Thursday, August 23, 2012

"11 Steps to Gamify Your Next Lesson"
(Originally published at gettingsmart.com)

With so many educators today discussing the possibilities and promises of online learning, one key aspect of education often forgotten in the quest to tear down these learning walls is the ability to create classroom magic within those very same walls. Along with blended learning, flipped classrooms, gamification and many other new instructional buzz words, virtual classrooms are unquestionably valuable educational instruments in a teacher’s pedagogical toolbox.
However, let’s remember the power of an engaging, all-inclusive, in-class learning structure within a traditional classroom. To witness one of these environments where teachers and students interact in a challenging, accountable, spontaneous, and creative atmosphere is to witness a work of art—or classroom magic.

The Game: A “Voting Chips Structure”

One game guaranteed to produce the excitement needed to engage students and achieve the assigned standards is what I call the “Voting Chips Structure,” a learning game that asks students to represent their understanding of an assigned prompt with colored poker chips. Although many of our learning models do not include competition, “Voting Chips Structure” is definitely a competitive game.
Oddly enough, the foundation of this structure in Studio 113 does not originate from the standards. The success is predicated on the students’ choice of final rewards and/or consequences for all participants. Whether it be lip-syncing to Justin Beiber’s “Baby,” performing a version of an arthritic T-Rex dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” or receiving an ice-cold Coke and fresh Milky Way from a classmate, students energetically embrace the consequences and rewards system before diving head first into creating classroom magic.

The “Voting Chips Structure” Procedures

  1. Set up the structure. Assign each student a teammate and organize the partnerships in a circle with one student as the front channel representative and the other as the back channel representative.
  2. Assign the prompt. The students and I created the “Voting Chips Structure” to apply pressure and prepare our Advanced Placement Language class for the timed, rigorous, multiple-choice section of the College Board exam. However, one excellent feature of this learning model is its “plug-and-play” flexibility. Simply plug in the standard, the algebraic problem, the science experiment, the historical fact, the literary excerpt, the conjugation of a second-language’s verb, the skills needed to perform a physical activity, or anything deemed important by the classroom’s learning family. A teacher should simply ask, “What do I want my students to learn with this activity?” Then, simply plug-in the prompts each round and witness the students play with the learning objectives.
  3. Allow thinking time. The amount of thinking time for each round should be determined by the complexity of the prompt. Since we utilized this structure in conjunction with AP Language multiple-choice questions, one-two minutes were given for each team to discuss its answer, and a digital timer was posted on the screen to keep the structure running smoothly and fairly. This may not seem like enough time, but please remember we began this structure the day after each student individually completed the very same questions as a mock portion of the exam.
  4. Poll the back channel. When the thinking time expires, the back channel students are asked to indicate their initial answers by raising their hands. If the assigned prompts are not of the multiple-choice nature, students can voice their answers by verbalizing their responses, by posting to Polleverywhere.com, by tweeting with a pre-determined hashtag, or by any other creative measure established by the learning family. The purpose of polling the back channel is to clarify the majority answer within the classroom. This usually entices all students to reconsider their previous answer.
  5. Allow limited time to change answers. Giving thirty seconds for students to re-challenge their interpretation of the prompt and their initial responses is a powerful technique that causes them to dive even deeper into the unknowns of the learning cue. Oftentimes, students resurface from the deep with a solid understanding of the assigned task.
  6. Ask front channel to announce final answer. After the final deliberation, only the students on the front channel have the authority to announce their final answers. Again, various tech resources may be used to disseminate these answers, however, the old-school method of voicing the answers one-at-a-time is the most efficient method.
  7. Ask students to vote their confidence with chips. Using a set of colored poker chips ranging in value from 1, 3, 5, 10, and 25, students match their partnership’s overall confidence of their final answer with a value determined by the offered chips stacked in front of the front channel members. The starting number of chips should be discussed prior to beginning the model. Our teams agreed upon a starting amount of one hundred.
  8. Announce/discuss the correct answer. The excitement derived from announcing the final answer is awesome. Be creative and have some fun with it.
  9. Ask students to make corrections and re-calculate. After making any needed corrections, front channel students re-calculate their chips by either adding to or subtracting from the trays of organized chips in the center of the circle. If needed, students may use their smartphones or calculators to accurately score themselves. The longer the structure is used, the more complex the numbers may be.
  10. Add any necessary clarifications. If further elaboration or clarification is needed to extend the learning moment, either the teacher or the students may be asked to validate the answer with more detail.
  11. Reset. An optional announcement of each team’s score is harmless and actually adds to the competitive atmosphere. Periodically rotating the front and back channels is also recommended. All that is left to do now is reset and move to round two.
Take a quick look at the “Voting Chips Structure” in action here.

Simply Plug-in the Standards and Play to Learn Flexibility

Whether it is Math, History, Language Arts, Health & P.E., Computer Basics, Chemistry, Webpage Design, Band, Art, or any class at all, I honestly cannot think of any limitations to implementing this structure. Sure, certain learning environments and disciplines will need to take advantage of the flexibility of this structure in order to create one that better serves them. That is the beauty of this “plug-and-play” design.
Simply determine the standards of focus, give the students a voice in creating the procedures for the “Voting Chips Structure,” and simply plug-and-play to create classroom magic. You may not pull a rabbit out of a hat, make a card “jump” from the middle of the stack to the top like David Blaine, or manipulate a Frisbee with no hands like Chris Angel. Heck, I’m quite sure you won’t solve all the educational problems in our country, but you will wipe out students’ lethargy and boredom by creating an engaging classroom full of magic. You can do it, and I’m betting your class will go “all-in” with the voting chips.
Experience “Voting Chips” and many other learning structures from John Hardison & Studio 113 at Georgia’s Educational Technology Conference in November. Please also add your comments by joining the #votingchips discussion on Twitter.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Life Is Writing: Two Apps for the Reluctant Writer

"Life Is Writing: Two Apps for the Reluctant Writer" (originally published at Gettingsmart.com)

I can’t even begin to quantify how many times I have been blessed with the challenge of working with a reluctant writer. During 14 years in the Language Arts classroom, I have heard “I hate writing” a thousand times. Sure, everybody loves those students who scan the writing prompt a couple of times just before their minds and hearts connect with the pens and bleed ink onto the paper in an effortless representation of creativity and mastery of rhetorical strategies. Taking natural writers to the next level is also a daunting task, but I will forever be grateful for those who stare at the paper with confusion and anxiety while hoping words will magically fill up the empty lines. Their apathy for writing shakes me to the core in such a way that leaves me scratching my hairless head and searching for any angle to prove how essential self-expression is to living. To me, life is writing.

How to Ignite Passion Into Reluctant Writers

Some of my attempts to ignite a passion for writing in my students have failed, and no doubt various students have left my class on the last day of school still detesting the writing process. Any teacher faces this reality at times. However, the one bona fide solution that continues to yield excellent results in our classroom is one rooted in common sense. When prompted by a student’s unintended verbal challenge in the form of “I hate writing,” I smile, take a deep breath, pull out a chair and give it my best shot.
“So, you hate writing, huh?” I ask. After hearing a courageous and honest, “yes,” I continue. “I want you to pretend you’re sitting on a front porch somewhere absolutely beautiful – near a beach watching the sunset, up in the mountains hearing rain tickle a tin roof, wherever.” I pause just before finishing the final touches on a canvas colored with Southern scenery, “And the one person you trust more than anyone in the world, a person who is a solid rock, a person you can tell anything to, is sitting right next to you on the front porch swing. You’re sipping on that ice cold glass of sweet tea, and you begin to talk about anything, whatever is on your mind. You don’t stop and wonder if your grammar is correct. You don’t stop and check your spelling. You just open up the tap and let it flow.” Usually by this time, I sense if my strategy is working, and whether it is or not, I still end with my best writing advice. “Simply talk to the paper,” I say.

How to Leverage the Dragon Dictation App for Reluctant Writers

Where students see empty lines on a paper, I want them to hear a voice – their own voice. This is exactly why the Dragon Dictation App works perfectly. Some students fight the physical part of writing but can’t seem to slow down when allowed to talk about the exact same topic. Think about it. Have you ever had a student in class who was always more than willing to give his impressive insight or opinion on any given topic only to clam up when you offered a silent writing session to the class? This need not be a problem with Dragon. Simply open the app on a tablet or smartphone and ask the student to talk. This technique serves as a kick-starter for the writing process, and a student’s confidence immediately soars once he copies and pastes his text into a writing app and views multiple paragraphs of a rough draft. The editing comes later.

Use the Tripline App to Write Everywhere & Anywhere

As my family so often points out, I am a nerd. I always want to put myself in my students’ shoes, so when possible I test all my theories before implementing them in class. Whether I am grilling burgers on the back porch, spending some quality time with my family, or riding a road bike in the North Georgia mountains, I feel like I am swimming in a sea of imagery. Every sight, every sound, every smell, every sensation is an invitation to fully participate in life and express one’s self. With this foundational belief in mind, I decided to experiment once again. I figured if students could see every present moment as an opportunity to express themselves, their love of writing would grow even greater. If they could “check-in” to the moment wherever they were and simply write about their experience, I knew they would believe in the power of self-expression.
To test my theory, I took my eight year-old daughter, my thirteen year-old son and his out-of-state friend to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. I politely informed them that at each stop I would complete the following steps:
  1. Take pictures with my iPhone of any interesting sights
  2. Use the Dragon Dictation App to talk about our experience
  3. Copy the unedited text from Dragon and paste into the “story” section in the Tripline App; and
  4. Send pictures and writing by selecting “check-in” via the Tripline App.
Each time I selected “check-in,” the Tripline website created an interactive, GPS-located map of our travels. Just like the diver we witnessed in the Ocean Voyager tank at the aquarium who was surrounded by whale sharks, manta rays, and other aquatic life, I felt immersed again in a sea of imagery, and I could capture each moment in words and pictures. By showing the pictures, writing and exact location, viewers get a sincere account of our travels. To make my experiment as realistic as possible, I assigned myself the following writing standards during our Georgia Aquarium trip: technical, narrative, persuasive, expository, and descriptive. Furthermore, I chose to keep our trip “private” until I returned home, logged in to Tripline, and edited my writing.
Our trip, and my experiment, was a resounding success. We had an absolute blast. Not only am I excited to jump back in the classroom and offer these tech writing tools to my students, but I am eager to create more opportunities that foster students’ passion for writing. One thing hasn’t changed, however. When I hear on the first day of school, “I hate writing,” I will be prepared.
I will smile, take a deep breath, pull up a chair, and say, “Want to talk instead?” Click here to join the discussion on Voicethread or comment below.