Credential the kids

Color by Nils.Dougan

Color by Nils.Dougan

I just started a reading, writing, making club at school based on the idea of shifting from a writer’s workshop to a maker’s workshop. Two students attended our first meeting – they represent 1/18 of our school. At a school of 1800 kids, I would have had 100 attend, right? I’m confident attendance will increase organically over time as word gets out regarding students’ projects. But that doesn’t matter. We’re having fun.

Through the club I want to offer extra time on text, extra writing instruction, and extra time at school to make things that matter to students.

I’m hopeful that students will ask to continue their club work in class, which brings me to this idea:

We should start clubs and/or classes (to minimize transportation hardships on families) that “certify” students for project-based work. The curriculum of such clubs and classes should be designed to teach self-awareness, goal-setting, problem-solving, project management, resource evaluation, and standards-alignment. While I believe all kids would benefit from such learning, enrollment could be voluntary – I would no more force inquiry on a resistant student than I would a novel in which he or she had no interest.

Maybe we could create an elective to certify kids who test-out on Fall pre-assessments? Give them hall passes to travel from expert to expert within the building? Assign them smart phones? Create a flex-space independent study center?

Certified kids could help their teachers designing or co-designing their own differentiated, independent studies in core classes, simultaneously freeing up their learning and freeing up their teachers to help a smaller set of peers outpace the curriculum treadmill.

Support and structure the kids’ independence, certify them as agents in their own learning, and watch what happens.

Can a local school division independently recognize and authorize authentic learning?

And what about the kids outside the program?

I say bring them along, too, in their own time – not adults’ time. I don’t know that it’s as fair or right as it could be to start with one group of students or another, but it would be great that if by starting with any group we prompted one another to spend as much time considering the quality of learning gap as we do the Achievement Gap.

How would you start moving your class, school, or division towards certifying kids as learning agents? How could this approach invite and include as many kids as possible at whatever level of readiness they bring to school-supported inquiry- and passion-based work?

New strangers & the newer-fangled

I think EduCon holds a lot of promise. I think it aspires to be more than it is – a conference – and I think it can indeed become what it seems to want to be – a organizing force for change in public education. Right now it’s too bound by traditional spaces and schedules to take advantage of the people here. As at any conference, I’m frustrated that by attending one session, I lose the opportunity to participate in another. EduCon and its attendees should really rethink the session format and err in its planning on the side of “conversations” – the label it uses for sessions.

I also think we should bring along colleagues, parents, and students. There should be more people here whom we don’t know and who might say things we can’t anticipate from prior interactions online. What I most appreciate about the conference so far are the challenges I’ve gotten from friends talking with me outside the sessions. I want to have wide-ranging conversations. I want to pick one idea out of dozens on which to act. I want EduCon to add more strangers to its mix – strangers both to our tribe of twerps, but also “others” whom we don’t systematically value in education. Every time an EduCon educator or SLA student spoke, I wanted to cheer, but I also wanted to hear how a disgruntled parent and under-served student would view and/or take-on the problems we’ve chosen for ourselves.

I also wanted to talk with the panelists – I wanted EduCon to expect me to, structurally. I wanted the panelists to be amongst us, perhaps at roundtables or something newer-fangled.

Chris Lehman, the SLA, and its students have put together a great conference at a fascinating school. I challenge them to organize something less recognizable as such – I challenge them to think like scientists and to describe and define a new kind of EduCon by using conference experiences like this one to determine what the new experience is not.

Here’s what I’d like to take away from next year’s EduCon:

  1. Harder questions.
  2. A shared definition of digital literacy – or expression of it as a subset of critical thinking – as something different from print literacy on a screen – a definition we agree to promote on our blogs and in our school systems.
  3. An action plan – or several action plans from which to choose – that would explicitly foster next-generation collaborative, professional relationships between tweeps and new strangers.
  4. A schedule of interactions outside EduCon meant to provide us with a measure of social accountability for following the actions plans and delivering their outcomes.

I want all that, but I don’t want to have to propose a “conversation” about – I don’t want to start or end the conversation at a certain time or place because that is what a session does. I don’t want to look at a schedule and see whom I can’t see from where I am, you know? How can we craft a less competitive conference? A less exclusive tribe and less exclusive subsets of tribes?

Yeah, I get it – I can have all of this online, but there is something about talking with one another face to face that is inspiring at a visceral level. I can have conferences online, too. 

I want a dedicated time and place for tougher conversations and tighter plans organized onsite by passions and talents.

EduCon, can you make it happen? Attendees, would you attend?

Gamification in the classroom

School is a lot like a board game, but today’s best games aren’t like school. Game designers have found ways to embed mastery learning in flow-inducing experiences that offer learners increasingly self-directed opportunities for goal-setting and problem solving. Moreover, game designers have found ways to provide near constant feedback to learners. Customization is another hallmark of contemporary games, and widespread differentiation in gaming experiences exists across platforms, genres, and peripherals – or add-ons – like the XBox Kinect, PlayStation Move, and Rock Band controllers.

Game designers concern themselves with fun in ways that educators do not; however, the primary aims of both public education in the United States and the game industry are exactly the same:

  • Both industries want their consumers to adopt new behaviors. Games teach through gameplay and feedback; schools teach through teaching and feedback. While games depend on the player to learn from them, schools are largely set-up to depend on teachers to teach.
  • Both industries want repeat business. Game designers want their games to sell so that they have the resources and justification to make new games to sell to their fan base; schools want their graduates to excel so that they are given the resources and vindication to educate the next generation like the last.

While I can see the game industry slowing down console development to speed up game development and maximize profits through the synergy of new peripherals with old hardware, for now the game industry clearly has the edge in what I consider to be one of the single most powerful learning innovations of our time:


How powerful is fun? I think about my students who struggle to memorize the times tables, but master new games in moments. I think about my students who still don’t routinely or accurately capitalize, but have no problem with the grammar and syntax of button sequences. I think about my students who struggle with reading comprehension, but deliver encyclopedic summaries of games’ plots, systems, and characterizations. I think about my students who have resisted self-starting school work for year, but who embrace new challenges in games and routinely teach others the strategies and tricks they have discovered. I think about my students who rush through writing, but spend hours tweaking the characters and levels they create with in-game tools.

We could argue that games appeal to students because they are auditory, visual and kinesthetic, but we’ve all tried auditory, visual and kinesthetic activities that have fallen flat because we stopped designing at that modal level of differentiation, relying on novelty to carry the day. Game designers go a step further and ask how the auditory, visual and kinetic (and sometimes textual) can be made fun, especially when games rely on players to find novel applications for a finite set of sounds, pictures, and gameplay mechanics.

On March 21st, 2011, I’ll host an #engchat on gamification – or perhaps “applied gaming” – in the language arts classroom. Gamification is the application of gameplay mechanics to real world tasks in an effort to change human behavior by taking advantage of our need for fun. Companies use gamification to change consumer behavior through fun. I’d like to ask how teachers can do the same.

I recognize and acknowledge the extrinsic ends of gamification, and I hope that we discuss how to reconcile the use of gamification in schools with the intrinsic motivation that we know drives the most personally meaningful learning. For what it’s worth, I see my students initially attracted to games by ads and word-of-mouth, but I see them stick with games and game culture out of a common, intrinsic drive to master games that they evaluate as worthy of their time. I’m really eager to talk about the ethics of fun and game-design in classroom design and management, as well as in unit- and lesson-planning. How different are achievements and badges from grades? How are they used differently? How is feedback delivered in-game different from that delivered in a traditional class? I think we’ll find that beneath some rather superficial similarities, the how and why of game-based assessment and motivation differ greatly from traditional practices in public schools.

What we do is not fun. Why is that? What can we learn from games if we decide that our work should be fun? Should school be no fun, not ever? What about the language arts classroom? What’s the difference between using games for learning, like using iCivics and Monopoly for a Civics & Economics class, and designing class and/or school to be more game-like? Are game-development and programming acceptable forms of authorship in school? Is playing a game an acceptable form of readership if the student produces response, review, and/or criticism? If so, how should schools curate games and/or resource their authorship?

Check back at for related posts over the next few months, check out this #ncte11 proposal on gamification, and join us on March 21st, 2011, for an #engchat on game design in the language arts classroom – no language arts jacket required.

For readers interested in learning more about gamification from the pros, check out these links, too:

And here are a few app, game- and level-authoring resources:

For anyone interested in our experiments with gaming in the language arts classroom, you can read more about them here.

Have fun reading, learning, exploring, and making.

Please add your favorite games, examples of game-based learning, and gamificiation-in-the-classroom resources below, along with any questions, comments, and/or rebuttals you have!

Truer portraits

On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.
- Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’ve been listening to these Mavis Staples/Jeff Tweedy collaborations a lot lately. I’d like to share them today in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The first song, “You Are Not Alone,” speaks to me about how the relationship between schools and their communities should be. Schools should actively foster and strengthen our relationships with one another and our communities. Schools should not sever, devalue, or preclude a shared acknowledgement of our common worth and responsibility to and for one another. If schools can’t or are unwilling to do this as they are currently designed, it’s time to redesign them rather than just to shuffle around the people trapped inside them.

The second song, “Wrote a Song for Everyone,” speaks to me about the disjunct between the school experiences we, our students, and our families have and the vision of school marched out for review by the federal government and teach-louder charter management organizations. There is a difference between working for equality and working to provide access to equality for those that “merit” it through compliance. The best way to promote our general welfare is to follow our students’ pursuits of happiness in learning. How do we make the charter debate moot by substantially transforming public education so that it speaks to all students instead of separating them? I don’t feel like I can leave this up to the DOE and I don’t feel like it listens well.

Both songs remind me of the shortcomings of our unique blend of democracy and capitalism. Until we elect a government more concerned with its people than itself, it’s up to us in our classrooms, communities, and homes to help our kids experience our ideals and paint truer portraits of freedom, responsibility, and empathy with their lives’ work than we have painted with ours.

For our part, we need to make sure that our teaching serves each and everyone of our students; we need to stop asking our students to serve education.

Dare what you see.

Amazing Building by jemil75

Amazing Building by jemil75

In public education, we face self-imposed obstacles to change. We also face a fiscal apocalypse – one time moneys are disappearing just as local revenue has. We’re not electing politicians likely to raise taxes. We’re electing politicians likely to cut muscle and bone.

Moreover, we’re going to experience confusion as a country about what it means to fund public schools – or not. As the federal government pours money into teach-louder states and initiatives, we’ll live and work in districts that begin to wonder if our schools are poor because they deserve to be.

There will be conflict. Organizations that receive federal money will open lavishly appointed schools down the street from neighborhood schools starving for resources because of state decisions. School choice will be reduced to a matter of flight from schools completely unequipped to weather an economic recovery during which school systems cannot independently recover.

On one hand, this is entirely about the money we don’t have. Fiscal shortfalls are going to force schools into increasingly backwards staffing and scheduling formulas (and where we are sucks), as well as entangle schools in relationships with vendors pushing whole-sale prices on scientifically-proven programs that might raise scores and bring in money. Schools will gamble on those scores using staffing money. Specialist and support positions will go away, and professional development funds will be spent on training teachers to use programs, rather than to teach through the arts or community-based project-learning. Inescapable paucities and ill-advised bargains will lead us to more schooling and less education.

On the other hand, considering our self-imposed obstacles, this is entirely about the money we do have and how we choose to use it.

  • We should spend money on democracy, not control.
  • We should spend money on community, not isolation.
  • We should spend money on evidence, not inference.

If you apply these ideals to your

  • classroom,
  • building,
  • division,
  • state,
  • and nation

what do you see?

Education won’t solve poverty until we let go of the impoverished visions of school that we have. No amount of money will solve a problem that we don’t. No amount of money will enrich our vision if we won’t.

Dare what you see. Back your ideals – the currency of transformation – with a standard of action.

Paintings by Little C

“You should play the time you want to play….”

Paintings by Little C

I asked my 7-year old son a simple #blog4reform question: If you could change school so that you’d love to be there, what would you do?

Here’s what he said before going back to drawing:

  1. Don’t tell people how long they should write their sentences. Let them pick out what they want to write so they might have longer sentences.
  2. Let people read for the time they want to read.
  3. Let kids choose how many sheets of homework they have to do.
  4. You should play the time you want to play and be nice to the other people.
  5. Art is fun, so we should learn more at school.
  6. People should pick the reading groups they want to go to and go to a different one next time.
  7. People should use Legos. You could teach with them. You could put magnets on them and teach about North and South by building things.
  8. Kids should be able to draw when they want to draw. I draw all the time on my tests when I’m bored.
  9. Kids should be able to get in groups and write books on the topic they want. They could do a comic.
  10. You shouldn’t send kids to the principal’s office. You should give them more chances to say sorry, and if sorry doesn’t work you should do whatever to help the person you hurt so that they aren’t sad and they don’t hurt you.

Sign me up; evaluate me against this.

School dev story

Last year I spent Winter Break reading two wildly disparate books about child-parent relationships gone bad. This year I played Kairosoft’s Game Dev Story on my iPad – and read #blog4reform (you should, too).

Game Dev Story puts you in charge of a game development company. You develop games and fulfill contracts in pursuit of industry awards, as well as the cash and research points necessary to recruit and develop workers and to license and develop more games and consoles. I enjoyed the game immensely, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t completely portray the complexities and operations of the game industry. Nevertheless, Game Dev Story does at least introduce its players to the kinds of decisions developers make regarding game mechanics, genres, and consoles. Plus, it’s full of puns and malapropisms, just like me.

How would Lesson Planning Story or School Management Story play by comparison? Would anyone even want to make either of those games for an audience in the United States of America? Would either game be released in the United States as anything but a satire?

Would you produce such a game knowing that you would have to trade off accurately portraying the complexities of public schooling in America in return for introducing players to broad tensions we face in running schools and designing learning opportunities in classrooms? How far could a little gamer education go for public education in our country?

What can a funny little app teach our casual gaming citizenry about education?

If you’d like to explore making a school or lesson development story – if that last question excites you – let me know. I’d contribute art and/or writing pro bono. We could at least launch a development blog for some vaporware.

it’s easy to visualize a classroom overlay atop Game Dev Story. It’s hard to imagine players in the United States of America caring, but perhaps that’s a shame a popular iPhone app could address.

The vaccine & the lab

I am heartsick waiting for a national educational vision, leader, professional organization, and administration that can think outside the bubble and break the 8 1/2 x 11″ margins of school learning.

In response to Michelle Rhee’s new initiative, I’d like to offer the following convictions:

My mission is to defend the safety, dignity, independence, and curiosity of children in my classroom and pursue authentic reform in public education so that student learning is recognized and acknowledged inside and outside traditional school buildings, schedules, and structures. While the data might be clear, it is not clear to me at all that we are schooling for the right purpose. The data we collect and the instruction it drives are harming children by limiting their learning and the potential of their teachers, who need to break at every opportunity the ceiling of low instructional expectations placed on them by standardized testing.

I believe all children deserve outstanding teachers who are free to teach and learn – and to innovate through trial and error – in outstanding ways. I’m willing to pursue and pay for a third-union certification that allows me to do such; I’m willing to negotiate a contract that hold me responsible for facilitating juried work and adding tangible value to the lives of my students, school system, and community.

I believe experiencing authentic learning should be a matter of fact and be facilitated by great schools at a variety of locations throughout a community and through student internships, externships, and expeditions. I believe that robust and diverse school marketplace of radical customization and niche-education better serves children than one built on competition for a single resource – test scores.

I believe that public dollars belong where they make the greatest difference – in supporting students and teachers to pursue personally meaningful learning that tangibly benefits schools’ communities; we must fight spending money on standardizing children. Schools need authentic learning and assessment – not testing.

I believe that parent and family involvement is key to student safety, confidence, and curiosity, and that interdependent school, home, and community involvement should lift children up as change agents in their schools, families, and communities. The effort to improve our schools is not the same thing as the effort to improve our test scores, despite their episodic fiscal and political overlap. School should not be a vaccine sold against generational dysfunction; it should be a lab full of learners pursuing solutions to the problems posed by their own lives and passions.

What do you believe? How will you start your movement?

Tag – you’re it.

I encourage us all to declare ourselves and take action for Blog 4 Real Education Reform – The Sequel on January 1st, 2011.

I am grateful to Michelle Rhee for confronting me with an opportunity to reflect.

The Third Union

I would like a third union to represent me. The union would be solely focused on protecting students’ rights to innovative, humane, experiential pedagogy, and teachers would be certified and placed by that union as representatives of its mission. It would be like a mash-up of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, ISTE, the American Bar Association, Carney, Sandoe & Associates, and William Morris.

The union would evaluate teachers’ work against it’s mission criteria, certify teachers who satisfy that criteria, contract with school divisions to place teams of these teachers in the divisions, and negotiate terms and contracts (including housing/moving allowances and the union percentage) on individual teachers’ behalves, including assurances to protect and advance the teachers’ work in designing students’ authentic learning.

Such assurances might include provisions like these:

  • The division will provide the teacher with 1:1 computing environment using mobile computing devices.
  • The division will provide the teacher with a 1-time infrastructure grant and access to state vendors to redesign his or her assigned learning space.
  • The division will facilitate permissions for the teacher to publish at-will on his or her work in open-access environments.
  • The division will facilitate permissions and support the teacher in publishing for-profit with profit sharing between the teacher and his or her school and/or division.
  • The division will allow the teacher to manage available technology and provide tech support for the teacher to do so.
  • The division will facilitate parent opt-out of testing or agree to hold the teacher harmless for end-of-course standardized tests scores so long as other achievement measures, such as reading inventories, and deliverables are submitted on time and at reflect a high level of learning and quality.
  • The division will facilitate fair and equitable access to placed teachers.
  • The division will facilitate – with revised, but sensible policies – field trip and student-publishing regulations and parent permissions to allow for ready community partnerships, service learning, and project-based learning outside the school.
  • The division will provide time with an employed or contracted programmer for x/y hours per week where x is the programmer’s available time and y is the number of placed teachers.
  • The division will allow teacher oversight of partnerships with donors and community partnerships who benefit the classroom in kind with teachers subjected to monthly reporting and auditing of donations.

The teacher deliverables might include things like:

  • Publishing apps, curricula, and action research in a for-profit partnership with the division and a collaborating publishing company, journal, and/or software developer.
  • Presenting at the local, state, and national level about the work of students in the division.
  • Developing and maintaining interactive exhibits of student work on division web pages .
  • Providing the division, union, and partners with feedback about the placement.
  • Establishing teacher-run schools and/or programs governed by boards of placed teachers, students, parents, and community partners.
  • Developing assessment criteria for experiential learning in partnership with teachers placed at other sites to validate new kinds of learning measurement.
  • Developing experiential assessments and correlating their results to students’ literacy gains and standardized test scores in alike cohorts over the course of the placement.
  • Serving as in-class mentors and partners for 3-5 apprentice teachers in a shared, inquiry-driven learning program
  • Overseeing the development and implementation of virtual programs, including mentoring such programs’ teachers.

I would want the union to kick my tail during the certification process so that neither I nor any perspective employer would doubt my capability to fulfill the union’s mission. I would also want a robust social network to support my professional development and help me with any improvement plan. I mean, I would want the process to take years and involve a lot of iteration and demonstration of the teaching and learning such certification would merit. I would want to be turned down a few times and offered targeted feedback on the areas in which I would need to improve to be certified.

The union would use something like a composite index to measure the fiscal health of partner divisions and place surcharges on wealthy divisions to help subsidize the placement and provision of union teachers in needier districts.

What do you think? Untenable? Unnecessary? Unavoidable?

Imagining the games-based classroom

If we can teach kids to make fun learning games (fun can indeed be measured, and learning can indeed be fun), then we’ll be helping them create experiential learning opportunities for others that have characteristics of narrative (plot, characterization) and informational texts (GUI, games manuals), as well as scripted expository texts that rely heavily on interdisciplinary connections (the arts-infused creation of graphic assets, the logic of programming, and the relationships of math, physics, and engineering to representing motion and interaction).

There are several ways to help uncover students’ talents at making games.

  1. First, we can let students play widely. Just as you get better at writing by reading, you get better at designing by playing.
  2. Second, we can provide students with an authentic outlet for their writing. Game design and programming require students to show depth in thinking not only about what they want to make, but also about how it will work. It takes iteration, feedback, and reflection to finish alpha, beta, and gold builds of games. It takes the writing process to make a game, and it takes the writing process further than a teacher-described genre or multiple choice question about what comes after prewriting.
  3. Third, we can remake our classrooms to feel more like information age workplaces. These workplaces clearly value their workers in ways that classrooms value neither students nor teachers. I’m imagining a place with a lot of natural light, mobile furniture, individual work stations, and a collaborative space filled with inspiration and materials for “reading” and prototyping. There would be several types of tools available for several types of tasks, including maintaining developers’ diaries. It would be okay to eat and drink there. It would be okay to communicate with the outside world there. It would be okay to bring friends and family there to play-test. A GBL space/lab/library space/school-within-a-school/charter would be a workshop that favored collaboration, communication, and spontaneous celebration of failure and success, rather than a classroom that favored competition, monologue, and looming consequence.

Here’s my take on a classroom for games-based learning (GBL). It would include

  • Light, color, art: everywhere.
  • Modular, mobile furniture.
  • Mutable zoning by project.
  • A commons area.
  • A common multi-monitor screen for streaming and presenting student work, class backchannels, and relevant class texts.
  • A dedicated play area.
  • Individual work stations.
  • A library of excellent texts, including books, films, and games.
  • A library of toys.
  • Mobile, kid-level planning surfaces.
  • Multiple copies of class development platforms, games with authoring tools, and software development kits.
  • Mobile communications tools available to every student or hardwired communications tools at every student work station.
  • Permissions policies allowing the teacher to manage student communications and publications with relevant experts and entities
  • Access to an outdoor campus for play, planning, and mobile computing.
  • Differentiated seating.
  • Refrigerators and pantries.
  • 2D & 3D materials for prototyping and making games and asset models. (Has no one done the custom vinyl figure novel character visualization yet?)
  • Architecture and wiring that created discrete sound zones.
  • Rotating roles so every kid produces at least 2 design documents, 2 levels authored in other games, and 2 alpha builds of project in something like Scratch.

Teachers across the world would pitch content needs. Students would pitch back concepts and make alpha builds for feedback from their teacher clients, student play-testers, and outside experts. Kids could change projects in a fluid manner to produce the best products possible. Kids from a poorly reviewed alpha could contribute to the beta build of a project favorited by more peers, clients, and experts, improving its quality and/or shortening its development time.

There would be embedded art, engineering, math, workplace readiness and roles, reading, and writing standards in an open-ended curriculum of iterative development in service to others’ learning needs and students’ communities.

Imagine an Urgent Evoke-like game for a kid’s town through a Gowalla-like AR interface.

Who wants to play? What are the bugs?