Initial Thoughts: Gamestar Mechanic Online Learning Program

Gamestar Summer Learning 1
I’m enrolled as a “student” in the new Gamestar Mechanic Summer Gaming Online Learning Program, and I have to say: so far, so good. I took up an offer by the National Writing Project to enroll for free (there is a cost for kids) because I use Gamestar in my classroom but also because I want to learn more about how to give constructive design feedback to my students. (NWP has done some collaborative projects with eLine Media, which owns Gamestar, so I am taking advantage of those connections as best as I can)

This morning (after a nice phone call with my “teacher” the other night to orientate me to the expectations which are obviously modified as I am a teacher, too), I dove into the program with gusto. It’s set up pretty intuitively and shows that the Gamestar folks really are thinking through the ways to make it an engaging learning experience. There are “tasks” with questions, videos and games to play, and each section ends with a game-building assignment that starts off with a simple brainstorming game design, and is now leading into the areas of how to construct an interesting platform game. There is even a place to chat with the Gamestar instructors, or leave questions, and you can monitor your progress.

It feels a bit like a combination of some online classes that I have taken with elements of the flipped classroom thrown in. I imagine the kids who are enrolled in this summer program will get a lot out of it. I really did like how the introduction to the summer program was a game that used the “iterative design” model as part of the game itself, reminding us about the ways that games develop from brainstorming, through design, feedback, redesign, feedback, redesign.
Gamestar Summer Program 2

In case you are wondering, I am hoping to build out a game based on my recent reading of Kate Messner’s Eye of the Storm, using  a player navigating through a fierce storm and the impact of Global Warming as my “story.” I have no idea how it will turn out.

Peace (in the game),


A Collaborative Informational Text Collection

Informational Text Jog the Web
In a workshop I am co-leading with teachers around understanding the Common Core and how it relates to our teaching practice, we moved into discussing how to best find and use informational texts the other day. What we wanted was for the teachers themselves to do research around companion informational texts that would make sense for them (such as informational articles that would complement the reading of a novel or short story), but we also wanted to share those out so that they would all benefit from each other’s inquiry work. And, another of our goals is embedded use of technology in the workshop series.

The result is that we created a Google Doc, and introduced most of them to Google Docs and online word processing/sharing, and using a table, they went in and added links and annotations about the articles or resources they found. I then took that compiled, collaborative list and used Jog the Web to created this collection that runs the gamut from connecting science to the Spiderman movies to Ellis Island and the immigration experience to the Danish resistance in World War II.

Go to the Informational Text Collection

Peace (in the sharing),


Common Questions about the Common Core

At our first day of a workshop inquiry around writing and the Common Core, we asked folks to fill out a modified KWL chart, and then we took home their questions to find some common themes about what they are wondering about. I then used a Glog poster to share out those questions and add a few podcasted thoughts and links to resources for them.

Go to the Common Question about the Common Core glog

Here is the embedded version:

Peace (in the sharing),


Book Review: Eye of the Storm

Writer Kate Messner dazzles the reader with her futuristic storm thriller, Eye of the Storm. Set in the years to come when Global Warming has created dangerous storms that wreak havoc across the world, the main character — Jaden Meggs — and her friends must try to thwart her own father and a mysterious relative (I won’t give it away) from using technology to create and nurture dangerous tornadoes as military weapons.

(Note: Kate gave a talk at TED about this book idea. I can’t find the video yet but here is a blog writeup).

What I liked about Eye of the Storm was the fast-paced action, the full immersion into a possible future where weather patterns disrupt all of society, and the development of Jaden as a smart, insightful, resourceful girl whose strengths in math patterns and meteorological awareness (is that a real phrase? It should be, right?) become the key to solving the problem. It occurred to me, too, how this kind of science-based fictional text might start finding more of a home in classrooms under the Common Core shifts, as a science teacher and an ELA teacher could easily join together to use this as a central text for reading, with many extensions out to informational text around weather patterns, Global Warming, and science/math ideas. (or maybe I am too immersed in Common Core these days?)

But, on a more important note, I am sure I can find some students who will eat this story up, and while it does fall into the outer bounds of the recent shifts into dystopian fiction, Eye of the Storm is something different. There’s less the dark end-of-the-world feel to it all, and more of a hopeful we-can-solve this element that I enjoyed (I am getting a little weary of the woe factor in recent fiction).

This was my first Messner book, but now I feel like I should get her most recent novel — Capture the Flag.

Peace (out of the storms),


Technology Capabilities and Administering PARCC

(from my comic, Boolean Squared)

On our last day of school a few weeks ago, our district technology coordinator was in my room, marking down the specifications of the laptops in the cart that is housed in my classroom. I thought she might just be updating her files but she said the state is requiring all school districts to do a technology needs assessment connected to the roll-out of the PARCC assessment not far down the road. In other words, the state is trying to figure out what districts can handle the technology aspect of the test, which will include at least submission electronically and may include some media component (early iterations of PARCC materials suggested a podcast by students to demonstrate voice and stance.)

This week, I have been working with teachers and administrators in another school district, and this issue of technology capabilities came up once again. The school, in a struggling urban setting, does have a fair number of computers (three labs and two carts) but sister schools in the same district have almost nothing, and all of the schools are losing funding for other technology investments due to budget cuts.

Never mind the pedagogy of using technology as a means for writing and literacy (that thing that I find so important) — schools are struggling just to have enough working computers, access to Internet broadband connectivity, and more. And if PARCC assessments are going to suck up computer time for testing, that just leaves less time for students to be using that technology for meaningful writing and exploration.

It’s a tricky issue, and yet, it makes sense that an assessment would use and value technology as a means of writing and publishing, right?

This all came to mind this morning as I was reading through an interesting document from Louisiana, which has done its own technology capability inventory. It provides a great overview of what it has found in its school districts, and my guess is that most states will echo what Louisiana has found, including:

  • The unknown elements of PARCC (window of testing, criteria of expectations) makes it difficult to know exactly what schools need to be ready;
  • Internet connectivity is an obstacle to test implementation (and the state suggests an alternative test that does not require bandwidth or Internet and PARCC documents indicate they are developing a non-tech alternative);
  • Logistical issues are vexing, as computers in classrooms and other public spaces would have to be used for testing, which is less than ideal for students working on a high-stakes test, and computer labs would have to be allocated for assessment for long stretches of time
  • The lack of physical space for all of the required numbers of students testing in the same time window is a logistical nightmare (my term) for schools;
  • And lack of professional development for teachers and technical support for these shifts.

These are issues that go beyond the Common Core standards, obviously, and given the tight budgets these days, I wonder how districts and states are going to meet these technical needs. PARCC itself has an “instructional technology purchasing guide” for districts that shares some minimum capabilities for any new computers. (note that tablets are included in allowable devices)

 Tech Specs Chart
Peace (in the tech of the test taking),

Book Review: Hologram for the King

I went into Hologram for the King not knowing quite what to expect. Would it be the Dave Eggers of years ago, writing in an brilliant, over-the-top narrative voice or would it be the recent Dave Eggers, whose Zeitoun and What is the What completely blew me away for the story and the writing? It turns out that Eggers is a more reserved writer than he was as a young gun (I’m not complaining but I do miss a bit of that energy), and now goes deeper into characters.

Hologram for the King is a modern story, of Alan Clay, who is in Saudia Arabia trying to make the deal of his life (pitching a large technology contract to the king) but instead, he is stuck in a Waiting for Godot-like parable of life. Eggers brings us into the complicated inner life of Clay, whose hanging on by a thread and navigating an unknown country, waiting for the king to arrive. I can’t say there is a whole lot of plot here. There isn’t. But there is something interesting about the inner journey of a single character, and Eggers does pull it off, with reserved writing and focus.

Peace (across the sea),


Poetry Experiment with PowToons

I’m a sucker for trying out new tools, just to see the possibilities. Here, I received an invite to a new site called PowToons that might be another alternative to powerpoint and prezi as a presentation tool. It builds a bit off the idea of a comic interface. I used it to create a short poem, as part of a discussion in another online space around writing.
Peace (in the echoes),

Making is Connecting in a Digital Age

Making is Connection by David Gauntlett
We’re exploring connections between the Make Movement and writing/literacies in a digital age in one inquiry group that I am part of this summer. I thought a video by David Gauntlett (the image is a screenshot from the video, embedded below) really established some firm connections along key points: that agency is in the hands of the creator to make something new out of existing materials (even digital material); that the activity of making shifts consumers away from mass-produced materials and therefore, provides an individualistic sense of creation; and that the social element of digital literacies has the potential to increase engagement and heighten the creative element of making something that will impact the world.

Gauntlett’s lecture is worth a view,  I think, particularly in his criticism of television as a tool
“that does not allow everyday people to share their vision” as opposed to new media sites that do allow for that (although he admits that we should not fall into the dichotomy of television-bad/digital media good – there’s a lot of crap in digital realms just as there is a lot of quality programming on television). His lecture had me thinking about the ways to make more connections between how we encourage our students as creators of content, and not just passive users.


Peace (in the making),