Sunday, October 14, 2012

How Gaming Can Help Us

Once again this year I'm participating in the PLP experience, this time as a coach rather than a participant / team member. Even though I'm coaching this time around, I'm already learning so much from my teams.

One of the things that I have heard so much about, but didn't really understand, was the whole idea of gaming being a new venue for learning. Having watched my husband spend hours playing a variety of different games, I can certainly see the problem solving and the perseverance needed to win a game. But I didn't exactly see how that could fit into education. The other day one of my teammates started a discussion about gaming in the classroom, and I asked what skills and resources teachers would need to make this transformation. While we haven't come to a consensus about that just yet, she did share the title of Jane McGonigal's SXSW talk, and I very quickly googled it. If you have 20 minutes, and it would be well spent, you can watch it here:

 My biggest takeaways from her talk were:

  • Gaming encourages us to be our best selves. 
  • Gaming encourages us to get up after failures and try again.
  • Games give us a specific task to complete that it just at the very top of our ability level. We may need to work hard, but we can accomplish the task.
  • Games give us a ton of collaborators right at our fingertips. 
  • Games provide us with constant positive feedback, rewarding us with leveling up and +1 in the skills where we have developed and grown.
  • Games allow people to believe that they are individually capable of saving a world.
That's a pretty meaningful list right there, and it made me think of one huge question:

Do we do ANY of that for our kids when they show up for school?

My answer? I don't think we do. I think we focus way too much on failures, we train kids to think that collaborating is cheating, and we teach them that there is one score on one test that will determine everything about you for the next learning year.

What kind of people are we creating? Are we creating kids who will grow up into creative, brave, inventive risk-takers beyond the walls of their X-boxes and PS3s? Or are we creating a group of people who sees how good they can be in a virtual world but see themselves only as failures in real life?

I'm still not sure where I stand on gaming in the classroom - perhaps the teacher in me just needs a little more time. But I look at my list of takeaways from this talk and I do say to myself, "THAT is the culture I want in place in my classroom."

What do you think?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Personal Struggles

Since the middle of August I've been feeling more and more like my philosophical beliefs about educating children are fitting in less and less with my building's beliefs and the beliefs of education in general. A few of the things I've been struggling with include:

  • spending 3 hours data mining and determining students' specific reading skill needs, only to be told exactly what skills I will teach and exactly when I will teach those skills during the school year
  • spending a year learning how to make a research based, developmentally appropriate word study program work for my students, only to be told that we need to "get them through" a certain number of sorts each marking period so they can be considered proficient. Oh - we were also told that if we want the kids to meet those goals we might have to cut out or skip parts of the program. 
  • focusing on having a growth mindset, but then forcing students with disabilities to take grade level common assessments rather than allowing them the opportunity to take assessments on their level to demonstrate learning and growth because we're required to show grade level growth
  • trying to reconcile my personal beliefs and understanding of "standards based reporting" with the district's definition / model of a standards based report card
  • dealing with teachers who call kids "clueless" and believe that they are not as capable as other students
  • working with people who make it their business to undermine every attempt that is made to do what's right for kids
  • trying to develop a professional working dialogue with individuals who are not interesting in considering or putting any ideas into practice if they aren't their own
  • understanding how we refuse outside support services for students who desperately need them 
I have wanted to be a teacher since I was seven years old. I set my stuffed animals in a row of one room schoolhouse desks my great-uncle got for me, and I taught them using my little fold up chalkboard. Teaching is all I have ever wanted to do. 

But as my personal beliefs about meeting the needs of the whole child, about seeing a child not just as a test-taker but as a social, emotional human being, have grown, I find myself growing farther and farther away from what we are doing in my building and in public education here in the US. It becomes harder and harder for me to just say it is what it is and do these things to kids, and it has made me very unhappy. And my heart is feeling like it is impossible for me to make any meaningful changes where I am right now.

I'm not sure where I would go or what I would do, but I'm just not sure public education is the place for me any more.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Lost At Sea

These days I often find myself comparing my job as a teacher to the popular show Deadliest Catch. If you've never seen the show before, it follows the captains and crews of crab fishing vessels in the Bering Sea. How I can compare life as a teacher with life on a crab vessel? Some days you sail along on a beautifully calm sea, everything going your way and then BAM! There are stormy waters, you're being tossed about in the gigantic waves, and you're wondering if you'll ever be able to right your ship and sail on to your intended destination.

I'm currently in the tossed about / lost as sea part of this comparison, and I'm hoping some of the wonderfully knowledgable members of my PLN will be able to help.

There are several different things that have me floundering and adrift. The first is the fact that we are just about 6 weeks into the school year, and my kids are still struggling to get into the routine of doing school. We have seven specific jobs they're responsible for as they come in each morning, and most of them are just your general, be ready for the day type things that take all of a minute or two to finish up: attendance, unpacking, stashing stuff in lockers, bathroom breaks, sharpening pencils, picking new Read to Self books and a quick 5 question morning assignment. Everybody has at least 15 minutes to finish this and some have 30. These jobs are listed on a reminder chart we made and hung on the wall, each student has their own checklist on their desk, and as I'm greeting my kids at the door I'm giving verbal reminders. Even with these reminders in place and the relative ease of the tasks, my kids just aren't getting them done. It may not seem like a big deal, but each day as soon as I start teaching, kids are trying to get up to sharpen pencils, asking to go to the bathroom, and asking to get something out of their locker. As we're getting ready to do our Read to Self, they are trying to pick new books. I say now when I can, but whether I say no or they need to do it, all of these things steal learning time.

Am I missing something? It's not like these are assignments the kids can't connect to - they are just the jobs we need to do to be ready for the day.  Even so, I feel like I have done something wrong, like I have made a mistake. I feel like my extended absence due to pneumonia may have created this problem  and my trip to Philly to participate in PLP Live made it worse. I blame myself for not providing the consistency they needed to get into this routine. And now I'm not sure how to turn them around.

The other thing that has me floundering is that many of my kids struggle with focusing issues. Please don't think that I mean I expect my kids to be sitting in their seats, hands folded neatly and listening quietly to me for 6.5 hours a day. I really do understand that these are 9 and 10 year olds. We transition often, as in every 10 - 15 minutes, from chairs to the floor, from teacher directed class lesson, to group work to independent work. We face the front of the room, we face the back of the room. Kids can choose where to work. They can sit or stand at their desks, sit or lie on the floor. There is a lot of movement in my room to give my kids breaks, and we do lots and lots of different activities. I'm also making a conscious effort to tie my students' interests into the work that we are doing in class.

It almost seems like since I have taken them out of their seated in rows, be quiet except at recess scenarios, that they have lost all control. They're constantly trying to make faces at each other, to whisper *loudly* to each other across the room, to do silly things to get under each other's skin. We review our routines - they know what to do, yet they struggle to actually do it. I feel like I have failed them because I can't plan activities to engage them, and I can't give them the strategies they need to stay focused, work together, and complete their tasks.

I'm making it seem like these storms are happening all the time, and I know that's not true. I've seen discussions between partners and groups in science, math, social studies and language arts that make my heart pitter patter from happiness. But it's hard to remember those placid days when so many 60 foot waves are whipping up and slamming your boat from every side.

We sat down as a class today, and we talked about it. I explained how I was feeling (figured it would be a great idea to model the I Statements I'd like them to use), and I asked the kids what suggestions they had to solve these problems. I think this may have made me the saddest of all. The only suggestions I got? Punishments:

  • pull cards
  • names on the board with checkmarks
  • taking away recess
  • taking away tickets or chips
  • moving sticks
I jumped in after these suggestions and many more and talked about the fact that these were all punishments, things I would do AFTER they made the wrong choice. I shared that I'm more interested in strategies that would help kids do the right thing in the first place. Did the kids have any ideas of strategies we could use that wouldn't be punishments? They didn't, but at least they could chime in with a, "Oh, that's a punishment." I lie. There was one that wasn't a punishment: getting a prize for earning all the marbles in a marble jar. 

So I'm not sure where to go from here. My kids are good kids; their behaviors are not mean or spiteful, but dealing with the behaviors is costing me a lot of instructional time. I really do not want to have to start an antiquated, punishment based, embarrassment... I mean management system, but I'm not sure what else to do. I want to continue to try and implement student focused lessons and choices throughout my day, but I feel like maybe that freedom is causing the problem. Or maybe something else I'm doing is causing the problem. Is it just growing pains? Will we eventually get there? Is there something I'm missing? Is it me?

Help me out friends. Talk to me about what you're thinking after reading from an outsider's perspective. I'm seriously drifting this Friday evening.