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Help Wanted - Using Video Games in the Classroom

I remember when I first started blogging and reading other teacher blogs about two years ago, Clarence was working on a very exciting project with his students involving Sim City. I've always thought it would be both fun and productive to do something similar in my history classroom. Lucky for me, my school had some software money that needed to be spent by the end of the month or we would loose it, so I ordered a few copies of both Civilization IV and Age of Empires III. I'm planning on using them during the last month of the year with students who took the Global History Regents exam this week and did well enough to not have to worry about a retake (the rest of my students will be reviewing for the Regents Exam).

So in essences, I want to create a project using these games that also serves as a culmination of my students' two-year study of Global History. The scope of both games seems ideal for this. Right now I am imagining something where students play the game and then keep a running diary or blog of their achievements, maybe with a short story component added for the final product. These ideas are pretty abstract, for now at least.

I was just wondering if anyone out there has used these games, or others like them, in their classes and could help me out - Did it work out alright? What type of more "traditional academic" work did students produce from the experience? What road blocks, if any, did you encounter? What can I do to make this a meaningful experience for my students? Even if you have never used games like these, do you have any ideas to make this work well?

Any advice will be greatly appreciated.


Response to "School Matter: The Bloomberg Defense"

The following is in response to this post on School Matter. Here also are links to Jim's initial post and my initial response:

Not sure if this was clear or not on my last comment, but I'm with you 90-95% of the way. I just don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and also to make sure you're making the best possible argument. Does the fact that management companies are going to be non-profit mean they won't be evil like the College Board? Of course not. But I think it's important to differentiate between the corporatization of public schooling (which is happening in NYC) and the privatization of public schooling (which, though seems to be coming down the road, isn't what is happening here now).

I have my doubts as to whether any remaining middle class parents who continue to have kids in NYC public schools will allow their kids' funds to be drained off. It has never happened before, and I don't expect it happen now in this reverse Robin Hood era.
There's a good chance you're correct here. Though Bloomberg may be addressing this with the increase in schools with admission test a la Stuyvesant. With that said, I'm not complaining that my school will be getting some of the funds that used to go elsewhere. With that said, I fear NYC Educator may be spot on with his Trojan Horse comment. The shift from allocating a certain number of staff positions to a certain dollar amount for salaries is part of what allows for this change. This is worrisome.
Sad, indeed. This is the typical neo-liberal treatment to the poverty and racism issue: ignore the real problem, provide services that only the middle class can use, and then blame the poor for not using them.
I have to admit, I was very disappointed to read this remark. Let's get fact straight again first - 86% of students at my school get free lunch - we have no middle class. The extra services we provide at Bronx Lab ARE being used by the poor and working class students who we serve. Well I am well aware of the neo-liberal argument you are critiquing here (and am with you on it), I don't think it applies. We are trying to create a culture of transformation and empowerment for our students. Of course this does nothing to address the larger societal issues creating the need for transformation - and when the revolution begins that addresses these, let me know so I can be out there fighting side by side with you for it. But I until that point, I can't see any better bet than the transformational power of education.
That Bloomberg and Klein would be falling over themselves to pander to the "empowerment" schools in order to prove their superiority should be expected, I think. That is the Marc Tucker horse they have their money on, after all. Wonder if the schools served by the remaining superintendents have the resources to honor every requst from teachers?
I don't get resources because we get extra money from the city. I get resources because my principal has the freedom to bring in outside funds, and has control over the funds we do get from the city. We actually get less than average per pupil funding from the traditional sources. Not to mention we're supposedly at 145% overcrowding, and share an old building in lousy condition with six other schools. When Bloomberg/Klein start falling over themselves to pander to us it will be one happy day.
The fact that the City, the State, and the Nation have ignored the poverty, repression, and racism that produced what "hasn't worked" does not seem reason enough to give up on the public schools for not accomplishing what no school system alone can ever accomplish, anyway. If Bloomberg's privatization plan is allowed to succeed, I am sure, Steve, that the Mayor's Office will stay busy congratulating you, your colleagues, and themselves for the new bright successes that were so recently painted as dismal failures. Something new, indeed.
You're right - weak point on my part in terms of the "why not" argument for change. That's for jumping all over it. I hope it doesn't happen again.


New Blogs I'm Reading

The blogs I subscribe to in my RSS Reader seem to follow a boom and bust cycle. There are periods where I do a lot of cleaning out as my current interests change, and then times where I find myself adding a lot of new feeds. I've been adding a lot of adding recently - mostly blogs of newly discovered classroom teachers and some voices on school reform. Some of these blogs are new, others are just new to me, but have all been worth the additional time I spend reading them as a I continue to reflect both on my own personal pedagogy and helping to build a newish school:

Teacher Blogs:

  • dy/dan - Dan's been blogged about a lot recently other places, and deserves all the praise he receives. His model of skill based assessment, in particular, has me rethinking how I will approach my planning next year.
  • Beyond School - I think sometimes I learn the most about myself from people in the most different situations. I've tended to stay away from international teachers since I started reading blogs, but I am glad to have been reading Clay's blog for a few weeks now. Clay teaches at an prestigious private school in S. Korea - both literally and figuratively half a world away from the Bronx - but has really been expanding my mind lately. His post on eliminating schools buildings inspired me to write what I think are the two longest comments I've ever written last week.
  • It's a Hardknock Teacher's Life - Miss Profe is still in her first month of blogging, but has already developed a great, fresh voice. She's the first foreign language teacher blog I've read. I'm looking forward to much more from her.
  • The 21st Century School House - Mr. Miller talks a lot about Lit Circles, of which I'm a big fan. He's another new and refreshing voice to the blogosphere.
  • Understanding - Not a new blog, just new to me. I've enjoyed reading the insights of someone at a similar stage in his career, in a similar environment.

School Reform Blogs:
  • Schools Matter - Thoughts on school reform from people far more experienced and intelligent than me. I wish there were more voices like this represented in the debate on schools.
  • The Essential Blog - A blog from the Coalition of Essential Schools. I don't teach at a CES school, but I'd like to think I'm a Coalition Teacher. I wonder what a Coalition of Essential Teachers would look like? (Actually, probably something like this).
  • Transform Education - Peter doesn't like KIPP. I don't like KIPP. Unlike me, Peter can back up his views with well thought out and executed research. He is a great voice for the transformational power of education.

Another Perspective on the Bloomberg/Klein Reform Efforts

I have tried to stay clear of education policy issues in this blog. However, I feel the need to post an opposing voice to a recent post from Jim Horn at Schools Matter attacking the recent announcements by NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein regarding various reform initiatives they are taking. I generally agree with what Jim has to say - he is a powerful voice for radical education, but I think he is missing some of the radical potential of these initiatives. (Originally submitted as a comment on Schools Matter):

I've been reading your blog for a couple months now and usually appreciate and am with you on most things. I think you're a little quick to jump the gun here though.

First - the facts. The "private management companies" will be non-profits. This isn't a KBR situation. Also, Bloomberg announced this is his his State of the City address the previous day (though didn't go into all the details).

Second - I think the revolutionary part of what Bloomberg/Klein are doing has been lost - the Fair Student Funding Initiative. This means a school like mine in the Bronx that serves the students who need the most will be seeing more money at the expense of schools that tend to serve the Middle Class and Upper Class in nicer part of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens.

Third - yes, Empowerment Schools can outsource services to other companies. But Empowerment Schools can also partner with community organizations and receive funds that are unavailable to most schools. I teach in an Empowerment School, and we get somewhere in the range of 25%-50% of our total budget from our partner organization - FEGS. Among other things, this allows us to increase our support staff (we have a full time college placement specialist, just like the top private schools) and we can provide a comprehensive after school program. Not to mention the fact that literally every request I have made for classroom materials - from technology to books to curricular materials - I have received.

Are there flaws with the Tucker model of education reform? Of course, and you've highlighted a lot of them. But with that said, there are a lot of benefits, which I am seeing first hand (and believe me, we are not a KIPP like school - I'd like to think people like Paulo Freire and Myles Horton would be proud of most of what they saw at Bronx Lab).

Maybe I am being a little naive here - but I always come back to the fact that the Bronx has something like a 30% graduation rate. What has been done in the past hasn't worked. Isn't it worth trying something new?
Update: In the interest of full disclosure, I feel I should add that my wife works in the Press Department of the NYC Department of Education.


Learning from Mistakes

This really should be a permanent series of this blog - mainly so I remember these past mistakes and don't repeat them (and if others can benefit, all the greater).

I almost titled this piece "The World Isn't Flat", but that might have had the effect of demeaning my students through comparison with others, and I promised myself when I started this that I would never post anything negative about my students. I think people will be able to make their own conclusion on the flatness questions, though.

But anyways - the mistake: Today was scheduled to be my big "How to evaluate information on the Internet" lesson - one that I feel is probably the most important one I teach each year for reasons that are obvious to those who frequent the edublogs. It's the first lesson I've got the chance to teach for a third time, so I'm finally feeling pretty good about it - both in terms of my delivery, my ability to help the students understand its importance, and the learning that results from it. It's the lesson I always use to kick off the first research project of the year. But the problem is that the lesson is meant to be a case of "unlearning". It assumes certain habits amongst students that I'm trying to unteach. In this case I assume that students, when looking for information online, just go to Google or Yahoo! and type something in and start clicking on search results. Even more basic, it assumes that students have a clue as to what to type into a search box to get results. I don't mean meaningful results. I mean any results.

However, in many, if not most, cases in my first period class, there weren't habits to be unlearned. For many, this was probably the first time students were asked to do historical research online. The first class of this unit (which I haphazardly put together for the subsequent periods in the day) is about where to begin the search. I shouldn't have been unteaching anything. I should have simply started with how to go a good search, and then tomorrow, added in the part about evaluating the information we find.


Visiting Beacon - What We Can Learn from Beacon's Senior Year

(This post may not make sense to those who have not been part of the planning process at BLS for our inaugural senior year next fall. This conversation can be observed at our 12th Grade Experience Blog).

I had the chance to observe both a senior English class and a senior History class. I talked briefly to about a dozen students about their senior experiences, and in depth to a young man named Dan for a good fifteen minutes. Thanks to him for that time and the insight he gave. First the good news: When I asked Dan what is the one thing he wished he could change about his senior year, it is that he had started earlier really thinking about the college (in his junior year). The fact that BLS juniors are taking a college course seems to address this very issue. Now onto some random thoughts and observations:

  • Seniors at Beacon have options for both senior History and English classes. Dan said this was probably the best part of senior year. I think we have already decided against this for our core, but something to keep in mind as we design the seminar option.
  • Seniors at Beacon have a lot of free time built into their schedules (Dan has 14 hours free each week second semester, though I believe that includes lunch). Right now, the tentative plan is for Bronx Lab students to have 12 periods of the core, and 11 period of "Seminar". Maybe 2-4 of those "seminar" periods should officially be some sort of study hall (this of course could be more structured for some students). I think this could have a few benefits for our students: a) it will scaffold the transition to college where they have TONS of free time; b) it allows for some flexibility in teaching loads; c) it gives our students a tangible reward for making it to senior year; and d) it would give students the opportunity to spend time with teachers from whom they need/want extra help. (This time can always be claimed for field trips as well).
  • Students said senior year at Beacon is not significantly different from their first three years, and this isn't a bad thing. We're designing a senior year significantly different from 9th-11th grade at BLS. I'm not insinuating we should rethink the path we're going for 12th grade, but rather that maybe some of the great things we're trying to implement for 12th grade should trickle down to the earlier grades.
  • Seniors seem to have lots of leadership opportunities in Beacon's clubs and sports teams. I talked about extra-curricular activities in general in a previous post, but I think we need to give our seniors opportunities to be leaders for the school.
  • Students at Beacon are allowed to leave the building. I don't know if this is even an option given the shared space and scanning at Evander, but should we consider giving seniors open campus privileges as another tangible reward for making it to senior year.

Visiting Beacon - What I Can Bring Back to My Classroom

I actually saw a lot of stuff going on that I was or am already doing, which was kind of nice to see. The project I mentioned in the last post was very similar to one I did with my students earlier in the year. In observing a senior 20th Century American History research seminar on Social History, I spent a lot of time talking to students about how they came up a good research topic. Most of them said it was based on the general survey of the relevant history they had done before choosing an independent research topic. This is the same structure I am using with my students at the moment as they conduct a research project for National History Day. But of course, there was much to be learned from what I saw that I want to bring to my students:

  • I am most definitely a teacher of students first, and my subject second. I am certain this is a good thing. However, I also think it is very important to a) be knowledgeable about your subject and b) be passionate about it. Not that I didn't already know this, but in both Global classes I observed today I saw teachers way more knowledgeable about Global History than I am. I also saw teachers clearly passionate about teaching Global - a passion, I have to admit, I do not share. I need more knowledge (which I know will come over time) and I need to find more aspects of non-US / non-20th-century history I am passionate about if I am going to continue teaching Global in the long term.
  • Granted this was for a senior research class, but one of the things mandated as part of the research paper was that they conduct an Oral History (or interview an expert) as part of the research. Of the dozen or so students I had a chance to talk to, the ones most into their topics were the ones with a personal connection (a young woman researching the marginalization of women in the Black Panthers who had an aunt in the Panthers, a guy researching the history of public housing who lives in public housing). However, the next set of students most excited about their projects were the ones who had already conducted their Oral History. I also think anytime students can interact with adults outside of the typical power relationship structures of parent/teacher/boss is a great thing. I'd love to find a way to help my students get more of these experiences.
  • Also, the aforementioned desire for books and visual art could fit in here as well.

Visiting Beacon - What I Liked School Wide

School wide, three things stick out that I'd love to see more of at BLS:

  • There is student art work everywhere. Now we at Bronx Lab have hallways filled with work from art classes. However, what blew me away about Beacon is that every class room I went to was covered with content-related, student produced visual art. Sure, I typically have student work up on my walls, but it is almost entirely text-based (which is representative of the work I assign). Not only is this beautiful to look at, but it is indicative of a strong integration of the visual (and from the sounds of it, also performing) arts into the academic curriculum. I don't know how to do this. I need to do this.
  • I got the chance to talk to a handful of seniors about their experiences at Beacon. For all of them, they talked first, and most, about their experiences in clubs and sports. I have a VERY bad habit of forgetting that my class is only one of six my students takes, and that even if I taught all six, I would still only occupy a very small portion of what my students saw as the important part of their lives. In terms of the school portion of many students' lives, it is the after-school club and athletic portion that is most important to them, and probably in a good many cases, the most worthwhile portion as well. I know looking back on my high school experience, the most rewarding, engaging, and memorable experiences I had were all related to the time I spent working on our student newspaper, particularly when I was Editor-in-Chief. I am wondering how we can provide more of these opportunities to our students. I am well aware one of the trade-offs involved with a small school is that it limits the variety of extracurriculars we can offer. However, I feel that our limited after school resources are geared almost entirely to what we call Electives. These resemble classes more than a typical extracurricular. For one thing, our electives at BLS are almost all teacher run. Clubs tend to be student run and teacher sponsored. Are we providing our students with the after school experiences they want? How can we get closer to what our students would be excited to do, like the students at Beacon?
  • All three history classrooms I spent time in were filled with course-relevant non-fiction books. I WANT! I WANT!! I WANT!!! One 10th grade class I observed saw students researching major 20th Century figures who opposed imperialism. This is nearly identical to a project I tried to do at the beginning of my year. The difference is the Beacon students were able to conduct real research using a variety of sources in their classroom on a person of their choosing. In our case, students read about an assigned person (since I had to prepare materials in advance) using the one or two sources I provided for them. I think it's a very safe conclusion that the students at Beacon were far more engaged in their work. Having a decent mini-history library at my disposal would open up a ton of possibilities and really transform the experience of my students. And I don't think I have it in me to write about the differences in our libraries. It is simply injustice. Beacon's library has at least three times as many resources as the library we share with everyone else at Evander Childs (Bronx Lab is a small school in a much larger building), yet we have three times as many students.

Visiting Beacon

I was scheduled to take a little road trip today down to Philadelphia to visit Chris' SLA with my principal. And while unfortunately that trip had to be rescheduled, since I already had my classes set for me not to be there and the sub had already been called, my principal sent me down to visit the Beacon School on the Upper West Side to learn what I could from observing their social studies classes, and also paying special attention to their 12th Grade classes, as we at Bronx Lab are in the process of planning our first 12th Grade Experience for next year.

Not that I didn't know this walking in, but the first thing I noticed is that Beacon is a different world from Bronx Lab. Bronx Lab is 98% Black and Latino, with 86% of our students getting free lunch and 47% of our entering 9th graders reading at grade level; Beacon is 53% White and Asian, with only 24% getting free lunch and 70% of their entering 9th graders reading at grade level (statistics from insideschools.org). Add that onto the fact that one has to go through an extensive interview process to even be accepted to Beacon, they have their own building, have been around ten years longer than we have, and have most of their students exempted from the history and science Regents exams, and some might think that there is little to be learned for a teacher in my situation from a place like Beacon. But from all I have previously heard, and saw today, Beacon is a different world not just from Bronx Lab, but from most other high schools as well. It is a special place - the type of place that, as a left-learning-middle-class-white-guy, I would dream of sending my kids (if I ever have any).

My principal sent me with three questions:

  1. What do I like about Beacon school-wide that we could bring to Bronx Lab?
  2. What do I like about Beacon that I want to bring into my classroom?
  3. What can we learn from their senior year?

For the sake of readability, I'm going to address these questions in three separate blog entries.


New Year's Resolution: Do Less, Better

Over my (way too short) break, I thought a lot about what I learned in my first 4 months at BLS. This isn't my first year teaching, but in many ways it has felt like more of a first year than my actual first year did. I find myself working harder than I ever have before wearing more hats than I had in previous teaching jobs. I knew this coming in, but I didn't really understand just how many different ways I'd be pulled.

I came to a relatively new school (we're in our third year) because I wanted to chance to be a part of building something permanent that will serve our community. I was eager for the chance to be a part of creating something new and getting opportunities for leadership that I never would have had at a larger school. And I bit off more than I could chew.

All teachers at my school are both classroom teachers and advisers. So I had my 12 new advisees and my four sections of Global History II. I decided to create a Global curriculum from scratch (reinventing the wheel). My first trimester teaching load left me with some extra time obligations to the school, so I also became one of the technology people at the school. Eager to demonstrate the great potential uses of Web 2.0, I tried to start some sort of pilot of blogging in advisory. While the initial idea of doing this with two other teachers fizzled out, I still began it with 3 of my advisees (1 of which has yet to post 2 months later). I also began exploring implementation of moodle and elgg into our school. As the first Trimester moved on, it was clear 3 days of Global was not going to get our students ready for the NY Regents exam in June. So we added an extra period a week, moving my teaching load above a typical full load. And though I was off the tech team officially, I still had/have people coming to me for help. Around the same time, the 3 Social Studies teachers at my school decided we weren't benefiting from the Humanities Department meetings, so the 3 of use started running our own weekly Social Studies Meetings (in the 1 free period we all have off). And I also jumped at the chance to join the committee planning our schools Twelfth Grade Experience for next year (and soon set up a blog for that). Meanwhile, back in my history class, I am preparing my students to participate in the National History Day contest, part of which will mean holding a first ever History Day Fair at BLS in February. In order to support the research, I'm giving all my students e-mail accounts through the newly registered bronxlabstudents.org, which means piloting a major new initiative and worrying about worst case scenarios on that front. And oh yeah, I have a lesson to teach Monday morning...

I do too much. And by doing too much, I'm not doing anything that well. Which is why my resolution for 2007 is to do less, but do it better. I need to do less in my global class, but do it better (I have over-planned every unit so far this year). I need to do less outside the classroom, but do it better (12th Grade Experience, or bust). I need to do less with technology, but do it better (I think blogging in advisory has to go, though good quick uses in class has a place - check out my students' blogs from our recently completed unit).

I loved Dan's post about his Important Ratio #1 (Worth of Instructional Decision = Instructional Value / Minutes Expended). It's a great post, and an even better discussion of it in the comments. The philosophy major in me thinks of this less as a ratio, than as a philosophical set of questions:

  1. By making this time commitment to Activity A (instructionally, professionally, personally), what activity B ( and C, etc.) am I not spending time on?
  2. Is the time not being spent of activities B of lesser value than the value added by committing time to Activity A?
  3. Do I have the time and energy to sustain activities A & B?
  4. Will doing activity B better be less valuable than doing activities A & B with less than a full effort?

Conclusion: Unless the answer to questions 2-4 are all "Yes", activity A is not worth doing.

So here's to a year of doing much, much less, but hopefully doing something exceptionally well. Happy 2007 to all!