Friday, April 27, 2012

Video Games Could Save Schools

feel very lucky that this was published in Learning and Leading, May 2012

Do you know what is really compelling about a great video game? It is not the great graphics or the amazing sound effects or even the ability to do things you can’t do in real life. The really compelling feature of video games is their ability to give you a task to complete that is hard enough that you feel challenged but easy enough that you know you can do it. In addition, as you work towards that challenge you get constant feedback about how you are doing. And I don’t mean the computer is shouting back at you “Alllriiight!!!” or “Way to go dude!” but rather that at any moment, you can see your score, your time, your distance, and see how you compare to others in the game. And what’s more, the challenge you are completing is epic. It is part of a larger story, often part of the ubiquitous hero’s journey. In this journey, the choices are yours to make. Your decisions will make a difference and will contribute to events more important than your individual life.
Think about all that for a minute.

Photo By Ryan Somma
What if going to school felt the same way? What if when they arrived at school students knew they were about to be presented with a challenge that was difficult but achievable, a challenge that was significant to the world outside of the classroom walls, a challenge during which the student would consistently learn if he or she was on the right track, a challenge where students could make their own decisions and choices.

I think we would have students that love coming to school, have high engagement in their learning, and would be prepared for a future world of work and learning where they will need to solve difficult problems.

I have been lucky enough to work in some classrooms where teachers are trying to make the connections between video games and content learning. Several classrooms in my school division are currently using online, multiplayer, content area games. When you walk into the classrooms playing these games, you can feel the excitement in the air. It is loud as students shout encouragement back and forth. It is busy as students ask for help with problems they are unsure of. It is focused as students work on content area skills to conquer an online problem. Furthermore, playing video games, students are building their confidence in content areas. Whether it is simulating the challenges of being president in iCivics, or determining why the fish have left a national park in Quest Atlantis, working as a team to solve math problems to conquer a node in Dimension M or trying to help the American Revolution in Mission US, teachers report that students are engaged, persistent, and better problem solvers as a result of their experience playing games in schools.

We can do better than dismiss video games as violence-producing time-wasters. We need to stop thinking about video games as things that are sucking our students away from learning and instead find out what they are learning from playing video games. Then, we need to find more ways to make school like video games: self-directed, relevant, challenging and epic.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Who doesn't love a mystery?

I am dying to get a teacher that I work with to try Mystery Skype. The concept is simple but powerful. You link up with another class somewhere in the United States or in the World. You ask questions of the other class and provide clues about your own class until you can each guess where the other class is located. Poof! Fun, authentic, high-level application of geography skills.

I really can't emphasize what a great example this is of using technology in a way that transforms learning: Students will:

  • develop excellent questioning and reasoning skills as they create questions to uncover clues about the mystery location
  • practice communicating via 21st century tools (certainly Skype and can be expanded from there if the classes choose to stay in communication)
  • learn about worlds beyond those of their classroom or school from those who actually live in those places rather than via textbooks or sanitized non-fiction readers
  • have a chance to take on leadership roles as they prepare to answer questions about their own location
Photo by woodleywonderworks
Below are some ideas and instructions for getting going with Mystery Skype. I've pulled these together from lots of great blogs and teacher websites like the following:

Mrs. Yollis
Mrs. Pripp
6th Chat
Mystery State Skyping
Mr. Avery 
School Is Cool  (video)
Teaching Geography and Mystery Skype

I hope to keep adding to this post as I coerce teachers into, I mean, assist teachers with Mystery Skype. Please add your own comments, advice, warnings in the comments below. And if you have a blog or posting about Mystery Skype, please add your link. I'd love to be able to refer teachers to this post as a go-to spot for getting started with Mystery Skype.

STEP ONE Establishing Accounts:

To begin, if you don’t already have one, set up a Skype account for your class. It is free and easy! I found that when I was at school, I was blocked from setting up my account, but I could browse projects other teachers had posted. And I could set up my account easily from home.

BONUS STEP: It is not required, but it is recommended to have an educational Twitter account. If you don’t have one already, create one. Teachers often set up an account like “MrsDunbar” or “MrsD5th” You might find this a useful way to communicate with your Mystery Skype classes or with other professionals (you don’t have to follow the cast of Jersey Shore).

STEP TWO Connecting with other classrooms:

Sign up for Mystery Skype using one of the following links:

Or, make your own connections!

  • If you know teachers in other regions, ask them if they’d be willing to Mystery Skype with you
  • Ask colleagues, parents and students if they have contacts in other states, see if they want to Mystery Skype
  • If you are on Twitter, you can also just tweet that you are looking for classrooms to Mystery Skype with

STEP THREE Preparation for the call:

The technology:
Find out what the procedures are for your school or school division. In my school division, teachers contact the Help Desk so that Skype can be unblocked for that day, time, and location. Our Help Desk will also provide a good web cam and microphone as well as hang around to make sure everything goes well. If you have a great tech department like ours, get them involved in the call too! They can give a clue or ask a question!

Your class:

  • Be sure your students know about your our own region! Have different students research the geography, history, landmarks, weather and other aspects of our location that make your location unique. You want to make sure that your class can answer questions accurately.
  • Brainstorm questions to ask the other class. Usually Mystery Skype projects use close ended questions. Help your class develop a list of Yes/No questions that will help them figure out the location of the other class.
  • Give students roles for the time of the call. The links below have great ideas about how to do this.

The other class:
Try to communicate actively with the other class. Be sure that you are both clear about how the call is going to run, including if you are using Yes/No questions, who is going to go first, what roles your students have. Also be clear if the location will be revealed during the call or after the call. Don’t be afraid to say this is your first time, we educators need to take risks and support each other.

STEP FOUR Share how it went!

I am looking forward to sharing how the first Mystery Skype call goes. I have a couple of victims, I mean, teachers in mind that I am hoping are feeling brave enough to try this out. I will be sure to post here once that happens. In the meantime, I'd love to hear from more teachers how Mystery Skype enhances learning in their classrooms. You can share here too, or tweet about it, or write on your own blog, or share at a faculty meeting, or just share with the teacher across the hall!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Flattening your classroom and Flattening your own world

I have been having a great time reading Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds by Vicki Davis and Julie Lindsay. This book is an excellent resource for anyone considering global projects or for any teacher who is just interested in expanding their own classroom view. The book itself models a collaborative global project in every way imaginable. Here are some of the ways it does this:
Photo by Clive Darr
  • Whenever a classroom project example is given, or a powerful quote from a teacher or expert is provided, the authors encourage the reader to follow that person on Twitter. I have loved this. There is really no better example of how flat our world is than just clicking the "Follow" button under someone's name. You now can follow their thoughts, find out who they are following, and even mention them in your own Tweets. 
  • Along with the book are 15 Flat Classroom Challenges. These challenges encourage you to set up RSS like Google Reader (check!), start a blog (check!), join a collaborative network like Google Teacher Academy or Apple Distinguished Educators (check!), from there the challenges get more, well, um, challenging. But I love this idea. To encourage readers to take on the challenge, the authors suggest tweeting as you complete the challenges or posting on the Flat Classroom Ning. This helps make it all feel more like a fun scavenger hunt instead of homework. I love this idea so much I am considering how to make it a part of some of the local professional development I do.
  • There is a virtual book group! I was so glad I checked Twitter at the moment an announcement about the book club came across my stream. The book club meets once a week for an hour via Blackboard Collaborate. Ben and Neil from Engaging Educators moderate and either Vicki or Julie (the authors) are always there. This is a great opportunity to share your own reflections while reading the book as well as to ask questions of amazing teachers that have been living and breathing global collaboration for years now.
  • More! QR codes that link to student projects, Flat Classroom Diaries that give you glimpses into the personal stories behind different global projects, and a professional development toolkit that I haven't checked out yet.
There are many, many aspects of this book that I am finding inspiring, stimulating and thought-provoking and I hope to blog more about these in the future. For now I'd like to say that I am so thrilled to see a professional learning tool that really models what it values. If we want teachers to start to use technology in transforming ways, we need to do more to model professional learning experiences that mirror what teachers can be doing with students. That is what is knocking me out about this book. By encouraging teachers to tweet, blog, connect, comment and engage with this book, the authors are really showing what learning in the 21st century looks like. To quote Vicki Davis during our last book club, "Learning is not about consuming, it is about contributing and creating." Kudos to Julie and her for writing a book that doesn't just talk about that idea, but lives it.