Fun and games


Last night, before I hit the hay, I played a game on our tablet. Yup. Actually sat down in the sun room and, for about 30 minutes, played World of Goo by 2D Boy, an older game but one I really like. We bought this game a few years ago, for our Wii, and just got it on the tablet, and it worked just fine. Was fun too.

The object in World of Goo is to collect goo balls by building various structures towards a small vacuum pipe, which sucks out the requisite goo balls needed to get to the next level. All structures built are governed by the laws of physics, and different levels have different obstacles that your structures need to get around. Last night, for example, I had to build a bridge across a chasm – see below – and needed to ensure that that the front end of the bridge was not built in a manner to cause the back end to lift off ground and topple. And that’s one of the easier levels.

bridgeOK, so what’s with World of Goo and playing these games? Well, a few months ago, I went to an education technology conference up in Baltimore and heard several teachers talk about their use of games in their classrooms – and, no, they weren’t talking about Oregon Trail. Justin Eames, a tech teacher in Baltimore, shared that he used the narrative exploratory game Gone Home in his classroom, and a quick search of that game led me to the website of Paul Darvasi, a high school English teacher in Toronto who’s using Gone Home as a text in his senior English class.

Gone Home is sure not Oregon Trail. It’s a first person game with no pre-set goal. Katie Greenbriar (which is you, as you play the game) comes home to find her family’s mansion empty and wanders through it on a mission of discovery, looking at household objects, finding notes and other items, creating a path or narrative through this abandoned house. Through a text, as Paul Darvasi would say. In fact, Paul writes in his blog that when he first read a review of Gone Home, he asked himself, “Was this a video game critique or a book review?” Here’s more from Paul’s blog:

The game opens in the mansion’s covered front porch, it’s pitch black outside, and a thunderstorm rages. Katie drops her bags and finds an enigmatic and worrisome note from her younger sister, Sam, pinned to the front door. The note sets up the game’s key conflicts – where are Sam and her parents? What happened to the family while Katie was away? What secrets are harbored in the family’s new home? Will she encounter ghosts and ghouls on this dark and stormy night, or simply some skeletons in the closet?

Gone-Home-Video-Game-WallpaperThese teachers and what they had to say at the conference and then Paul’s blog about using Gone Home in his class piqued my interest: What games are teachers using in their classrooms, beyond what I might call content-focused skill-and-drill games? How’s the use of games such as Gone Home, one not built for the K-12 classroom, changing a typical classroom – and just what does learning look like in those classrooms?

So I started my own playing/gaming with World of Goo, thinking about how a teacher of physics or physical science might use it to support/explore content from the class. Not sure I have any thoughtful answers just yet, but, yes, even World of Goo has spurred research: See this paper by Florida State’s Valerie Shute and Yoon Jeon Kim, called Does Playing the World of Goo Facilitate Learning? In it they write

Our beliefs motivating this research are twofold: (a) it is important to develop valid models and assessments for complex knowledge and skills that are required for success in the 21st century; and (b) assessments can be embedded within video games to support such skills that are currently not being assessed and supported. Our goal is to illustrate how people can develop educationally valuable skills (e.g., problem solving and causal reasoning) by playing a well-designed video game that is not explicitly developed for educational purposes.

gonehome3I know that I’m just nibbling at this new area – new for me, that is – and I feel strongly that well-designed games, whether specifically for the classroom or not, can be an important part of a teacher’s instructional arsenal. Imagine a classroom where an online game is central to the work of the teacher and her students, where it might serve as the text, as Paul is doing with Gone Home, or be an environment for a connected series of scientific experiments, all building on skills learned from the previous, as World of Goo seems to be. Imagine students playing the game on their own or in small teams. Imagine them coming back to the larger group, for discussion, or going off to a corner to write and think about their learning. Imagine the teacher’s role, as she coaches her students as they play the game, as they write, as they share ideas and discuss. Imagine students learning both content and processes or skills, such as the steps to the scientific method. Yes, it’s like the best classrooms that we’ve already seen, in many ways. But with that game at its center – and a well-designed, multidimensional game – it might also be very different.

I look forward to sharing more as I learn. This will be fun, I know. Yes, fun and games. Fun and games and learning too.

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More tech, please!

A mimeograph

A mimeograph

Let me see if I can connect three separate little moments over the past week, related to tech and the organizational life of a middle schooler. I think, when they are pulled together, they give me something to say.

  • First, an email exchange with one of my son’s teachers about a handout. When I asked if he could email us a software version of the handout, he said that he could not since he was not near a scanner. A scanner!? Does that mean that there is no software version of this handout, as if it is some mimeograph copy from long ago?
  • Second, my wife’s comment that our son’s binder, when opened, produces “a confetti of handouts;” it’s rather mind-boggling the number of single sheets of paper that he gets each week – and has to keep track of.
  • Third, I was in two Ohio schools recently that have very open policies about technology, with one-to-one Chromebooks in one. That same school has a BYOD policy, and kids do not need to power down their phones when they come to school. In my brief time in that building, during one of the passing periods, kids were not huddled in a corner, looking at their devices; they were walking down the halls chatting with each other. All seemed perfectly normal.

OK, so here’s my point: Why is it that kids still get handouts, particularly middle schoolers that are struggling with organizational issues? Why aren’t all of these handouts online (most are but not all)? And why do these kids actually have to write on these handouts, rather than use something like Google Docs for the composition and handing in of homework, etc.? I find it mind-boggling that these kind of technology-related solutions are not taught to kids from the get go.

I asked Wes Weaver, the principal of one of the schools I visited when I was in Ohio, for his thoughts, and he struck another note about the “confetti of handouts:”

My beef with worksheets is that students will do them methodically, for the most part with remarkable rates of compliance, which gives the appearance of content coverage and feeds the work/reward-work/reward-work/reward mentality that is symptomatic of traditional grading. That works right up until it doesn’t. For some students, it stops working when they realize the worksheets have no relevance to real life, whatsoever, which is to say at ages 14-16. To our most compliant students who believe our hype about college, the time spent on worksheets is just a few more minutes on the mouse-wheel of academic “rigor,” another boring exercise in the death march we call school.

Yes, Wes has strong feelings about this subject (!!), and he runs a darn good school. Give him a shout when you’re next in Newark, Ohio.

So, two things: Worksheets can impede the organizational issues that many middle schoolers struggle with. They do not allow a middle schooler like our son to organize his life digitally, “in much the way,” as Wes also wrote, “he will have to do for himself in higher education and the rest of his life.” And worksheets, for the most part, are compliance-oriented busy work, again as Wes described. Ugh.

Now, I will say that there is some light at the end of the worksheet tunnel, as one of our son’s teachers has started using Google Drive and Docs, and he has taken to it pretty well, his first venture into that territory. I’m glad now that he can write things at school or here at home and not have to email what he’s written to himself, so that he has the latest version. And I like what he did with a classmate, as they shared a Google Doc around a project and worked on it together, even from afar. Like I said, that’s a start – towards more technologically-driven organization and more authentic work.

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Keeping my mouth shut

Sam Houston

Sam Houston

Yesterday, our son was reading a caption of a photograph of Sam Houston from his history textbook and exclaimed, “Texas was its own country?! And this guy Sam Houston was its president?!” I started to open my mouth, to talk about the Alamo and Texas’s independence from Mexico, but I stopped and repeated to myself my mantra for this school year: Keep your mouth shut. “Hey,” I instead said, “Look up Texas in your book’s index or see what you can find via a Google search.” He did, did some reading, and then went off to finish his math homework. (You can read more about Sam Houston and the Texas Revolution here.)

In the past, the teacher side of me has been way too eager to answer his queries, about the branches of the federal government to the Pythagorean theorem to the definition of a gerund. Sure, it’s great to interact with our son over the scintillating topic of gerunds – and my goodness, gerund phrases! – but it does him a disservice. He has at his fingertips, with his phone and laptop, everything that he needs to discover information on his own, and we need to encourage him to do just that: To use the unlimited resources of the interweb. To be his own searcher, discoverer, miner, digger, etc. (Feel free to devise your own metaphor.)

I’m often surprised that that searching is not second nature to him, but that might be due to a combination of several things: (1) My previous enabling. (2) The belief that his phone and computer are for watching YouTube videos and other entertainment. (3) The lack of training that he’s had when it comes to searching the internet, both from us and from school. Given all that, it was interesting to go back to this 2012 report from the Pew Research Center, called How Teens Do Research in the Digital World, and look at its findings in the context of our 13-year-old. Here’s what jumped out at me:

  • 64% of teachers surveyed said that today’s digital technologies “do more to distract students than to help them academically.”
  • 76% of teachers strongly agreed that “internet search engines have conditioned students to expect to be able to find information quickly and easily.”
  • 83% agreed that “the amount of information available online today is overwhelming to most students.”
  • Many teachers suggested that their “students are surprisingly lacking in their online search skills,” with 43% of teachers rating students “poor” in “patience and determination in looking for information that is hard to find.”
  • Lastly, when asked about curriculum changes in middle and high schools, 91% of surveyed teachers “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed that “courses or content focusing on digital literacy must be incorporated into every school’s curriculum.”

Sure, take a look at the full report, since I cherry-picked some of the more ugly findings. I find the last two bullet points interesting and relevant to the issue here at home – this lack of “patience and determination” and the need to teach digital literacy – not just at school but also here at home. We can’t just assume that it comes naturally; these “digital natives” (how I loathe that phrase) need much guidance and training, no matter how confident they might feel at their ability to text, to scroll through an Instagram account, or to watch and comment on a video about dogs sitting on cats.

That guidance and training is even more critical during the middle grades years, when significant brain development and sculpting is happening – see this past post – and the influences of teachers, parents, society, and technology are critical to that development and sculpting. It’s not enough then to simply keep my mouth shut and leave our son to his own devices (so to speak). Just as important is the help that I can give with the search and with the review of what was found, keeping in mind that this is a process, that one successful Google search does not make for an effective researcher and learner. We’re building a set of skills, and that takes time and effort.

So maybe a new mantra: No easy answers from me. Offer help with the search. Repeat.

I got the pic of Sam Houston here.

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Our son the maker

selbitOur 7th grader was up early this morning, to finish studying for a Chinese language quiz this afternoon, and at one point, he dashed upstairs for what I thought was more blank flashcards but then came downstairs to ask, in all seriousness, “Do we have any beeswax?” Yes, studying was over for the time being, and we were on to building a new magic trick. Our son the magician; our son the maker.

OK, some background. He got interested in magic several months ago and has been feverishly pursuing its study. When I was a kid, I remember that learning card tricks or sleight of hand was through books, but nowadays, as with everything else, people learn magic through websites such as Theory 11 or Ellusionist, online magic shops that offer books and card decks and DVDs, but from which you can also purchase for immediate viewing a video of a trick, to study and learn. Here, for example, is the preview video to sleight of hand effects by magician Dan Hauss:

Pretty cool, huh? (Pretty slick video, too, huh?)

So that”s the magic world these days: Go to an online site, find a trick you like, purchase the downloadable video, and learn it. And while some tricks rely on a ring and a coin – as with Dan Hauss’s – or just a deck of cards, there are others that require assembly. Hence, the request for beeswax this morning or for the variety of other items we’ve gone off to the hardware store to search for, as he comes up with his own ideas for tricks and illusions and needs materials to build them. There are times when his desk looks laboratory-like – bent paper clips, loose change, thread, Super Glue, Magic Markers, etc. (I will not give a ton of detail; I don’t want to betray his magical work.) Looking at that desk last week, I got to thinking: This kid is a maker too.

Do you know this whole maker, DIY ethos? See, for example, this video of the World’s Greatest Paper Roller Coaster, by Andrew Gatt, a middle school science teacher:

Andrew the middle school science teacher is a great maker to highlight – see his paper roller coaster website here – since I’m interested in the maker-related events that happen with or at schools, such as the Mini-Maker Faire that ran in Charlottesville last October and was partially sponsored by the forward thinking Albermarle County Public Schools. The folks at Albermarle schools get it: Some learning needs to be hands on, and this maker/DIY movement is a great way to bring hands on learning into schools and the classrooms. Build huge paper roller coasters, like Andrew Gatt, and learn about physics and mathematics and those “soft skills” like working with your peers.

I know that I’ve squawked before about classroom instruction and its, at times, narrow approach: Textbooks, kids at desks, teacher at the classroom’s front, discussion, homework and assessment that is paper and pencil. And, yes, full disclosure: When I taught, I did so rather narrowly too. Well, I’m squawking again, for that question from our middle schooler – “Have we got any beeswax?” – encapsulated so much for me about him and his learning these days. He was out of his chair, the textbook pushed aside, pulling together materials for a new trick. In fact, I wonder what he might’ve learned if we had beeswax. Its melting point. It molding properties. What does it stick to and not stick to? Sure, he needed to study Chinese for the quiz, and I will admit that I was a little anxious about that studying getting done. But chill, Dad: It got done. and his question made me realize that this kid needs more opportunities to learn in the manner that he’s learning magic. He’s learning it by doing, by trial and error, by creating stuff with his hands. And by performing.

OK, now where can I find some beeswax?

I got the Selbit image here.

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The Graphic Novel: An Interview with Michael Chaney

Dartmouth's Michael Chaney

Dartmouth’s Michael Chaney

I initially wrote the below for the newsletter that goes out every other month to my former college classmates, and one of them, Ann Jacobus, who writes for and teaches writing to children and young adults, said that others might be interested in the below. Good idea, Ann! (By the way, read more about Ann and her work here.) So here’s a slightly edited version of that original article – and you can read more about Michael and his work here. He’s an Associate Professor of English and the Vice Chair of that department at Dartmouth College, and among other classes, he teaches one on graphic novels. Now what graphic novels are you reading?

Tell us about your background, Michael.

I’m originally from Ohio, Cleveland Heights, OH. I realized after a while that we lived in that town specifically for a strange set of enormously complicated historical and political reasons. My grandfather was a black American GI and my grandmother was a German. My mother grew up a mixed race occupation baby in German and sought to find her biological American father, who was then living in Cleveland Heights – a town that had been known for its lenience towards miscegenation since at least the 1930s. I grew up, therefore, having a deeply experiential understanding of what today’s literary critics and theorists would call hybridity. It was a fetching concept for many, but a way of life for me. This made my impressions of literature seem original, I suppose, to many of my high school teachers of literature, who encouraged me to pursue my passions for literature in college. In terms of professors, I would place a lot of the blame for my becoming a professor on Dewey Ganzel at Oberlin College. I remember well an American literature course he taught, discussions were always on Friday, and we students would have it at his house. He always had cookies for us. We’d collect in his study, surrounded by books and quietly turn over all the tiny threads of implication in novels by James and Twain, Howells and Chopin. I was truly converted during those discussion sessions.

In your bio for Dartmouth’s English Department, it says that you study “the interrelationship of literature and visual culture.” What does that mean and how does that show itself in the 21st century?

I was an artist for some years before going to grad school – an oil painter and a muralist – and I was drawn to the different ways that pictures make meaning from written texts. I became very interested, for example, in the implicit visual imagination readers might sense in the poems of Emily Dickinson – how her writing depicts a world that is felt as much as it is seen. And this interest led especially to my interpretations of, among other things, the visual imaginary in antebellum slave narratives and the complicated tensions between words and images in contemporary graphic novels and comic books. Other researchers in this field, which some call visual culture studies, look at similar signifying tensions in digital art, the internet, TV and cinema, and advertisements, but I’m committed, of course, to studying how they play out in literature.

I know that you will teach a class on the graphic novel. When I was a kid, I holed up at the public library reading the Tintin and Asterix series, a precursor to what is now called the graphic novel. Now, my middle school-aged son can go to the library and pick from an entire wall of graphic novels. What drew you to this genre? How has the genre changed, evolved? Do you see it as becoming more and more mainstream – and, if so, why?

I was a fan of the X-Men as a kid – a multicultural “family” of outcasts with special but misunderstood abilities. That comic sounded only one allegorical step removed from my own family, so I was a fan after reading the first reading experience of that comic. I remember, too, encountering words that I had never heard of before (I was maybe eight years old), words like sibilant – as in, “The alien tentacle emitted a sibilant hiss as the laser struck it.” I was a logophile from an early age, and these comics from that period got my attention and didn’t let go for nearly a decade. The changes in graphic novels are global and sweeping. The giant of US superhero comics was dwarfed in the 1990s by a collision with Manga and then later modified considerably with the rise of 1960s underground comix, culminating in masterworks like Spiegelman’s Maus and Satrapi’s Persepolis (both of which owing much to my home town hero of Harvey Pekar! – another proud resident of Cleveland Heights). Graphic novels can be literature these days. I almost never have to explain that to people anymore, not like I used to back when I started teaching them ten years ago.

When it comes to graphic novels, there are the more obvious and famous – Maus and Persepolis – but what others might you suggest that people read?

My reading list contains some of my favorite examples of the form – the autobiographical stand-outs like David B.’s Epileptic, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons. It also has Alan Moore’s wildly popular Watchmen, which is a post-superhero-meets-the-Ubermensch story, as well as one of the most philosophical texts on identity you’ll ever want to read in David Mazzuchelli’s Asterios Polyp.

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Cybercivility: An Open Letter from MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr

twitter logoAn important letter from Montgomery County (MD) Public Schools superintendent Josh Starr, that I thought I’d put up on the blog, since it’s not just an issue for MCPS parents but for all. You can also read it here.

Dear Parents,

Since becoming superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, I have spoken at length about the importance of social emotional learning—essentially, giving our students the skills they need to navigate their lives in a healthy, positive way. And that is why I am writing to you today.

This week, the wintry weather required us to go through our normal processes to determine whether we should delay or cancel school. It’s not an easy decision and involves staff working at all hours to monitor road conditions and weather forecasts. As we were in the process of evaluating the situation, students started contacting me on Twitter. Some of these “tweets” were clever, funny, and respectful, pleading for me to cancel school so they could sleep in or have more time to do their homework. Many of these tweets, however, were offensive and disturbing. Some were threatening to me and others. A few referenced my family. There was rampant use of racial epithets and curse words.

This activity on social media caused me to reflect on my responsibilities as a parent of three children and the superintendent for 151,000 children, and what our role is in ensuring that our children are using technology appropriately. This is especially important as we increase the use of technology in our schools, including full wireless access and bring-your-own-device possibilities for our students.

As superintendent, I have the legal responsibility of in loco parentis, meaning that I and other educators are supposed to serve as “parents” in the school building. Some of the tweets I received were so disturbing that my staff reported them to the school principal and our security team. This may seem like an overreaction to some, but it is our legal responsibility to do so, and we take it very seriously.

But this is more than just a challenge at the office. My wife and I find ourselves in a daily conversation with our children about the appropriate use of technology. How long can they use a device? How often during a day? What are they allowed, and not allowed, to take pictures of? They don’t have internet access yet, but I am already imagining what it will be like when they do. How will my wife and I ensure that they are being safe online, while allowing them to access the many positive aspects of the online world and social media? How will we ensure we have the right controls and oversight so they are doing so in an appropriate way?

I don’t have all the answers in my home or in our schools. But I know it takes deliberate and tough conversations within families and communities to help kids understand how to use technology and social media appropriately.

I’m sure that most of the students who posted inappropriate comments to me on Twitter were doing so without thinking. In fact, we know that the adolescent brain isn’t equipped to think long term and doesn’t calculate risk/reward ratios in the same way that adults do. I’d like to think that they wouldn’t post such things if they understood the consequences of their actions or if they knew that I’m legally responsible for reporting threats to the police and to their parents. I’d like to think they wouldn’t post such things, especially if they understood that these posts are permanent and can follow them and impact college acceptances, job opportunities, and future relationships.

I’m writing this letter to start a conversation about how we can support our children in using technology in a way that is healthy, productive, and positive. Cyberbullying is a real issue among children and adults. We not only have to teach our kids how to handle new technologies appropriately, but we also have to model that behavior in our own communications on social media and email. We need to talk about “cybercivility:” how we can help our children grow into responsible and caring adults who interact with one another in a civil, respectful way. I have asked my staff to develop some materials and methods to help schools and families navigate these conversations, so look for more information about this in the near future.

In the meantime, I urge you to talk to your children on an ongoing basis about what’s appropriate and not appropriate to do online. Also, remember, if your child is under 13, do not allow them to use social media—they aren’t ready for it and it is a violation of the user agreements or guidelines for nearly all major social media sites. If your child is 13 or older, please consider whether they are ready to use social media. Set limits and talk to them about the appropriate use of social media and mobile technology. And make sure you are monitoring what they post online.

Our website has some resources that you can use to talk to your children now and we will be adding more resources in the near future. If you have any thoughts or ideas to help further this cybercivility dialogue, please do not hesitate to email me at or contact me on Twitter at @mcpssuper.



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