Reviving the Dead Blog

This is the first August in nearly a decade that I’m not planning things for my students this year. I still work and teach in the same district, but I’ve switched roles to become the Instructional Technology Coach for the six schools in our area.

I guess I’ve been a tech coach in my free time for several years now, so it’s nice to finally transition into this as a full-time role. It looks like I’m not the only one. This last February — at the ICE Conference in St. Charles, IL — I must have met at least a dozen other people who are becoming first time tech coaches in their district. The common thread was also that there wasn’t necessarily a common thread among districts as to how to utilize these new tech coaches, which to my mind makes this a great time to be moving into the role. Each school district has unique needs and differing levels of familiarity with technology and the frameworks needed to use it effectively. Some districts are steeped in the SAMR model, while others are just beginning to hear about this “Sammer thing” and how it can help teachers think about the way they plan and work with their students.

To that end, I need to start documenting my first year as tech coach. I’ve always attempted this in the past with this blog as a teacher, but I’ve tended to have this fall by the wayside as the year ramps up. This year I feel as though I might have more time to devote to journaling about my days and weeks as the tech coach, so we’re going to revive this blog that had been long dead.

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Rise!

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Ready… Aim… and a Little Strategy Too.

“Shoot ‘Em Ups” were next on the list to knock out during the teacher camp.  I played a little Galaga, a little Asteroids… the classics.  Then I had to venture off and locate a game that I thought would be something fun and that could be used in my classroom.  So I found one that was fun… used in the classroom?  Well… I’d use it in the classroom, but since I teach middle school, I doubt some parents would be as eager as me!

The game I found was Zombie Trailer Park.  Awesome game.  And really, not particularly gory, but when it comes to little men beating the undead to… uh… death?… with a shovel, or a combine mowing down the hordes in its path, I could see where there would be some objections.  It’s times like this that high school looks really appealing!

Anyway, as with the rest of these games, I’m having to re-educate myself continuously to understand how games can be an integral part of my Language Arts curriculum.  As I’ve read from James Gee, or heard on podcasts I listen to such as EdGamer, the game itself is really just a vehicle for the skills and practices we want children to be able to master.  And where else are they more motivated to learn mastery of a skill than in a game?  So Zombie Trailer Park is not a complicated game.  You start with Shovel Men, then when you’ve built up enough cash, trailers, farm houses, garages, etc., you unlock the ability to build farmers with shotguns, guys toting wagons full of flaming moonshine, as well as a pickup truck full of good ol’ boys with high-powered machine guns mounted to the truck bed.  The zombies start to throw some curve balls as well, adding “frogs” (they leap), “Big Honkin’ Zombies” (the big unstoppable guys), and “screamers” (they… well… they scream) to the original sauntering horde of walkers.  (These are all my names, by the way.  If the game offers specific names for the different types of zombies, I didn’t see it posted anywhere.)  As the levels progressed (there are 4), I found myself learning through each failure how to come back at those stupid zombies the next time and change up which type of building or player I built when, and even the timing of when and how many to build.  At one point, I consciously thought to myself how much I was strategizing through each wave and each level.

Wait, go back a second.  Did I just say “I found myself learning through each failure how to come back…” Huh.  Imagine that.

From Zombie Trailer Park, I had to continue the zombie theme when it was time to tackle the “Strategy” genre.  I chose to play Rebuild, which is a kind of Sim City/Civilization meets zombie apocalypse game.  Not sure why this hasn’t been done before.  Who knows… with my limited knowledge of modern gaming, I’m sure it has…  Anyway, I started in on Rebuild and found it to be a fun little strategy game.  The premise is that you have a band of survivors who have fenced off their own little section of the city.  You have a leader, some soldiers, some scavengers, a scientist, some builders, and a small group of citizens who can be taught to take on one of the other player types if you choose to train them to.  The game begins by scouting out the surrounding area, working to clear strategic areas from the zombie menace, then moving in to reclaim that area and add it to your base camp.  Throughout the game, you have to keep track of how happy your people are, how much you have in the cupboard (before they all starve), and you have to keep a few people back to guard the settlement from those pesky brain-eating hordes.

I was required to play the game for just a few minutes and found myself still trying to expand my base and train my citizens about 2 1/2 hours later!  There were a lot of aspects of the game that reminded me of Civilization — which is probably one of my favorite games of all time.  These games are clearly designed for learning.  The player has to match up the danger level of the scouted area with the number and skill of the soldiers going in to “clear” it.  If I choose to save a church over, say, a hospital… I will have to deal with the consequences of that choice.  There is a clear link between strategy games and the kind of cause/effect or problem-solving skills I try to teach in the English/Language Arts classroom.  Take away the zombies — by why would you want too?! — and I could use this to supplement teaching of The Giver, in which the characters make life and death decisions to maintain a “utopian” society.

Then I started playing a game I found called Battle Panic.  Very addictive… stupid orcs.  That’s all for tonight.

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What’s Your Platform?

Continuing with the 3D GameLab teacher camp, I’ve been looking at more styles of games and how they would best fit in my classroom.  I already introduced a couple of my classes to the text-based games like Zork — and more of them enjoyed it than I thought!  I originally gave them some time during class to play from a list of pre-selected games.  The only requirement, I said, was that they had to dedicate the first ten minutes of class to playing Zork.  When I told them their ten minutes was up, nearly 80% of them kept playing!  Awesome response!  I’m definitely thinking of taking this to the next level and having one of my other classes use this in conjunction with some reading, writing, and problem-solving activities.  I’ve been thinking of requiring them to create a map and develop a walk-through guide based on their playing experience.

Today I had the chance to play some online platform games — flash-based versions of Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog.  While I enjoyed dusting off some old favorites, I didn’t see much of an application to the classroom for these two games.  However, as part of the quest submission, I had to find an example of a platform game on my own and share it.  The game I found — and could definitely see using in class — was called Invertion.

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This platform definitely had more problem-solving skills involved than simply jumping on a Koopa Troopa’s head.  There were levels where you had to split yourself in half and control both sides — with the understanding that your other half would be controlled using the same commands, only backwards.  Take that a step further when you’ve got players moving forward, backward, and upside-down on the ceiling!  I really enjoyed this game and saw how this could offer a challenge to my students beyond what I saw as being readily evident in Sonic and Mario.  Don’t get me wrong — I love those games!  I just don’t see them as passing the “would I be able to vigorously defend the use of these games in my curriculum?” test.

I like the way these games foster creative thinking and problem solving — I found myself thinking through all of the possible solutions to each level as I played through Invertion.  As I relate these games back to the learning going on in my classroom, I can see comparing the type of problem-solving that happens here with the way a character in a novel works through their own internal and external conflicts.

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On Your Mark, Get Set… Not So Sure.

As part of my 3D GameLab teacher camp, I’ve had the opportunity to run through a set of games through one of the Gaming quest chains.  I’ve played Narrative Games, Fighting Games, Graphic/Text Games… and now I’ve reached Driving Games.

While I enjoy a driving game as much as the next person, I have played them for a while and I’m not sure what the educational value is.  I could see using the game as a starting point for writing a narrative in class related to the “story” of the game.  I could also see using this as a springboard for having students write a how-to on “How to play this driving game.”  Even those uses seem a bit of a stretch, though, compared with the obvious usefulness of the Narrative Games.

Maybe I just need to go play it some more.  Oh well… 🙂

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Action-Adventure Games: Legend of Zelda

When I saw that one of the requirements for a quest in my 3D GameLab camp was to play an online version of Zelda, I started humming the music in my head.  I loved that game as a kid! Compared with some of the other games we’ve been exposed to — or reminded of — in 3DGL, I think Zelda would be a good game option for students who struggle with reading.  I picture a hierarchy of games for students based on their literacy of skills that starts with something like “Zelda,” progresses to “Peasant’s Quest,” and culminates in having the advanced students try their hand at “Zork.”

As “Zelda” is less text-based than the others, I could see using that with ESL students as a way of having them follow the story without having to rely completely on text.  Much like the others, it also requires some problem-solving and a need to follow along with the story to understand why Link is on this quest.  Students would have the opportunity to write about the journey and steps necessary to complete his quest, as well as make predictions regarding the story — or even go beyond the game and write their own sequel (even though there have been a multitude of them by now).

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MMORPGs and ARGs: Building Community

I don’t play MMORPGs.  With everything else going on, they just seem to suck up a lot of time that I could be spending with family, perfecting curriculum for my class, etc.  I see the merit in them and I understand why people do play them… they’re just not for me.  It seems like these types of games are created for the purpose of building a community of players and giving them a common purpose and goals.

I love the idea of the ARGs.  I have always loved a good mystery or puzzle, and this seems to take it to the next level.  I’m the one always looking for “easter eggs” in a movie, or finding the hidden content in the DVD extra features menu… this type of game is made for someone like me.  Granted, I can’t see myself getting in my car and driving to a GPS location to answer a payphone (like they did with the “I Love Bees” viral campaign), but I love the idea of this type of game and how it brings people together from the same region, while connecting them with other “players” across the world!

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Game On!

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For the Spring Teacher Camp I’m attending through 3D GameLab, I was reintroduced to one of my old favorite computer games from when I was a kid — “Zork!”  Thinking about the kind of games I play now (mostly Words With Friends, Angry Birds, etc.), it was fun to think about the early days of these computer games when Zork was really all we had!  Until I started playing it again, I had forgotten how much fun it was to explore and wonder what was around the next corner, or what objects I could grab to help me get through that stupid forest.  If I never see another grue again, it will be too soon!

I also had the opportunity to play “Peasant’s Quest,” created by the guys responsible for Homestar Runner — moving on into the college favorites with the Strong Bad Emails.  It’s a game that pokes fun at the early graphic/text adventure games.  (I admit, I never remember needing to “deploy baby” and “take meatball sub” as one of the commands in Zork.)  Even though the requirement for the class was to play for a minimum of 20 minutes, I played through the entire game.

I could definitely see using something like “Peasant’s Quest” and “Zork” in my Language Arts classes.  By virtue of being text-based games and having a story with choices that need to be made by the player to advance that story, this would blend perfectly into lessons and units that I have taught before related to reading strategies and problem solving.  While I would definitely offer some help to the students — there are times where the game-play could be overly frustrating for a modern gamer, I feel — this would be a fun and valuable way to have the students struggle through a problem until they find a solution.

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I’m certainly looking forward to whatever games 3D GameLab has for me next.  I never played World of Warcraft, but thanks to this Teacher Camp, I’ve downloaded and started getting into the free starter version.  I can see how that would be used as part of the Language Arts curriculum too, which I know is already being done through the “WoW in School” project by Lucas Gillispie.

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No promises…

So let’s quit pretending I’m actually going to keep this updated. As busy as work(s) and life seem to get, I need to just blog when I can and not feel guilty when I look at this site and realize I haven’t been here in a year and a half.

Home page for 3D GameLab

I’ve started with the 3D GameLab Spring Teacher Camp hosted through Boise State, and I want to use this blog to post some of my reflections and share some of the great tools I’m learning about. I’m getting really excited about trying to blend the use of games into my curriculum, and 3DGL seems to have a lot of what I’ve been looking for in terms of its layout, structure, etc.

So stay tuned for more news from Teacher Camp!

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A new direction

I’ve decided to take this blog — and my classroom — in a new direction.

There’s been a nagging feeling for some time now that my classroom was not as it should be.  For the last few years, I’ve felt like I was losing touch with the reasons why I wanted to be a teacher, and losing control of being able to guide the atmosphere of my classroom into being one that encouraged students to enjoy their time at school while they learn.

Of course, my first year and a half as a teacher probably focused more on the enjoyment aspect rather than the learning.  Yes, students liked being in my class, but it was because of the digressions we had during class discussions, or the multimedia projects that probably focused more on how “cool” the students’ videos looked rather than how much they actually learned doing them.  To counter-act that, I’ve felt as though the last few years in my classroom have been swinging too far the other way.  I’ve graded more harshly, I’ve spent less time really getting to know my students… everything was their fault if they didn’t have the intrinsic motivation to learn.

I’ve been reading, tweeting, but most of all rethinking everything I’ve come to view as the norm in my classroom.  It’s not enough and it’s certainly not the best way for the students under my care to learn.  I’ve been too much of a lecturer and the resident expert on everything.  I’ve taken away their freedom and assigned them writing prompts that may hold no interest for them whatsoever.

This year, that all changes.

Overnight?  Of course not.  This will be a daunting year.  My wife and I are expecting a baby in October.  I have a student teacher coming in January.  I’m a week away from the start of the school year and some of these ideas are still just swirling around in my head, yet to take on a coherent shape.

Here’s my ideal: No grades. No homework. Develop in them a deep desire for exploration.  I want my students to learn and love learning.

I’ve been reading the newspaper all summer, seeing the steps being taken by our government to “improve” the education system.  Instead, all I see is the federal government killing teachers’ desire to help students learn and eviscerating students’ natural inclination to learn about the world around them by replacing learning with testing.  The way this whole system is being run is wrong.  And no one at the top has any clue about what it will take to fix it.

That’s where we come in.  I’m trying to transform my classroom this year into a place where every student has every opportunity to learn and to make the necessary mistakes to get to that learning.  Will it be pretty?  No.  I readily expect this to be a messy year.  I expect to make a lot of mistakes myself.  I expect to feel exhausted at the end of every day (or more than usual, I guess).  I expect to try to reach every student and still be disappointed by a handful that never connect with what we’re doing.  Maybe my expectations going into this will be enough to keep up morale when the going gets tough.

So what about this blog?  I’ve been a bad blogger.  I don’t write regularly and I’m not anticipating that changing for this school year.  But now this blog also has a focus to it that I really never had before.  I want this place to chronicle the steps I take this year.  I want it to be a list of my failures and blunders, as well as my successes and discoveries.  I want to be an example for others… whether it is an example of how to make this transition or how not to make it, only time will tell.

The tagline for this blog is Yoda’s line from The Empire Strikes Back: “You must unlearn what you have learned.”

Amen.  Let’s get to it.

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School’s (Not) Out For Summer

Back to School Already? Year-Round Programs in Full Swing – ABC News Shared via AddThis

Thanks to Eric Langhorst (Twitter:ELanghorst) for tweeting this article. It reminds me just how much I would love to have year-round classes.

When I was a student while living in England, we had year-round schooling. School started in the beginning of August, with one month breaks in December, March, and July. I remembered more when we came back to school in August, and we (my family) had more time to travel for Winter Break, Spring Break, etc. Given the opportunity, I would absolutely love to have year-round schooling here.

That being said, I do have to agree with some of the critics that say year-round schooling will not help a school that is already mediocre. Isn’t that true of any initiative? However, I think a move to a “modified calendar” would give some teachers the added consistency they need to make changes to the way they teach. We’re always complaining about a lack of time, so who wouldn’t benefit from an extra 20-30 days in the school year?

There were also a couple of comments for this article — one in particular — that I wanted to address. I’ve heard from people before that the 3-month summer vacation is “a key part of life for American youth,” as one of the comments says. I would challenge that by asking: “Can you tell me exactly what those American youth are doing during those three months that is so worthwhile?” I don’t view the longer calendar as being extended babysitting, and I’ve been to the mall or the park during June, July, and August… so I suppose this additional summer time is key for all of the smoking, lounging, vandalizing, etc. that some American youth choose to participate in.  I see students’ Facebook updates about how bored they are, or that they’re just sitting at home, “doin nuthin.”  Is this really what summer is all about?

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