Seven Lessons Learned by Watching My Kids Play Basketball

I am rambling a bit here in this post because I am still trying to make some connections, and I do that best by writing it through. The writing helps me think, and glimpse the bigger picture.

Yesterday, two of my sons played organized basketball and both events offered some glimpses to me about learning. First of all, my oldest boy has been playing basketball for years now, and is on a traveling team. He’s in middle school. My little guy is in kindergarten. So the context of these experiences are very different.

My youngest son started on a kindergarten team with the city’s recreation department. He was so excited the other day, he started to do push-ups to get “strong.” He’s been pulled to many basketball games for his older brothers, so he has some sense of the game. Or so I thought.

Lesson One: Don’t assume (I seem to remember that from The Bad New Bears movie, but I won’t break down the word into its parts as Walter Matthau did.)

He is on the Wizards, which has him all in tizzy (he loves magic, Harry Potter audio tapes, etc.) The volunteer coaches seem nice, but when the kids were asked to dribble the ball, my son was clueless. He could barely bounce the ball. It kept bouncing off his foot. When the coaches told the kids to shift to the left hand, my son did not know which was his left hand. It was comical and that inner voice of mine was saying, how come the boy doesn’t know his left hand?

Then, the coaches started up with some drills. Now, remember, these are five and six year old kids. In the span of about 20 minutes, one coach talked about “crossover dribbles” and “pivots” and “in the paint” and “athletic position” and “the BEEF method of shooting.” The kids all nodded, but I don’t think a single one knew what they were nodding to. It’s a good thing they weren’t signing over the deeds to our house.

Lesson Number Two: Teaching requires appropriate vocabulary

The hour of practice ended, and we started to go home. My son was jumping around, yelling about how “magical” the Wizards were. His first practice was a resounding success, in his mind.

Lesson Number Three: Don’t suck the fun out of learning.

As we headed home, I mentioned that he might need to work on his dribbling a bit. He nodded (just like he did to the coaches, I noticed, so he may have not heard a word I said), and I suggested we get his older brothers to show him how to dribble the ball. He smiled, liking that idea.

Lesson Number Four: Use your natural resources.

Later in the day, my older son played his first game of the season in a regional tournament. You know how President Obama used the word “shellacked” to describe the recent election? The same word applied here to this game, and our team was on the bad end of it (we sympathize, Mr. President). It was a blow-out from the opening drive. The other team was bigger, faster, quicker — in just about every category.

Lesson Number Five: Sometimes, the odds are against you, and it is all about how you respond to the adversity.

My son’s coach kept calling timeout, gathering the guys around him. I wondered what he was saying to keep their spirits up. The boys played hard, as hard as they could, but it didn’t do much good. I watched the coach cheering on his team, shouting out encouragement and rewarding good plays with claps and cheers.

Lesson Number Six: Celebrate the accomplishments, even amidst difficulties.

The game ended, and I expected my son to be bummed out by the blowout. He wasn’t. He was disappointed, but he laughed at some of the plays. He seemed to shake off the losing in no time at all and turned his mind towards the game today.

Lesson Number Seven: Perseverance is part of learning.

So, there you go: seven lessons learned from the hard, wooden stands of two basketball events. I guess that idea of sports being a metaphor for life, and for learning, does hold up. It’s all in the lens we use to view it.

Peace (on the court),

Resource Handout for New Literacies Presentation

I figured it might be worthwhile to gather up a one-page resource sheet for the administrators who will be in our presentation session this week around New Literacies. Here is a list of what I am including:

Selected Books

Assorted Online Resources

Some Important Videos

Peace (in the sharing),

Presentation: Supporting New Literacies

This coming week, I will be co-presenting a session on the topic of New Literacies at a conference sponsored by our state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. I was invited because of my work this past summer and this school year with the state-sponsored New Literacies Teacher Leader Institute, which involves more than 100 teachers, technology coordinators and administrators developing resources around technology and learning. I am one of ten teacher-leaders of the institute, which recently secured funding for a second year for 2011.

The audience for this particular event will be mostly superintendents, principals and curriculum coordinators, which is a slightly different audience than I am used. They don’t need to know the “how” of what we are talking about — they need to know the “why” of why 21st Century Literacy Skills is expanding into multimodal composition. I imagine they’ll be looking through the lens of accountability for student learning. I figure my short time will be best used showing some student work and then making the case for ways that they (the administrators) can support teachers in the classroom.

Peace (in the sharing),

Wandering off to “Imaginary Lands”

I have a huge stack of Imaginary Peaceful Land Travel Brochures and just in time for the report card crunch time, too! Just kidding. My students did a fantastic job on this project. The task: invent an imaginary land that uses elements of our school’s Peacebuilders program and tap into expository and creative writing to create a brochure, including a brief history, descriptions and a map.

I will probably pull out some ones that struck me as very creative in the next week or so, but for now, I am sharing the music video of some of the projects (I took so many pictures that it was too long for Animoto, so I need to create a second one).

Notice how many of them used elements of design: color, layout, images. We talked about design elements here, looking at real brochures, and I was happy to see so many students remembering that and using it in their projects.

Peace (in the sharing),

Making a Video Game, part five

(This is part of a continuing series to dive into gamemaking and see what I can learn, and reflect on the possibilities for the classroom. You can read the other posts in this series here.)

I know I came off as a sort of complainer yesterday about my efforts to construct a simple maze game with Gamemaker software (which is free and not worth complaining about, really). To give you a glimpse under the hood of Gamemaker, I thought I would show you two screenshots of the programming that goes on just to make a character move through a maze via keyboard arrow commands.

In the first screenshot, you can see the overview of the editing, where “sprites” have been designated as “objects” in a “room,” where objects are characters and building blocks (such as the walls of the maze) and the room is the game board itself (you can add multiple rooms, too).
Inside look at Gamemaker
In the second screenshot, I went a layer deeper into a single movement of my player, showing how you would designate the player to move “left” with the left keyboard arrow.
Insider look at Gamemaker 2

What I notice is that I need to adapt to a whole new lexicon of language here, from sprites to objects to rooms, not to mention an array of programming options that are available to use, such as collisions, key presses, key releases, alarm, step, set variables, etc. It’s like wandering into a world of strange words where the meaning I think a command might have is not always what the command does in the game. I really have to come at it with a different mindset.

My next task: to figure out how to get other pieces (ie, objects) moving randomly in the game which my player will have to avoid, or risk losing points. That sounds simple enough, but here is some of what I will have to do to accomplish this:

  • Create a sprite
  • Turn the sprite into an object
  • Designate a movement action (random movements or specified movements)
  • Make sure the object stays inside the game (ie, bounces off walls)
  • Make sure the object can collide with players
  • Designate a negative point for each collision
  • Make sure that negative point tally is reflected in the player’s overall score (they will need to reach a certain score to win the game)

That is pretty complex and there are lots of steps that need to be done in those actions. I sure hope I can find a good tutorial to help me out. Youtube, here I come!

Peace (in the gaming),

Making a Video Game, part four

Yesterday, I just about threw up my hands and said, enough.

What had me in a huff was the tutorial that I was using to create a video game (I’ve been writing all week about my adventures in creating a video game using Gamemaker8 software). At first, the PDF tutorial on how to create a maze game seemed pretty straightforward. But it took a turn for the worse in a single section that I needed the most: how to program the game so that the player can move their character through the maze with the arrow functions on the keyboard.

The tutorial just jumped over about five steps and clearly, the writer thought I knew more than I knew, or that I had enough programming mojo to figure out what I should have already known. I didn’t, and I couldn’t, which is why I was using the tutorial in the first place.

So, I almost gave up, and came close to declaring that this kind of project would never work in the classroom. If I was frustrated, what would happen to my students?

So, I thought, what would my students do?

I turned to YouTube, and sure enough, I found a tutorial posted by umarshiekh2002 that walked me, silently, through the entire process of setting up a very simple maze game. (Thanks Dude!) I was pausing, playing, creating and going over it a few times in this strange silence (we expect sound from videos, don’t we?) except for me talking to myself and suddenly, I had my simple maze up and running.


It reminds me of how many resources there are out there and how powerful search engines can be. I was reminded of the recent NWP Makes! session that I took part of in Orlando, where we talked about an entire online culture of people sharing how they do things through videos and screenshots, and this video tutorial that unlocked the maze for me is certainly a prime example of that.

As to my thoughts of applicability in the classroom, I am still mixed on it. Now, I am thinking, this might be better for a summer camp for a smaller, more focused set of gamer kids. Much to mull over …

Meanwhile, I wanted to try to post my simple game to the YoYo Games site (home of Gamemaker8) and that was breeze. Wanna try my simple maze? You might need the Gamemaker plugin to launch the game.



Mazing It
Added: 02 December 2010
By: dogtrax

I still need to learn to add roaming elements to the maze, and award points for collecting items, before I can start in real development to my game idea I am calling Running Late. But I feel as if I am on the right track (notice I was able to use my own avatar icon in the game, which means I can draw my own game pieces for my Running Late maze. Another mystery solved ..)

Peace (in the game),

NWP Survives

Yesterday, many of us in the National Writing Project were keeping careful tabs (no doubt, peeping into the news during the day) to follow the fate of a US Senator proposal to eliminate “earmarks” in the federal budget. The amendment by Sen. Coburn would have effectively gutted the NWP and some other educational groups whose federal funding support are considered “earmarks” attached to the federal budget. The Coburn proposal would have instituted a three year moratorium on any earmarks.

The amendment did not pass muster (see the short piece in Slate). The vote tally was 39-56, with 67 needed for passage.

But my guess is that earmarks are an endangered species in DC because, although they represent only a small portion of the budget, they are huge with political symbolism of waste and fiscal irresponsibility. How it is that NWP funding got lumped into the earmarks is something I am not privvy to nor do I really know much about the political workings of the NWP at that level.

But I think a huge push has to be made to shift NWP, Reading is Fundamental and other educational organizations out of that earmarks category, if possible. In fact, it makes me uneasy, knowing that NWP is lumped in there. If the public sees earmarks as wasteful spending, how will they view the NWP as part of that? Check out this interactive map for how earmarks are played out across the country, and it is so clear that our politicians (yep, mine, too) use the earmark process for financial gifts to their districts.

Here in Massachusetts, in fiscal year 2010, we had $176,803,000 in earmarked funds. I am sure much of those funds were put to good use (bike trails, roadway improvements, etc.), but it seems like there needs to be a better mechanism than jamming funding for projects onto whatever bill is before you (such as the Coburn Amendement itself, which was attached to a Food Safety Bill).

On a side note, both of my senators — Sen. Scott Brown (r) and Sen.  John Kerry (d) — voted against the Coburn moratorium, so I hope that means that our calls to their offices had some effect. (See how your senators did)

Is it good or bad that the moratorium was not enacted? I suppose that is for each of us voters to decide, but the push now from the Republican Senate leadership is to kill earmarks, and my guess is that this may gain momentum in the next two years.

Our NWP network has some work to do …

Peace (in the politics),

Making a Video Game, part 3

Video Game Running Late- Design Draft

I’ve been working on posts this week all around trying to develop a video game myself, using free software called GameMaker 8. (See my first post and my second post). I finally sat down, away from the computer, and began to draft out what my game might look like. I came up with a name – Running Late – and a story concept – a student is late for school – and a platform idea – a maze.

Here is what I have so far for my game design:

Name of the Game: Running Late

Object of the Game:

You are a student who has missed the morning bus and you are now running late for school. You must run your way through the neighborhood, collecting points along the way in order to earn a “Late Pass” for the principal. You must earn at least 100 points by collecting such items as pencils, a good report card and bus passes. But look out for the bad dog on the loose – he wants to take away points from you and he will chase you down. And avoid the temptation of the candy bar. That will cost you points, too.

How To Move Your Player:

  • Mouse Cursor: indicates direction.

  • Left Mouse Click: moves you forward one grid

  • Right Mouse Click: allows you to jump three grids, but randomly

Items on the Board

  • The Good Stuff

  • Pick up the Pencil: 10 points

  • Catch the Bus: 10 points

  • Get a good Report Card: 20 points

  • The Bad Stuff

  • Suffer a dog bite: lose 10 points

  • Eat a candy bar: lose 10 points

How You Win the Game:

Make your way to school with 100 points and get your butt to class. You’re late!

Now, I begin the journey to actually make the game. Stay tuned for future reflections! And hopefully, a chance to turn any game I make over to you as a player for feedback.

Peace (in the maze),


At LEARN NC: Online Reading Comprehension

I wrote a piece that just got published in LEARN NC (which also ran in Instructify, its companion site where I write regularly about tools for learning) in which I sought to provide a framework for considering reading skills when students are online.

I was inspired to write the piece after working this past summer with folks in the New Literacies Collaborative, including Don Leu (whom I will see next week as we are co-presenting a bit around New Literacies to Massachusetts superintendents, curriculum coordinators and such). Their presentations around this topic had me thinking and wondering, and processing what happens to my students when they go online to read.

You can read the piece  — Strategies for Online Reading Comprehension — here.

The chart in the piece that compares traditional reading with online reading was actually created in Google Docs as a cloud-sourcing experiment. I put a call out on Twitter and more than a dozen people went in and added ideas to the chart (which was later edited down a bit).

This is the fourth long article I have written for LEARN NC, but you can still access the other ones, which are on topics of online postering sites (such as Glogster), how teachers can collaborate as writers on the web, and an overview of blended learning. I am now working on another piece about gaming in the classroom.

Peace (on the web),

Making a Video Game, part 2

Maze sample

Yesterday, I wrote about my latest endeavor to create a video game that uses some free software and which incorporates some element of “story” as its backdrop. My aim is to have fun and also, to consider the possibilities for the classroom.

It turns out I lost my Internet access on Sunday, which gave me some space and time to sit down with paper and pencils and really think through what my game might look like and how it might be played. I can’t say enough about how valuable it was to be off the computer for some old fashioned “paper thinking,” and I already see some revisions and iterations of my game design beginning to formulate in my head. I’ll share more of the particulars of my game in tomorrow’s post.

I spent a good chunk of time with GameMaker on my own (no tutorials, thanks to lack of Internet access) in an attempt to create a simple maze game and I floundered a bit, I must confess. I constructed a maze, but I had a lot of difficulty designating what I wanted things to do and I never did figure out how to make the click of the mouse designate a move on the board, which will be a central act for the user of my game. I am sure this is easy to do, but I could not figure it out, not for the life of me. And I am not sure if I can even create my own icons (sorry, sprites, but I have my own ideas for players and pieces in my game).

I ended up just diving into the program as far as I could go, just as I imagine that many students do when they encounter a new game or a new console or a new program. I would have liked some hand-holding directions (honest, I would have) but there is something to be said to full immersion into software without a life preserver. I suspect that when I make my way back to Gamemaker (with tutorials in hand — now downloaded onto my computer directly), I will be farther along with understanding its architecture than I think am.

Yesterday, Cindy left the suggestion that perhaps this exploration of developing a game could be done with my entire class, together as a collaborative activity, which is something I had not really considered: a whole-class exploration. But I wonder how that would look, given that so much of this is trial and error. I’d have to train myself to really “think aloud” and turn over the production to the class. It’s interesting, and carving out time for it would be difficult, but not impossible. More to think about …

Peace (in the maze),