Holy Tech, I’m being challenged once again to join the 21st century! This latest challenge comes from Kevin Hodgson, sixth grade teacher at William E. Norris Elementary School, in Southhampton, Massachusetts. Kevin teaches four classes of sixth graders, and his school combines reading and writing with technology (when applicable and when possible). Find Kevin online, at his blog, Kevin’s Meandering Mind, and his classroom blog, The Electronic Pencil, where he and his students share what they’re up to. Find him on Twitter: @dogtrax. (Kevin refuses to use Facebook because of issues of privacy piracy). He is also the technology liaison with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project.
Let’s take a peek at Kevin’s past:
- Favorite school lunch as a kid: Imay have been alone in my school in remembering the ravioli as something to be looked forward to on every third Wednesday of the month.
- Best friend in grade school: John “Murph” Murphy, a neighbor and fellow musician.
- Times you were the new kid in school: I joined the lacrosse team my senior year in high school (after sitting out sports for years because I was in every band there was at our school). Most of the kids were soccer kids. Not me.
- Teacher who inspired you to stretch: My own sixth grade teacher, Mr. Dudak. I remember him as being slightly unhinged (in a good way), bringing a level of excitement to every day. You never knew what he was going to do.
- The one thing you always wished you could do in grade school but never achieved: I really wanted to be able to draw a life-like person on paper. I still can’t do it. The hands and proportions throw me off every time.
Kevin, let’s get down to brass tacks. Or html. Or java. (I have no idea what I’m talking about!) You found a way to engage kids in reading through video games. Tell us more!
Our science-based video game design project emerged from eavesdropping on my students. It became clear a few years ago that gaming was a huge deal in the lives of many of my students, mostly boys. Then the iPod took hold and suddenly girls were talking about games almost as much as the boys. I decided to take notice, although I honestly did not know where to start.
At a meeting of the National Writing Project, I attended a few sessions around game design and learning, and thought: I want to try this. But I was not ready for the classroom. Instead, I decided to offer up a summer camp through our Western Massachusetts Writing Project as a pilot program to see if I could develop a cohesive week of game design activities. That camp was a huge success, and it allowed me to think about how it might translate into the classroom. I really wanted it to be a collaborative effort, so I decided to work with my co-teacher and my science teacher colleague on a game design unit that would revolve around the theme of geology.
Early on, I realized that I needed a platform that would be easy to explain and easy for a wide range of kids to use. I tried Scratch, and some other platforms from various sites, and I determined most of them were not what I wanted. To be honest, I could not envision spending weeks teaching programming (as much as I recognize its value), so I turned to Gamestar Mechanic. It’s been a blessing, since the site is built on the foundation of teaching game design by having students play and then build/publish games.
The most difficult part of teaching game design has been trying to get my own head into the world of gamers, since I am not one myself. My days of Pong and Mario Brothers are far behind me. I decided to dive in, though, and learned about gaming through experimentation and play, noting what worked and what didn’t work. I have often brought my own experiences into the classroom – the good and the bad; the success and the failures. One thing game design teaches you is that failure is part of the system, and should be expected. I love that idea, since so much of school is based on “getting it right.”
I really think the video game design idea connected with a lot of my students, and allowed some real cross-disciplinary work. I can’t say for sure whether our unit made them better readers or writers. We did see more effort out of our special education students who took part, particularly in the early stages of storyboarding and explaining game concepts. I can say all students became better problem-solvers, better collaborators and better attuned to design criteria and media elements. And some have even submitted their games to the National STEM Video Challenge, participating on a national level with projects they are most proud of.
One of the more interesting things that happened at the end of our last game design unit in December is that I gave my students a chance to offer suggestions and ask questions of the Gamestar Mechanic folks, and they were kind enough to not just write back but to create a video response in which they went point-by-point over my students’ input. That kind of real-life experience of being heard by game developers was exhilarating.
While I see many virtues in game design (engagement of students, development of expertise in design, connections with content area, integration of reading and writing, etc.), I am not sure it would work for every teacher in every classroom. You have to go into it rather fearless, with no assurances about how it will all turn out. A focus on the process rather than the product is a key, and the use of informal assessments and reflections along the way, along with a final assessment, is instrumental in making the concept work in the classroom. That said, my students cared less for the “grade” at the end than they did for the feedback they received which then helped them improve their games. In this case, the assessment was valuable and not just another paper to toss into the trash on the way out of the room.
Kevin, you have built an amazing case for creating authentic participation and authentic evaluation. I am in awe! Those who know way more about this than I will want to check out this site. Thank you for sharing this information!