Sunday, December 15, 2013

From Idea to Execution: My First Ga(meh) Expo

Sometimes things just look better in your head. To culminate our first ever game design course, I thought it would be fun to have a game expo for the students. This would give them a genuine audience for their game designs and hopefully motivate them to produce high quality work. The plan was to bring all of the Middle School students together with laptops to play my students' games and vote on their favorites. Students earning top votes would win gift cards to Game Stop and Target.

I think most of the students in game design were excited about this competition. All of them used feedback from their mentors to try to improve their designs before the game expo. I created a website and embedded their games as well as a voting tool for their players. The students seemed pleased with the site and how their games appeared within it. During the game expo, several of the students walked around, talked to players and helped with problems they may have with the games. Although Gamestar Mechanic servers had been very slow the previous day, everything was working fine for the expo. The main glitch we had was with the voting- I did not realize Poll Everywhere was going to limit us to 40 responses and after that, students could not continue to vote. I had to tell students I would fix the poll and send them an email to go in and re-vote. I ended up switching to Poll Daddy which worked fine.

So what was different in reality from what I pictured in my head? I'm an 80's chic so I was picturing a video arcade-type atmosphere with excitement and laughing and questions and whoops when a hard level was beaten.  In reality, the kids sat in bleachers with their laptops, quiet and playing; there was minimal interaction. It did not look anything like a game expo! It did not feel like a game expo.
 Where was the excitement? The sounds? The interactions? Ultimately, I think I accomplished my goal.  My students had a real
purpose for the games that they were designing; to have them played by the people whose opinions matter most- their peers. Maybe the picture that I had in my head was just a non-gamers vision of what a game expo would look like. Maybe this is just what it looks like when kids play video games. If I have an opportunity to do this again their are things I would want to do differently if for no other reason than to create a more exciting aesthetic. Maybe the better thing would be to have the students design and plan the expo themselves!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Flipping Professional Development

Last spring, our technology committee completed a 5 year plan. I introduced it briefly to the faculty but what I needed was about a half a day to help them understand the goals and objectives and to discuss with peers what implementation would look like in the classroom. The intention was to do that at the beginning of this year but with a packed inservice week, it was decided teachers needed the time to get their classrooms ready and to try to meet with them on the tech plan over a couple of faculty meetings in October. Life happened and both of those were canceled. We were 4 months in to an implementation year and I had yet to meet with teachers. I was given a new faculty meeting date and I knew this would be my only time with the entire faculty for awhile so our time together needed to be productive. I decided to try a flipped model. Rather than standing up and reviewing the mission and vision of technology integration for our school and going through each of the 6 goals for students, I created a 10 minute video on Camtasia. Teachers were to watch this prior to our meeting so that our time together could be discussion, processing and planning. During our 40 minutes together, teachers worked in teams with their planning materials and the technology plan to discuss and share ways they have been integrating technology and how it was addressing specific goals as well as brainstorming ideas for upcoming units. During this time, myself and the Technology Champion, Matt Lipstein (@matthewlipstein) floated so we would be available for questions or to offer ideas.

I think this model for professional development has great potential. It was a first attempt and has lots of room for improvement but I think the teachers liked the collaboration time as an alternative to listening to me talk (I definitely preferred not doing that).

We did not have time to address the faculty goals on our plan or how we assess our progress on technology integration but that may be material for my next flipped PD.

I have included the video below. It is not a polished piece by any means but I had limited time to put it together. I think my next flipped PD will be improved!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Let's Google-fy School

As I read a Fast Company post entitled "Google Reveals Its 9 Principles of Innovation" by Kathy Chin Leong, the big revelation for me was the application of these concepts in the educational setting. If Google has built one of the most innovative companies in the world based on these principals why can't we innovate in education in the same way? Schools are starting to test some of Google's principals in an effort to transform the educational experience of their students. Here is my interpretation of how Google's principals for innovation can be applied in an educational setting:


It can come from the top down as well as bottom up, and in the places you least expect.

An administration that empowers the community in which they serve and cultivates an environment of shared decision making and leadership can facilitate a climate of innovation. It is imperative that a school's administration create a atmosphere that is not only safe to take risks and try new things but that it is encouraged. Participation of all stakeholders can yield ideas from a large range of perspectives and fuel positive educational transformations.


Worry about the money later, when you focus on the user, all else will follow.

The "money" of education is academic achievement and is usually measured in grades. Rather than focusing on what will make our students successful in the real world, many educational institutions get hyper-focused on the standardized test scores. My contention is this; put the focus in education on developing in students the skills that matter in the real world (Top 10 Things Employers Look for in New College Graduates)  and provide an environment that enables them to learn content and skills in authentic ways (Edutopia Project-Based Learning). If we do that effectively the "money" will come. Of course, authentic measurement would be helpful as well :-/


If you come into work thinking that you will improve things by ten percent, you will only see incremental change. If you want radical and revolutionary innovation, think 10 times improvement, and that will force you to think outside the box.

A veteran teacher I once worked with had been in the same grade level for about 8 years. Each year she used the same materials and taught the same units the same way. She really did not have 8 years of experience; she had 1. She had simply taught it for 8 years.  When this mentality permeates a school (or individual classroom) we may find that we get into the rut of doing the same things year over year even if they are ineffective or irrelevant. If we as individuals and members of a school organization commit to finding ways to be better, our students will reap the benefits. We should set that bar high!


Every organization has unique insights, and if you bet on it, it leads to major innovation

It is important that we as educators are aware of things happening around us in the world and are ready to innovate our practice in ways that meet new demands. In today's world change is constant and forward thinking in education will help us better prepare our students for the future.
Ship your products often and early, and do not wait for perfection. Let users help you to "iterate" it.

Our product in education is our learning environment, curriculum and instruction. We can try new things that  may improve our students' learning experience and refine and improve as we go. Students (our users) will give us feedback that will help us fine tune our practice. It does not have to perfect and we do not have to know everything. For example, I have teachers who just received new Smart Boards this year. The teachers who started experimenting with the boards (and allowing students to help them) have learned to use them very quickly and with less stress than if they expected to have perfectly planed and executed Smart Board lessons from the get go.


Give employees 20 percent of their work time to pursue projects they are passionate about, even if it is outside the core job or core mission of the company. "They will delight you with their creative thinking,"
I have been reading about teachers who are already implementing this with great results. Some names for this that I've come across include "Genius Hour", Google Time, and 20-Time to name a few. I frequently see school missions that state a desire to develop in their students a "life-long love of learning". What better way to develop a natural love of learning than to create an atmosphere where students can learn about something or develop products that excite them. Most teachers will say they don't have time for this but I think of all of the skills we have to teach anyway that could be developed and applied in an authentic and relevant ways! Research, writing, problem solving, reading comprehension, communication.... Connect students with something they are passionate about and the learning that will follow will be amazing! Check out this innovative student who has invented a low cost test for cancer (he will be speaking at SXSWedu 2014):
Below are some blog posts on 20% time in the classroom:
Can you apply Google's 20% time in the classroom?
20 Time in the Classroom- Inspire, Create, Innovate
10 Reasons to Try 20% Time in the Classroom

What about the development of innovation in our educators? The same principal applies. Our teachers are booked from the time they arrive to the time they leave with non-stop activities; teaching, planning, grading, preparing materials, communicating with parents, reading and responding to the multitude of emails, duty, meetings and at some point they have to make it to the bathroom and eat something. (our teachers do not even have a daily duty free lunch). When do they have time to reflect, brainstorm ideas, research current trends, learn new skills to fuel innovative practice? If this is a priority, (and it should be if we are to move to a 21st century learning paradigm) then we have to build time into the school calendar where teachers have time to network, learn and develop innovative instructional ideas. It has worked for Google and has had a great impact on the company's success, giving rise to products such as Gmail and AdSense. 1


Make your processes open to all users. Tap into the collective energy of the user base to obtain great ideas. 

We can not be successful educators today if we work in a vacuum. Professional learning networks can help us innovate through the collaboration and sharing of ideas. Technology tools such as Twitter, blogs, Pinterest and Facebook allow us to post questions, ideas, and classroom successes that reach a broad audience. What about our user base – our students? By turning over greater control and ownership of the learning to our students and soliciting feedback on how they learn best, we can develop instructional methods that meet the needs of individuals and become more effective as facilitators of learning.


There should be no stigma attached to failure. If you do not fail often, you are not trying hard enough.

This is a big pill to swallow for most educators.  There is a tendency in many to avoid trying new things for fear of failing. Principals fear having to defend non-traditional instruction with parents. Teachers are afraid to try new things because they don't know what results they will get and have to answer to supervisors and parents. Students fear sharing original ideas or asking questions because they are afraid of getting "it" wrong. We need to get over it. If we continue to operate in an atmosphere that punishes failure rather than seeing as a part of the learning process and critical to innovation, we will not be successful in developing innovative and creative thinkers. In many cases, grades themselves are punitive. If we want to develop innovative and creative thinking then there must be opportunities for students to experience failure and iterative processes with feedback rather than grades. It is feedback, not grades that is the greatest contributor to learning. Teachers need to know that administration has their back. They need to be free to attempt new learning models, fail, reflect and refine in order to improve their practice.


"This is the most important principle," Kallayil says. "Everyone at Google has a strong sense of mission and purpose. We believe the work we do has impact on millions of people in a positive way."

Schools are big on missions. We are also big on important sounding words. Some of the best missions are the simple ones; the ones that say it all and are easily understood by everyone, including the students. Schools should also revisit their mission periodically to ensure that the mission is keeping up with an ever-changing world.

1 Recent changes in Google's 20% time policy has cause some controversy and speculation that restrictions will affect Google's ability to stay ahead of their competition.
Google's "20%" Time, which brought you Gmail and AdSense, is now as good as dead.
Google's Best New Invention:Rules around 20% Time

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Fun and Games; Turns Out They Require Hard Work!

Today, St. Gabriel's Middle School Game Design class welcomed the Creative Director of Austin-based Bluepoint Games. Donkey Kong in hand, Kynan Pearson offered up some sound advise that is not only applicable within the context of game design but also with many other aspects of life.

Kynan spent a few minutes sharing his background in the game industry and with projects such as Donkey Kong Country and the Metroid Prime Series. This immediately established his "street cred" with the students. Visiting with him prior to class, I related some of the challenges students encountered with their first big game design; specifically with making their games very complex and difficult to win. During class, Kynan used Tetris as an example to address this issue and explained to students that a game does not have to be complex to be fun. He pointed out the importance of giving players rewards and opportunities for success to keep them playing. He  went on to explain that because they know their game better than anybody, something that may be obvious to them may not be obvious to their players. Using clues to help players experience success can be a very important part of the design.

Kynan encouraged students not to be content to simply replicate game styles that already exist. He explained that there can be greater success by designing something completely unique and capable of capturing an audience that did not previously exist. Students need to think creatively when selecting mechanics for their games. It may be natural to use a jumping mechanic in a side-scrolling platformer game but they do not have to include it just because many other games of that type do.

Aside from game design, some of Kynan's best stuff had more to do with the general process of doing good work. Self-motivation is critical. To paraphrase, he stated that in order to accomplish great things and produce a good product you have to put in the work. Nobody is going to do it for you. If you want to learn how to do something, there are probably resources on the internet to show you how. Don't be afraid to try new things-just get in there and figure out what you need. Working as an effective part of a team also yields better products. Besides the value of various viewpoints and ideas, a team dynamic can provide a natural checks and balances system that is not there if you work alone. Finally (and fitting with our school culture) he shared the importance of being a kind and ethical person, not just in your personal life but in your professional life. In today's very connected society you never know when person you have encountered may have some influence on a future opportunity.

I'm very grateful for professionals such as Kynan Pearson who are willing to share their experiences with students. They have a story to tell, advice to impart and a way of connecting with kids from a completely different perspective from teachers and parents. Bluepoint may be getting a few resumes next week!

Special shout-out to Susan Benedict from Bluepoint Games. She helped set this opportunity up! Thanks Susan!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Get Connected, Build Relationships and Power Positive Change


Today we had the good fortune to participate in professional development with George Couros, Division Principal of Innovative Teaching and Learning with Parkland School Division in Alberta Canada. George shared some of the innovative teaching and learning going on not only in his school district but in schools he visits around the country. He spoke about the importance of changing our mindset regarding teaching and learning; moving from the traditional factory model of education to one where students are full participants in the learning process.  He showcased many examples of  how students are using  technology to create and share content in ways that are personally relevant and transformative in nature.

George impressed upon us the value of building relationships; in order to drive an educational paradigm shift, we must seek connections with others and participate in collegial exchanges. Tools such as Twitter and blogs have helped George build a network of over 40,000 people and have had a great impact on his professional career. Not only does this large network give him a voice to share ideas, engage discussions and affect positive change in education, he is able to connect other educators and encourages them to do the same. The exponential effect allows educators who use social media tools to leverage the power of their professional network to improve pedagogy, collaborate and share resources effectively and efficiently.

To demonstrate the power of being a connected educator, George asked a volunteer to share something for which they frequently seek resources. Our guidance counselor, @planetlhellmer said she is always needing resources to help her with instruction. Typically she has to spend hours combing the internet and reviewing videos and sites for relevance. George sent a request to his twitter network for counselor resources and within a few short minutes he had received 7 or 8 tweets of websites, video sites and other resources that were vetted and recommended by the people who are using them.

Additionally,  George sent out a tweet before lunch welcoming kindergarten teacher @MsBondSGCS to Twitter. He sent her handle to #kinderchat and asked people to follow and retweet to help her build her network. After lunch, Molly came back to see that she had 40 followers.

George has spent years building his enormous network. Although social media as a professional development tool is a new concept for most @SGSAustin, there is an excitement in our faculty and staff that I think we can really build on. Our day with George Couros opened our eyes to the importance of redefining how we prepare our children for success in a high-tech global society and introduced us to a powerful tool that will help us connect with others who are committed to the same.

Connect with George @gcouros on Twitter
Read his blog

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Keyboarding? Ain't Nobody Got Time for That!

Remember back when we taught keyboarding? Yeah, I didn't think so. As with any skill, practice makes perfect.  It has been my observation as an instructional technology coach that for most teachers, keyboarding is one of the things that gets "back-burnered"- indefinitely.

My daughter, a high school student, is lightning fast at typing regardless of whether she is on a mobile device or on a traditional keyboard ( and pretty darn accurate as well). She does not however, use proper technique.

Does it matter?

Here is an interesting post by 14 year old Aubrey:
"I’ve been using the computer since I was three, and taught myself how to type.Children are capable of teaching themselves, like I had. Basically, I instant chat a lot and need a typing skill in order to reply to messages quickly.I can type 98 words per minute on average, and that is NOT a lie.However, my 8th grade Technology teacher is trying to force me to learn Traditional typing. Traditional typing is by NO means the “correct way” of typing. It’s just the most simple way to teach somebody.  
She threatened to give me a zero everyday in Technology class until I learned to type traditional. I refuse. For all we know, Traditional typing could be the real reason behind carpal tunnel. My way of typing may even be a solution; but you can’t tell some teachers that." 

When keyboards become obsolete, we can turn them into
lovely handbags like this one! Interested? Purchase here
There are a LOT of opinions out there.
 "But if you believe that the world really isn't perfected in design yet, you might wonder why anyone is still committed to a bizarre text-input system designed to slow 'typists' on first generation manual typewriters, so that mechanical keys would not jam. More than that, you might say, "is this really the best way to record text?" Or, if you're a crazy post-modernist like myself, you might even ask, "should we ever really try to determine a best way to record text? Because, you know, we're dealing with humans here, and human capabilities and preferences tend to vary widely."
Ira Sokol
"Does it matter how we type? Yes. Touch typing allows us to write without thinking about how we are writing, freeing us to focus on what we are writing, on our ideas. Touch typing is an example of cognitive automaticity, the ability to do things without conscious attention or awareness. Automaticity takes a burden off our working memory, allowing us more space for higher-order thinking. " Anne Trubek

I have been reading blog posts and talking to others in both education and the business world. After reviewing the opinions on this topic the past few months I have to say I'm still a bit of a post sitter on this one. I can see the argument for both sides. Here are the big take-aways for me:
  • Our students need to be able to keyboard efficiently in order to keep up in situations where they have to take notes and to complete tasks in a timely manner. The Middle School teachers are very frustrated with how slow our students are when completing tasks on their computers (we have 1:1 in our Middle School)
  • If they are devoting a large portion of their brain power on the mechanics of keyboarding, there is less  power to devote to critical thinking
  • If they are fast and accurate using their own technique, power to'em 
People will argue that proper keyboarding technique is the best for speed and accuracy. Ok, maybe- but maybe Aubrey and my daughter  have a point. Why should they have to use "proper keyboarding technique" if their method works best for them?

The other issue is of course, time. As with any skill you have to practice...a lot. Should we spend valuable instructional time on a skill such as this? For students in my school the answer will be no. We will be establishing WPM goals for each grade level and students will have to practice as a part of their weekly homework. Technique will be taught once a week in tech lab but in order to improve they will have to practice at home. This works for us because all of our students have home access to keyboarding practice resources. This is not a solution for underprivileged students and I'm not even going attempt addressing that in this post.

We do not have a Technology Applications course in our Middle School so the big push will be in 3rd-5th. For now, I have set a goal for all students entering 6th grade to be keyboarding a minimum of 40 WPM with a 85% accuracy. I'm not going to lie, I just pulled those numbers out of my hat. I may have to adjust once I see how they are doing this year. Although we will provide instruction on proper technique, by the time our current 3rd graders enter 6th grade, they may have developed their own style that works for them...

and I'm okay with that. 

I'll keep you posted :)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Eliminate or Re-invent? The Future of the Computer Lab

The traditional elementary computer lab design has been around for years. So much has changed in educational technology and I just have to wonder, "is it time to put this model to rest?"

I'm not sure if we are ready for the drastic move of eliminating the computer lab.  The existing set up of 24 computers enables us to have designated time and space for teaching keyboarding, software basics and hardware/navigation fundamentals. My issue with it is that when I walk into the computer lab, I just don't see a 21st century learning space. There is nothing in here that says we value collaboration, inquiry or and problem solving. I'm wondering if we really get a return on our investment for this space as it is. Is there another way for us to meet our needs for keyboarding and instruction on basic technology concepts?

I am going to experiment with the structure of this space. We had budgeted to replace computers in our lab this coming year. The only installed programs our elementary students use are Kidspiration and Microsoft Office. I don't think those 2 programs warrant the investment of a full blown desktop computer. Instead of purchasing 24 new desktop computers we are going to purchase a set of Chrome Books. Students can learn the basics of word processing, spreadsheets and presentations with Google Docs. Kidspiration is coming out with an app this summer that we can install on all of our classroom iPads. ( we have 1:1 in 3-5 and 2 shared carts in Jr. K-2) We use as our technology curriculum and this works just fine on the Chrome Books. The Chrome Books will give us added flexibility. We can reconfigure the room space as needed and will not be tethered by power and network cables. Teachers could also check out the Chrome Books to use in their classrooms during times when the technology lab is not scheduled.

Another change I am going to try –– dispensing with students in rows along the perimeter. Instead, I am using some half circle tables that were destined for storage. I can seat 4-5 students along the curved edge of the table with the flat side to the wall. I think this will facilitate discussion and collaboration activities. Since I will be saving by getting Chrome Books instead of desktop computers, I am going to get 6 iMacs; 1 for each group that will be positioned on the wall side of the table and facing the group. These will be used for group projects using tools in the iLife Suite or other collaborations. I would like to add small whiteboards to each station as well for brainstorming or concept mapping.

Ultimately, my goal is to create a more flexible learning space; one that meets our need for direct instruction of specific technology skills but also allows for movement, collaboration, communication, and project work. As with all new models, I'm sure we will have to do some tweaking along the way. If this proves to be a successful design, I would eventually want furniture that is easily configured for different purposes such as Steelcase's Verb line.  I will blog about how it is going throughout the year.

Another possibility for the future is to completely eliminate the computer lab and have technology specific objectives taught in the classroom. This would require a huge buy in from teachers who are used to dropping students off for 30 minutes of technology lab each week. I think I will hold off on tackling that one for later.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and ideas!

Death of the K-5 Computer Lab
The Death of the Computer Lab
Turning Elementary Computer Labs into STEM Labs