Connected Learning Teacher Inquiry

How do I teach what I do not know?

Curators notes:

How do I teach what I do not know? by Janelle Bence starts with the essential questions of: What do my students bring to the classroom? How can I connect to this in my lessons? On July 23, 2011

It’s funny how many times this question has come up in my career. When I first started teaching, I knew nothing about my students, their worlds, their learning styles. I was pretty much the exact opposite of my urban, mostly Hispanic, low socioeconomic, English-learning, at-risk students of North Dallas High School. How would I, someone who attended private school and college, teach students who were so very different?

Despite our differences, I quickly realized my students and I share common goals. They want a better future. Most of my English Language Learners came to this country for more opportunities and a good education that they didn’t have in their home country. I respect this, and it motivates me. I have learned to see our differences as chances to discover new ways to teach. What do my students bring to the classroom? How can I connect to this in my lessons? This allows us to work together to achieve what we both want: an education that prepares them for their present and their future.

Still, even after eleven years of teaching, I have the question of ‘how to teach what I do not know’ on my mind. For each class, for each student, this means trying different strategies and approaches. I continue to search for what works best for them, what reaches them, what keeps them coming back for more. The longer I teach, the more committed I am to serve a group of students who may not come from a similar background as myself but certainly deserve the same types of high-interest, relevant educational experiences I had. Slowly but surely, they are teaching me what works best for them.

At the National Writing Project Annual Meeting in November, 2010, I found a type of learning that just might fit the bill. I attended a fantastic session entitled, Taking Gaming to the Next Level, facilitated by Paul Allison and Grace Raffaele from the New York City Writing Project as well as Barry Joseph from Global Kids. They are working on creating game-based curriculum. During the workshop, we discussed our gaming habits, discussed how people have used games in their classrooms, and created games. Everyone was engaged–to the point that groups were becoming quite competitive. They wanted their design to be the best, the most fun, the most clever. Within that short time, people were taking real ownership of their work, identifying with their groups, and investing in the content.

It got me so excited. It made so much sense. I wanted to know more. I knew nothing about this other than games kept us as participants engaged, competitive, and thinking. I knew my students played video games for hours. I had to learn why games worked and what that might look like in my own urban classroom.

I was not the only one interested in this. Upon my return to campus, I had an exciting discussion of gaming in the classroom with my principal. It was clear that the potential for gaming curriculum had energized me. After my spewing of enthusiasm, my principal shared our campus’ very low PSAT writing scores. We talked about the new writing assessment on the horizon for next year’s freshmen. We wondered, “Could gaming in the classroom help support our students’ growth in academic writing?” I didn’t know, but I did know it was a strong possibility.

So with these questions in mind and the opportunity to create game-based learning curriculum for our incoming freshman, I had some work to do. I needed to become more comfortable with the concepts of game-based learning. It would boost my confidence. It would inform my practice. The following pages are lessons vital in helping me respond to that daunting question: How do I teach what I do not know?

Lesson 1: Learn all you can

Seek out the information you need to make sense of it all. If you don’t understand the pedagogy, you can’t make sense of what it could do in your classroom.

I began my journey of an ongoing inquiry into why video games engage players and what they learn while playing. I needed to know what was happening.

Ask anyone about gaming theory and where to get started, and you will probably hear the name James Paul Gee. I figured a good starting point would be What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy.

Knowing how I learn and that I needed to wrap my mind around these concepts, I knew I needed to document my understanding. I knew gaming worked, but I just didn’t know why. Without knowing the why, there was no way I could use game-based learning in my own classroom. That just didn’t make sense. And so arises my digital reflections.

One of the most intriguing elements of gaming to me is the multiple identities players adopt. It’s just a system gamers learn and accept as a necessity in order to progress to the reward of the game. Players adopt a persona and feel accountable to their identity in the game. One of the reasons people continue to play is because they do not want their identities to fail. They do not want to let their identities down.

This note demonstrates my learning on this concept and seeds of ideas of what this means for my students. It had me wondering about my students’ identities. Do they know how to navigate their various identities? In short, are they literate in their own identities? Do they know how to access the one that will lead to academic success? Do they want to? How could I set conditions that would encourage them to value their roles as members of a cultural group that valued academic rigor? How can I encourage accountability to that identity that excels in the midst of this context? What does that look like in the classroom?

Still more questions than answers, but these are essential. They help me focus my work. I still didn’t know very much, but knowing what I needed to know was a step in the right direction.

Lesson 2: Power in Numbers

Open your inquiry to others. If you make your wonderings transparent and accessible, your thinking just may be clarified.

Luckily, I am part of a network that nurtures collaboration. National Writing Project (NWP) is a network of educators constantly seeking ways to best facilitate literacy instruction. Many NWP teacher consultants are innovative leaders in using digital media and literacy in education. I paid close attention to the tweets of folks like Paul Allison, Kevin Hodgson, Digital Media and Learning, Their tweets were like nonstop professional development about gaming amongst other topics. I also explored Digital Is for more resources and ideas.

Just as I sought resources from my digital heroes, I also continued to be very open with my thinking. I pondered and reflected on helpful articles in my blog Persistent Pondering. To make my thinking more accessible, I autoposted to other outlets like Twitter, Facebook, andTumblr. I figured the more people who knew about my inquiry, the more information I could gain that may help in my pursuit. I also welcomed clarifications, explanations, illuminations from anyone willing to offer. It was good to know I wasn’t alone on this journey, and every person I encountered respected my candid admission of just not knowing the answers. I was able to collaborate with others to either gain information to respond to my inquiry or hear another questions that refueled my quest.

One collaboration that really shaped my thinking was Teachers Teaching Teachers (TTT) onEdTech Talk. It’s an NWP-produced webcast where, teachers “meet here to talk about education, technology, our practice and the contexts we work in. You can come too.”I listened in on episode #244 Juan Rubio and David Gagnon on Geo-Locative Gaming, the ARIS Project. Also: Why Games?” This is where I was first introduced to the idea of students designing games. It made sense. If students are creating a game, they are forced to become masters of the content that drives the game’s narrative. If not, the result is an unrealistic game that may have gaps in its narrative. If a strong sense of narrative is absent in a game, a player will be less motivated to continue and progress. Plus, while creating a game, the designer still needs to exhibit attributes of a gamer: persistence, risk-taking, willingness to adapt to new situations, pattern-seeking, and problem-solving. Oh, how I wanted these qualities to be demonstrated in my students in an academic context. Could game design give me the answer?

Game design both intrigued and scared me. I knew nothing about it. I had never designed a game. Again, that question loomed over my head: How do I teach what I do not know?

Lesson 3: Take Risks

Step out of your comfort zone.

In that same TTT episode, this thought of teaching what we do not know was discussed. The conclusion was we just have to do it. We may not feel 100% confident or comfortable with something like game design, but if you know and believe in the power of games, you know sometimes, you have to take a risk and do it.

This is what happens to gamers. They don’t know what’s around the corner, but they know they have passed certain levels of tasks that would prepare them for the next stage of challenge. A gamer would stop playing if they felt completely confident they would succeed in the next challenge of the game. It would be boring. They would feel less invested in that world because there would be no rigor. Their identity as a particular game character would stop developing because there was nothing else to learn.

I need to take a risk in my own learning. I can do what I can to prepare myself by getting acquainted with Scratch or Game Star Mechanic, but I don’t have to be the expert. In fact, my students who are very collaborative in nature would probably thrive in a situation where they could teach me for a change. It’s a paradigm shift, but it’s one my students demonstrate whenever they play a game. If that’s the behavior I seek, I need to model it.

So it’s okay to teach something even if I don’t know everything about it. I’m reminded of graduate classes and discussing the expert in his field who could not teach. It didn’t matter how much this person knew because he couldn’t get it across to the students. If I can reach my students, that could mitigate the gaps in my own knowledge.

Lesson 4: Teacher as Gamer

Newb it up! Put yourself in your students shoes.

I was able to participate in another TTT episode entitled, Gaming Questions from Texas, Minecraft, and the “2011 Horizon Report K12 Edition”. This one was to support the gaming work for our North Star of Texas Writing Project . I was asked to prepare some questions for teachers who have experience in using game-based learning in their classrooms. I had that some old question on my mind, and I tailored it for the audience, “How did you get started with gaming in the classroom? What does it look like in your classroom?”

There were so many great responses. The classrooms have very little structure. The students play or design games as needed to reach a certain level or determine they had progressed enough. It wasn’t games all the time. The students determined what they needed within the parameters set by that community.

Sounds ideal, but working on a campus designated “academically unacceptable” by the state and feds limits the free-form structure from these classrooms mentioned in the webcast. Plus, no one had a classroom like mine: urban, high-poverty, English language-learning, labelled a failure by the state and government. I’m sure my students would love the freedom and self-reliance these other students were afforded, but the district would not allow that to happen.

Still, I was enlightened to perhaps one of the most important lessons in figuring out how gaming might work in my classroom. If I was going to support game theory in my classroom, I needed to deeply understand it, and if I was going to have a profound knowledge of it, I needed to be a gamer. As my fellow webcasters suggested, I needed to “Newb it up!” Why? It’s one thing to talk about it, analyze it, wonder about it. It’s quite a different story to experience it. The experience would give me that level of comfort I was seeking, the confidence to push me to action instead of just reflection. I would be encountering firsthand the behaviors I was wanting to see in my students. I would have empathy for them as learners.

So which game would it be? I depend heavily on Twitter for introducing me to new ideas and concepts. On June 25, 2011, Antero Garcia tweeted about The Curfew, winner of Best Educational Game from Games for Change. Here’s the teaser: “Set in 2027 in the heart of an authoritarian security state, The Curfew could be described as a miniature Canterbury Tales set in a not-so-distant future, where citizens must abide by government security measures and ‘sub citizens’ are placed under curfew at night. The player must navigate this complex political world and engage with the characters they meet along the way to work out who they should trust in order to gain freedom. Choose wisely and you could change the course of history. Choose poorly, and it’ll be changed for you. The Curfew: Worth Staying In For.” Too good to pass up, right?

That’s what I thought. It is amazing. I found myself wanting to play it late at night. I wondered how this might work in the classroom. Certainly, my students would find the theme of civil liberties intriguing. As I play, I jot down my thoughts, reactions, and connections to the classroom to this Prezi. It’s a work in progress, but I feel like it captures what it means to be a gamer.

Newbing it Up: Exploring the Online Game The Curfew and Its Implications in the Classroom on Prezi

It’s difficult. Some of the tasks require some hand-eye coordination skills that I need to strengthen. It takes me so much time to progress, but guess what. I keep going back for more. I will continue to do so not only to sustain the empathy for my students as learners but also to keep my perspective as a gamer, as a learner, alive and well.

It All Makes Sense

How will I teach my students what I don’t know in the context of my classroom? A more accurate question would be, “How do I teach what I know little about?” I say, “little” because if there’s anything I’ve discovered with gaming and learning, it’s that there is always a new ah-ha just around the corner if I am willing to put myself in that position.

I wanted to know why game-based learning works. I feel like some questions have been answered, but there is still the detail of figuring out how it will fit in my particular context. If I consider my students’ cultural wealth and build upon it, that’s a solid start. If I understand the pedagogy of a lesson, I don’t need to know every detail about the logistics. Sometimes, that just is not possible, and some of the best learning I have done is just by jumping in. We all bring something to the classroom. What we do with that knowledge will affect the outcome of any learning venture.

The question remains, “How can I blend the ideas of gaming theory with teaching the population that I serve?”

I believe the answer lies within the lessons I have learned through this inquiry. It’s not about knowing everything about my kids. It’s not about knowing everything about gaming in the classroom. It is about constantly searching for ways to best serve my students. It is about making the most of the many resources that are available and sharing my ideas to gain more. It is about taking risks. It is about putting myself in the position of my students.

For me, learning how to teach what I do not know means modeling the behaviors I want to see in my students. It’s about being okay with not knowing everything, letting those who do know take some control to teach me, and always reminding myself this a journey. A journey well worth the effort. A game well worth the reward.

This post is part of the “Where Do I Start?” collection.