Port of Adventure

Recently, I had a student ask me for a review pack for our upcoming state test.

“I’m not giving review packs this year,” I said confidently knowing my time spent gamifying their content would surely payoff.  My ego was quickly put in check by the student’s pale and unnerved face.

“Wait. What?! No review packet?! I WON’T PASS THE TEST!” And she meant business. Her world was crumbling around her.  Noticing the panic in her face, I attempted to bring a little levity to the situation.

“Except the big, thick one packet you are getting tomorrow for your Social Studies test!” I said with the absolute cheesiest smile I could muster.

“OH THANK GOD! We were all talking and we just don’t think we’re going to be ready without a packet!”  Her backpack slid down her arm as her expression of relief vibrated through to her finger tips.  She bounced down the hallway, everything right in her world but I was left standing, mouth gaping and dumbfounded.

What have we done?  Learning is everything.  It is the gentle flap of butterfly wings in your stomach when uncovering new information.  It is the power of curiosity to take one down uncharted paths.  It is a continuous lifelong adventure that winds and twists with excitement.

Our classrooms should be where these adventures begin: harbors where students stockpile supplies and head out on daring journeys but may always return for safety and comfort, to restock and head out again.

Instead of instilling a passion for learning, we have created a generation that successfully maneuvers packets.  This is certainly a 21st century skill that will propel them well into the future.   The depth at which my sarcasm is running need not be quantified here.

Is it too late to rectify this situation?  Identifying the problem is the first step.  Our schools need to be design labs, rich, interactive environments where students explore their passions and are guided by us on an unforgettable journey.  This journey must by make them life long learners, individuals who are willing to search out information for the simple benefit of learning more.

Setting out to create this environment can be challenging.  There are financial stumbling blocks and perhaps even administrative deterrents.  Before you begin, know your facts.  Research is important.  Industrialized learning spaces seems counterproductive to what needs to be accomplished therefore, learning space design was the best place to start.

Research into effective learning spaces yielded an enormous change in classroom atmosphere.  Students no longer equated our classroom with their negative connotation of school, rather, they called it home.  Comfortable seating in areas called “the living room” or “the genius bar” led to increased student interaction and many authentic learning experiences.

While student engagement had increased, pieces were still missing.  How do kids authentically learn?  They learn through play and exploration.  The completion of a photocopied worksheet allows for little play or exploration.  Games, however, offer a whole new world of both. Enter game-based learning and gamification.  How this has not been identified as the Holy Grail of teaching is unknown to me.  It is content, set into a meaningful and interactive context where students, through play and imagination, acquire the knowledge and skills they need.  Often, they have no idea it is even happening!

As we look at our classrooms, we must ask ourselves an important question: are we exotic ports of call or run down docks parading as marinas?  Be the harbor master and set your course, building a port they will always return to and be inspired by.  It’s not easy but it is certainly worth it!



Review Time = Game Time

One of the easiest ways to implement game mechanics into your classroom is when reviewing material for a test. Many educators have their go-to review games that they use with their students before a test, but did you ever think to theme the review to meet the unit’s topic or learning targets? You could even make the review part of your overall gamified classroom. Earlier this school year, I allowed my students (that were playing the role of European Explorers) to play the “boss level: bonus round.” By facing the boss, students could play a review game where if they were able to “defeat the boss” (AKA: win the game), they were EXEMPT from the unit test! That’s right, I didn’t make those students that defeated the boss take the end of unit test. Here’s why: What is the point of a test? I consider my assessments to determine a student’s level of mastery of a particular set of content. I made this “boss” level in such a way that every learning target from the unit would be assessed through the review game. Students that could actually beat the “boss” couldn’t have done so without first mastering all of the content– they literally wouldn’t have known all of the answers to be able to compete in the review activity. Therefore, if they could beat the boss, they would have been successful on the test anyways. Why would I make those particular students prove their knowledge and skills to me again? I know what you’re thinking: “But you HAVE to give your students a test! That’s what teachers do, and that’s what administrators want!” To you I say, “No, I HAVE to teach my students a particular set of learning targets and I HAVE to make sure each student is not only meeting those targets, but showing overall growth in social studies. And I do!

I love theming my review to match my unit. For this past unit about Westward Expansion, I gave my students 2 class periods and literally a dozen review games to choose from as they prepared for their unit test. Here are some of the review activities students could choose from:

Here is a PDF version of the review stations to inspire you: Westward Expansion Extra Activities

I also had kids play other review games (at their own choosing) during this review time. I set up one game where they could throw a suction-cup ball to my board to hit a portion of a map that showed U.S. Territorial Expansion. Students were given clues about a particular area that the U.S. acquired during this time period, and were challenged to “hit” that area of the map with the ball in order to score points! Students were really able to practice their map skills and overall understanding of all learning targets through this game!

Here are some other review games I offered during this review time:

(Crocodile Dentist made a game of “Heads Up” a lot more interesting! Students had to place a card on their heads and have their teammates give them clues to what the word was without actually saying any part of the word. If they didn’t guess the word in time, they had to push down one of the crocodile’s teeth… hopefully it wasn’t the sensitive tooth that caused him to CHOMP down on your precious little fingers! My 8th graders ATE this game up! LOL, I love puns.)

IMG_5244.JPG(Review 4-U Tubs are great ways for students to ask each other review questions! Simple, cheap and a class favorite! I write down review questions on a note card, place them in the tub and if students answer any questions incorrectly, they must complete some sort of punishment–push ups, jumping jacks, etc.)

img_5245.jpg(Pictionary is a fun way for students to really have to think through content as they review.)

Listen, none of these review games in and of themselves are MIND-BLOWING ideas. I get that. I have found success in having students diversify their methods of review. This yields positive results! Plus, offering many different types of review can allow me to differentiate my review to custom fit each student’s individual needs (even though students are choosing which games they play, I can give them a gentle nudge in the right direction). Plus, students have multiple ways to have fun, they never get bored, and they are completely engaged in the review because they have a choice in how they review.

All for now,


Bringing Gamification to Your Classroom

Gamification has changed how I teach.  It’s a game-changer so to speak. There are many ways to bring gamification to your classroom.  Deciding to start small is often a good choice but don’t be afraid to throw yourself into a game whole heartedly.

After presenting to a group of teachers recently, the overwhelming feeling involved a sense of reluctancy.  “I’m not a gamer.  There’s no way I can bring games to my classroom.” Being a professional gamer is not a prerequisite to bringing gamification to your classroom. I had played a few video games in my time.  I’m not sure however, that my high score on Galaga in the late 80s would be helpful in this situation. Regardless, the idea is to create a meaningful learning experience for your students.  Classroom learning need not always be text book/worksheet driven.  Personally, if my room never sees a worksheet again it will be too soon. Gamification allows for creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, and most importantly, if done right, powerful situations that will allow the students to acquire the content and have it stick with them.

When my journey began a few things needed to change about my classroom.  I needed to give some of the control over to the students, and why not?  This is their education.  They needed to be in the driver seat, making choices and interacting with the game.  Once I let this go, my students became fully engaged. An engaged classroom is messy and loud.  It is full of collaboration and discovery.  It is a powerful environment to experience.  The clock moves swiftly and the days pass quickly.

How to begin?  Start small with a well known game.  I started with a garden sized Jenga game. Be forewarned, it is quite large and makes quite a sound when it comes crashing down.  The sound the kids will make however, is much louder.  Taking time to color the end of the pieces makes the game much more versatile.  We were working on a unit review.  Using a set of twenty multiple choice questions the students pulled pieces.  The color on the end of the piece was matched with a set of questions.  The students then decided which question they wanted to complete.  If we completed the entire question set without the tower tumbling, the entire class received extra credit on the unit test. The reaction of the students was nothing short of amazing.  Their level of engagement was incredible.  It was all I needed to start adding more.

As a teacher of ancient history, it is often difficult for students to understand the concepts related to the ancient world. Sid Meier’s Civilization immediately came to mind.  After purchasing the game on a rainy weekend and essentially playing for hours on end, I knew there was something to pulling my students into a simulation.  Monday morning I put the students into pre-history hunting and gathering groups and asked them to choose where they would settle on an oversized game board I created.  The discussions in their groups were phenomenal.  The geography skills they had just learned were resurfacing in their engaging conversations.  The class period flew by and the energy was contagious.

This began the process of my first game.  Each week I would outline the ideas I wanted my students to master by the end of the week.  After this, I would look at the game mechanics that would allow them to acquire that information.  Students need to move and interact with the curriculum.  They need to experience it instead of observe it from afar.  Week by week I added more to the game.  The students are an essential and incredibly valuable resource.  They feel very powerful when they add to the game.  They were often called my beta testers and carried this title with pride.

Bringing gamification to my classroom is a no-brainer.  Is it easy?  No.  Is it worth it? Yes. Kids deserve the best we can give them.  Their engagement is the payoff.  There is nothing like it.


The Oregon Trail

As a grand finale for my Westward HO! game, my students ventured out on the Oregon Trail! I created a simulated trail that was a mash-up between the epic 1990 Oregon Trail computer game and a riddle-based scavenger hunt. Students had been working all unit to master content in order to gain the materials (wagon wheels, cash, extra clothing, oxen, etc.) to be able to venture out as a pioneer. Today, their hard work and preparation would be put to the ultimate pioneer test: The Oregon Trail! Students would visit stops on the trail where they would draw cards that determined the fate of their journey. Hopefully each family packed enough supplies or had enough money to help them survive until they reached Oregon!

westward expansion bulletin board-2Families were able to fully understand what pioneers on the western trails endured through this simulation. I LOVE creating simulation-based games for my students. I truly feel it is the best way for my students to experience the history in a way they can understand. Some families lost their shoes, wagons, life-savings or even a family member on the trail (dang dysentery… every time). Families also had to complete a combination of educational and “just-for-fun” challenges at each stop on the trail as well. Students had to practice their lasso skills, create a song about their travels and even take an old-time family photo (my personal favorite)!

On our simulated trail, students also practiced their map skills and overall knowledge of US Westward Expansion while completing review activities.  As students finished this experience today, we had powerful conversations about the struggles of the real families of the Oregon Trail–it was priceless. Students were engaged, excited about the learning, and able to thoughtfully reflect on the topic. This is an example of the power of gamified classrooms. My students had a blast, and learned a ton. Isn’t that what we all want?!

Tomorrow, I break out the card game version of the Oregon Trail (available at Target stores) for students to play. Remember teacher-friends: IT’S OKAY TO PLAY!

oregon trail game

Here’s some bonus pics of my classroom during this game:

Thanks for reading,



PS: They ended up having a BLAST playing the Oregon Trail Card Game! They were jumping up and down in their chairs!


Westward HO!

Westward HO! was the very first game I ever made, and it’s still my favorite game to play with my 8th grade American History students!  I would love to share with you the overall concept of the game as well as some of the specific game elements that I chose to use in this game about American westward expansion.

The overall concept for this game (which is always where you should start when you are gamifying your units… the STORY!) was for students to work in family units that were prepping their covered wagons to gear up for travel on the Oregon Trail! Students were able to play the parts of Ma, Pa or a kid within these family units. I have learned that my students love to pretend to be someone different than they are in real life… and I don’t blame them, I remember how awful it was to be 14! After family members chose their family surname and chose Ol’ West inspired names such as Obadiah, Jed, Rose and Nelly, they were ready to start working hard together to earn badges and money for their family.

This is the next step you should take in gamifying your unit: Choose what game mechanics you will utilize (XP, badges, currency, bonuses, levels, leader-boards, etc.). Students worked to earn badges for their family by mastering the learning targets that I had set for them. Students would have to earn all 9 badges to be able to bring all of the items they “packed” in their wagon. (Side note: Students chose items such as blankets, extra wagon wheels and food to pack during the first day of this game). If students didn’t earn all of their badges by the time they were due to set out on the trail, they wouldn’t be able to take all of their items!

Students also earned money for their family by completing homework. Families would need money to purchase extra supplies before the journey or while on the trail.  On my grade sheet, mastering a learning target might look like 10/10 points. However, instead of a grade on an assignment, (which most 8th graders could care less about) students would earn a badge or money for their family. Students have been very motivated by this system compared to simply earning points for compliance. Plus, if students didn’t earn their badge or money with the first attempt, they kept trying–again and again until they “got it” (which mean they would try again and again until they were mastering the learning target… WHICH IS AWESOME!).

Here’s how my classroom looked when the students came in on the first day of the game:

WestwardHO-1Students loved feeling like they were in a real covered wagon. Nothing is too cheesy for students–or at least I haven’t found anything yet!

Students would show mastery on assignments that I had created or adapted from other educators. I use anything from sketch-notes to map challenges, projects to quizzes. I also love throwing in random challenges to my game to keep the motivation and engagement levels high! As students were learning about territorial acquisition, I would add in family challenges like these:

WestwardHO-2(Covered wagon races as students finished activities)

WestwardHO-3(Building log cabins out of peanut butter and pretzel sticks)

WestwardHO-4(Panning for gold)

Little fun challenges like this would keep them on their toes, educate them about the time period and give us all an excuse to laugh, play and have fun! HAVING FUN IS OKAY TO DO IN A CLASSROOM! (I am shouting at you, sorry.) I also had students lasso ‘bulls,’ ride ‘ponies,’ reenact the Alamo, and contract diseases like dysentery and cholera! So fun, right! Even super-cool adolescent teens can play pretend–and they learn that way!

I love using the power of simulation in my games. This past week, I had students go out on the “Trail of Tears” in order to learn about President Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. Students went hiking on the property by our school. Every so often, students would stop and read a quote by a Cherokee Indian that had experienced injustice, or students would complete a task/challenge to help them learn the content. Here are some of my favorite pics from that day:

Next week, my little families will all head out on the Oregon Trail. They have been equipt with the knowledge, supplies and curiosity that they will need on this grand venture! I will let you all know how it goes!