Connected Learning Multimodal Teacher Inquiry

Towards a new media Expo Night


Chad Sansing reflects on the complementary role played by writing and new media in students’ learning by looking at the student work and reflection. Note that some of the media originally included is no longer available.

Originally published on May 13, 2011

In late May, we had our second annual Expo Night, an academic fair that showcased students’ favorite projects from the year. Last year, we held our inaugural Expo Night, and nearly all of the work shared by students came from art class. This year a number of mosaic and sculptural projects came from art class, but the majority of students chose to share technology-infused projects from humanities and science classes.

Seeing so many technology-infused projects together helped me reflect on the complementary roles played by writing and new media in students’ learning and reflection on it.

Students assembled presentation boards for Expo Night that surrounded their creations or computers with writing about their projects.

Once a student selected a project to share, we asked him or her to write a brief essay about why the work mattered so much to the student. We used four essential questions to prompt the essays:

  1. What did you make?
  2. How did you make it?
  3. Why did you make it?
  4. Why is this project quality work (work that the student intrinsically values)?

These are the same questions I like to ask students in advance of project work in class – they proved to be successful summative reflection questions, as well.

Most of the technology projects in the show came from science class, from an inquiry-based project called “Becoming an Expert.” Students selected topics in science, developed guiding questions, researched answers, and assembled multi-media resources in Prezi to share with their classes.

This kind of technology-enabled inquiry seems to me an excellent starting place for shifting traditional classroom projects using limited physical resources to creating familiar, but new types of student work with the practically limitless amount of information and learning objects and authoring tools made available to students over the Internet.

  • Resources like Wikipedia and Youtube let students “get to the library” inside and outside science class – and sometimes outside of school – and allowed students simultaneous access to identical resources. Thanks to the Internet, teachers need not limit the number of students researching related topics because of resource scarcity.
  • Tools like Prezi help eliminate the kind of viewer bias operational when we compare reports with and without covers or illustrations. The mix of media embeddable inside of Prezi also points to a future in which students and teachers share a broader notion of literacy, communication, and assessment than that held by traditionally print-bound classrooms and schools.
  • Expo Night remained an important event, school remained an important place, and writing remained an important part of sharing students’ work with families. The technology available to our students – mostly laptops – gave them an object around which to organize their display boards and writing. Since we haven’t yet developed a way to digitize students’ presentations entirely, we were able to rely on traditional literacies in writing and visual presentation. This helped teachers and students, I believe, envision their Expo Night displays more easily than it would have been for all of us to share a common vision of a digitized expo. While such an expo (or school) might be something to work towards – to publish and archive student work – I think we’re at a place familiar to many schools. We’re at the intersection of old and new media that is useful in that it lets us see all at once where we’ve been and where we might go as a community and school. It’s easy to see that writing about our work is a crucial part of our journey to here and our journey into the future.

Carefully communicated artistic creativity, inquiry, and technology can all democratize the quality and publication of student work. This Expo Night leaves me excited for the next one, hopeful of broadening our toolset and notions of literacy, and determined to keep communication and appreciation of diversity at the center of the work and relationships I share with my students.

A Student Voice in Game-Based Learning

This #blog4nwp post is a direct result of the efforts of the National Writing Project (NWP) and its members to push writing instruction into the information age. The NWP’s willingness to take both a long view and immediate action to explore and record student and teacher work in digital media make the NWP’s Digital Is initiative one of our nation’s most important educational resources.

Since attending Troy Hicks, Bud Hunt, and Sara Kajder’s #NCTE10 session on digital literacy, I’ve been working with my students to figure out how to work gaming and programming into my language arts classroom as cognitive analogues to reading and writing, with all the reflection, design, revision, and iteration powerful reading and writing require.

I’d like to share some of that work, as well as a student’s voice from that work.

Enter Brendan ( whose name is used with permission), one of the students who has helped me realize the potential of games for learning.

I met Brendan a few years ago when he first visited out charter school for non-traditional learners as a prospective student. I remember his visit – he entered with iPod in hand and was showing off his games by lunchtime. He was one of my people. He was a gamer.

It took me a few years to find the right approaches to helping Brendan engage enthusiastically with printed text. He resists traditional work for a variety of reasons with which I mostly agree. I think Brendan is an ambassador of a new generation of students suffocating in information. He represents for me students who need more sensory experience from school and more active stimulation than that offered by printed text, whether it’s in a book or on a screen.

I do think Brendan needs and deserves healthy and useful print-based literacy skills; however, I’ve found that the most effective way to engage him with printed text is to frame it in project- and games-based learning.

Brendan loves games. I love games. He is willing to read, write, and learn in and around them. Therefore, I have become willing to teach with them and to trust him more and more with his learning.

As a result, Brendan has read and written about

Brendan has written multi-paragraph design documents or reports for each of those projects. Last year he seldom wrote more than a sentence or two per class that related neither to one another nor to what he’d written the day before. It wasn’t that Brendan couldn’t write or compose with any unity or elaboration; it was that his writing reflected what he saw as the value of the assignments I asked him to do. He was not willing to invest in them as my prompts showed little investment in him and his interests.

Brendan and I have worked together, as well as with his parents, who are active in monitoring his gaming life, to make sure he can transfer his knowledge, enjoyment, and mastery of games back and forth between home and school. We have worked with him to help him vend ways to engage both with traditional reading and writing skills and the skills required to master games.

In Minecraft, for example, Brendan can now customize texture packs with ease using image-editing applications and he can find, install, and use mods that alter the game’s geography. These tools are useful in the executing the design of Brendan’s projects – he can paint and position materials to look exactly like what it is he wants to create, albeit in a kind of cubist, building-block way. Recently Brendan discovered that he had built his Parthenon at too high an altitude to accommodate the scale he was using. He found and installed a mod that let him lower the Parthenon into the ground and then sculpted it out of the “earth” so he could complete its roof at the appropriate scale. He revised his instance of the game to save the work he’d already done in calculating his scale and sculpting his Parthenon.

I asked Brendan a few questions about our work together. His responses follow my questions below.

Chad: How do you feel about school?

Brendan: I like most of school right now, but [in some classes] it’s hard for me to stay in class. In normal school I would be in ISS all day and hate it. At [my school] I get time to work on my projects and take small breaks. In normal school I would have to work all the time.

What parts of school work for you?

Classes work well for me [when] I have more time to work on my projects.

What parts of school don’t work for you?

In normal school, I have problems writing and reading because I don’t like what I’m learning, but at [my school] I get to choose what I work on which makes school more fun.

When did you start gaming?

I started gaming when I was [very young] and got the original gameboy. My first console was an original XBox. The first two games I ever owned were the original Splinter Cell and Pokemon Red.

To borrow from the profile, what are some games you’ve played that have changed your life?

[…] Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64 was my first fighting game and it changed my life because it was the first multi-player game I ever played.

What have you learned from games outside school?

I’ve learned to be more patient and work with other people better[…]. The game that taught me how to work better with other people wasn’t really one game in particular. It was all my online games.

What games have you used for learning in school?

I mostly use Minecraft. The New Super Mario Bros. Wii taught me a little about teamwork. Do I Have a Right? taught me about the amendments.

How does game-based learning make you feel at school?

It makes me feel better about my work when I learn using games. When I have a project going, it actually makes me look forward to going to school.

What would you like to see in the future regarding games in school? How would your ideal class operate? What would the room and equipment be like?

It would be a class of 10 kids using sandbox games like Minecraft to show their learning[…]. There would be [a class set] of computers in the classroom, and there would be 12 bean bags and 12 little tables that are the height of the beanbags.

What’s your advice for teachers interested in games-based learning?

My advice is to use much more project-based learning with sandbox games. Also, be open-minded.

What problems does games-based learning gave that teachers and students should keep in mind?

Some problems [include] getting kids off the games and weaving in a lot of learning with the projects.

A Student’s Products in game-based learning.

Our school recently held its second annual Expo Night, and Brendan came through with a finished Parthenon model, Expo Board, and essay reflecting on the work.

I wanted to share some of his work with you here as a follow up to “A student voice in games-based learning.”

Here is Brendan’s display – we can use it as a kind of map of his learning.

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Brendan presented his Pathenon model on the laptop in the middle of his display space. You can read about how he built it below – in Brendan’s own words. His essay is in the upper-middle portion of the expo board, as well as at the end of this post.

To compare and contrast Brendan’s work with the visual references he collected, take a look at these pictures, which he printed for display on the sides of his board.

Here’s is a picture of the Parthenon’s floor plan that Brendan used as part of his planning.

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Here is a screen shot of his Parthenon model’s floor plan taken from the Minecraft mod MCEdit.

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Here is a picture of the Nashville Parthenon that Brendan used as inspiration.

The Nashville Parthenon exterior

Here is a screen shot of the exterior of Brendan’s Parthenon.

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Here is an internal shot of the Nashville Parthenon that Brendan used as the basis for his work.

The Nashville Parthenon interior

Here is the interior of Brendan’s Parthenon with a nod to the Minecraft community.

[Missing media]

There’s a lot of mental space and time that has to be made for in-depth projects like this, as well as for game-based learning, in public schools. Those of us in the system tend to rush things, and we ask kids to do the same. We tend to reward kids who learn the most superficial information the most quickly. It was a challenge for both Brendan and me to see the project through, but I’m glad we did. Composition and design relate so well to writing, and passion relates so well to achievement. I’m positive that if I had short-circuited the long-term, iterative process we co-created in completing the project, I would have limited Brendan’s learning and damaged our relationship, as well. By taking our time – over four weeks of it at two hours a day – we wound up with an amazing virtual artifact, a new understanding of hacking and modding games to learn, and an essay Brendan revised 5 times.

To give Brendan the last word:

The Parthenon is a Greek temple built for Athena. It is important to Western culture because it shows what the Greeks worshiped and believed in. Today myths still show up in our lives, for example people still mentor others like when Athena mentored Telemachus and trained him to be a man.

The Parthenon is my best project of the year because it shows quality work. I put my full effort into it for 3 months straight. Another reason I chose it was because I have always loved Minecraft. My Parthenon is a 1 foot to 1 block ratio. I chose to build it because I have always liked Greek mythology. In the end it turned out well because I was invested in it.

I made my Parthenon by using Minecraft and MCedit. The way they work is pretty simple. Minecraft is the base program and MCedit is an add on. Minecraft is really fun to play by its self but with MCedit you can get huge projects done faster. When you’re in Minecraft you can build block by block which can take a while however with MCedit you can build large sections of land with one click. However when you use MCedit you can’t really build detailed stuff, so what you do is build one part of the building in Minecraft and then copy and paste it together with MCedit.

Quality work is following your plan and putting your full effort into it. The way I work in class is I put my full effort into something until I finish it. Sometimes this can be bad because I get so involved in things I can’t stop. The way I fixed it was to switch stations daily or monthly instead of every 30 minutes. This lets me finish one project before I started working on another one, which I like.