Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Guided Gaming Leads to Learning

I just believe that this is what play should look like when done through technology.

-Rachel Fondell
Rachel Fondell, a 6th grade humanities teacher, has something in common with Zach Lankow, a 9th and 10th grade religious studies teacher. While they both have a passion for reading, for working with their students, and for teaching their content, the commonality that is most striking is their willingness to give their students the freedom to play.

They both use iPad games, which are traditionally seen as distractions by many educators, as a tool for learning and creating in their classrooms with their students.

Click here to listen to the podcast.
Recently, Zach told his story to the editors at EdSurge. His students use Minecraft to build safe havens during the unit when they are studying the story of Noah’s Ark. They have to think about the details of the story, the message it is meant to convey, and which elements of survival need to be considered. His project is so innovative it was featured in the EdSurge On Air podcast recently.

These are pictures I took of Zach's students
as they built their safe havens.
I had the chance to observe Zach’s students building these projects. The room was loud and busy! Skeptics might think this was caused by students being distracted by the game and a clash of noises coming from devices all over the room. Conversely, even though each student was working on his own personal device, they were working quite collaboratively toward the learning goal. The noise was a product of their excited discussions. Zach calmly visited with each group and gave them encouragement and feedback throughout the class period. Everyone in the room was on task the entire class period. It was really incredible.

Zach’s students are in high school and are more mature than Rachel’s 6th graders. She felt the need to do even more research on games. She explains, "In our 1-to-1 tablet school, I began researching in response to my young students' desperate desire to play games at school."

Rachel’s school has built in times that are tech-free. For instance, students are not permitted to use any devices at lunch or at recess. But, there is a snack time that is less formal and her students have free time at home as well. Rachel wanted her students to learn how to manage their tech use during their free time. So she had some conversations with them.

"'Educational' games are often flimsy, don’t require critical thinking, and depend on rote memory. My students are attracted to games that most adults don’t consider 'educational.' I wanted something real, but not addicting. So we had a class discussion."

When asked, her 6th graders told her that the aspects of games that make them feel like they can’t stop playing are badges, levels, collectibles, and virtual currency. They were able to share with her that they want to play and experiment, but agreed that they didn’t want to feel like they were addicted to a game.

Rachel found Eden World Builder. She liked what she found. She said, "It has none of the addictive qualities my students identified, cost only $.99. It is like virtual Legos with unlimited combinations of blocks in many colors, textures, and with interactive properties. My students get to simply create and experiment."

Common Sense Media’s review of Eden World Builder is also largely positive and recognizes the same qualities that Rachel likes.

Rachel's 6th grader's model of the
U.S.S. Constitution in progress.
When Rachel rolled it out with her students, there was an initial excitement, of course. “The first day was exactly what I expected. For instance, they used the TNT block to blow things up. But then that got boring, so they started testing the functionality of the elements. They started challenging one another: Who could build the most extravagant house? How deep could they tunnel? One student is building a model of the U.S.S. Constitution complete with captain’s quarters and bunks for sailors.”

One of Rachel’s favorite conversations happened during this early roll out. She urged the students to play but to do so in a way that was helping them learn. One student looked embarrassed about what he had been doing with Eden.

“I’m not using it educationally, Mrs. Fondell,” he admitted.

“Show me what you’ve been doing,” she said.

Rachel continues, “He then went on to show me how he could set up enough speed blocks right in front of a ramp that, with the correct trajectory, would launch him high into the air. He had placed a trampoline block on the landing pad that bounced him back exactly where you had begun - thus creating an infinite loop. It was amazing.”

“That is educational!” she exclaimed. “You just engineered something really cool!”

The student had been applying critical thinking skills, designing creatively, and testing the limits of a program, all without even knowing it.

Rachel went on to have her students complete an in-class project with Eden. They have been studying the impact of humans on the environment in her humanities class, so her students had to demonstrate negative and positive impacts. Creations ranged from wind turbines that help create clean energy to oil spills, both seen below.
Wind turbines
Oil spill

Rachel and Zach both processed the merits and concerns of gaming with their students before actually rolling out the games, and then continued to process these ideas as students actually played. Not only are their students learning the content, thinking critically, creating some really cool media, and collaborating and sharing, they are also developing a key skill in our connected society. They are learning to think about how to use technology for learning and be self aware.


About the Co-Author:

Rachel Fondell is a licensed middle school teacher who is passionate about making learning hands on and engaging for her students in English language arts and social studies. She has spent nearly six years in the classroom, working with 9-13 year olds in private schools. Currently, Rachel teaches sixth grade humanities at St. John’s Prep, an all-boys Catholic School on the North Shore of Boston. This fall, she has enjoyed the challenge of implementing a 1:1 tablet program, striving to provide students with immersive, experiential instruction. Outside the classroom, Rachel loves to paint, tackle DIY projects, and explore the great outdoors with her husband and little red duck dog. She also moderates a middle school Yearbook Club and has been working toward her Master’s degree in Middle School Education.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

How Mobile Devices Made a Difference in Theater Class

Mobile devices are integral to educating students in all content areas at all grade levels. I’m certainly not asserting that tablets and smartphones are exclusively the way to educate our children. But when our society uses them to communicate, do business, and share our personal triumphs and sorrows every minute of every day, shouldn’t our children be learning to do these same things in school? If academics are meant to help children participate in the world around them, they need to be proficient in the technologies used to participate.

Brit Christopher, a middle school theater arts teacher and accomplished performer and director in her own right, understands this. This is a snapshot of how iPads provided creative opportunities for her students. She calls it “TheaterTech”.

In my 6th grade Theater Arts classroom, we spend a lot of time on live performance and social interaction. My tests and quizzes typically have both written and practical sections, and my students are used to being up on their feet during class. I decided to assign a project that would give students the chance to engage with technology in my classroom, something that I felt had been lacking in my 6th grade curriculum.  

Brit's rubric is simple enough to give the students freedom
and structured enough to give them guidance.
In assigned teams of two, students randomly selected one “rule” of improvisation. Their team became responsible for a 5-minute presentation on that rule. I told students that they would be graded on the length of the presentation, preparedness, how well they communicated their rule of improv, and their level of creativity in presenting. Other than that, anything goes.

I did not require students to use technology in their presentation. However, in a 1:1 iPad school, I did give examples of presentation possibilities, including: using Garageband to make a song or a rap, creating an iMovie, using slideshows, or making a Kahoot! to check for understanding. I also made it clear that they were welcome to use posters and markers, and that their entire presentation could be done live without any tech.

Out of 24 pairs of students, only one chose not to integrate technology into their project.

I found that the most successful presentations involved students engaging with multiple apps.  The pair of students featured in this video were highly successful. In the video, they clearly explained their rule (“Don’t ask questions”,) gave examples and showed off their personalities.  They also had a slideshow presentation where they clarified their points to the audience. They then followed up with a Kahoot! to check for understanding. Their presentation was funny, thoughtful, prepared, engaging and absolutely communicated their assigned topic.

By creating a project of this nature, I got to observe my students working together in a new way.  I watched them solve problems. I learned which students best express themselves through music. I saw them bring their public speaking to a more polished level. I saw them take their project, their grade, and their work seriously. I’m already planning on applying this same idea to my curriculum in other grades.
Brit's experience with this project demonstrates a few things about working with children and digital tools in school:

    • While there are times when people use technology as an escape, if a task is structured properly technology can encourage cooperation and collaboration.
    • When given choice and freedom about how they create, many (but not all) students tend to look to technology because it is more exciting, engaging, and gives them more creative opportunities.
    • What children create with technology can give us insights into their strengths, areas for growth, and interests that we might not otherwise see.

    Mobile technology is not the only way to teach and learn, but it is an essential tool for creating and communicating. The more we allow students to build their skills with mobile technology, the better they will be able to be active participants in our society. This is true both today as children and in the future as adults.


    About the Co-Author:
    Brit Christopher is a licensed theatre educator, currently writing, acting and teaching in Massachusetts.  With a BFA in Acting from UNCG and a MA in Theatre Education from Emerson College, she has worked with students grades 4-12 in both public and private school settings. Brit has facilitated team-building theatre workshops at the Rhode Island Theatre Conference and New England Theatre Conference, as well as co-presenting "Be Yourself:  Fighting Gender Conformity with Theatre for Young Actors" at The American Alliance for Theatre and Education National Conference.  Brit is currently the Theater Arts instructor at St. John's Prep for grades 6-8 and co-directs a summer workshop for young actors for the North Shore Players in Danvers, MA.

    Note: The video above was shared here with the boys’ permission and their parents’ blessing.

    Wednesday, November 11, 2015

    Guest Post: Stripping Away

    by Doug Robertson

    I’m losing control of my classroom. Every day, every lesson, I lose a little more control.

    I’m stripping away the excess of my teaching. Trimming the fat. Every year of my teaching career I change things, and I’m finding that those changes often result in less rather than more in my room.

    Everyone remembers their early career as a teacher. You cling so tightly to your classroom. At least I did. Everything had to be controlled because I had very little actual control. I had no confidence in my teaching skills (rightly, new teachers are, through no fault of their own, roundly bad) so I tried to control everything else. Anything that could have a rule or a procedure had one. We practiced. We drilled. We worked on those procedures until I felt like every student could do them in their sleep. How do we get drinks? How do we line up? How do we sharpen pencils? The discipline plan was spelled out to the letter, with eventualities and hypotheticals sketched and prepared for.

    It took years for those rules to relax. The process started when I began to use other teachers as as models and mentors. I learn just as well from negative role models as I do from positive ones. I turn weakness into strength and make sure it doesn’t become my problem.

    When I taught 6th grade in Hawaii I worked with two of the meanest, most negative, awful teachers I’ve ever met (who I talk about in greater detail in He’s the Weird Teacher). Kids were terrified of them. Crying-in-the-office terrified. They called themselves “Hammer One” and “Hammer Two.” The students didn’t name them that, let me be clear. They proudly named themselves that. If you got in trouble in one class she would send you to the other who would roundly savage you in front of her class as well.

    Once in class we were talking about suspense. I defined it for the kids (third year- I define, they nod) and then asked for examples, expecting a story from a movie or a book. Instead a student raised her hand. “It’s like when we have to go to Mrs.----’s class,” she said. I asked her to go on. “Well, we know someone is going to get in trouble. But we don’t know who or why.”

    My classroom got progressively more positive that year. I responded to the negativity by going hard the other direction. My kids might have had too much slack in my class, but I didn’t care. They needed it. And you know what? I never had any serious discipline issues. I was starting to be more myself in my room because I had to be to be the counter to Hammers One and Two, and it was working. I began to crystalize the core of my teaching personality in that awful year.

    Looking back I can see the steps leading to my release of control. How decisions I made and thoughts I had brought me to what my classroom is now. I spend a lot of time thinking about teaching. I believe I should be able to answer “Why?” to literally everything that happens in my classroom. I mean literally literally too, not figuratively literally like it gets used literally all the time online. If the answer to Why doesn’t pass my BS Meter, I need to change or junk the choice. Can’t be precious with ideas in education, kids don’t care if you think your idea is great.

    My classroom this year is the most relaxed class I’ve ever had. My seating arrangement involves varied height desks, bean bag chairs, wobble stools, standing, and sitting on desks. There’s a lot of student talking. There’s silliness. There’s vague specificity. I get away with this because my group this year is almost perfect for this style of teaching. Or has my style of teaching created a class perfectly suited for it? Little of A, little of B perhaps.

    I have begun giving extremely loose directions. This too started a few years ago, timidly at first. Widening the scope of a project. Trying to keep in mind the learning goal rather than the end project result. I realize this kind of thing is something we hear on Twitter all the time, but this was well before that. I was having these slow moments on my own. Light bulbs coming on, encouraging me to trust my own students.

    “How long does this have to be?” Until it’s done.

    “Can we work in a group?” You need to accomplish x. Find a way to do that.

    “I don’t know how this program works.” Huh, I bet you can figure that out.

    “Can I do a play instead?” Sure, as long as x. That’s our target.

    Kids were lighting up, having fun, being creative. I started sending that message right away, Day One this year. I don’t assign seating. Kids come in, “Where do I sit?” “You’re a fifth grader. Find a place to sit.”

    Our rules start as a giant student-created list of everything they think a classroom needs to run well. The whiteboards are filled. Together we whittle the rules down to four- Be safe, be responsible, be respectful, make good choices. Then we trim that down to one overarching rule- Be Cool. If you can’t remember anything else you can remember that behavior goal- Be cool.

    I don’t give student jobs any more. If something needs doing do it, not because it’s your job but because you’re a citizen of our classroom. Everyone is Library Monitor. Clean up the class library, those are our books. Everyone is Door Monitor. Hold the door, be cool. Everyone is Attendance Monitor, let me know if one of your tablemate is absent. Anyone can be Line Leader because come on, you’re fifth graders and that’s just a silly thing to fight over. I’m not regulating that.

    Make the room simpler. Simpler means less to remember. Means more flexibility. No one is waiting for someone else to tell them what to do because they know I trust them to do it.

    I’m loving my stripped down classroom. It’s allowing me to build around it in other ways. I’m building more creative lesson plans that allow more freedom. I’m building better relationships because I’ve stripped away the things that told kids, “I don’t trust you. You need to be controlled.”

    I have no idea if this will work in your room. Everyone is different. I’m positive my classroom works in my way because of who I am and the teacher I’ve become. Confidence allows me to get away with a lot. I’ve seen my way works and now I’m playing with that, taking the line out as far as I can.

    Strip your classroom down to its bare parts. Make it a lean, mean, learning machine. Give yourself and your students freedom. Watch it go.

    About the Author:
    Doug Robertson is a tenth-year teacher currently talking at fifth graders in Northern Oregon, the CUE blog editor, and Slytherin faculty representative. He’s taught in California, Hawaii, and Oregon in 3rd, 4th, and 6th grades. He’s the author of two books about education,He’s the Weird Teacher andTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome) and an active blogger. Doug speaks at teaching conferences including CUE Rock Star Teacher Camps, presenting on everything from technology to teaching philosophy (or teaching The Weird Way, to use his words).  Doug is also the creator and moderator of #WeirdEd on Twitter, which happens every Wednesday at 7pm PST

    Tuesday, November 3, 2015

    Are You Media Literate? Are Your Children?

    The inaugural Media Literacy Week in the United States kicked off yesterday. By following #MediaLitWk on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms you can find articles, lesson ideas, and inspirations from media literacy experts and scholars. While Canada has been observing Media Literacy Week for a decade, the new emphasis on digital citizenship in the U.S. makes 2015 the perfect year to draw more attention to media literacy education as well. The thing is, media literacy is not just for children in this digital age, it is a skill all of us should continue to develop.

    Larry Magid, CEO of ConnectSafely and technology journalist, talked with Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, Executive Director of the National Association of Media Literacy Education or NAMLE, about how media literacy is a skill that all of us need, especially during election season. They discussed the fact that, due to the availability of information and creation tools online, we are all consumers and publishers. Therefore, we need to be mindful that we are using critical media literacy skills all the time. You can find the full article here. The recording of their discussion is embedded below.

    Our children are growing up in a digital age, and therefore literacy no longer simply implies the ability to read and write text. Schools have a special responsibility to shift the way literacy is being taught. NAMLE has outlines the elements of media literacy on the Media Literacy Week website.
    As an educator, I have seen first hand that technology can be a powerful tool for learning, collaboration, creation, and sharing in the classroom. But our students need to distinguish between the media they need and the media they don't. The need to synthesize what they've learned and communicate it effectively in a variety of ways. From my own experience, there are some creative and fun ways to help students develop these skills in school. My article for ConnectSafely, How educators can talk with students about media literacy, is full of tips and links to free resources and tools. I've tested every one in my own classroom and have seen results with my own students.

    I'm looking forward to attending a Media Literacy Meet Up in Boston this week to represent educators and talk with resource providers, advocacy groups, and scholars. Media Literacy Now is partnering with the Engagement Lab at Emerson College to bring stakeholders together. We are hoping that Media Literacy Week is the spark that gets the discussion going so that we can join forces and build a lasting movement. Since literacy has taken on a new meaning over the past decade or so, let's all take responsibility for how we consume and share information.

    I closed my article for ConnectSafely with this paragraph. Although it is directed toward educators, the message can carry over to any profession and to parents.

    This week, the first Media Literacy Week in the United States, is an opportunity for teachers to talk with students about what literacy really means. It is also an opportunity for our students to ask great questions, find fascinating answers, look carefully at what they find, and share their learning with amazing creations. Let’s not let this opportunity pass, and let’s not let these conversations stop after this week.