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.

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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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.

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.