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How I turned my classroom into a ‘living video game’—and saw achievement soar

In this innovative environment, students are active players in their own educational game.

The notion that struggling and failing is important to learning runs counter to traditional approaches to U.S. education. In fact, failure and its accompanying “F” grade stigmatizes a student as unprepared or “challenged” and is usually seen as a predictor of failure in future grades.

In the world of gaming, however, the very elements of struggle, challenge, and failure that discourage kids in the classroom become the primary drivers of engagement and achievement.

In 2011, after 14 years of teaching, I decided to transform my second grade classroom into a living video game. The inspiration for this was the book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal. McGonigal’s message is that the monotony of classroom routines can be deadening to kids, that individuals are wired to need brain stimulation, and that even the most straightforward games can provide that.

How to keep the attention of students is an ongoing topic of conversation among educators. But as McGonigal points out, when they’re interested in something, kids demonstrate a powerful ability to maintain focus on even the most challenging tasks. Case in point: video games, which are so challenging that players fail 80 percent of the time—and yet are still motivated to persevere. If we can tap into even a fraction of this energy and enthusiasm, I thought, then we can effect the kind of educational transformation called for in the 21st century.

I began the transformation of my classroom by looking at the curriculum and writing storylines that would challenge students to solve science, technology, engineering, and math-related scenarios. For example, one such storyline under the reading content area is, “Explain how two given scientific conclusions are similar, and identify which of the scientists we’ve studied might have written these conclusions based on textual evidence.”  A math example storyline is, “How are fractions connected to the concept of multiplication?”

I use QR codes and augmented reality codes to help students move independently from one activity to the next. Kids use cell phones or tablets to scan the barcodes, which take them to websites or instruction pages with directions for the next activity, or to “cheat codes,” with strategies to help them solve the “boss-level problem.” I even decided to forgo the usual grading system in my classroom, so that as far as the students knew, they were either “Leveling Up!” (proficient) or they needed more practice with “Game Over: Try Again.” They stopped defining themselves by grades and saw “try again” as an opportunity to do just that.

In this innovative environment, students are active players in their own educational game. Each player creates an avatar that can be upgraded as students unlock features by mastering skills and levels. For example, when students master their addition fact fluency level, they earn a digital “fact + master” badge. When they master both addition and subtraction fact fluency, they earn a digital “math fact whiz” badge and avatar upgrade—and their digital badges are displayed on their individual Wikispace pages.

Students use Web 2.0 tools such as GoAnimate, Voki, and Xtranormal to create animated videos, speaking avatars, and 3D animated movies to demonstrate learning. Another example of an assessment comes from our recent unit on states of matter. Students were asked to create cartoons using the app ToonTastic, where the main superhero’s powers were the characteristics of their chosen state of matter and the arch nemesis was a character who would cause an irreversible change to their superhero (such as fire burning wood).

Technology is an essential and critical component of my classroom and is used in an organic and authentic way: as a tool to find information, synthesize content, and create learning evidence to ultimately “beat the level.” Students also use technology to collaborate and discuss what they’re learning. Through ePals, individual students are matched up with peers in Egypt, Canada, Germany, and other countries, and on one designated day a week, they have a Skype video conference with their ePal about what they’re learning in math, science, or English.

From a teacher’s point of view, this method of delivering content requires a letting go of the stage, but not control of the classroom as it might initially seem. The activities are rigorous enough for my second graders to be challenged and engaged, but not so difficult as to frustrate them to the point of quitting. Integrated into this type of learning strategy is an ongoing review of previously learned skills, as point values are given to every activity—and even if kids succeed in “leveling up,” they are compelled to return to a previously “mastered” skill activity and try to beat their score.

See also:

How ‘game mechanics’ can revitalize education

How to engage girls with gaming

I spend approximately 30-45 minutes a day in direct whole-class instruction.  The rest of the time I am facilitating thinking through monitoring their work, asking pointed guiding questions, or pulling aside small groups and helping students develop skills they will need to advance in the game. It takes more meticulous planning on my part to create the codes and activities that elicit independent thinking and collaborative work, but the payoff in student behavior, self-esteem, motivation, and determination is well worth it.

The results of this innovative approach to learning have far surpassed my expectations. After only three months of the gaming concept, student scores on the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress test showed a 71 percent improvement in reading fluency, 58 percent improvement in reading comprehension, and 76 percent overall improvement in math, particularly in problem solving.

Fortune 500 companies are seeking graduates who have empathy and a strong ability to look at a problem from all angles. Our students are learning without us, so we need to be relevant, significant, and inspirational to our students. We need to give them the opportunity to discovery their own gifts and abilities to find solutions to problems, and to discover their independence as thinkers and doers.

Joli Barker is a second grade teacher at Earl H. Slaughter Elementary School in McKinney, Texas. She was recently named TCEA 2013 Classroom Teacher of the Year.

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