March 30

Resources for Gamifying Your Classroom

I am in planning mode.  All my tools have been gathered.  Markers, paper, books, computer, and a large block of time are all at my disposal.  I may have mentioned in a earlier post that I am the Monica Gellar of organization. Give me a label maker and a few file folders and I can conquer the world.  Let’s get down to business. Where to start when building a game-based learning unit? Hands down the best resource around is Michael Matera’s Explore Like a Pirate. The book is well worth the investment and filled with wonderful ideas!  Where to go from here? I have gathered a few resources to help in the planning process:

  1. Gamifying Education by Extra Credits: These guys have created a visual guide to gamification in the classroom. Packed with insightful reasons for using games and filled with useful examples, this is certainly the best place to start.
  2. Edutopia is just about the best resource around for anything current.  This wonderful site has an entire section devoted to Game Based Learning.
  3. Why Gamify in the Classroom? Let’s face it, for some it will be a hard sell.  Is it more than just playing in the classroom?
  4. offers a little more information into the whys and hows of gamification.
  5. Where would be without An Ultimate Guide to Gamification?  Edudemic does a great job of pulling this guide together.
  6. Personally, I had a difficult time with XP and how to level up.  This article was tremendously helpful in planning.
  7. Badges can also be a difficult  obstacle to overcome.  This article was helpful.
  8. The Institute of Play offers a few packs to help in the design process as well.

While this is by no means a comprehensive list of resources related to gamification, it is certainly a list that was very helpful in my personal planning.  Please add links in the comments if you know of a resource that would be helpful in this arena.  Best of luck in your planning!

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March 30

Flexible Seating in an Industrialized World

The sun danced through the windows of my sun porch as I enjoyed the first few days of spring break.  Determined to not let a serious head cold get me down, I would use the time to catch up on my reading and do a little research related to the changing learning space that sits in disarray a few miles away. Ken Robinson speaks so eloquently, perhaps it is his accent, about the industrialized nature of school systems.  Flash back to Pink Floyd and their haunting video of British school children pushed down an assembly line to the meat grinder.  This image plays over and over again in my head as I listen to Robinson talking about the state of our current schools.  Our society, our economy, and our students are no longer working towards industrialized, factory jobs.  As educators, we must realize that industrialized schooling is not what our students need and, if we continue to teach this way, we will contribute to the failing system at large.

There is a revolution brewing and churning.  A revolution fed by social media.  In the not too distant past, the only collaboration we were allowed as educators were to others in our area through meetings and the occasional conference that allowed us to feel a surge of what could be.  Like minded educators that feel the need for change and are fueled by progress and innovation can find one another and create their own personal PD experiences.  This is not just a national event but a global event.  Education is swiftly changing and for those who have not found the superhighway, time changes at the speed of light.

A mere six months ago I was the queen of my castle.  Desks were aligned into groups and lessons proceeded in my arena.  I will admit that I have always thought that anything that happens in my classroom should be an experience worthy of Disney.  Changing this idea into a truly collaborative experience for students is a whole other idea, however.  I wasn’t building a theatre on the Vegas strip for students to come see my shows six periods a day.  I wanted a learning studio that felt like home, a place where what they valued and wanted to learn about was just as important, if not more, than what I needed to teach them.  They needed to leave me with a  passion for learning and exploring and the knowledge of an amazing world.

Where to start?  I needed to learn…a lot.  Enter two incredible books.  PLEASE buy them, read them, and then read them gain. Teach Like a  Pirate by Dave Burgess and What Connected Educators Do Differently by Todd Whitaker, Jeff Zoul and Jimmy Casas.  While you are at it, I recommend the entire Pirate series.  There really is not a bad book in the bunch. My personal favorite is Explore Like a Pirate by Michael Matera, especially if you are into gamification.  After a considerable amount of reading, pondering, reading some more, and rethinking my role as an educator, there were changes that need to be made in my room.  My students have begun to call themselves “the Beta-Testers”.  I greatly appreciate their willingness to go along with me as I attempt to figure out the best possible environment for learning.

The first step is flexible seating.  Much of my time off, thus far, has been spent reading research and learning about other teachers who have incorporated flexible seating into their classrooms.  What I have found is summarized in my sketch note.

The artifacts of a dated system still populate my room like dinosaur bones on a dry desert plain.  My teacher desk, three file cabinets,  fifteen science lab tables and coordinating chairs.  Just freeing up my “teacher corner” will bring so much space into my small room.  After much consideration and research, there will be areas or learning pods in the classroom.  A living room, a cafe, a library, a studio, an idea lab, and a board room will be the new learning pods.  Where will the new furniture come from?  Currently I have a Donor’s Choose project posted and already have it partially funded! Next step, visit the local auction houses for great deals.  Through this method I have obtained a new couch for $15, a pair of leather captain’s chairs for $30 and several metal (ironically industrial) stools for less than $25. Finally, IKEA will be my last stop this week as the last items are gathered for the room redo.

Originally, I wanted to redo the room over the break and surprise the students upon their return but thought differently when I realized there is real benefit in the student’s creating the space and making it their own.  As I gather the materials I look forward to having student input the first day we return and change our room into a powerful place to learn.

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March 24

Can One Number Represent a Teacher’s Worth?

The alarm clock went off late and it was raining.  Not the spring shower kind of rain but the opening of the clouds kind of rain.  The bus was early.  The deep throttle of its engine laughed carelessly at the boy as it drove away spraying water onto the only jacket that made him feel good.  He picked the pieces of mud off the school logo as he walked back to the trailer his family just rented.  His dad had already left for work but mom was still asleep.  He would have to wake her up to go to school.  He wanted to just crawl back in bed but his teacher told him how important it was to be at school today.  It was the end of the year test.  He had to be there.  He had to show how much he had learned over the past several months in school.  He loved his math teacher and he didn’t want to let her down.

The ride to school was a long, silent ride.  He didn’t have time to change his clothes so he began to shake as the water in his shirt soaked through to his skin.  He walked into the office while his mom sped away with the door barely shut.  He had missed breakfast.  His stomach rumbled.  He felt like he was going to be sick.  That wasn’t an option right now.  He hurried to his locker and on to math class.  He knew they must have already started the test.  Everyone turned to look at him with the click of the door.  Water ran down his leg, dirty bus water.  He looked down to see his jacket covered in mud. Snickers could be heard echoing through the room.  His math teacher turned to see who had entered her class.  Her smile instantly warmed him.  She softly walked over to him and put her arm around him.  She made him laugh and gently squeezed his shoulders.  Instead of getting the laptop for him to start she pulled out a granola bar and an extra t-shirt from the walkathon.  He was still shaky and out of sorts from his morning but he would do the best that he could.

Every single child we teach has a story.  They are all puzzles with intricate pieces.  As teachers we try to control as many of those pieces as we possibly can but we do not have absolute control over the entire puzzle.  To suggest we do is foolish and irresponsible.  Yet many legislators and administrators believe that we do have a grasp on all of the pieces.  Could you imagine having 30 different puzzles, mixing up all the pieces and sorting them out to put together a whole complete, perfect student?  Impossible right?  Some pieces are at home.  Some pieces are at their second home.  Some pieces are at their grandparents house or an aunt or uncles, maybe a friends house.  And unfortunately for some kids, some pieces are lost forever.

We do our best everyday to identify their pieces and put them together, to make connections and build relationships.  On top of all that, we work to teach content. Who we are as educators is no longer defined in granola bars or smiles.  It is no longer defined in kindness.  Its no longer defined in the hours spent after school working on fractions or proportions.  It is not defined in the moment that a child finally learned all of their multiplication tables, in sixth grade.  It is not defined in the millions of tiny successes that students use as stepping stones to move forward.  It is defined in one number.  The number they earn on the end of the year assessment.  Have they grown enough to show that their teacher is a good teacher?  The circumstances of their morning or of their day does not matter.  The computer that recognizes a colon but not a semicolon does not matter.  The fact that the student could not read the question or their neighbor kept kicking them under the table does not matter.  It all comes down to one number.

This one number is defining teachers around this country.  Teachers who have been identified as wonderful, hard working, exceptional teachers are now marginalized by a percentage and put into a category.  When your life’s work is dismissed by a casual percentage your self worth declines.  One begins to question everything they do in the classroom.   Hours are taken from family and friends and depression follows.  How is this okay?  Why do we allow it to happen?  It is incredibly painful to watch talented colleagues fall lower and lower as data, small pieces of data, determine their future.

As teachers we work hard to inspire our kids and light the fire of passion in them.  Why do we not do this for our teachers?  Are we robots, programmed to teach to the test?  No, we are self driven individuals who are passionate about their work.  As teachers we know what is destructive to our students.  We know what causes morale to go down.  We know what causes them pain.  How and why can no one recognize this in us?

I started a book group in our school to help raise morale.  One of the hardest things I have ever seen is a talented, amazing, teacher beat down by the system.  We all give so much and deserve better. Our book is Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess.  My hope is that we will all find our passion again and stop allowing one number to define who we are as educators.  Let’s let our passion define us.  Let’s have our students remember us for the fire we instilled in them because it burned strong in us. Numbers do not define us. Our passion for what we do defines us.

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March 23

Simulating a Civilization

“Oh it’s about to get real!” This was a quote from a student as they walked into my class yesterday and saw the new game board on my cleared off desk.  The plastic men were crumpled into a pile as if they had already done battle and the plastic trees stood tall in the vast wilderness of the board.  A pile of odd looking die lie in the center of the board (eight sided), their multiple colors shimmering like jewels under the fluorescent lights. Admittedly, I love games so this scene would be very pleasing to me but it seemed to capture the curiosity of all my students. Even the ones too cool to take a second look.

I call my students the beta testers.  It is far better than guinea pigs.  The year started with a broader simulation where they pulled cards for either a merchant, artisan, solder, or king.  They formed city-states by making sure each group had at least one of each.  They settled into their new homes (tables) and began thinking about where they would like to settle on the map (I have attached it). The students knew they needed food, water, and natural protection.  All of these things were offered on the map with some areas being prized more than others.  Each city-state needed to choose a square to call their home.  We played Kahoot to rank the groups for choice using questions about ancient river valley civilizations.

While this worked out pretty well, glitches in the game caused a fair bit of discussion and a little reinvention.  Enter the game board.  Using our map, I sent it to Staples and they printed it out as a banner.  I needed game pieces.  I wanted something interactive, something more than simple markers.  I spent some time on Amazon looking at different figures when I came across small plastic cavemen.  Perfect for a game where we are showing hunters and gatherers settling into a river civilization.

I really wanted the students to be able to roam into the geographic area and find the spot they wanted to settle in and then form groups. I placed students in groups, assigned a “guy” with a number on his foot, to each student and began the game.  Groups came up one at a time, about five students in a group.  While they were waiting, they had a set of task cards and a long term project to work on.  Students placed their marker in the lower right hand corner as if they were moving into the region from the south.  They each rolled a die and moved the number of spaces shown.  If they landed on an octagon with orange, red, blue, or green, they picked a card from the appropriate stack.  The cards are nourishment, rule changes, hazards, and actions.  Each student uses a game card for the day to track their moves and summarize their day.  The goal for the first day was to obtain food and water. As the students worked to get to food and water, it was interesting to see their choices and how they dealt with situations presented by the cards.  Close to the end of the class, students had separated enough to form groups.  To end the class, I placed the students in groups according to where they had moved to get their food.  This was their new city-state and the land where they are going to settle.

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March 17

Reading Strategies for the Gamified Classroom

Lately, I have been hanging around Twitter talking to anyone and everyone about gamification in the classroom. The results have been phenomenal. A powerfully creative group meets on Wednesday evenings at 8:00 pm EST to discuss Explore Like a Pirate (#XPLAP). This book by Michael Matera is a must for anyone wishing to start this process in their classroom or anyone who has already begun the process.  This past week we discussed game mechanics. This can certainly be a daunting process but I would like to share with you one of the strategies that made one of the mundane tasks in my classroom much more exciting.

Reading nonfiction articles is often painful for students.  Reading about a dystopian world is one thing but reading about an ancient world is quite another. I wanted the students excited about reading and uncovering the content, digesting it for the first time.  How could I get them as excited to read as they were to play our game?

Enter Farming for Facts.  Students are given a title of an article.  They are then given fifteen minutes to research the topic using their chrome books.  During this time they can write down as many facts as they can that they believe will be in the article.  The next step is to meet in their groups and decide what is important enough to be planted in our “field” (the whiteboard).  Each group gets a row to plant the facts they think will be in the articles.  Once all facts are accounted for, the next step is to tend to the field.  As a group we decide what to keep and what to “weed”.  This is a great time to put in sweeping gestures and movement to get them involved.  We came up with a movement for letting it grow and letting it die.  The majority rules.  Any fact that should be weeded is erased from the board.  They are very careful about this selection due to more points being added if every fact on the board is correct and found in the article.

Finally, we read the passage together.  The first time I did this I was blown away by the reaction of the students. They were anxiously awaiting each sentence as I read the article out loud.  When a fact was found in the article cheers could be heard in the groups!  The students held on until the last sentence to see how many of their facts would be included.  We then reviewed the board and identified which were found (a great recap of the reading).

Why are they interested? My game has food points.  Due to this being about farming, the students were awarded food points for facts that were left on the board after the reading. Again, if all facts were included, extra points were awarded to all groups.

Its great to see kids excited about reading the articles.  They love to research the topic and come up with what they believe will be in the reading.  I wish I had this years ago.  I have attached a page that I often use for farming.  Hope it helps!


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March 16

What Do Our Students Deserve?

I heard an interesting  story this morning.  Recently, our campus suffered a power outage.  This led to our district being closed for the day. We have a student on our team who is quite possibly the sweetest kid I have every met.  He has a wide-eyed optimism and a smile to match.  The morning of the power outage he assumed he missed the bus and decided to walk to school.  That is how badly he didn’t want to miss it.

Let me give you a little back story about this student. He lives in one of the largest trailer parks in our district.  It is also the roughest by far.  It’s a dangerous place to walk alone as an adult.  At Christmas we noticed he was wearing the same clothes every day.  Our team arranged for Santa to bring him a few items.  He struggles daily with reading and comprehension and its quite a struggle for him.  Did I mention when he walked to school on his own (he is 12), it took him three hours to get to our building and he had to walk along a major highway.

Why am I telling this story?  If a student is willing to work that hard to get here, is what we are giving him worth the journey?  Am I working that hard to give the best possible atmosphere for him to grow and become whatever he dreams to be?

As I wrap up my 21st year of education, it is now a question I will ask myself everyday.  Is my classroom a second home?  Is it inspiring?  Do my students feel safe?  Do they feel valuable?  Do they feel like anything is possible? There are no longer days when I can take a break.  Each day is important in making an impression and making a difference.  No time is worth wasting.

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March 15

LEGO in the Classroom

One of the most powerful tools I have ever used in my classroom is LEGO.  Admittedly, I am an AFOL, for those of you unschooled in the LEGO vernacular, that is Adult Fan Of Lego.  At one time I hid this about myself, after all I am a 45 year old woman.  If it is a true passion, however, it really is a commitment, and one that cannot be hid.  The bright yellow bags are a dead give away.

My second love of LEGO came when I broke my leg a few years ago and had to be immobile for almost nine weeks.  This was in the midst of the Monster Fighters sets.  My first set was the Monster haunted house. It. was. amazing.  I have never looked back.  As my city continues to grow and daily conversation with my spouse involves negotiations for the garage, I knew I had to bring this love into the classroom.

There are a lot of drawbacks to using LEGO in the classroom BUT what it brings to the classroom far outweigh the negatives.  Let’s get those out of the way.  First, LEGO is $$$$$$.  Even buying one set for each group of tables is going to set you back.  If you are fortunate enough to have a principal who is supportive and will purchase sets, consider yourself quite lucky.  I turned to Donors Choose. Creating a project is pretty easy and now that they have access to Amazon, the whole LEGO universe is at your disposal.  The great thing about Donors Choose is that they will match you for the first week.  This means technically, only half the money needs to be raised to fund the project.  It helps to send a letter out to parents and ask for small donations.  Everything begins to add up quickly.  The whole process, from writing the proposal to having the LEGO in hand, took about two weeks.

Next, LEGO pieces will be all over your room.  All part of classroom management.  My students know my expectations.  They know I am a LEGO fanatic and treat all the sets accordingly. This is the third year with the LEGO sets and they still look like they are new.  It is all in the expectations you set forth. And as I said, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

There is nothing like the low hum of ideas being swapped back and forth in the classroom while the click of LEGO pieces is heard.  Innovation and creativity are at the foundation of these wonderful days.  I enjoyed it so much that I knew I had to have a set on each table so that they were always ready to go if the mood to create struck.  This was certainly an obstacle for me. How could I organize this?  (Monica Gellar is my idol by the way, organization makes me giddy with joy.)  I am a bit of a purist when it comes to LEGO.  When people start talking about mixing brands, I am out…immediately.  Surprisingly enough, I found a case at Target on clearance for a few dollars.  The yellow cases had blue and green base plates on the top and compartments on the inside.  I bought one for each table and the rest is history.  They have lasted almost three years now.  They are readily available just like community supplies.  It has been one of the best things I have ever done in the classroom.

In addition to great LEGO sets, there is also an amazing LEGO stop motion app.  The app is TOTALLY FREE.  It is fully functional, with sound and camera effects.  The results are quite professional.  Students love this app.  It can be used to help students explain a number of concepts or any historical event.  The possibilities are endless.

If you are considering LEGO in the classroom, I recommend it highly.  Creativity skyrockets and ideas abound!

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March 5

Engaging Assessment

Admittedly, I have a problem with assessment.  Luckily, my school is going through formative assessment training right now.  Knowing this is one of my weaknesses, “FIP Fridays” have been well worth the time.  This week mineral formation was the topic of the assessment.  As educators, in this time of multiple timed assessments, we are almost coerced to believe that an assessment must be paper/pencil or if the technology allows, the digital version of this.

Assessment is about understanding where the student is on their learning voyage and then using that information to propel your instruction.  This is a concept that seems as if it would be common sense but for me, I am just starting to embrace the full ramification of what you can do with this data and all that assessment can be.

Enter this week’s assessment  on mineral formation. Starting with the traditional paper/pencil test (in digital form on schoology), the grades were okay, not impressive.  Part 2 of the assessment involved a two stage process.  The students described the three different ways in which minerals can form and then created models of each.  They could choose to make models in one of two ways, with actual LEGO sets that sit on their desk daily or an amazing site from Google. Build with Chrome is a powerful FREE site that allows you to construct anything with LEGO on a basic building plate.  Students can change the colors, change the bricks, the possibilities are endless.  Students were equally divided choosing the LEGO sets and Build.  The results were amazing.  There was a quiet hum throughout the room as they went about their work.  Their understanding of the concept was spot on.  I should also point out that this was a quest for the Science game were are currently involved in playing.  It was a great Friday in the Middle!

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