Saturday, July 26, 2014

Organizing My Online Life!

I’ll admit it. I’m a conscientious objector to the internet. Which is weird given how much I love video games and other tech but somehow learning to use different internet services is just aggravating to me. When we had to do an assignment teaching different apps that might be helpful to teachers to each other, I was not excited. However, I learned a lot about having to fit a lot of information into a small amount of space.
Making a one page (double-sided) handout describing how to use Google Drive is not as easy as it sounds. Not because Google Drive is hard to use: just the opposite. It’s really easy but there’s not a lot of space on a single page of paper, especially if you’re using screenshots. I still chose to use the screenshots despite the limited space because only using text just wouldn’t convey what to click. I think I would actually have wasted more space trying to describe in detail where buttons are than just using the screenshot. Or, I would have left my students without really giving them the information they needed. So I showed the basics of how to use the site then listed some of the more specialized features and gave them the link to tutorials if they decided they wanted to go further.
Also, I taught the” class” by sharing the handout itself and then sharing, modifying, etc. with the group. This way, I could give them more details in person but they could use the handout as a guide later. Plus, they were practicing all the skills as I taught them.

I think the take away from all of this is that you can only give students so much information at once, so choose that information wisely. Also, combine formats of information to be able to reinforce the skills being passed on and to make sure students are following. Finally, let students try new things out as they learn them (see, I’m learning from those great video game tutorials). That way, they remember it better and you know they can successfully use the skill.  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Lessons in Video Games

I've been playing video games for most of my life. A few weeks ago, I was struck by the similarities between a good video game tutorial and good lesson planning. Obviously, I was quite happy when I got an assignment to go check out video games and relate them to teaching. I thought about all the video games I could look at but kept coming back to those tutorials. What made them good or terrible? Bad tutorials are usually cheesy and annoying with some guide giving you cookie-cutter directions (Hey, listen!). Good tutorials though, just sort of blend into the game. You learn to play the game by exploring and testing new skills as you learn them. Sound familiar? Tutorials are essentially lessons for gameplay so I’ll be exploring how good tutorials are built and that might relate to good lesson design.
For tips, I have turned to the always excellent team behind Extra Credits, a video game design vlog. Check out their tutorials 101 video:
So what are the rules for good tutorials?
1.       Less text
When players are confronted by walls of text, they tend to tune out. Not surprisingly, so do students. In good tutorials and lessons, text is broken up with images and action.
2.       No front loading
Video game designers sometimes feel like they have to teach the player how to do EVERYTHING at once. Teachers can often make the same mistake. Both students and players get confused and have trouble with remembering all of the details. Teach students what they need to know to be able to do the next step and save the rest for later.
3.       Make it fun
Um, duh. Video games are played for fun but often the first thing players encounter, the tutorial, is booooooring. In teaching, “make it fun” is a cliché but we all got into our content area for a reason. For me, I love the mystery of history and the puzzle of fitting together different factors in history to figure out why things happened. Even if I can’t convince students that history is super awesome and fun (which it totally is), I can pass along a little enthusiasm. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional game in the classroom.
4.       Reinforce learning through play
This relates to #2. When players learn new skills, they need a chance to try it out. Let’s be honest, if I just found out that I can blow things up with my mind in a game, I want to go blow something up, not listen to five more minutes of explanation. The same thing applies to students. If they just learned how to do something new, then they need a chance to apply it.
5.       Listen to your players
I’m going to steal a line from Extra Credits: What is obvious to you (designers who have been working on a game for a long time) isn’t always obvious to them (brand new players). Likewise, what is obvious to me as a history teacher who has spent countless hours poring through primary texts and writing literally hundreds of pages of research, is not obvious to a high school freshman taking his or her first history class. Check in with them and find out what they are and aren’t understanding. That’s the point of assessment.

So it turns out that video game makers are running into the same issues as teachers and looking out how they successfully solve those issues can help teachers solve those same basic issues. Plus it gives me an excuse to play video games during grad school. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Yesterday I tried taking the Smart Balance assessment. Wow. I thought the SAT was confusing. This is the test the higher ups are thinking about using for the standardized state testing. Apparently, the lobbyists are trying to convince lawmakers to use this but school administrators want to use an ACT derivative. Both tests are computerized. I haven't tried the ACT derivative but the computerization of this test makes me want to tear my hair out. There's a split screen, a confusing menu, you have to scroll everywhere, you had to highlight text but it wasn't clear how to do that. It was a nightmare and I have a master's degree. I can't imagine how awful it would be to ill-prepared high schoolers. And yet, this is the future of my profession.

It is both mind-boggling and depressing how much students' future depends on the machinations of our political system. There's a lot of money to be made in standardized testing. Every test is made by a private company and they pay lobbyists to get their test chosen. And in this situation, computerized tests are cheaper to proctor, right? Most of the cost is up front with a smaller amount of maintenance. But there's been a ton of research which indicates people don't read or test as well on a computer as compared to paper. So not only are we trying develop an enormous amount of ability in our students' head, we're telling them to proof it in a more difficult environment.

However, this is the situation and no amount of fussing on my part is likely to change it. So what can I change so my students have a better chance of succeeding (and I can keep my job)? I can incorporate computer skills into my teaching. Hey, it's a good chance to do cool computer projects while giving them some of the basic skills they need to do well on convoluted tests. I can teach them strategies that will help not only with tests in general but with computerized tests specifically too. And while I hate to suggest time away from my beloved content, they'll probably have take a couple of test runs. I can at least comfort myself that if I teaching good critical thinking and problem-solving skills, they'll have some clue of what to do when they encounter unfamiliar situations. I can hope.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Interests and Power

"I believe that interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power."
I was recently introduced to the writings of education philosopher John Dewey. It was love at first read. In his “My Pedagogic Creed”, he addressed the thoughts and concerns I have had for a while on education but in a far more elegant way than I ever will. The creed has a lot of good stuff, mostly about how education should build something and how students are more than empty heads to be filled, but the sentence which jumped out at me was "I believe that interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power”. I had to think about that for a moment. If knowledge is power, then perhaps interests are signs of growing knowledge but also pathways to further knowledge.

I think about my time in secondary school. I did not feel powerful. I felt like no matter what I did or what I learned, someone was telling me that I was just a kid and didn’t understand anything. I think about the middle schoolers I’ve been working with and how powerless they must feel. I think about what they’ve told me when they don’t understand something or when the older kids push them out of the way for games. They don’t look powerful. But they have interests. I have a dog lover in my class. I have a soccer player. I have a student who does origami and collects tiny erasers. They don’t come in with empty heads and a set ability. They already know things and have interests and abilities and understandings that I don’t. This rant isn’t meant to be a touchy-feely proclamation of “everyone’s special” but rather the statement of a goal for myself: Learn my students’ interest. Learn what they already know or what they could know and excel at if given the right tools and environment.