Aug 03

Getting My Game Up!

lightgrenadeA quick weekend update to let you know some of the changes I’m making to my gamified class this year. You can see my gamified class site at Saga City Learning.

Whenever I add new game mechanics to my class I keep two things in mind: the types of kids we teach and what motivates them. In order of most powerful to least powerful, what motivates kids (and everyone, really) is Status, Access, Power, and Stuff.

Status – means to raise the value or esteem of someone.

Access  - is the ability to have something not everyone can have.

Power – is the ability to have say over yourself and others.

Stuff – tangible… stuff.

And below, you will see the four types of learners I think we teach.


Keeping that in mind, here are the big changes to my gamified classroom this year!

The first mechanic I’ve added raises the Status of students and motivates my Gladiators and Achievers: the All-Time Leaderboard! It was difficult for me to come up with a prize for “winning” my class last year, but I decided an All-Time Leaderboard would be best. I’m going to take the top 10 from each leaderboard and put them on the All-Time Leaderboard to be remembered forever. This will continue year-after-year, so the board will grow to show the best players of all-time. I think this is a cool way for my students to remember my class even after they leave it. It currently uses their Learner Tag, but I may change it to their real names. When I told my winners they were going on an All-Time Leaderboard they loved the idea, so consider making an All-Time Leaderboard the big prize in your gamified classroom.

I want my gamified class to be a more cooperative place where students are happy for each other’s success instead of resenting it. To foster that, I created Perks! Whenever an individual student hits an Epic Milestone, the whole class will reap the benefits. For instance, when the first student earns 10,000xp, the whole class is rewarded with a 10%xp Booster on their next Quest! I think this will help motivate everyone especially my Socializers since Perks! add a benevolent benefit to doing well in class. Some of the Epic Milestones will be visible at the beginning of the year while others will remain hidden. Having hidden Perks! will motivate my explorers to try new and exciting things.

To go along with Perks!, I’ve added Powers! In class, when my students unlock an Achievement they earn Achievements Points (ap). How much ap they have determines their level in the game. I thought it would be fun and motivating to allow students to pick from a pool of powers every 10 levels. Some of the Powers! allow them Access to things they couldn’t do otherwise while some Powers! power-up Items they can buy in the Item Shop. I am eventually going to tier the pools when I have enough Powers! If you have any suggestions for more Powers! I would love to hear them!

I think portfolios are powerful tools for developing and showing growth, so I am going to use them in my class this year. I am going to use siteMaestro to make every kid their own Google Site. These Google Sites will act as a portfolio where I will expect students to push their creations to a larger audience and reflect on their learning. To fit the theme, I’m going to call them Quest Logs. While I know how I am going to make them and what I am going to have students put in them, I am not sure how I am going to grade them. Any suggestions, rubrics, and overall ideas on how portfolios fit into a larger grading scheme would be appreciated!

My school has big-time attendance issues. Just by gamifying my class, I’ve seen a ~20% increase in student attendance. What would happen if I added an attendance Achievement? Let’s find out! Every day a student shows up to class on time, they will receive 10ap. When their entire Guild (group) shows up, they will earn 25ap. If the entire class shows up, all students will earn 50ap. I like this idea for two reasons: 1) kids will get that important quick, positive feedback we know they need and 2) I think linking bonus ap to the attendance of others will add another layer of motivation for kids to show up. To compensate for the increase in ap this year, I’ve quadrupled the prices of Items in the Item Shop.

Speaking of, we have a couple new additions to the aforementioned Item Shop:

Stealth Mode!- Remove the penalty for being less than five minutes late to class (200ap).
*This Item is an automatic purchase. More than five minutes late, see Stowaway!*

Stowaway!- You may enter class even if you don’t have a pass (400ap).
*This Item is an automatic purchase*

You can see these Items are an automatic purchase. I’ve toyed around with the idea of an infraction system and this is what I came up with. If students don’t have the ap to buy the Item, then the suffer the full consequences of their infraction.

The last Item is one I am really excited about:

Raid!- A Raid Party must all buy into the Raid. Once locked in, If all Players earn an “A” on the Quest the Raid Party will earn (x) if all Players do not earn an “A” then (y) (600ap).

I love this idea, as I think it motivates all four types of students, but I am not sure what the reward and penalty should be. If you have any suggestions, again, I would love to hear them!

Finally, since it doesn’t deserve it’s own update, my Leaderboard Sheet and App have been updated to 1.2 and now features a much faster way to keep track of Items purchased in the Item Shop. You can read about why I love my Leaderboards here and see them live here. If you plan on purchasing, do so soon, as the sale ends shortly. Here’s a quick video to show off the new update:

That’s all for now. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these new additions since they are a work in progress. If you love the ideas, feel free to steal them.

Until Next Time,


Jul 29

So It Continues…

Teched Up Teacher

One year ago today, I started this website to document my foray into what I believe the 21st Century Classroom looks like. This overhaul, I said a year ago, included “compliance with common core, heavy emphasis on technology, project/problem based learning, using Google apps for school, blending my classroom with Schoology, student self-pacing, a full Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) program,  a flipped classroom, and gamifying my classroom with achievements (badges), leader boards, item shop, and what I believe to be the world’s first ever attempt to turn my students’ work into an Alternate Reality Game (ARG).

There’s a bit more to this story. I wouldn’t say this then, but I am willing to say it now: I wanted to quit teaching. Our broken education system had sucked the life out of me. Whether it was because of politics, administration, tradition, or a number of other things, I was struggling to provide my students with the education they deserved. I decided I would give it one last shot. I would change everything and do things my way. And if it didn’t workout, it clearly wasn’t meant to be; I would quit (or be fired) and find a new career.

One year later and I’m still here. This last year was the best in my teaching career. I loved going to work everyday and I think my kids loved coming to class. Look at some of this data from the end of the year:



So, what have I learned in a year?

Goals in Review:

These were the goals I set for myself last year:

1. A textbook free classroom
2. A paperless classroom
3. Lecture for no more that twenty minutes
4. Group/self-pacing units
5. Increase competition between student
6. Increase student engagement
7. Give a TED talk at the end of the year

A textbook free and paperless classroom:
While my classroom is mostly paperless and textbook free, I set these goals for the wrong reasons. I wanted a paperless, textbook free classroom because all the cool kids were doing it. What I understand now is, it’s not about being paperless or textbook free, it’s about giving choices. The textbook is good for some things and some students like paper. The more choices I give, the more students I can reach. The more students I reach, the more they will learn.

Lecture for no more than twenty minutes:
I’m happy I set this goal. It forced my class to become student-centered. It forced me to flip my classroom (my way) and try new things like the Be About It project. Both my students and I are happy I took myself out from the front of the class and let them take charge.

Group/self-pacing units
Failed miserably. I didn’t get it. Things will be different this year.

Increase Competition and student engagement.
As outlined here, I leaned on Gamification to increase engagement and competition in my classroom, but, again, it was the focus on being student-centered that had the biggest impact on student engagement.

Give a TED talk:
I was nominated by a couple colleagues and quickly rejected from all TED events. It’s cool. I’m not mad at you, TED.

What about the other aspects of my overhaul?

Technology in the Classroom:

I learned EdTech is another weapon in a teacher’s arsenal used to reach every student as they fight the war on apathy. Technology is not a learning outcome. It started out rough, but I am thrilled with the use of technology in my classroom. My kids did a great job with the tools they had and I’m proud of how EdTech eventually drove learning outcomes. What EdTech made the biggest differences?

Schoology - On the left is MP1 data on the right is last day of school data.


I’m so glad I went with Schoology as my LMS! I mean, look at those numbers! 100% of my students said Schoology was easy to use and had a positive impact on their learning! 100%! I’m not sure if my kids would be able to pinpoint why it had a positive impact on their learning, but I think it had to do with Schoology’s ability to allow for differentiated instruction. Students’ received different assignments to best meet their needs, but the best part was students didn’t realize they were sometimes doing different work than their peers. They were getting a personalized education!

I also think Schoology helped created a positive learning community. Students were able to contact me or each other at anytime, had an area where they could just hangout, and were grouped into one massive classroom which allowed for more collaboration. We were learning together and it was fun!

If you haven’t heard, Schoology just rolled out some killer updates and have more coming. There’s no doubt that Schoology will be the HQ of my classroom again next year and for many years to come!

Schoology 12

They’re also awesome people!

BYOD - My class went BYOD and used Google Apps for Education for collaborative learning.


I love BYOD and I’m glad I implemented it. My kids never forgot their devices and treated them with respect because they owned them. Having different devices meant we had to get creative and learn what each device was good at. I also liked how BYOD had students sharing and trading devices to best meet their needs. Diversity is a good thing. If everyone was 1:1, I think that extra level of collaboration and togetherness would be missing. BYOD will be back this year.

GAFE also enhanced this collaboration. We were constantly working together this year and I loved it. I am happy with how students grew in this area over the year. On the left is the first marking period, on the right is the last day of school.


These graphs are about more than technology. They’re about growth. Students learned a whole new way to learn: together. My favorite part? On the first day of school, 33 students said they were already comfortable with technology. On the last, 17. Meaning many students realized they had more to learn. That is an important realization for them to make. There is always more to learn and it is important to realize we are preparing kids for jobs that don’t exist yet. Being tech savvy is an important skill to possess.

My school wasn’t a GAFE school at the beginning of my quest, so don’t think you have to be in one to use GAFE in your class.


Despite some systemic flaws, I love Gamification and am glad I implemented it the way I did this year. I think it does a great job motivating and engaging students, especially minority males, and I will be rolling it out again for this coming school year with even more features. You can read more about it in my Gamification Data Dump.

My Alternate Reality Game went well, too, but I think I can do better. I want to get more kids playing, longer. Below you can see participation rates. On the left is data from the end of marking period 1 and on the right is data from the last day of school.


I had kids and then I lost them! I need to explain the ARG better in the beginning and I have developed some new ways to keep students playing throughout the year. I’ve written my new game, N.O.M.A.D, to include less characters who are more interactive. I’d like to have 50% participation rate at the end of the year.

Prediction: I think this will be the year of the Alternate Reality Game. When I started mine, few were talking about ARGs and even less were actually running one. It felt very lonely. Now, I’m seeing a lot of people playing around with the idea in one form or another. I’m also lucky enough to be involved with Pearon’s eLearning team and their “Alternate Reality Learning Experience.” I predict Alternate Reality Games are going to become mainstream in the next couple years. Just wait and see how many teachers are trying to figure out what Ingress is this coming school year.

Surprise of the Year: Twitter

Simply, you need to be on Twitter. I never thought I would get as much out of Twitter as I have.

selfie11 selfie40 selfie9000

I loved showing off the amazing things my students were doing. Both parents and students loved seeing the feed which added to our positive learning environment.

I also used Twitter to develop a PLN of educators to collaborate with. I’ve made some great friends who have helped shape me as an educator. I also used Twitter to ask them for help. Never once was I left hanging. Twitter seems to be a world of talented teachers just waiting to help.

I also reached out to companies, too. Not only was I able to bring a lot of free technology into my classroom, but I found a solid core of companies who took a personal interest in my kids and me. The folks at Backchannel ChatCurriculet, Schoology, Tech & Learning, KI Furniture, Corbett Inc., No Red Ink, and Google Education all played a huge part in making my classroom a better place to learn.

A story that best sums up the power of Twitter: Awesome director Michael D. Stern made a short film version of Poe’s Berenice. It looked amazing, but was brand new and only entered into a couple contests. I reached out to Stern and told him I had a group of high schoolers who just read Berenice and would love to see his version. He responded immediately and, within a few days, I had a copy of Berenice to show my class. In return, my students wrote reviews and offered testimonials as to the quality of this AMAZING film.

Twitter was a pleasant surprise that made me a better teacher, and I encourage every educator to get on it and grow a community of quality teachers to call their own.

Highlight of My Year: Google Teacher Academy

Google Teacher Academy was amazing. It was one of the top three experiences of my life. I can see why some call it the greatest professional development on the planet. What makes it so special are the people. From the Googlers who hung out with us, to the leaders who facilitated the event, to the members of my cohort, everyone was so awesome and taught me tons. It is an experience I’ll never forget. You can read about some of my cohorts’ experiences here and here.

Things I Noticed This Year:

I love doing PD and speaking at conferences. I don’t know why, but I have a real passion for it. I’ve done close to 50 since my first one in November. I think I may be addicted.

ISTE is insane.

It use to take me an hour to make a five minute flipped video because I was so self-conscious. Now a five minute video takes five minutes! I use to proofread these posts for days. Now just a few times. Why? I’ve gotten over my fear of failure. I still don’t think I’m a great writer, nor the best teacher. The difference is now, I’m OK with that. The room to grow is constant and learning is life long. If I mistakes, I just learn from them and move on. Done is better than perfect. I’ve become much more productive now.

I’ve gotten over my fear of success. I take more risks now than ever before because I believe in myself now. This year, especially Google Teacher Academy, was validation that I’m on the right track. I can’t wait to invent and develop new ways for my students to learn.

I just turned thirty. I am consistently one of the youngest teachers in attendance wherever I go. While it has it’s benefits, like teachers trying to fix me up with their daughters, I can’t believe how many young teachers either don’t know or don’t take advantage of great learning opportunities. Get out their young folk!

The best behavior management is a student-centered lesson.

This Year’s Goals:

1. Full year self-paced, self-directed mastery learning.
2. Implement student portfolios.
3. >50% Participation in N.O.M.A.D. at the end of the year.
4. Keynote a conference
5. Ted Talk

Finally, I’m unveiling my new logo even though it’s a work in progress! Last year it was make learning better for my students or quit. This year it’s make learning better for my students or die trying. I think my new logo captures that:


Thanks to everyone, everywhere. You made this year one of the best of my life.

Until Next Time,


Jul 17

Gamify Your Class Level II: Leaderboards

logoAfter creating a Total Points XP Grading system, the next step in creating a successful Gamified classroom is implementing Leaderboards. By popular demand, I’ve made my leaderboards available for purchase on Teachers Pay Teachers. My leaderboards build on the work of the amazing Mike Matera (@mrmatera), who is someone you should be following if you are into Gamification. Leaderboards fill a necessary niche in a Gamified classroom: leaderboards raise the status of all students and motivate Gladiators and Achievers.

We teach four kinds of kids:


Briefly, Gladiators are extrinsically motivated students who need a crowd to be engaged. Gladiators are outgoing and full of personality. They are often intense and despise losing. Gladiators enjoy showing off, being the center of attention, and love competition. Achievers, on the other hand, are intrinsically motivated students who love concrete measurements of success. Simply, your Achievers are obsessed with grades, rank, and success. Achievers ARE their grades. Achievers don’t usually talk about their obsession unless prompted, and they often feel nothing they do is ever good enough. Both Gladiators and Achievers love leaderboards!

People are motivated by Status, Access, Power, and Stuff. Achievers and Gladiators love leaderboards because it provides them Status. Status is the social value of someone or something and is the strongest motivator. Gladiators and Achievers enjoy having their social value raised by being on top of a leaderboard because it is a clear-cut, public display of their skill. It provides competition for Gladiators and rank for Achievers. Being the best or winning, even though it confers no physical rewards, is often enough to get Achievers and Gladiators to be more engaged and motivated in the classroom. To see my own personal data on just how strongly Leaderboards can motivate students, check out my Gamification Data Dump.

I provide a place on my leaderboard for Learners Tags.


Learner Tags allow you to keep a student’s real name private. One of the things I didn’t expect was students’ using their real name as their Learner Tag. I remember asking one of my kids why they did that. Like a true gladiator he responded, “I want everyone to know who is kicking their ass!”


Above, you can see I have a section for the Total Points XP Grading system that turned out to be the most popular feature of my class. If you divide a student’s XP by the Total Points in the red box at the top of the column, you would get their grade. This is why I made Learner Tags. Kids enjoy finding their place on the XP Leaderboard graph:


I polled my students throughout the school year, and many said that even though they were not on the top of the leaderboard they made it their mission to pass someone on the leaderboard or increase their rank. I also have plenty of anecdotes of low-ranking Gladiators taunting their friends who were even lower. People will always find a way to confer Status, even if it’s someone rank 31st teasing their friend who is 40th or just being in the top 10. Finally, someone at a conference pointed out how late the curve comes in this graph and said it was a sign of a successful system. That made me feel good.

Tracking students’ XP is the most basic form of a leaderboard. The XP leaderboards only raise the Status of some students. That is why I put students in Guilds (groups) and pit classes against each other.


Putting students in Guilds and ranking them by class allows for more students to have their Status raised. The Guild who won the Guild vs. Guild competition were not all in the top 10 on the individual leaderboard, nor was everyone who won the Class vs. Class competition, but they still were able to experience the joy of winning in some fashion.



My favorite part of my leaderboard is the Level leaderboard:


The XP leaderboard is based only on grades, but my Level leaderboard takes into account the whole student. Students unlock Achievements in my class by doing amazing things and displaying Heroic Traits; few of my Achievements have anything to do with grades. When a student earns an Achievement, the Achievement has an attached Achievement Point (AP) value. A student’s Level is determined mostly by the amount of AP they have. This AP can in turn be used to buy thing from the Item Shop. The students who sit on top of the Level leaderboard might not be on top of the XP leaderboard, but you better believe they are some of the most helpful, kind, caring kids in my class. I love raising the status of these types of kids because far too often their skill set doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Being a good person is important and the Level leaderboard rewards that! In life, grades only get you so far.

pvplvlWhen people at workshops and conferences bring up the fact that a leaderboard can sometimes demotivate the lowest performing students, I like to point out that my kids can gain Status with my leaderboard not just through performance on the XP leaderboard, but by being part of a Guild, Class, and through the Level leaderboard. A good Gamified class goes beyond a straight performance-based leaderboard. Guild, Class, and Level leaderboards are how you get the most out of every kid. If you buy my leaderboard, and you don’t like the XP leaderboard idea, just hide that section on the Google Sheet!

I won’t bore you with the inner workings of my Leaderboard. If you are into that kind of stuff and want to see the Badge/Achievement system and how the Google Apps Script makes dispersing, tracking, and trading currency a breeze I will provide the Tutorial Video for the Leaderboards and App.



Setting up the Sheet and App takes about 45 minutes. Don’t be intimidated by the number of sheets or 600 lines of code. It really is easy to set up and once you get how the system works, you’ll fall in love. I will offer this caveat, though. Because of the Script, my Leaderboards are not very flexible. You can’t add extra columns or move things around unless you want to go back and rewrite the code. I am working on an FAQ for advanced users who aren’t afraid to fiddle with code, but, as of now, my leaderboards are very much a “what you see is what you get” product.

So, again, here is a link to the Leaderboards on Teachers Pay Teachers. Here is what the leaderboards look like when you embed them.

If you are serious about gamifying your class you need leaderboards for the Status they confer and the Gladiators and Achievers they motivate and engage. My leaderboards will help you take that next step.

Next time we’ll talk about Achievements!

Until then,




Jul 03

Postmortem: Gamification Data Dump

game-onI thought I would dump my yearlong Gamification data, side-by-side, and give my thoughts. This is the first side-by-side comparison I’ve done on my data, so let’s do it together!

First, I must apologize. Like an idiot, I accidentally deleted my third marking period data. I can say, though, it showed a general continuation of MP2. A few percentage points growth/decline in either direction. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think losing MP3 data matters too much, but I’m still pissed at myself. I also have to apologize for my Photoshop/WordPress skills. It’s hard to get all these questions side-by-side on WordPress. They don’t want to play nice together. Note: having the Hover Free extension will make reading this a lot easier. It’s one of those must have extensions!

So, that being said, let’s get after it!

I polled my students’ initial reaction to my class being a game on the fist day of school. Here’s what they said:

MP0-0 MP0-01
Here is the first set of questions I asked, spread over four (three) marking periods. Again, I screwed up and deleted MP3!


I added the “prefer xp grading system” question in the 2nd MP. I am happy with the results and it confirms the anecdotal evidence I received from students: the XP grading system and class item shop was their favorite part of class.

Next up:


Above, we see a slow decline in the first figure, but I’m happy that most of my students enjoy the leaderboard, as most rate their experience between 7-10. I stopped updating the leaderboard daily because it became too much work. That would explain the move toward checking the leaderboard “when it’s updated.” We see a steady increase in MP1-3 when it comes to the importance of position of leaderboards until the last marking period. Even at it’s worst, 70% of my kids caring about their position on a leaderboard is a big win for me and their grades which, acnecdotally, are seven points higher than my five year average!



Again, as is the trend, we see general growth until fourth marking period. I honestly believe that MP4 scores are lower because I literally took the data on the last day of school after their finals. I really believe my students were just burned out on school in general. Again, I’m happy with the adoption/onboarding principals in the above figures. My “Gladiators” held steady throughout the year in bragging about their leaderboard position. The extra motivation students got from the leaderboard is a huge plus as it cost nothing and didn’t take much extra effort. I would say I spend an hour a week on the leaderboard. An hour time investment for 70% adoption rate, that’s awesome! My homework submission rate was roughly 85% this year. I don’t know what it was last year, but it definitely was 85%. I think the unity provided by the Guild and Class leaderboard made a big difference.



Even at it’s worse, 70% of my kids were motivated by the leaderboard to continue to do better! Such a simple addition to class that made a big difference. We also see growth in the last question, Guild’s position on the leaderboard, until MP4.



Again, we see growth in some areas, but a general slide in others. The numbers still make me happy!



Now, this is the stuff dreams are made of! I added questions as the year went on, so they don’t line up, but follow my obnoxious guide lines! Across the board, students are learning a lot. I added this question because I had people arguing that students don’t learn in a gamified classroom. Over 70% of my kids would rate my class a 9 or a 10! In MP2, I added a question about coming to school. Anecdotaly, I was noticing students coming in late “just for my class.” We have big-time attendance issues at my school, so am I’m happy to report students not only came to my class, but came 20% more often than to their other classes; they missed my class 20% less than their other classes! I love the next question, about learning in a gamified classroom. I won students over! We see a steady increase between MP2 through MP4, so those reluctant at first, eventually came around!

Overall, I am thrilled with how my gamified classroom went! I think it was an epic win! I made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot, which means next year will be even better!

I encourage you to draw your own conclusions and point out things I might have missed. I’m far from a data expert (I teach English!), so any feedback will be valuable. Also, please suggest better questions or better wording to make next year’s data more valuable.

Finally, I have update my gamesite! TwentyTwenty is no more! Forever and always, Saga City Learning will be the home of both my gamified classroom and my classroom Alternate Reality Game! Check it out!

Until next time,



Jun 22

IndieGoGo Go!

starIf you haven’t heard, my students’ IndieGoGo campaign has gone live! We are both excited and nervous. It seems we’ve become a test case for the education community. I’ve received a lot of e-mails from teachers who say they are watching and waiting to see how our IndieGoGo campaign goes. If we are successful, it seems many teachers would like to do something similar for their own classroom. If we fail, I suppose we fail alone.

No matter what,  I’m happy with my students’ efforts and stick-to-itiveness. There were many opportunities to tapout, but they did not take them. There were many opportunities to give up, but they kept going. They could have thrown in the towel, but they decided to fight. I’m proud of them.

If you would like to donate to our campaign, that would be awesome. If not, sharing our campaign would be awesome too. Either way, this social experiment has been one of my proudest moments.

Thank you!

Jun 17

Be About It Project: Student Perspective

SunsetLandscape72If there is one thing I hate about high school, it’s the projects. Nothing gets me more annoyed than an assignment sheet filled with directions on how to create your own poster for an Edgar Allan Poe story. For me, it’s much simpler to take an hour long test than partake in a week long project. So when I first got the Be About It project, it was safe to assume that I was wary about it. I mean, a year long project? This teacher must be insane. But as I read on, I learned that this wasn’t your average English class project. We could choose to do anything we have ever wanted and actually do it. I knew my teacher was actually insane at the point. No limitations, no rules, no directions, it was unlike anything I’ve ever been assigned in school. When I realized this, I warmed up to the idea. 

My original goal for the project was to write a novel and send it to a publisher. The only problem being that I am not a novelist and most publishers cost up to $500 to just look at your work. My mom won’t give me money for the movies half the time, let alone a few hundred for a editor to scan over my story. So, I changed up my project. After weighing my options, I decided to write a short story and send it to a free, online publisher. My product was an eight page short story called Sunset. I submitted it to the online publisher, TeenInk, and hoped for the best. Honestly, I didn’t really expect anything fantastic from them. Maybe a participation award at most. But about a week after submitting, I received an email stating that my story had won #1 readers and #1 editor’s choice in their Sci-Fi category! It was insane because someone, who wasn’t my friend, was telling me that my writing was decent. Those awards were a huge confidence boost because it showed me that I am actually good at writing and not just another teenager with a pen. It allowed me to look into the future and see a successful writing career. 

When the project was over, I was actually upset to see it go. In my high school career, I can almost guarantee that I will never have an opportunity like this again. This was far more than just a poster board on Poe’s writing or a display on Holden Caulfield, this was real, hands on, life-experience. It taught me that it’s okay to fail, as long as you get back up afterwards. If I had just accepted that I wasn’t a novelist, Sunset would have never been written. Getting knocked down is the easy part, getting back up is what’s most difficult. This project is something that I won’t throw out at the end of the year, along with all my binders. It’s something that I am going to always remember and grow from. In a year, I won’t remember all the essays I wrote or the tests I took, but I can safely say that I will remember this for years to come. It opened doors to the literary world that would have been shut had I not done this project. They say that the journey there is far more important than the destination. This project proves that.


Alanis is sixteen and awesome. Whether you call it Genius Hour, 20% Time, or make your own version like me, you owe it to your students to try something like this

Until Next Time,


Jun 13

Don’t Just Talk About It…

1up6/18/14 – Update: The Asbury Park Press wrote a nice article about the project here!

I don’t remember when my friends and I started to say it, but I’m pretty sure it was in high school. It is our go to trash-talk statement, the ultimate challenge. During pick-up football or speedball, in the classroom or at the beach, it didn’t matter. Still to this day, if you are around us long enough you’ll hear someone say it: Don’t just talk about it, be about it!

At some point, this saying became part of my life’s philosophy. I think I like it so much because it really is the ultimate challenge. It’s one thing to say Carpe Diem, but another thing to seize it. It’s one thing to say always do what you are afraid to do, but another thing to do it. It’s one thing to say YOLO, but another thing to… YOLO it. In life, it seems many people are comfortable talking-the-talk, but hesitate when it comes time to walk-the-walk.

I hear this all the time from students: they want to do this, they want to be that, but when I ask them what they are doing to make it happen, too often they shrug. Thus the Be About It project was born.

In the beginning of the year, I told my students they had a yearlong project. What they did for this project was totally up to them. They could do whatever they want, with whoever they want, whenever they want, however they want. The only think I asked them is at the end of the year they got up on stage in front of everybody and give a TED-style presentation about what they did, why they did it, and what they learned. “Chances are there is something you’ve always wanted to do, something your passionate about, so here’s your chance to not just talk about it: Be About It!”

Some of my kids loved the idea, others were paralyzed by choice and hated not being told exactly what to do. I made it worse: so long as they checked in with bi-monthly (video) journals and got up on stage, whether their project was a failure or not, they would get an “A.”

So over the course of a school year, students worked on their project. Last week, in front of a big audience, 72 kids got up on stage and presented 58 Be About It projects. I couldn’t have been more proud of them.

I’ve made a Supercut of many of the presentations. I edited it into one big presentation. I love this Supercut because it shows just how much they learned. Listen to the life lessons and words of wisdom coming out of the mouths of sixteen-year-olds.

Some of my favorite projects:

Three of my girls volunteered over 300 hours and made a documentary about their experience. I was blown away. They volunteered locally and abroad. They went as far as Costa Rica, without parents and cellphones, to serve!

Another student explored her passion: tattooing!

Alyx sent care packages to soldiers serving in Afghanistan, one of whom was her father. We were lucky enough to have Alyx’s father join her on stage to talk about the meals soldier’s eat in Afghanistan and how much care packages mean to our soldiers. Not a dry eye in the house.

After the presentations, for their last BAI journal on Schoology, I hit my kids with a plot twist: That’s it. It’s over and you all did a great job! Now for the Plot Twist: I want you to think about your project, not just today, but over the course of the whole year. I want you to think of success and failure, overcoming adversity, effort, and life lessons. When you’ve reflected on your BAI Project and what you learned, I want you to grade yourself out of a 1000 and explain why you gave yourself that grade. Your grade will be your grade. It will go in the gradebook. I’ve also set it up so you can’t see what anyone else writes until you submit your (video) journal. Have fun! 

Again, I was so proud to see what they wrote. Many lessons were learned.

Whether you call it Genius Hour, 20% Time, or make your own brand like I did, you owe it to your students to let them explore their passions and learn about themselves. Show them that learning is life-long, self-directed, and rarely successful on the first attempt. Chances are your students have something awesome they’ve always wanted to do, we just have to get out of their way.

Until next time,


May 29

Can We Trust Students To Peer Grade?

Holding Blank Score CardsI have a serious problem with the way we teach, assign, and grade student writing. I’ve always wanted to change my system, but could never come up with something I liked. Nothing felt right.

Earlier this year, I was invited to present at Techspo on Gamificaiton. There, I took the opportunity to sit in on a bunch of workshops. One workshop, in particular, caught my attention. It was called “Stop Bleeding Red Ink” hosted by the amazing Kate Baker.

During the workshop, she talked about the many awesome ways that she tackles student writing and grading in her class. I took a lot of great ideas away from the workshop, but one really caught my attention: she allows her students to grade each other and, if students agree on the grade given by their peer, puts it into the gradebook as the final grade.

Mind = Blown. This is what I’ve been missing.

I loved the idea. Immediately, I wanted to create a whole new writing system around it, but I was skeptical. Could I really trust my students to grade each other? I chased Kate down after the workshop and talked to her about it. Long story short: she assured me her students were fair in their grading, and I should try it for myself.

Challenge: Accepted.

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May 21

Make Your Students Aware Of This New Twitter Trend!

warningBesides teaching, I also coach football, wrestling, and track at my high school. Over the last few months, I’ve noticed a new trend on social media, mostly Twitter, that I’m not sure I’m thrilled about. Take a look at these Tweets and guess what’s under the red bars:

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May 08

Problem Based Learning In Action

Turd Brown Wall6/22 – We are live and ready to go! Thank you to everyone who believed in us! We’re hoping for an epic win!

6/12- KI Furniture came by today and dropped off a gift: A school-colored Learn2 desk! The kids were thrilled! KI has been supportive from the start of this project and promised they would do their best to give us a great deal on more desks. We also finished re-filming and editing the IndieGoGo campaign video. We have a few more loose ends to tie-up, but we should be ready to launch this Monday or Tuesday. Everyone is pumped!

6/5 – Had a great conversation with John Vaskis (@gogoJV) at indiegogo! We will be moving our campaign to IndieGoGo. We hope to launch by June 16th at the latest. Stay tuned for more and help spread the word! Thanks to everyone who has helped us along the way. 

6/3 (Afternoon)- John Vaskis (@gogoJV) has offered to help my students move their project to indiegogo! Everyone is freaking out and super excited!

6/3 – We’ve heard offers of help, kind words, and well wishes from KI Furniture, Robert Pohl from Collaboration Solutions, Bretford Furniture, Amplify, SMART, Hitachi, and Simple Minds (Yes, the band!), but no update from Kickstarter. We are still in the appeal process. My students really hope that Kickstarter is rewriting their policy to accept projects like ours and that’s what is taking so long. How could they not want to support students and the places where they learn? Now, kids are looking into making an indiegogo campaign or just releasing their awesome video in hopes it goes viral.

5/25 Update: Still waiting to hear back from Kickstarter. Anyone suggest any Kickstarter alternatives?

5/13 Update: We’ve been denied by Kickstarter. We’ve filed an appeal. 

This year, I asked my students what skills they think they would need to be successful in the 21st century workplace. They said things like perseverance, collaboration, hustle, being personable, being tech savvy, and strong, asynchronous communication. I then showed them pictures of 21st century workspaces and explained how they were designed to foster those skills. They were in awe. I mean, do a GIS for Google workspace. Who wouldn’t want to work in a place like that?

We do a ton of collaboration in my class, so I was happy to see many of them appreciated the collaborative working environment that many companies embraced, too. “Collaboration will be expected of us in the real world,” I remember one student saying. They liked that companies encouraged people to work together, take breaks together, eat together, and play together. “Everything seems to be about making people happy and having them work together.” Students decided that these companies are so successful because they invest in their employees and treat them like people. “People want to be there and I doubt anyone quits.”

I agreed with them.

“Why can’t our classroom be like that,” they asked?

“Honestly,” I said, “I don’t know.” “Money?” was the best answer I could come up with.

Fast forward to March. I was invited to Schoology HQ to show them how I use their LMS in my classroom and tell them why they were making such a huge difference in my students’ learning. I used Schoology and Twitter to keep my students in the loop as to what I was doing while I was there and to show them the pictures of Schoology’s office like they requested. Because, as my kids accurately predicted, Schoology has the kind of working environment my student’s fantasized about earlier in the school year; the kind of environment they want to learn in.


They saw pictures of the glass-walled collaboration areas, the open-air work space, the bright colored walls, and the different types of chairs workers chose to sit (or not) in. They were blown away by the pool table, the video game theater, and the idea that one can actually work and play at the same time. When I told them the vending machines in the kitchen were free and everyone stopped and had lunch together (even the bosses) like a big ol’ family, their jaws dropped.

I don’t blame them. Like them, I’d only seen pictures of 21st century workspaces. Schoology was the first time I was actually in one. The the thing that impressed me most about my visit to Schoology was how happy everyone was and the passion with which they worked. They believe in what they are doing and, more importantly, why they are doing it. Purpose. I talked to a lot of people while I was at Schoology. From the front line folks, to the Devs working in the back, to the founders themselves; they were all happy to be doing what they were doing. Their workspace definitely supported that.

My formal visit should have lasted a few hours, but as I started to wrap up I was pulled here and there by many an employee who wanted to show me their pet project or get my thoughts on an idea they had. I was at Schoology for twelves hours, and the time flew by. I loved every minute of my visit.

Schoology 12

When I returned from my adventure, after having seen the pictures and hearing my stories, my students made it clear that they wanted to learn in a place like that. They wanted to learn in a 21st century classroom. They wanted to do something great, so I just got out of their way.

I let them brainstorm and research what the 21st century workspace would look like in the classroom. We bounced ideas around the room until we settled on a few things: 1) the desks they sit it in make it hard to collaborate and move around the room. 2) In their ninety-minute learning block, as part of their six-hour learning day, they get tired of sitting all the time. 3) The lack of technology in the classroom (four computers from 2002 for thirty kids) hurts collaboration and might even be an impediment to their success, for how were they suppose to develop 21st century tech skills if they don’t use them often?

The solutions, they said? Since our school is transitioning to GAFE and they love Drive, they wanted Chromebooks. For more comfortable, mobile seating they wanted a desk with wheels, and a couple Pub-like tables so they can stand and collaborate or even take notes (they really loved the idea of standing and taking notes).

Next, students asked me to send out e-mails on their behalf (since they said my school email address would look more official) to some education furniture companies and Google’s Chromebook team to see what their best price would be for a class set of their products. As they waited for responses, they settled on using Kickstarter to raise the money. They thought it was a cool website and wanted to try to raise the funds there since it mirrored what they may have to do in the 21st century workplace.

Thus began my moral dilemma: I wasn’t sure if Kickstarter was the best place to try and get funding. I suggested more traditional ways classes raise money. My kids shot me down. My kids were adamant about crowdfunding because they said those companies they learned about don’t have bake sales and car washes when they need to raise funds. It seemed their 21st century workspace had become serious business.

We looked at other Kickstarter projects and didn’t see any like ours. Some close, but none exactly like ours. Kickstarter is for projects I said. Is this 21st century workspace a project? They said yes, but I had them check out other options anyway. When we looked into other crowdfunding sites like and Indiegogo, I realized their was no perfect place for us to try to raise the funds. I have to admit, that surprised me and gave me my own driving question:

My district is a CD factor group, recently impacted by Hurricane Sandy, and has the logistics of the online PARCC test to prepare for. The things my students wanted (deserved?) were likely to never be in the budget. We have the same old desks as everyone else and a couple of old computers I Flight-of-the-Phoenix’ed out of broken computers my school was getting rid of, which is more than some classes have, but, like any good teacher, I want the best for my kids. I want them to have the best, so they can be the best. Why can’t we have nice things?

In this, my kids actually taught me something when they said, “well, what’s the worse that can happen? Kickstarter shuts us down, says ‘no,’ or we fail. Big Deal.” I have to say, I was proud of their attitude and I bought in. A Kickstarter we would make…


and fail we did. Google never got back to us no matter how hard we tried, nor would any educational furniture company help us. It’s like no one wants to take our money…. This part of our project was (and still is) in limbo. We still haven’t found anyone who wanted to work with us.

Undeterred, we brought equipment in from home and filmed an amazing video for our Kickstarter. We considered our audience and decided the video needed to be funny and a bit nostalgic, but also seriously address the concerns we had about the classroom we worked in. It also had to have the potential to go Viral.

While filming the video, my kids came to a sudden realization: if their Kickstarter is successful, the classroom wouldn’t be ready until next year. They wouldn’t get to work in the 21st century classroom they wanted to create. Once they made peace with the fact that I couldn’t follow them up into Junior year, the tone of the project changed.

The 21st century workspace was no longer for them, but for me and the kids who come after them. “Imagine how much more we could have done if the classroom didn’t hold us back!”

Originally, this post was going to be about the importance of a classroom’s learning environment, and I will write about that one day, but as I sit here and think about this project and why my students did it, I can’t help but be proud of them. We’ve done project and Problem-based Learning all year, but this is the first time my students have ever put it to use in a real-world, organic context. It was real-life PBL in action! The problem: their classroom, like most classrooms, sucks. But instead of complaining, they set out to do something about it; 75 students, spread over three periods, banded together to do something about their problem. I took a back seat and helped where I could.

This has been one of my favorite teaching experiences. It was a lot of fun to weave this project into our daily learning and it was awesome to share the finished project with people and tell them, “Yeah, my kids made that.”

The Kickstarter is complete and currently under review. If it is accepted, and you want to donate to the Kickstarter, that would be awesome. My kids and I would be thrilled, but even if you don’t, even if this Kickstarter fails, I know that they have learned something and I’ve seen real-life Problem-based Learning in action.

Until next time,