Let’s Talk About Rigor

So far, I’ve taught eight years of AP English Lit and two years of AP English Language.  This past week, along with some of my new middle school colleagues, I attended four days of pre-AP training, as my assignment this year will likely include two classes of pre-AP 7 and one class of pre-AP 8.

I am convinced, based on time spent at AP institutes and this new pre-AP training, that the presenters get paid by the number of times they use the word rigor.  

This is painful and scary to me, and I’ll tell you why.

First, a definition…

rigor (noun): (1): harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment :severity   (2) : the quality of being unyielding or inflexible :strictness   (3) : severity of life : austerity

When we use this term to describe what’s going on in our classrooms, I think one of three things must be happening:

Thing #1: We are making a conscious decision to be harsh, inflexible, perhaps even a little cruel, out of a sense that this is needed to whip youngsters into shape in preparation for the real world.

Thing #2: We are, in fact, not engaging in deliberate cruelty but rather deliberate dishonesty. We say rigor to convince parents, administrators, and others that ours is a curriculum that will undoubtedly produce achievers.

Thing #3: We don’t actually have a clue what the word means or what it implies for our students.  It’s a buzzword, and we like those.

In the name of rigor, we’ve excused all manner of educational sins, and I think it’s time to excise the word from our collective vocabulary.

I am not suggesting that we should expect less from our students.  What I am suggesting is that we challenge our students with meaningful, purposeful work.  And we should challenge ourselves to do better than just pile on.


On Narrative and Flexibility

A brief preface…

As a kid, I was a sucker for choose-your-own-adventure, and there were many books that ended before I was prepared to say goodbye. More often than not, I find that the games I’m drawn to personally are those with fully-imagined worlds, intriguing stories, and well-developed characters. So a game like World of Warcraft (I’ll likely mention WoW a great deal on this blog, as it’s been a substantial part of my gaming education) works for me because I can, to a certain extent, live in the world of that story. And it’s a big story with lore that spans millennia, a range of cultures across multiple continents, and opportunities for players to engage in epic battles.

So for me, one of the most valuable aspects of a good game – one that is particularly handy for the English teacher – is well-crafted narrative.

On to the questions…

How do teachers find games that are worth the time?

It depends on a couple of factors:

  • Instructional needs – Does the situation call for a short game to help students with just one or two learning goals, or are we looking for a framework for an entire course? Also, the rules about good planning shouldn’t change. We must still consider required standards and the needs/ability levels of our students and find the right tools to fit. Latching on to a game and trying to shoehorn in the other stuff is backwards.
  • Logistics and access – A teacher in a traditional classroom with 30 student desks and one computer will look for a different setup than a teacher in a lab. Additionally, we’ve got to factor in available hardware, network capabilities, and any additional costs inherent in the games we might use.

Some use commercially available games. The WoW in School project began by using World of Warcraft to develop after-school curriculum for at-risk students and has gone on to provide models for a variety of content areas, including an eighth grade language arts course. Teach with Portals allows teachers and students to access Portal 2 and the Portal 2 Puzzlemaker free for instructional use. Their site currently offers teacher-developed lesson plans for math, science, and language arts. Teachers have used Minecraft and other games, as well, and there are lots of games out there created specifically for educational purposes.

Others create their own games. Tools like 3D GameLab and Edmodo allow teachers to place their own class content online and facilitate in tracking student progress and awarding badges/achievements as part of the leveling-up process (3D GameLab is designed specifically to do this – Edmodo can work in a pinch).

For me, creating the game myself feels like the best option for now. I’ve got a lot to learn in transitioning to middle school and a very different student population, and I think that building the game myself allows me the flexibility I’ll need to put student needs and standards first and to make changes as I learn. Additionally, though I’m currently playing around with some ideas for using Portal 2 as a mentor text for writing activities down the road, I don’t have the stuff I’d need to roll out a course built around a commercial game.

Here’s a link to the first draft of a landing page for my game.  It is a VERY rough draft.

Whether creating a game from scratch or using a pre-made game, I think it’s important to note here the importance of steering clear of the chocolate-covered broccoli problem. The learning must come first,  but kids are pretty good at sniffing out something that’s clumsily cobbled together or unauthentic, so it’s got to be a good fit.

How many/which “traditional” roles can gaming play?

I think that gaming can fulfill many of the traditional instructional roles. This is less about the games themselves – though some lend themselves more readily to certain tasks than others – than it is about the way a teacher chooses to use the gaming. Quests and skills training allow for practice, problem-solving is a natural aspect of games, projects and products can be incorporated pretty easily, and games get assessment right in a way that often eludes us teachers.

When I envision a day in a gamified classroom, I see many of those traditional classroom things still happening. One group of students participates in a writing workshop as part of leveling up their writing skill. Individuals scattered around the room read a novel and make notes in their quest logs or come together lit circle-style to discuss their readings. Students at computers write and comment on class blog posts, research as part of a quest chain, or contribute to a class wiki. In my mind, the teacher’s job is to create the setup that draws together all of those activities, to establish expectations and develop a classroom culture that ensures that the place doesn’t turn into a zoo, and to facilitate all activities through ongoing observations conferences, mini-lessons, and modeling.

How do you design ways for students to demonstrate the learning that takes place as a result of gaming exercises outside of that context? At our school, for example, you are very likely to have parents who say “Fine if you use gaming AS LONG AS my child gets a 30+ on the ACT, makes honor roll and lives happily ever after”.

Building quests that help students master the standards or prep for high-stakes assessments is doable. Again, I think that the narrative of the game governs much of what you can or can’t include in a gamified class, and it’s the teacher’s duty to find something that allows the flexibility to get kids ready for anything from end-of-course tests and Classworks assessments to AP exams and the ACT.

I like James Paul Gee’s comments on video games and assessment in the video below (specifically from around 1:20 – 2:10):

Providing ongoing feedback for parents and students regarding progress toward learning goals is key, and I’ll go into more specifics about my own feedback plan in another post.

If I wrestle with these issues and come to a different decision than the teacher down the hall doesn’t that potentially create learning confusion for students at some point?

Being part of a middle school teacher team is new to me, so I have many questions for the other core teachers with whom I’ll be working. I’m concerned that the narrative that we build in my classroom might limit opportunities for collaboration across content areas. Consistency in certain areas is non-negotiable, so my current plan is to make my setup as flexible as possible and communicate with my team members to determine what will work and what won’t.

Finally, let me say that I genuinely appreciate and welcome comments and questions. I decided to put my reflections in a public place because I want to make my teaching the best it can be. Critiques, suggestions, even disagreements from others help me to see perspectives other than my own, and that can only make my instruction better. Keep ’em coming.

Why Gaming?

There’s a lot of discussion currently underway regarding the gamification of all sorts of environments, from the workplace to the classroom.  While it’s nice, I suppose, to work on something that’s considered hot stuff, I’m less interested in being cutting edge or flashy than I am in finding a way to bring together in one cohesive package the things I value most regarding learning.  Here are the things I’m looking for that I believe gaming provides:

Individualized skills development

When we play games, we learn at our own pace.  It may take me three respawns to figure out a fight, and it may only take you one.  That’s okay.  I might focus on leveling up a tradeskill while you build rep.  That’s allowed.  My students should have the same opportunities.

Personal choice

Choice, ownership, agency.  Some of the best games out there immerse us in their worlds and the tasks at hand because they allow us to decide who we are and how we’ll conduct ourselves.  How often do our students go through the points-grabbing motions because they don’t own anything that takes place in the classroom?

Collaboration and development of strong team bonds

I want my kids to be able to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and tackle problems together.  Ideally, the classroom would be a tight-knit community of individuals bound together by a common purpose and similar beliefs about how to get the job done.  Not unlike a guild.

Constant feedback in a variety of formats

Gamers get constant updates about how they’re doing, what their teammates or opponents are up to, and what steps to take to accomplish the next objective.  Feedback beyond just a grade is crucial for motivating students to improve their skills.

Resilience in the face of failure

In games, we stand in fire, die, and learn (hopefully!) not to stand in fire again.  We fail spectacularly when fighting a boss, research and confer with group members, alter strategy, and win.  Learning happens as a result of those failures, and we are okay with failing in games.  Not so much in the classroom.  However, if we’re looking for mastery of skills, risk, or creativity from our students, failure has got to be an option.

Part of the job of bringing gaming into my classroom will be gaining parent support for the whole thing.  I’ve created a little resource, available here, in order to share some of the why-am-I-doing-this with them.  What do you think?  I would appreciate any feedback in the comments.