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Levelling Up

This is my second year of using Classcraft. Now that I had a full year under my belt, I could roll it out with an idea of what works and what doesn’t. I had hoped that the experience would lead to a smoother year of gamification that led to higher levels of learning.

The first thing I considered was a rationale for using gamification. I reflected on Daniel Pink’s famous Ted Talk, where he demonstrated that rewards are not effective in motivating people to engage in higher level thinking or problem-solving skills. In fact, carrots and sticks can prove to be detrimental to the creative and innovative learning process.

This, then, begs the question, why do gamification? Why have any rewards at all?

Daniel Pink’s video itself gives a great clue: carrots and sticks might not be effective for improving innovative or creative productivity, but they can be extremely effective in promoting activities that are more rote and that do not require creativity.

This is the key.

Ultimately, every classroom, learning environment, and workplace has some degree of compliance. Although we have times and spaces (we should have much of our class time) for creative thinking and problem-solving skills, we as human beings need habits, routines, and procedures. A well-functioning environment needs people to comply with this in order to create the safe space required for the risk-taking and creativity that is part of the learning. In other words, the opposite of compliance is not necessarily creativity, but anarchy. As teachers, we must build well-managed environments so that we can then move beyond compliance to the levels of creativity and innovation, but we cannot simply have a non-compliant environment.

I then built several rewards around completing class jobs. I have several class jobs that allow students to take ownership of the learning space, both inside the walls and in virtual space. These include cleaning the whiteboards, maintaining a Google Doc for all the homework assignments from all teachers, maintaining a Google Calendar, maintaining the homework board on the whiteboard, and a few others. If I constantly have to step in and do these jobs, it takes time away from being able to give effective feedback and guidance to students. I gave the award of 100 XP every time a student successfully completes a class job for a week. This reinforces behavior that is not necessarily innovative but it essential to having a well-run classroom.

Another reward I implemented was 25 XP for turning in homework a day early. Because I open assignments on Google Classroom and OpenEd, it is easy for students to complete assignments early and for me to determine who has completed it and who hasn’t. If I can start the day knowing that all or most of my students have completed homework, I can then direct my attention to the essentials of giving feedback and having students correct and revise their work.

I also decided that students could use one extra incentive to buy into Classcraft. I decided that every Monday would begin with a drawing. Every student would receive one ticket for every level above the first level. That is, a Level 4 student would have three tickets in the drawing. The winner would receive a large box or bar of candy. I did this because I believe that we are much more motivated at the possibility of winning something rather than just being handed something in return for an action. The former becomes a game, the latter becomes a bribe.

Lastly, I made sure that every student learn how to log into Classcraft and that they do it on a regular basis. Last year, some students logged in, and others didn’t, which meant that some bought into Classcraft more than others. I made sure that every student logs in and learns how to use powers and train pets.

What I have seen is a culture that is much different from previous cultures in the past. These minor changes have created an emphasis on doing jobs and doing them well. Students have been coming and begging me for a class job so that they can earn XP. I have had barely anyone miss homework assignments. This has freed up my time so that I can focus on essentials like guiding students on the rigors and challenges of the Common Core skills.

By taking Classcraft to the next level, my students will have a productive year.

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How’s Your Learning?

This post originally appeared in AppoLearning.

Throughout the course of last year, I read several books on effective teaching practices. After reading through these high-regarded books, I used some of their approaches in order to help students track, understand and invest in their progress. Before we get to implementation, let’s first look at the books that can really enhance pedagogy.

The first one I read was Never Work Harder than your Students, which has a deceptive title because it sounds like a gimmick. However, it is a book that thoroughly details how to become a more effective educator using a variety of strategies. In this book, authorRobyn Jackson discusses the importance of curriculum mapping, clear objectives and – this is the most important piece – students keeping track of how well they are meeting those objectives. She mentions the usual topics such as engaging lessons and feedback, but the crucial piece is that students must monitor their learning to track their progress. In other words, students need to own the learning. It is not enough for us to merely give feedback, but students must also take that feedback, track it, and use it to monitor their progress towards learning objectives. Without this crucial piece, students will be disengaged and not interested in the learning process.

I also read Classroom Instruction That Works, the latest version of the famous series created by Marzano. Strategy number one is for students to receive clear expectations and that they should receive feedback on progress toward those expectations. I also began reading Visible Learning for Teachers by John Hattie, and one of the most effective strategies listed was students’ expectations for themselves. They must be aware of the objectives and have guidance on how they can meet those expectations. Like Jackson, they argue that it is not enough to put objectives on the board (which may or may not be a relevant practice), rather, students need to know exactly what those expectations are and must be working to achieve those standards.

After seeing this clear strategy mentioned consistently in a variety of books, I decided to tackle this school year dedicated to this strategy. I created a variety of tools designed to tackle student-directed learning.

  1. I created a Google Sheet template for students to track how they perform on various formative assessments. I began the unit by having students enter their goal percentage on a final assessment. As students performed throughout a given unit, I had them enter their percentages so that they could track to see how they were progressing towards meeting their goal. I first used this method in grammar by giving them grammar formatives assessments on Google Forms so that they could track their mastery of grammar rules. These assessments included both multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank.
  2. For a reading skill, they tracked their progress by completing a graphic organizer assessing their mastery of inference skills. They read short story selections and completed the inference graphic organizer. These selections came from their literature textbooks and from resource books.
  3. To further bolster inference and close reading skills, they were required to annotate. I then graded their annotations on a rubric. With the graphic organizer and the annotated PDFs, I required that students re-complete the assignments after I had returned it to them, and they had to complete it to earn a score of 100%. I did this by showing students examples of 100% quality work, which opened their eyes to see what excellence looked like.
  4. They also completed an assignment on OpenEd, which is an app that allows students to see how they are performing on a Common Core Standard. It includes assessments and assignments, both of which give teachers and students actionable data.

As students progress through a given unit, they knew how they stood in relation to their goals. They knew how they were progressing and had to think of what they needed to do to improve to meet their goals. As a result, I have seen students taking ownership of the process of their learning. I have seen students reflect and find out what they need to do to master assignments. Often, students might want to succeed, but don’t really know the expectations or what they need to do to achieve those expectations. By placing ownership of the learning in students’ hands, we can see students achieve new heights. The more students own the learning, they more they will learn.

Socratic Success

This year, I tried out a new activity with Socratic Circles, whereby students would generate questions, and they would discuss them in the inner circle, but the outer circle would analyze through a backchannel called Todaysmeet. We tried it, and it was instantly successful.

However, the real success came when I did it recently. I asked some students to come up with questions, and they instantly figured out that it was Socratic Circle time. They showed genuine excitement and were anxious to do it.

Once we got started, I was blown away by the level of critical thinking students were displaying. They were analyzing the gender differences between Macbeth and his wife and came to the conclusion that traditional roles were reversed. They also noticed that Macbeth seemed like a brave warrior in the field, but couldn’t stand up to do the right thing.

Although there are always challenges along the way, I have found student-centered technology and flipped learning to be the best approaches to ELA instruction. I’m looking forward to trying even more ideas in the months and years ahead.

Success and FAILure in Flipped Learning

The other day, I had some struggles with flipped ELA. I realized that I had not given students enough direction in an ELA assignment. They will ultimately have to read excerpts of primary sources of Colonial writings (City on a Hill, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Salem Witch Trials transcript, Anne Hutchinson transcript) and read one in its entirety. I wanted them to be able to access background information, but they were overwhelmed and wanted to plow through the work and get it all done. I readjusted and yesterday, I had groups create curated google doc notes of areas (Great Migration, Great Awakening, Salem Witch Trials, etc.) that the class will be able to access for background knowledge. Although I had to work with them on getting their documents up and running, they ran with it and were totally engaged. They created excellent google docs, and they will be able to access them as resources for the upcoming primary source readings.

History class was not quite as successful. I put a series of videos and websites up with the standard and told students that the time is theirs to master the content. It seemed good, but I think some of them are a little lost without the teacher direction. Today, I will do a whole-class activity on the basketball court to demonstrate the high-stakes gambling mentality of the colonists at Roanoke and Jamestown. (Students will shoot three-pointers to try and get a big prize, just like the colonists were willing to forgo farming in order to strike it rich. Eventually, they will miss a three-pointer, which means that the game is over, just like the colonists at Roanoke did not strike it rich and all perished.) I will also break down the standard into smaller, more manageable learning objectives, and students will read the textbook and create collaborative notes (I will allow them the choice to divide the reading into chunks). I will make the point, however, that the goal is not to get the notes DONE, but to use it as an avenue to mastering the standard.

After just a week of flipped learning, I have learned that one of its great strengths is that I can easily change course. I feel that traditional teaching is like teaching on train tracks. If there is a collision coming, it is very hard to adjust. With flipped learning (and with the ease of formative assessment through Google Forms and Socrative), I can easily adjust course to avoid approaching icebergs or obstacles. If Day One is a FAILure, Day Two could easily be a rousing success.

As Jason Bretzmann, an expert flipper, has said, “It is a work in progress.” THAT is the beauty of the Flipped Classroom.

First Attempt in (Flipped) Learning: Part II

Today was the first real time when I would teach curriculum. I was looking forward to it. I had an assignment where they would be read selections from the Colonial Era, choose one of them to read in-depth, and then summarize it and reflect on it in a blog. I provided supplemental readings and videos to help along the way. Sounds great, right?

It bombed.

The kids immediately began to try to work together not as a group helping each other learn, but to each do as little work as possible. There was clearly no intrinsic motivation in the classroom.

I realized after the flop that although we must provide autonomy for our students, we must also provide some direction. For tomorrow, I will clarify what the ultimate learning goals are: reading excerpts from primary sources from the era, choosing one, reading its entirety, and then summarizing and blogging about it. For tomorrow’s group activity, I will have groups research various topics (by choosing which one to research). Each group will create a Google Doc, curating and summarizing what the students learn. For good measure, we will throw in some gamification: groups who have lopsided creators (thank you, revision history!) will lose HP, and the group with the best links and summaries of knowledge will get AP. These documents will provide background information for students the following days, when they will have to individually read these primary source excerpts and reflect on it.

This is the plan, but then again, I might just FAIL again.

My First EdCamp!

Today was EdCamp San Francisco Bay. It was truly a great experience. I had heard so much about Edcamps, but because of the informality of the process, I didn’t quite know what to expect.

What struck me most of all was the collegiality of the gatherings, both formal and informal. I think that most people who voluntarily attend Edcamps are comfortable with technology, and everyone has something to offer. Even the great Alice Keeler, Cheryl Morris, Beth OingDiane Main, Moss Pike, and Lisa Highfill were willing to listen to what others had to say. I had lunch with people from Merit, and they were as humble as could be. The content of sessions mattered much less than all of us being together and providing emotional support for one another. The mere act of helping and supporting one another was what I took away from EdCamp.

We are all dedicated to helping learners prepare for the 21st century, and if we all help one another, we might just change the world.

First Attempt in (Flipped) Learning

I spent all summer in eager anticipation of this. I read books. I applied what I had learned in workshops. I worked and worked and worked to get ready for this. Flipped Learning.

I created a google site for the class. I made video after video after video. I annotated videos. Lately, I had even been inserting quiz questions through EdPuzzle. I had imagined and reimagined what the first day of a flipped class would look like. Students would be excited, impassioned, and would be ready to lead the charge into a new way of education. 

And yet, here we were after two days, struggling with app after app, barely getting students on board. Despite the fact that I had tested out access codes beforehand, there were still problems in class. We had spent the first day doing nothing but going over locker procedures. I spoke briefly about Flipped Learning, but didn’t seem to inspire them. I couldn’t even assign a video after two days because not all the students were even on EdPuzzle. 

Does this mean that my flipped learning model is doomed? I don’t think so. (I hope not!!!) This is a completely new way of learning for students, and it will take time for them to get the hang of things. It will also take time for me as a teacher to properly design classroom instruction accordingly. This was certainly my “First Attempt in Learning” (otherwise known as FAIL), and I will have many more as I work my way through Flipped Learning.

First Attempt in (Flipped) Learning

I spent all summer in eager anticipation of this. I read books. I applied what I had learned in workshops. I worked and worked and worked to get ready for this. Flipped Learning.

I created a google site for the class. I made video after video after video. I annotated videos. Lately, I had even been inserting quiz questions through EdPuzzle. I had imagined and reimagined what the first day of a flipped class would look like. Students would be excited, impassioned, and would be ready to lead the charge into a new way of education. 

And yet, here we were after two days, struggling with app after app, barely getting students on board. Despite the fact that I had tested out access codes beforehand, there were still problems in class. We had spent the first day doing nothing but going over locker procedures. I spoke briefly about Flipped Learning, but didn’t seem to inspire them. I couldn’t even assign a video after two days because not all the students were even on EdPuzzle. 

Does this mean that my flipped learning model is doomed? I don’t think so. (I hope not!!!) This is a completely new way of learning for students, and it will take time for them to get the hang of things. It will also take time for me as a teacher to properly design classroom instruction accordingly. This was certainly my “First Attempt in Learning” (otherwise known as FAIL), and I will have many more as I work my way through Flipped Learning.

One Year of Tech

I can vividly remember the first day my students were given iPads. I had high hopes of using great apps, invigorating websites, and interactive ways to engage students.

Once the students received the iPads, they immediately used them as personal entertainment devices. They found ways to send messages to each other. The iPads began making strange beeping sounds, and the sound of typing and notifications drowned out everything that was going on. I tried introducing an app that I was convinced would be exciting, and it fell flat. I could tell that when I spoke to them as a class, I did not have their attention at all. I immediately felt overwhelmed. To borrow a phrase from Henry Adams, I “stood at first as bewildered and helpless as, in the fourth century, a priest of Isis before the Cross of Christ.” That is, I realized that my classroom had instantly changed the second iPads were in the room. I knew then the world of education had changed.

I then spent all weekend adjusting and configuring a game plan. I looked up various Learning Management Systems such as Edmodo and Schoology, and I found note-taking apps, including GoodNotes and Notability. I found ways that I could scan and send pdfs to students, and they could annotate them and turn them in.

In short, I was trying to take the current method of most educators and fit it into the technology. I did succeed in this. I found ways to have students annotate chapters, develop ideas based on the text, and turn it in. It was working. Or rather, it was functioning. We were getting by.

Then, in January, I went to a tech conference. I have been to many conferences, and most of the ones I’ve attended have not been inspiring. This one, however, began with a keynote address by Catlin Tucker. She presented various ways the uses technology; she had used it ways I had never imagined. The presentation included Padlet, Todaysmeet, Instagram, Bring Your Own Device, and in the end, it completely opened my eyes to technology. It was like the clouds were opening, and I was seeing a whole new world. I also saw Greg Dhuyvetter speak about Twitter and blogging, and I realized that I could potentially connect with educators around the country.

As I connected with other educators, I realized that although I was pretty tech-savvy compared to some teachers, I was way behind others. I had been scared to try online discussion tools, but I resolved slowly wade into them. Before I knew it, my students were using padlet effectively, and we were discussing Macbeth on Todaysmeet. I was seeing more and more engagement through those tools.

However, as I participated on edchats on Twitter, I realized that I was still trying to pour old wine into new wineskins. Countless other teachers on Twitter were giving students the chance to explore learning. I had been trying and failing to engage students through passion and excitement and trying to create the perfect project. Other educators had inspired students through giving them choice and a say in the learning process. I slowly began to allow for more investigation time. I gave them wider latitude in projects; I let them present in whatever format they came up with. I also checked in with them through Socrative to see how their work was coming in case they needed extensions.

I soon found that they were more interested in what they were doing. Behavior problems decreased. The quality and diversity of student work went up. Some students created amazing videos, others designed Flowboards to present work, some created Mine Craft videos, and one group, after researching the role of women during the Civil War, presented their findings on a poster in the shape of a woman. The change was breathtaking. I had found that giving students autonomy and power over the learning process, through class projects and through a novel idea called genius hour, led to heightened engagement, passion, and excitement.

In short, I learned this year that although technology is just a tool, it can totally redefine who we are as teachers and what education is all about. People have talked about “self-directed learning” and “inquiry-based education” for decades now, but with technology, it actually becomes a possibility. Dreary classrooms with rote memorization don’t need to exist anymore. We, as teachers, don’t need to work in isolation.

In short, although I was completely overwhelmed and distraught on my first day with the iPads, I was right about one thing. The world was changing underneath my very feet.

And that’s a good thing.