Thursday, December 17, 2015

Metaphors We Teach By, Part Three - Consider the Rhizome: On Deterritorializing Silos in Schools

It is a question of a model that is perpetually in construction or collapsing and of a process that is perpetually prolonging itself, breaking off and starting up again.
               -Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 20

What models and metaphors do we employ to make sense of how we organize our schools? Much has been said about the “factory model of education” (go here or here to see what I mean), and Audrey Watters is right to make the point that a large part of the story has been manufactured to fit certain narratives about the present (go here to read her critique of “the factory model of education” conversation). However, factory and school design are both born out of a similar historical-intellectual event, one that is rightly associated with the Enlightenment and its influence. Both institutions, more often than not, exemplify organizational models that reveal our tendency (as post-Enlightenment thinkers) to “mathematize our life-world” as Edmund Husserl might put it - or what Bernard Stiegler might call the “grammatization of human life.” Understandably, schools and factories, like many other organizations, are structured according to rationalist concepts such as binary logic, hierarchy, centralization, and order, and with this in mind, I understand why critics of contemporary school models might make connections (but perhaps too crudely) between factories and campuses.

On the Idea of Silos:

So what’s prompted all this philosophical reflection? I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of silos and more specifically how a “silo mentality” fits well with organizational structures that are hierarchical and centralized (like a hub-and-spoke or factory model, for instance).  And I’ve been asking myself: what about Silos in schools? I'd like to thank Seth Burgess and Sanje Ratnavale for pushing my thinking in this direction! Seth and I will be delivering an Ignite Keynote, titled “Breaking Down the Silo Mentality – A Grassroots Movement,” at the upcoming OESIS conference in L.A., this Feb. 23-24, 2016.

Not that long ago, the idea of silos was foreign to me, and others like me might be wondering what the term means in this context. The concept helps one describe an institution’s vertical organization; it’s used metaphorically to mean a system, process, or department that operates in isolation from others.  Audra Bianca defines silos with the following critique: “A silo mentality can occur when a team or department shares common tasks but derives their power and status from their group. They are less likely to share resources or ideas with other groups or welcome suggestions as to how they might improve. Collaboration in a business culture with silos among teams or departments will be limited… In addition, the members of a silo tend to think alike. They get their power from association with their function and their shared technical knowledge” (“What Do Silos Mean in Business Culture?”).

What drives us to think and operate in this way, one might argue, is the well-founded desire to successfully facilitate management, productivity, and efficiency at the workplace. When presented with the question of what’s the most rational way to organize company x or institution y, models like the hub-and-spoke example serve us well (at least in relation to certain desired outcomes such as order and efficiency). Emotionally speaking, the silo mentality may stem from basic human desires to belong to something, to have significance, and to be able to exercise one’s sense of responsibility in ways that are manageable and quantifiable (or traceable). At the root of this mindset, therefore, one uncovers the natural and good desire to belong to something and to be responsible for it, and it’s important to remember this when discussing institutional changes like “breaking down silos.” Usually, we don’t seek to change something because we disagree with the intention behind it – more often, we share common goals, desires, and priorities but seek to change things because the map to getting there constantly needs improvement, clarification, and adjustment. But before mapping new changes (and employing new organizational models in the process) one first needs to know clearly and specifically the values, goals, or desired outcomes of the institutional culture in question.

On Goals, Priorities, and Outcomes:

What are the goals, priorities, and desired outcomes shared by educators who seek to prepare the citizens of our global future? How have Silos – as a form of organizational mapping – come up short in helping us realize these goals? What do we need to adjust, improve upon, or change when thinking about the functionality of Silos? But first, what do Silos look like in education today? Immediately I think of academic departments, content-based linear curricula, classrooms, campuses, division & grade levels, etc., and it occurs to me that a Siloed organization operates according to the logic of binaries: one is either in a class or outside it, on a campus or off of it, engaging relevant curriculum or indulging irrelevant information, and as my colleague Jason Kern points out, the person who is the least siloed in schools is the student herself. She is the nomad who travels from one territory to another while the instructors and administrators remain in their fiefdoms, so one might ask, what are we modeling for our highly connected and heterogenous students as isolated instructors? Gilles Deleuze writes, "We learn nothing from those who say: 'Do as I do.' Our only teachers are those who tell us to 'do with me,' and are able to emit signs to be developed in heterogeneity rather than propose gestures for us to reproduce" (Difference and Repition 23). Departmental silos often demand students to "do as I do" and to trace and reproduce in isolation, so why have silos in schools? One answer gets back to the models and metaphors which shape our organizational thinking, but another response points towards the goals and outcomes we seek to realize.

When thinking about our desired goals as educators it’s important to remember that the metaphors and models we teach by can limit and expand our possible ways of thinking about certain concepts and how they can work. In other words, our mindsets map the expanses and limits of our ability to match thinking and strategy to the realization of our goals and priorities. With this in mind, what do the metaphors or models of binaries, factories, hub-and-spoke structures, etc., expand for us in terms of desired goals or outcomes? Possible answers might be maximizing profit and efficiency, establishing control and power, fostering competition, maintaining safety and predictability. Some of these might be goals we value and prioritize for schools today, but others may not, meaning we need to pose the opposite question as well: What do the metaphors or models of binaries, factories, hub-and-spoke structures, etc., limit for us in terms of desired goals or outcomes? Some responses might be trust and collaboration are more inhibited; spontaneity and risk tend to be discouraged, and divergent thinking as well as creativity could be stifled; yet many of us will agree that these are priorities we want to expand upon, not limit, in our modern learning spaces. So I think we have to (continually) return to two questions: what are the most important priorities we need to focus on as a school, as a class, etc.? And what are the models and metaphors for thinking that expand the possibility for us to make those priorities a reality?  Instead of factories, hubs-and-spokes, binaries (and dare I say trees), we need to root our thinking about education in new metaphors; in fact, we need a new kind of root altogether: consider the Rhizome, for instance.

On the Rhizome and Responsibility:

Every rhizome contains lines of segmentarity according to which it is stratified, territorialized, organized, signified, attributed, etc., as well as lines of deterritorialization down which it constantly flees... That is why one can never posit a dualism or a dichotomy, even in rudimentary form of the good and the bad. You may make a rupture, draw a line of flight... 
               -Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 9

Google defines a rhizome as “a continuously growing horizontal underground stem that puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals.” Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guatarri offer it as a metaphor or model whose purpose is to resist binary conceptualization and static formalization (It’s much easier to teach Plato’s theory of the forms when discussing trees as an example as opposed to considering the Rhizome…). It’s hard to talk about “the form of the Rhizome” in traditional, ontological terms, but D&G suggest the following qualities:

-A rhizome is pure connectivity
-A rhizome is pure differentiation
-A rhizome is pure multiplicity (as opposed to binary)
-A rhizome resists territorialization
-A rhizome maps, but never traces
-A rhizome is a form of decalcomania: “forming through continuous negotiation with its context, constantly adapting by experimentation, thus performing a non-symmetrical active resistance against rigid organization and restriction” (A Thousand Plateaus 20).

What if we thought about school organization more rhizomatically? How might rhizomatic models help us deterritorialize the fiefdoms of silos, especially when they discourage collaboration, creativity, communication, and spontaneity? As I think of rhizomatic models (along with hub-and-spoke or factory structures), one common goal or priority stands out for me: all of these organizational frameworks want to encourage teachers, administrators, and students to exercise responsibility for something, but responsibility can work differently according to the metaphors and models we use. In the siloed form of organization, responsibility tends to function as such: as an English teacher, I am responsible for the student’s education in literature and composition, but her knowledge of polynomials does not matter for my purposes. I call this distributed responsibility. But what if we thought about our organization differently? In place of factories, I suggest the metaphor of the community garden, which is much more rhizomatic in the way such social spaces promote unpredictable connections and spontaneity as well as a deterritorialized sense of ownership. No one owns that specific tomato, for instance, but everyone is responsible for the garden itself: I call this shared responsibility. What if we could deterritorialize the departmental landscape of the traditional school model? How might that make possible new pathways for mapping our responsibility for the student’s learning and development? Like a community garden, education is about sharing the responsibility of cultivating certain universally-valued skills that all learners need to master; it's not about Shakespeare vs. polynomials or curricular material vs. irrelevant information. Instead of asking, have they learned Shakespeare?, we need to ask together are students thinking critically? Are they exploring creative solutions? Are they collaborating and connecting with others? Silos, unfortunately, often discourage the latter kind of mindset.

As students, administrators, and teachers, we all care about results (and we should) and with that comes the need to feel in control. Silos make that emotional reassurance possible, in my opinion. We feel a heavy sense of responsibility to produce certain outcomes because there is so much at stake, but it’s also possible to share the weight of our labor more collaboratively. Hub and spoke, inside and outside silos, curricular content and irrelevant info, inside and outside departments… these categorical binaries are meant to help us trace certain outcomes, but where are the opportunities to map new possibilities which resist such rigid organization? It’s important to make clear, however, that organizational infrastructures and models (on a macro-institutional scale) can’t be rethought in completely rhizomatic terms, not for tomorrow at least (that would be a revolution, for sure), but my call to action is a “grassroots” one. How can we as teachers, students, and administrators rhizomatically disrupt (actually, make that deterritorialize) the silos we found ourselves in today? What can we do tomorrow? Think of a silo (such as a classroom, a department, a campus, a curriculum) and ask this question: where is there an opportunity for an offshoot, for a new line of flight? What small steps can I take to deterritorialize our traditional landscapes for learning?

Some examples in recent years for me:

-Last fall, the drama director at our school invited me to direct a one-Act version of William Shakespeare's Richard III. I had never directed, blocked, or acted in a Shakespeare production in my life. We also invited the drama teacher to join our literature class project and discussion which focused on cutting lines for the production. Drama and English departments were in lock-step, molding to each other's shape like the wasp and the orchid, and students' learning became more connected, relevant, and integrated.

-Last spring, the forensics science teacher enlisted the theatre & set design class to build a crime scene for a project. Drama students were cultivating the appropriate skills for building sets while also engaging in conversations about science and forensics making their learning more spontaneious in its offshoots.

-In recent years, I (along with two teachers from different schools) have collaborated across campuses using blogs, garageband & audacity, youtube, as well as other programs, in an ad-hoc, organic way such that the boundaries of who's teaching whose students (as well as boundaries of who's the student and who's the teacher) have become more and more rhizomatic and fluid. (Go here to watch a K12 video about these collaborative projects)

-Last spring, I gamified my British Literature class, which provided more options, paths, and methods for demonstrating learning, and with a wider variety of assignments and learning styles, students discovered passions well beyond that of literary analysis. One student made a dagger (don't worry! it was blunted metal!) when studying Macbeth for some extra XP points, and in the process, he discovered his love for building things. It may have been "irrelevant," but it was awesome all the same!

-In recent years, I have used google docs as a platform for my students to construct and curate their own exam, making it a collaborative, student-driven form of inquiry such that the high-stakes test itself truly becomes something for the students & by the students. As a result, they owned the learning together


In Charles Dickens's novel, Hard Times, one might recall the scene where Mr. Gradgrind, the utilitarian school supervisor, stands above the rows of desks filled with silent, passive children as he proclaims, "Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them" (9). I can't help but imagine Deleuze and Guattari interrupting to say, "Make rhizomes, not roots, never plant! Don't sow, grow offshoots! Don't be one or multiple, be multiplicities! Run lines, never plot a point! Don't just have ideas, just have an idea" (A Thousand Plateaus, 24-25)

Mark Ingham. Boy Pool Rhizome:

Works Cited:

Bianca, Audra. "What Do Silos Mean in Business Culture?" Gannett Satelite Information Network, Inc., n.d. Web. 17 December 2015.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repitition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. Print.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. New York: Barnes and Nobles Books, 2004. Print.

Watters, Audrey. "The Invented History of 'The Factory Model of Education.'", 25 April 2015. Web. 17 December 2015.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Using Google Docs and Online Discussions to Increase Student Engagement with Shakespeare

I’m a big fan of reading Shakespeare aloud in class, assigning various roles to students, even if the reading process takes a little more time. Using online discussions has allowed me to do this more often than not since we can outsource the discussion to the digital sphere beyond the walls and time constraints of the daily class meeting. In fact, I’ve seen three additional benefits to “flipping” the class in this way: (1) the shy student rises to the occasion, voicing her insights with just as much volume and force as the more vocal learners; (2) the teacher is not the center of the discussion (even in Socratic seminars, decentering the role of the teacher becomes difficult) for I simply monitor and direct attention to certain highlights of the a-synchronized conversation, but I resist chiming in directly; (3) students later can cite each other in their papers, making the discussions an experience where they are reading and thinking for each other and not simply for the teacher.  Citing each other’s comments from the digital discussions also provides an authentic audience for the writing process and provides opportunity to practice digital literacy.
Here's a screen capture of an Online Discussion from one of my classes
I didn’t start this post to reflect on the benefits of online discussions; I wanted to share a strategy I’ve been using to keep ALL students engaged when trying to read a difficult scene aloud in class. My classes typically have about 20 students in them, and reading aloud only engages the handful of students who have a part in the given scene being read. How do you make sure the other students don’t “space out” and disengage from the experience? More importantly, how do you create an environment where they remain engaged and do so collaboratively? Short answer: create a back channel and distribute tasks which get them to read the text closely with intention.

A week or so ago, we were reading Act 4 of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and we had made it to the last scene (Scene 3 which takes place at the English court). It’s a very difficult scene for high school students: it’s long, wordy, with plenty of digressions that are difficult to follow or unpack. I knew that the 16 or so students who would not be reading would have a really hard time staying focused, so I set up a Google Doc, changed the sharing settings such that anyone with the link could edit, and typed in four categories of interest: characteristics of England; characteristics of Scotland; the definition of a king; and lastly, the definition of a tyrant. I divided the non-readers into four groups accordingly, and their job was to get on the google doc to type bullet-pointed notes related to their assigned category as it related to the scene in question; meanwhile, the other handful of students read the scene aloud for all of us. Everyone was focused because we all had a task, and the entire class participated in a collaborative, close reading of a very difficult scene from the Scottish play. At the end, we put the document on the digital projector and reflected on the notes as a class – better yet, as a reading community. It was a huge success born out of a simple, no-brainer solution. More importantly, they made the notes together and constructed the meaning collaboratively, and I simply sat back and enjoyed the experience. Here's some screen caps of one classes notes at the end of the reading:

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Joys of Collaboration: Shakespeare across the Campuses

I’ve written and presented quite often on the joys of collaboration (go here) and on its benefits for improving my potential to be a truly student-centered teacher, and I had to return to the blog today to reflect more on this (more reflection here as well) because it really has been such an amazing month of multi-directional collaboration both in and outside the classroom, both at my school and beyond. There is something in the air right now, a kind of buzz of energy, which could only be made possible because it’s not just coming from me. And much to my pleasure, all of it in some way gets back to igniting student interest in Shakespeare and doing so authentically.

Seth Burgess presenting with me at OESIS
This weekend, I returned from Boston where I presented with Seth Burgess of Lausanne Collegiate School at the OESIS gathering. It was a fantastic conference! So many connections were made with other innovative, creative-thinking educators who stretched me to reflect more deeply and more critically about topics such as blended learning, student-centered pedagogy, and meaningful tech integration in the 21st century classroom. (Shout out to @danamhuff, @mattscully, @tomgavin, @jeannettemelee, @mrtedp, and @ianhabs to name a few!) Seth and I hosted three workshops at OESIS on how we gamified a unit of study on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (check out our resources here), and one thing was made clear: our success was very much the result of our willingness to collaborate together and to do so adventurously, despite the risks involved. Another thing that stuck out for me was the fact that in both our testimonies it was made abundantly clear that students got excited about Shakespeare as a result of our curricular approach – an approach that valued student choice, autonomy, and independence. Seth even shared how his students, after finishing the unit, demanded that Lausanne Collegiate School put on a Macbeth performance in the theatre department. How cool is that!

When the conference concluded, I rushed to Boston’s Logan Airport on Sat. to fly back to DFW (along with a cabin full of Patriots fans… poor Cowboys…) so I could catch The Oakridge School production of “An Evening with Shakespeare.” Our campus’s English Department collaborated with Fine Arts this fall to stage two 50 min. productions of Richard III and The Merry Wives of Windsor. My directorial debut was the R3 production, and Brad Deborde, Oakridge Drama Dir., was in charge of staging Merry Wives. The students did an outstanding job! Simply amazing! They were excited, focused, and motivated, and part of the excitement, I think, was the collaborative approach Brad and I modeled for the students who got involved. It was meaningful for them to see the valued connection between English and Fine Arts; it made it something bigger and more profound. Oh! And we even cast the upper school Chemistry instructor (@DrJRoberts) as an extra! So many connections for the students to see in action! And it was fun for everyone!
Zoe M. as Richard III speaking to Caleb B. as Buckingham
The excitement hasn’t stopped, however. Following a tradition that was born here on Oakridge campus, Greenhill School is hosting an inter-institutional paper colloquium on William Shakespeare’s Midsummers Night’s Dream on February 29, 2016. Students from schools in the area are invited to craft papers on the Shakespearean Comedy, and those who submit their compositions will be considered for acceptance to present on Greenhill campus in Feb. of 2016. (For more info, feel free to reach out to Joel Garza, Upper School English Instructor at Greenhill).

Although Oakridge first hosted something similar in 2013 on James Joyce’s Dubliners and again in 2014 on Shakespeare’s Richard III, the reason it was as successful as it proved to be was due to the collaborative buy-in that schools like Greenhill generously provided. We not only hosted Greenhill and other schools on campus; we collaborated together online, using blogs and various media well before both colloquia ever took place. And now, the same is happening again, and it’s such a thrilling thing to watch unfold! Just the other day, Greenhill sent us an mp3 with their responses and insights about Scene 2 of Act 1 of MND; check it out:

Post-skype session selfie!
We of course were planning a response of our own when Mr. Garza reached out (right when we were about to record!), inspiring us to skype in to his class to share our thoughts in real time. Everyone was giddy; Shakespeare felt relevant and worthwhile to the students. Simply put, there was a lot of joy in the room.Of course, I can’t forget to mention that Greenhill will also be performing the Comedy outdoors on their campus October 22, 24, and 25, and they have graciously invited us to join the celebration in anticipation of the “midwinter” colloquium. The collaboration and connectedness just continues to grow!

Speaking of collaboration, Joel and I look forward to sharing some of these experiences tomorrow actually at the ITEC Iowa conference which is taking place as we speak. We’ll be presenting Oct. 13 at 11am here, and it’s free for anyone to join (much thanks to @zeitz for inviting us to share the joy with what looks like an awesome gathering of passionate educators!). Can’t wait to make more exciting connections with like-minded pedagogical adventurers in Iowa! Oh, and here's our wiki page for the conference presentation tomorrow (there's lots of resources to check out so make a point to visit the page). 

All this to say, it’s been a rewarding and joyful month in terms of making connections and collaborating with others; such encounters continue to inspire me to grow and improve as a passionate, student-centered educator. Hope to see you tomorrow!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Metaphors We Teach By, Part Two – More on the Rhetoric of Emancipation, Jacques Ranciere on Equality

At a K through 12 school like mine, if I were to ask my sophomores, how many of you are painters?, there might be a couple hands raised in a given class, but if I travelled down to the ECC (Early Childhood Center) and asked the same question, I imagine a swarm of hands would shoot into the air proudly and enthusiastically. What happens between Kindergarten and 10th grade? Where do all the painters go? One answer might go like this: we begin to divide up the world for them; through our language, our conceptual binaries, students start seeing the world as one made up of amateurs and experts, of inferior intellects and superior ones; they start seeing themselves as having strengths and weaknesses, things they’re good at and things they’re not. And this got me thinking: How do we cleanse the doors of their perception? How do we inspire students to claim back their place as painters again?  After all, “…it’s not a matter of making great painters; it’s a matter of making emancipated [students]: people capable of saying, ‘me too, I’m a painter,’ a statement that contains nothing in the way of pride, only the reasonable feeling of power that belongs to any reasonable being. ‘There is no pride in saying out loud: Me too, I’m a painter! Pride consists in saying softly to others: You neither, you aren’t a painter.’ ‘Me too, I’m a painter’ means: me too, I have a soul, I have feelings to communicate to my fellow-men” (Ranciere 67). When did high school students stop believing that they have something to communicate? How can we get them to paint their masterpieces again?

Yesterday in class, we were reading one of Macbeth’s soliloquies from Act One, and a student continued reading until I interrupted: “Ok, stop,” I said. The class directed their eyes towards me as I asked, “Do these opening lines mean anything to you?” Blank stares were accompanied by silence. “You guys are having a hard time understanding the language, right?” Gradually there were confessional nods across the room. “Well, let’s walk through it, phrase by phrase, and see what’s troubling us.” We went through it, and sure enough, the students unpacked every word and those they couldn’t (such as verb phrases like trammel up) there were footnotes supplying the meaning. I did nothing other than reinforce/redirect their will and attention towards the text; the students were the ones who constructed the meaning, albeit slowly, but with no problem. They could do this, but why did they stare blankly at me the first time I asked? Why weren’t they doing it? Were they convinced that Shakespeare was “above their heads”? Had I contributed to their self-contempt?

French philosopher Bernard Stiegler in Taking Care of Youth and the Generations (2010) makes a connection between the loss of responsibility and the infantilization of youth in contemporary culture. His definition of education reads as follows: “…education is our name for transmitting the social competency that produces responsibility… [which] leads to ‘maturity’” (2). Stiegler worries about education (on a philosophical level) because students are not taking responsibility for their own capacity to exercise intelligence (or their own capacity to be painters!). Students aren’t to blame, however. It’s a cultural issue, says Stiegler, one that involves difficult questions about the social practices of adult culture. After all it is the language games of adulthood which dulls their sense of wonder, namely their capacity to fancy themselves as painters… So this got me thinking about Jacques Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (2007).

Ranciere’s work explores the pedagogy of a French Enlightenment figure named Joseph Jacotot who courageously posited the following claims:

1. All men have the equal capacity to exercise intelligence
2. All men have the equal capacity to instruct themselves

Both principles contradict directly certain “common sense” assumptions that shape our daily pedagogical practices as teachers. Take principle 1. We often concentrate on the rhetoric of outcomes as well as metaphors of progress, which in my opinion conflicts with Ranciere’s radical strategy to treat principle 1 as a fact of nature, not as a hoped-for destination to be reached. Equal intellectual capacity is not an idealized, pie-in-the-sky goal; it’s a practical starting point. Students are equally intelligent the day they walk through the classroom door, no progress is needed in terms of improving the intellect. Ranciere writes, “There aren’t two sorts of minds. There is inequality in the manifestations of intelligence, according to the greater or lesser energy communicated to the intelligence or by the will for discovering and combining new relations; but there is no hierarchy of intellectual capacity. Emancipation is becoming conscious of this equality of nature” (27). Underperforming students are not lacking in capacity nor are they less intelligent in some sense; instead, the real challenge is revealing the student’s intelligence to his or herself.  “…Our problem isn’t proving that all intelligence is equal,” Ranciere writes. “It’s seeing what can be done under that supposition” (46). Differences in student performance and success, says Ranciere, has more to do with the amount of Will and Attention one has exercised towards a given task than with one’s capacity for “natural talent” or “superior intelligence.”

Ranciere urges us to shift our pedagogical focus and language away from concerns about outcomes and to direct it toward how we frame the learning experience from the very outset. This means emancipating students before teaching them, namely convincing each learner of the idea “that every common person might conceive his human dignity, take the measure of his intellectual capacity, and decide how to use it” (17). This gets back to making students aware of the fact that they can take responsibility for their own capacity to be intelligent. Ranciere urges the educator to “give not the key to knowledge, but the consciousness of what an intelligence can do when it considers itself equal to any other and considers any other equal to itself” (39). It’s not about knowledge as much as about empowerment; it’s more about the outset than the outcome.  Our culture makes this shift difficult, however, due to the industry’s obsession with results, data, and progress, which puts a lot of pressure on students and teachers alike.

Jacques Ranciere
In reference to principle 2, Ranciere advocates for learning as doing, meaning the teacher’s role is more about creating a learning environment where students want to do, where students want to exercise their capabilities. When students aren’t performing, one’s first instinct should be to focus on the learner’s Will and Attention, not their Intellect. As Ranciere states, “There is stultification whenever one intelligence is subordinated to another. [However] a person – and a child in particular – may need a master when his own will is not strong enough to keep him on track,… but that subjection is purely one of will over will” (13). Thinking back to my situation in English class yesterday: the students could do the work, so my task was to focus on redirecting their will and attention to see it through. What I didn’t have to do was “explicate” the Shakespearean text. Too much explication stultifies a learner, for “It is the explicator who needs the incapable and not the other way around; it is he who constitutes the incapable as such. To explain something to someone is first of all to show [the student] a world divided into knowing minds and ignorant ones, ripe minds and immature ones, the capable and the incapable, the intelligent and the stupid” (6). I do think there are times when explication is necessary but it need not be the default modality for facilitating learning. Instead, one’s default should be to address them as people “under the sign of equality.”  “What stultifies the common [student] is not the lack of instruction, but the belief in the inferiority of their intelligence” (39). Too often, I rely more on explication, instead of targeting the student’s will in order to awaken her own intellectual capacity so she can explicate the subject matter for herself and for her peers. To put in Gilles Deleuze’s terms, when the teacher explicates, the students need only trace that which has been explained for them (a.k.a. rote regurgitation); when the student explicates for herself, she is mapping her learning experience in her terms.

To get back to Stiegler, students need to take responsibility for their own capacity to exercise intelligence, but we must guide the process by practicing a language of emancipation that worries less about quantifiable outcomes and more about the authenticity of the learning environment we invite them to inhabit and explore. As Ranciere claims, “[Students develop] their intellectual capacities as the circumstances demand… They develop the intelligence that the needs and circumstances of their existence demand of them” (51).  It's our job to make such demands but we must do so while treating them as equals. And who knows, maybe some will start painting again.

Whoever teaches without emancipation stultifies. Whoever emancipates doesn’t have to worry about what the emancipated person learns  –J. Ranciere

Ranciere, Jacques. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.

Stiegler, Bernard. Taking Care of Youth and the Generations. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Metaphors We Teach By, Part One: Cultivating Student Empowerment - The Rhetoric of Debt vs. the Rhetoric of Emancipation

I’ve been wanting to do a series of posts on some of the books I’ve read recently that have had great influence on how I think as an educator – most of them being related to pedagogy in some way or another. The least obvious of the bunch (in this regard) is the highly original study, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by activist and anthropologist, David Graeber.

I wanted to reflect on a specific chapter from Graeber’s study: “The Moral Grounds of Economic Relations” – focusing more specifically on a certain passage which begins with a question:

What, then, is debt?
               Debt is a very specific thing, and it arises from very specific situations. It first requires a relationship between two people who do not consider each other fundamentally different sorts of beings, who are at least potential equals, who are equals in those ways that are really important, and who are not currently in a state of equality – but for whom there is some way to set matters straight. (120)

Debt only makes sense if two people are equals - you and the person to whom you are indebted are of equal status for such exchange to make sense, but what happens to this relationship of equality when the debt becomes unpayable? Graeber writes, “During the time that the debt remains unpaid, the logic of hierarchy takes hold. There is no reciprocity” (121). Debt has a powerful impact upon how we view relationships of power between people and it even impacts (whether we are aware of it or not) our moral assessment of each other’s position in the dynamic of power relations: “This is what makes situations of effectively unpayable debt so difficult and so painful. Since creditor and debtor are ultimately equals, if the debtor cannot do what it takes to restore herself to equality, there is obviously something wrong with her; it must be her fault” (121).  Debt complicates the relationships between equals, warping reciprocity in terms of power and moral recognition. Graeber even traces the etymology of the word “debt” to terms like “fault,” “sin,” and “guilt,” but he also points out a consideration that rarely gets brought up: the moral responsibility of the keeper of debts.  If a debt – practically speaking – becomes unpayable then by definition what bonds the relationship between the two “unequal equals” is not debt at all. Instead, the debtor is in a relationship of hierarchy where she pays “tribute” (not an installment) to “a lord” (as opposed to a lender). Equality disappears and moral scrutiny is directed towards the debtor alone.

Debt can destroy communities of equals, especially when the function of debt is extended to all human interactions (and especially when it becomes unpayable). “All human interactions are not forms of exchange,” Graeber writes. “Only some are. Exchange encourages a particular way of conceiving human relations” (122).  What happens when we employ the logic of exchange and the language of debt to spheres of human interaction that cannot be reduced to the metaphor of market exchange? Education, for instance, is a form of human interaction, and that got me thinking: we as teachers often use metaphors and practice language games which derive their rhetorical force from the moral implications of our society’s view of debt. “Freddy, you owe me a paper on last week’s reading assignment.” When we use these metaphors and language games of debt & obligation, especially when Freddy gets overwhelmingly behind, what does it do to a student’s self-perception and sense of worth?

I want my classroom to be a social space of equals interacting with each other freely, creatively, and joyfully. All students and teachers are equals, but defining student/teacher exchanges in terms of indebtedness disrupts this harmony. I think of Jacques Ranciere’s courageous claim: All men have equal intelligence. Ranciere, who I will write more on later, claims that by getting students to recognize their equal capacity to learn anything, the teacher emancipates the student to motivate her own learning process.  I want my classroom to be a place where equals learn and discover together, but too often I rely on the rhetoric of indebtedness to get compliance when I should use a rhetoric of emancipation to ignite motivation. I think such reflections are important to revisit as we near the end of the school year and strive to keep students motivated so they finish the year strong.

I end with a question: what kind of language should we employ to encourage the student who falls behind? How can we use words other than owing work for credit, for instance? How can we keep student empowerment at the center of our concerns even when conversations must be difficult?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

More on Reading & Thinking for Each Other: Why Students Need to Create, Curate, & Own their Knowledge & Learning

I've written before on the power of Google Docs for facilitating communal & collaborative learning both in and outside the classroom. Most recently, I shared how Google Docs helped me redefine the exam experience as well as the dynamics of classroom discussion for my students.

Last month, I wrote about both the successes and flat spots of gamifying an accelerated high school literature course, and student surveys were loud and clear: all participants appreciated (more than anything else) having more independence and ownership in their journey towards discovery. It was a very student-directed project, and they were free to choose from a variety of different assignments (which appealed to a wide array of learning styles). Failure in this context just meant try again, and students were in complete control of their unique learning path. For these reasons, most learners loved it, but, as stated before, there were flat spots. In the surveys, many learners expressed a lack of confidence regarding their mastery of style analysis: this was a "hard skill" that was not adequately addressed or practiced.

Students working collaboratively on their google doc
Fast forward to the current text we're studying. I knew I wasn't going to gamify the next unit (but I would use that method again in the future, without a doubt), but I wanted to keep the student-directedness as a priority in terms of how I designed the learning experience. I wanted the learners to have ownership. I realized, however, that certain learning objectives had not been targeted adequately in the last unit (thinking of style analysis here...), so I felt the need to be more involved in the navigation of their learning paths as well. The students were assigned to read Charles Dickens's Hard Times, a starkly realist novel (yet full of cartoonish satire and humor) about the hardships of living through the industrial revolution as a working or middle class Coketowner (fictional British industrial district) before the era of meaningful reform. Like many Dickensian narratives, the book was divided into three parts, which triggered for me an idea on how to marry student-directedness with proper teacher-guidance.

Discussions were need-to-know and focused
I set up four Google Docs: one on Historical Contexts & Setting/Place, one on Character Development, one on Theme Analysis, and one on Style Analysis. I divided the class into four learning groups (call 'em Group One, Group Two, and so on...). Group One was assigned Historical Contexts & Setting, Group Two got Character Development, and you can guess the rest. Each group had access to a unique Google Doc for their category of investigation, and although I gave them some pointers (like recommending certain passages for Style Analysis or suggesting certain topics for historical research for Context/Setting), it was ultimately up to the students to collect and curate the knowledge for each category of learning. Each week, every group had to present highlights on their "findings and reflections" to the rest of class, and at the end of each part or section of the novel (remember, the novel was broken into 3 parts) the groups switched to one of the other categories (Historical Context/Setting; Character Development; Theme Analysis; Style Analysis). There were three sections to the overall novel and four learning categories, so I still had a problem because students were not going to have the opportunity to explore in depth each of the equally important learning categories. My solution was to have each learning group prepare a 15-20 min. presentation (at the end of the project) which showcased and paraphrased the findings found on the google doc related to the one category that the given group in question never had the chance to explore. In other words, if Group One did Historical Contexts for section one, proceeded to report on Style Analysis for the 2nd section, and finished by studying Character Development for the novel's final section, that group's culminating project was to present on Theme Analysis (the category they never researched) based on the information provided and curated by the groups that had a chance to contribute to the Theme google doc.

Screen shot of student-created google doc on Context/Setting. A work in progress...
The gains of this project:
-Class discussions were need-to-know and therefore authentic. Students always had a very focused frame of mind when having conversations, and not only did they direct their concerns of inquiry toward me, more importantly they framed questions for each other! What can the Historical Context/Setting group provide to help our task to analyze this character? How can the Theme Analysis group help us articulate the purpose of this passage as we perform a close reading of literary style?
-Students created and curated the knowledge, and my job, therefore, was more about design and (occasionally) interventionary guidance. I did outline the topography of the learning landscape by directing inquiry towards four main topics, but students had a lot of room to explore and create for themselves and for each other (and at times it was messy!). Students really owned the learning process.
-Students had to work together, which reinforced work on certain soft skills such as the ability to communicate, collaborate, and negotiate with each other. Not all moments were harmonious, but I think such uncomfortable experiences are just as important for purposes of developing the whole student.
-Students brought something to the table, and everyone felt like they were an important part of the puzzle. The picture of understanding was only complete once all groups shared their part of the knowledge-creation process; therefore, everyone mattered.
-Students were doing all of this (at least by the end of the project) not for the teacher but for each other.  Purpose, audience, relevance: these were not abstract concepts, they were real elements of the learning environment that we created together as a collaborative community.

Students are (as we speak) working on papers based on their readings of Dickens's novel, and one of the cool developments is how the google docs (that they created as a learning community) are now serving as resources for each student's writing process. They have literally read, thought, and researched for each other and not for me, and it is deeply rewarding to watch.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Teacher's Reflection on Student Responses to Gamifying English Class for the First Time

On Feb. 19th, I blogged about gamifying my curriculum for the first time, and I was right in the middle of the unit. Along with Seth Burgess and his classes at Lausanne Collegiate School, we read William Shakespeare's Macbeth and used as the interface for receiving various options for assignments to earn "XP points" which opened access to more and more challenging levels. You can read more about the breakdown of the project here and here.

We finished the unit on March 6th right before students left for their spring break holiday, and last week, my students took a very detailed survey which measured their levels of enjoyment, satisfaction, and benefit as a result of this experience. I want to thank Seth Burgess for putting the survey together, and I look forward to sharing our experiences as co-presenters this summer at Lausanne Learning Institute in Memphis, TN.

I feel confident claiming that the experiment was a first time encounter for everyone involved at my school (The Oakridge School). I also think it's important to note that, due to snow days, there ended up being a slight shortage of time. No students, for instance, made it to the final 6th level, BUT plenty of participants earned an A+ with more than enough XP points (mainly due to optional "grind assignments"). Final grade distribution ranged from D to A+ (the Ds & Cs were a minority with most students scoring somewhere from a B+ to an A).

For the survey, students first had to rate their overall evaluation of the gamified curriculum on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = worst; 5 = neutral; 10 = best), and seventy students were surveyed. Surveys remained anonymous so students felt comfortable giving frank feedback (you can take a look at the entire survey here):

No one gave it a 10, but no one characterized it as the "worst" experience either - and I was pleased to see a high concentration of response around the 7 to 9 range of scores. Most students, I think, would want to do this again, and a large group of them (the 8s & 9s) preferred the game-based approach when compared to how curriculum was designed and delivered in previous units of study. I think the 13 students who rated anywhere from 5 to 3 were most likely the students whose "softer skills" of self-pacing and self-management still need some work. (I can't prove that, however, because surveys were anonymous - but more on the soft skills later...)

If you look at the survey linked above, you'll notice there were MANY categories that students could rate on a 1 to 5 scale, 1 meaning this was one of the "worst" experiences related to the project and 5 meaning that it was one of the "best." For this post, I did a quick data analysis of trends where I saw an overwhelming amount of 5s as well as where I saw an overwhelming amount of 1s. The graphs below represents the categories where there was the most consensus of positive and negative experiences:

Choice, Independence, & Motivation: What strikes me immediately about gamified curricula is that students respond most positively to the following: (1) they appreciated choice (2) they felt more motivated and (3) they liked having independence.  More than 50 times, students expressed their enthusiastic appreciation for having choice to do the assignments that interested them the most, and I think having this kind freedom and independence motivated them to level up and to achieve a sense of accomplishment. Watching students work independently on assignments they chose allowed me as teacher to get to know them better, simply put. It's humbling to admit it, but there were some students in my class that I did not know as well as I should at this point in the year. The gamified approach made this apparent and helped us build better relationships because the learning experience was so individualized, forcing the teacher to meet every student where she's at by addressing her specific learning track and keeping her accountable accordingly.

XP Grading, Mastery, & Accomplishment: Students loved the XP grading approach: more than ever, they felt like the grading process was transparent and fair. "I knew exactly what I needed to do to make an A," one student commented on the survey.  They also said that grading was not some spectre of stress which haunted them as they strived toward mastery; instead, failure only meant that one had to try again.  They really benefited, I think, from the emphasis on mastery because it created an authentic, need-to-know feedback loop that was helpful to the learning process. Many students did express a desire for there to be a public point board if we were to try this approach again. I had shied away from publicly displaying point levels out of concern for embarrassment for those who progressed more slowly. Still divided on that question...

Feedback & Evaluation: Gamification only works if the feedback loop matches the pace of the students' progress, which presents a challenge to an English/Language Arts teacher. I was overwhelmed by the demand for grading student essays and compositions (something that makes me wonder how one would sustain such an approach for an entire year), BUT the survey responses validated my efforts because students told me that they received more useful and more relevant feedback than that which was provided during previous curricular units. That was really satisfying for me (as well as for the students).

Students did give some "negative" feedback in certain, distinct areas, but the trends here were much more minimal:

The Overwhelming Factor: Students were overwhelmed by the experience. I want to acknowledge the tension/connection between being overwhelmed and having choice, freedom, and independence: it felt overwhelming because students had choice and because pacing was up to them. The curriculum measured/assessed their softer skills of self-management just as much as it addressed the traditional, academic skills of any given English class. Students complained about the time factor, and some of this was due to failing to take advantage of the ice days which disrupted the unit. As a result, there was an expressed concern that quantity was taking precedence over quality, which is why it was important for me to remain vigilant about expectations of mastery (which gets back to why I was overwhelmed...).

Frustration & Confusion: Students did express in considerable volume that they felt higher levels of frustration and confusion at times. Again, I think there's some tension between the frustration factor and the demands for students to achieve mastery within a limited time frame (and to do so according to their self-paced initiative). This was a new experience for them, and never before had soft skills been demanded so directly. Understandably, that was overwhelming. In terms of confusion, I do think some of that was me: this was my first attempt to launch a gamified unit in an English class, and I learned a lot about how to articulate expectations and procedures as clearly and effectively as possible, meaning I'd hope there would be less confusion next time due to better execution.

Analyzing Shakespearean Language & Style: When examining the "negative" graph above, I think it's revealing that most things students perceived as negative were factors related to self-management, working with others, or self-pacing (in other words, "soft skills"), but one area of feedback that related to the harder skills of English was language and style analysis. Students overwhelmingly felt confident about their knowledge of content, structure, theme, and character development, but they consistently voiced concern about the need for more teacher guidance when analyzing Shakespeare's language and style. Rhetorical & style analysis of difficult literature unavoidably requires considerable teacher intervention and direction, and my execution of a student-directed, gamified curriculum allowed for less time for such matters. Is this a problem? I don't think so, for the survey provided me with feedback, which makes clear that style analysis (and related skills) needs to be prioritized in our next unit. Now, if I gamified my whole year's curriculum, I would need to rethink this, BUT I want to point out the obvious: gamification may not address all skills but it does target softer ones that students sometimes never have the opportunity to practice getting better at. However, I do also want to stress here that students wanted more teacher guidance and intervention, meaning there needs to be a balance between student & teacher directedness.

Other Observations:

Collaborative Work vs. Solo Work: There were options at various levels to do assignments which required group work as well as ones which remained "solo" in nature. The graphs show something interesting here: there is a clear split between the independent solo worker (and what they love about gamification) and the collaborative group worker (as well as what they love about the experience). I don't think that the divide here is a problem, however; instead, it's proof that students have different learning styles, and the fact that both groups of learners had positive things to say about the unit only demonstrates more clearly the benefits of the gamified approach.

The Soft Skills Gap: As stated above, final project grade distribution ranged from D to A+ (big gap!). I am very convinced that the D students were the ones with the poorest "soft skills" and the As were students with excellent self-management skills. There were some 'A+' students who scored in the B range (demonstrating in my opinion that they were the 'A student' who knows how to function in the traditional schooling system but falls short more readily when self-management is a factor), and there were some 'B students' who scored in the A to A+ range (demonstrating they were students who are motivated when choice, freedom, and pacing were in their hands). Unlike the divide above, this is a gap I'd like to bridge. My worry is this: the gamified unit pointed out for certain students that they have a deficiency when it comes to soft skills, but did those students improve their skills by way of the experience? Not sure yet.

These are my observations now that I've had time to reflect. One might ask: would I do this again? My answer, without hesitation, is an emphatic YES! and the majority of my students would agree. Would I use the gamified approach all year? I don't think so, but with practice, perhaps my attitude would change. Please leave thoughts, questions, observations. This is a conversation that has really just begun for me, so feel free to join!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Soft Skills in Gamification

At this point, all of my colleagues are inexpressibly tired of hearing about my gamification of Macbeth. They are nice about it, nodding and smiling as I talk about “fiero”, self-motivated learning, menu missions, and XP. When I mention leveling up, I often hear from them, “Oh, I heard them talking about levels…is that your class?”

Collaboration with my colleagues is one of the real joys of teaching for me, but it isn’t often that we are able to truly connect with our practices. Perhaps that’s why it’s so special…it happens so rarely. Of course, I have to take into account that it might be the crying wolf affect. I shoehorn my wild ideas into conversations so much they probably have the auto-mute set.
But gamification feels different. There’s a certain on-the-edge sense which is really exciting, but there is also so much promise. What am I excited about? Exactly the same concepts that my Macbeth collaborator Jared Colley mentioned in his post, but lately I’ve been thinking about the soft skills that are developing through this project.

Assessing ability
Through the XP grading system, I’m starting to see how students can be assessed not just on intellectual ability, but also more difficult qualities such as determination, persistence, and creativity. This system avoids soft-grading by teachers, such as giving a kid a B- just because they try so dang hard or slapping an A on a paper by one of your best students simply because you know they can do the work. They are now judged by the work they master, be it an A or an F, and I admit, I have changed some of my previous judgments on students in my class. For example, I have a few students who started the project late and their determination to catch up and do well has been remarkable. As well, I’ve seen straight A students struggle with a system that is not institutional, which I’m hoping will help them develop new skills instead of knowing how to work the system. The kids are realizing this, and it has motivated them to work harder since the assessment is more authentic.

The amount of creative power occurring in the classroom is staggering, from creating costume ideas, set designs, and literary leaps of interpretation. Two students have shown their crafting abilities by using power tools to create prop daggers, one has suggested building a sword with his father, and another is now thinking about how he can make traditional Scottish armor. In a more traditional sense, one student has translated the entire play into modern language (don’t worry, I checked for plagiarism) and now others see that as an easier way to make the A. Seriously, think about it. Students consider translating an entire Shakespeare play a loophole!

This is one area that I was worried about before the project started. Would my students be able to manage their time (considering there are no due dates or daily requirements) and finish the necessary work to make an A? As I track their progress, I’m seeing positive results from half the class, with another 40% needing to step it up just a bit. There is a 10% that have fallen very behind, but I’m turning that crisis into an opportunity, as you will see.

Overall, however, I see my students plotting the next couple of weeks, creating their own personal deadlines to achieve results. We have tried so many methods at our school to instill this idea of responsibility, but often to little avail. With the concept of ability assessment above, the students are realizing that this system is a true reflection of their ability to work hard, and in the end, there are no excuses. That is a powerful self-realization for anyone at any age.

Safety nets
But there will always be those students. Unengaged, preoccupied, jaded too early, coddled to much, whatever the reason. It’s the old 80/20 problem (20% of our students causing 80% of our problems). But instead of worrying about how to constantly urge them forward through the gamification, I turned the project into a privilege. I began Macbeth telling them they have a choice, gamification or traditional, and that the traditional would take place with me one-on-one at a different table every day, using the curriculum of quizzes, essays, and tests they are accustomed to. No one chose traditional, but I warned them that those lagging behind would be mandated to that traditional style.

That point has come and now I have 10 students (2 in each class) that meet with me for individual discussion and assignment while the rest of the class works on their Macbeth levels. These are students who have always needed the extra time to sit down and talk out the content, but never had the opportunity because of class demands. But gamification has provided me that time. It has even allowed for special instruction in essay writing for a recent transfer and an EAL student (who is not in traditional and is actually destroying the levels right now). Even more interesting, most of these students are excited because now they have the undivided attention of the teacher in a more personal environment. They may not be gaming, but they are still excited about learning.

Jared and I will be writing more about these great experiences, and at some point, we are going to have to talk about the huge amount of work that goes on behind the scenes. This is the secret that every game designer knows, the more intuitive and playable a game, the more work it took behind the scenes to make it happen.

But for now, we are going to enjoy the process of discovery and refinement and joy. Now that’s a word that is often bandied about and rarely truly seen in a classroom. Sure, you may occasionally see the joy on the face of struggling student who did well on a test, but we are seeing it every day, in every class, by groups of kids who are learning, having fun, and are engaged. My colleagues may be bored with my pedagogy, but they can’t ignore students jumping out of their seats during study hall, fists pumping in the air because they’ve achieved Level 4.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

How to Innovate an English Class? Flip, Gamify, and Post Online: Some Notes from a First Time Gamer

There are 3 major ways I have re-designed the learning experience for my students to make the English class a little less traditional. Shortly put, I've flipped the class, gamified curricular assignments, and connected students to real audiences via digital platforms such as blogger, and as result, class time is more meaningful, needs-based, and student-centered (due to flipping). Students have been more motivated (due to gamification) because there’s more options and more differentiation for each unique learner, and lastly, students’ demonstrations of learning are more authentic, relevant, and purposeful because we collaborate online, displaying our work to real audiences at other campuses.

I've shared some insights, strategies, and past experiences about my successes with getting students to collaborate online, to think, write, and read for each other (Go here and here for JoelGarza’s thoughts on that topic as well). Right now my classes (along with a school in Memphis, TN) are using this blog site to share work, exchange ideas, and hopefully collaborate on some joint projects as we currently read William Shakespeare’s Macbeth together.

In terms of flipping my class, I’d like to share more details on that later, but one strategy I’ve employed is podcasting (using GarageBand), which enables one to cover topics in a 20-30 min segment that would have taken days to get through in a traditional lecture/discussion format. Here’s a sample of something I put together with some former students to prepare my current sophomores for their study of Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play.” (Try here if YouTube vid didn't work)

All this has been great, but what I want to share right now are my insights and reflections about what it’s been like to gamify an English class for the first time. If you’re unsure of what “gamification” might mean watch this: 

In my class, our unit is on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and I’m in the thick of it as we speak, journeying through chaotic but amazing new territory with my students, and I’ll confess, we’re not sure how it will all turn out. So far, there have been some profound successes, and my eyes have been opened in more than one way. I must tip my hat, at this time, to Seth Burgess of Lausanne Collegiate School for blazing the trail on this bold expedition and for doing most of the preliminary designing to make this venture work as it has.

Here’s a quick breakdown: we’re using where there are 6 courses which function as “levels.” All students begin with an access code to enter “level 1,” and all students start with 0 “XP” points (as opposed to starting at 100% and being graded punitively). Students may gain XP points by completing both required assignments (examples: small written essays, digital essays, performances of play, online quizzes, etc.) and what we call “optional grind assignments” (examples: translating lines to modern English, making props, designing costumes & sets, posting on the blog). Students are not graded on an A to F scale for these assignments; they are either awarded the full XP points (which could be 5, 10, 20, or more depending on the volume of work) or nothing. ONLY when they have mastered the task (meaning some students will make multiple attempts) will students be given credit, and they are not penalized for making multiple attempts. Once enough points are gained, a student will receive a new access code to move on to the next level. As they move up the levels assignments get more challenging, but the students have more and more options as well. Some students will never make it to level 6 and “beat the game,” but many will. The beautiful thing is that a student could stay at level four but do enough “grind assignments” to ensure a superior score by the end of the project.

Some insights so far:

-Grading and failure have a completely different value when assignments have been gamified. In the video above, Avi Spector talks about “failing forward”; I call it failing towards mastery, which is something that traditional grading can sometimes discourage. (I bet Edison “failed forward” on a daily basis and look where it got him…) Grading is now a team effort between teacher and student not an adversarial stand-off. As a result, there’s more trust in the classroom.

-Differentiating assignments and providing options for students have directly fueled their motivation and drive. One student the other day smirked at me and said that he was going to focus on assignment X for points instead doing Y or Z because assignment X was so much easier. He thought he found a loophole; I say he found his learning style and the assignment that fit it best.

-Speaking of learning styles, watching students choose their path of success (and each is different) has taught me so much more about each individual’s method for learning. Seeing what they choose gives me feedback on how to engage, motivate, and stimulate each student for future units of study as well. Interestingly, there have been some surprises in this arena: (1) I have some students (who were “weak” English students) who are excelling in ways they never did before, and that has revealed to me that the content-area was never the problem: it had everything to do with how the learning experience was being designed. In other words, it was my problem. (2) I have some students who are typically “strong” English students who are lagging, and this concerns me. Why the dip in performance? Could it have something to do with self-management? Still working that one out…

-Because students have options and are working at their pace and according to their interests, class discussions have become so authentic! Students bring a kind of what-I-need-to-know mindset to the classroom, asking real questions to serve a real interest on their part. I have always felt like even the most successful class discussion days were tainted with in-authenticity (whether it be the teacher forcing the direction of a discussion or a student desperately grasping for something to say to please the instructor…). These discussions have been authentically urgent, student-directed, and so insightful! I haven’t been in control of my classroom agenda for 2 weeks, and it’s an awesome feeling!

Some concerns so far:

-What do you do when a student doesn’t seem to be good at self-management? What if they tank and fall behind? I’ve noticed that there is a widening gap between students who excel at self-management and those that do not when one gamifies their curricular approach. What do you do about that gap?

-How does an English teacher grade efficiently and stay on top of what is a gargantuan task of providing a constant feedback loop? In other words, I’ve noticed another widening gap between the overwhelmed teacher and the uber-motivated student. How do you keep up when considering the grading tasks of an English Lit. teacher?

These are my thoughts so far. This is all so new, so please leave a comment, suggestion, etc. I don’t have all the answers on this, but I am discovering some amazing gains from this approach as I go. I’ll update more later.

-Jared Colley

Here's another helpful resource from Philip Vinogradov that I got at EduCon this year.