Science-based Video Game Project: What They Are Planning

I had my sixth grade students work on some brainstorming activities for their Geological Video Game Design Project, which then led to them blogging about what their “big concepts” are going to be when they frame their games and the challenges they are thinking about as game designers. Here are some of their posts, which are part of our “reflective game designers’ logs” writing component to the project:

The scientific concept we will using is the layers of the earth.We have chosen that scientific concept because it will be a cool level with magma in the asthenosphere bursting out at random times.The scientific vocabulary are the asthenosphere,lithosphere,crust,mantle,and core.The challenges might be making the magma come out at random times. — Kaira and Kenze

My game is going to be about Layers of the Earth. I chose that because I think I will be cool to use the layers as certain levels! Some of the things you will encounter are boss battles! Also mazes which you will need to answer a question correctly to move on to the right path. That is what my game on GameStar Mechanic is going to be. — Michael

The scientific concept for my video game is mountains, volcanoes, and layers of the earth. I chose this concept because it is a simple, yet complex design that will be fun to make. It will also be informative, but still a fun way for all ages to understand the earth. — Nikki

I chose volcanoes and the layers of the earth, because we are learning about those in science class.There are going to be the crust mantle and the core.You will have to climb mountains and volcanoes.For a challenge there will be a limited amount of time and lives. — Jenna

I want to build a game on the layers of the earth. I chose this because I have been lately been watching a lot of mining shows like Gold Rush. I plan to use all the layers of the earth and the two kinds of crust. you will encounter rock monsters,tremors,and magma flows. — Jarrod

My game idea is revolving around the idea of Volcanoes in Hawaii. I will add the idea of how Volcanoes work and where the lava comes from. Also that is where most Volcanoes are located. To make this game challenging, I will add enemies and a time limit to beat before the volcano erupts. — Wes

Our idea is on volcanoes and mountains. We think they are interesting, and we are learning about them in science right now. Also we like explosions and how volcanoes act. Are science vocabulary is active, anticline, convergent plate boundaries, dome mountain, fault block mountain, fold mountain, hot spot, lava, dormant, and volcano. The effects on the game and making it on volcano’s and mountains. — Becca and Morgan

I chose an underwater theme and a volcano theme for the levels because, the two themes bring in a lot of different vocabulary words, in just two simple themes.
I think my only challenges in making this game would be, trying to get all the items in the perfect place, and just justifying the my game. — Molli

Peace (in the gaming),

Storyboarding and Video Game Design

I talked to my students about the “iterative design process” of making video games yesterday as we began our Geological Video Game Project and when we got to the part about the job of “game testers” at companies, they were intrigued to learn that people to get paid to play games. But, I reminded them, not just “play games,” but play games with a reflective eye, noting strengths and weaknesses so the developer can go back and revise, revise, revise.

I made connections between the game design process and the writing process, and I think I saw some lights going on.
Writing v Game Design

Today, they will begin the brainstorming phase of their project: coming up with an overarching scientific idea for the game they are going to create in Gamestar Mechanic. Then, they will launch into storyboarding out the levels of their game. This becomes their “map” for development of the game, although I was honest in saying that it won’t be surprising if the final game no longer resembles the storyboard because ideas change as games go under development. We storyboard to keep focus.

I am going to share out my own storyboard for my Women in Science game, which I am using as a model of a multi-level game that entertains (I hope) and educates. This is where I began:


This is where I ended up with my Women in Science video game (go ahead, please try the game, if you haven’t.  I need as many players as possible so that I can share out game stats with the kids later this week.)


Peace (on the board),

Video Reflection 1: We’re About to Start Gaming

Today, we launch into our science-based video game design unit. I figure it is a good time to do a video reflection, and I will try to add more reflections as we go along. The “talking through” ideas can be helpful to me, and hopefully, to you if you are considering game design as a possible activity for your classroom, too. I am also including the handouts that we are working with this week. Feel free to steal what you need for your own projects, if it is helpful.

Geological Game Design Project
Geological Game Design Project Brainstorm Sheet

Peace (in the sharing),


Inspired to Write by The Sunday Funnies

(from Boolean Squared)
 (This post is also a podcast)
I remember well the ink-stained fingers. On Sunday mornings, before anyone else received their delivery of the New Haven Register, I would sit on top of the red newspaper box where the bundles would get delivered. First, I would open up the pack by slitting open the plastic wrapper with my pocket knife, and then I would open up the first newspaper on top, turning quickly to the colored comic section. The rest of week wa black and white, but on Sunday, it was full color. It was early enough in the morning that there was often not much traffic along the main street of my town, and in some seasons, I’d have to use the streetlight above for a reading lamp.

But there I would sit, enjoying the first look at Sunday comics before anyone else. And my fingers would turn a rainbow hue from the ink coming off the news, the black of the front page mixed with the colored ink of the comics. My reading done, I would pack up the bundle and begin my methodical journey around the neighborhood, delivering the newspapers. All the while, though, my mind would be replaying the antics of Calvin and Hobbes, or the adventures of Spiderman, or nutty ideas of The Far Side, some of which I still don’t get.

I was thinking of those Sunday mornings the other day because I have a book collection of the comic, Zits, and along with many great strips that appeal to the comedy of being a father of a teenager, the book includes many short narratives of famous comic creators about their memories of comics as a child. Some write about their parents forbidding them from reading the funny pages, which only made it more enjoyable. Others write about where their inspirations as a writer come from, or where their drawing styles emerged from.

For me, the comics were part of childhood, and when I became an adult, I realized that I wanted to try my hand at creating a comic. I chose the classroom as my setting, and technology as the wedge, and created Boolean Squared. The art is minimal at best (I wish I had a partner) but I loved the writing challenge of a comic, and for a year, it ran in the online edition of our local newspaper, The Springfield Republican. I published about 150 comics during my two-year stretch and then retired it. Writing and publishing Boolean Squared was an incredible joy, and a whole lot of work.

The experience made me think of writing and creating in a whole new way, and I still bring comics into my classroom on a regular basis for teaching writing craft and for students, to write. They may never experience the ink-stained fingers of my own childhood (kids don’t deliver newspapers anymore, do they?) but at least they can experience the genre of comics, and who knows? One of them just might be a budding webcomic creator and they just might remember that teacher who valued comics as a piece of writing and art.
Peace (in the funnies),


Book Review: NERDS


book cover of National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society (N.E.R.D.S., book 1) by Michael Buckley

NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue and Defense Society. Now, that’s a good acronym. Writer Michael Buckley’s series about a super spy group of odd characters with strange, nerdy powers is an action-filled romp that feels like a kid version of James Bond. There are now three books in the series, and I finally got around to reading the first one (after being pressed by a student, who assured me I would like it. Do they see me as a Nerd?)

The story is about Jackson Jones, a former athlete and cool kid, who becomes part of a group of spies, made up of all the kids he used to pick on and bully when he was cool. Buckley keeps the pedal to the metal in this story, although we do get the predictable story of Jackson earning the trust of his fellow Nerdians (it helps when you save the world and rescue them from the clutches of the evil nemesis). What I liked most is the mix of adventure and humor that Buckley injects into the story. It is quite witty, and you can see how Buckley set up the entire series in this first novel.

And it’s nice that Buckley has carved out a cool zone for the nerds of the world. But we all know, nerds now rule, right? All technological innovation is coming from the heads and skills of the same kids we used to ostracize as geeks and outcasts. Here, they emerge as saviors of the entire world and the last best hope for mankind.

I love this quote from one of the characters, as they explain this shift to Jackson:

“The dorks, the dweebs, goobers and spazzes that you picked on are the ones who will grow up to discover the vaccines, write the great novels, push the boundaries of science and technology, and invent things that makes people healthier and happier. Nerds change the world.” (p. 190)

That says it all. NERDS is fun reading.

Peace (in the shift),


The Games They Play

Have you ever asked your students what kind of games they play outside of school? I did, mainly because we are moving into a game design unit next week and I was curious about what games they like to do in their own time. I told them it could be video games, board games, playground games, whatever. The list I got from my students included a lot of games I know but also, a lot I don’t know.

The one that kept popping up on some lists was Minecraft, and I have one student who is constantly talking to me about it. I don’t know much about it, other than what I have read in magazines and what my student has talked to me about. But I think I might need to delve into the world-building game a bit more, and my navigator might be my student. I was thinking of how I could have my student be the teacher in the classroom, showing me (and then, showing his peers) what Minecraft is all about.

I liked that Chess was on the list. There was a time when I taught my students how to play Chess, but I haven’t done that in some time. I’d like to do that again. (I am now teaching my seven year old son the game. It brings back memories of teaching my older sons, too, but now the oldest one kicks my butt every time. I may need to keep some tricks up my sleeve. At my younger son’s school, the principal sets aside time in his day to play Chess with students. I think that’s a great idea.)

What games do your students play? And why do they keep playing them? (which is really what I am after here, as we begin to think about how to engage a player in a game)

Peace (in the games),


A Video Tour of Literary Characters

We’ve been working hard on character traits this year, exploring personality, emotion and physical appearance of the characters in the books we are reading. This activity involved creating a “character trading card” and then writing up a descriptive piece of writing of the character in the card. Another student in another class then got the description and had to find the character on the wall. They had a pretty good time playing detective, and learning about other characters and other books (although there were a lot of Katniss and Percy cards).

Peace (on the wall),


I’ve Given Up … Stories

(Note: This is a response to a writing prompt by my friend Jeremy Hyler at our National Writing Project iAnthology writing site. The prompt was to write about something we have given up. I chose stories. By the way, you should consider voting for Jeremy for his blog at the Edublog Awards for best new blog. At the least, you should add him as someone to follow as he reflects on teaching, writing and, particularly, reaching middle school boys as readers and writers.)

Take a listen to my response as a podcast.


I’ve given up more stories than I can count, and each time, I feel as if I have lost someone dear to me. But they just had to go. I’ve given up stories that started strong and ran out of something by the middle and either fluttered to the end, or never even made it there. I’ve given up stories that seemed to go one way, only to veer another way, and then I could not find the strings to tangle them back together. I’ve given up stories because I have forgotten the story I wanted to tell in the first place, which is about as much of an awful feeling for a writer that you can have. I’ve given up stories because of the opposite, too: I told the story I wanted to tell and that story was for no one else but me. I keep those stories in my heart. So, maybe they aren’t completely given up. I’ve given up stories more often than I have not given up on stories, and I often wonder: what does that say about me as a storywriter? Do I give up too easily? Can’t I focus, for god’s sake?

My 11 year old son was writing a story the other day on our computer and then last night, he told me he had run into a wall and decided to delete the whole thing. No, I almost shouted. Don’t do it. At least save it for another day, another year. Save the story for another time when another version of yourself can pick it up and keep it going. I think I was talking to myself as much I was talking to him.

I’ve given up lots of stories, but somehow, I know where they still are.

Peace (in the lost and not-so-lost stories),


The Good, the Bad, the Ugly of Video Game Design

We’re about to launch into an intensive two-week Game Design unit around science (more on that this weekend) and along with slowly getting my students gaming, I am trying to get them thinking about game design. Yesterday, I asked them to take a short assignment of their thoughts on what makes a game good and what makes a game bad. I tried to steer them to thinking of the elements of game design.

One student wrote this on their paper:

“It makes my brain do interesting things.”

I love that quote because it captures why I am even bothering to think about video game design and development in the classroom. It’s all about pushing my students to think different (Thanks, Steve Jobs), create something interesting, and step into the spotlight as a published game developer. Along the way, we’re going to tackling many skills: writing, the engineering process, visual literacy, authentic publishing, peer feedback, etc.

Here are the collection of answers from the assignment, as Wordles. There was plenty of repetitions in their answers, but these capture the main ideas I saw in their writing. Notice how graphics, and sound, and playability are all in the mix. That awareness is a good start for our conversations.
Good Game Design Elements
Bad Game Design Elements

Peace (in the game),


What Do You Mean, Teachers Can’t Create Curriculum?

My wife has a subscription to a bunch of school administrator journals. It’s not the best of reading, but I like browsing through to see what trends may be emerging on the horizon. It’s like peeking around the corner with spy gear. I am always surprised by the amount of canned curriculum being advertised in the pages of these journals — the claims that everything can be fixed with a simple software tool, or box of leveled books, or the new device is both interesting and appalling at the same time.

I was reading a column in the latest edition of District Administration by Cathleen Norris and Elliot Soloway (who write a column called Going Mobile) when something jumped out at me that I had to respond to. The column was about the impediments to technology in schools these days, and Norris and Salaway outline a number of obstacles. They make some good points, including the need for more professional development opportunities for teachers, a viable infrastructure that supports technology, and the need to do more work around assessment of student work with technology.

Another impediment is curriculum development and this is where something they wrote had me fuming a bit. This is what they say:

“… administrators can’t expect to be successful on the back of teacher-generated curriculum materials. Teachers are not curriculum producers; teachers are, well, teachers.” — Norris/Soloway, District Administrator

Excuse me? Condescending a bit or what?

I guess as a teacher, I am not talented or smart enough to develop a rich curriculum that engages my students in learning while also anchoring that learning to whatever state curriculum is in the mic? I don’t have the tools to be thoughtful about development of activities with end-goals in mind? I don’t have the wherewithal to integrate technology in a meaningful way for a meaningful purpose for meaningful learning?

Come on! These two need to get immersed in the work of organizations like the National Writing Project, where the heart and soul of curriculum development is with the teachers. All I could think of is that these writers may represent a majority of administrators (not all, but many) who don’t value teachers as leaders, and so where do they turn for curriculum?

That’s right. To the advertising pages of journals like District Administration, where they can spent gobs of precious money on canned curriculum that gets shoved down the throats of teachers, stifling not only the creative abilities of teachers but also taking away much of the individualized approaches to student learning that we know is most effective.

What Norris and Soloway are saying is: Trust the experts when it comes to curriculum development, and the experts are not the teachers.

If ever a statement needs push back, this is it, particularly as we shift towards Common Core standards and the major companies like Pearson are no doubt  gearing up canned curriculum and textbooks for states and school districts to purchase and pat themselves on the back that they are now in the running for Race to the Top money that comes with alignment. Administrators, look to your own teaching corp for expertise and find a way to bring us teachers into the equation, too.

Peace (in the push back),