week I added more to the game.  The students are an essential and incredibly valuable resource.  They feel very powerful when they add to the game.  They were often called my beta testers and carried this title with pride.

Bringing gamification to my classroom is a no-brainer.  Is it easy?  No.  Is it worth it? Yes. Kids deserve the best we can give them. Their engagement is the payoff.  There is nothing like it.

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April 18

Quiet or Compliant?

Recently, I read a study about the importance of the practicum experience for pre-service teachers (Leko and Brownell, 2011). Reflecting back to my own experience reminded me that, first of all, I am closer to retirement than the dawning of my career, and second, times have certainly changed. My practicum focused on maintaining control. Control meant that learning was happening in your room.  Old school evaluations focused on students in their seats, quietly listening to the words magically cascading from the teacher’s mouth. Compliant students equated to the best possible environment for learning.  The best possible environment? For whom?  That question rung heavily in my mind, sitting, stirring, until my professional self was able to pull it out, clean it off, and whole heartedly evaluate what was happening in my classroom.

There were no lightbulbs going off in my room.  There was not a place for discovery in my room.  There were, however, no behavior problems.  I was comfortable at the expense of my students. I knew that if I were to change there would be obstacles to overcome. My room was going to be noisy.  Students were going to be moving.  I needed to learn how to facilitate my students learning and let them lead the way.  This process began by giving the students choice.  Differentiated instruction was the new buzzword.  As my students chose their path of learning, this meant the room was not uniform and not quiet.  My stress level soared and my discomfort was palpable.  This, however, was my problem.  This was the beginning of the journey that would change my professional career and allow me to see  what was possible not only for my students but for me as well.

Fast forward a few years.  A student, from the past, visited my classroom as a parent (this is mortifying if you haven’t experienced it yet).  They walked in and exclaimed, “Wow! This looks so different!”.   Thank goodness.  Thank goodness, the room looked different.  If I were about to teach a second generation the same as the first, that would have been hard to swallow.  My room now has few tables.  I have moved to flexible seating where couches and overstuffed chairs have replaced the institutional seating of the past.  My overhead lights are barely on as the room is now lit by lamps.  Paper no longer exists in my room as we are now 1:1 with chrome books.  Those are the visual aspects of my room that are different.  Pedagogically, I have not only changed zip codes but moved continents.

Currently, students decide their own path to mastery and I facilitate the journey.  What does that look like?  A group of students are sitting on the floor creating a brick film about the rock cycle.  Another group of students are coding a game that will journey through this same cycle.  The discussion is often loud but meaningful.  The excitement is often boisterous but celebratory.  The change is powerful and I would never return to the days of quiet compliance.

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April 18

Can We Have Fun While We Learn?

Recently, I read a quote from Hyman Rickover.  Rickover was an admiral in the United States Navy.  A Russian immigrant, he is the father of nuclear propulsion.  Admiral Rickover was known as a workaholic.  He never considered himself smart, only those around him dumb.  Looking forward, the United States education system worried him a great deal as he thought about the country being left to our descendants.  He thought it in disrepair, failing our students. Admiral Rickover wrote extensively about the issues facing our students and the failing nature of our education system.  One such quote jumped from the page:

“The student must be made to work hard, and nothing can really make it fun.”  -Admiral Hyman Rickover

I wanted to give this quote plenty of space to let it sink in a bit.  He believed student and social issues were a waste of time. Curriculum should be taught to students until they reached capacity.  The age old lecture and learn scenario. Industrialized education at its finest.  Rows upon rows of desks, strictly arranged one after the other.  Students dutifully sitting behind their desk, writing careful notes from the content specialist, nay, content genius, wanting to emulate this individual with all of their knowledge-filled hearts.

This is the image I wrestled with as I transitioned my classroom to gamification.  How can this be beneficial to my students?  We are essentially playing.  Would some type of curriculum police show up at my door and demand to see proof of desks in rows and a lecture podium?  This dilemma caused a great deal of anxiety.  The idea, however, that my students were not getting what they needed from me and the fact that they were not engaged, in the least bit, was far more stressful than the changes happening in my room. I gathered the courage and decided it was better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

To begin, I had to ask myself what I wanted from my students.  I wanted engagement.  This was the key that would unlock everything else that is necessary for a student to be successful.  How would I get that kind of engagement?  What do kids do, in their daily life, that manages to keep their short attention spans engaged for long periods of time. The answer was simple: gaming. Kids will play a game over and over again until they beat it.  They will do whatever is necessary to overcome any obstacles and beat the game.  Could you imagine that kind of dedication in the classroom? Working on a concept, over and over, until a student achieves mastery.  And that, in a nutshell, is gamification.

A year and a half into this journey and my philosophy on education has changed dramatically.  The classroom should be a second home where students are up, moving, problem-solving and working together.  While the content is important, the way in which students think about the content is much more important.  Bringing the world into my classroom and learning through role-play, simulations, game mechanics, and virtual lessons has replaced the traditional textbook and folder.  The results have been positive.  Test scores have significantly increased but more importantly, student engagement has increased.  And yes, Admiral Rickover, it’s okay to have fun in school.

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April 11

The 5 E’s of Lesson Planning

Asset 7

Packages are nice.  I like wrapping things up in neat little packages, especially lesson plans.  Lesson plans, however, can be sloppy, ill-conceived, and frankly, crafted on the fly (we’ve all been there).  I needed a way to pull the lessons together so that they made sense to me and more importantly, the kids.  I needed a model.  And so I started researching.  Our district currently uses Discovery Ed for the science text book.  The text relies heavily on the 5e instructional model.  Since I am a firm believer in a constructivist approach, this seemed like a good fit for me. Constructivism, of course, is the idea that students build new ideas upon their old ideas.  I have often used the construction metaphor to explain the development of education to my students.

Planning a lesson with the 5Es in mind allows for a beginning framework.  I like to think about it as a foundation, a firm foundation that will allow the students to excel once the lesson is finished.  The 5Es are: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate.  The entire 5E process is not meant to span one class period.  At the very least, each of the Es should take at least a class period, depending on the content and the amount that is to be taught.  My hope is that using this method will allow for a planned out sequence of activities.  Many, believe that this method is simply too much work.  Is this however, a case of completing the work before hand, and having a clear path to maneuver, then I say, the work is worth it.

My plan is to construct a 5E lesson plan for The Rock Cycle that will build the knowledge of my sixth grade students and engage them in the process (see what I did there: “E”ngage).  I will keep you updated.

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April 10

Designed to Teach the Middle 2.0

This is Designed to Teach the Middle 2.0.  The original site lasted for a few years but unfortunately was lost to the world of the internet that continues when one’s life is turned upside down.  Being off the grid for awhile is the product of perhaps, one of the most amazing things to ever happen to our little family.

Last year, we received a phone call that would forever change our lives.  We had been matched with a couple in another state to adopt their son.  This was the end of a long (12 year) process.  The birth mother delivered two weeks early and we were in no way ready for the most amazing and heart wrenching journey we have ever traveled.  Our baby boy, Cooper,  spent six weeks in the NICU, followed by several weeks in a hotel to wait for the ICPC process to be approved. Finally, two months later we came home from a trip that we thought would be two weeks.  The little boy we added to our family has forever changed our lives.  I am a stay-at-home mom now that is creating curriculum.  My new job is challenging, exciting, hilarious, lonely, fun, stressful, and really the best and most important job I will ever have.

This new site signals the beginning of a new part of my life.  I am working on my PhD in educational technology.  I have become obsessed with gamification and of course, I have a little guy who has become my boss.  I look forward to this next journey.  I am sure it will be the best yet.

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July 1

#ISTE2016

Kerry Gallagher was extraordinarily powerful in the first ISTE Ignite session:

I don’t just want my students to learn.  I want them to WANT TO LEARN.

School hallways are filled with these conversations.  “How do I make my students want to learn?”  Or the soul crushing “I can’t do it for them.”  Another speaker went on to say that if one is trying to grow lettuce and it does not grow, it’s not the fault of the lettuce.  All I can say to that is AMEN.

Our world is changing so quickly I dare not insert a metaphor here as it would be outdated as soon as this sentence is completed.  Yet, daily, many of our classrooms resemble the 1950s. While our students may be highly prepared to See Dick and Jane Run, are they really prepared for their swiftly changing future?  A far better question, as the future looms over us like the a science fiction nightmare: are we ready to prepare them for that future? When thinking of this question, waves of chills wash down my spine as if the metallic skull of the Terminator himself were breathing down the back of my neck.  Racing and working to prepare our students for standardized testing does very little to enhance creativity, invoke problem solving, and bring forth collaboration.

We are looking at short term solutions for problems we have created.  These short term solutions will leave our students stranded and alone without the skills needed to be successful in their future. What do we do?  Grab a flotation device, jump in the deep end and hold on!  Why? Our students deserve it.  We have been entrusted with the growth and development of our youth.  We must learn to think long term and build the skills they need to be successful in life instead of successful on a test.

As an educator who has a high-stakes test in my content area, I challenge all educators to teach for the future instead of the test.  Teach for collaboration, creativity, and to instill the love of learning.  Teach so that the students will remember you for the love that you gave them and the adventures you provided. Teach like you have them for an entire year of their young lives, because you do and the impact you have will be life-changing for them.

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