The Importance of Failure

Recently, I came across this article which discusses the importance of normalizing failure as a part of the learning process. Failure, the author argues, is a part of the learning process. However, from the moment we first enter schools failure is treated as something to be avoided at all costs. It is something to be ashamed of as a student. If you are a teacher, you can be seen as a poor one if your students experience failure.

And yet, as both students and teachers, we all experience failure. If handled appropriately, we can always learn from it and grow.

As a professor, I have experienced students at every level simply want to reproduce whatever it is they think I need to see in order to get an A. I understand that. At this point in their lives that’s what they’ve been conditioned to do. Additionally, the higher your GPA the more access you have to other opportunities. A great GPA in high school is needed for college. Another is needed for grad school.

So I get it. And I cannot change this system.

On the flip side, if I take a risk as an instructor, and it doesn’t pan out, then I am at risk for students giving me low evaluations which could have a negative impact on my job (see my posts here and here). In this case, no one (in my experience) is interested in contextualizing the evaluations. No one is going to try to understand what new idea I am working on and how I am, in light of the experiences I just had, attempting to refine it.

And yet, we have to get over this fear of failure, and we have to help our students get over it as well. We have to normalize it, but we also have to set up a system so we don’t penalize it.

Failure in Teaching

Failure in teaching is a pretty strong statement. What I mean is we have to allow for us, as educators, to try out new methods, assignments, and so on. For example, when I decided to apply the concept of gamification to my teaching that was a pretty huge risk. I spent all summer long working on it (and since I am on a 9-month contract this means I did it, technically, without pay). I researched it. I skyped with people about it.

Was it perfect straight out of the gate? Of course not.

Were there things I could have done better? Absolutely.

My teaching evaluations from the first few rounds of this were actually fine, but I was prepared for them not to be given the drastic change in how students experienced my course. There were things I did not like about the course each time I taught it, and I worked to improve those elements either in the moment or the next iteration.

I decided to take on the challenge of gamifing my courses simply because I wanted to. I had read about it, found it interesting, and thought it would help me rethink teaching and learning, and it did. Without our higher education system, we have to give educators lead way to take risks in their teaching – however it is they want to challenge and push themselves to improve. And we cannot penalize them if their evaluations come back low. What we can do is have conversations about the teaching and where it’s headed. If you know your limitations, and have ideas for how to improve, then that makes you a good, if not great, educator. I don’t care what your evaluations say.

If all you do is stay the status quo, never change, and always get fine evaluations, what does that mean? Are you really better than someone who pushed the envelope and maybe had a few falls along the way?

I tend to think the people who push themselves have something to offer us. They can educate us about their approaches – which includes the failures and the struggles. Knowing where another struggled and fell is useful to me. I can look for it in my own teaching. We need to set up systems that reward this kind of risk taking. Or maybe we don’t need a system at all. Maybe what we need is a culture that values us to challenge ourselves as teachers and re-conceptualize what we do now and then.

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The Scary Part About Being a Student

It’s summer! I just moved from North Carolina to Wyoming to start a new job. I’m getting settled in. Posts between now and August 21st will be intermittent as I get up to speed. Regular content will resume August 21st.

Recently, I drove about 1800 miles to move from Durham, NC to Laramie, WY. You can do the drive in three days if you’re willing to drive 8-10 hours a day and stop only for necessities. I didn’t want to do that and took 5 1/2 days to get here stopping to see the sights along the way.

A picture I took in the cave system.

One of the places I stopped at was the City Museum in St. Louis. I had no real understanding of what this place was and simply went on the recommendation of a friend who said I had to go there. If you’ve never been, there is no way to explain what this place is like (however this site and this one do a really solid job). One of the things they are known for is an elaborate, man-made cave system that you can explore. However, that’s just one aspect of this place which encompasses 600,000 square feet.

There are, of course, other things you need to know about this place. For example, there are slides everywhere. You can be walking around and suddenly a hole appears next to you. It could be a tunnel that you can climb through OR it could be a slide that leads to who knows where. You have to decide if you want to take the slide or not, and it’s not a simple decision to make. Taking the slide means letting go of exploring where you are at, and you might be interested in seeing what lies ahead. If you go down the slide, you will end up someplace that may or may not appeal to you, and getting back to where you had been before you took the slide isn’t necessarily easy and, in fact, may never happen.

Why? Because there are no maps at the City Museum. You just have to go for it.

And during my experience there I couldn’t help but think about how what I was doing in the museum helped me better understand myself as a teacher and just how scary it could be to be a student in one of my classes.

No Map

It’s not that City Museum doesn’t have any directions as far as where things are. When you enter the lobby there’s a sign that tells you the cave system is directly ahead. That’s kinda about it. You have to figure out where things are and, as a result, end up getting annoyed, frustrated, scared, and excited. I experienced at least all of those emotions.

The whole no map thing reminded me of how I recently started exploring the idea of creating customizable paths in my class this fall. The options for students would be to have a map – completely crafted by myself to meet goals I had determined – or to create their own based on a set of choices placed before them (and then they can tailor their experience towards their own goals). What I learned through my experience at City Museum is that this isn’t as straight-forward as having students decide which path they want to take.

Why? Because sometimes you challenge yourself and get completely freaked out.

Go ahead. Any place you want to start is good.

The first thing I did at the museum was enter the cave system. But I immediately found out I didn’t understand what was going on. Do I just start climbing anywhere? Go through any opening? Is that allowed? I was an adult conditioned to a system where there are rules that I should follow, and I kept looking for someone to tell me what to do.


There was an opening in front of me so I started to enter it when a woman said, “You are brave.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I can’t make myself go down that part,” she answered. “It’s dark and narrow.

Upon closer inspection I thought, well, it does look a bit scary, but I can do this. And in I went.

And she was right. It was dark and narrow. And while I knew, logically, that I was completely safe and that, eventually, I would come out of this dark and narrow place I couldn’t do it. I panicked. I could have pushed forward, but doing so would have required me to make a series of decisions about which way to go (there were usually options and this was rarely a straight path) and put up with my fear and discomfort. But I didn’t do it. I let the fear take over and I backed out the way that I had come in because I knew that would get me out of the tight spot I had gotten myself into.

How This Experience Informs My Teaching

For me, City Museum asked me to take risks. I didn’t know where I was going most of the time. I didn’t know where I would end up. Sometimes things got uncomfortable. I realized I ask my students to do the same. I ask them to do things that are not a big deal to me but that are a big deal to them. I am sure there were plenty of kids running around the museum that day that would not have understand my panic in the caves. For them, it was nothing, you just keep making decisions about which way to go and you end up where you end up. Some of them likely had been enough times that they knew where they were going.

Second, when students take risks I need to give them options if they push themselves too far. I pushed myself too far in this example. But I knew how to get out of it (back out the way I had come in) and doing so had zero consequences. I didn’t fail at the museum or get kicked out. I simply made decisions from there on out that didn’t put me back in the same position. Yes, this limited my experience at the museum but I don’t regret it. I wasn’t ready for all the experiences the museum had to offer. However, I learned a lot just from wandering around within the spaces I was comfortable. Being in the museum was so new that it was overwhelming. I didn’t need to take it all on at once. What I needed was multiple trips. Over time I would likely start pushing my boundaries a bit.

If students take risks, and go farther than they are ready, then I need to consider what that means in the context of class. I want students to take risks, and I like the idea of them deciding how much of a map they want to be provided with. However, I learned it’s easy to get excited about push yourself too far. When that happens, there needs to be a way out that comes without consequences.

If the idea is to learn, but to also push yourself, then I have to recognize that sometimes this will fail. Just like I recognized that I didn’t want to continue on in a particular part of the cave system so too might students realize they have taken on too much or selected a task that ended up being more than they were ready to take on. This isn’t failure, and we shouldn’t treat it as such. This is recognizing one’s one limitations at the moment and adjusting accordingly.

Yes, I could have kept on in the cave system despite the overwhelming fear and panic I felt within the tight space I had wandered into. But what would it have accomplished? Probably nothing but relief when I got myself out – which is exactly what I felt when I backed myself out. What would have been the point of dragging it out? Yes, I would have learned that I was capable of doing it and surviving, but I would have just endured it. I don’t think I would have learned much else.

I don’t want students to endure class. I want them to learn and grow. And giving them that experience might require backing up and re-configuring the path. I need to remember to make space for that.

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Examining The Points-Based Grading System

Recently, I came across this article on point-based grading systems. The ideas in the article were nothing new, and I’m sure you’ve heard most (if not all) before. This includes things like:

  • students expect and are used to points
  • points are not entirely objective
  • points are an extrinsic form of motivation; the goal is to get more points

My take away from this article is that while points-based grading systems have their place, they emphasize the earning of points and de-emphasize learning. Recently, I shared a post where one of my former students wrote about their experiences with my own point-based system. While the author of the points-based post refers to a previous article on how to get students to think more about learning, and less about grades, the ideas fell flat with me.

The truth is, grades matter and they particularly matter at the undergraduate level where students are often thinking ahead to advanced degrees. Students don’t just expect points anymore. They have grown up in a system where they are sort and ranked and tested to death. They have grown up in a high stakes system that emphasizes grades over learning.

Even at the Masters level, I have found that students’ rationale for why they are there is first and foremost a pay increase (totally understandable). At least, that’s what the majority of them have said on the first day of class when asked to share what motivated them to come back to school. Yes, some people put learning first. Most put salary first, and most don’t mention learning.

How Might We Change This?

I think getting students to be more interested in learning and less interested in grades is difficult – especially in higher education. Doing so requires a cultural shift both in how we do things and how students perceive the course and engage with it and each other. Grades are high stakes. And, even if they are not, students are so used to seeing them as such that it’s a common mindset to hold.

If we want students to put learning first, then we have to accept that learning comes with risks. We learn, in part, through trial and error. We learn by taking chances. We learn by struggling. We learn by failing. And none of that is commonly valued in traditional grading systems. The norm is you have one chance to show what you understand. If you take a risk, and you bomb out, you will pay the price.

That’s not what I want.

The Place for Competency Based Education

This is where I think competency based education (CBE) has a chance to play an important role – at least at the graduate level. However, it requires doing some things differently. I could run a CBE course and tell students that an A is earned by acquiring so many competencies, but I don’t think that’s what we want to do. Instead, what I would envision is this:

  • students enter a program and are given a road map for completion.
  • the road map takes stand alone courses and breaks them down into competencies
  • students need to acquire the knowledge relevant to each competency and then demonstrate a particular level of mastery to get it checked off as being met
  • students leave not with a grade (although we could assign them if need be) but a list of competencies they have obtained and the mastery level they obtained each with

Something like this would work well in an online program where teaching and learning could be more fluid if traditional face-to-face meeting times were scrapped. Instructors create content, share readings, and set up ways for students to interact and share work. This could be done through an LMS, a facebook group, twitter chats, and so on.

Getting Started

Doing this kind of work requires a program to let go of traditional semester systems. It means that we have to let go of traditional views on teaching loads in higher education. It does not mean that we overload instructors with students and work to accomplish this idea.

For the last 12 years, I have taught a 2/2 load. While numbers of students within a class vary, it’s reasonable to assume an average of 25. That’s 50 students a semester or 100 a year give or take. If I worked only in the type of program I am laying out here, then let’s say I could be responsible for up to 100 students at a time.

Initially this would be a lot of work. I would have to get everything set up. However, once I did then the work load would decrease to something reasonable. My focus would shift to making sure content was updated and relevant, interacting with students, and providing assistance (and scoring) competencies.

So, in the end, what I’m saying is I don’t think we even need points-based grading systems. Certainly not for everyone. If we want students to focus on learning then we have to make their experiences about learning. In a couple of weeks I will lay out my thoughts on how we can set up a structure to do just that.

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A Student’s Reflections on Grading

Today I bring you a guest post from a recent student. In this post, the student reflects on what it’s like to be in a class that uses gamification and XP as a form of grading. I’m thrilled to be able to share this with you because it’s always helpful to get a perspective on how our students experience the process.

In reading this post, you will first see what the student has written. Periodically, you will see my thoughts on what the student said written in italics. I thought this would be a great way to see the student’s perspective but also delve into why I did what I did. Please enjoy!

Reflections on Experience

I’ll be honest.  Initially, I felt very lost in this class.  Navigating XP was difficult for me because I’ve never taken a class with a similar grading system.  Over the course of the semester, however, I’ve grown to understand it and even appreciate it.  Since we’re nearing the end of the year, I decided to outline pros and cons I’ve noticed about this unconventional system.

  • PRO: There are seemingly endless opportunities.
    • In other classes, I’ve had professors base a grade off of maybe three or four assessments total.  While this can be a plus in terms of workload, I really think this just causes more stress. One bad day can tank your grade, which is unfortunate if you truly understand the material.  With XP, it’s always been a relief to know that if I’ve missed something, I will likely have a chance to make it up.
      • YES! This is the idea. I think students should have many opportunities to demonstrate not just their learning but also their thinking as it relates to a course. Even if you totally skip out on a week during the semester there are generally ways to self-correct and keep going.
  • CON: It is not procrastinator-friendly. 
    • Granted, I know that no grading system should be procrastinator-friendly.  But with conventional letter grades, it’s possible to cram and still make a good grade.  No matter how many teachers urge students not to do this, a brave (or lazy) few always will.  XP ,in contrast, is structured to incentivize early planning.  I blog in another class, one that abides by traditional grades. The professor told us that as long as we have 10 posts by the end of the semester, we will receive full credit for the activity.  She allows us to post twice a week, so even someone who waits until the last 5 weeks can secure a great grade.  In this class, however, skipping that many weeks of blogging would annihilate your grade.  To maximize XP, it’s best to start any quest as early as possible. I am the last person allowed to give that advice, and I’m probably the worst example of prior planning.  For what it’s worth, though, I do think that this class has kept me on my toes much more than other courses because XP builds on itself.
      • Ha ha. Most definitely. My design definitely does not allow for procrastination. You will outright fail if you do so. I want students to be regularly engaged with the content during the semester. If you wait until the end to cram it all end, then you haven’t (I assume) been regularly engaged with the content. Since I have talked a lot about the act of blogging as a course assignment, I have to say I think there’s a real danger in telling students they can blog but at any point (even doing a lot at the end). In reality, this isn’t blogging. Blogging requires sustained engagement with creating new content. Once a week, or maybe every other week, works. Less than that and you’re really not blogging. So I’m really trying to accomplish two things here: (a) keep students engaged with the content and (b) teach them what it means to be a blogger.
  • PRO: Your grade is entirely in your hands.
    • Because you know exactly what you need to do upfront, getting a good grade is just a matter of following through.  I’m not very good at that, but I do appreciate this class for helping me learn how to improve there.  I actually had to sit down at one point and add up the numbers, trying to plan ahead for the next few weeks.  Usually, in other classes, I avoid planning for even the next few days.
  • CON: Your grade is entirely in your hands.
    • I don’t trust my hands!! As I said before, this unique grading system has kept me on my toes. I’m not even kidding when I say that there have been nights when I’m about to fall asleep and then realize, “Oh man, I forgot to do my tweets!”
      • YES! Your grade is entirely in your hands. And I do agree that, for students, it is both a pro and a con. On the first day of class I tell students to make a plan for how they want to achieve their grade. My guess is few people do it, but it’s worth the time to do so. Not only is the grade in their hands, but they have options for how they can meet their goals.
  • CON: The reward system in general can have its flaws.
    • There are downsides to any reward system: traditional grades, XP, junk food, etc.  I work with an autistic individual, and I have to practice a form of ABA.  It’s a system based on operant conditioning, so like XP, it uses points. I award points to encourage good behaviors (e.g. starting a conversation, being polite to someone,) and I’m required to take away points when he exhibits less-than-ideal behavior (e.g. says something hurtful, yells in public.)   I’ve undoubtedly noticed progress. He has flourished in many areas and achieved goals that seemed so far away before.  One problem, though, is the lingering question, “Is he being genuine?” For instance, sometimes he will do something positive and then say, “I was nice to someone!” while looking directly at the point card.  In this class, sometimes I question my own motives.  I’ve wondered before when Tweeting how much I truly care about the substance of the tweet vs. the XP I know I will earn from it.  This uneasy feeling can happen in any class, though.
      • There’s a slight difference here and that is your XP is yours. Once you earn it, you can never lose it. Of course I don’t really know what all students learn from certain activities (like tweeting in or outside class), and I’m sure there will always be students who do something for the grade and could care less about the content. I can’t control that. What I can do is try to provide students with a multitude of opportunities to widen their lens. What they do with those opportunities is ultimately up to them.
  • PRO: The “X” part is very beneficial.  
    • I remember earlier on, Professor Hall said that XP stands for Experience Points.  I enjoy the X part and learning hands-on, like when we’ve had the opportunities to hear speakers and educators in the field.  I’ll admit that I probably would not have attended a talk if it weren’t for the XP incentive.  In the end, the X has definitely mattered far more than the P.
      • I like this a lot. I’m glad this student got more out the experience aspect of the course. I would prefer that anyways. During the semester, I gave bonus XP to students if they attended on campus talks that were related to the course. And I gave A LOT of XP (and I think there were three they could attend).  I offered XP for being present, XP for live tweeting, and bonus XP for writing a blog post about the event. Do as much or as little as you want. Yes, you could rack up some serious points here, but I really wanted to encourage my classes to get out and here different perspective. 

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Teacher as Designer

I’ve just finished reading Reality is Broken: Why Games Matter and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal. I was inspired to read it to further my thinking on gamification in teaching. It’s not about gamification in education specifically – although there is a bit on it in the book – but rather what games get right that hook people, bring them together as a community, and get them to work on problems that range from the simple to the complex. McGonigal examines how we can harness the characteristics found in games and use them in our lives.

At one point, McGonigal discusses how video games often have stories. While we don’t need stories to enjoy video games, those that have them can help us experience a sense of power. She goes on to explain:

It’s the power to act with meaning: to do something that matters in a bigger picture. The story is the bigger picture; the player’s actions are what matters. As Polack explains, “Story sets the stage for meaning. It frames the player’s actions. We, as designers, are not telling, we’re not showing, we’re informing the doing – the actions the players engage in and the feats they undergo.”

Immediately I found myself thinking that as teachers we are also designers. We set up and design the experiences students can go through. What we choose for our course to look like – through readings, assignments, and in-class activities – provides a frame for the students’ actions. We definitely inform the doing or the potential for doing. I say potential because students can opt out of anything or minimize their actions. Students always have a say in how they will respond within the framework of the design we created.

The quote also reminded me about the role story can play in our courses. I talked awhile ago about creating a story line for my syllabus. Granted my story doesn’t have any exciting plot twists, but it does move my students through big ideas in the course. My courses always had bid ideas in them. Each week there would be a big idea, usually with a question we would focus on within that idea, that would set the tone for the week. But I have found that writing out my ideas in a story format forces me to think about their interconnectedness. I can’t just dash off a list of big ideas, order them, and go from there. Writing out the story forces me to look deeper into what I really want students to experience.

Once the story has been created, I then have to think how I want my students to move through it. What opportunities do I want to offer them that allow them to deepen their understandings or question pre-existing beliefs? To me, this is very different from planning. This is designing, and there is a distinct different.

Planning vs. Designing

Traditionally, planning (either a syllabus or a lesson) is centered around a set of learning objectives. Games certainly have objectives too. There could be one grand objective – which, when you finish it, means the game is over – and many smaller objectives that help you to achieve the grand one. But these objectives are problems that must be solved. Learning objectives presented in classroom instruction are given as what you can expect to learn when you have completed the course or a given aspect of it. They are typically not presented as a set of complex challenges and problems that you must solve.

So when we plan in the traditional sense we back up to what we want students to learn and go out from there. Telling a story, creating complex problems, etc…are not even necessarily part of the picture. As the instructor, all I have to do is think about what I want you to learn and what tasks should help get you there. And while I have technically designed something for you to experience, I don’t see designing the same way I see planning.

Planning, to me, follows a rigid formula with objectives and outcomes. I see designing as setting the stage for students to engage in challenges intended to solve a complex problem – or at least getting them closer to solving it.

What if we stopped asking ourselves, and each other, what our objectives were for a course or given time frame? Instead, what if we started asking what the complex problem was we hoped students would solve or contribute to as a result of the course? How might our instruction, our design of a class, and students’ experiences look? I think it’s worth exploring.

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Deciding the Content

Recently, I explained that starting in the fall I would be teaching fully online for the 2017-2018 academic year. My first thought was about how I would foster community. However, once I got past that I realized that I needed to back up and think about the content first. Community is incredibly important for the class, but I can return to it another day (plus it’s always spinning around in the back of my head anyways).

Start With What You Know

I was excited to finally be able to teach fully online. However, that excitement quickly gave way to feeling overwhelmed. Where do I start? While I had the question about building community in my class, it seemed like the most reasonable place to start was making decisions about what I was actually going to teach/wanted students to learn.

That’s right. Just start old school style. No point in getting fancy when we don’y even know what we’re gonna be teaching over here.

I have the syllabi from the previous instructor. This is, of course, immensely helpful. But I don’t have to do it exactly the way she did. In fact, I assume they hired me because I would put my own spin on things. But. I am starting with the basics here. I’ve ordered five or six books from a few publishers that are on the way. I’m sure at least some of them will work for the course and help me refine what I want to teach and when. Because this course is really a course in two parts (spans across the year), I am not feeling constricted.

Having the Year To Teach

The idea that I have a year with students to cover a broad topic (in my case adolescent literacy) is very unique. I’m told that I should expect to have the same students for both classes. While students have to register individually for both classes (fall and spring), I can view the spring class as a continuation of the fall class.

You can view the spring class any number of ways:

  • as a continuation of topics (improve breadth)
  • an opportunity to go deeper into topics and perhaps extend breadth a bit
  • pretend these boundaries don’t exist and seriously play with competency based education

Yes, boundaries do exist between the courses, but they are artificial. It’s the typical semester divide. The course number changes between fall and spring. But, particularly in this case, who says I have to work within that structure?

Thinking about Competency Based Education

I haven’t gotten too far down this path yet because the first step is for me to decide what the course objectives are and what students need to learn. Given that I’m waiting on books to arrive (and my current job takes priority) this will move at a slightly slower pace. But that’s ok. I’ve got time. I think it is possible here to create a master syllabus that

content creationImagine if you had an academic year and could focus on students demonstrating competencies. You want, of course, for your students to demonstrate that they have learned specific things, and that’s what competencies are intended to do. I could see how I could identify a number of things for students to demonstrate. Within a given competency, I could provide students the opportunity to go deeper (this is a way to level a competency to use a gamification principle). It’s not that you have to be advanced on every competency, but I could see how getting a particular grade would require some competencies to be at a basic level and others at a more advanced one. Students could then have options.

You could do this inside a semester. There’s obviously a very definitive deadline for students to demonstrate what they have learned. I could start all over again with different competencies in the second semester even though it’s an extension (Part 2) of the previous one.

Ok. That’s an option to consider, but I kinda like something else….

What if students were presented with all the competencies for the entire year at once. For this class, a masters class with teachers in it, this is actually a very reasonable approach. You can work on a given competency as it makes sense for you and your students. For example, if I have you working on how to teach vocabulary in the spring that’s fine, but maybe you really needed that in the fall. Well now you can pick and choose, go back and forth, as it makes sense for you as the student.

But What About Grading?

Of course these classes still sit inside a traditional university system. At the end of each semester I still have to award everyone a grade. This is simple actually. All I have to do is make a particular grade (A, B, C, etc…) about competencies learned in general. I don’t say you have to have completed XYZ competencies. Instead, I might say that you have to complete a specific number each semester (the student chooses). To get a specific grade, a certain amount of those competencies would have to be more advanced – a higher level if you will – than others. I think this is actually pretty easy.

The Downfall

I’m sure there are multiple downfalls, but the one that popped in my head first was the fact that I will teach this course every other year. What that means is that any cleaning up and revising I want to do based on Year 1 won’t happen until I’m in Year 3 at my position. I don’t like that so much because I like to make changes/revisions in my courses while they are fresh and useful. However, I am thinking about how I can take what I develop and put it into an online platform that would be useful for others outside the university. This allows me to continue to develop the course while offering others an opportunity to dip in and take what they like. It’s a thought worth exploring.

One Year Ago

Two Years Ago


Popping with Twitter

As you know, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to use twitter in my instruction. There’s been lots of trial and error (and revision!) of my approach over the last year. One of my concerns as I got into the current semester was being able to promote twitter use in ways that were relevant to the course but also had students using twitter in a variety of ways.

Enter pop up quests with twitter.

pop-upI’d first gotten my head around pop-up quests last fall. The idea is that these are optional quests, and they happen when they happen. They should be designed to promote skill development and/or content knowledge as it relates to the class.

I created a # for these pop-up quests – which I won’t share here because I don’t need the world looking in on us. You could do this too. Just make up something that works for you that no one else is using. Mine was basically #[insert program tag]pop.

I thought having a separate # for pop up quests was necessary as I didn’t want it to blend with the stuff on our regular channel. I sent an email out to both classes (they are in the same program) alerting them to the tag. And then I started.

What Happens on the POP Tag

We’re actually not too far into it yet, but here are some of the things I have done:

  • share a picture of something you are doing this week related to the course (3000 XP)
  • Saturday challenge: leave a comment on a specific blog post that I linked to (3000 XP)
  • Sunday challenge: tweet out one post from the class blog that is not your own; make sure you add an additional # to it (4000 XP)
  • challenge for the week: share one educator per day for five days that you love; tag the person & say what you love about them (3000 per day or 20,000 for 5 days)

The very first one that I did – involving the picture – immediately got revised so that students could do it for five days and earn up to 20,000 XP. This was in response to a student who asked if I would accept more. I thought things were going well so, why not? It worked fine. Notice that I intentionally give more XP if you participate all five days.

The Saturday and Sunday challenges were short challenges that had a one day completion for them. With the Saturday challenge, I was trying to drum up some comments on a post written by someone outside this class. For Sunday, I wanted them to look at our own blog and share a post they really loved written by someone else.

Notice I’m usually having them leave tags when they have to tweet that connect to people or larger concepts. I hope this helps them build their network and connect with others.

So far I would say that there is a good response to this, and it has been very simple to score. I try to score it within 48 hours of it ending so I don’t have to dig down deep in the feed later on. Because I post the challenge on the feed it is easy to see where one starts. So far I do not have overlapping challenges. Right now, my second weekly challenge is running so I probably won’t do any additional daily challenges. That could get sticky with scoring. It could be done, but it would be more cumbersome for me to do.

I like the idea of a weekly challenge with daily challenges in between. You could even do shorter challenges that last for 2-3 days. But for me, I think running one at a time works well.

One Year Ago

Two Years Ago

Featured Teacher: Chris Aviles

This month’s Featured Teacher is someone who has had a significant influence on my teaching. Chris Aviles runs the Teched Up Teacher. I came across his work when I was first developing an interest in gamification. It was through his site that I was able to take my college courses and work to gamify them. I always go to Chris when I need inspiration. His work is amazing, and he is excellent at communicating what he does. His posts always make it onto my syllabus as required reading.

While he writes about a range of technological uses in education, gamification is truly one of his specialties. He recently published a free (you have to get it – go right now. I will wait) gamification guide that is in addition to all the great materials he already has on his site. You can get it here (scroll to the bottom and enter your email to receive it).

You can also find him on Twitter and FB.

Note: In the following sections what you will read are predominately Chris’s words with very minor editing.

About Chris

I taught high school English for ten years. Now I’m the edtech coach at Fair Haven, New Jersey. There I run the Innovation Lab with my partner in crime Ms. Smith! The Innovation Lab is our middle school think-tank where we learn about Design thinking through computer science, engineering, the digital arts, and entrepreneurship.

Your work on gamification has transformed my teaching. How has it changed your thinking about teaching and learning?

I’ve gamified for the last six years, but only in the last two years have I realized why I love Gamification. When I started the Innovation Lab at Fair Haven, I found out about Design Thinking. Design Thinking is all about designing with empathy for your user. Thanks to Design Thinking, I was able to see how video games are designed to provide a great experience for the player.

Gamifying forces me to think about the student first when I design a class. That’s why I love Gamification; it makes me explore the student experience in my classroom. Often, we design our class around standards, objectives, and, worse, assessments. We design a class around what we want students to learn instead of designing the class of how we want students to learn. Gamification helps me be empathetic to the student experience in my class. My class has become an infinitely better place to learn because of Gamification. Oh, and gamification is just fun.

You’re a part of the Maker Movement. How do you think teachers can become a part of this movement? What does it take to get started?

I think it’s a lot easier than people think. When I taught high school English, my classroom became a makerspace because I asked my kids, “how would you like to show me what they know?” and “how would you like to show me what you learned?” That’s all it took. When you focus on student-centered learning, kids have no choice but to create.

One of the major misconceptions people have is that the maker movement and the STEM movement are the same thing. They’re not. The Maker movement is just that: Making. It doesn’t have to be STEM-making. You don’t have to have a makerspace. You don’t have to go somewhere to make. If you want to be part of the movement, jump by encouraging your kids to make by showing what they know.

As a teacher educator, I feel like I’m always introducing new ways to the teachers I work with that are seen as exciting, strange, and scary (sometimes all at once!). What kinds of support do you think teachers need in order to launch into something like Gamification or maker spaces?

I’m lucky that my current district is incredibly supportive. I haven’t always worked in a supportive district. Not because they didn’t like what I did; I don’t think they got it. Either way, I don’t like worrying about things I can’t control. I can’t control whether I get support for what I do. I can, however, control my attitude. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable and reframing failure as iteration are the two most important changes to my attitude I made when I started to leave the edu-reservation. No matter what you teach, you have to have a growth mindset and a relentless attitude. If you are going to change what you do to make learning better for your kids, you have to realize that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Get your mind right.

What are you excited to work on in your teaching right now or in the future?

FH Gizmos! Long story short, I see a lot of missed opportunity in the maker movement to teach entrepreneurship, so I built an online store for my students. My kids can create and manage their own online store and sell their products for real money (we accept check or card!). When a product sells or if there is a problem, students handle customer service. I run FH Gizmos as a startup (there is the Gamification). As members of Gizmos, students become a voting member of how we spend the money we earn. Through teaching entrepreneurship, I can better teach Design Thinking because students have a customer to design for, I can (hopefully) self-fund the Innovation Lab, and students are learning the soft-skills it takes to become successful. For me, FH Gizmos was the missing piece that helped tie everything we do together.

Do you know an interesting educator who should be featured? Email me at

Take a look at last month’s Featured Teacher: Eddie Kim

Grading: The Semester View

I wanted to take a moment at the start of the semester and talk a bit about grading. As we all know, I am not a big fan of grades as they are traditionally set up and experienced by students in school. They can stifle learning and end up with students focusing on giving the teacher whatever it is the teacher envisions and less on being creative and diving in to learning.

Failure is a part of learning. The traditional grade system doesn’t really allow for failure. You’re penalized for it. You get less of a grade because grades are meant to reflect what you have mastered and/or the extent to which you have mastered course content.

Understandable, but again – stifling is the price I believe we pay here.

This semester, in both my classes, I’ve refined how I am awarding XP. In both classes, students have a list of required and optional quests to choose from. One class has three required quests, and the other has four. They then have four and five optional quests.

When it comes to grading, I had to consider first how many points students could earn in the required quests. Now, within a required quest there are typically opportunities for them to go above and beyond and earn additional XP. I don’t worry about that when I’m trying to determine how many points are needed for a particular grade. I just focus on the minimum because, usually, that’s what most students are going to do (and the other stuff really is bonus stuff).

For my Monday class, I broke the grading down so that students could see what they needed to earn (minimum) for each required quest to get an H (high pass – this is what the university uses at the Masters level). Here’s what it looks like:

Criteria for an H
Total XP Earned = 900,850 and up
Becoming Connected XP Earned = 194,850 and up
Blogging XP Earned = 191,700 and up
Explore Project XP Earned = 45,900 and up

Now, those are the three required quests. Let’s say you hit those numbers dead on. You would have earned 432, 450 XP. That is not enough for an H. You’d fall short by 468,400. But remember:

  • within each required quests are things you can do to earn more points (usually)
  • I award XP for your in class participation
  • there are numerous optional quests you can engage in to up your XP

What this says, is that getting an H is about a combination of doing the bare minimum and then going beyond that. As the student, you have to figure out what you want your experience to look like and craft it from there. You have lots of options. How you choose to get wherever it is you end up lies in your hands.

For my Tuesday night class I’m doing something a bit different. Here is what they were told an H is:

Criteria for an H
Total XP Earned = Minimum 1.5 million
Minimum XP Earned from Required Quests = 937,800

That’s it. I didn’t break their quests down for them. A lot of that is due to context of the quests. There quests tend to be more about accomplishing specific tasks and have fewer opportunities for bonuses. However, they do have to do them. While they could likely get 1.5 million (or close!) by just coming to class and doing optional challenges and quests, it is critical that they engage in those required quests. Those quests were created to help them achieve specific learning goals. The challenges and optional quests are really about extending what they are learning and/or diving deeper into a specific area.

I’m curious to see how this plays out. I’m not worried about it. It’s set up well enough. However, a lot of what happens is in the hands of the students. They do have to spend some time thinking through how they want to get to their end goal – whatever that may be.

Two Years Ago

One Year Ago


And Now Classes Start….

This is the week that classes get underway. It’s a little strange (I think) how my university does it. Classes start on Tuesday. I have one class that meets on Tuesday, but the other meets on Monday. So this week – no Monday class. My Monday class will meet a week from today and then have Labor Day off. By the time my Tuesday class has had three sessions my Monday class will have had one. I don’t get it, but it’s out of my control.

So – what are you looking forward to in your classes this semester? Do you have any specific goals for your teaching? Last year I had a lot going on what with applying principles of gamification and then working on how to use twitter effectively. Just one of those was enough in and of itself.

This year I don’t have any large scale grand overhauls in my teaching like I did last year. This year is looking like it will be all about refinement. And that’s fine. We don’t need to be doing complete overhauls of our teaching every single year. There are moments where we need to slow down and just tweak. I think that’s my jam for this year. Here’s a brief look at what I’m refining this semester:

Twitter Use

In some ways, twitter use will look very much the same as it did in the spring. I’m still using classroom tweeters. Tweeting during and between classes is optional (for the most part – more on that in a second). I’ve left sign up slots for parts of class, and people can sign up and commit to tweet during a specific segment of class when we meet F2F (because both my fall classes are hybrid). I’ll take a look at what people did and award XP. Pretty straight forward and easy to do.

I have added an option to tweet during class but without signing up for a slot. Doing so this twitteroption requires students to create a Storify and post it to the class wiki within a specified time frame.

I do allow for anyone to tweet between sessions – again, totally optional but it does earn you XP. I’m realizing now that I set this up so I have to go in and count tweets. Dang it. I told everyone to tweet 3-5 times a day for most days. Can we say dang it again? I’m not big into counting. I’m going to leave it in place as I’ve sent the syllabus out. I could change it. Class hasn’t started yet. But I’ll leave it. I’m changing this in the future.

One of my classes has to engage in an extended twitter chat. We do this during our online meeting weeks (see here and here). While I do want students thinking about quantity and quality – and I do give guidelines about this – I’m ultimately not counting tweets. I’ve got a new system for awarding XP in twitter chats which asks students to think about what they got out of the experience. I’m interested in seeing how this goes.


Blogging is a requirement in one of my classes and optional in the other. However, I’ve made the decision to shift off of individual blogs and use a class authored one. I’m hoping this gives us a better way to bring in and grow readership. The downside, of course, is that this blog will only be used during the fall semester (much like the Politics of Reading blog only generates new content in the spring). It limits our audience I think because we are not regularly generating new content.

However, after a year the Politics of Reading blog seems to have generated good readership, and it continues to grow. Even in the off months, stats are showing that we consistently have more viewers each month in Year 2 than we did in Year 1. We have about 800 more views in August of Year 2 than we did for the entire Year 1. While it would be nice to generate steady content for the majority of the year – at least in the fall and spring semesters – the consistent uptick in views leads me to believe that people are interested and finding some value in what has been written.


I’ve refined the gamification principles a ton. A ton. I’ve written a lot about gamification, and you can see the posts (and how I evolved in my thinking and application) here. I’ve focused on thinking about how I can use gamification for creating options for my students. Not everything is optional (or at least not without consequences!), but gamification has allowed me to open up my teaching. Could I do the same thing without it? Yes, probably. But the concept is what got me here.

In particular, the application of gamification principles helped me think about class participation. I had gotten rid of grading in class participation long ago because it was far to subjective for my taste. But with thinking about pop-up quests in class, I could start to see how XP could be awarded and used in a way that was much more objective when it came to scoring participation in class. Pop-up quests are here to stay. At least for awhile.

It’s easy to think about gamification in terms of points. When you view class through the lens of a video game it all becomes about points. And yes, I do allow for XP to be awarded throughout any given class. Opportunities are constant.

XPBut, as the instructor, you can’t get hung up on the points. You have to think about the experience you want your students to have and then work backwards into the points. Consider what you are asking them to do – in terms of length of time and complexity – and then consider what the XP could be worth. Sometimes I offer a range of XP for a single in class quest based on decisions students want to make about how to engage with it.

And that’s it. That’s my starting point for the academic year. I’ve got some new quests I’m trying out, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they go and sharing that with y’all.

In the meantime, I will note that I have planted an Easter Egg in the syllabi for both my classes. It is the exact same egg for both. It does require students to do some work in advance of the first day of class, but it is minimal and ends up benefiting them as the semester progresses. To my knowledge, only one person has found it. Or maybe multiple people have ignored it. Who can say? I’ll update on that soon once the deadline for it has passed.

Have a great semester!

One Year Ago

Two Years Ago