Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Top Five Articles Making the Games Based Learning Circuit

This week, I'm too busy reading to write -- every time I turn around, I'm swamped by another awesome article, idea, or thought provoking piece. So for this week I'm sharing other people's words: here's a round up of the top five articles making the social media rounds.

1. No Tech Board Games That Teach Coding Skills to Young Children

I love that we've reached the point where even people without access to technology can start teaching coding skills. This article over at Mindshift highlights some amazing games teachers can use to introduce coding concepts without a single piece of tech on hand.

2. Let's Ban Bans in the Classroom

Here, John Jones makes a compelling argument against banning technology in the classroom, pointing out the flaws in studies on multitasking and asking the important question: "Why must we ask the 21st century to wait outside our classrooms?" Definitely worth a read if you've ever questioned the wisdom of tech in your class.

3. Fact or Fiction?: Video Games are the Future of Education

This interesting article from back in September sees Elena Malykhina do a great job of summarizing both the pros and cons of games based education. It explores some of the ways innovative teachers use games, and discusses the need for balance in all things.

4. What Video Games Can Teach Us

This article over at Science News for Students is excellent reading for kids and teachers alike. Emily Sohn carefully explores the benefits of video games after a previous installation considering criticisms of violent video games. This article is clear and intelligent, a great counterpoint to many video game critics.

5. The Assassin's Creed Curriculum: Can Video Games Teach Us History?

This one's not so new either, but Molly Osberg does an amazing job of considering the role actual history plays in historical games, and how much we can learn from playing them. (As a side note -- I love all the women writing about video games in education. So awesome!).

These are the five articles that caught my attention this week.

Question of the Week:
What's the best video game article you read this week?
Click here to tweet this question

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10 Things Video Games Can Teach Teachers

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The Five Worst Pieces of Advice We Give New Teachers

As we've had a lot of student teachers come through lately, I've been thinking back to my own start as a beginning teacher, and all the great advice for new teachers people sent my way -- as well as a few duds. It took me years to unlearn some of the things my mentors taught me, and unfortunately, I still hear people giving the same advice to new teachers -- even if it's couched in prettier terms than the blunt ones I've used below. And it's time to stop -- this isn't advice that benefits anyone!

1. You have to cover every learning objective -- thoroughly and in detail!

Obviously, the curriculum and the learner outcomes are essential. They need to direct our teaching. But there are also, literally, thousands of them, and if you try to teach each one with equal depth and breadth, you will lose your mind, your students will hate you, and no one will learn anything.

Look at the big picture. When my students do their unit on ancient Greece, the main things I need them to know are that democracy began in ancient Athens, that it functioned similarly to but different from how we use democracy today, and that there were a lot of factors that made the situation unfair to modern sensibilities. Obviously, we're going to go into more depth than that -- but those are the key outcomes around which I structure the unit.

2. Use the textbook

Everyone tells beginning teachers to start with the textbook. It's there, it has the information you need to cover -- why wouldn't you use it? Well, because it's usually awful, for one thing. And because as a beginning teacher, you're probably brimming over with the kind of energy and enthusiasm only a first year teacher can have, and rigidly sticking to a textbook will destroy your creativity.

Don't be afraid of the textbook. If it's useful to you, use it. But don't be afraid to throw it out the window and encourage kids to get their information from anywhere that makes sense -- and to teach awesome lessons that the textbook could never imagine.

3. Don't reinvent the wheel

Now on the surface of it, this is great advice. If someone has done the exact lesson you were looking for and put it online for free, why on earth would you make your own? That far, I agree with it. But there are times when "don't reinvent the wheel" turns into a mantra, and people are almost afraid to experiment. Because what if you fail?

By all means, check online, check books, look for premade lessons that make you smile. But if you don't find exactly what you're looking for, it really might be worth your time to design the whole thing from the ground up, especially if you're going to use it year after year.

4. No child should ever be on medication

This one's controversial, I know. Most teachers come out of university thinking that no child should ever be on medication for any purpose. And it's definitely true that medication is prescribed quite readily by some doctors, and often overprescribed. Still, it doesn't take too many years of teaching before you realize that some children really do benefit from medication of various types. A child with a chemical depression may really need that medication.

Encourage classroom modifications and leave medication as a last resort. If a parent is concerned, encourage them to speak to their paediatrician -- after all, we aren't doctors.

And then there's the very worst advice I got, the advice that took me ten years to unlearn, that if I'm honest I'm STILL unlearning...

5. Make sure you do everything perfectly, because it's a competition, and everyone is judging you.

Is your bulletin board perfect? Because you know the teacher down the hall is checking it out, and so is every parent who walks by. And that typo you made on your class website is being analyzed on Facebook. Don't ever admit to a student that you don't know something! How can parents trust you if you're not a walking Google with every fact at your disposal? And above all, never, ever forget that teaching is a competition, and that the colleague down the hall is always looking better than you in the eyes of the parents, the school, administration.

Can we please, please leave this behind? Focus on teamwork? On collaboration? The more we turn one another into the enemy, the less we're able to focus on our jobs: working together to help every student learn!

Question of the Day:
What's the worst teaching advice you've ever received?

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Tuesday, 6 January 2015

10 Things Video Games Can Teach Teachers

It's important for teachers to change with the times, and I (obviously) think that video games give us an excellent model of how to teach. Having spent the last two weeks playing Amnesia, Shadowrun, and a bizarre Japanese dating sim called Hatoful Boyfriend involving birds (don't ask), I've been thinking a lot about why students play games instead of studying in their free time. With that in mind, here are ten things video games can teach teachers.

1. Never memorize what you can look up.

If a game gives me the code to a room, I'd be pretty annoyed if it expected me to commit it to memory with no way to check it. It's trivia -- a random detail I would never memorize because the important parts are the process of getting the information and how you use it, not the information itself... which sounds pretty familiar!

2. Repetition is the key to success.

No game expects you to be perfect at something on your first try. You do it over and over and over again until it's second nature, and THEN they add on.

3. You learn better when you're having fun.

You can learn to play a game in the fraction of the time it takes to memorize the periodic table of elements.

4. You'll memorize information when you perceive a need for it.

If a video game repeatedly forces you to look up the same information, you'll memorize it, either by accident or because you're sick of looking it up. You won't do this for fun though -- it has to be information you see as repeatedly required and useful.

5. People don't mind doing hard things if they are enjoying themselves.

Lots of games aren't easy. Some of them use that as their primary selling point. People enjoy a challenge -- they just want one that's entertaining and that they know they have a chance of beating.

6. Failure is easier without consequences.

Failure in video games comes with very minor consequences, if any. That makes people bolder and more willing to think and experiment.

7. The best learning happens when it has a purpose.

People learn video game mechanics, even really complicated ones, because they give them the chance to do something they're invested in. They wouldn't learn them just for their own sake.

8. Creativity goes hand in hand with learning.

Look at the fanfiction surrounding popular games if you doubt me. People love to learn if they can take the information and run with it.

9. Choice creates investment.

Sandbox games are popular for a reason. Even linear games usually give you a choice in how you speak and respond to the people around you. Remember the outcry over the Mass Effect 3 endings? (For those unfamiliar -- the entire series was based around the idea that your choices had a massive impact on the game's outcome, but at the end of the series, the three endings were virtually identical, creating a fan uprising). People like to think they're in control of their own destiny and affecting the outcome, even if the choices are limited to a specific set.

10. Things we learn through play stick around longer.

It takes me about five seconds to remaster the controls of an old, much beloved video game, no matter how complicated those controls seemed at the time. Going back to high school physics, on the other hand, would take a lot longer for me to remember.

Video games are awesome learning vehicles. Here are ten things we can learn about learning from video games, ready for use in the classroom!

Question of the Day:
Do you use any of these ideas in your classroom? If so, how?

I fully admit that my classroom is not a utopia where all ten of these lessons appear every day in every lesson, but I do try to keep them in mind when I'm coming up with new ideas -- especially the concepts of play, choice, and investment.

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Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Free Craft Idea: Stained Glass For Christmas

These beautiful art projects are something I picked up at a conference a few years ago and have loved ever since. They are simple and relatively inexpensive (as stained glass goes!), and the kids love them. If you need a quick homemade Christmas gift or a class art project, this is a great way to do it.


(For each student)
-an 8X10 picture frame (I buy them at the Dollar Store) with a glass cover
-glass paints
-fake leading (often sold in packs with the glass paints)

What to do:

1. Most picture frames have a fake picture in them for marketing purposes. Take it out and flip it over -- it's usually white on the back. If it isn't, you will need to trace around the glass from the frame to cut a piece of white paper the same size as the glass. 

2. Have students draw a large object (we often use Christmasy symbols like a candle or a star) in the centre of the paper. Encourage them to make it large and use outlines only -- they won't be able to draw details in "lead" easily. 

3. Once the main object is drawn, have students block in random shapes around it. Students have a tendency to make these too small, so encourage them to keep them large enough to rest a quarter inside. 

4. Once the pattern is drawn, place it under the glass and secure the frame to keep the glass and paper securely in place. Using the black leading, trace over all the lines you can see under the glass. If you're right handed, start at the top left; if left handed, the top right. Work down diagonally so as not to smudge the lines as you draw. 

5. The leading dries fairly quickly and this step takes a while, so by the time you've finished the top should be dry enough to begin carefully filling in each space with coloured glass paint. Encourage students to not have two sections of the same colour touch. 

6. That's it! Let the paint dry, remove the paper and frame, and you have a piece of Christmas stained glass to treasure for years to come.

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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Hour of Code Lesson Plans and Ideas

Have you wished you could participate in Hour of Code, but you don't know much about coding or programming? Join the club! Not many teachers secretly program video games in their spare time (although, wow, kudos to those who do). Fortunately, there are tons of online lesson plans to help you integrate this amazing opportunity with minimal technical expertise.

What is Hour of Code and Why Should I Care?

The Hour of Code is an annual challenge asking everyone to spend one hour learning coding. The idea is to demystify computer programming and demonstrate that anyone can learn to code. This is particularly important for our students who are growing up in a computer oriented world -- shouldn't they know the basics? Hour of Code takes very little time, but it can introduce kids to a whole new world. 

Where Can I Go For Free Lesson Plans?

There are tons of awesome free lesson plans for Hour of Code available online. Here are some of the best!

Khan Academy remains one of the first and best for tackling this sort of thing. They have a series of videos aimed at both younger and older learners. The tutorials are clear and easy to follow, even if you have no coding background whatsoever. And because everything is laid out as videos, you can have your students work on them at their own pace. 

The Hour of Code website also has fantastic tutorials (including an Elsa tutorial bound to appeal to young Frozen fans). It's a quick, step-by-step process that requires minimal teacher supervision and knowledge. There are many levels of tutorial to choose from, so you can pick the one that matches you and your students' needs.

Tynker is a free app/program (or at least, it's free for their hour of code programs) that does a great job of introducing coding in a fun, accessible way. Kids will enjoy working with it, although it does take a bit more teacher time investment as you will have to figure out how to use it yourself -- the above two examples pretty much explain themselves without much instruction.

Scratch is a very popular app for learning coding and working with computer programming, and they offer a number of suggested activities for hour of code on their website. There's a reason this program is so popular -- kids really enjoy it and it offers a lot of flexibility.

5. Simple Apps To Introduce the Concept

There are a number of different apps specifically designed to introduce kids to the idea of coding. Some of the easiest, and best, include Daisy the Dino, Kodable, and Cargo-Bot. All of these have free demo models, if they aren't completely free -- certainly enough to get you through an hour of code. Daisy the Dino is very simplistic, but it works great with young children. 

Question of the Day:
Are you participating in Hour of Code?
Click to Tweet This Question

I used the Khan Academy lesson with a grade six class today, and we had a great time. The kids were so proud and impressed with themselves!

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Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Educational Apps No Teacher Should be Without

I'm getting pickier about apps. There are so many I've downloaded that never seem to get used. That's not a huge deal when they're free, but if you paid for them, it's pretty annoying. For that reason, I'm constantly refining and sorting through the list of apps I use the most, and here are the ones that survived the cut!

Ten Amazing Educational Apps For Teachers

Price: Free with a ton of ads, or $2.99 for the "pro" version.

This one remains a perennial favorite, transforming your iPad into a sound meter that warns  kids when they're being too noisy. It's incredibly useful when you have a group of students who just can't seem to monitor themselves. The ads are annoying in the free version, so it may be worth the $2.99 to get rid of them.

Price: $4.99

At five bucks, this is one of the pricier apps in my "must have" selection, but it is worth every penny. Dragon Box makes algebraic concepts incredibly clear at a basic, simple level. It's fun enough that kids love to play it, and it makes the idea of algebra and balancing equations so clear, teachers will love it too.

Price: Free

I don't teach science anymore, but I wish this app had been around when I did. It's a fantastic repository of videos about basic scientific concepts -- like YouTube, but only for science lessons and without the creepy suggested videos at the end.

 Price: $0.99

Numbler is Scrabble with numbers. Kids really enjoy playing it, and it's a great finish up activity, math center, or just way to get the entire class thinking about different ways to create equations. It gets a lot of use in my classroom. 

Price: $0.99

Scribblenauts is one of those games where kids don't even realize they're learning because they're having so much fun. You can have a robust discussion about adjectives, nouns, and spelling before and during play, and it's a definite exercise in creative thinking. This one gets busted out during indoor recesses in my classroom, as well as during language arts lessons.

These are my five top current apps for education. 

Question of the Day:
What are the best educational apps in your classroom?

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Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Critical Role of Play in Learning

The single worst thing we ever did in education is remove the element of play.

Maybe in the 19th century, education without play was effective. Maybe. But keep in mind, that was a time where...

-children were essentially being prepped to work in factories. And by children, I mean boys. Girls were obviously going to be housewives and mothers, so if they didn't learn it wasn't such a big deal

-school wasn't mandatory. If you felt your kids would be better served by staying home and working the farm, more power to you. 

-the stakes were lower. You didn't have to choose a career as your focus with the knowledge that if you changed your mind, you were in for about six more years of expensive training. But in the end, your occupational choices were fairly limited, anyway. Many jobs were hereditary. Many people didn't work at all. Families and groups were small and contained, with little need for collaboration or creativity as people adhered to traditions. 

So much has changed that it's impossible for us to keep going back to a factory model of education, saying "this worked for my grandparents, and it WILL work for you!"

So where does play come in?

When we look at how education has changed, there are so many demands not just on kids, but on adults. We're expected to have more wide spread knowledge of intricate concepts. Remember, not that long ago, you only knew how to drive if you were a member of a very specific group (chauffeurs, farmers, or the very rich and bored). And if you DID drive, you knew everything there was to know about cars, because you had to. How many of us can say that now? Or have the first idea how the technology we use every day functions?

My point is, there's a lot to know. And while the basics still matter, we're no longer just imparting knowledge -- if we ever were. We're teaching students with full awareness that many of the things they're learning will be rendered obsolete by the time they graduate. So why still do it? Because the focus has shifted from learning facts to learning how to think. A well educated student will be able to adjust to new ideas, concepts, and technology by using the skills they've learned in other situations. 

All of which brings me back to play. 

How do kids learn? By exploring. By doing. In other words, by playing. If we encourage kids to view learning as fun, by making play an integral part of the educational experience, we create adults who embrace challenges, who will not be afraid of new problems, technology, and ideas. 

So next time you see your kid playing a video game, or your students come in talking about Call of Duty, take a deep breath before you panic, and try looking at it from a different angle. What are they learning? What is their play teaching them? And -- as a sneaky teacher -- how can you capitalize on those concepts?

Question of the Day:
What's a time you've learned through play?
Click to Tweet This Question

It's an old example, but I always think of trying fights in video games over and over. I try something and I die. I consider what happened, I choose a new strategy, and I adapt. Depending on the game, I may eventually realize that I'm playing at too high a level, and make the decision to go and level up -- to learn and grow more -- before I take on this challenge again. To me, this is the high level learning and decision making we want our students to show!

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Wednesday, 19 November 2014

3 Common Misconceptions about Education

Teaching is one of those funny professions that involves encountering a lot of misconceptions about education. Sometimes they come from the public -- parents, politicians, and even students. And sometimes, they come from teachers and other educational professionals. Either way, there are a lot of ideas about education that are both pervasive and unhelpful, so here are three that I think should be cleared up.

1. School is about preparing students for "the real world:" college and careers.

This is part of what school does, certainly, but it isn't -- and should not be -- the main focus of education. This is something I hear a lot: how will this prepare your students for the "real world?" In the "real world," they won't be able to redo assignments that they missed. They won't get extensions when they're sick.

But here's the thing: in the "real world," people often are accommodating of us when we make mistakes, or we're sick, or we have a tragedy in our families. My coworkers and employers have never been anything but understanding when I've been ill, or a pet has died, or anything of the sort. The least we can do is extend that same understanding to our students -- who, after all, are still children, and are just practicing for the so-called "real world." No, we don't do them favors by coddling them to the point where they expect the world to bend over backwards to accommodate them, but there's no need to treat them with a lack of understanding and compassion just to prepare them for some sort of imaginary future.

2. We need to return to the basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic (or basic math skills -- whatever you want to call it).

Unfortunately, this attitude has become so pervasive that even educational professionals are starting to fall for it. It's a matter of causation and correlation. Yes, it's true that many students seem to have more trouble now with basic math facts than they did twenty years ago. It's completely natural to assume that this means "new math" curriculums are to blame, but the simple fact is -- and I can say this from experience -- teachers are still instructing students in basic facts and encouraging memorization. It's just not happening.

I'm not enough of an expert to tell you why this is -- whether it's because students' brains work differently now, or that they're more reliant on calculators, or they don't see the importance of memorizing facts. What I can tell you, however, is that basic facts have NEVER been the end goal of math. Memorizing facts is a means to an end: a way for students to make more complex mathematical processes easier in the future. Basics like reading, writing, and math facts ARE important, but only as building blocks, stepping stones to creative and critical thinking that allows students to solve problems and look at the big picture in a thoughtful way.

Do spelling, basic facts, and grammar matter? Yes. But in the end, if I had to choose between a student who had all their basic facts memorized and perfect spelling, but couldn't solve problems or write critically, and the other way around, well... it's not a hard choice to make.

3. Teachers are paid to teach, and education should happen at school -- period.

This myth relies on the idea that education only happens when a child is seated at a desk and doing work. In reality, though, education is a much broader concept. A child on vacation with his family is learning about cooperation, about other cultures (even if it's just the culture of another town or city), about how money and time work. A child at the hockey rink is learning about teamwork, problem solving, and quick thinking. A child playing her violin is learning about math, creativity, artistry, and balance.

Education is not something that happens "at school." Everything that happens to a child is education. They are always learning, always thinking, always wondering. School should contribute to that education in a substantial way -- hopefully more than just covering the aforementioned "basics," although that's certainly a part of it. But when we say that it's a teacher's job to teach and dismiss all the education that happens outside of 8:30 in the morning and 3:30 in the afternoon, we miss a critical part of educating our children.

Question of the Day:
What education myth do you think needs to be cleared up?

My three are above (although if I'm honest, I'd sure like to see the myth of the "six hour work day with three months of vacation for teachers" go out the window too!).

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Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Why Teaching Kids to Cook Might be the Most Important Thing Schools Do

Once again, last week my students attended We Day Alberta. It was our third trip to this incredible event. And once again, it was an amazing and enlightening experience full of a truly insane number of young people dedicated to changing the world. If you haven't checked out the Me to We movement, I urge you to do it.

This year, one of the projects Me to We is spearheading involves a partnership with Jamie Oliver, whose show Food Revolution is something I often use with my students in discussing health and nutrition. Something Jamie Oliver has said for years is that it's essential that our students learn how to cook. This year, Me to We is working with him to create Home Cooked Heroes, a program that not only aims to teach kids how to cook but which provides tons of free resources for doing exactly that.

Let's be honest: I teach elementary school, and I have a pile of food allergies in my room. I won't be teaching a lot of actual cooking classes, but I can still start laying the foundations of teaching nutrition, teaching basic food assembly, encouraging kids to make their own lunches. I was a Girl Guide leader for many years, and it was always shocking to me how many ten year old kids would come to camp and have never washed a dish, swept a floor, or assembled a sandwich.

Teaching kids to cook may well be the most important thing we can do at the high school level, and I firmly believe it needs to stop being an optional class. A friend of mine teaches cooking in a more impoverished area, and her high school class consists of mainly male students -- most of whom aren't getting anything cooked for them at home. Many of these kids survive off fast food and convenience stores. The idea of cooking something is a revelation for them.

That's a pretty awful thing to consider. If these kids don't learn to cook somewhere, if they don't understand proper nutrition, what are they going to feed their own children in not so many years? And how will those kids learn to cook, learn to eat in a way that will keep them healthy and give them the nutrition they need?

This is a bit of a digression from my normal type of post, but I truly believe it matters. Teaching food education needs to become a priority for our kids in North America. Check out Home Cooked Heroes, and find ways to integrate food nutrition into your classroom!

Question of the day:
Where did you learn to cook?

My mom taught me to cook, but I also took home economics in grades seven and nine. When I decided to stop eating meat at the age of 14, I had to learn to cook -- it was that, eat meat, or starve! 

And if you're looking for something more along the lines of my usual posts, why not check out the interview I did over at Mind Shift?

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Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Why Short Lessons Work

One of the reasons I wasn't a huge fan of Dave Burgess' Teach Like A Pirate is because it advocates a really teacher-centric form of education. Now, don't get me wrong -- Burgess' method of teaching sounds very entertaining, and I'm sure his students are consistently engaged. But for myself, and many teachers, the push in 21st century education is a move away from a lecture based, teacher dominated format.

Sometimes this is unavoidable, of course: the simple fact is that students do need to get the information, and sometimes that needs to be done in a way that either isn't hugely entertaining or that simple involves a lot of sitting. Some of these methods might include lectures, reading informational texts, or answering questions -- none of which are designed to be particularly fascinating.

With that in mind, I think the best thing we as teachers can do is shorten the lecture parts of our lessons. I try to distill my lessons down to the bare bones. What I've found is that when I lecture, almost half my time is spent answering questions -- not in class discussion, which is more active and involves more students, but in responding to the four or five kids who aren't understanding. I think it's a much more efficient use of time to get through the lecture, then pull those four or five aside and work with them as a small group. You can target them more effectively, and everyone else can move onto something else instead of slowly slipping into a comatose state.

That said, I think there are a lot of great tools that will help you minimize your lecture/lesson time. Here are a few:

1. Flipping Your Class

Flipped classrooms create short videos students can watch at home at their own pace, then focus on activities and work in the classroom. Experts recommend that flipped lesson videos be no longer than 90 seconds X the grade level of students, so for my class I try to limit my videos to 9 minutes or less. This lets each student proceed at his or her own pace during the lesson and makes class time more active.

2. 3D Game Lab

3D Game Lab allows students to progress at their own pace through lessons embedded in the program. Students don't have due dates: they move through the programs as they see fit. You're never pressured to move someone along because they're too far behind. It's pretty awesome.

3. Project Based Learning

Project based learning, by its very nature, limits lecture time. You still have room to impart information, but the vast majority of students' time is spent looking for their own answers, instead of absorbing yours.

These are three of the best ways I've found to keep lessons short and shift the focus from teacher to student, from memorization to learning, from answering to asking.

Question of the Day:
How much of your class time is spent lecturing?

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