Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The White Witch Taunts Us

Our fifth grade classes recently finished reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. They just received this message from the White Witch:

Made with Blabberize
Image by Ethan Trewhitt

Our students will play a BreakoutEDU game called Revenge of the White Witch, created by Edie Erickson.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Pokemon Go: Problem or Opportunity?

Pokémon seems to be an enduring attraction for students. This past year, I noticed quite a few of my students with Pokémon cards. I've purchased a few of the guide books for our library, and they are constantly checked out. If you are unfamiliar with Pokémon, the creators’ Parents’ Guide provides a good overview.

Pidgeotto in my living room
The newest incarnation is Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game played on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. The game shows players or “trainers” on a map of their local area. Walking around the neighborhood, players will come across wild Pokémon which can be caught using a Pokéball. I have only started playing, but one feature I love is that I can take a picture of a Pokémon with the real world as a background! My understanding is that I can help my Pokémon get stronger and evolve into new forms. Eventually I will be able to join a team, battle other Pokémon, and take control of a local Pokémon gym where I can continue competing.

In the couple of days since the free app was released, I have immediately noticed people playing in my area. Taking my dog out, I saw three boys walking by my house with their phones out. “Looking for Pokémon?” I asked. “Yeah, it’s great! I’ve already walked two miles today!” one responded. On top of the existing popularity of the whole Pokémon franchise, players now have the chance to bring their gameplay into the real world, a powerfully appealing opportunity.

Pinsir near shopping area
So what does this have to do with education? Thinking back to those Pokémon cards, I know that I have reacted to their presence at school primarily as a potential problem. I saw them as a distraction at best and the source of student conflicts over trades or theft at worst. But shouldn’t I treat student enthusiasms as an opportunity instead? Can I find a way to connect students’ interest in Pokémon with more traditionally educational topics?

No doubt many of our students with mobile devices are out there right now catching and training Pokémon. And I doubt the fervor will die down before they come back to school in August. They’ll be excited to show their classmates their best Pokémon and possibly trade and battle each other. Is this going to be a distraction to the learning experience or something we can leverage?

I’ve started to think about ways we could help students connect Pokémon GO experiences with our curricula. They could learn about sampling a population by tracking how many Pokémon show up in a certain area over a certain amount of time. Each Pokémon has different abilities which parallels the idea of animal adaptations. When the game allows for trading, supply and demand is going to become an important dynamic. This game also encourages exercise as players are motivated to go out in search of more Pokémon.

How else could we leverage Pokémon GO for student learning? Please share your ideas on this Padlet.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

ISTE Inspiration: Don't be a zombie!

Jennifer LaGarde gave an impassioned and inspiring keynote at the ISTE Librarians Network Annual Breakfast. Jennifer visited numerous schools across North Carolina as a "librarian on loan" for the last two years, and she was really struck when someone shared the following idea:

"There are only two kinds of librarians: Zombies and Zombie Fighters."

Cropped from "Moral Decency" on OpenClipart.orgJennifer recognized the truth in this statement. There are school librarians who fit the stereotypes of the mean old lady librarian who hoards books and shushes kids. These zombie librarians value the books, the Dewey decimal system, and rules more than students and their interests and learning. They are comfortable with the past and afraid of the future.

Gwyneth Jones'
Library Girl
On the other hand, zombie-fighting librarians defy expectations, embrace change, collect data, and learn continually. They value children, their interests, needs, and identity as creators. They work to create meaningful, authentic learning opportunities based on real-world problems.

As I listened to Jennifer's talk, I was inspired and energized, but also a little overwhelmed. I could see myself in some of the zombie-fighting activities that Jennifer described, but I have plenty of room to grow. Which reminds me of Cool Cat Teacher Vicki Davis speaking at an NCTIES conference a few years ago about eating the watermelon one bite at a time. In need to be strategic in choosing specific areas where I need to focus first.

How will I decide what my priorities are? The new NC School Library Media Coordinator evaluation instrument is one place where I can look for areas of improvement. And of course, I'm going to continue to pursue my interests in gaming, quest-based learning, and coding. But I think I need to check in with other stakeholders in our school's media program: our students, teachers, and administrators. I need to get more feedback from them about what they like about our media program and what more they would like to see.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Quick Thoughts from ISTE #1

For the opening keynote at ISTE 2014, I was expecting inspiration, technology, and education. Hearing Ashley Judd talk about her journey from a childhood of love and neglect and abuse to an adulthood of healing and recovery was not what I expected. She did share how some teachers’ actions and remarks made a positive impact on her far beyond what they probably realized. And she talked about how important it is for us to listen to children and to really see them.

So while her talk was not what I expected, perhaps it was what we needed to hear: the core of what we do is to listen to and see what is going on with the children who walk into our classrooms. Sometimes we fill our heads with great educational ideas and exciting technology tools to the extent that we forget the human beings who are our students. Hopefully, we will find ideas and tools that will help us listen to them better.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Power of Code

When I was in eighth grade, circa 1983, our school got its first computer: a TRS-80 in the Media Center. A friend of mine and I were given the opportunity to use it. We were handed a book for learning the programming language BASIC and just dove in. In high school, our computer classes were programming classes: BASIC and Pascal were the two classes I took.

Fast forward to the school where I work today. Through our Digital Conversion initiative, our students are fortunate to each have a Macbook throughout the school year. Their experience of using computers is vastly different from my student days. It is a fantastic tool for accessing information, producing media, practicing skills, and communicating amongst students and staff.

While my students are using the computer in amazing ways, I have not seen anything about learning computer programming like I did as a student. The focus is on using a variety of web sites and applications, not creating them with code. Students produce a lot of cool media projects with iMovie, ComicLife, SketchUp, etc., but they don’t have any idea what is behind the applications and web sites they use every day.

Through a 3D GameLab quest line this past October, I learned some of the basics of Scratch, a kid-friendly programming language and web site created by a group at MIT. I was attracted to this tool partly out of nostalgia and partly because of the fun factor. Making a cartoon cat or robot or shark move around the screen at my command is a heady and extremely satisfying experience!

For my students, I saw this as a powerful tool for doing new things in new ways. We could go beyond creating a Keynote presentation or Paintbrush picture. Students could make something that moves, talks, interacts. So my first thought was that Scratch would kick our media production up a notch. My fifth grade students are already learning the basics in preparation for creating a project that shows the creatures that fill various niches in specific ecosystems.

In the last couple weeks, I have been hearing a lot about the Hour of Code, a promotional event for Computer Science Education Week, December 9-15, 2013. Their site has tutorials that just about anyone can use to learn coding using different tools such as Scratch. They also have infographics about the need for more computer science students and the underrepresentation of women and people of color.

This promotion increases my motivation to get all of my students using Scratch, not just as a cool media production tool, but as an experience with computer programming. My hope is not just that many of them will be prepared for good-paying jobs. I think about the power of knowing the language that runs our information economy. We are surrounded by apps and web sites and video games. I don’t want my students to be mere consumers of these tools. I want them to help shape them.

Photo credit:
Flominator. TRS-80 Model 1 - Rechnermuseum cropped. [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, August 5, 2013

Reflections on Summer Part II GamesMOOC

Jumping into GamesMOOC gear for the second half of the Summer session, I found a smorgasbord of ideas, examples, games, and worlds. We discussed the use of avatars, explored other game-related MOOCs, visited the GamesMOOC Minecraft server, and shared games that might be useful in education.

Our Wednesday evening tweetchats focused on the experience of using avatars. Rosie O’Brien Vojtek, one editor of the Virtual Education Journal, asked us to think about the Avatar Generation: folks who are very comfortable operating in a virtual world using a personalized avatar. These folks have a facility for negotiating virtual worlds and building and communicating in these worlds.

Avatars have some connection to the identities that we claim in “real life.” Introverts may feel more comfortable speaking up via their avatars. The “disinhibition effect” seems to free us up to behave in ways we wouldn’t in face-to-face encounters. Avatars may represent our sense of our true selves to greater or lesser degrees, depending on whether the player is trying to explore a different identity in a safe space or trying to represent themselves faithfully.

We ventured into a couple of other MOOCs, one of which was the rgMOOC (Rhetoric and Composition: The Persuasive Power of Video Games as Paratexts), a course taught in part by Sherry Jones. This course invited participants to engage with texts and videos that offered background content, explore a variety of games, and enter into discussions of what they found each week. The course had a clear structure within which participants had many choices.

The rgMOOC asked participants to explore the messages and assumptions of the games that we play in our society. In the GamesMOOC, we discussed other uses of COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) games in educational settings. Because I work with students who are under 13 who have access to a school-issued laptop throughout the school year, I have opportunities and limits in what we can use. The easiest games for me to incorporate are free web-based games that don’t require installation. Lure of the Labyrinth and Coaster Crafter are a couple games that I have discovered in the past. I would like to look more closely at several suggested games: Poptropica, the Mesoamerican Ballgame, Wallace and Gromit Sprocket Rocket, and School of Dragons.

the looming castle

Our tours of the GamesMOOC (et. al.) Minecraft server reminded me once again that I shouldn’t give up on trying to find a way to get teachers and administration to accept this game in school. Having a server that educators can explore seems like a good way to introduce the game to those who haven’t seen it. And the work that MouseyMoose and Giraffe619 did to create the Inevitable Betrayal village and castle reminded me of the many skills that children use in this world. Badges may be a good way to define and communicate to outsiders what children are accomplishing in game worlds like Minecraft. Massively @ Jokaydia seems to have a strong start on this with their Awards.

Now that the Summer Part II GamesMOOC has wrapped up, and my school year is about to begin, I need to think about how to bring these ideas and games to life at my school. I love the sharing and camaraderie of the GamesMOOC, but I need to find a way to bring it home. My first thought was to choose a couple of games to explore further and then share those with my local colleagues. But perhaps I need to take it further and get them involved in exploring those games. Perhaps I need to create a Mini Open Online Course for the teachers at my school that would expose them to some of the basics of how games connect with learning and example of games they could use.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Touring This Land

A Minecraft server has been set up to house several educational groups that explore virtual worlds: SIGVE, Games MOOC, Inevitable Betrayal guild, and others. Today, a tour was offered of This Land, the section that belongs to the Inevitable Betrayal guild.

This section was created over the course of four days by two girls, ages ten and twelve. It includes a village and castle surrounded by a huge wall with towers at the corners. The village has a variety of stores, a park, a jousting area, and more. The castle has a throne room, banquet area, kitchen, and a hall of bedrooms. Adults on the tour were rightly impressed by the detail, scale, and design of the project.

The leader of our tour, Kae Novak, pointed out the numerous professional skills that the girls had used. They had been asked to create an outpost for Inevitable Betrayal and went above and beyond in the scope and quality of this outpost. They met a deadline. They did research on different styles of castles, choosing one they had seen but building it with different materials.

The girls reported that one of the biggest challenges was to come to agreements about how the outpost would look. Apparently there were many conflicts of opinion, but the final result shows that they were able to get past those. This kind of negotiation in a group project is a crucial skill for the world of work.

One of the questions that arose after the main tour was, how do we recognize children for the skills like negotiation that they are developing in these virtual worlds? So often the larger culture and educational institutions see games like Minecraft as mere entertainment. But clearly children are practicing and developing many important skills in these collaborative game environments.

My first thought was to develop badges that kids could apply for. We could outline some requirements for the Negotiator, Research, Problem-Solver, or Designer Badge. Our two Minecraft creators could document the project that they worked on and share examples of how they met those requirements. This could be done with text and screenshots or a screen recording or a live interview with an adult who could award the badge.

I do wonder if the idea of getting recognition or credit for their learning is more important to us as educators than it is to kids. I suspect that the kids mostly just want to play the game. But the badges could be used to prove to schools and society the value of what is happening in these virtual worlds. If that value is recognized, schools might give more time and resources to allow students to play these games.