My First Steps As A Gaming Teacher

I originally wrote this for this site.  I thought it might get more exposure if I republished it here.  The link below has some other entries from another teacher that I partner with in using Civ Lab to Teach his students.

Let me being by prefacing that this post is about my personal experience using gaming as a method of teaching and is weaker on the professional discourse.  It talks about my baby steps into this world of using games to teach a large group of students Social Studies Concepts and how I became a CivLab convert .  I think that Mr. Parry summed up the use of CivLab in a way that showcased all of the benefits of using the simulation in a professional manner, but I think that some of my own background is applicable here.  I am humbled to have been included in the inner circle that has helped develop the system into what we have today.  I have been using CivLab in classroom for four years and my part of the story is different than the Parry Brothers that were pioneering this system, which is why I have included it here.  My teaching career has been a journey and will continue to grow as I grow as a professional, just like any teacher’s.  I felt that this section would help those trying to understand where we all came from using this system. 

The Primordial Ooze Of My Teaching Career and my First Steps as a Gaming Teacher
In 2008, I moved schools and was feeling a bit like a fish out of water.  I had just moved states and everything around me was different, except the teaching strategies that were being employed in the classroom.  They were all the same.  We made posters, did research projects, gave students notes, and gave traditional reading assignments.  What constituted good teaching was the same and everyone celebrated the “Best Practices” that had been printed repeatedly throughout the educational discourse for the last 20 years.  I kept doing what everyone had done for years, until I met a fellow teacher that introduced me to a concept that had an aura of educational power and potential that most people were afraid to touch:  Educational gaming as a class instead of an individual.    

The power of the use of a video to teach students has been discussed for years and been beaten to death.  Some say that a computer can never replace a teacher.  Others have touted the benefits that could help those who struggled in a traditional classroom.  But overall no consensus was ever reached and gaming had a remained mostly an individual experience in a computer lab by each student.  From my own experience, I played video games like Number Munchers or Oregon Trail, whenever I went to the computer lab, but I always felt like I lacked guidance from the teachers on what I was supposed to get out of these games.[1]  Usually, it seemed like a way for my teachers to take a breather from the hubbub of the school year and let us have a little fun. 

So when I became a teacher, I had almost dismissed the power of gaming as a teaching tool.  No classes at the university discussed this topic.  Sure we talked about the power of the internet or how a blog might be integrated into a classroom that I was sure would not have the technology to implement these things.  When I student taught I was relegated to an old overhead projector, a copy machine that was jammed half the time, and computers that were about five years old in the Media Center.  Talk about not being excited about the power of computer gaming in school.  It just wasn't feasible and so many teachers I talked with thought fun stuff like that was not for the serious business that is school.  How could gaming ever be used to reach everyone in a classroom full of thirty students?

My discussions with Mr. Parry launched my brain into a tizzy.  I spent a couple of my off periods discussing the finer points of how to use a video game in my classroom to teach economics and government concepts.  It was exciting!  My passion for gaming could be translated into something that was remarkable for learning! 

After our discussions, I quickly went home and pulled out my laptop to begin working on tailoring Capitalism II as a way for my students to learn.  I was teaching self-contained Special Education Government classes at the time.  Many of my students had failed government previously and hated the economics unit with a passion, because if taught through notes it can be dry as the Sahara.

I was determined to give this a try and, quite frankly, I was scared.  This could totally bomb.  I could be verbally assaulted by my students.  My finicky laptop might not work or shut down.  Who knows?  But that day I witnessed something that I have never forgotten.  I taught students with learning disabilities as a whole class how to build a store, sell items, how to gain imports, sell exports, compete with competitors, brand a product, and balance supply and demand.  I did all of this without a single moment of misbehavior and even the students that usually checked out became interested.  The girl that always proclaimed how much she hated government became a leader that helped her class sell shoes and make the most profits of any of my classes.  Talk about a good day! 

After all of this happened, I was hooked and convinced.  I used the same strategy the next year, with student that were in the Autism Spectrum/ED Program and came up with the same results.  Students like games.  They liked controlling the simulation and enjoying the immediate outcomes.  They learned how to work together and practiced the art of human discourse to make decisions.  My students all scored well on the economics unit exam both times I used the strategy.  I felt like I had done something spectacular and I wanted more.  So when I was offered to teach US History the next year and be a part of the multiple school experiment that was CivLab, I jumped at the chance.  If I was working on this by myself and it was good, what could I do with a game that involved multiple schools and classes competing against one another at world domination? 

Looking back on those days, I had stepped out of the primordial ooze of my teaching career and was in a more advanced place.  I was ready to take on a bigger project and do it year round!  The next installment of my journey will be coming soon!

3 Things I learned About Classroom Management This Year

This is the fourth year that I have been teaching middle school and I have realized that there are some things that help make classroom management easier for me.  Below are a couple different things that have made my life easier this school year that I decided to try after years of trying other systems.  Most of these have helped make my classroom more systematic and allowed me to be more consistent.  

      1. The three strike system:  This has allowed my students to make mistakes to realize they need to stop messing around.  So far this system has helped me maintain order and I have had better behavior that I have ever had.  I have one class full of big personalities that are pushing the system as much as they can.  So for that class any kind of physical harm or throwing things has now resulted in an automatic lunch detention.  All 4 of my other classes have responded well to this system.  Most stop what they are doing once they reach strike 2.  So far I have not had to remove anyone from the classroom.  Goes to show how a good system keeps things moving along.  

      2.  Counting down when you want it to be quiet:  This is weird.  Somewhere along the way kids have been programed to respond to the countdown and be quiet.  I have a feeling it must be something done in elementary school and the procedures that they use there.  Coupled with the three strike system this has caused many of my asking for quiet to go away.  I really don’t know why it works, but at this point it does. 

      3.  Making sure you get around helping all the students you can:  I have stopped lecturing as much this year as I have in the past.  There are still days I do, but at this point the kids are doing most of the work during the period.  I now spend more time walking form group to group helping students.  SO far this has helped the kids realize that they can do it and I have gotten to know them better than I have in the past.  When the kids sat in rows it was harder to have personal conversations, but now I can have a conversation with 4 of them at once, show them the skill, and talk about some things that matter to them.  It really is so different than I used to teach, but it seems to be working.  The amount of work that is being turned in is way higher than in years past. 

A Note To New Teachers

Being a new teacher is one of the hardest things that you will ever do.  The amount of responsibility that is thrust upon a new teacher is like placing the world on Atlas’ shoulders.  For a person who is new to the profession that feeling can be crushing. 

I remember my first year actually being frightened of going to work every day.  I even spent time in the bathroom throwing up because I was so nervous.  No one who goes into teaching wants to do a bad job.  We all want to be successful and desire to be inspiration to the children we teach, while also instilling the desire to see value in our subject once they leave.  Putting all of that on our shoulders is absolutely terrifying! 

I remember when I went into the gas station in the mornings and actually envied the clerk behind the desk.  He didn’t have the future success on his shoulders of thirty kids.  If he took a day off no one cared except his employer or those who had to cover for him. (I'm not knocking any industry.  I just remember being kind of jealous that he got to go home when his shift was over...)  Me on the other hand, had those children who counted on me every single day to be the most stable element of their life.  If I took a day off I felt guilty and still do most times.    

If you are new to teaching remember that those around you will be willing to help you. Most teachers enjoy developing people, even colleagues.  I ended up finding a couple key mentors that first year that just listened to my troubles and gave me suggestions.  The people around you are key to your success in those first few years.   They can provide materials, guidance, a sympathetic ear, or even are great people to go out with after school on Friday afternoon.  You do not have to do it alone and nor should you try to.  Start building your support group and growing your network of successful people.  Years down the road you will smile as you think of all those gracious people who helped you get where you are and through every transitional moment.  I know I sure do.  

Also, just remember that it is not your responsibility to fix everything in one year for a student.  All you can do is your best to bring them the most quality education that you can.   Some days that might be the best lesson you have ever done.  Some days it might be a reading you quickly made copies of because you were simply running out of time.  Mostly, just being there and being dependable is the most important thing you can give to kids who might not have the most stable of worlds.  You do not have to be Superman.  Only the best person you can be on any given day.     

Just remember to keep working and trying things.  As time goes on the whole process will become less terrifying and you will spend less time laboring over lesson plans as you become more effective in knowing what kids need.  The joys you will find in this job will outweigh all the terror you are feeling now.  All being petrified shows is that you care and will one day become the amazing teacher you hoped you can one day become.  Hang in there!      

What Do I love most about teaching?

For me teaching is about the relationships that are forged between teacher and student.  I love watching people develop and grow.  I love being a part of that growth and seeing them move on to the next level.  It makes me feel like I am doing something with my life.  

I think that people who love to criticize teachers have no idea why exactly we do what we do.  I live for helping a student understand something that is really hard.  Or exposing them to historical topics that they have never heard nor and probably never will again (unless they go to college).  It is amazing how much students just don’t know and how much we can teach them.  I pretty much assume that they don’t know the information that I am going to share with them.  Some of them might know a little, but most have never heard of Andrew Jackson or the Articles of Confederation.  I get to show them that!  I am the person who really starts to show them how interesting history can be.  There is nothing more exciting than that.  

I like to think that I make a difference and help students become better people and citizens.  I like to think that I ignite a fire with my passion for history within them and show them that it really is very interesting!  History for me is always an adventure and a massive story that I have constantly been pulling layers back over the years.  I try to make them see that.

I have had students come up to me and tell me about how they were watching TV, saw the GEICO commercial that had something to do with the Boston Tea party and were so excited  that they actually understood what it was about.  I had another student who came back in after spring break last year so excited that she had go and seen in person canal boats and the lock system down at Great Falls.  She was so proud that she could tell her family some information that the guide did not!  These are the moments that I live for and work so hard for.  They are the moments that matter and what I love most about teaching.  As a history teacher I am helping students unlock aspects of the world that affect their everyday life.  What job is more awesome than that?

Edweek Teaching History by Encouraging Curiosity Analysis and summary

Below is an article analysis that I had to do for my PD here at Eastern Middle School.  This year instead of giving us classes that many people didn't like on topics that were picked by someone else, we are reasearching and writing about things ourselves.  We are trying to create a culture among the teachers at Eastern that has us also collaborating together to discover how to teach in different ways.  So far, we have all written our own summaries or arctiles on topics that we had to pick.  I selected curiosity as my topic that I wanted to foster in my classroom for the year. 

So far I am enjoying the process.  I love learning new things and sharing with other people.  With the new Google technology we are able to discuss our thoughts on other people's articles and share in a new way.  I am glad my Administration took a chance on doing PD like this.  It motivates me much more than the traditional PD, even though there is more work invovled than sitting in a classroom listening to strategies.  This has made me feel more like a professional and an academic, which is what I loved about college. 

The Article that I read was compiled by Larry Ferlazzo on May 31, 2014 12;20 AM. 
The article was not an analysis, but more of a compellation of ideas that educators could try to be successful at teaching students how to think in history and be curious in history.  He put together three responses to the prompt of Ways We Can Teach Social Studies More Effectively that were suggestions on how to make social studies more interactive. 

All three of the authors stated that they all at some point taught history in the way that they had been taught, which was in a lecture style class.  But when trying to foster curiosity in the social studies classroom note taking fails miserably.  One author, Diana Laufenberg, who has taught grades 7-12 said, “Teaching history is not glamorous” when all we do is drone on like Ben Stein in Ferris Buller’s Day Off.  She said that we needed to ditch the multiple choice tests and worksheets that do not make students actually think about events.  She also stated that she organized her classes thematically, instead of chronologically, which allowed the students to think of over-arching concepts that can apply to their everyday life.  She stated, “Themes allow students to build space for them to store historical skills and knowledge not only for class but as they move forward into life and away from formal education.” 

Using themes do help students in social studies classes and can help students in other classes as well.  Making connections are probably easier if we can show relationships between content instead of compartmentalizing all of the content into boxes with neat little bows.

  Another teacher, Peter Pappas, realized that he was “…doing all the work…” when he was teaching while his students sat passively day after day taking down notes.  He said that he had walked into the art class that was next to his to borrow some supplies one day and realized that, “…if Tom taught art the way that I taught history, then his students would be sitting in rows watching him paint.”  Framing the way that we think about history and education has a profound impact on how teachers present their respective subjects.  Pappas boiled down the process to four different categories when he began thinking about how to teach: 

1.  Teach how historians think and behave

2.  Stop teaching facts and let students explore essential questions.

3.  Use history as a platform for teaching across the curriculum.

4.  Choose the right primary and secondary sources for students to work with.

Thinking about what we are trying to teach students to become is an easier way to frame what we would like the outcomes to be.  Only teaching content instead of teaching skills has not worked out well, and instead of wanting our children to learn information perhaps learning how to perform a skill or task when they leave the school building is a better way to build the future.

Another person who wrote a piece for the article was Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, who talked about her experience in developing a curriculum that moved away from multiple choice tests.  She stated that the hardest part was the initial need for planning time to create the rich assessments instead of using multiple choice tests that take less time to grade and create.  But she did say that creating the coursework creates results that are higher because the teacher is “giving…students a rich understanding and laying a strong foundation of knowledge.”  She also related that when begun at first students are often uncomfortable because there might not be a correct answer.  In history the use of these types of assessments creates anxiety in students who have never done them.  At Eastern this is often the case, when teachers shift from the traditional textbooks and analysis to using primary sources.  Teachers often have students asking for the “correct” answer.  However, if the teacher sticks with the method over time, the students will gain skills and will grow those skills. 

Perhaps the most important piece to Kirby-Gonzalez’s piece was that worksheets keep students quiet, but that the new age classroom allows for collaboration and teaches students to effectively communicate, which for some teachers can feel loud and uncontrolled.  At Eastern the use of table groups in RM 204 has helped students become more of a self-starting learner and has helped those who would give up in a traditional classroom with rows and silence a way to figure out the answers.  So far, the table groups facilitate learning in a different way that allows students to ask each other questions and when no one can agree we can all discuss it together.  The passions of the students ignite when the classroom is utilized properly and it truly is a sight to see when students are arguing over John Brown being a hero or some other open ended question.  Through small table group discussions students work through the material together and are prompted to think about other things.  It really is neat to watch students grow the ability to ask questions, which in the future will only prompt the next wave of innovation.       

Overall, creating curiosity in students has to be how we engage our students.  If we make everything super dry and we all talk like Ben Stein how can we ever hope to inspire our students?  Personally, if I can make the lessons engaging and we let students work together it creates an environment that supports that students in ways that a traditional quiet classroom cannot.  By creating the table groups and teaching the students how to be a historian I have had many conversations that I would not have had otherwise when I used to teach by using rows.  That is not to say the transition was easy or that I use these methods all the time, but it is to say that I am far more comfortable than I used to be. 

IS Jack Black a descendant of Paul Revere?

I had a student tell me today that Paul Revere looked like Jack Black and was wondering if they were related.  I have no idea if they are, but they do sure kind of look like one another.  What do you all think?