To Game or not to Game, that is my question

For the past few summers, our Western Massachusetts Writing Project has made a concerted push to offer youth writing programs in the summer. I have been involved with a partnership with a local vocational high school that offers summer enrichment programs for middle school students. I’ve been part of teams that have offered programs in stop-motion movie making, webcomics, digital storytelling and more.

Here’s what I am mulling over, and I need to do it fairly soon (like, in the next few days, when advertising for the summer already gets underway): Do I offer a course around Game Development and Design? Before I say “yes,” I am trying to figure out, “Can you pull this off, mister?”

The text to a speech about gaming that I found online is something I keep coming back to as a sort of guide in my thinking around using gaming for education. The Ten Commandments of Game Development Education by Ernest Adams is wonderfully frank and helpful, and even though it is aimed for the university level, I see a lot of advice here that I should follow, including allowing for failure, keep “play” at the center of the work, show the history of the field of work, and encourage collaborative teamwork.

I have a feeling such a class would be of interest to a lot of kids (don’t you?) and so I am brainstorming here a bit about what I would do with them over the course of the 12 hours spread out over four days. My aim would be to make the program fun and interesting (it is summer, after all) while still engaging them as learners around concepts of design, play, creation and technology. And I want them to “create,” not just play.

Here’s an outline of my thinking:

  • Some of the first day would be centered around non-tech gaming and development of a game as a collaborative process. I would use what we did at the National Writing Project session around gaming, where we worked in small groups with some unknown materials to develop a game, with rules, that we could teach others.
  • We’d look at some familiar board games, and then use this book that I found that comes up with different ways to play familiar games (such as, a new way to play Monopoly, etc.) This would lead into a discussion around design: how does a game invite a player and what elements work for play? I might toss some card games into the mix, too.
  • I’d love to do something about the history of Video Games (there must be a good resource somewhere) and bring them to one of those sites that allow you to play the old 8-bit games like Pacman, Pong, Astroids, etc.,. so they can experience where video games came from and how far they have come in a few decades.
  • We’d then move into looking at and playing some online games, as we mull over, once again, design elements. What animation, choices for the player, artwork, etc., makes a game effective? I bet we could compile a pretty good list of recommended games from the kids.
  • I’d show them Scratch, with an emphasis first on animation and programming, and then, shift gears into using Scratch to develop a simple game. (I know this can be done with the MIT freeware, but I haven’t yet done it.)
  • At this point, I would work on the concept of “story” — of the underpinnings of a good game, and how character and plot can guide the game developer along (and also, note that this is a point of argument in the gaming world — that not all games need “story” to be successful and sometimes “story” ruins a good game, right?).
  • Here’s where I might have them use Gamemaker8 (which I have been experimenting with) to develop a Maze Game, and for those advanced students, turn them loose for something larger. I imagine this will be the point where the differentiated instruction will come into play, and where students with background knowledge can become leaders with me of the session. (And to be honest, I am looking for platform that is a bit easier to use. Any ideas?)
  • I want to look more for other game development software that we could use. I know there are some for developing games for mobile devices and for the Xbox. And I seem to recall a gaming platform that students can use to learn about making games. I’d have to dig around my notes for that one (does it cost money?)
  • I might as well have a time when kids can bring in their Xbox or Wii and let them play, right? I’d have to structure what we are looking at while they play.
  • I’d develop a website for their games to be published and shared. They would not be creating in a vacuum. And they would be testers and sources of feedback for each other, too. This could be interesting — how do we adapt the Peer Writing Response for Peer Gaming Response?
  • I’d even dig up a video documentary or two about game design. There was a good one about Donkey Kong, if I remember correctly. (note to self: appropriate for kids?)
  • I know at least one person who had a career on working in the video game industry that I bet I could bring in to talk about his work. There must be others out there, too. I always try to bring in guests who have experience who can talk to the kids and answer questions that fall outside my own field of expertise.

So, what do you think? Is it viable? Do you have resources that could help me along the way?

Peace (in the brainstorming),

Working on a Workshop Proposal: Tech Across Content Areas

Two members of our Western Massachusetts Writing Project Technology Team and I are working on a collaborative proposal for a technology conference that is coming to a nearby city in the spring. We’re sort of scrambling because the deadline looms for proposals (it’s my fault, thinking I had a conflict and now realizing that I don’t).

The conference is called The First Annual Technology Conference and Exhibition, with keynote speaker Alan November (worth the admission right there, I think).  The conference seems  a little bit too commercial/vendor heavy (if the website is any indication) to me, but we’ll see how it goes. The conference is sponsored by a group with educational ties (Technology in Education Partnership), and I have been asked by two different folks (one is the head tech person at our school district and the other is part of the New Literacies Initiative) to consider submitting proposals.

Our idea is around the topic of Technology in the Content Areas, as Tom has done work around creating digital portfolios for his math students, Tina has done digital storytelling with her journalism students, and I have done digital science picture books with my students. While our focus is on technology across the curriculum, I am hoping we spend a fair amount of time around assessment and alignment with standards, as our state is moving quickly into the Common Core, which I think opens more doors for media and technology use in content-area classrooms.

What’s nice is that the three of us did most of this work for the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site, so our work can be accessed during the workshop (they promise free wireless for participants) as a way to begin our conversations.

We need to get our proposal in in a few days, and then we’ll see what happens. I like being part of a team making a pitch for a workshop, and the three of us work well together (we’ve done technology summer camps before).

Peace (in the proposal),

Some Words about the Writing Project

One of my mentors in the early years of teaching and in the National Writing Project, Bruce Penniman, received the 2010 Pat Hunter Award at our Western Massachusetts Writing Project event this weekend. To say that Bruce nurtured WMWP during his tenure as site director would be a vast understatement. And although retired from teaching, Bruce continues to be a force in education to be reckoned with. (See his book, Building the English Classroom: Foundations, Support and Success, which was published last year)

Bruce instills leadership in those he works with by instilling trust of ideas and the confidence that the person can get things done. Although I did not know Patricia Hunter, who helped found the WMWP, she apparently had the same qualities.

Peace (in the sharing),

Planning a No-Cost Tech for Teachers Conference

Our Western Massachusetts Writing Project is in the midst of planning our third Spring Technology Conference and each year, we try to find a theme. One year, it was Tech Across the Curriculum. The next, it was Digital Storytelling. This year, we are trying to provide time to explore some of the free platforms that are available for teachers and students. We are calling it Unlock the Power of No-Cost Tech Tools for Teachers.

For us at WMWP, this easily falls under one of our main missions of providing access to resources to as many students and teachers as possible. Our hope is that teachers will play and explore, and then reflect on the possibilities for the classroom.

Here are the tools we intend to showcase during the conference, which takes place in late March.

  • Voicethread, for digital storytelling and sharing ideas;
  • Glogster, for creating multimedia posters;
  • Wallwisher, for brainstorming;
  • Open Office, for an alternative to costly software suites;
  • and a few more things here and there.

If you live or work in Western Massachusetts and are interested in more information, leave me a note here and I will contact you. Or you can keep an eye out at our WMWP website for an upcoming announcement.

Peace (in the free stuff),

Reflections on Digital Storytelling with Teachers

(Note: a wordle of comments from teachers on what they enjoyed from the workshop)

Saturday morning, in my school library, there were about 25 of us wrapping our minds around digital storytelling at an event called Digging into Digital Storytelling and we were doing it in a very concrete way: by playing with the technology and discussing the implications for the classroom. This is the second annual conference that our Western Massachusetts Writing Project Technology Team has hosted (last year, we presented a Technology Across the Curriculum event) and we kept true to our values in the National Writing Project:

  • Teachers were teaching teachers
  • Writing was the heart of what we were doing
  • Sharing and reflection were built into the day
  • Activities were designed for participation

The day began with an overview of digital storytelling, allowing us to conceptualize the role of student as composer of multimedia stories. This was an audience of folks completely new to the field but who were interested in learning more about how to engage their students with media production and digital stories. (One teacher admitted she had never even heard the term “digital storytelling” prior to the event).

I shared out information about the Collaborative ABC Movie Project from a few years back, shared some student movies from our Memory Object project, and then two of my technology team members — Mary and Tina — shared movies, too. Tina showed a wonderful story about a local place that holds a place in her heart and Mary showed a story in which her students talked about a water table experiment they had done.

Then, with a quick step-by-step tutorial of Photostory, they dug in.

I had asked them to consider bringing their own flash drives with images to tell their own story, and most did. Within minutes, they were composing. Some were stories of places; others were stories of people. One created a movie based on a poem of love that she had written for her partner and selected images. A few worked on ideas that their students might work on.

It was wonderful to watch and they were very engaged in what they were doing. Just like students, when you give them the time and scaffolding to succeed.

Our plan was to transition halfway through the day to explore Voicethread, but everyone was so immersed in Photostory that it didn’t seem like the right thing to do. So, we suggested that they keep working on Photostory and then, for the last 30 minutes, I would walk them through Voicethread. They all agreed, and appreciated the flexibility of the workshop to accommodate what they were doing. I can’t stand it when a workshop presenter has no clue what the audience is up to, so I try to stay tuned in with where people are and what they need to keep learning.

The final reflections — we called it a Ticket to Leave — were overwhelmingly positive, with folks noting that the time to play and explore was crucial for them as they think about how they can bring the concept back to the classroom.

Here are some of the ways they hope to move the concept into the classroom:

* Using Photostory for fluency project
*I see a lot of promise for September, especially with public speaking class
* I will use this in World Civilization and Integrated Vocational Skills classes
* You sparked collaboration with other teachers and learners — an idea I might develop through either blogs with students/or possibly voicethread
* Using this with my fourth graders who are trying to remember parts of essay writing
* Remediation project of an argumentative essay
* I hope to use digital storytelling for a long-term science experiment in mummification
* Introduce the idea to my juniors and seniors as a possible tool for use on their research presentations on topics ranging from Buddhism to Heien Japan to Medeival art in Europe

One thing I wish we had done with them: create a gallery walk of all of the movies they were working on so that participants could see what each had been doing during the time together. I realized later that they were most likely interested in each other’s work and we had not provided them an official glimpse into their efforts.

One more note: Almost everyone agreed that Photostory was easy to use and most admitted their struggle now was not with the technology but with their technology coordinators. Since Photostory is a downloaded program (free from Microsoft), they would have to go through hurdles to get it on desktops or into their system, and I could sense most would at least pursue the request but for how far? When we grapple with access to technology, it is often as much about the equipment as it is the help from the so-called experts who really see themselves as gatekeepers. If you are a technology coordinator, give the teachers the keys to the closet, please. Most don’t want to rock the boat and will give up on an idea if it means coming into conflict with the technology coordinator. That’s my opinion, anyway.

Peace (in reflection),

A NWP/San Antonio Reflection

I made it back from San Antonio on time, and with no fuss, and still brimming with the experiences of connecting and re-connecting with so many wonderful teachers in our National Writing Project network who openly share ideas. (I will be posting some podcasts from the main session later and share out the workshop that I co-presented on The Writing Processes of Digital Stories).

When we return home to our Western Massachusetts Writing Project, we are asked to write a one page reflection on our experiences, so here is is mine (as a Scribd file):

A Report From NWP San Antonio

Get your own at Scribd or explore others: Education wmwp NWP

Peace (in sharing),

Using Google Sites

I discovered Google Sites this week. You know, it was one of those applications that I read about when it launched, scrolled through some posts about the merits of it, and then never checked it out. Instead, I kept using Google Page Creator for some school website projects, which has been fine and dandy and all that.

But this week, I finally explored Google Sites, which allows you to create an entire website that feels a bit like a modified Moodle (with not nearly all the bells and whistles) and just like so many other Google applications, it is relatively easy to use.

The downsides?

  • I love Google but they are giving this away to increase their own content on the web under the banner of Google
  • The URL of your site defaults to a Google Site extension
  • There are limited themes and options

The upsides?

  • It’s incredibly easy to use
  • You can set up a website in minutes
  • You can replace the Google Banner with your own
  • I have not seen any advertising anywhere on my Google Site (always a concern with freebies)
  • You can control what features are active on the site (such as comments, etc)
  • You can share administrative control and collaborate with others (similar to sharing in Google Docs)
  • Easy integration with Google Video, Google Docs, etc.
  • You can layer pages in different ways, such as under a parent page or not

All in all, if you are searching for an easy way to make a classroom website, Google Sites might be one option to consider. (Here is an example of a teacher website that used Google Sites). I worked with Weebly to show students how to begin to make a website last year, but I think Google Sites might be easier and have more flexibility for kids.

So what am I creating? It’s an eZine for the three youth programs that the Western Massachusetts Writing Project has been running this summer. We’ve never done an eZine before, but we wanted to showcase the writing and movies that were created by kids at three different sites this year.
This file has been created and published by FireShot

You can take a sneak peek at our site, if you want, and any feedback on it would be most appreciated as we continue to build it in the next week or two (one camp is still running).

Peace (in development),

Slice of Life, Weekly Challenge, Chapter 12

(This is part of a weekly feature called Slice of Life Project)

I was sitting at the table, in a meeting at the end of the school year and thinking: although I am no meeting lover, this group of people is really special. There were such smart, dedicated people in here and it made me glad (once again) to be part of an organization like the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. Our work as part of the National Writing Project is to connect with teachers and think of ways that best practices in the classroom around writing and learning can bubble up through the system to create positive change in schools.

At this particularly WMWP Executive Board meeting (where I sit as the technology liaison for our writing project), we were reaching a vote on a new mission statement. We have been on a year-long endeavor to craft a mission statement that reflects not only our core values but also our vision for the future of our organization. For the past two years, we have been working to view our writing project through the lens of social justice and equity, and now we are re-aligning much of our work in that direction. We’ve had to ask tough questions about what we are doing and why we are doing it, and we’ve had some interesting discussions on topics ranging from race to diversity to the role of our organization as a face of social change.

The vote for the new mission statement was unanimous. Here is our statement, which is a wonderful endorsement for the purpose and power of education in the fabric of life.

“The mission of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, a local site of the National Writing Project, is to create a professional community where teachers and other educators feel welcomed to come together to deepen individual and collective experiences as writers and our understanding of teaching and learning in order to challenge and transform our practice. Our aim is to improve learning in our schools — urban, rural and suburban.

Professional development provided by the Western Massachusetts Writing Project values reflection and inquiry and is built on teacher knowledge, expertise and leadership.

Central to our mission is the development of programs and opportunities that are accessible and relevant to teachers, students and their families from diverse backgrounds, paying attention to issues of race, gender, language, class and culture and how these are linked to teaching and learning.”

Isn’t that a great missions statement? We worked to make it inviting to all teachers and educators and also for students and their families. Now, as one board member noted in our meeting, we have an obligation to follow through with this vision and work hard to become the force for change that we envision. We hope this mission statement is a guide for the future, and not some emblem of the past.

And I can’t resist another Wordle, using our mission statement as text:

Peace (in change),

More Notes from a Tech Conference

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post about a Technology Across the Curriculum conference that I helped to organize. Yesterday, I did some reflections on how the conference went and today, I wanted to try to bring you a little deeper into the conference work. Much of this has already been posted on our Western Massachusetts Writing Project News Weblog as a way to distill information to our teachers, but I wanted to share it out here, too.

Here is a collage of photos (I used a site called Stained Glass Collage to mix and match up some photos).

Here are some podcasts:
Finally, here are two comics created by participants in the Digital Storytelling workshop (using Make Beliefs Comics):

Reflecting on a Conference

Yesterday, my Technology Team at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project hosted a Technology Across the Curriculum conference and we had about 25 teachers attend, which is pretty decent for a Saturday morning. Most of them were not affiliated with the Writing Project and so, we are hoping that this served as a positive introduction to our ideas of “teachers teaching teachers” and “writing to learn” as the focus of activities.

Our keynote speaker, Mike Flynn (who is the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year and a teacher at my school and a good friend), did a fantastic job of setting the tone of the day. Mike presented on the topic of the value of video in the elementary classroom, focusing in on a television program that he and his second graders produce around curricular themes (weather, salmon, etc). He injected some good humor and, also, laid out the rationale for such ventures (student engagement, knowledge of subject, public speaking, etc). I later joked to him that he may have lost a few folks when he mentioned that sometimes he is up until 3 or 4 a.m., working on editing of the movies at deadline.

We then broke the day into two sections, with three workshops. Everyone went into a session led by Tina on social networking for teachers. We wanted to give everyone a view of the ever-connected world. Tina had everyone visit, and urged them all to register, for Classroom 2.0 and begin connecting with other teachers. At the start of the conference, I noted that more than 20 teachers from my own network had posted greetings for them at our blog site, and they were all duly impressed and encouraged by those words. (another thank you to everyone).

The other two sessions were Audiocasting in the Classroom and Digital Storytelling Across the Curriculum.

The podcasting session was a combination of exploration and then hands-on work, using Audacity, which only one participant knew about. We also recorded a collective Day in a Sentence podcast (to be released later today with the Day in a Sentence post). They loved using Audacity and immediately understood the potential of the use of voice. One of the teachers is at my own school and we began planning how my class of sixth graders might team up with her class of fourth graders for a collaborative project.

The digital storytelling session, led by Mary, had folks working with both Make Beliefs Comics (always a huge hit) and VoiceThread. They loved the potential of VoiceThread. I had set up a master account, and created alternative identities for them to use and experiment with. I could tell that the examples we showed in the areas of math, science and history were hitting some chords with them. Our discussion at the end of the session (which I will podcast later) was also informative.

At the end of the conference, a number of folks asked when we would be doing more of these hands-on technology conferences and that is something our team will have to think about. There clearly was interest and our model of engagement and hands-on work was what these teachers needed. They wanted time to play and we gave that to them. Almost every hand in the room was raised when Mary asked how many of them learned something they could try out in the classroom on Monday.

For the most part, it was a smooth conference to run, with a great team of folks. We held the event at my school, and so I had time to prepare during the week (putting Audacity and PhotoStory3 on all of the computers). The wireless Internet network was wicked slow, for some reason, and so loading time for some web-based applications took a bit of time. The participants were more patient than I was. I paced the room.
Also, I want to give a shout-out to my school district’s Information Technology leader — Kim F. — who volunteered to come to the Conference, and act as tech support and troubleshooter for the sessions. I often run into teachers who are at odds with their Tech Staff and come into conflict. I know I am lucky to have Kim around and for her to give up a Saturday morning to be with us — as a volunteer — says a lot about her support for teacher inquiry. (And I let her play with my XO Computer, which had her full attention for a time).

I’ll be posting a few podcasts in the coming days and some photos from the conference. All in all: a great success.

Peace (in reflection),