Sunday, May 29, 2016

Gamification Year 2; The Quest Continues

As I am preparing to say goodby to another year of gamifying, I feel the need to write down some of the things that are buzzing in my head, lest I forget them in the summer days ahead. This year completed my year 2 in the gamification arena, and as always some things went well, while others will need a complete rethinking.

Story Lines

This year I worked with four distinct story lines, one at each of the grade levels I teach. They were fun to create, and although the students liked that they each had different avenues, I have to admit that keeping them all working at the same time became rather difficult. I would get ranks and achievements mixed up, and sometimes even directed students to a different story.

As I begin to rethink  and prepare for next year I will be going back to one story line as my main effort, allowing me to also combine some of the other aspects of the gamification experience for my students.


The self-ranking leaderboards are in place and served to keep the kids motivated in continuing with the game throughout the year. At times they are still chore to keep updated, but the kids kept me accountable for doing this, as they did check them often, particularly towards the end of the school year as they were looking forward to achieve the highest rank and obtain lofy perk of "Blog Immunity".

This is also where I think having a single storyline will come into play. During this school year, each grade level had their own leaderboard, ranking system, etc. However, I also published for the students the cumulative class ranking. Students were particularly interested in seeing how each class stacked up against each other, and often asked which students were in the lead. In looking forward, I am considering having the individual leaderboards for each class, but also publishing a "top ten", which will be easier to achieve if all classes are working under the same story.


The structure of the game using the blogs as the primary way to get XP worked well, particularly for my upper graders. For the most part, kids blogged consistently about their learning, and we saw a couple of students reach 100 content-related blog post this year. Including the S&EP (as mentioned in my Gamifying the NGSS post) pushed the students to "think like scientists", and provided me with a tangible way to assess them in their progress towards mastery of the practices.

Although the blog points as XP has worked really well, I am re-considering not using their unit tests, performance tasks and projects within the XP structure. The XP has always been about progress towards mastery, and including them in the XP would allow me to encourage the students to perfect their work. It is an easy fix, but it will require a little work on the back end to make sure the playing field is even in regards to points, particularly since these are tied not only to rank but to privileges as well.

Gold Coins

The structure I had in place for obtaining gold coins this year did not work at all. Only three of my 240 students even attempted a cross-cutting "boss battle"(Gamifying the NGSS). When I asked why, the students reported that it was too hard to obtain gold coins, and although I modified the structure several times, by the time the changes came about the students had lost all interest in them. 

As I think about next year, I am considering reverting the gold coins back to simple participation points and displays of good citizenship or behavior, instead of tying them to the content. However, I need to figure out a way to keep the management simple. Walking around with an open app (like Class Dojo) or a spreadsheet has never worked for me. I guess I could create some tokens...

Other gamification things to explore

Escape Rooms: 
Recently I attended the Deeper Learning conference, and participated in an Escape Room experience. I think this has great potential for the gamified classroom, and I invite you to visit some of the things I've found regarding their use in education:

Choose your own adventure videos:
A year ago, my daughter showed me the Interlude tool and I remember thinking how well it could be integrated into a gamified classroom. This video creation tool allows you to design, create and publish an interactive video with relative ease, providing you with a way to enhance your gamified classroom with "choose your own adventure" videos. Unfortunately I forgot all about it until a couple of days ago, and I am sharing it here in case one of you gamifiers wishes take it on as a summer project.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Building a Classroom Website?

Many educators have decided to take the plunge to create their own websites. These websites serve as a central place to compile educational resources for students, communicate expectations, etc. We can think of them almost as interactive "green sheets". Parents can be directed to the class webpage to look at calendars, news from the classroom and upcoming events, while students can look in them to find links to content they may have missed, homework assignments, and even gain access to specific educational resources or web tools recommended by the teacher.

Some districts host teacher websites in their own servers and provide specific tools to be used (Adobe's Dreamweaver for example). However, most often teachers are left to their own devices and their website become a matter of personal preference. With little guidance, teachers choose a particular web creation tool simply because someone they know uses it. However, with the many options out there it is really up to the individual teacher to decide just how they would like their website to represent their classroom.

Google Sites

This is probably the most accessible web page creation tool, especially if you are a GaFE school. It works well simply because it integrates all other GaFE tools. It has the added benefit of allowing you to restrict views to only the individuals within your school or district domain, which for some institutions is a must. However the main disadvantage is that you are very restricted in the look and feel of what is your personal webpage. Google Sites all appear extremely similar. Customizing your navigation or adding anything non-GaFE requires a major investment of time finding tutorials, and the answer is either "It cannot be done" or working with code that, unless you know what you are doing, only makes matters worse. 
If you decide to go Google Sites, visit Mr. Amsler, who kindly published a "Working with Google Sites" web page that serves as a great guide of how and what to do.

Weebly for Education
Weebly for Education is what a former colleague of mine decided to use for our school website, which means that, as the webpage manager, I now have the "joy" of using it on a consistent basis. Its drag and drop simplicity is a favorite with educators interested in creating a more personal look for their websites. In Weebly the website layout and design are all done for you. If you later decide to change the template, you simply click on the new template and everything is transferred to "where it should be". This seems ideal, right? It can be, but it becomes incredibly limiting when you want to get creative because Weebly only allows you to insert elements into pre-defined areas. Unless you are really handy with code, which Weebly does allow you to modify, you are kind of stuck with their templates. This is the main reason I personally dislike it.

Weebly offers other cool stuff, like the ability to add an assignment form to your site allowing students the ability to upload their assignments and submit them to you via your website. You also have the option to create student accounts so that your students can create their own Weebly websites, all moderated by you.
If you decide to go Weebly, make sure that you create an account using Weebly for Education, as opposed to just Weebly, to gain access to the educator tools. You may also wish to visit to find some good tutorials to help you get started.

This is my personal favorite due to its maximum flexibility of design. WIX is a true drag and drop web page creation tool, offering complete customization without any HTML or coding knowledge.  All you have to do is just pick a design that works for you, and swap in your own pictures, text and information. If you are feeling particularly creative, or you do not find something you like, you can choose to start with a blank template add backgrounds, images, text and embed anything anywhere. You literally design your own page with minimal effort. It is worth noting that with WIX you cannot change templates. If you decide that you want to change your look, you will need to change the individual items. 

WIX also has an incredibly comprehensive help center. There are help buttons everywhere, so that if there is ever any doubt on what or how to do something, help is just a click away. You will not need to go a-searching for anything. They have even gone the extra mile and created WixEd a free online education program that teaches Wix users everything they need to know about web page creation.

WIX does not have a dedicated "educator" side, so in some districts you may need to call your IT department before using it in order to have it white-listed. If they need convincing, feel free to show them any of the many sites I have created using the platform. They can be found by clicking on the PBL tab.

I know there are many others. Which one do you use?

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Student AppSmash - A PBL success story

Many of you may have experienced that gut wrenching moment where, before the students have even begun to understand what the PBL experience they are in entails, they have already opened Google slides. The blank stares I get when I dare ask, "Are you sure that a slide deck is the best way to go?", tell me that they are much more product driven than I hope, and that most have been exposed to the "wrong" answer shown in the image above. Presentation equals slides! This is what has driven me to make sure that my driving questions are as vague as possible, at least with respect to the type of product the students create, which brings me to the real reason behind today's post.

A couple of weeks ago, my students began their exploration in our Interdependence of Organisms unit, which culminated in the students "Convincing the general public to care about an endangered species, and developing a realistic plan to bring it back from the brink of extinction".  As always my students launched into "presentation" mode, which was when I officially stated that I was incredibly tired of sitting through slides, so anyone "caught" even thinking about creating a slide deck without a storyboard would lose their tech. I then added that I expected to be entertained, because "no one cares about what is being presented if they are bored, so if the goal was to convince people to care, boring them to tears with slides was definitely not the way to go". What followed was a flurry of student engagement that culminated in one of my favorite student app-smashes of all time - the AyeAye Need You website

The Aye Aye Need you WIX website includes a student produced screencast-o-matic video, two Thinglinks (one of them used simply as a presentation aid), a HSTRY timeline and a Piktochart infographic.

I unfortunately did not think to record the students' presentation of their work, but their recovery plan included comments like:

- The US and Madagascar are not "besties", so they will need to put aside their differences and work together to restore the forest.

-  Why do we need charcoal? That just pollutes the air. What we need is more Aye-Aye's!

Did the student's achieve the goal of raising awareness, driving action and starting conversations to save the lowly Aye Aye? Yes.
Did they use technology to do it? Yes.
Did they "make a Google slide deck"? Most certainly not.

Now, on to the next step in this PBL evolution - guiding students to develop empathy for the user of a product before even thinking about what the product is/should look like/do.

Friday, May 13, 2016

PBL Toolkit

What do you do when your administrator asks you to show your colleagues how to develop and run PBL projects? Once the meltdown is over, and you have had time to mull things over, you compile a list what you consider your best tools. Here goes:

Project Ideas:

This is really the hardest part, especially when you are just starting out. In the beginning, as you familiarize yourself with the process, your best bet is to use BIE's project searchEdmodo Spotlight or even my own PBL page. Find something you like and that you are willing to do. Know that it will not be pretty the first time around (or the second or third). Trust in the process knowing that once you have run a couple of experiences you will start to feel comfortable and even decide to create one from scratch. When you reach that point, you will start seeing opportunities everywhere. You will find yourself reading an article or thinking about an experience through the lens of, "I wonder what my students could come up with to ...". That is when you are ready to meet with your fellow educators, and develop one you can call your own.


Yes, of course you will have to think about your standards. See where that nugget of an idea you had could fit. Truth be told, any PBL experience you create can hit on many standards. The trick is to decide which one you will be teaching explicitly. Don't fall into the trap of simply stating the standard. Decide in advance how your students are going to show mastery of the standard and make plans to point your workshops and activities to address the specifics of the standards.

The Driving Question: 

This is the root of your project, and BIE has graciously shared a handy tool to help with that. They call it the Tubric, and it boils down to something along the lines of:
"How can we as ___ create a way to ____ for ___ in order to address/do/change ___.

Now that you have your project idea, your standards and your driving question, it is time to develop your project. This is where the fun begins.

Entry event: 

Nothing beats a video to catch the student's attention. Thankfully most districts have now decided that YouTube is not the root of all evil. However there are still steps that can be taken to reduce distractions when presenting a YouTube video. Use tools like SafeshareTV or ViewPure to remove comments, advertisements, sidebars, etc.
A novel idea that can be used as an entry event and as a way to encourage deep need to knows is having students participate in a StunConference - a student-led unconference. This takes more time and preparation than showing a video, but it does have the benefit of greater student engagement with the project.

Need to knows: 

These can be collected by the students on Google docs (or in their notebooks). But what about group need to knows that can be easily shared and added to by the whole class? For this, I like to use Padlet and more recently Verso. Both of these remove the stress of students trying to come up with the "perfect" need to know, by allowing them to add and respond long after the project run began. They can also access the tools from any device, so if a new need to know pops up in their head later (while at the store for example), it is simply a matter a few clicks and the idea is added.

Workshops and activities: 

Whether you plan them way in advance or as a response to the needs of your students, you can curate your materials for easy access by your students in platforms such as LessonPaths or Blendspace. For your visual learners, or simply because it is more fun, you may want to create interactive images using Thinglink.

Project page: 

This is where you communicate expectations, as well as host all of the materials your students will need, including the rubrics. You want something that is easy to access and offers flexibility should you need to add things "on the fly" with a minimum of disruption. For me, the answer is WIX, a web page creation platform that allows you to add practically anything, anywhere. If you have never used it, choose from one of their templates. As you become more and more familiar, be bold and create your project pages from scratch. With a little bit of knowledge regarding iframes, you can embed anything without having to worry about figuring out whether what you want to add has an embed code or not. I have used some other tools that also deserve a mention due to their shallow learning curve: Tackk and HSTRY. Both of these are a bit more linear, and have limitations in what can be embedded directly, but for some groups of students this is a "good thing".

Managing a project run: 

Everybody is working on their project, or are they? How do your students communicate their daily activities with you, and how do you manage all those groups without going crazy? It is as simple as Trello, a project management tool that updates in real time, and allows every member of each team to share exactly what they are doing, upload materials, share information, etc. It also provides a space for direct teacher feedback during the run, eliminating the fear of facing a "what did you do all this time?" moment come presentation day. If you want to know more about how I use it, you may want to visit my previous post.

Presentations and Exhibitions: 

Make use of the Ignite format during presentations, or better yet host student exhibitions.

Rubrics and Feedback: 

Your students are done, and have successfully presented their projects. You still have to figure out a way to provide feedback and give access to the graded rubrics. Yes, you can use paper or you can create individual documents and e-mail them to the students. It is a chore no one likes. Thankfully, ForAllRubrics has come to the rescue. Whether you use it as a stand alone product, or as I do within Edmodo, this badging and rubric platform allows you to grade and send the rubrics to your students with just a few clicks.


What is PBL without reflection? Just another project... Invite your students to reflect on their work by having them use this set of questions using Blogger as their platform.

Dive into PBL. Your students will thank you for it.