Sunday, June 29, 2014

"Next Level Gamification"

Yeah that's right- I used to lead druids, enchanters, warriors, rogues, wizards, and other misfits in raids on dragons.

So I've been gaming for a long time.  It used to be something folks might turn a nose up on, but nowadays I can wave my game freak flag fly with abandon.  I started with the Atari 2600.  I beat Pitfall, ET (which I don't agree is the worst Atari game ever- that would be Journey Escape, thank you very much), and pretty much owned my brothers and sisters in Combat.  I moved through Nintendo and the Sega Genesis and eventually fell in love with PC gaming.  My first decent PC gaming was on the Apple IIGS, with favorites like Zork and Might and Magic.  PC Games were huge for me and I loved the old MUDs, moving through those like +3 broad swords through butter.  I chewed through many a fantasy RPG, notably all the Baldur's Gates, Neverwinter Nights, Morrowind, etc.  

All of which totally prepped me for my last big gaming obsession- Everquest.  The first MMORPG to make it big, EQ was awesome and there will never be another game like it....ever.  Not because it had the best graphics or interface- but rather because what EQ did was put a bunch of nerdy gamers into a world, without a map, without a handbook, without any spoilers or cheat codes- and we all had to figure it out together.  There were no answers when EQ started.  It was gaming at it's purest and best- people coming together from all over the world to figure out game mechanics, weaknesses, where the best loot dropped, developing strategies on harder encounters, mapping the world out for each other and above all- sharing, sharing sharing.

Yes, I was the nerdy guild officer.  Yes, I led raids on dragons, demonic bastards, and other nasties (I can't be sure, but I feel pretty confident saying I was the only kindergarten teacher on the planet that did this in their spare time...).  It may be surprising to some, but this was actually pretty hard work- wrangling people together, getting the right mix of classes, setting up the right groups, planning and implementing the right strategies, recovering after epic wipeout losses and trying again, making sure folks had the right equipment, getting fair and transparent loot distribution plans in place in case of success, plus loads of other variables made for hard sledding.  

This type of work, to me, is what "next level gamification" in classrooms should be all about.  Unfortunately, and to my huge disappointment, this isn't what many think about when they hear the term....  Last Friday, I went to an informal session during Hack Education whose organizer used that title as the jumping off point for conversation.  I wish I knew the young gentleman's name- he was very passionate about the work he had done with his students to "gamify" his classroom- turning points into XP points, awarding badges for behavior and work, keeping running leaderboards, calling projects "epic quests".  

As he was presenting all of this info and all the research behind it, all I could think in my head was "no no no no....please no...."  If this is what "gamifying" the classroom is all about- badges, extrinsic rewards, and glorifying status- then count me OUT.  I spoke up about my concerns about such a heavy focus on extrinsic rewards, which mountains of evidence shows diminishes human's interest and intrinsic motivation to learn the topic at hand (when you tie extrinsic rewards to behaviors and work, people work for the reward- not the learning or process- if you need more info on that, this guy can certainly point you in the right direction).  To my shock, there weren't many others to share this concern (at least not out loud).  I voiced it again and still the majority of the group wanted to press on to learn more about this gentleman's particular vision of a "gamified" classroom.  I decided to check out and go to another session- I'm not a wet blanket kinda guy and I didn't want to rain on anyone's parade- I just fundamentally disagree with the approach.

To me, the next level of gamification or gaming in the classroom should be much less about badges and much more about group problem solving and promoting the value of failure (or, better stated- iteration).  It should allow kids the opportunity to wrangle a motley crew together, strategize how to conquer a daunting task, give it a whirl.....then pick up the shattered pieces, figure out what went wrong and give it another go.

That's the kind of gamification I'm going to see if I can promote and we'll see how it goes...better than one's first stab at a dragon, I can only hope...

Forgive me blog, for I have sinned.

**Apologies for the slightly Catholic opening (I was, myself, slightly Catholic growing up and parts of it seemed to stick...)**

So it's time to come clean on a couple things:
  • Even though I wrote a book, I don't love to write.  
  • Because I don't love to write, writing a book totally burned me out on writing and I'm only barely recovering.
  • Even though I was always told my ELA-type scores and numbers were better than my math/science, I've always liked math/science a lot more.
  • I've convinced myself that in the past two years I haven't had time to blog much because of all the changeover in getting a new job, having a third awesome little girl, and a million other things.  But that's not true- it doesn't take long for me to share thoughts once I start tapping away.  
  • I like to share ideas, but I wonder how new friends and colleagues will take them.  Not worried, per se, just wondering.
  • I have about 20 draft posts that I've never fleshed out.  Maybe the idea that I have to flesh them out is the problem....maybe just quicker snippets is where I need to head!
So all of this adds up to me not really doing much blogging at all these past couple years.  But being at ISTE again has re-lit a bit of a bug in me to share.  So, blog, I beg for forgiveness for your neglect, gathering dust in the corners of the Ed Tech universe....  but I think I'm gonna drag you back into the light, polish you off, and see what kinds of stuff might pop out.  

Monday, January 6, 2014

Top Ten Offline Chrome Apps for Students

cross-posted from a new blog I'm contributing to, Chromebooks in Education

One of the biggest criticisms of the Google Chromebook is that it is useless without a wifi connection.  This, however, is a myth!  There are lots of great and powerful tools that students can access without a wifi connection and the Chrome Web Store is adding more offline apps each and every week.



My Top Ten Favorites (as of now!)
(to explore more on your own, simply visit the offline section of the Chrome Web Store and browse)

Google Drive- A definite must-have.  Enabling offline access to Google Drive allows students to view all of their Google Drive documents with or without a wifi connection.  Also, students can create documents, presentations, drawings, and spreadsheets offline.  The creation process is exactly the same- when the Chromebook next logs in and has wifi access, these documents automatically sync to the student's Google Drive account.  Click here to see how to set up offline mode for Google Drive.

Lucidchart  -  This is a mind-mapping app that allows students to create and edit their maps while offline.  This app also allows students to export their files to their Google Drive account.

Pixlr Touch Up - This is a version of Pixlr that allows simple photo editing and saving while offline.

Gliffy - Another easy mind-mapping app that works well offline.

Google Keep - a quick note-taking app that syncs with Google Drive.

Timer Tab - Includes a timer countdown, a stopwatch, and alarm clock

Pocket - Allows students to save online articles for offline viewing.  This is a great way to have students without home wifi access to still be able to do research at home.  Unfortunately, there is no way yet to store videos for offline viewing, but the word is this will be coming soon!

Sketchpad - Allows students to create posters/drawings.  Students can insert pictures, shapes, text, drawings, and stamps.  Files can then be easily saved to the Downloads folder (jpg, pdf, png, zip) and uploaded back to Google Drive once they are connected to wifi again.

Until AM - Fun little offline app where students can take two pieces of audio and splice them together, add distortions, and remix songs. Only limitation is that there is no way to export or record the new mix (if online, this can be recorded through a Web Store app called "Voice Recorder" which records from the Chromebook's microphone and saves the output as an mp3 file).

Planetarium - This is a nice app to use if students want to explore the stars offline.  It helps that this is an offline app in that it can be used anywhere outside to view and match stars and constellations to the nighttime sky.

There you have it!  My top ten as of today (in no particular order).  I reserve the right to change my mind, as we're seeing more and more great offline apps come available to the Chromebook (Wevideo Next is one to keep an eye on.....).

-Steve J

Monday, September 16, 2013

Shadows and Shifts

At our summer leadership meeting, our superintendent, Dr. Spence, challenged all of the leaders within the county to shadow a student for a day.  To see the classroom world through their eyes.  To reflect on the experience of being a student in Moore County Schools.  He provided us all a journal titled "What's Your Shift?" to jot these notes down (of course, I cheated and used my iPad...).

I thought it was an excellent idea and finally, my day to shadow a student came today!  I was truly excited to be able to go back and spend time with one of my favorite age groups - 7-9 year olds.  So I headed out to Westmoore Elementary to spend time with Ms. Tapia, a fun 3rd grade teacher, and in particular, a student named Makayla.  Also- as an added bonus, it was wacky tacky day (if only I had known...but then again, I'm fairly tacky most every day).  I thoroughly enjoyed my time connecting with the kids and received one of the best compliments I've ever gotten; I had brought Makayla and a few other students to the media center to spend money at the book fair and on the way out a staff member said to me "You must have been an elementary teacher before."  Yes, absolutely.  100% proud of that.  #elementaryforlife

Book Fair Buddies


Reflecting on my day, I saw things that were similar to how I would have taught, things that were different, and many things to ponder.  The main things that my mind kept going back to were "If I were full-time in the classroom again, what would I do differently?  How would I improve?"  In the essence of keeping this short and sweet, I'll dive into two main things my brain swirled around.

Engagement + Accountability for ALL

The first thing I would improve is hitting the sweet spot of engagement and accountability for ALL students at all times.  Stepping out of the classroom has allowed me to see the forest from the trees- how have lessons I have worked through in the past missed students?  Were they able to hide?  (yes)  Were students able to look busy and do the minimum?  (yes)  I think it's critically important as educators to think deeply about each child, at each moment, in each lesson.  Is the material accessible to every student?  Is it FUN?  Does it get them moving/doing/creating?  Are they all able to show their knowledge?  Are they held accountable?

Accountability.  Now there's a word that has been co-opted for nefarious purposes in the last decade plus.  It has come to be associated with high stakes testing, holding students/teachers/schools accountable.  Calling them to task.  But that's not the lens I view this word through.  I view it as a responsibility for every educator to make sure students are held accountable to each other, to their teacher, to themselves. When we ask students to work on something, they need to be accountable to show what they know.  To me, the best accountability is the opposite of the high stakes testing kind- it's quick, it's easy, it's personal, it's embedded in everything we do.  It's an expectation that is followed through to the end, rechecked, then chased down again.  And all of this should happen in a caring environment based around mutual respect.

So, getting every student engaged + holding them accountable is where it's at.

How will a flood of technology fundamentally shift the classroom experience?

I was struck as I was sitting within this classroom of just how big a shift is about to happen within Moore County Schools.  We are headlong into making digital learning an every day environment for our students.  We have already rolled out many devices and will be going 1:1 in 7 of our schools this spring, affecting over 3500 students and their teachers.  Westmoore Elementary (grades 6-8) is one of those schools.

Seeing all of the work that is (somewhat necessarily) paper based got me thinking- when every student has a device / computer, there is so much that can be done in more meaningful ways.  For example, today students did some journaling around a really interesting, personal prompt ("Describe someone you know that has a really important job").  The kids did well with this, but instead of notebooks, in the future these entries could be done in Google Docs.  They could become collaborative journals instead of quiet writing time.  Students could easily share and comment on each other's work.  Teachers could highlight entries, showcase to the class.  Kids could enrich their entries with multimedia to show their points more clearly.

But the bigger issue in my work ahead is- how can our digital learning team best help prepare our teachers in MCS for this capitol B Bigtime shift?  It's coming, and it's our task to prepare our teachers and students to be as successful as possible in making meaningful use of digital tools.


So those were my main takeaways today. I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to spending more time with kids!!!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Unanswerable Questions


"If nothing else, school teaches that there is an answer to every question; only in the real world do young people discover that many aspects of life are uncertain, mysterious, and even unknowable."
- Michael Crichton, from the Intro in his last book Micro*

One of my favorite things I used to make time for when I taught 2nd grade was the question box- an old shoebox with the words "Question Box" slapped on with sentence strip paper and a pile of pencils and pieces of scrap paper next to it (I know...fancy stuff).  I seem to remember coming up with this idea as a way for students to practice writing questions with proper punctuation at the end, but it turned into so much more.

Students could write and contribute questions to the box anytime they had a free moment.  It turned into one of the most popular things to do as kids stuffed question after question into this little box.  Every time we had a free couple of moments (usually at the end of the day when we were packed up and ready to go) I'd pop open the box and answer as many questions as I could (using the only computer in the classroom)...

"How old is Mr. Johnson?"  (27ish...at the time...)
"What is the biggest planet?"  (Jupiter)
"How much does the Statue of Liberty weigh?"  (about 225 tons or around 56 elephants)

I'd say these kinds of questions made up about half of what we tackled.  But then there was the other half....the FAR more interesting half with questions like...
"How many stars are in the universe?"
"Where does God live?  Why doesn't he fall through the clouds?"

and my all-time favorite question I'll never forget from a little girl named Frances:
"Does a fly have a soul?"

These kinds of questions were my absolute favorite- we would sit together, a bunch of 7-yr-olds and I, philosophizing about questions that some of the greatest minds in the history of the world have no answer for!  And let me tell you, if you give even 2nd graders a chance to openly ask and think about questions like these, you will be completely floored at just how intelligent and articulate these little folks can be!

So I guess the message here is- be open to the unanswerable questions, no matter who you teach.  Even better- actively make time for them.  I fear that the last 12 years of standardized testing push has made our classrooms and students more focused on the "right" answers than ever.  Push back against this idea, don't be afraid to tell your students that not only do YOU not know the answer to a question but NO ONE does....and that's ok.

Keep that sense of wonder alive!


*Unfortunately, this is the only interesting part of this book- it's the first book I've scrapped reading in a long time- I do not recommend!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

What should school look like in 2020?

These were questions posed by the MOOC I'm working through right now:

What are the most important ways we need to update K-12 education by 2020?

  • I believe we're barreling toward a very interesting butting of heads in education- the widespread push for students to have more opportunities for personalized learning, to be more creative problem solvers, to think outside the box (or build a new one).....vs. how we are currently assessing students in very standardized, broad ways that do not reflect the very things we say we want from them.  It is going to be incredibly interesting to see how this all plays out in the next 7 years.  I personally believe we are (finally) heading toward a moment where people understand that personalized, digitally infused creative work is where it's at- and a standardized test does more harm than good in the cause of creating creative, flexible, problem solving students.
  • I think the entire notion of schooling needs to be updated.  The world is a different place, where one has a world of information at their fingertips.  When access to content and information is so ubiquitous, the very foundation of schools and "teaching" has to be fundamentally shifted.  It's no longer about imparting knowledge.  It's about facilitating learning, creating an environment for growth, and teachers as expert guides and mentors throughout the process.
  • Another update I believe needs to happen is a shift away from content focus and toward a focus on process.  In other words, we need to stop worrying about all of the bits and pieces of content we've been trying to shove into kids heads- instead let's focus on the learning process.  I once argued that content is king and now I think I've changed on this.  Now I think process is king.  I've pondered this before...

So....what do some of these things mean for digital learning?

When K-12 education  is updated  to fully incorporate digital learning:

  • What will be different for students?
Students will be collaborators, creators, and especially publishers.  Every student, K-12, should have a digital portfolio where they select artifacts of learning that show their growth.  When a student enters the district, it becomes part of their process....here's your login, here's your locker, here's your portfolio space.  And these spaces should be public- open for the world to view.  I've argued this many times in the past, but our students are graduating into a world that will be looking up their digital footprint to make decisions and judgments about them.  It's our duty as educators to prepare them for this world and help them to maintain a positive, powerful footprint that shows off their creativity, passion, and personality.

I also think students, as a result of a more personalized environment, will be much more engaged in their learning process.  I hope it's more of a partnership than a dictatorship.  And the more engaged students are, the more likely they are to stay in school and put forth effort into becoming the types of adults we hope to see.
  • What will be different for teachers?
I think traditional notions of control will go out the window.  Great teachers already know this, of course- the more choice you give students, the more voice you give students, the more you turn your classroom over to students, the better students will perform.  The interesting thing here is that when every kid comes into class and opens up a laptop or unfolds their iPad, a lot of these changes we're hoping to see pretty much become necessity.  You can't stand up and lecture to a group of students with laptops open.  You can't do business as usual, where your quizzes and tests are based on strictly recall of facts.  It just won't work anymore, and that's a good thing.

Anyway, these are my random thoughts on these questions.  It's exciting to think about 7 years from now and how things will be different for our students and teachers!  

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

MOOC'in it up

Just throwing it out there that I've started to participate in my very first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).  It is being hosted and organized by the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at NC State University and is entitled "Digital Learning Transition".  Here's the link.

My new job for Moore County Schools has landed me squarely in the middle of a large shift toward 1:1 and I'm part of the core planning team whose job is to get it right for students.  I'm truly excited to be a part of this and I can't wait to get cracking!!!

This will probably mark a bit of a renaissance on this blog space, which has been long overdue.  I feel like I got burned out on writing for a good two years or so, after putting my book together.  But now I'm getting the itch again and this MOOC will give me plenty to think and reflect about in regards to the directions I personally believe our county should head.

So this post is just a simple shot across the bow!  If you're interested I would love to hear your thoughts as I move through the process.