Book Review: The Connected Educator


It says a lot about a book when the last line is “Choose to be powerful.”

So ends The Connected Learner: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Lani Ritter Hall. Here is a book that explores the ways that teachers need to be connecting with other teachers outside of the physical confines of their buildings or school districts, and joining the movement to use online tools for professional development, professional inquiry and action projects. (Note of disclosure: the writers sent me a free copy to review but laid out no expectations of a positive review.)

While many trade books are emerging about ways to engage our students as learners on the global stage with technology as a tool for engagement, Nussbaum-Beach and Hall train their sights on the people who can really make a difference in the classroom: the teachers themselves. And, as they rightly note, as more teachers start using technology for constructing valuable learning spaces for themselves, they will then understand the power and potential of those concepts for their students. We need teachers to become models for our young people, and to make that engagement in the information world more transparent.

“Teachers must learn to model connectedness and enable students to develop personal learning networks, made up of people and resources from both their physical and virtual worlds — but first, teachers must become connected collaborators themselves.” (p. 4)

At my own school, we spend one period a week in what was first called a Professional Learning Community, and now has been relabeled as a Community of Practice. (So, I was interested to see the chart in this book that defines both of those ). Our aim, as set forth by our building principal, is to use data to drive changes in our curriculum, and to focus as a teaching team on an issue. Our principal has the right idea to structure collaboration among colleagues, but I wonder what it would be like to connect our small learning sphere to other ones emerging in other schools, and how shared action research projects and collaboration might unfold. I don’t think our school is ready for that. Most schools are not. But this book paves a path of rationale for why educators might consider a move in that direction.

I enjoyed the many anecdotes from teachers in this book as they talked about the ways that connections improved their teaching and students’ experiences. I also appreciated that they walked the walk here, too, setting up a variety of platform spaces for readers of the book to engage in the material. The chapters connect to a Voicethread, a Google Doc presentation, a Wallwisher, a hashtag on Twitter, and more. While there has not been much activity on those spaces (and I wonder, will there be? Perhaps as the two writers use the book as a jumping off place for workshops and seminars, those spaces will grow with new insights. One can hope), the fact that those elements are there in the online world shows how the experience of learning from books can be extended to reader engagement with virtual tools. Which is yet another model for our classroom, right?

The Connected Educator is enlightening in many ways, and if you are seeking for ways to move beyond your own professional learning circles, Nussbaum-Beach and Hall show you the way forward. Remember that last line of the book. Choose to be powerful. It matters.

Peace (in the connections),



Peer Review and Video Game Design

As we consider ways to connect the writing process to the game design process, I keep reminding my sixth graders of the iterative design of video game development (which my science colleague is also tying in nicely to the scientific engineering design process) and one of those phases is using “testers” to try to “break the game,” as I put it. This means having a third-party player sit down and play the game, and find its strengths and weaknesses from an objective position.

There is no doubt that they are building games for their peers with this project. If I had a dollar for every “come here, I want to show you this level of my game” that I hear during our classtime, I would have a nice bundle of cash. I wish I could sit and play more of their games under development, too, but I am often wandering the room, helping individuals with their work or finding some workarounds for any technology glitches that occur (and they do occur, but we mostly refuse to get ruffled by it).

Tomorrow, we’re going to work this into our class, and the model will be the peer review of writing model. I’ve come up with a graphic organizer to make it easier for the players to leave constructive feedback for the game developers, and we will be rotating around the room, playing and offering feedback. From there, the developers will need to consider the input and make revisions to strengthen the game.

The reviewers are look at the game through the multiple lenses of:

  • Overall Rating
  • Overall Difficulty
  • Gameplay
  • Story Narrative
  • Visuals
  • and notes for the developer

Here is my basic template (which I adapted from the way users can provide input on Gamestar Mechanic):
Peer Review of Video Games
Here is one that I did as an exemplar to show as a sample:
Peer Review of Video Games Exemplar
Peace (in the peer review process),


Writing a Video Game Review: Template and Sample

We’re working in as much writing as we can during this two-week Science-based Game Design Unit — from posting reflections on our class blog, to storyboarding, to … writing up a review of a video game. I stole this idea from a new Twitter friend, Julie, who was doing it with her seventh grade class and I thought: that’s perfect! Luckily, Julie was willing to share out her graphic organizer with me, and I adapted it for our own needs, and now they are working on writing up a review. Our hope is to publish as many of them as possible, and now Julie and I, and another sixth grade teacher friend Kent (whose students are now working on their own reviews), are thinking of ways to connect our three groups of reviews together.

Here is what my version of Julie’s graphic organizer looks like:
Game Review Organizer

And here is my own sample, in which I reviewed a game called Samorost (and then, we played it for a bit on the Interactive Board):
Samorost 2 Review
I also recorded my review of Samorost as a podcast, which I may have my students do, too, if we have time.

Peace (in the writing),


Development of an Idea: From Conference, to Camp, to Classroom

I’ve been doing very little other than reflecting on our current science-based Game Design Unit now underway. But it occurred to me the other day how far back this idea of how to use game design in my writing classroom began to ferment. It all began with the National Writing Project, and a session that I attended at the 2010 NWP Annual Meeting on gaming. There, we learned about the philosophical underpinning of game design theory and how those concepts can intersect with learning. We played games; we made games; we talked games.

I came away from that annual meeting, thinking: this is important.

But I had no idea where to begin. Then, I realized that the youth summer camp program that our Western Massachusetts Writing Project runs would be a perfect incubator for ideas, and with the help of my WMWP colleague, Tina, we launched a very successful and interesting summer camp program for about 15 game-playing boys, using Gamestar Mechanic and Scratch and some other programs for a week-long adventure into somewhat unknown territory for both Tina and I.

I saw enough of what was going on in that small group to think: this has real potential for my classroom.

But I vacillated towards the end of the summer: should I consider offering an after-school gaming program? Or should I bring the video game design ideas into all four of my sixth grade classroom? Was I ready for that? I even emailed my principal, asking if I could get permission to run a for-profit after-school gaming program. He supported the idea. Then, I had second thoughts. Who would come to that program? A select few hard-core gamers. I always complain that some of the most innovative ideas seem to be happening only outside of school. Who did I want to reach? All of my students. I want them all to be engaged. I decided against the after-school idea.

That’s when the National STEM Video Game Challenge came back onto my radar screen, and I realized that a collaboration between my science teacher colleague and myself might lead to something interesting: science-based video game designs that might have the potential for national recognition. That’s where we are right now: in the midst of game development, and it’s hectic, crazy, fun, interesting and exciting to be in my classroom every single day. There are challenges, and collaborations, and technical hurdles, and writing going on. It’s an amazing amount of learning.

And so, this path that began at the conference with the National Writing Project, and emerged in our Western Massachusetts Writing Project youth camp, is now flowering in my classroom for my 75 sixth graders. Sometimes, journeys begin like that, and that is the potential power of conferences to lead to change in the classroom (I say, somewhat sadly, because the defunding of the National Writing Project means no more conferences like that, for me).

Peace (in the reflection),


Book Review: Maps and Legends (Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands)

I’ve long been a fan of Michael Chabon, ever since I stumbled upon his Summerland book and read it aloud to my first son, then my second son and now I have it in the queu for my third (probably after we finish the Harry Potter series, and we are more than halfway through the last book there). Summerland is a messy book but full of imagination, and it has baseball at the center of its fairy tale narrative. That always hooked my kids.

Then, I loved The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, with its hook of characters inventing a comic strip. Imagine: an entire novel built around the creation of a comic strip. (The book went on to win a number of literary awards).

So, I did not hesitate to pick up Chabon’s collection of essays when it went on a fire sale at McSweeney’s publishing house. Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands is an uneven but always interesting mix of writing and speeches in which Chabon explores the creative areas where writers go to find their way, often without maps or understanding of where they are going. I appreciate the way Chabon takes comics and pulp fiction and science fiction and even ghost stories serious and defends their place in the world of literature. Maps and Legends provides a little window into one writer’s view of the world, and for me, I enjoy getting those glimpses. The insights into Carmac McCarthy, in particular, brought me back to a period of time when I devoured McCarthy’s novels. Chabon reminded me of why I was in that phase.

Chabon ends with the text of a speech he gave a number of times that centers around the discovery of Golems that connect to his childhood, only to let us in on the joke at the end: the narrative is mostly pure fiction, and he did it to understand how much, as readers, we buy into the narratives we are given as fact, and to let us know that, just like the writers, we readers are often in undiscovered countries, making out way forward with only the maps of insight and experience — and even those can’t always be trusted.

Peace (in the lands beyond lands),

Video Game Design and Reluctant Writers

I co-teach one of my four classes with an amazing Special Education teacher, Bob, who is also become a friend. Over the last three years of working together as co-teachers, I have learned a lot from him about strategies that reach all levels of our writers and readers in the classroom. I hope he has learned some things from me, too.

As part of the reflective elements of our ongoing Geological Video Game Design unit, Bob and I sat down to chat about what we are seeing, particularly when it comes to the reluctant writers in our group. He notes the sense of engagement we are noticing, the use of writing on a  topic of high interest, and the way the project is helping to solidify pretty tricky scientific concepts for them.

This video segment is part of a larger documentary I am working on as we move through our video game design unit that connects writing, technology and science with Gamestar Mechanic. Our aim is to help some of our students submit their game designs for the National STEM Video Challenge in March.

Peace (in the sharing),


More Video Game Storyboarding: The Student Perspective

The other day, I shared out my storyboarding process around game design. This week, my students have been working on their own storyboards for their own science-based video games. While this step may not help every single student, it does help many by focusing their attention on development of a game idea over a series of levels, and provides a road map forward. Here, one of my students explains her storyboarding, and her storyboard and two others are down below. (The video is part of a larger video project I am undertaking to document our work with video game design).
Nicole Storyboard
Wes Storyboard
Peace (on the board),