Aiming for Redefinition Presentation

I’ve just finished showing my final COETAIL presentation to the cohort! The group breathed a collective sigh of relief after the last presentation faded out (more like cut due to overtime). There were a lot of impressive projects and several attempts to reach redefinition. This would be a level that I will try to aim for in my teaching whenever possible!

Special thanks go to Zoe Page and Rebekah Madrid, who gave their professional feedback looking over my slides. Also, many thanks to Kim Cofino for her dedication and commitment in keeping COETAIL a great course! I would recommend COETAIL to any educator who would like to understand the role of technology in education (and our lives!), how it can transform learning, and how this can be applied in our classrooms!

Fellow COETAILers, let’s keep in touch!

NYT Student Contest – Course 5 Final Project

One of the main learning targets in grade 10 English for Academic Purposes (EAP 10) is to develop English language learners’ argumentation skills. Throughout the year, they differentiated between fact and opinion and practiced justifying their ideas by adding supporting statements. When reading, they learned the skill of synthesizing or extracting accurate information without including their own interpretation. When evaluating content, students developed an understanding of whether an author’s point-of-view is biased or balanced based on how information is presented. In other words, they observed if an author used ethos, pathos, or logos to convince readers or viewers.

The standards and assessments for this unit can be found in this UbD planner:

For the final task, students had to take a stance on a major issue of contention. Since the legalization of marijuana in parts of the U.S. and in Uruguay recently made headlines, it presented a timely topic for the unit. Supporters or opponents of the move have polarized views that were ripe to be evaluated and analyzed. In the process, students have to apply the different language and critical thinking skills mentioned above.

To introduce the topic in class, it was helpful to trigger students’ prior knowledge. By creating a mind map on the board, keywords of what students knew about marijuana were written around it.

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With the internet flooded with opposing views, and more often than not strong biased views on marijuana, I chose research materials from traditionally considered credible news sites such as BBC, CNN, ABC, The New York Times among others. (I justify my decision on a previous comment. )

A Google Doc was shared with students with links to videos and guiding questions. Students made a copy and shared them with me. The purpose of the document was to collect information for their research materials to be used later.

Starting off research, news materials often talked about the ‘effects of marijuana on the brain’ as assumed knowledge so it was important for students to understand the scientific angle particularly on how THC affects the brain. As a language class it was important to look for content that would be accessible for students with different levels. Videos from ASAP Science and Scishow used ‘more friendly’ academic language while explaining the effects of THC on the brain. Chosen videos were all available on Youtube. Some had transcripts available which helped students understand content better.

As part of our visual interpretation task, students viewed parts of video documentaries considering viewpoints of ordinary citizens versus official policy makers. They also looked at what the different underlying motivation for the move to legalize marijuana whether economic, medical, or recreational. For our reading comprehension task, students read this CNN article and answered true or false questions which had to be accompanied by evidence from the text to support their view.

Interestingly, when students were asked to take notes on how THC affects the brain, they simply zeroed-in on visual information that confirmed their preconceptions. In other words, they focused on pictures or written text on the screen that supported what they thought about marijuana and ignored spoken text or what they heard. In effect, they chose words like ‘euphoria’ and ‘relaxed’ but completely ignored the explanation of how THC affects the brain. I shared my observation to the class and talked about ‘selective perception’. After becoming aware of this phenomenon, students were better able to deliver and focus on exactly what the task required. They understood that they must pay attention to the whole process shown in the video and focus not only on visuals but also listening carefully and remembering the spoken words.

Students were able to analyze if a reporter used ethos, pathos, or logos in their reports and whether the arguments were one-sided (biased) or showed both sides of the argument (balanced). I have written a separate blog post talking about my concern that the students might be leaning towards one side only and start glorifying drugs. However, as proven by a Making Thinking Visible exercise called Tug of War, the sticky notes showed that students had a balanced understanding of the arguments for and against the legalization of marijuana. Our counselor was invited as well to discuss with the students regarding the facts they have gathered and written on their stickies. This way, the counselor and I could get a clearer picture of what students were thinking.

Tug of War- a Making Thinking Visible strategy to show two sides of an argument

Tug of War- a Making Thinking Visible strategy to show two sides of an argument

Adam, our school counselor, joined the class discussion to gauge if students were inclined to one side

Adam, our school counselor, joined the class discussion to gauge if students were inclined to one side

At this point, COETAIL’s push for redefinition was lurking at the back of my mind. The final assessment task for this unit was originally a class debate. For a while I felt stumped because this would not meet redefinition. As I looked for inspiration, I visited the New York Times Room for Debate site. By chance I saw an announcement about a student contest to ‘write an editorial on an issue that matters to you’ on the Learning Network.

A video from editor Andrew Rosenthal was included on the site. He gave tips on how to approach writing editorials. Viewing this reinforced the message I have given students in class. The rules were stipulated in the video including one New York Times source and one non-New York Times source, the word limit, and how to submit work. The deadline for submission was on the 17th of March, which gave our class ample time to do research, collect information, and go through a cycle of the writing process.

It was straightforward to introduce the project to the class. I simply stated that they will be joining the New York Times student contest. Since the group is made up of multi-level students from low intermediate to upper intermediate bordering on advanced, their reactions were naturally mixed. The low intermediate students balked at the idea and flatly refused to join. The others were excited and wanted to know more. In fact, one of them even wanted to know what the prize would be if they win (!).

I think that students were more motivated when a task had a real audience. Getting involved in a contest run by a renowned entity like The New York Times gave them more meaning in writing their views especially since the writing workshop needed extended time and therefore a sustained interest.

In the end, only the more advanced students were keen to work until the end. The lower intermediate students lost steam. In fact, they kept getting off task using their laptops while writing their drafts (going on Facebook, texting other students, etc…) that I decided it was best to go old school and hand them a piece of blank paper. Interestingly, they focused more using paper and could write in one sitting.

The advanced group was able to finish and upload their editorials on the site. Here are some samples:

Go to link and find ‘Dooho’

Go to link and find ‘Zach’

Go to link and find ‘Nils’

Go to link and find ‘Roshni’

Considering the whole process, I believe students had a better appreciation of the process. We used tools like Youtube videos with some transcripts, Google docs for collaboration in research and writing as well as giving feedback, using the NYT site to upload the editorials, and Voicethread to reflect on their learning process. In particular, joining the NYT Student Contest online helped me achieve redefinition, that is, ‘technology allowed me to create a new task previously inconceivable’. I would not have been able to join the contest, or even discover its existence, without the use of technology! Entering this contest was hopefully a positive experience for students — allowing them to do something meaningful reaching out to people outside our classroom. As they make more progress in the coming years, they can re-visit their comment again and compare how they were at this point in time to what they become!

The questions asked in the Voicethread activity helped guide students to reflect on their learning. Students have shown evidence of thinking and learning about the process from their answers to the questions. These include:
What are challenges you faced when using scientific or technical videos for research?
Which type of argument swayed you the most? The ones that used ethos, pathos, or logos? Explain and give an example.
Which were easier to understand–the videos or the written articles? Why?
Which had more compelling evidence–the videos or the news articles? Why?
Most of you changed your opinion after considering information you never considered before. Is this a sign weakness? Explain.

I have included the information on joining the NYT student contest on the EAL blog. I have also solicited help from colleagues in the process of debating the legalization of marijuana thereby informing them of the project. But the major way to share this with colleagues is to present the project as part of my COETAIL course 5 final project.

Modifying a Writing Task

Scaffolding a writing task helps students work on smaller manageable chunks

Continuing from my last post, this time I would like to share how tech eased scaffolding and modification of a writing task.

“What’s an act of kindness?” This was the unit question that students had to answer as part of our summative assessment. The end goal was to write an essay, but for EAL learners this could be very daunting. Scaffolding the task was necessary and the way to do this was to break the whole piece into small manageable chunks.

In order to scaffold writing an essay, a framework was shared with students on a Google doc. Each box had a question that students must answer. These were guiding questions. Visuals were added in most boxes as prompts to help students either use them as answers or to come up with their own idea along that line. Sentence starters were also made available to use but this was optional.

From there, students had to give examples or add more information to support their view.
Using Google Docs redesigned the task by allowing me to see real time how students went through the writing process in class. Since each student shared their document with me, I could open them and look at what they were writing. The best part was that I could keep them on task or prod them with some questions to help them think further. This was not possible when we only used paper.

After they finished answering the questions in boxes and adding their ideas with examples, I could give them instant feedback using the ‘insert comment’ button highlighting areas that were addressed. These comments were emailed to students so that they could “resolve” it or address suggestions and feedback for the next lesson. This is another task redesign made possible by using Google Docs.

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After editing and proofreading was done, I extracted the students’ texts from their boxes to make up a complete essay. I wanted to do this to prove to students that they can write long texts. I simply cut and paste them into a document and pasted them back on the original. Giving students a printed copy and then watching the pride on their faces was truly “magic”! Students suddenly realized that they could actually write at length–something that was unimaginable for most of them.

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For a short stretch, we worked old-school style using this printed version. These were then peer edited. Students used green stickies for feedback on the message (organization and clarity of ideas) and pink stickies for feedback on mechanics (spelling, grammar, punctuation). They first checked their own work before they looked at two to three other essays of classmates and gave their feedback.


Students further edited and proofread their own work on Google Doc, then it was time to publish. They have uploaded their essays in their respective blogs ready to be read by the world! At this point it is still a work in progress, but it is a first step to show them what is possible.

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Modifying a Language Task

CNN Hero Efren Peñaflorida and his mobile classroom

According to the SAMR model, one of the criteria for transformational use of technology in the classroom is modification. For this to happen, tech should “allow for significant task redesign”.

For the visual interpretation task in our EAL 6 unit on “Acts of Kindness”, students were challenged to think about the plight of people in need. They watched on their own respective laptops an excerpt from a CNN Heroes feature of Efren Peñaflorida. For two minutes, students watched the living conditions of people in the slum area next to a dumpsite in Manila where the hero grew up. As a heroic act, Efren started a mobile school with a team of volunteers to teach young children basic reading, writing, math, and hygiene. These children were from poor families who would rather scavenge at the dump site instead of go to school.

It was important to help my students engage with the video content at a higher level. Aside from asking them information answering who, what, where, when, and why they were also challenged to think deeper. Referring to Bloom’s Taxonomy, the challenge was to go beyond remembering and understanding. By asking “Is it okay to play in the dump site as a child? Why or why not?” students give their opinion then explain and justify this further with examples. Tougher than this was to ask them to imagine possible smells in the slums in relation to things they watched in the video.

To connect with their own experiences, students compared the differences between the mobile classroom featured on the video to our EAL classroom.

One may think that using the laptops for a class assessment is like having an open book test. On the contrary, since the questions demanded higher order thinking skills, there was no way to find answers on the internet. It solely relied on what they observed and what they thought. In other words, there were no clear-cut answers and there was no need to worry about students looking up answers online.

Before the one-to-one laptops, the assessment would have been done on paper and the video would have been projected on a big screen for only a couple of times so that the class could get on with the task. The video would not be played on demand. With modification, there were more advantages than disadvantages in using laptops previously inconceivable –students were allowed to use tools such as Google Translate to look for equivalent words from their mother tongue into English. They were also able to watch the documentary on Youtube individually at their own pace and as often as they wanted within the given time.

By using this format with challenging questions, it transformed a visual interpretation task that assessed students’ understanding of content and at the same time empowered them to practice real life skills in order to be effective and efficient in expressing themselves in English when using technology.

Here they were in action:

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Here is the task:

Supportive Colleagues and TPACK

photo by Richard Taylor via cc search

Our school has been a one-to-one laptop school for more than 2 years now. Since that time, teachers have been at different stages of the SAMR model when integrating technology in the classroom. Fortunately, staff members have been able to receive regular in-house training from our Tech coaches. Opportunities were also made available for us to join workshops such as Beyond Laptops and Google Apps for Education in Tokyo.

There’s something to be said about keeping the peace at work. But it’s not the kind where people simply conform or keep their honest opinions to themselves. It’s the kind that allows openness to try new things, give feedback, and receive support in a collegial atmosphere.

Below are spontaneous professional conversations I have had at my workplace:

In the staff room, I chat to a colleague who is also planning her lesson:

MJ: My grade 6 students will be creating a week’s diary entry on how they have helped family, friends, or strangers. I think I’ll make a Googledoc with a table that separates each day. That way it’s easier for them to record.

LL: Do you know how I make it simple to track what they are doing? I have students all hyperlink to one file I have created. Here, let me show you…

Here’s the screenshot of the file I created a few minutes later. The students remembered that they’ve done this in LL’s Science class so it went smoothly when I shared the documents. They made a new file, renamed it, shared them with me, and hyperlinked their files to the main class document. Now I just open this file, click on each name to see each student’s progress. They also use this file to go straight to an assessment instead of searching for it in their Google drive folders.

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Cut to a classroom, after a Tech Pilots meeting, I ask RM for advice:

MJ: “ R, I need to pick your brain…”

RM: “Sure! What do you have in mind?”

MJ: “I’m looking for an app that would record students’ arguments for and against a debate issue…you know, something that would show what they are thinking based on the research we’ve done in class. I want to check if it’s balanced or not.”

RM: Hmm…I think it would be best to do a Making Visible Thinking exercise. Have you heard of Tug of War? Here I’ll show you…wait, why don’t I just share this Google document with you!”

Here’s the result of that class. With a piece of hemp string in the center, and two drawn characters at each end, students wrote evidence and arguments for and against legalization of marijuana. These were color-coded according to sources. After around 20 minutes, each side of the argument evened out. Whew! Was I relieved!

tug of war small

Cut to the Counselor’s office:

I was feeling unsure if my grade 10 class was leaning towards an unbalanced view of the issues surrounding legalization of marijuana, so I reached out to our counselor:

MJ: Hey, AC, I heard that you’re doing PSHE for grade 10 and you cover drugs and alcohol. My class is currently researching arguments for and against legalization of marijuana. I’ve tried to contain the research materials to make sure they read balanced views. Do you mind coming to my class to check and see if the students are leaning towards one side?

AC: Oh, I see what you mean…you want to make sure they’re not all thinking about drugs being okay and all that. Sure, when do you want me to visit?

MJ: Well, you’re also a TOK teacher, so you’d surely be able to help them appreciate what ‘compelling evidence’ would look like… How about next Thursday from 11:05?

AC: Ok, why not make it 11:30 so you have time to set-up the class.

AC came in after I tried the Tug of War exercise for the first time, and he immediately pointed out the even number of stickies on each side. He facilitated the discussion to make students talk more about their arguments and evidence. He shared anecdotes which made students feel relaxed enough to participate and volunteer their thoughts. When he left, the class was buzzing and talked more about their views.

Here’s a screenshot of the video:

counselor small

I could go on and on recording more conversations with several other colleagues, but what’s my point here?

Integrating tech in education makes learning meaningful, but it helps to know that there are technically-savvy and knowledgeable colleagues who are willing to support and share their knowledge with others along the way. When unpacking TPACK, the expectation is there for teachers to be strong in three areas: content, pedagogy, and technology. The reality is that some colleagues will be stronger in one or more of these three areas. Learning from each other as well as receiving and giving support will go a long way. For any educator who attempts to adopt new apps in technology or learn new strategies in pedagogy or understand new content, a supportive environment squashes the feeling of being judged or feeling helpless.

In the end, the support from colleagues to improve our teaching not only benefit our students but all students in our school. Collegiality is what makes the teaching experience enjoyable and progressive because it is learning-centered! Here’s hoping we are all collegial members in our own workplaces!

VoiceThread Redefined My Class

Integrating tech in my lessons has definitely revolutionized my class activities.
It has improved the way student learning is recorded or documented, which in turn has allowed me to give timely and appropriate feedback to students. There are several tools that help me achieve this, but for this post I’d like to focus on VoiceThread.

According to the TPACK and SAMR models, VoiceThread has allowed me to redefine an oral communication assessment by recording asynchronous interactions of EAL students.

Voicethread serves as a great assessment tool for listening and speaking. As an EAL teacher, I often use it to check student comprehension of spoken and written texts we have covered in class. More importantly, I use it to allow students to apply what they have learned in terms of the significant concepts and add their own ideas. In order to move students along the language continuum, I take extra time to come up with questions that make them think at a higher level. It won’t do to simply ask them to recall facts. It’s important to note that this activity is more often used for high beginners and up.

After viewing The Power of Introverts TED talk, I was compelled to make sure I reach all students in my class. During class discussions, I have time and again seen only a handful of students sharing their ideas. The rest usually kept to themselves. Voicethread allows for everyone’s voice to be heard through asynchronous interaction. They listen to a question, they answer it. The real challenge for students is to listen to another student’s answer, paraphrase or say the message in their own words, and then comment upon it.

With this kind of exercise, students show a better appreciation of the instruction THINK BEFORE YOU SPEAK. When students learn an additional language, they improve their thinking in the language only when they are given the opportunity. They have to come up with well-thought answers. In Voicethread, it is more imperative that they do this since it is recorded. After students record, they get the chance to listen to themselves to check if they have delivered their message clearly and more importantly if they have addressed the questions. Through peer and teacher feedback, students find out if these expectations have or have not been met. By going through more Voicethread tasks, students become more alert and catch themselves when they are ‘rambling’ or going around in circles.

As a teacher, the thoughts of ‘quiet and shy’ students often grab me by surprise since I have had no idea what they were thinking during discussions. Suddenly, with VoiceThread, their thoughts are ‘out there’ for everyone to hear. After the unit Tiger Mom versus Prince of Bel-Air, students were asked, ‘Was it a good idea for Will’s mom to send him to his aunt and uncle in Bel-Air? Why or why not?’ Their answers on VoiceThread varied. One from a quiet boy: ‘ No…I think she’s not being responsible just letting him go because of a small fight…’ Another student said, ‘ yes…maybe he’d learn new things, be nicer, and work harder.’

VoiceThread recordings of my students through these past years show their level of progress. Best of all, students can access these recordings even years later and compare how they were in grade 6 and how they are now in grade 8, which shows big differences. One can tell how they have improved (or not) in answering questions and providing evidence to support their views. As they mature, I do my best not only to develop their English language ability, but also their critical thinking skills as well. Often, I implore parents during parent-teacher conferences to help in sharpening their child’s critical thinking skills especially in their mother tongue. It may sound counter-intuitive, but studies have shown that skills learned in one’s first language is transferred in the additional language.

If you are a ‘language acquisition’ teacher who wants to encourage all your students to communicate verbally, I would highly recommend using VoiceThread as a tool in your classroom!

CAS Ladder Leans on Learning

‘If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster. We may be busy, we may be very efficient, but we will also be truly effective only when we begin with the end in mind.’

-Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

After almost back-to-back days of professional development sessions the last couple of weeks, I’ve heard Pam Harper for Middle Leadership in Learning and facilitators of MYP The Next Chapter repeatedly emphasize that we should always have the end in mind which is student learning. In other words, all the things we do every year going through all the paperwork, the planning and assessments, the meetings, the interviews, the reports, and the discussions about technology integration should lead to learning. Nothing solidifies this belief in me as the transformation of the IB CAS programme. Since 2010, the IB introduced the CAS Eight Learning Outcomes. Students must provide evidence of achieving these through their various extra-curricular activities in grades 11 and 12.


Before 2010, students either saw CAS as a contest or a way out of their responsibilities. The focus was more about counting hours– a meaningless, arbitrary total of 150 hours. Some went past the minimum requirement and clocked double to triple that. When asked what they remembered about their experiences, it was hit or miss. But they mostly remarked upon their doubts on the effectiveness of the program. Worse, some students dropped all their commitments as soon as they hit the 150 mark. They would typically say they have reached the minimum so why do more? Included in this group were highly regarded student leaders. It was regrettable, but the system encouraged them to think this way.

The flipside of the same coin when everyone counted hours was that activities focused on doing more of the same things without thinking about a student’s personal development. In fact, students were sometimes utilized as free labor available to do menial jobs without any challenge for learning. No wonder they became so disillusioned and considered CAS simply as one more hoop to jump through to get their IB diploma. It was a dreaded requirement.

The old CAS system of hours counting not only corrupted the way students thought but how supervisors acted as well. Some supervisors were known to be ‘too generous’ in signing off for students hours. Instinctively, everyone knew the ladder was leaning against a crumbling wall.

In my career, I cringe just recalling how students and I have counted their hours on Excel sheets. I can still hear a student, “Really, Miss, you’re kidding right?! Counting all these students’ hours?’ I cannot undo those days, but I do feel fortunate to witness how CAS has been given new meaning by rightfully returning its focus on learning. Better yet, I am able to implement the ‘new and improved CAS’ and witness the positive changes!


To date, I’ve seen first-hand how a school culture has been transformed after introducing the CAS Eight Learning Outcomes. Students, parents, faculty, and staff now see its real value by encouraging participation in activities that would allow students to grow and develop to their fullest potential. These are activities where students seek to:

1. undertake new challenges
2. increase awareness of their strengths and areas for growth
3. show commitment and perseverance
4. work collaboratively with others
5. engage in issues of global importance
6. plan and initiate activities
7. consider ethical implications
8. develop new skills

From the planning stage, students can easily gauge the quality of a chosen activity by simply considering how they can meet any of the targets above. They are asked to set SMART personal goals and work towards sustained commitment. The process naturally does away with hours counting. Now, supervisors can check students’ level of commitment by looking at the frequency of attendance at a glance. More importantly, they look at the quality of a student’s performance. It’s not enough to be present, but to be actively involved as well.

During CAS interviews, students are asked questions that help them reflect on what they have learned especially about themselves. For many, this exercise is novel. Students, like adults, often lead busy lives but seldom take time to think about their strengths and their areas for growth. Developing self-awareness is one of the strengths of the new CAS. In fact, self-awareness is touted in the business world as an important leadership quality for success. Business tycoon Richard Branson mentions the importance of self-awareness when asked what goes hand-in-hand with business success.

A blogpost by Anthony Tjan in a Harvard Business Review sums it up clearly:

Without self-awareness, you cannot understand your strengths and weakness, your “super powers” versus your “kryptonite.” It is self-awareness that allows the best business-builders to walk the tightrope of leadership: projecting conviction while simultaneously remaining humble enough to be open to new ideas and opposing opinions…This is the trinity of self-awareness: know thyself, improve thyself, and complement thyself.

Finally, I would boldly claim that the recent change of lens through which our community views CAS has allowed students to be happy positive individuals, which in turn makes them open to learning. As suggested by Shawn Achor in his TED talk, there are steps that individuals can do to help them become happy in order to be productive. When you look at his list, most items are met by the CAS program–from exercising to doing random acts of kindness.

The bottomline is: with the new CAS everything has fallen into place because the ladder now leans on the wall of LEARNING!

MJ’s Course 4 UbD Planner

The first time I heard about an expert using digital games in the classroom, it was not Adrian Camm but Graham Stanley. He has co-written a book called “Digital Play” which lays out how to use computer games in English language classroom teaching. Interestingly, Camm and Stanley define “gamification” differently. The former would say that it’s about having the mindset of game designers and experiencing the process of creating them. The latter would say it’s about using digital games for teaching and learning.

It was the summer of 2012 when I stumbled across Stanley’s blog and I was truly skeptical about the effectiveness of using digital games in the classroom. I imagined distracted students who would have difficulty staying on task. But Stanley has actually written steps and suggestions on how to use different game genres to develop various language skills. The first game genre I tried in my classes was escape the room games. The results replicated Stanley’s experience. The students were engaged, they learned new vocabulary, they gave and listened to instructions. When the unit was finished, the students demanded more. I promised them that we’ll do it again at the end of the year.

Every year around May to June, after exams are over there’s usually one short unit to cover before summer break. Often I give students the choice of what they’d like to do and then I start incorporating language learning objectives. Last year, the class unanimously chose to do something that was inspired by their prior school projects. The first one in EAL unit 1, when they had to create written and spoken walkthroughs of an escape the room game. The second and third projects were in Humanities and Tech classes where they created historical and modern structures respectively using Minecraft. So for this unit, they revisited and fused their experiences: they decided to create an escape the room game in Minecraft.

The best part of Minecraft is that when students are hooked it becomes a great platform for teaching and learning. I call it digital Lego blocks (no trademark infringement intended). In other words, the program can be used to create structures. In my previous blog post and comment, I’ve talked about how Minecraft was rolled out and utilized by my colleagues in middle school classes, and I’ve also reflected on how much control we can give up in the process as teachers.

In this UbD planner, I have laid out the activities the class actually went through. Although at that time, I did not have this specific planner as a guide, by following the general design principles of investigating, designing, planning, creating, and evaluating, we were able to always “go back to the drawing board” to make the product meet specifications and to reinforce language learning in the process. In other words, the activities fit like a glove for each component of the UbD cycle.

Below the UbD, you will find three video recordings. The first one shows how the class recorded their group walkthrough. Each student spoke for their own section of the game. Two laptops were used–the one on the right side controls the Minecraft server. The other laptop screen records the students’ instructions as they play the game. As you can imagine there were many takes. This version is the final one.

The second video is the “first try” walkthrough. For those of you who cringe after seeing the misspelled words, this was discussed in our debrief and later corrected. This video shows how the product looks.

The third video shows edited footage of how they tested their prototype in Mr. Alex Guenther’s class. Beforehand, he was asked to step outside the classroom while the students were shown the walkthrough. The students were then asked to give Mr. Guenther the instructions on how to escape the room. In the beginning, there was what seemed to be an insurmountable glitch, but the class pushed through and included suggestions on how the game can be improved.

Overall, I can say that the level of enthusiasm that you see on the videos is real and is replicable when including digital games in the language classroom! More importantly, the students went through a design process achieving the definition of “gamification” closer to Adrian Camm’s version.

Follow That Badge!

Recently, I came across the video of Muppets Most Wanted Trailer #2 on Youtube. For 12 seconds starting at 2 minutes, a short scene grabbed my attention. Invoking fair use, I have taken a short screen recording to show you what I mean:

This short scene from the Muppet trailer can be seen in two ways: as a satire of how people like to flash badges or an emphasis on the significance of badges. These are two views that also fuel the debate of whether or not giving a badge is a worthy learning strategy.

Delving into the history of badges, it is interesting to note:

As far back as early mediaeval times, people have shown a fascination for badges. Wearing badges also expressed a sense of belonging, and during the 19th century they were used by trade-unionists and politicians to declare their membership or support of a particular group.

Today badges are worn to show designs and logos which represent everything from a charity to a band and have become the one of the most popular possessions to kids and adults alike.”

The first time I’ve heard of “earning badges” was through a fourth grade boy who was a Webelow scout. He showed me how many badges he gained in the duration of that year. He had to earn some twenty badges. There was a new one every time he camped out of town for a weekend. Once he’s gained one, he named the next ones he wanted. Earning badges truly motivated him.

If I were to meet this boy now, I would like to ask him several questions like:

-How important are those badges now?
-How much of the knowledge and skills he attained then has he retained or remember now?
-How has he applied the knowledge and skills to good use since then?
-How much time did he dedicate in earning each of his badges? Was a weekend long enough to prove that a new skill was developed?

Folks who believe in handing out badges highly likely come from a similar culture or were shaped by experiences like the boy I mentioned above. Badges show people’s allegiance to a group–whether the boy scouts, or NASA, or a private company.

My view on badges depends on the context of where, when, how often and for what purpose badges are handed out. If it’s a carrot on a stick to motivate students to finish a task, having a reward at the end would be okay with its extrinsic value.

But if earning badges becomes the end goal to the detriment of developing skills and understanding at a deeper level, then I question its value. I watched students heap praises on open badges. They cited reasons such as gaining recognition for what they do outside school. They can put the badges on social network sites. They can also use badges to network with people who have the same interest. Badges are flashed and mentioned in the clip, but they rarely talked about what they learned. In fact, some couldn’t easily name the next skill they want to earn a badge for.

The argument that badges can be used to recognize what students do outside school has some merit. But how is it given out? Who decides how much is ‘enough’ to earn a badge–a day? an hour? a weekend? a piece of work? How different would badges be from a certificate or a diploma?

Badges could end up recognizing ‘Jacks of all trades and masters of none’. When students jump through hoops to get the ‘next best badge’ at a limited time, the end goal is to collect and impress. This mentality encourages students to become generalists at a time when specialization is gaining more momentum as reflected by the STEM movement and blended learning approach. Instead of putting time and effort in developing skills at a deeper level, they spread themselves thin getting involved in trying out various activities to earn a new badge in the shortest amount of time. Overall, I would think twice about handing out badges.

Giving Up Control

Vortex Beach

Teachers relinquishing control seems to be one common expectation for recent research-based learning strategies whether project based learning (PBL), challenge based learning, design thinking, or gamification, etc…Teachers are told to let go and let students find their way so that learning happens organically. But how much control are we talking about?

In my EAL 7 lesson, students were asked to create an escape the room game using Minecraft. They were given full control, and they started with planning–they decided which rooms to create, who would create each one, how many levels of difficulty they will put together and what to include in there as the means to escape. As a group project, the roles and division of labor were clear. Students were all keen to begin.

When they started the first week, students decided to look at sample Minecraft games online with escape the room game themes and soon after they immersed themselves by playing the games. In fact, they were so immersed that they forgot to stay on task and went to other unrelated Minecraft games.

If I left them to their own devices, the project wouldn’t have started at all. So I mentioned my hope for them to go beyond being consumers and start being producers. We regrouped as a class and had a debrief. Surprisingly, they could point out the problems–the project is too big, it’s too daunting, it’s too difficult to create. What would make it manageable? They came up with a solution as well–instead of creating separate rooms on their own, they create only one room with each of them creating one wall in the room.

Here’s when my teaching instinct kicked in: some students need models to look at or work with before being given a clean slate and create from scratch. This is true in literacy and true in creating components of a game as well. It’s painful for an inexperienced student to just be asked to write a report without knowing what a report is and its features. The same goes for building a simple wall. Inspiration has to come from somewhere.

So I took interior design photos with walls in different parts of a room decorated with different furnishings. Photos were taken from cc search. The group was told that I’m their client and they’re the construction workers. They have to build the room according to my specifications. They can come as close to the pictures as possible. If they have suggestions to change some parts, they must justify it. The house specification was guided, but the game was still their own creation.

Control came back to me but it was soon given up once the students were on track with production. It was amazing to see how they communicated with each other as they worked together. The student who was in charge of the group’s server account managed others who were off task by telling them that the consequence would be to disconnect them from the server. This was something each could not afford because it meant losing time.

Debriefing at the end of each session became a natural part of the process. Again, control came back to me as I gave my feedback regarding their interactions. This included both positive and constructive feedback. I did not control where it was going, but I had to ‘press pause’ since I saw real opportunities to teach them language; for example, communicating assertiveness with respectful language. One student who was not pleased by another student’s design (“It’s ugly!) simply tore down what the student built. Nobody said anything, not even the student whose work was destroyed. It was time to intervene. I asked them during debrief time how one should express dislike, negative feedback, clarification question, or displeasure. I asked the two students to face each other and say their lines. I believe those moments were “gold”–real, meaningful, and memorable. Did I relinquish control? Yes and no, I took it away briefly and in teaching moments, but it was necessary in those cases.

So how much control do we relinquish and in which context? Speaking from my experience with middle school students, whose maturity level is still in development, it is necessary to jump in at times. It is important to be sensitive to teaching moments when coaching them with communication or language skills or keeping them on track is necessary. Timing when to mediate is crucial as well and perhaps best done at the end of a session as part of debriefing. This way, students reflect on what they have done and how they should move on.