You might think that teaching a high school programming course in which students are asked to code simple games and interactive websites would be motivating and exciting, but there are unforeseen elements of dealing with the teenage brain and the influences on their lives that seem to creep into the most well-designed plans. Students come to class with various types of anxiety, fears, and coping issues from daily stresses. They are also distracted with social media and the availability of instant information at their fingertips. As teachers, how do we keep them engaged and focused on their learning with the overwhelming amount of social and emotional distractions in their lives?

Student-driven ideas: the key to keeping students engaged

Keeping students on task is a constant challenge, so when I observed some students playing an online game when they were supposed to be working on an assignment, my first reaction was to ask them to close the program. Then I began to wonder why they were so fixated on playing this particular game. I wasn’t dealing with the typical Fortnite addiction; this was an escape-room game. (If you are not familiar with an escape-room game, Wikipedia defines it as a “physical adventure game in which players solve a series of puzzles and riddles using clues, hints, and strategies to complete the objectives at hand.” I asked these students why they liked this game and they eagerly gave me their reasons, which revolved around conquering a personal challenge.

I realized that students didn’t seem thrilled about the work I asked them to do. Instead, they decided to switch to something different that caught their attention and motivated them to challenge themselves. My lesson had some important elements of coding included so I didn’t want to toss it out completely, but I wondered if I could use the “escape room” idea to spark a new level of interest in my plans. Should I let my student’s interest and/or distraction drive my curriculum?

Why this lesson worked

I created a new project in Google Classroom that included escape-room concepts asked students to work collaboratively to design and code their own game using HTML and JavaScript. Initially, students seemed enthused and shared ideas, but I sensed that there was still little effort by some to actually begin. The majority of students were working on the task, creating flowcharts and following the rubric, while others couldn’t seem to get past the idea stage.

As in all project-based learning, students still needed guidance with specific benchmarks to get immersed in their idea. They could be creative, collaborate, and think critically, but had to work on their focus and time management to keep engaged in the process. It was time to shut the door and lock all of their daily stresses and distractions outside!

The importance of flowcharts

Once they had their idea, students began with a flowchart. Flowcharting—similar to mind mapping, graphic organizing, and brainstorming—offers several benefits to student learning. Usually identified with business projects and programming tasks, flowcharting allows students to organize their thoughts in a graphical display while applying a logical sequence. This practice can be applied to any discipline where students are asked to make a decision, solve a problem, or identify the cause and effect of a particular situation. Creating a flowchart helped my students follow a defined path that made their code come to life. It was the catalyst to get them started.

Project details for students:

  1. Students collaborate on their idea and document it on a shared Google Doc to show project
    ownership.
  2. Students create and submit a flowchart using Lucidcharts. (If some students were more
    comfortable drawing their charts on paper, I accepted that format as well.)
  3. Students design a rubric based on their perception as to how they think the escape room should be evaluated.
  4. Students code their game. (Note: In other subject areas, students replace the coding with Google Sites to create a webpage and Google Forms to provide an avenue for user
    input when unlocking codes. There can also be physical challenges using objects in their
    classroom with hidden clues to unlock codes.)
  5. Students reflect on the experience through a student-created screencast or Flipgrid to discuss
    project and highlight challenges.

Project details for teachers:

  1. Create project criteria, collaborate on a student-designed rubric, and add video examples of escape rooms within Google Classroom.
  2. Monitor, assist, and encourage students to try different clues, puzzles/challenges while
    troubleshooting code.
  3. Assign outside faculty to judge final games based on class rubric.
  4. Assess student work offering feedback based on class rubric and group participation.

The outcome

Using student-driven ideas in my curriculum proved to be beneficial to learning. Students were engaged, focused, excited about coding, and—for a short period of time—free from the stresses and distractions around them.

This experience taught me to worry less about trying to create the perfect lesson on my own and to simply watch what my students were doing to distract themselves to generate interest. By stealing their means to escape from stress and distractions and adding student-driven ideas to my lessons, I happily brought them into my room and into the world.

About the Author:

Dianne Pappafotopoulos is a certified instructional technology specialist/teacher and certified Google Educator at Dover Sherborn (MA) Public Schools, where she teaches technology courses and assists faculty and staff to integrate technology into the curriculum. With a masters in education and a combination of teaching, business, and technology experience, Pappafotopoulos is well versed in the types of resources and pedagogy that work well in the classroom to engage students and enable teachers to feel confident with technology-rich lessons.


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