Five Things I Learned About Ed Tech While Playing ‘Zelda: Breath of the Wild’

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I don’t mean to brag, but I just beat “Zelda: Breath of the Wild.”

 

This summer I sat down with my 9-year-old daughter and together we played the most popular Nintendo Switch game for hours, days, weeks.

 

And at the end of all that time, I came away victorious – something I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do when I started.

 

There are so many buttons to learn, two joy sticks, various info screens and menus.

 

But when it was all over, I had cleared all four divine beasts. I got all 18 captured memories. I completed about 80 shrines. I mastered about 45 side quests. I shredded guardians, lynols and bokoblins. And, yes, I opened a major can of whoop ass on Calamity Gannon.

 

As the kids say, I’m jelly.

 

My video game skills are lit.

 

You can’t handle me, bro.

 

And so on.

 

 

But I’m not a kid. I’m a grown man.

 

Didn’t I have anything better to do?

 

Couldn’t I have found a more productive use for all that time?

 

Maybe. Maybe not. However, beyond the sheer fun, I did learn something from the whole experience.

 

As a public school teacher, I learned about my students by following in their footsteps.

 

That’s really why I started playing in the first place – my middle school kids this year loved that game.

 

I got more Zelda doodles, more Hyrule poetry, more Link fan fiction than you might at first believe.

 

The world of the game was really important to my children and having even a passing knowledge of that world helped me relate to them.

 

I even asked for a few tips after class.

 

One of my best students took her Switch out of her backpack and showed me a prime location to pick hot peppers so I could withstand the cold of Mount Hyrule (Don’t ask).

 

It was worth doing just for that – I showed my willingness to be the student and for them to be the teachers. I showed them we were all a community of learners.

 

At least, that’s my hope.

 

But now that the dog days of summer are here and my video game victory is complete, I keep thinking of the implications of my experience in Hyrule on the world of education.

 

Specifically, I’m thinking about education technology or Ed Tech.

 

I’m thinking about how we use various software packages to try to teach students and how they invariably fail at the task.

 

Well-meaning administrators hear about this program or that classroom management system or an assessment app and they spend beaucoup bucks on it.

 

We’re instructed to give up valuable instruction time so our kids can sit in front of a computer while a digital avatar attempts to do our job.

 

Kids listen to a cartoon person instruct them in the rudiments of grammar or literacy, play loose skills exercises and earn digital badges.

 

It may sound like fun to us, but they hate it.

 

The reason: nine times out of ten it’s little more than a standardized test given on a computer.

 

Sure, there are lots of bells and whistles, but the kids catch on mighty quickly. There is no student as bored as a student forced to play an educational video game.

 

I have real concerns with issues of student privacy and how the data being collected by these apps is used. I have real problems with how this technology facilitates dumbing down the curriculum – narrowing it to only that which can be measured on a multiple choice assessment. I take umbrage that these programs are used by some as “evidence” that human educators and brick and mortar schools are unnecessary. And I shed real tears at the massive amounts of funding being funneled to corporations that could be better spent in our own districts.

 

But playing this game has given me hope.

 

In seeing how “Zelda” succeeds with kids – because it succeeded with me – I think we can illuminate some ways ed tech goes awry.

 

I found five distinct lessons from the game, five areas where “Zelda” succeeds where ed tech fails.

 

Perhaps these could be used to improve the quality of ed tech devices to make them better at teaching students.

 

Or they could show why ed tech will never be as effective at teaching as flesh and blood instructors.

 

In any case, here is what I learned.

1) Focus on Fun

 

One of the biggest differences between ed tech and “Zelda” was the focus.

 

The games we make children play at school are designed to teach them something. That is their purpose. It is their raison d’être. The point behind the entire activity is to instruct, test and reward.

 

By contrast, the purpose of “Zelda” is fun.

 

Don’t get me wrong. “Zelda” can be very educational.

 

There are points where the game is actively trying to teach you how to do things usually associated with game play.

 

You have to learn how to make your character (Link) do what you want him to do. You have to learn how to manipulate him through the world. How to run, how to climb, how to heal, how to use weapons, how to cook and make elixirs, etc.

 

However, the point behind the entire game is not instructional. It’s fun – pure and simple.

 

If you have to learn something, it is all in service to that larger goal.

 

In the world of the game, learning is explicitly extrinsic. It helps you have more fun playing. Only the pursuit of winning is intrinsic or even conceptualized as being so.

 

In real life, this may not be the right approach to education, but it seems to be a rule of virtual experience. If it is superseded, the game becomes just another class assignment – lifeless, dead, boring.

 

If educational software is going to be effective in the classroom, it must find a way to bridge this divide. It must either put fun before pedagogy or trick the user into thinking it has done so.

 

I’m not sure this is possible or desirable. But there it is.

 

2) Logic and Problem Solving Work but not Curriculum

 

There are many aspects of “Zelda” one could consider educational.

 

However, when it comes to things that have importance outside of the game, the biggest would be problem solving and logic games.

 

A great deal of game play can be characterized under this umbrella.

 

The ostensible mission is to defeat the bad guy, Calamity Gannon. However, to do so you often have to solve various puzzles in order to have the strength and skills to take him down.

 

The most obvious of these puzzles are shrines. There are 120 special areas throughout Hyrule that Link needs to find and solve.

 

Each one involves a special skill and asks the gamer to decipher problems using that skill. For example, one asks you to manipulate fans so that the air flow makes windmills turn in a pattern. Another asks you to get a ball through an obstacle course.

 

In each case, the emphasis is on logic and critical thinking.

 

That has tremendous educational value. And it’s something I’ve seen done easily and well in many educational video games.

 

The problem is it doesn’t teach any particular curriculum. It doesn’t teach math, science, English or social studies – though it does help contribute to all of these pursuits.

 

 

Ed tech games are not nearly so coy. They often try to go right for the curriculum with disastrous results. Ed tech software, for instance, will have you find the grammatical error in a sentence or solve an equation in order to move on in the game.

 

That just doesn’t work. It feels false, extraneous and forced. It’s doesn’t seem like an organic part of the experience. It’s something contrived onto it from outside and reminds the gamer exactly why you’re playing – to learn.

 

3) Option to Seek Help

 

One of the most surprising things to me about playing “Zelda” on the Switch was how much of an on-line gaming community has formed around the whole experience.

 

If you get stuck in a particular area, you can find numerous sites on-line that will help you get passed it. You can even find gamer videos where YouTubers will show you exactly how they solved this or that problem. And they don’t all have the same solution. Some provide elegant, well-detailed advice, and others seem to stumble on it and offer you their videos as proof they could actually get the job done somehow.

 

It’s a lot different from when I was a kid playing video games. Back then (30 years ago) you had your friends but there were few other places to go for help. There were fan magazines and a few video game companies had tip hotlines. But other than that, you were on your own.

 

One of my favorite YouTubers this summer was Hyrule Dude. His videos were clear, informative and helpful. However, I didn’t always agree with his solutions. But they invariably helped me find things that would work for me.

 

It reminded me a bit of Khan Academy and other learning sites.

 

If kids really want to grasp something today, they have so many places they can go on-line. As educators, it’s hard to incorporate them into a classroom environment because there are certain things we want kids to find out for themselves.

 

For instance, as a language arts teacher, I want my students to do the assigned readings on their own. Yet I know some of them try to skip to the on-line summaries they can find and use that instead of reading the text. I have no problem if they access good summaries and analysis but I don’t want them to take the place of trying to comprehend the text on their own first.

 

I think there are ways to use this larger social media community to help support learning without spoiling the hard work kids need to put in on their own. But it’s something we need to think about more and find better ways to incorporate.

 

4) Open Ended

 

One of the most striking things about this new “Zelda” is how much choice the gamer has. In most games you have to complete the first board and then the second and so on until you win.

 

On the Switch, the world you’re thrust into is incredibly open ended. You can do pretty much what you want, when you want. Or at least you can try.

 

At first, your character is limited to one area of the world – a plateau. But once you complete a certain number of the challenges there, you get the paraglider which allows you to access most of the rest of the world.

 

It’s a huge area to explore – impossible to travel the entire length of it without spending hours of game play. And it’s entirely up to you where to go and what to do next.

 

The central mission of the game is to defeat Calamity Gannon in Hyrule Castle. However, that would be incredibly difficult early on. You’re advised to get the four Divine Beasts first. And you can do them in any order you want.

 

Moreover, I mentioned shrines earlier. When you complete four shrines, you can either increase your hearts (the amount you can be hurt without dying) or your stamina (how long your character can do something hard like climbing or swimming without having to rest). Technically, you don’t have to complete more than a few shrines, but doing so makes your character stronger and better able to get the Divine Beasts and defeat Gannon.

 

There are also side-quests (totally optional) that reward your character with money, items, etc.

 

I think this is the secret to the game’s success. It’s why game play is so immersive and addictive.

 

Ed tech software is exactly the opposite. You must do section A before section B before section C. It’s little more than a multiple choice test with only limited possible answers of which only one is correct.

 

In “Zelda” there are often multiple ways to achieve the same end. For instance, I would assume the programmers wanted me to fight my way through every room of Hyrule Castle to get to Calamity Gannon. However, I simply climbed over the walls and swan through the moats – a much quicker and efficient method.

 

If we could recreate this freedom of movement and multifarious solutions within educational software, we might really be onto something. But, frankly, it’s something that even traditional video games have difficulty being able to recreate.

 

5) Choice to Play or Not

 

And speaking of choice, there is the choice whether to play or not.

 

Video games are one of the things kids choose for leisure. When we force kids to play them in school, that choice is gone.

 

They become a task, a trial, an assignment.

 

Moreover, not every child enjoys video games.

 

We can’t mandate kids learn from games – even the best of ed tech games. At best, they should be an option. They could be one tool in the toolbox.

 

In summary, I think the goal of the ed tech industry is deeply flawed.

 

Ed tech will never adequately replace brick-and-mortar schools and flesh and blood teachers.

 

At best, it could provide a tool to help kids learn.

 

To do so, games would have to primarily be focused on fun – not learning. They would have to be organized around critical thinking and logic – not curriculum. They would need to utilize the on-line community for help but not cheating. They would need to be open ended worlds and not simply repackaged standardized testing. And finally, students would need the choice whether to play them or not.

 

Unfortunately, I am skeptical that the ed tech industry would even attempt to incorporate these ideas in its products.

 

They are market driven and not student driven. The corporate creatures behind these products don’t care how well they work. They only want to increase profitability and boost market share.

 

Cheaper commodities are better – especially when the consumer isn’t the student forced to play the game but the politician or administrator in charge of school policy.

 

Ed tech’s potential as a positive tool in a school’s toolbox has been smothered by the needs of business and industry. Until we recognize the harm corporations do in the school, we will be doomed to dehumanizing students, devaluing teachers and wasting our limited resources on already wealthy big business.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Antwon Rose’s Life Matters

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Antwon Rose could have been my student.

 

I teach 7th and 8th grade language arts in a district located minutes away from where the 17-year-old was shot and killed by police.

 

East Pittsburgh, the neighborhood where his car was stopped and where he ran from officers before being shot three times in the back, is minutes from my house.

 

He went to Woodland Hills School District, minutes from my house.

 

Michael Rosfeld, the officer who just started working at East Pittsburgh less than two hours before he shot and killed Antwon, had been fired with cause from his previous job as a security officer at the University of Pittsburgh, where I got both my graduate and undergraduate degrees and where my wife works.

 

The poem Antwon wrote about not wanting to become another statistic that was read aloud at a protest was the product of an assignment I give my own classes.

 

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So I say again – he could have been my student.

 

I have had many children like him.

 

Most of my kids are like him.

 

Promising, smart, burdened by fears no teenager should have to face.

 

When I look at the smiling picture of Antwon released to the media, he looks like so many others I have known and loved.

 

How many kids have passed before me worried that they’ll be the victims of police violence?

 

How many kids have sat in those seats trying to concentrate on my work while anxious about the reality of the streets they have to walk just to get home?

 

How many kids have been afraid that if the worst happens, the rest of us will forget their humanity?

 

I am a white teacher. I don’t know what it’s like to live as a black person in America except by extension of what my kids and others tell me.

 

When my daughter goes to school or plays in the yard, I don’t have to worry the police will consider her a threat simply because of the amount of melanin in her skin.

 

But I do see how white people like me blame a 17-year-old kid for his own death.

 

If he hadn’t been in that car, he’d still be alive. If he hadn’t run from police, they wouldn’t have shot.

 

Maybe. Maybe not.

 

But being in the wrong place at the wrong time shouldn’t bring with it a death sentence. Running away shouldn’t bring with it the finality of the grave.

 

Yesterday Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death a homicide. That’s a good start.

 

But plenty of questions remain.

 

Rosfeld is still on unpaid leave. Why hasn’t he been arrested?

 

Civil rights writer Shaun King reports that when Rosfeld worked at the University of Pittsburgh, he had a history of harassing black students and was only let go after he harassed one of the chancellor’s own children. If true, was that reported to East Pittsburgh before they hired him?

 

Why is it police can apprehend white shooters with no violence, but when a suspect is black the rules of engagement start and end with bloodshed?

 

Protests have rocked this city for two days and will continue today.

 

And I’m glad.

 

We need answers to those and more questions. We need justice for Antwon.

 

But more than anything we need to recognize that he was a human being.

 

He was a little boy with his whole life ahead of him.

 

His life matters.

 

I don’t say “mattered” because even though he’s gone, his life still matters.

 

We can’t bring him back, but we can honor who he was.

 

We can recognize his common humanity is the same as anyone else’s.

 

We can give him and his family justice.

 

And we must – we MUST – make sure that things like this don’t happen again.

 

I’ve had far too many students die at the end of a gun.

 

At absolute minimum, the hand holding it shouldn’t belong to someone tasked with the job to serve and protect.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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This Fathers Day Let’s Be Worthy of Our Children

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My daughter wrote me a card for Father’s Day.

 

 

It had a heart on the front and the following message on the back:

 

 

“Happy Fathers Day! Dad, you are my superstar. You help me when I’m sad. And I love everything you do for me. That is why I wish you a Happy Fathers Day.”

 

 

It was a sweet token of affection from a 9-year-old to her sleepy daddy sitting at the kitchen table.

 

 

But it got me thinking.

 

 

All over this country fathers are probably receiving something similar from their children.

 

 

Hawaiian shirts, blotchy neckties and more finger paintings than you could fit in the Louvre.

 

 

But the sentiment is probably the same.

 

 

Thank you for being there for me.

 

 

But are we there for America’s children?

 

 

We may be there for our own kids, but where genetics end, are we there for others?

 

 

Our government has separated approximately 2,000 children from their parents at the border, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

 

 

Two thousand children forcibly separated from their parents in our name and we dare to celebrate Father’s Day?

 

 

From April through May, the policy has separated 1,995 minors from 1,940 adults traveling with them who said they were the children’s guardians.

 

 

A country that doesn’t respect the rights of parents – even if those parents aren’t documented US citizens – has no right to pretend it values fatherhood or motherhood.

 

 

At best, we value WHITE parenthood, and that, my friends, is not good enough.

 

 

Look at what we subject our own children to in the public school system.

 

 

We segregate our schools by race and class so we can horde resources for wealthy and middle class white kids while providing the bare minimum to the poor and children of color.

 

 

In the name of accountability we bestow upon them high stakes standardized tests to “prove” even those meager funds are wasted – yet we ignore the financial disparity, the social problems, the health issues and a host of other obstacles the underprivileged face.

 

 

The only help we’re willing to offer is privatized schools that can pocket a portion of their funding and reduce resources for these kids. We demand local control and democratically elected school boards for rich white kids, but expect the poor brown ones at charter and voucher schools to get along with appointed boards where their parents have no choice except to take it or leave it.

 

 

Does a society that routinely treats its children this way deserve a thank you card? I think not.

 

 

Last month, the CDC released a report indicating that the U.S. birth rate ― the number of babies born nationwide ― is the lowest it’s been in 30 years and is below the “replacement” rate needed to sustain the population.

 

Various media sources were quick to blame women nationwide. Women put off having kids because they want to focus on careers. They aren’t sexy or submissive enough.

 

Yet few look at the responsibilities of men in this equation.

 

Who is it behind the salary gap between men and women? Who conflates women’s healthcare with abortion and communism? Who makes it easier to get a gun in this country than proper maternity leave, childcare or any adequate resources to make having a family sustainable?

 

Answer: men.

 

We’re grossly over-represented in government, business and management.

 

We don’t even support men who want to have families. Men make more money than women, but salaries are down for them as well. If there’s little support for pregnant women, there’s little support for the fathers who impregnated them.

 

We pretend family values are the bedrock of our society but we don’t do much to support families.

 

And when we look to the future, it doesn’t appear to be getting any better.

 

Big business and huge corporations are salivating all over the prospect of further monetizing our children.

 

They’re piloting scores of so-called personalized learning programs, apps and devices to spy on children and monitor every aspect of their learning.

 

Not only are they asking kids whether they feel excited or bored by canned test prep lessons provided on-line, they’re focusing cameras on children’s faces, monitoring their breathing and heart rate. They’re collecting mountains of data with little accountability, privacy or even the promise of these things.

 

Investment bankers and hedge fund managers are funding these programs and more to create a priceless database on each individual child that can be used for lifelong marketing, job placement, even profiling by law enforcement.

 

These are not practices that are done in the best interest of children. They are in the best interest of investors and free market privateers.

 

No wonder fewer people are having children! They don’t want their kids to become helpless victims to a society that cares less and less about our humanity and more and more about our marketability.

 

It is us vs. them – where the us is significantly limited by race, economics and class.

 

So this Fathers Day, we need to do more than accept a congratulatory pat on the back.

 

We need to accept our responsibility for the status quo.

 

If we don’t like the way things are, we need to commit ourselves to doing something about it.

 

Call and/or write your Senators and Representatives about the policy of separating undocumented parents and children. Visit your lawmakers’ offices and demand fair funding and an end to school segregation, high stakes testing and school privatization. Get active in your local school district going to meetings and making your voice heard. Do everything you can to educate the powers that be on the coming Ed Tech scandal and remove or block it from your district.

 

We’re not just fathers on Fathers Day.

 

We’re fathers all year long.

 

Let’s do something more to deserve it.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Dear Betsy DeVos, I Will NEVER Report My Students to ICE

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Teachers fill a lot of roles in our public schools.

 

 

We’re mentors to kids in need.

 

 

We’re aides to students struggling with new concepts and skills.

 

 

We’re homework-givers, pencil-providers, idea-encouragers, lunch-buyers, scrape-bandagers, hand-holders, hug-givers, good listeners, counselors, caregivers and – yes – sometimes even butt-kickers.

 

 

It’s no wonder that we occasionally get mistaken for mothers and fathers.

 

 

But one thing we will never be is a snitch.

 

 

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently intimated that principals and teachers could report their undocumented children to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

 

 

She’s not going to say what we should do one way or another. She’s just saying that this is something we COULD do if we wanted.

 

 

If that results in those kids and their families being deported, well we are a nation of laws, after all.

 

 

It’s a remark that sounds so reasonable to some folks.

 

 

Luckily, I speak dog whistle.

 

 

So did the U.S. Supreme Court back in 1982 when justices ruled in Plyler v. Doe that schools cannot deny children their right to a free education based on immigration status.

 

 

When kids are afraid to learn because they or their parents or extended family may be undocumented, that has a smothering affect on the classroom.

 

 

When ICE raids a local business, we see a sudden drop in class attendance.

 

So if students thought their teachers or principals were scrutinizing them to determine their citizenship status, we’d be discouraging many with brown skin or extra-national credentials from ever coming back.

 

By suggesting that educators have a choice whether to obey established law or to become self-appointed border patrol officers, DeVos actually is prescribing how we should act.

 

Well, not this teacher, Betsy.

 

Not now. Not EVER.

 

No matter who you are – black, white or brown – a public school is a sanctuary. It is where kids of all different races and creeds come to escape from the ravages of poverty, violence and indifference.

 

Teachers are not the enforcers of our broken, bent and biased immigration policy. It is not our job to oblige xenophobia and bigotry.

 

It is our job to teach, to protect and inspire.

 

Sure, I’ve made my fair share of calls to parents, healthcare professionals and Child Protective Services.

 

I’ve reported abuse, addiction and mental illness.

 

But I did that to protect my kids. And I do think of them as my kids.

 

When these little people come toddling into my class, I take a kind of ownership of them.

 

For the time they’re here, we’re family. I take interest in their lives and they take interest in mine.

 

They know all about my wife and daughter, my parents and grandparents. And I know about theirs.

 

We don’t just learn grammar, reading and writing. We share our lives with each other.

 

We share a mutual trust and respect.

 

If I reported even a single student for a suspected immigration violation, I would lose that forever.

 

It’s sad how much things have changed in a little over year.

 

Hispanic names have become Anglicized. Angelo has becomes Angel. Julio has become Jules. Jorge is now George.

 

 

The dulcet melody of Spanish has been silenced. You’ll only hear it in muffled voices if you wander by a few lockers, but never in class.

 

 

My kids aren’t even 13 yet, but many of them have already learned to hide.

 

 

Don’t appear different. Don’t let anyone know your roots extend beyond national borders.

 

 

Be “normal.” Be homogenized, bland American.

 

 

That’s the world we’ve built and it’s the one that DeVos is encouraging with her tin pot nationalism.

 

 

Some things don’t change when you cross municipal lines – human decency is one of them.

 

 

So I won’t be reporting any of my students to ICE.

 

 

I won’t help the Gestapo separate parents and children based on citizenship status.

 

 

I won’t help set up ethnic checkpoints where armed guards get to ask “suspicious persons” for their papers.

 

 

White supremacy was bad enough before Trump was elected. I won’t help the unfortunately named Department of Homeland Security become the protector of a new white trash Fatherland.

 

 

I will defend my students. I will stand up for their safety and their rights.

 

 

That’s just what we do in public school. We look after our own.

 


Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Don’t Let School Lockdown Drills Become the New Normal

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I got an interesting phone call the other day from my daughter’s elementary school.

 

The counselor warned me that my little one’s class would conduct a lockdown drill – the first the kids had ever experienced.

 

With everything in the news about school shootings and the gun debate, the superintendent and principals thought they should prepare for the worst, even though they doubted anything like that would actually happen here.

 

The counselor just wanted me to be aware what was happening and to prepare my daughter for it so she wouldn’t be scared.

 

I thanked her for the call, and went in the other room to speak to my 9-year-old sweetie.

 

She was hunkered on the floor drawing pictures of her toys.

 

Mario and Luigi were chasing a purple Yoshi. Captain America was playing soccer with Wonder Woman. That kind of thing.

 

I opened my mouth — and my throat closed up.

 

I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it.

 

What would I say? —-Hey, Honeybunches. You’re going to have a lockdown drill at school tomorrow. Your class is going to prepare in case a gunman breaks in and tries to murder you.

 

She was staring at me now, Mario’s hat half colored in.

 

So I put on my teacher’s cap and explained everything that would happen, but not why.

 

She was completely unfazed.

 

“That’s all? Can I go back to coloring now?” she asked.

 

I nodded.

 

I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, but I wondered how she’d react. This was a girl who in kindergarten had cried at the violence of a fire alarm.

 

So the next day came and went – no mention from her about what had happened at school.

 

She wasn’t traumatized. She was her usual self – frustrated at her homework, bargaining for a snack, writing an autobiography of her soccer career that would start next fall when she signs up.

 

I waited a week and then asked her about what had happened.

 

In the most matter of fact voice, she told me how her third grade class had stood away from the door, clustered in one corner of the room holding books.

 

“Why books?” I asked, thinking that maybe the drill had gone on too long so they had something to read.

 

She said they were to throw at a bad guy if he sneaked into the room.

 

I imagined a gunman in my daughter’s classroom trying to spray the children with bullets only to be met by a hail of tossed books – Dr. Seuss vs. Smith & Wesson.

 

Then I envisioned her teacher pulling out a revolver and returning fire through the swarm of terrified elementary school bodies darting back and forth.

 

The shock must have shown on my face.

 

“Don’t worry, Daddy,” she said. “No one broke in.”

 

As usual, children do better with this stuff than adults.

 

But the reason why is exceedingly troubling.

 

They are still forming their concept of normality.

 

When I went to school, we never had lockdown drills. We had monthly fire drills and the occasional severe weather drill. But we never prepared for crazed murderers and terrorists. That just wasn’t in our routine or even our conception of what a school should do.

 

Yet it is now routine for my daughter. It is typical for most children these days.

 

As a teacher in a neighboring district, I had to preside over my own first lockdown drill with my 7th graders a few weeks earlier.

 

We clustered in a corner on the floor – the door locked, the lights off.

 

My class of rambunctious teens who rarely seem able to do anything without a constant stream of words was nearly silent.

 

The worst part was how I felt trying to downplay what we were doing.

 

Nothing to see here, kids. Just an ordinary day pretending to hide in a corner so a killer would pass us by.

 

And now after the drill, I keep my classroom door locked at all times.

 

It’s a huge inconvenience having to stop what you’re doing and physically open the door anytime someone wants to come in. But it’s what we have to do to bolster our sense of security.

 

It’s our new normal.

 

And I don’t like it.

 

It just seems to me like another way my generation has failed our children.

 

We’ve always known our gun laws are insane. We knew there should be SOME sensible regulations on who can buy a gun and where and why. We knew there was no good reason to allow civilians to own automatic weapons.

 

But we did nothing.

 

Okay, a few of us spoke up now and again. It did no good. Our lawmakers just waited out our outrage and kept pocketing the money from the NRA and the gun lobby.

 

And now we’ve accepted that school shootings are just another part of getting an education.

 

It’s just something else to prepare for – like a grease fire in the cafeteria or a flooded gymnasium.

 

I’m sorry, but this is not normal.

 

I refuse to let this be just another possible disaster we feel compelled to add to our list of Might Happens.

 

Thankfully, protestors are still out there demanding action from our politicians. Thankfully, demonstrations and town halls are still in the works like the April 20th National School Walkout.

 

But our leaders still think they can wait us out. And these lockdown drills feel too much like an admission that they’re right.

 

What sense of urgency do we have if we’ve already incorporated shootings into the calendar?

 

I’ll accept that these drills are necessary. But I won’t accept them as permanent.

 

These are temporary measures at best.

 

However, that’s something that must be made explicit. Lockdown drills cannot become a tradition, common, conventional.

 

It shouldn’t be – “Time for the occasional lockdown drill.”

 

It should be – “Look what our cowardly politicians are forcing us to do because they haven’t enough spine to stand up to the NRA!”

 

We mustn’t lose our sense of outrage over this cultural shift. Because if we do, the necessary political change will not come.

 

We need sensible gun regulations – not another B.S. duck and cover exercise to engender a false sense of security and pop our civic resolve.

 

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Respecting Student Free Speech Was Hard for Adults During Today’s School Walkout

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The kids are all right. It’s the adults you have to watch.

 

The walkout planned nationwide to protest gun violence today on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting came to my western Pennsylvania school – and we weren’t ready for it.

 

In fact, up until today no one had mentioned a thing about it.

 

I had asked teachers if they wanted to do something and was told it was up to the students to lead.

 

I had asked the high school student council if they were interested in participating, but there wasn’t much of a response.

 

Then this morning in the middle school where I teach, there was an impromptu two minute meeting where we were told some kids might walk out and that we should just let them go.

 

Their right to free speech would be respected and there wouldn’t be any penalty for participating.

 

However, as a teacher, I was instructed not to bring up the subject, not to allow discussion and only to attend if all of my students decided to go.

 

That’s a hard position to be in.

 

It’s like being put in a metaphorical straight jacket.

 

But I tried.

 

When my 7th grade kids came in, they were all a buzz about something and I couldn’t really ask why.

 

The suspense was broken with a sledge hammer during second period when one of my most rambunctious students asked if he could use the restroom at 10 am. That was over an hour away.

 

I told him he couldn’t reserve an appointment for a bathroom break but he could go now if he wanted.

 

Then he explained himself. At 10 am he was walking out.

 

The room exploded.

 

They had heard about the nationwide walkout at 10 – the time of the Parkland shooting. They knew kids all across the land were leaving class for 17 minutes – 60 seconds for each life lost in the shooting.

 

But that was pretty much it.

 

They didn’t know what it was that kids were protesting. They didn’t know why they were protesting. They just knew it was something being done and they wanted to do it.

 

It was at this point I took off my metaphorical straight jacket.

 

I couldn’t simply suppress the talk and try to move on with the lesson – on propaganda, wouldn’t you believe!

 

We talked about the limits of gun laws – how some people wanted background checks for people wishing to purchase guns. We talked about regulating guns for people with severe mental illnesses, criminal backgrounds or suspected terrorists. We talked about how there used to be a ban on assault weapons sales and how that was the gun of choice for school shooters.

 

We even talked about what students might do once they walked out of the building.

 

They couldn’t just mill around for all that time.

 

Since we were in the middle of a unit on poetry, someone suggested reading poems about guns and gun violence.

 

Students quickly went on-line and found a site stocked with student-written poetry on the issue – many by students who had survived school shootings.

 

I admit I should have checked the site better – but we had literally minutes before the walkout was scheduled to take place.

 

Some of the poems contained inappropriate language and swear words. But they were generally well written and honest. And the kids liked them.

 

I let them print a few that they wanted to read aloud at the demonstration.

 

They were actually huddled around their desks reading poetry and practicing.

 

They were really excited about the prospect of standing up and being counted – of letting the world know how they felt.

 

One student even wrote her own poem.

 

She said I could publish it anonymously, so here it is:

 

“Pop! Pop! Pop!

 

Everyone crying, calling their parents, saying their last goodbyes.

 

Screams echo throughout the building.

Blood painting the white tiles.

Bodies laying limp on the ground

Screams of pain

Bullets piercing our skin.

 

Yelling and sobbing increase.

We are escorted out.

 

‘Is this what you wanted?’”

 

 

I barely had time to read it before the time came.

 

Students stood up and were confused by the lack of an announcement.

 

But this was not a sanctioned school event. If they took part, they were on their own.

 

It was my smallest class and several kids were already absent.

 

They all left and were immediately met by the principal and security. To their credit, the adults didn’t stop them, but they told them not to put their coats on until they were outside and to otherwise quiet down.

 

I made sure to emphasize that anyone who wanted was welcome to stay in class. But no one did.

 

After the last child left, I grabbed my coat and followed.

 

When I got to the front of the building I was surprised by the lack of high school students. There were only a handful. But there were maybe 50 middle school kids.

 

When the principal saw all my students had decided to participate, he asked me to stay in the lobby. He said it wasn’t necessary for me to attend.

 

That was hard.

 

I wanted to be there, but I didn’t want to be insubordinate, either.

 

My students were expecting me to be there. They were expecting me to help guide them.

 

So I stood in the doorway and watched.

 

Students did as I feared; they pretty much milled around.

 

A few of my students held their poems in hand and read them quietly together but there were no leaders, no organization.

 

After about 5 minutes, the adults pounced.

 

The resource officer criticized them since their safety was more at risk outside the building than in class. Administrators chastised the collective group for having no plan, for only wishing to get out of class, for not knowing why they were there and for not doing anything together to recognize the tragedy or the issue. They said that if the students had really wanted to show respect to those killed in Florida they would have a moment of silence.

 

The kids immediately got quiet, but you can’t have a 17-minute moment of silence. Not in middle school.

 

I saw some of my kids wanting to read their poems aloud but too afraid to call the group’s attention to themselves.

 

And then it was over.

 

The whole thing had taken about 10 minutes.

 

Administration herded the kids back into the building early and back through the metal detectors.

 

I can’t help feeling this was a missed opportunity.

 

I get it, being an administrator is tough. A situation like today is hard to stomach. Kids taking matters into their own hands and holding a demonstration!?

 

We, adults, don’t like that. We like our children to be seen and not heard.

 

We want them to do only things that will show us in a better light. We don’t like them taking action to fix problems that we couldn’t be bothered to fix, ourselves.

 

But what right do we have to curate their demonstration?

 

If they wanted to mill around for 17 minutes, we should have let them.

 

Better yet, we could have helped them organize themselves and express what many of them truly were thinking and feeling.

 

If I had been allowed out of the building, I could have called the assembly to order and had my kids read their poems.

 

But doing so would have been exceedingly dangerous for me, personally.

 

I can’t actively defy my boss in that way. It just didn’t seem worth it.

 

If we had had warning that this might happen and planned better how to handle it, that also might have been an improvement.

 

Imagine if the school had sanctioned it. We could have held an assembly or sent a letter home.

 

The teachers could have been encouraged to plan something with their students.

 

Obviously if the students wanted to go in another direction, they should have been allowed to do so.

 

But these are middle school kids. They don’t know how to organize. They barely know how to effectively express themselves.

 

Regardless of how we, adults, feel about the issue, isn’t it our responsibility to help our student self actualize?

 

Isn’t it our responsibility to help them achieve their goals?

 

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a crazy hippie.

 

Maybe I’m some radical anarchist.

 

But I’m proud of my students for taking a stand.

 

It was unorganized and a mess.

 

Yet they stood up and did something we, the adults, really weren’t that keen on them doing.

 

Their message was a muddle.

 

But they had something to say.

 

They just haven’t figure out how to say it yet.

When Students Stay Up All Night Playing Fortnite and You’ve got to Teach Them in the Morning

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There is something monstrously unfair about our teacher evaluation systems.

 

If your students fail because they were up all night playing video games, it’s your fault.

 

Seriously.

 

When students fail at academic tasks, there is no responsibility attributed to the students, no responsibility attributed to the parents and certainly no responsibility given to society.

 

It’s all just thrown on the teacher because, hey, someone’s got to be responsible. And it might as well be them.

 

I’ve written scores of articles about how standardized tests forced on students by the federal government are unfair.

 

They are developmentally inappropriate, culturally biased, and subject to a deep conflict of interest because the people making the tests get more money if test takers fail.

 

The tests drive the curriculum instead of the other way around. The scores needed to pass change from year-to-year invalidating annual comparisons. And many lawmakers pushing for these assessments are funded by the school privatization industry that uses failing test scores to sell its own fly-by-night brand of education.

 

These are real problems our education system faces every day.

 

But we mustn’t forget an even more fundamental one: we’re all responsible for student success or failure.

 

Not just teachers. EVERYONE.

 

Society, lawmakers, business people, parents – but those most responsible are the students, themselves.

 

Case and Point—

 

Over the last few months a word has entered my students’ vocabulary that hadn’t been there before: Fortnite.

 

It’s not that they’re so interested in an antiquated term for a two-week period. It’s the name of a popular multiplayer on-line shoot-em-up video game for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, and Mac. Players build forts with teammates to defend against other players or enemies.

 

Apparently, many of my students got it for Christmas. Or since there’s a free on-line version, they were turned on to it by others who had gotten the deluxe version as a present.

 

It started as an undercurrent of trash talk. “You suck at Fortnite.” “You can’t beat me on Fortnite.” “You just wish you could take me on Fortnite.”

 

And then it started to manifest physically.

 

Those same kids would come in to school with Fortnite Face – glassy red eyes, heads slumped on the table and the inability to stay awake for more than 10 minutes at a time.

 

It’s not all of my students, but it’s a significant percentage. Almost all boys. And almost all at a distinct learning disadvantage.

 

Teaching them is like teaching someone in a deep sea diver suit. They can’t really see or hear you very well. And any message you get back from them sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of the ocean.

 

When I noticed it, I cleared as much of my schedule as I could to call parents. It’s hard because administration decided not to fill positions in my department for teachers who retired last year – so all our classes are larger. And they gave me a new class I haven’t taught in years so the planning load is more cumbersome.

 

Plus I have as many special education students as legally allowed in every class, which requires mountains of extra paperwork and monitoring for each child.

 

And of course the phone in my room doesn’t call out and the cell reception is terrible, so I have to move to one of the few phones that will actually allow me to contact parents and try to communicate my concerns.

 

Most parents I talked to noticed the same things I had. Fortnite was taking over their children’s lives. Their kids were playing the game at every opportunity and ignoring most everything else.

 

However, most parents I couldn’t reach. Those cricket burner phones get disconnected quick. Others go straight to a voicemail box that’s so full it won’t accept new messages. Others allow me to leave a message that will never be returned.

 

But sometimes I did get through. And sometimes parents didn’t simply throw up their hands and say they don’t know what to do. Sometimes a parent actually laid down ground rules or took the game away.

 

However, if I’m being honest, contacting parents did not solve my problem.

 

I’m not blaming them. Most of my students live below the poverty line. That means their folks are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Or they’re grandparents raising their sons’ or daughters’ kids. Or they’re foster parents with a full house.

 

They’re doing the best they can. But it doesn’t end up stopping the addiction.

 

And – let’s be honest – it is an addiction.

 

For the first time in 2018, the World Health Organization recognized video game addiction as a real thing. Not every video game. Not every time someone sits down to play a video game. But video games can lead to addictive behavior.

 

That’s what I’m seeing in my students.

 

So after talking with as many parents as I could, I came to a mostly dead end.

 

My next step was to try to use student interests to influence instruction.

 

We were in the middle of a poetry writing unit. So I allowed students to write their poems about Fortnite.

 

That perked up a few heads.

 

Here’s a cinquain about Fortnite. Here’s an acrostic, a narrative, a concrete poem in the shape of a soldier or his gun.

 

To be honest, none of them were masterpieces.

 

They were just the normal trash talk and braggadocio written down in verse.

 

So I got an idea. Use the heightened competitive urge to push artistry.

 

We came to limericks – a difficult but fun type of poetry with five lines, a specific rhyme scheme and meter.

 

We read funny examples, we sang the rhythm together in chorus – da Dum da da Dum da da Dum – and then I set them the task of writing their own limericks.

 

With one twist. Whoever wrote the best limerick would get a homework pass.

 

That got them going like a shot.

 

All of my Fortniters perked up.

 

They wrote like I’d never seen.

 

Each wanted to one-up the others. And no one wrote about the game.

 

By the end of class, we had some pretty good poems. I wouldn’t say they are the best ever written, but they were miles better than where we were before.

 

So what does it all mean?

 

When we talk about video games these days, the conversation usually strays toward violence.

 

Pundits caution that video games will desensitize children and make them more prone to aggression and acting out. It might even contribute to the creation of school shooters.

 

Wrong.

 

In general, video games don’t make children more violent. Fortnite is a game where students shoot each other with guns all night long and it hasn’t made my students any more aggressive or violent than they already were.

 

Many cultures like the Japanese are much more into video games than ours and they have fewer violent incidents or school shootings.

 

However, video game addiction is a real thing and it impacts learning.

 

Some corporations want to try to harness this addiction to push learning. Hence the move to personalized or competency based education. That’s pure rubbish.

 

It’s a way to monetize education without paying attention to what’s best for kids. The same with gamification – using game theory to drive instruction.

 

And don’t think I’ve lost sight of my own use of competition in class. I haven’t.

 

Games and competition can be used to positive ends in moderation.

 

You can motivate reluctant kids to do things they wouldn’t normally do with competition. But it doesn’t work for everyone and it doesn’t work all the time.

 

It needs to be a novelty. Any tool can be overused.

 

Even video games aren’t bad in moderation. I used to be a gamer, myself.

 

The problem is when it becomes an addiction.

 

Our social structures can’t handle it.

 

Game corporations only care if it makes money. Parents are often stressed to the limit just to provide the basics.

 

The only group we require to be responsible is teachers.

 

And that’s just not going to work.

 

Video game addiction is another area where it becomes painfully clear how much work we all need to do to help our children succeed.