Thursday, 21 August 2014

Back to School and a Busy Summer

Image by Avalore

Well, it's been a busy summer! Next week, I plan to share a project based learning assignment I've been working on in social studies. In the meantime, with teachers back at school next week and students the week after, I wanted to share what I've done with my summer.

1. I finally read Teach Like a Pirate: Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an Educator by Dave Burgess. For the last year I've heard nothing but buzz about this book. The #tlap community on Twitter is vibrant and active, and many educators I personally know and respect love the approach.

My own opinion is more mixed. Actually, this review sums it up very nicely. I liked a lot of things Burgess had to say about enthusiasm, immersion, and engagement, and I agreed with much of what he said. But there were a lot of things in this book that did not appeal to me -- the emphasis on "edutainment" and the teacher as a performer, at a time when I firmly believe we should be shifting the responsibility of learning away from teachers and onto students, stand out as primary concerns. The book also advocates a one size fits all model of teaching, which I tend to resist. That said, I got some great ideas for lesson hooks which I plan to use this year, and some good reminders about being fully engaged in what we do.

2. I've been doing a lot of research into project based learning, much of it from the Project Based Learning (PBL) Starter Kit from BIE. I'm a bit behind on this, although a lot of the PBL I see aligns quite nicely with the idea of games based learning or quest based learning, something else I spent (more) time researching this summer. The book provided a good base for planning projects, and I really appreciated the line it drew between DOING A PROJECT and creating a unit based around a project. I feel like some of the professional development I've attended on PBL confused the two. I won't talk too much about this right now because I plan to share a project next week.

3. I attended the Quest Boise Unconference and got totally overwhelmed by all the amazing learning that happened there. If you're remotely interested in games based learning, check that link and go through the videoed presentations... wow.

4. I participated in the Metagame book club from the good people at Your Inevitable Betrayal, the educators' WoW guild. We read Cory Doctorow's book For the Win which lead to some really awesome discussions about the role of technology in kids' lives today, the economy, workers in developing countries, and many other deep topics. It's a great book -- I highly recommend it.

So much for my teaching. In my writing life, I had a few other things on the go.

1. I'm still writing reviews of educational games for Graphite, which is why I don't do them here as much anymore. You should check them out. Here's a great article (not written by me, sadly!) to start with.

2. I participated in Pitch Wars by Brenda Drake. Whatever comes of it, it was great to revisit an older piece of work and go through it with a fresh eye.

3. I wrote a book on the Mississippi river for Reading A-Z. More on that when it becomes available.

So all in all, a busy and productive summer!

Question of the Day:
What did you do with your summer vacation? Was it actually a vacation?

In addition to the above, I did in fact have a great holiday. We hosted a Japanese exchange student, which was fun, and I spent some time with my family in Saskatoon. Lots of lazy days in the sun, too! Oh, and my husband got me playing Neverwinter, so I'm finally on an MMO.

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Thursday, 26 June 2014

One Second Everyday, Revisited

Now that school is finally done, I have a final post for the year. After that, I'm going to do something I don't often do: take a break! I have a number of writing projects on the go that will take up a great deal of my time, so I'm going to put the blog on hiatus until September or, more likely, late August, when I start getting excited for back to school again.

Way back when, I discussed an app called One Second Every Day and an idea I had for integrating it with learning. I was pretty happy with how this project turned out. Here's what we did:

Back in September, I asked my students to take short videos or snapshots of their learning each Friday. We were already doing genius hour, so I just had them grab the iPads and take pictures at the same time. By the end of the year, most students had a collection of 25-50 photos and videos documenting learning and important classroom events. We then put them together using Windows Movie Maker, which was a bit of a disaster since there's a file corruption error that affected about 20% of my students and which we didn't have time to fix (you have to submit the files to Microsoft for correction). However, generally I, and the students, were pretty pleased with the results, so with their permission, I'm going to share them with you!

Question of the Day:
How do your students showcase learning at the end of the year?

This is the first time I've done the learning videos. Other years, I've done projects, graphics, posters.... so far, I think this is my favorite.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Getting Started With Twitter for Teachers: Teachers to Follow

If you're not on Twitter yet, it's time to start -- it might be a great summer PD project! How can Twitter be a PD project? The sheer volume of resources available there staggers the mind. Until recently, I wasn't much of a tweeter myself. However, my opinion changed completely once I found out how many amazing teachers tweet on a regular basis. I don't do a lot of personal stuff on Twitter (aside from following a very few celebrities, such as Felicia Day and Neil Patrick Harris), but it's a treasure trove for teachers.

If you've never been on Twitter -- or you're there, but not sure who to follow -- and you're interested in technology in education and games based learning, here are some of the very best educational professionals and teachers to follow.

The Basics of Twitter

I know some teachers are reluctant to try Twitter because it seems so alien. But once you learn a few terms and symbols, it's really easy.

@: The @symbol precedes your Twitter username. My username is Missrithenay, so on Twitter I'm @missrithenay. If you put that (the @ symbol together with a username) in a tweet, Twitter will tag that person and let them know you're talking to them, or that you mentioned them. 

#: The # symbol (called a "hashtag") is a way of tagging your post as belonging in a topic. For example, gbl stands for Games Based Learning. If I post a comment that relates to gbl, I may include the hashtag #gbl so that when someone searches for that hashtag, my comment comes up. Common ones in education are #edtech and #edchat, which are good places to start if you want to search for interesting things.

The tweet: A "tweet" is a post on twitter. You're limited to 140 characters. Some people try to circumvent this by writing multiple posts and tagging them 1/3, 2/3, and so on. I suggest avoiding this. Part of Twitter's appeal is its brevity.

The retweet: If you see something you find interesting, you'll see a square made of arrows below it. Click on that and you'll "retweet" the post -- ie, send it to everyone who follows you.

Getting Started on Twitter

When you sign up for Twitter, make sure you fill out your profile. There are a lot of spam accounts, and people will avoid "talking eggs" (the default twitter picture) because of them. Next up, Twitter will start asking you to pick people to follow. That's when panic may set in... MORE? I have to follow MORE PEOPLE?

Yup, you do. That's the whole point of Twitter. But never fear... this list will get you started.

And if you want, you can start by following me, @missrithenay

From there...

If you have any interest in games based learning or gamification, you should absolutely be following Games MOOC. Lots of great tweets on #gbl (games based learning!)

I love the folks over at Brainpop. Not only do they have great educational content, they do a lot in terms of blogging and providing links to outside resources, not just promoting themselves.

Jackie's a prolific tweeter who always has great educational information, articles, and insights to share.

Vicki not only tweets and blogs, she collates resources and sends out useful tidbits of all types.

A fierce proponent of connected educators and technology in education, George tweets out all kinds of useful information.

Excellent links and observations on technology, science, and education.

Lots more tech and ed links, as well as good insights.

Erin tweets, blogs, and otherwise shares her amazing ideas -- well worth the follow.

Nick tweets frequent and insightful updates, links, and articles related to tech and education

Google certified teacher with lots to share!

Question of the Day:
How do you use twitter to improve your teaching?

I try to hop on Twitter once a day to scan what people are saying, and I try to contribute to conversations when I have something to add. That way, I get lots of resources, and I build my learning network, too.

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Thursday, 12 June 2014

Happy Birthday, Robot! - A Review

Happy Birthday, Robot! is an introductory RPG for kids with some excellent opportunities to explore curricular objectives, including probability, grammar, clear writing, teamwork, and cooperation. It's pretty awesome for one game to hit all of these topics, and I'm always excited when I can use dice in a class. There MAY or may not be a set of dice in my purse.

At any rate, Happy Birthday, Robot! is not a new game -- it's a Kickstarter project that's enjoyed quite a bit of success online. But it's new to me, and I've only recently played it with my students. Here are my impressions. 

The Basics

Happy Birthday, Robot! is essentially a storytelling game. You can certainly play it as a class, but it works best in groups of 3-5. Students from grades 4-6 should have no problem playing it independently. Grades 2 or 3 will need guidance, and the game will likely be too simplistic for older students. 

All you need to play is a copy of the rules, a pencil and paper, a bunch of 6 sided dice, and some coins. The game calls for special "robot dice," but you can either use regular dice or print stickers from Daniel Solis, the author.

What Do You Do?

Students take turns rolling dice. The number of dice they get affects how many words they can write in each sentence of their story. Based on what they roll, students to either side of them may be able to add words to the student's sentence. The story builds this way in a collaborative fashion. 

A further teamwork element comes into play with the coins. Students earn coins by writing words, and their only purpose is to assist other players. Happy Birthday, Robot! has no winners and no losers. 

Is It Fun?

Yes! Kids loved playing Happy Birthday, Robot! They laughed at the silly stories and greatly enjoyed the game elements. 


I paid $9.99 for a digital download of this game, and it was more than worth it. The kids loved it. We all had fun. The materials were commonplace and easy to gather, and the game was easily adaptable for a variety of abilities and skill levels. If you're looking for a great back to school game, a fun way to introduce story writing, or a great way to end the school year, check out Happy Birthday, Robot!

Question of the Day:
What was the first RPG you ever played?

I cut my teeth on a superhero roleplaying game back in high school. We played pretty fast and loose with the rules, and it was mostly an exercise in character development and storytelling. A year later I moved onto the White Wolf games.

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Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Five Quick, Fun Activities to End the School Year

image by Jaap Joris
It's that time of year again! Curriculum is winding down, and teachers are looking for valuable, educational activities to do to wrap up the year. Of course there's plenty of fun to be had -- most schools have sports days, field trips, and celebrations -- but there are also a lot of hours to fill with something other than classroom parties and movie days. Last year I listed some of my favorite year end activities. Now, here are a few more to keep your munchkins busy and learning right through the end of the year.

Five Simple, Fun End of School Educational Activities

1. Design and make a picture book

You may have done some of this during the year, but chances are it had to be rushed. This time, really give the kids time to work through the process of picture book design. Provide them with storyboards with twenty squares and have them sketch out their books. Then have them design a full size mock up. Finally, have them work on drawing the pictures in color. NO WORDS! Those will come last. 

Once the colored book is done, have students write out the words that go with each picture, edit them, and either neatly write them in or type them out and paste them in. Last, create a cover for each book. This is a fun, educational activity that takes quite a lot of time (you can make it more or less by altering the size of paper you use... I use 11 X 17). It hits objectives in art, language arts, and, if you do it in pairs, learning objectives about teamwork and cooperation.

2. Have students complete a retrospective.

Note: This is much more fun if you call it a Pensieve and model it after Professor Dumbledore's memory storage in Harry Potter!

Give students a way to create a visual memory bank of the year. You can make this as intricate or simple as you like. You can find my version on Teachers Pay Teachers, but it would be very simple to create yourself. Just have kids write in facts or draw pictures of things they've learned in each subject area. This activity encourages reflective learning and helps kids remember what they've learned. 

3. Play End of the Year Jeopardy

This is another fun activity for looking back on the year and reviewing knowledge. If you need a Jeopardy template, there are many online (mine, for Smart Notebook, is available for free here). Jeopardy is fun for the kids, and it's an excellent opportunity to review things you've learned. I divide the kids into groups and assign "random" numbers to the students (I actually try to pair kids of similar ability). Then all the ones go, then all the twos, and so on, earning points for their team (I also include a "call my team" option for when they get stuck).

4. Do some project based learning

If you've been wanting to try project based learning for a while but you've been nervous, this is a great opportunity. You've already completed your curriculum, so there's no risk if they don't absorb all the information you wanted. Have kids design a playground, or create a project that will change the world, or design a science website. Even if they don't hit all of your learning objectives, they'll definitely learn.

5. Let the kids be the teachers

Kids love the chance to switch roles. Put them in groups, pick a topic -- either something new or something you want to review -- and have them take charge. If you take this to the extreme (eg: actually sit in the class and participate, do their worksheets, etc.), they'll have the most fun. It's also a good opportunity to talk about teaching and presentations: you'll find that most of the kids will do a powerpoint presentation and then hand out worksheets. If you want to head this off, you may want to have a conversation about methods of assessment and get them to brainstorm all the ways teachers teach and assess them throughout the year first.

Question of the Day:
What was your favorite end of year school activity as a kid?

I always loved when things were winding down and we had more freedom in class. I remember reading a lot of books, watching some movies, and doing activities we hadn't had time to complete during the year.

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Wednesday, 28 May 2014

What Do Teachers Do Over Summer Vacation?

image by Shahnoor Habib Munmun

The topic of "holidays" is always an interesting one when it comes to teachers. This past week, Erin Klein wrote an interesting piece on why teachers should be careful about crowing about summer vacation, rightly pointing out that it can be frustrating for people who have to continue working.

I agree with this sentiment completely, but I think it can go even further: I think a lot of people wonder what exactly teachers DO all summer. 

With that in mind, here is my response. Keep in mind, of course, that each teacher is different. I know our American colleagues, for example, do almost all of their professional development over the summer, whereas in Canada a lot of PD occurs during the school year. It's a trade off: we don't have to give up days in the summer, but it costs us more financially because we have to pay for a substitute teacher. 

At any rate, here you go: how one teacher typically spends her summers. 

A summer for me is typically 8 weeks. 

Week one: I take this week off entirely. I do not talk or think about school. I spend a lot of time reading for pleasure and catching up on housework. I will check my work emails a few times a day and respond to messages from other teachers, students, or parents. 

Week two: I start thinking about my summer project this week. For example, last summer I was working on planning a new math curriculum. I still had a lot of time off this week, but I spent about two hours each day going through math and organizing my thoughts, making lists, deciding what I wanted things to look like. 

Week three: This week proceeds a lot like the last. I try to get outside, garden, walk my dogs with my friends. I also spend a couple hours a day putting my plan from last week into action. This summer, that meant building 17 math tests and making lists of which objectives each met. 

Week four: At this point a bit of panic usually sets in, along with some excitement for the next year. This week, I keep working on my summer project, but add in about five hours of planning. What will next year look like? What will that first week look like? What do I need to buy or do to get ready? Last summer, I was also taking two Coursera classes on education around this time. Wow, thinking back -- I was probably up to 5 or 6 hours of work a day at this point. 

Week five: This is when I start really working, mainly because I usually go visit my family in Saskatoon and don't have as many distractions. I try to move my summer project forwards and do some serious planning for next year. Last summer, I kept working on my courses, too. And of course, I hang out with my family. My nephew was born at this time last year three months prematurely, which was a stressful situation for sure. 

Week six: At this point last year, I was still in Saskatoon and working hard to get all of my mountain math style bulletin boards ready to go. The seventeen math tests were ready to go, and I was about halfway through the corresponding assignments. At this point it began to sink in that unless I really pushed, this project would NOT be done before school started. I knew a lot of other stuff would come up when school started and desperately wanted these done, so I upped the workload and really pushed to get them finished. 

Week seven: This week saw me back at school. My math project was finished, so I spent Monday printing, cutting, laminating, and then of course cutting again. Tuesday I organized everything from the day before and did all of my photocopying for the first week of school. Wednesday I went shopping for back to school stuff, then came to school to begin classroom setup: bulletin boards, furniture, books, etc. This continued into Thursday, and when I finished, my classroom was mostly organized. That allowed me to take a few days off during which I deliberately did nothing school related, because...

Week eight: This week, teachers resume work full time, although students won't return for another week. We spend a lot of time planning and meeting with colleagues, doing things like going through class lists and identifying students who may need extra help, organizing the year's extracurricular activities, and planning field trips. Teachers will have some time to do personal work like photocopy and set up the classroom, but most of us will come in for anywhere from 6 to 30 hours over the weekend, depending how ambitious our plans for the year are and how much we have accomplished over the last few weeks. 

This is what my summers look like. I enjoy them: a nice mix of productive work done on my own schedule and leisure time. I do think, though, that there's a lot more work involved in most teachers' summers than people realize!

Question of the Day:
How much work do you do on your summer vacation?

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Thursday, 22 May 2014

5 Tips for Using Pinterest for Teachers

Lots of my colleagues use Pinterest, but others -- particularly my male colleagues -- seem reluctant about browsing Pinterest. Here's the thing, though: if you're a teacher, Pinterest can be your best friend -- yes, even the men! Here are some helpful tips on how to use Pinterest for teaching.

What is Pinterest?

In a discussion about Pinterest with a male colleague, when I was (gently!) teasing him about not using Pinterest, he finally laughed and said, "Maybe I would if I knew what it was."

So although many of you probably know exactly what Pinterest is, here's the low-down for those who don't: it's basically a collection of visual bookmarks divided into a variety of topics. Often the topics are things like recipes, crafts, and home decor. But there are also "boards" dedicated to teaching, and that's what you want to take note of.

How to Use Pinterest to Its Maximum Potential

If you're already on Pinterest, you probably already know how useful it can be. But here are some tips that will help you really get the most out of it.

1. Make a separate account for following teaching boards

If you already have a Pinterest account that you use regularly for personal reasons, do yourself a favor and make a separate teacher account. The worst thing I ever did was conflate the two. Now if I want to skim teaching ideas, I have to sort through pages of vintage clothing and geek items first, and vice versa. Yes, you can run searches, but it's nice to be able to just log in and see pages of what you're interested in.

2. Check links before you pin them

Don't assume that because something looks interesting, you can pin it and read it later. Take thirty seconds to click on the link and make sure it goes where you think it does. Often pins lead to defunct links, or people have pinned the wrong web address (for example, if you try to pin this post by pinning my blog home page, it will look like it goes to this post right up until I make a new post. You have to actually go to the page where this post is located. Often people don't realize that). There's no point filling boards with pins that don't go anywhere, or don't go where you think they do.

3. Follow, Follow, Follow... but Discerningly!

It's tempting to follow everyone who posts something interesting, but you need to be careful -- try to limit your follows to people who are regularly posting useful, working, links. That said, when you first join Pinterest it IS important to follow a decent number of people quite quickly, so browse the education boards, do some pinning, and get yourself started.

4. Make lots of boards

If you have one board called "Education," before long it will have five thousand pins, and you'll never be able to find anything anyway. Make your boards specific. Go beyond "math" and "science" and have boards for "math centers," "division," "math projects," etc. That way when you need something, it's quick and easy to find.

5. Add a Pin button to your browser

If you have to copy and paste things to pin them, you're less likely to do so. Pinterest is a great way to collect and collate resources, but only if you actually use it. Pinterest has the option to add a "pin it" button to your browser (although many sites have Pin buttons right on their posts now, too). Grab the button and use it. Pinterest is community based -- the more great ideas we all share, the better.

Question of the Day:
How do you use Pinterest to help you teach?

Pinterest has a reputation as being "for girls only -- no boyz allouded!" But if you're a teacher, it really does have fantastic ideas. I use it for personal resources, but I have tons of boards dedicated to teaching, too. It's a fantastic way to keep my bookmarks organized -- and the visual triggers make it much easier to remember what I pinned and why.

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Tuesday, 13 May 2014

How To Help Students Give Powerful Presentations

Have you ever had students give a presentation that goes like this:

One or two kids get up to the front of the room and open up their powerpoint presentation. The first slide has about 18 photographs of bears, most of which are probably copyright violations. They stand there giggling as photo after photo of bear comes up, while the rest of the class alternates between giggles and "awww"s.

Finally the next slide appears. It probably has a title and the presenter names. The remainder of the presentation involves the presenter(s) revealing huge paragraphs of text on their slides, which they proceed to read in a monotone, before finishing with a slide that says something along the lines of "thanks for watching our presentation."

I'm assuming that these presenters were kids, students -- but the sad thing is, they may not have been. I've seen presentations like this at PD events from adults, too.

With that in mind, I'm on a mission to eliminate this style of presentation by teaching my students to give TED Talk style presentations. I think that too often, we expect students to just know how to do things they've never been taught -- like give effective presentations. As teachers, what we're really marking is often the research they've done, and the presentation is mostly a fun way to make increase engagement and involve some tech skills. But now more than ever, giving presentations is an essential skill that students should be learning from a young age.

Suggestions for Teaching Kids to Give Presentations

At the bottom of this post, I'll link to the powerpoint I use. It violates a lot of its own rules, but try to ignore that. However, here are the important things I think we need to touch on in teaching kids these skills:
  • How to Start: Good presentations need a hook, a fact or question that grabs the audience's attention. "Hi, my name is Susan and I'm here to talk about bears" doesn't cut it.
  • How to use Media Appropriately: Slides and media should be used to supplement. They shouldn't work if the presenter isn't there to give them meaning. With this in mind, I limit students to no more than 15 words per slide unless they have special permission (say, for a chart or quotation).
  • How to Hold Your Audience's Attention: If you're a clear, confident speaker, you can still lose your audience quickly if you don't have some emotional connection. Encourage students to think about why this should matter to their audience. It can't be just about giving facts for no reason.
  • How to End: I will never forget being in university grad classes where we had to give presentations. We had a time limit of, depending on the class, 15-30 minutes. Because it had been drilled into me in an undergrad honors seminar that these time limits were not flexible, my presentations always finished precisely on time -- I practiced them to make sure. Some other students would go three, four, five times over the limit. Inevitably this led to a bored audience -- except for one member, the person stuck presenting afterwards, who would grow increasingly furious as s/he watched his/her time slip away. With that in mind, I give my students my iPad with a timer on it and drill into them that there is a time limit and they have to follow it. Their presentation ends one minute after the allotted time, whether they've finished or not. I also encourage them to end with a call to action. The listener should feel inspired to DO something -- to learn more, to get involved, something.
These are the guidelines I use with my students. Depending on the assignment, there may be other requirements, but these things are always a basic.

Question of the Day:
How do you keep presentations interesting in your classroom?

I'm still working on this, but I had to make the change because I couldn't take another presentation that lasted fifteen minutes and was basically someone reading a report about bears!

If you'd like the powerpoint I use to teach these concepts, you can download it here (free): 
Warning: it's not a small file.

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Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Five Things You Might Not Know About Being A Teacher

Image by Filip Pticek

This week has been a big one for education in Alberta, with Minister Jeff Johnson releasing the "fiercely independent" Task Force for Teaching Excellence report. This report has been very controversial in Alberta for a number of reasons, giving rise to a lot of public discussion, which is usually a good thing.


It all started when journalist Rick Bell received advance knowledge of the task force's recommendations and wrote an editorial calling for educational reform, particularly in how teachers are certified and disciplined. I made a huge mistake by delving into the comments section of this article. As always, the results were disheartening, to say the least.

But they also revealed to me a number of misconceptions, and in the interest of public dialogue, I thought it might be interesting to clear them up. So without further ado...

Five Things You Might Not Know About Being a Teacher

1. The hours are more substantial than you think.

I am a rare teacher, in that I don't come to school until about 8:15 (school starts at 8:40) and leave many days by 4:15 (school ends at 3:35). That gives me an eight hour work day, five days a week. I accomplish this by not taking breaks, ever. I eat at my desk, I don't take coffee breaks, and I work straight through recess. That's because I want to get home in time to walk my dogs before supper! 

However, even with that, I spend at least an hour a day at home doing various tasks -- marking, returning emails, interacting with students on Edmodo. So we'll make it a nine hour day.

Then there are special events. For example, in September we do a meet the teacher night. In October, I take my students to Calgary for We Day, which is a twelve hour day. I put in extra time for club events. We do two night time performances for Christmas concert. I say I leave by 4:15 each day, but there are days I'm here until 5:30. Last Thursday, I was here until 9:30 for the grade six variety show. So when I add all this in, I would estimate that I put in about five hours a week above and beyond what I've estimated, especially when I consider work I do on weekends. Some weeks less, some weeks more. So I'm going to tag my work week at about (9 X 5) + 5 = 50 hours a week.

2. The holidays are less substantial than you think.

I just had a week off for Easter. I'm going to assume most people worked Easter Monday, so that means I had five days off that most people didn't. I spent that week in Saskatoon with my family. During that time, I was heavily embroiled in trying to figure out text adventure games for school. I actually timed how long I spent working on that stupid thing, and it wound up clocking in at twenty hours. So on my five days off, I spent an average of four hours a day working.

The same thing happens in summer. I go to work for about two weeks every day before I'm officially due back, and I spend a heap of time planning lessons, doing research, writing year plans, and the like during the year. We have great holidays, I'm not arguing that. I'm just point out that with fifty hour work weeks and a lot of work put in over holidays, it's not all the fun and games people imagine.

3. It's not as financially lucrative as you might imagine.

Two years ago I actually kept track of my out of pocket expenses for my classroom: $625.86. I have tried to rein that in since! But that's not an uncommon amount for teachers to spend. Books, school supplies, classroom furniture, year end/Christmas gifts... it all adds up over time. 

Alberta teachers are very well paid, and hopefully will not deny that. I won't say much about that, but I will just point out that I did the math, and of my take home pay, I get 58%. The rest is deducted. 

4. It takes a lot of outside effort.

I was sick on Friday, too sick to teach (and not really wanting to spread my germs to twenty one eleven year olds). In order to be sick, I had to spend 35 minutes phoning substitute teachers until I found one who was available. I then had to GO to the school and spend 30 minutes writing sub plans, plus a bit of time prepping materials.

It's 10:24 PM right now, and I'm working on this blog. Other tabs I have open: twitter (following a conversation between some educators), Storium (a new game I'm sponsoring on Kickstarter because I think it looks like it has fantastic potential for educators), and an article about games based learning.

We have kids with learning disabilities. We have kids who haven't had breakfast, or supper the night before. We have kids who truly believe they are stupid and can't learn. We have kids who are abused. We have kids who have no conception of how to interact with children their own age. Our classrooms are a hodgepodge, and it takes a tremendous amount of effort to interact with each of these kids in a way that gives them the best chance of success.

5. We believe it's all worth it.

Teaching is hard work. So why does anyone do it? Because at the end of the day, we really and truly love it. We are excited about our jobs. We have bad days like anyone else, but overall we look forward to going to work, to implementing new ideas, to that moment when a glimmer of understanding transforms a child's face and you get that sense of excitement about learning.

We love to learn. We love to explore. We love to share that stuff with our students. We really, truly believe it's worth it in the end.

Question of the Day:
Why do you teach?
Click to Tweet This Question

There are a lot of reasons I teach, but in the end the main one is always the students. My students frustrate me, and amuse me, and drive me nuts, and make me laugh and cry. They're like family for the year I have them, and I care about them intensely. It matters to me not only that they learn, but that they learn TO learn, and to love learning. 

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Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Using Text Adventure Games in School

Image by Andy Piper
After about two weeks of painstaking insanity, I've finished writing my first text adventure game for grade six social studies.

I have zero experience in coding. Ok, that's not quite true, but my experience is laughably minimal. I know what a tag is, and that's about it.

The (free) program I used, courtesy of www.text, is called Quest. Although Quest has interactive menus and a very thorough tutorial, if you have no knowledge of coding and you're ambitious in what you're hoping to accomplish, it's not the easiest program to use.

There were a lot of moments of banging my head against walls in frustration after spending an hour working on a complex puzzle, only to find that the program mysteriously refused to work when I hit play. There were moments of threatening to put my fist through the monitor only to discover that I'd capitalized "troll" in one place and not in another, thus destroying the entire game. And there were times when the whole thing just didn't work, even after I hit the forums and got coding help from the (very helpful and willing) moderators, and I had to restart the entire thing.

But in spite of that, the game is done, and it's mine.

What Are Text Adventures?

For those who don't know, text adventures are a very simple kind of game, almost an interactive "choose your own adventure." They were popular in the 80s before video game graphic technology could keep up with the stories programmers wanted to tell. Stories are narrated in the second person and you use a variety of verbs -- often "look at," "use," "search," and the like. 

Do Kids Like Them?

Yes... and no. Text adventures are challenging and require problem solving. When I play them with my students, I get mixed reactions. There's about a third of the class who thinks it's awesome, who grabs the challenge and runs with it. There's another third of the class that loves the idea, but quickly becomes horrified as they realize that they will actually have to THINK to complete this quest (one student commented, "It was fun at first but then it got boring." When I asked why, he replied: "I couldn't solve the puzzles quickly enough."). 

And then there's a third of the class that doesn't like having to solve puzzles and would honestly prefer to just read the book, or answer questions from the textbook. For these reasons, I usually provide options in social studies: read the textbook and answer questions, or complete a lapbook, or whatever other bee in my bonnet is currently buzzing -- ie, text adventures.

What's the Benefit?

There are a number of reasons I love the idea of using text adventures in class:
  1. For a number of students, it's a far more interesting and compelling way to learn information, and the information will stick with them much longer than taking notes or hearing lectures.
  2. It involves some fairly high level reading, allowing me to combine social studies with language arts.
  3. It involves a lot of higher order thinking skills. Instead of just absorbing information, students really have to think about it and use it to solve problems.
So although text adventures aren't perfect and aren't for everyone, I really want to try using them in class. If you decide to try it yourself, I have a few words of experience based advice:
  • Do one, or part of one, as a class first. Text adventures are kind of alien to kids used to point and click games, and can be frustrating if you just turn them loose, even if the game includes instructions -- the kids won't read them. 

  • Play some text adventure games yourself. It's easier to guide kids through them if you're familiar with them, too.
  • Be enthusiastic. The more you seem to enjoy them, the more kids will see them as a fun break from schoolwork instead of "just another assignment."
  • Try to choose games that have more than one educational component. If it's just a great story, it can be an effective language arts lesson -- but why not try to find a great story that covers other curricular areas? You can browse educational games at Text Adventures, or, if you're feeling ambitious, try making your own. Check out the tutorial here!
Whatever you decide, it's a fun way to introduce some variety to your classroom. Oh, and if you want to introduce democracy to your class with my game, you can play it here.

Question of the Day:
Did you enjoy Choose Your Own Adventure stories as a kid? Why?

I wanted to be a magician for a year or so when I was twelve, and I had this "Blackstone the magician" choose your own adventure. I loved it because it made me feel like I was part of the adventure. On the other hand, I cheated a lot.

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