Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Making Our "Way": Video Games as Artistic and Collaborative Learning Tools

Are video games art?

That question haunts me to this day. One of my writing heroes, Roger Ebert, opined on this question a few years before his death - his verdict was very clear. Video games can NEVER be art. As a rabid fan of his reviews and writing, I was absolutely heartbroken. What does he mean video games cannot be art? Ebert took concern that no game had captured a masterful performance of aesthetic, purpose, and craft to earn the title of “artistic” in his eyes.

In the classroom a few weeks ago, however, I feel that I saw a video game become art.

The story, as all great ones tend to do, begins far before an inconsequential session in a PC lab with a video game and some students. It began on a professional development day in a Green Bay high school, where I had the chance to talk about strategies for implementing experiential games in the classroom. Shortly before leading the course, I got a quick rundown of the different subject areas of the attendees: social studies, math, physical education, health, Spanish, and … American Sign Language!? Amazingly, a game immediately popped into my head when I saw that last course.

A few months ago, I saw an article about an incredible “experiential” game called “Way” - everything I read about it said to simply play it and don’t ask any further questions. So I did.

The first major discovery was what the game intended to do. I started out alone in a platformer world, discovering I could run, jump, move large boxes, show three distinct emotions, and wave my arms in a seemingly empty world. But then… someone joined me from afar.

My blue avatar was joined in a split screen with a second red avatar, and I suddenly realized I had no control over this second avatar. However, I discovered the person on the other end was trying to tell me something. After gawking at them for what seemed like hours, I finally realized the person was signaling me to jump to the left. Of course! This person elsewhere in the world could see the path on my screen, but I could not. With no audio or text communication, the challenge was clear - we must use our facial expressions and gestures to guide each other through the unseen world.

After what seemed like an hour of cooperative and collaborative play through the platformer world, we made it to the end. I will NOT spoil the ending, but let’s just say the last part of the game convinced me that video games absolutely can be art. I even got a bit emotional at the sheer genius of the ending - a perfect way to wrap a game about breaking down communication barriers.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I had talked to an ASL teacher about using Way, and she was amazingly excited about it. We decided to use what I like to call the “Cold” Play - a style of game-based learning implementation where the students play the game and then reflect after, with no indication of how they should perceive the game beforehand. The reactions were incredible - frustration, bemusement, wonder, anger, cheekiness, and even a bit of jubilation transpired in the two sections who piloted the game.

A few of my favorite moments:
  • The first student to “finish” the game was paired with a stranger from Russia - he had no idea until the end, and he thought it would be funny if he had somehow met his future Russian wife via “Way”
  • Two students sitting two seats from each other never realized they were paired up until they beat the game and I pointed it out to them
  • Many students figured out they had been paired up with someone in the room by peeking around, but this did not help them complete it any faster. Those students who used hand gestures and expressions had a better success rate
  • Some of the students actually used sign language in the game, even with the limited range of motion with the arms of their avatars
  • Lots of frustration. Lots of people who wanted to give up, yet still tried to prod their virtual partners on

I was not present for the following class when the students reflected as a group on the game, but I am positive they had plenty to discuss. Why was the game so frustrating? What skills did you need to hone with your partner? What systems or mechanisms did you establish to communicate? How does this relate to life? How does it relate to American Sign Language?

I could really see “Way” being used for a variety of purposes - to build teamwork, to teach perspective, to help teach the importance of failing, and how crucial nonverbal communication can be. I highly recommend checking out “Way” game at I also made a promotional video about “Way” in education below - hopefully it helps you visualize how this game qualifies as “art” - no matter what Ebert may say.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Listen to the Marshmallow: Lessons in Education from Big Hero Six

There’s something about Pixar films that always get to me. A Pixar film has such a delicate mix of humor, emotion, great characterization, and a clear message that comes through in the end. In Up, we discovered that life is a collection of adventures, and we must always find one to embrace. Marlin and Dori from Finding Nemo helped us realize that one cannot spend life afraid to live.

Last night, I had the chance to go see Big Hero 6, another great installment of the budding Disney/Pixar partnership. As I watched the film (which is a must-see, in my opinion), I could not help but think of how many themes in the animated flick applied to education today. The top three, in my mind, are shared below:

1. Don’t settle for easy; go for the route with the highest ceiling

In the film, a professor at a local Technology Institute gives the teenage protagonist, Hiro, some sage advice: what you’re doing right now is very easy for you and you’re satisfied, so maybe our university would not be a good fit. We only want to push you, to challenge you to reach your fullest potential.

Shouldn’t we expect the same out of ourselves and our students? One of the quotes I try to hammer away at students is “be better than Powerpoint”. I am all for giving students choice in their activities, but sometimes they fall on the tools and projects they find to be “easy”. Sometimes we, as teachers, must push students to try projects and activities they might not actively pursue themselves. I am reminded of a few colleagues like Tim Weldzius, who is having his students create greenscreen video newscasts using WeVideo, or Jen Vanremortel, who had her students create parody songs and videos using GarageBand and iMovie.

2. Look at a situation from another angle - turn it upside-down

We often approach the same lessons the same way, year after year. Why? Because it “works”. In Big Hero 6, the team of heroes the main character assembles get stymied by the antagonist because they look at a situation as black-and-white. They do only what they know they can do, not thinking outside the box. With our approach to lessons , we are often taking the “safe” path, afraid to turn it upside-down.

With this lesson, I am reminded of my colleague, CC O’Malley, who felt like skits and worksheets were not offering her ESL students every opportunity to have genuine chances to practice English speaking and decided to embark on creating a virtual world where her students can interact in any imagined situation. We are in the process of working towards this world, as the picture below shows:

3. Put others’ needs before your own

Baymax, the iconic, marshmallow-esque character you probably recognize from the Big Hero 6 trailers and commercials, gives perhaps the most important lesson of all. In the film, his only robotic directive is to make sure the health and well-being of those around him are addressed. Through his compulsive urges to cure all of those around him (even Hiro’s incurable “puberty” symptoms), he instills this lesson in Hiro, which pays off later in the film (I will say no more, as to not ruin the end).

I know teachers are saying, “Wait, of course I put others before myself!” That fact I do not question. But how often do we push this message? How often do we pelt students with the concept of selflessness? Is it something we tell them, or something we SHOW them? Give them opportunities to do selfless acts. Give them the chance to SEE a selfless act. Most of all, give them the choice in what they do, and watch with bated breath as they start CHOOSING to head up selfless acts.

The other two lessons are great, yes, but teaching the act of selflessness is our greatest job. Pixar understands this well - hopefully we do too.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

EduGame Reviews - Now Playing at My English Jams YouTube Channel!

One of the most baffling questions heading into the school year for our role as Technology Integrators was how Educator Effectiveness would look for our unique position. What should an SLO look like for our team? What is a realistic PPG goal? How will we be assessed when we don't have a traditional classroom?

However, my administrator broke things down into the most simple terms for the Professional Practice Goal: what is going to keep you coming to work?

This kind of question is what drives me as an educator: why do I come to work? For the majority of educators, it is the knowledge that between 20-150 students are counting on you to bring your A-game every day and push them to be better. But what happens when you don't have that situation?

For me, the answer was simple - I wanted a goal that reflected a passion I found in both students, staff, and myself. And, if that passion was not there, I wanted to cultivate it. What is that passion, you may ask? It is a passion I did not even realize had MAJOR educational implications today: Game-based learning.

One of the biggest points of confusion I have found in education is gamification versus game-based learning. While I love the concept of gamification (taking the game design principles of a game such as the accumulation of levels, points, team-based play, and fail-to-learn ideology and applying it to a classroom), I was much more intrigued with game-based learning (using games and simulations to enhance classroom instruction).

My goal became clear - help my district enhance the amount of people comfortable with implementing game-based learning, start after-school programs, and offer more and more professional development related to game-based learning.

So where to begin? Thankfully, I have a variety of coworkers who are on board with the change. I have a feeling many more blog posts are on the horizon related to these joint projects with other integrators, other educators, and even our district programmers are getting in on the fun (more on this to come)! In the interim, however, I am taking to YouTube to help begin the conversation about game-based learning.

This past summer, I started my English Jams YouTube Channel as a way to share flipped lessons about English-Language Arts concepts using songs and music as a "hook." While I love making those videos, I wanted to expand my scope a bit in relation to my PPG goal. Starting with the video below, I am making video reviews of edugames that I think might be of interest to teachers across a variety of subject areas and genres. Feel free to watch my first entry below on a flash game called "The Golden Hour".

To make this video, I used Quicktime's Screen Recorder function to capture my gameplay of "The Golden Hour". Next, I dropped the video into PhotoBooth's last page of its "effects" tab, and then used its green screen function to insert myself into the game. What I like about using PhotoBooth's green screen effect is that I can see what is happening behind me in the video as a I record, so it is easier to make reference to the action behind me (think weather man with the interactive map behind him on the news). 

I added a few bells and whistles in iMovie such as the 4/5 stars image overlay (make sure you search out a .png file for this, otherwise your .jpg will come with an ugly border around it), as well as some explanation text placed on top of the footage. I am hoping to put out a text or video review every other week if possible, but I also want to invite other educators to join me on this adventure. Post your own review of ANYTHING education - edugame, tech tool, learning resource, etc. Make it a blog post, video, whatever medium you want. The more dialogue we create about these tools, the more exposure we can bring to great teaching.

I also would love ideas. Any edugames that you want reviewed? Any suggestions to make the reviews more beneficial? I am not married to my current structure (overview of game, age range, pros, cons, overall score), so if you have ideas, send me a comment, message... anything!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

So... We Started a Twitter Chat (and don't always worry about the "why" in life)

About a year ago, I was enjoying the last fleeting moments of a three-month stretch of free premium movies from a cable provider, fully intending to cancel the perk once it became a fee-based nuisance. While flipping through the freemium movie channels for the last time, I caught a charming, if not a bit cheesy, family film called We Bought a Zoo. The story was lighthearted and enjoyable overall - Matt Damon attempts to win father of the century by moving his kids into a house that comes with a zoo. The only catch is that he must run the zoo in addition to raising his teenage son and little girl - no small task. The film is worth a rental at best, but one single line from this film stuck with me, and has really guided a lot of my decision-making ever since.

Before I get to the line that changed my perspective on life, I think it is best to get back to the title of this post (trust me, this is all going to tie together nicely at some point). Twitter and I have always had a complicated relationship, which is humorous considering such a phrase comes from their bitter rival, Facebook. Nonetheless, I have been the classic “uses Twitter only at conferences” kind of educator for years, until just recently.

Around a year ago, I started looking around and noticing a few colleagues who were starting to show me a different side of Twitter. The side I knew was one of chaos: an endless stream of links, hashtag vomit, and incomprehensible abbreviations that did not do me much good. However, I discovered the simple elegance and connectivity of a Twitter chat, typically an hour-long, moderated discussion focusing in on a particular topic. These types of professional development opportunities spoke to me in a way the “feed” never did - other people joining together to use the medium as a forum, feedback source, and focus group. I dipped my toe in the water, and suddenly I went from casual Twitter lurker to being a “regular” in a few different chats.

Only after that initial exposure did I realize the almost limitless potential of social networking within tools such as Twitter and others. Before I knew it, I had the privilege of connecting with authors, app developers, and companies, helping break down the barriers of fame and fortune to get to the people behind the brand, the book, or the legend. That’s the beauty of Twitter - groups and the famous few can connect to individuals on a personal level, rather than aiming for the crowd.

Fast forward to a few months ago. My team of Technology Integrators had just welcomed Ben Brazeau (or @braz74 for the Twitter-goers) as the newest member of our group. He had, through his own desire to connect others, started the weekly #sstlap chat. After talking with Ben about the values and virtues of Twitter, our goal became clear: start an educational chat for our district - and beyond! Ben will try his best to claim the idea was mine, but I would not have even dreamt of such a concept if not for his passionate endorsement of Twitter as a medium.

A quick snapshot of #gbedchat in action. Notice our guest cameos from Cybraryman and Todd Whitaker!

At one point in the film, a headstrong animal trainer played by Scarlett Johansson corners Matt Damon’s lovable father-turned-zoo-owner and asks, “Why did you even buy this place?”

Damon shoots her a winning smile with a little mystery behind it and simply says, “Why not?”

Although it may be a cheesy, Hollywood-esque moment, I still cannot help but admire that quote and that attitude. Perhaps we all need to say, “Why not?” a bit more. Whenever I hear people ask why we started a Twitter chat, I hear Matt Damon saying, “Why not?” When people ask me why I post silly videos of myself playing guitar while teaching English concepts, Matt Damon is right there asking, “Why not?” Sometimes we get so wrapped up in WHY we should do something, that we forgot that there are no good reasons NOT to do it!

So we started a Twitter chat. I only recently learned that We Bought a Zoo is based on a true story, so I must point out that starting a Twitter chat can only be slightly less crazy than that proposition. If you’re interested in joining some Green Bay educators and talk about all things education every other Tuesday at 8:00 CST, come on over to the #gbedchat hashtag. And what do you know? We have a chat TONIGHT at 8:00 CST on Educator Effectiveness - sounds like a good time to say to yourself, “Why not?”


Not many movies can get me misty-eyed (darn you, Up!), but We Bought a Zoo came extremely close. At the VERY end of the movie, father-of-the-year candidate Matt Damon retells a story to his kids about the first time he met their late mother, who passed a few years ago. As he sits in the diner and relives the moment, he tells them what he said to her in the restaurant, a scene which gave me chills (and MAYBE one single tear):

Matt Damon: “Why would an amazing woman like you even talk to someone like me?”

If you cannot guess the next two words from his late wife, you have not read this post very closely. All at once, everyone:

Late Wife: “Why not?”

Cue curtain. *blows nose and dabs cheek*

Works Cited:

"We Bought a Zoo". Retrieved 27 October, 2014 from

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Most Important Trait We Must Teach Students (Or Why I Started Playing Guitar to Teach English)

One of the biggest traits I prayed… PRAYED… my students picked up from my classroom is not a trait one often associates with education. However, I find it is a trait we often forget to cultivate as teachers. We even give students a “back door” to avoid doing this trait at times. In fact, sometimes teachers even shelter specific students from this trait. Heck, some students even avoid completing certain assignments because they do not believe they have enough of this trait.

If you cannot tell, I am trying to see how many times I can use the word “trait” in this blog post.

Before I tell you the trait in question, I will let my next endeavor shed some light on how this thought about what trait I wanted my students to possess came to light. A few months ago, I had some Amazon gift cards burning a hole in my e-pocket, and I wanted to get a new tech tool to use with students. I noticed a few affordable, portable green screens for sale, so I pulled the trigger and picked up a green screen sheet, stand, and travel bag (as you can see below).

My other realization at the time revolved around my new job as a Technology Integrator. I loved my new job, but there was a large part of me that missed my old gig as an English teacher. Not only did I miss having my own students, but I missed developing unique lessons to teach the concepts of English literature, writing, grammar, and much more.

With these two discoveries in mind, I knew I wanted to keep teaching. I decided that a YouTube channel would be my medium, and iMovie combined with the green screen and other various tech tools would be my canvas for flipped English videos. But what was my hook? What was going to draw a teacher, student, or curious onlooker to my lessons? There are plenty of great flipped English videos out there, so what purpose would mine serve?

The question brought me back to the quality I wanted to instill in all of my students. Any guesses yet? This trait will be crucial in a world where innovation and imagination are driving every successful business.


I had to do something fearless with my channel. Why? Not everyone is looking for an English lesson, so what are they going to get out of seeing my video? They are going to see me play some music and connect it to an English concept - that’s my hook:

The video above is one of my first installments in my new venture: English Jams. My goal with this channel is to create innovative, flipped lessons, often using a hook like music, film, or other means to engage an audience. The common thread will be the same: doing something that takes me out of my comfort zone. In the first few cases, it will be playing my guitar in front of a large audience. Often times in education, the content is NOT the most crucial part of a lesson. Sometimes the most crucial part of a lesson is the trait you model - when students see me taking a risk and putting myself out there, I am begging them to do the same. I want students to celebrate their unique qualities and traits. I want them to be fearless.

The greatest ideas in history came from fearless people. A quote often attributed to Henry Ford claims that he said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Sometimes an idea cannot be new versions of what has always been. Instead, the medium or the means must change. If individuals do not take a chance, we accept what has only happened thus far. For our students, this is not enough. We must teach them to take on their fears and go into the unknown.

What can you do as an educator to instill fearlessness? How can you make sure that students take risks, put themselves out there, and do not enter the world afraid to share their gifts?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Half-Life 2 Teaches English - Why We Need to Embrace Game-based Learning

There are always those certain comments students make that stick with you days and days after a lesson. Sometimes it is a powerful comment, said only by a youngster who is wise beyond their years. Other times it is a line they perceive as innocuous, an in-the-moment note that may only stick with me. I had one of those recently.

Last week I had the chance to join Mr. Schuh's Science Fiction & Fantasy Literature Summer School class and integrate games as a teaser for dystopian literature. In addition, we used it as a connection to The Matrix, another intriguing piece of dystopian literature. Our goal was to approach the games as a text, but the students had no particular assignment. They were asked to play the games, with a bit of front-loading about the topic in advance.

Students playing Half Life 2 for a dystopian unit.

Our first game was The Republia Times, a great game to give the perspective a person tasked with maintaining a dystopia. The students not only had the chance to play the role of a propaganda artist, but also experienced a great twist ending that captured dystopias to a tee.

Afterward, we played Every Day the Same Dream, a great commentary on the idea of the American dream. I highly recommend giving it a try - the students had a great reflection upon the message of the game and how the gameplay reflected that message. It also perfectly tied in with The Matrix, providing a nice comparative text.

Although it seemed a bit silly at the time, I lugged a 28" LED TV screen and Xbox into the PC lab so we could have a game station with Half Life 2. Like BioShock, Half Life 2 is a brilliant dystopian storyline, especially in the beginning.

We debriefed for a group discussion after playing the games. The students had some great thoughts about the games, and yet one comment still hangs with me. Sure we talked about dystopian elements in each game, brought up other examples of dystopian games, and discussed the messages each had. I brought up what impressions the students' had about the game, and I asked what they admired about these games. Why were they different than other games?

"Because they have a purpose... they have a point."

Ask yourself that question: do we have purpose in everything we do? Do students see purpose in what we do? Can you find games with purpose to add to your curriculum? If you cannot, ask your students. Chances are, they could name you some games with purpose to add to your topics.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

I just stamped my nerd card - My Google Glass Experience thus far

In mid-December, I got an unexpected e-mail. I had been selected to try the second wave of Google Glass after applying earlier in the year. Despite the high cost, I figured that you only live once and went for it.

To really give an idea of Glass' capabilities, I thought it might be interesting to detail a few of the tasks I was able to accomplish in a short period of time while I was driving (I took some precautions to make sure I was not a danger to my fellow passengers, I swear)! For any gesture that took my eyes off the road, I did it at a stoplight. All other gestures were voice-activated and did not require me to look or do anything (now, did I look occasionally ... yes, I suppose I did). Here is a breakdown:
  • I hopped in my car and, before taking off, said, "Okay Glass, get directions to Edgerton, Wisconsin." Immediately a display with the next direction showed up, with voice directions coming into my ear at every major turn or decision. 
  • First stop sign - I say, "Okay, Glass, google 'what time is the Badger game tonight?'" Glass informs me that the Badger basketball team won their last game (complete with score) and that they will be playing Northwestern at 6:00 pm tonight. Pretty slick.
  • Next stop sign - I say, "Okay Glass, google 'how much are Packer tickets for Sunday's game?'" Not so good this time - I just get a random website telling about the matchup. I close it.
  • As the radio is playing, I say, "Okay Glass, google" and then swipe across the device, which does an audio search for what Glass hears (similar to the "Shazam" app). The song playing is at a very strange and vague part, but amazingly Glass pulls up "Dreams" by the Cranberries, which is correct! Well done, Glass!
  • I decide I want to make a mental note of everything Glass has done thus far. I say, "Okay Glass, take a note" and my Evernote app comes up and lets me speak ideas to keep for later. I say a few sentences about what Glass has done, without a single word being wrong.
  • As the sun sets, a sliver of moon is visible in the sky - I realize it would make a great picture. I say, "Okay Glass, take a picture" and this beauty pops onto my screen:
  • I take a call from my girlfriend on Glass - the volume is a bit problematic, but all I had to do was say, "Okay Glass, Answer Call" and we were talking without holding a phone to my ear - pretty nifty too.
The rest of the ride was pretty much just voice directions, as I didn't want Glass to become too much of a distraction. I still think Glass has a LOOOOOONG way to go before it is anything revolutionary, I think it holds some intriguing potential.

Feel free to ask me any questions about Glass!