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Getting in the Gamification Groove

I am about halfway through my COETAIL Course 5 project now, so it is definitely time get my blogging life back on track!

I was pretty sure by the end of Course 4 that I wanted to do a project based on “gamification” for Course 5 but for a long time I wasn’t really sure what that would look like, or even where to start.

When I searched for gamification systems that were already in existence to implement in a world language class, I found myself simultaneously inspired and completely depressed. Check out Operation Lapis, an online Latin course that uses gamification to teach the equivalent of two years of college Latin by having students go on digital quests related to the Latin language and Roman history. What I can see and read about this program impresses me with what seem to be ambitious learning goals and a fun and interactive online gaming experience in a virtual world. Unfortunately, this particular program only exists for learning Latin. I spent roughly 30 seconds thinking that I should create something like that for my middle school French class as my Course 5 project. Then I remembered that half the time I can’t remember my email password, and that creating my own online virtual reality game is far closer to absurd than ambitious.

While I looked for other gamification options, my students used Duolingo throughout the first semester as an online activity for when they finished their other independent classwork, or outside of class time. This was how I started to dabble in the world of gamified learning, and discovered what went well and what did not. I found Duolingo to be pretty great at helping students to build their vocabulary and use of basic grammatical structures. At first my students loved using it. However, the initial student excitement about that program proved short-lived with the majority of my classes. A handful of my most motivated students are still really into it, and I have seen their language skills improving a lot as a result of using the program—- but it does little to help engage a reluctant learner. If I didn’t find something more interesting for my students, I was worried that a whole unit based on a gamification model could prove uninspiring. As one 7th grade boy put it, “Duolingo just gives us XP to trick us. Do you know what you can buy with the XP? An extended French quiz! This whole thing is a TRAP!!!” I have to say… as much as I do like Duolingo, the gamification side of it is a little weak.

Eventually I came upon Classcraft. It is a gamification system that you can implement with any subject.

Initially I was highly skeptical about whether Classcraft would benefit my students’ learning. After all, it is not designed specifically for language learning. Could a non-subject-specific gamification system really push my students to learn more French and to use technology in a way that moved away towards “redefinition” in the SAMR model? I will write another blog post later that goes into more details about how it can indeed be used to these ends, but for now I will just say that the ability to customize it is the key. The teacher has complete control over how to distribute points. If you want to give out points just for your students coming to class on time with their materials, you can set up the program to help you with that goal. If you want your students to earn points by interacting with others around the world, you can set up the program to help you with that goal. I love that it is highly customizable and can be adapted to suit each unique classroom environment and course expectations.

Although I quickly came to see the serious potential within the program, watching the above video also made me so painfully aware of the fact that I am 100% not a gamer!! Goodness!! XP, HP, AP, PP, and Gold Coins?!?! What?!?! What are these and why are they necessary!?!? Seriously, I never have felt as geriatric as I did as I tried to get my head around the hows and whys of Classcraft.

After a lot of video tutorials and reading, I did come to understand the appeal of being able to use AP (Action Points, for my fellow non-gamers) to earn “real life rewards”. The fact that you can also use Gold Coins within the game to buy new clothing for your avatar, or to buy a virtual pet like a flaming crocodile…. well…. I am still completely baffled about the appeal of this, but three weeks into using Classcraft I can assure you that 11-year-olds are really into virtual pets.

Eventually, despite my continued confusion about flaming crocodiles, I decided to just take the leap of faith and start using the program. There have been some small bumps in our road over the past three weeks, but honestly my transition to a gamification class environment has gone pretty smoothly! My students are reenergized, and I see them pushing themselves to do more with the target language and with technology than I have seen in some months.

My 6th graders were away last week on Week Without Walls. When they burst into my room after getting back to school this Monday, the first question was, “We still get to use Classcraft, right?!”

The second question was, “Can I get 30XP for the lessons I did on Duolingo this weekend? I wanted to make sure to still earn points even though we didn’t have class last week!”

My student is now only 3700 points shy of being far enough in the game to consider buying the flaming crocodile of his dreams.

Course 4: Final Project Ideas for Course 5

It is the last day of my first year of international teaching, and I’m writing my last blog entry for my first year of Coetail as well. I feel like I’m at both the beginning and the end of a long journey. The year is over. My bulletin boards are stripped, my Moodle and Atlas pages are in order. Everything is packed up for 8 weeks.

But my mind is already 8 weeks ahead, thinking about next year. I got my schedule for next year today. I am teaching 6th and 7th grade French, but not 8th next year. All along I have been planning to do Course 5 centered around my 8th graders because their level of language being more advanced leads to more interesting projects (tech projects as well as traditional). I’ve known for a few weeks that it was likely that I wouldn’t have that class next year, and I’ve started to mull over ways that I can develop a final project with my 6th or 7th graders.

Here are my ideas at this point:

1) Redesign my unit that is the introduction to the past tense, to become a unit focused around digital storytelling. I love the idea. I’m also worried that the level of French in 7th grade is still far too elementary to create digital stories of any degree of interest.

2) Have students create infographics for each unit of a course, and create a digital gallery of the various visual ways of representing the topics covered— perhaps by creating a class blog or website.

3) My final idea is to do something with gamification in the classroom. I read a blog post this week called A New Roll for Avatars: Learning Languages and the creativity behind that idea just amazed me. I had spoken with Laura Blair, our tech integrator at AISC in the fall about how I would like for my kids to play some games in French, but the level of sophistication in this looks like it could be quite impressive. I need to look into it far more before I’m convinced that this is an appropriate final project idea. I would need a way to track my students’ participation and language use within such a program, for example. This is something that I definitely want to explore more.

There are so many fabulous ideas out there in technology. Any other suggestions for a final project for a world language classroom? I’d love other suggestions, as I am in no way set on any of those three ideas! I’ll keep you posted about what I decide when school resumes!

Are our classrooms really obsolete?

I started the readings for this week with the article The Classroom is Obsolete: It’s Time for Something New. The article argues that “the classroom has been obsolete for several decades. That’s not just my opinion. It’s established science.” I find it really hard to take an article seriously that makes such an extreme position in the opening paragraph. Is classroom instruction perfect? Of course not! Can we improve our instruction? Yes, and doing so is imperative. Is a classroom alone an adequate environment for all learning to best occur? No. But is it really truly obsolete? Has it really been obsolete since before I was born? I hope not, because if so I feel like I better start finding a new career now. I think that what occurs in my classroom is certainly NOT obsolete. Or am I a some relic of the past that just can’t bring myself to admit defeat?

The article argues for a different school set-up, basically one where learning can occur more organically and across disciplines. Not a bad idea at all, once I get past that opening paragraph. Once you get further into the article you discover that you can even still have a classroom-like space; you just have to call it a “learning suite”! Most of the key principles listed in the article as being essential for a school of tomorrow are things that I already see daily in my school, despite it being cursed with classrooms. Student-centered? Yes. Safe and secure? Yes. High expectations? Yes. And the list goes on.

After having read this article about the need for a more open school design, I also read the articles about Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

In theory a MOOC is a great idea because a student can progress through the course at his or her own speed, and can investigate his/her own questions through online research or interactions online with others in the course.

My question is this: If classrooms are “obsolete” because they “are based on the erroneous assumption that efficient delivery of content is the same as effective learning,” as stated in the EdWeek article, then does a MOOC which is designed to effectively deliver content to hundreds or thousands of people offer any great of a solution? Of course in a MOOC, a student can do additional research, interact with peers, and push him or herself to learn more about what aspects of a course seem most relevant to that student. But should our students be encouraged to do the same in our physical classes?

Of course, MOOCS offer other benefits as well— I could register for a MOOC that presents information that I currently do not have a way of learning in another way. My students could take a MOOC to learn something else in any given subject as well.

However, at the end of the day a class has to be interesting to a student, has to be relevant, and has to be student-centered to work well. This can be done online (although I really do think that a MOOC with thousands of people in it would be extremely difficult to create in a genuinely student-centered way). This can be done in a non-traditionally designed school with open spaces and “learning suites,” and this can even be done in a physical classroom with real living students, a real living teacher, and technology to help us in pursuing our interests and answering our questions.

For now, I’m going to hold off on calling my classroom obsolete. I am not renaming it a “learning suite,” and I’m also not yet ready to believe that a MOOC can offer the same level of personalized instruction and interactive quality that I strive for in my classes.

Labeling my tech integration level

I’m currently swamped in almost-the-end-of-the-year grading. Somehow I managed to plan in a way that every class finished a unit this week and had a test. My oh my. Grading is not my favorite part of teaching. At all.

When I think about the SAMR Model, I feel like I’m grading myself. Am I bad at using technology? Then I’m just doing substitution. Am I great? Then I’m up at the modification level… or maybe even the redefinition model!

The problem with grading in general is that it is hard to slap one definition on anyone’s abilities. Many of my students have a mix of grades in the grade book for the year. If I looked back at my own tech integration over the past year and assigned grades of S, A, M, or R, I’d also have a mix. If a student gets an A on a test, it doesn’t mean they are completely immune from ever doing mediocre work again. The same is true for me. I’ve had my technology high points over the past year, and some real low points as well. I have some projects going well right now, but I don’t feel comfortable saying, “I integrate technology at the modification level.” Honestly, I feel like technology for me is two steps forward, then one step back.

Sometimes I have students fill out a shared Google Spreadsheet with information. That is pretty much substitution. I could have taped a piece of paper to my whiteboard and had kids write what region they want to research for a project and accomplished the same goal.

More often, however, I have students do activities such as practice their vocabulary at home with Quizlet online flashcards. I would say this is augmentation or maybe modification, because the activities you can do with these flashcards go well beyond what you can do with traditional paper flashcards. My students love to compete against each other in games on Quizlet, for example, and that wouldn’t be possible with traditional flashcards. I would also say that the RSA videos we made a while back, and the infographics we are creating in class now are something between augmentation and modification as well. Sometimes I feel like infographics are little more than sleek digital posters. At the same time, my students can use them in their digital portfolios and share them in various ways, which I think of as being more indicative of a modification-level activity.

I need to keep searching for ways to really redefine what my students are able to do with the help of technology.

Digital Story(re)telling

Sometimes I get a serious mental block about something. I’ve had one about digital storytelling, which is why I haven’t posted anything on this blog in far too long. I know what digital storytelling is. I love it. I can imagine it being a tremendously amazing force in a classroom. I want my students to use it to create something incredible, beautiful, thought-provoking, and moving. I want them to move their audience to tears or to action. Then I remember that we are currently learning how to order food in a restaurant. And thus begins my mental block.

Although Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling says, “Digital storytelling at its most basic core is the practice of using computer-based tools to tell stories,” the 7 Elements of Digital Storytelling seem beyond what I feel able to link to what I am covering in my classes. Honestly, a dramatic question and emotional content are a bit tough to have beginning foreign language students incorporate into a digital story. Even on the adapted list for elements to include in digital storytelling for educational uses, the need for “a dramatic question” still remains. We may pose the question “Qu’est-ce que tu as fait le weekend dernier?” (“What did you do last weekend?”), but that isn’t exactly a “dramatic question”. I’m a little afraid that any attempt at a dramatic question or emotional content will end up resembling Flight of the Conchord’s song, “Fou da Fa Fa,” and not in a good way! As much as I really do love that song (grammatical errors and all), I’m not sure I want to do a middle school version of it and proudly call it “digital storytelling.”

So, I decided to do some digital storytelling in my classes, but adapt it to the needs of my students who are just learning how to use the past tenses in French. The end result may not even qualify as digital storytelling since it has no dramatic question. The story isn’t even original. It is actually digital storyREtelling, not telling. But despite those flaws, it was an amazing project for my students and it was perfectly appropriate for their language development.

My advanced 7th and advanced 8th grade French classes had both been studying the passé composé (a past tense), and they read the short story “Le chouette bouquet” from the classic children’s book, Le Petit Nicolas. Reading this story was challenging for my students, but gave them the opportunity to see the past tense in a more authentic context. The story is written from the first person perspective of Nicolas. For a digital story(re)telling project, my students were to retell the story from the third person point of view. Some groups did the retell in the past tense, but some groups were not ready to use the past tense themselves, and they were able to retell the story in the present tense if they chose to do so. My 8th graders did the retelling project as an RSA video. My 7th graders were allowed to retell the story with an RSA video, with a digital comic, or a traditional comic. Only a few groups of 7th graders chose to do the RSA video option, but the ones who made an RSA video had great results.

My students prepared by doing a storyboard first, and then practiced drawing the full story a few times, as well as telling the story while using their notes for practice. Because I didn’t want my 8th grade students to just read the storyboard for the actual recording, they were not allowed to have access to any notes. They had to tell the story from memory for the final recording. My 7th graders were allowed to have notes, but they were supposed to keep the use of those notes to a minimum. I am still finding it a challenge to balance my desire to have a polished final product with the fact that I also want my students’ speaking to be as authentic as possible. Even without using their notes, I am still proud of how the final projects went. They worked out pretty well for a first digital story(re)telling project.

We’ll keep working on a “dramatic question” for an end of the year project!

Blendspace with the 8th grade Digital Story(re)telling Projects:


Here is also a really cute video that some of my 7th graders did.

Course Two: Final Project


Photo Credit: Anirudh Koul via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Anirudh Koul via Compfight cc

For my final project, I worked with Laura Blair, the middle school tech integrator at our school, to create a unit in which students create a tourist website for a Francophone city or region. AISC has increased the amount of material that middle school language students cover at every level this year, and I have found it challenging to finish the materials that I am supposed to cover with my students this year. Although I think that our students do need a rigorous curriculum to be prepared for high school world language courses, I find myself trying to teach so much vocabulary and grammar that learning about Francophone regions has taken the backseat. My students do absolutely need to be able to conjugate verbs in order to be successful at more advanced levels of French. However, they also need to learn more than just the “foundational skills” of vocabulary and grammar that are the cornerstones of our language program. As a new teacher in this program, I am still working on finding that balance. I wanted this unit to address some of the AERO World Language Standards for Cultures, since I am sometimes feeling that I am not devoting adequate classroom time to these standards in my rush to cover enough grammar to prepare my students for high school. Laura and I designed this unit together, and then she also shared this unit with a friend of hers, and this other teacher is planning to use it in her classroom in Florida.  I always enjoy working with Laura, since her technology background is so extensive! My original thought was for students to create an online travel brochure via Prezi or a comparable site, and to collect notes on Diigo (Laura’s friend suggested also creating a Diigo group to aid in the organization of that material). Student will collect the images they use via Compfight, since the NETS-S Standards we included emphasize the importance of digital citizenship. Laura suggested that instead of doing a Prezi-type brochure, my students could make a website. She said that the former French teacher at our school had created websites with students successfully. Personally, after having seen how difficult it was for many of my students to do their VoiceThread projects as my Course 1 Final Project, I am interested to see how this goes. I admire Laura’s ambition on the project, and I am glad that she is back from her pregnancy leave, so she will be in my classroom to support my students when we do roll out this project in the upcoming months. I’m really fortunate to have a tech integrator who also speaks French!