Year in Review: Lessons from the Innovation Lab

techedupteacherI came up with the Innovation Lab, our take on the makerspace, when I first got to Fair Haven eighteen months ago. The goal was to make an engaging technology “special” to replace our more traditional computer class which we pushed down toward the elementary school. I spent the bulk of this year’s afternoons working in the Innovation Lab with Ms. Smith and her 5th and 6th grade students. In the Innovation Lab, students learned about Design & Engineering, Computer Science, the Digital Arts, and, for a few months, Entrepreneurship. After our first full year in the Lab, I wanted to share the lessons I’ve learned.

Lesson Learned: Blended Learning is best, but not without a learning curve. I blended my high school English class for the last five years I was there. My sophomores received little direct instruction. Instead when they came into class, student work and the resources they needed to be successful were already online in our Learning Management System waiting for them. This worked incredibly well for my Sophomores, so I decided to bring blending to the Innovation Lab.

In the blended classroom, a teacher creates videos instead of providing extended, whole class instruction because if you are talking to the whole class, the whole class isn’t listening. The teacher also curates resources to share with students, but most of all a teacher becomes a guide or coach rather than the keeper of knowledge. In return, students learn information literacy and they receive a self-paced, self-directed learning experience with support from a teacher who works with them one-on-one or in small groups. Most of our 5th and 6th graders had never learned in a blended environment before they came to Innovation Lab, so we had a bit of a learning curve to work through.

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The above pictures show the adoption rate of our blended learning videos over time along with a graph that outlines the Diffusion of Innovation theory. The Diffusion of Innovation theory seeks to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through a society. I feel the DoI applies to the classroom as well. Starting with little experience, it took about seven months for the “late majority” of students to adopt blending. Anecdotally, where I saw choice paralysis with some for the first few months, after time and staying the course, most of these students found blending empowering.

I will see my fifth graders again next year as sixth graders. I’m confident I can continue to grow the blended model and reach the “laggards” quickly. As the EDTech coach for the district, I also had an ulterior motive for blending the Innovation Lab. I’m hoping to familiarize students with the blended model so it will make onboarding easier for both teachers and students as blending starts to pop up in other classrooms around the district.

The blended Innovation Lab was a good decision because it allowed students to walk down the Innovation Path (Design & Engineering, Comp Sci, Digital Arts, Entrepreneurship) of their choosing as their own pace. This leads to higher engagement and motivation than if we were to tell them what to do, when. Voice and choice matter. Direct instruction in the Labs took the form of Demo Slams, our name for pop-up, small group direct instruction based on student need. In the blended learning classroom, teachers teach to the trouble. At their time of highest need, we can swoop in and provide support and encouragement for students that isn’t possible in a direct instruction heavy classroom. Blending is all about keeping a student in the Zone of Proximal development. To push students out of their comfort zones, we adopted a “Yes! And…” strategy were we encouraged students to take their creations further. “Yes! And wouldn’t it be cool to try… “Yes! And do you think you can also…” worked well in getting students to stretch outside their comfort zones.

Lesson Learned: Design Thinking is king. Design Thinking, especially in the Standford sense, is the backbone of the entire Innovation Lab. I didn’t know this at first. I had originally paired it with only the Engineering path, but the more I learned about it and the more I worked with students the more I realized that Design Thinking permeates everything going on in the Lab. Whether podcasting, making videos, building in Minecraft, or designing Parts to Arts, I found our conversations with students centered around the concept of Design Thinking. To this end I am doubling down on both my personal learning and understanding of Design Thinking, but also by taking Design out of the Engineering path and making it the tree trunk from which all other branches of Innovation Lab grow. I am lucky to be close in both distance and relationship to Kevin Jarrett who is leading the way with Design Thinking in middle school. I encourage everyone to follow the amazing things he is doing. I will be bribing him with burgers to learn more about Design Thinking.

Lesson Learned: we’re not the only hot mess in town. I was lucky enough to hang out in a bunch of makerspaces this year. Whether high school or middle school, city, suburb, or any label in between, every makerspace teacher confided in me that no matter what they did their space was a mess at the end of the day. Supplies were wasted, tools put back in the wrong spots, things left out, and stuff strewn about. It felt strangely liberating to know it was not just our space. Maybe it sounds silly, but learning this allowed me to take a step back, a deep breath, and be less frustrated at the end of the day.

Lesson Learned, probably: in middle school breadth over depth is fine. We saw our kids once a week for the school year. A week is a long time for middle schoolers. Our students often forgot what they were working on when they came to the Lab after a week. If they didn’t forget, they came in wanting to work on something else with someone else. There is something to be said for sticking with a project long term, but I’m OK with middle schoolers dipping their toes in a bunch of different maker pools. From third to eighth grade, I think students should be showing what they know with technology and learning not to be afraid of technology; comfortable with being uncomfortable, ya know. In high school. I would expect students to have a finished product, and I am going to work toward getting more finished products using Gizmos, but I’m OK with students who go wide instead of deep.

Lesson Learned: there is a place for entrepreneurship in the makerspace. I’ve written about Gizmos, our online, student run store here. I’m excited for a full launch this September. Not only will we be running the Innovation Lab with a gamified narrative about being a startup, we’ll be teaching students valuable business skills that are hard to find in education. The Design Thinking piece fits perfectly with the integration of entrepreneurship and the school store helps solve a lot of problems in the Innovation Lab like waste and the aforementioned finished product situation. Like the integration of Art into STEM, I encourage more makerspaces to think about integrating elements of entrepreneurship into making. Please, though, let’s avoid calling it STEAME….

I have a few more Lessons Learned I’m still unpacking, but these were the ones I’m ready to share now. I’ll probably do a part two toward the end of the summer. To wrap this up, I wanted to list some goals for the Innovation Lab this coming year.

  • Build a small lunch/recess program for elite makers
  • Build a parent/student maker night once a month
  • Build at least one more partnership with the community. We’ve teamed with Red Bicycle to build a bike shop behind the school which I want to grow, but I’d also love to do something with the hospital or businesses in town. Community is so important to teach students.
  • Build an Innovation Lab that centers on Design Thinking
  • Improve on our Digital Portfolio process. I can’t find anyone who makes a good, shareable digital portfolio. Looks like I’ll be sticking with Google Sites.
  • Integrate the new ISTE student standards into the Lab. ISTE nailed it

More to come. Stay tuned.

Until next time,


#GEGNJ Power Hour 5


Another Power Hour is in the books!

In this episode, we talk to the Isaacs family and how they came to get involved in the Slides Q&A commercial, Google’s newest additions to #GAFE, and what’s the right age to roll out Gmail for a school district.

Below is the video of the show and here is the agenda which includes links to the things we discussed.

We start crowdsourcing the agenda two weeks before the show and you can join #GEGNJ here even if you aren’t from New Jersey because not everyone can be perfect. This is our last episode for the school year. The Power Hour team will see all Jersey’s finest in late August!

Until Next Time,



Year In Review: Lessons on Gamification

techedupteacherI’ve learned a lot after a year of working with fifth and sixth graders in our blended, gamified makerspace. Our makerspace, called The Innovation Lab, is built on four pillars: Comp Sci, Design & Engineering, Digital Arts, and Entrepreneurship. It also uses game-mechanics to help deliver content and engage students. I started the year with my gamification basics: Epic Meaning, Leaderboards, Achievements, and Item Shop system I’ve been developing for years. Then things changed.

Our Innovation Lab was a whirlwind of making all year. Students were motivated and engaged from start to finish. I learned a ton about designing and running a makerspace, but I also learned more than I thought I would about Gamification:

Lesson learned: Motivated students Don’t Need the “Basic” Gamification Techniques. For most of my career, I’ve taught reluctant learners. I came into the Innovation Lab with that mindset, but my kids were anything but reluctant. So, about halfway through the year, I got rid of the Leaderboards, Achievements, and Item Shop. Students didn’t need them. Our time could be better spent developing the more engaging and empowering aspects of Gamification.

Gamification Tiers

Above, is a graphic from an eBook I’m working on about Gamification. I’m still playing with the structure and wording, but the graphic captures the different levels of Gamification and the way students interact with it. There is nothing wrong with using the more basic aspects of Gamification to motivate learners, but if they come motivated you can turn that motivation into something more. Where did I spend my time?

At the same time I removed the Gamification basics, I introduced our take on the school store: Gizmos. I built Gizmos as an online store for students to sell their Innovation Lab creations. For fun, when it was time for students to create their stores, I roleplayed with them. I would call them to our “office,” and have them pitch me on their business and tell me why they were interested in partnering with Gizmos. Students made up store names, sold me on a business proposal, and made up reasons they wanted to partner with Gizmos. I told them Gizmos was excited to have them and ended our business meeting with firm handshakes. It was fun, but the more I thought about it the more I liked the idea of creating a yearlong narrative around Gizmos.

Lesson (re)Learned: Not All Gamification is Created Equally. Some Gamification techniques are great for motivation, some for engagement, and some for empowerment. I used to run yearlong Alternate Reality Games (ARG) in my English class. Student learning was driven forward by a transmedia, sci-fi narrative that sucked students into a story where they were the main characters and they had to act before the year was over. Most students loved it, and it was some of the most fun I’ve had teaching. I’m wondering if Gizmos is an opportunity to bring a narrative/ARG to the Innovation Lab? I’m toying with the idea next year to change over from Quests, XP Points, and other Epic Meaning terminology and replace it with a narrative like – Innovation Lab is a startup and Gizmos is our student-run storefront. The narrative would turn students into employees or, better yet, stockholders. Portfolios could become Monthly Reviews or TPS Reports. Announcements could become memos. Conferences could become Performance Reviews. Students could pick roles like Accountants and keep “the books” for Gizmos along with our Business Administrator, Techs who make sure our technology is working, Advertisers who promote Gizmos to the community, or PR team who gives updates to the Superintendent and the Board of Ed.. How would a narrative change the class? Would the narrative be fun for them (I’ve just today started asking them)? Do we dare go further?

Lesson I Want To Learn: Can Authentic Learning be too Authentic? When we first introduced Gizmos, students thought they were going to make real money for the creations they sold in Gizmos. I rained on their parade and said the real money we made would go back into the program as we try to become the first ever self-funded makerspace. Instead of money, students would earn commission on the sale and use it to buy something off Gizmos. I lost some, but most warmed up to the idea. I started to wonder: what if we did pay the kids? What’s more authentic than running a real store and getting paid real money for the work you put into it? I think being part of a “fake” business would be fun and engaging, but ultimately it’s just that, fake. Could we make Gizmos a real business? Should we make Gizmos a real business? Maybe instead of paying them, as stockholders in Gizmos (I’m totally making stock certificates next year!), what if they got to vote on how we spent the money at a stockholders meeting? Do we buy a new toy for the Innovation Lab? Donate the money to a cause? Fund another project elsewhere in the school? 

I’m in love with an idea that hasn’t been fully formed!

Lesson Learned: Mandatory Fun Is Still Not Fun! One thing I want to avoid with Gizmos and the Innovation Lab as a whole is making things mandatory. Of course some things are mandatory, like portfolios, evidence of learning, and reflections, but in our Innovation Lab students have a choice in what they do. If they want to spend their time making podcasts and never try coding, that’s up to them. If they don’t want to sell anything in Gizmos, they don’t have to. While we do try to “Yes, and…” them to push them out of their comfort zone, giving students the same voice and choice a good game tried to deliver continues to be important in making the Innovation Lab engaging.

And that’s what it’s all about for me. I want to provide the most engaging, empowering, fun, authentic learning opportunities I can for our students. By graduation, our kids’ worlds are going to look a lot different than they do now. I think by exposing them to as many different types of technologies, experiences, learning styles, and skills as we can will only make them more successful in the future.

Lessons on Game-Based Learning and running a makerspace coming soon.

Until Next Time,


#GEGNJ Power Hour 4

Google Classroom

Another Power Hour is in the books! This show was all about firsts. We talked to teachers using Google Classroom and CS First for the first time, and also heard how first time EdTech Coaches are rolling out Google Apps in their district. We learned the first thing we should do after uploading a video to YouTube and how to emulate ThingLink with Google Drawings.

Below is the video of the show and here is the agenda which includes links to the things we discussed.

We start crowdsourcing the agenda two weeks before the show and you can join #GEGNJ here even if you aren’t from New Jersey because not everyone can be perfect. See you for our last show before summer break on June 13th!

Until Next Time,


Teaching Entrepreneurship through the For-Profit MakerSpace


I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship and its related topics. From running a business, to the way money and markets work, to behavioral economics, finance, marketing, and advertising, I find it all to be fascinating. While we now have mandatory finance classes and more business electives for high school students in Jersey, it wasn’t that way when I was there. I think the lack of exposure to entrepreneurship has made my life more difficult. I’ve made a lot of expensive mistakes as I taught myself the hard way about credit cards, balancing checkbooks, budgeting, and mortgages and probably missed out on opportunities like investing in the stock market or starting early on my retirement fund. 

Exposing students to entrepreneurship is more important than ever. In five years, everyone will be treating entrepreneurship with the same reverence currently reserved for STEAM. If you have been following some of the predictions and research about the future of jobs, many jobs, up to 60%, face the possibility of being computerized or automated. Whether this comes to pass or not, and it looks like it will, jobs in management, business, and finance will continue to be in demand and generally safe from the robots. What’s even better, it is only going to get easier and cheaper to start your own business. I want my kids to be ready for the work force of the future and become familiar with entrepreneurial skills sooner, rather than later. I want to do this in the most student-centered, authentic way possible, so… I built them a store. Gizmos is open for business!

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#GEGNJ Power Hour 3

#GEGNJ Power House

#GEGNJ Power Hour

Monday we rolled the credits on another #GEGNJ Power Hour!! We were joined by a student from my school, Fair Haven (He is writing this in third person for me!). He talked about a kid’s point of view of #GAFE. Jeff Bradbury talked about lesson plans on Google Sites, Alyssa Miller talked Digital Portfolios, and Kim Mattina told us about Google Classroom.

Our special guest was Jonathan Rochelle, Director of Product Management for Google Apps for Education. He talked about Google Expeditions and how it came to be, and also gave away some Google Cardboards.
Below is the video of the show and here is the agenda which includes links to the things we discussed. We start crowdsourcing the agenda two weeks before the show and you can join #GEGNJ here even if you aren’t from New Jersey because not everyone can be perfect.

See you on May 9th for the next show!

Until Next Time,


#GEGNJ Power Hour 2

GEGNJAnother #GEGNJ Power Hour is in the books! On this episode of the Google Educators Group: New Jersey Power Hour show we had the amazing Regina Schaffer and her students talk about Google Apps for Education and CS First. We had Tech Specialist Genie Iovino discuss non-linear presentations with Google Slides, Kevin Jarrett discuss his Google Expedition Beta experience, and Jeff Bradbury showed us how to create stop-motion animation and comic books in Google Slides.

Below is the video of the show and here is the agenda which includes links to the things we discussed. We start crowd sourcing the agenda two week before the show and you can join #GEGNJ here even if you aren’t from New Jersey because not everyone can be perfect. The next show will be April 11th at 8pm!


Why Minecraft.

techedupteacherI believe in student-centered learning. Part of student-centered learning is giving students voice and choice in the classroom. A few years ago, back when I was a high school English teacher, students were assigned a culminating project on Romeo and Juliet. Students had to show what they learned during the unit in a medium of their choosing. A student approached me and asked if he could show what he learned using Minecraft. I had no idea what Minecraft was, so after having him explain the game and how he planned to use it, I approved the project. A week later he brought in a video of Minecraft characters acting out his favorite scene from Romeo and Juliet in a gorgeous, block-based Globe theater. This is how I met Minecraft.

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2016 PARCC Test Administrator Guide

Last year, since it was the first time they’d be giving PARCC, I decided to make a screencast for my teachers to show them how to navigate the online testing environment and administer the test to students. I believe sharing is caring, so I put the video on my YouTube channel for any district across the country to use. To my surprise, the video received over 20,000 views! I’ve been getting emails from districts asking if I was making another screencast for 2016 so here it is!

This actually happened a lot last year, so… Disclaimer: I don’t work for PARCC or Pearson or any Department of Education. Please don’t send me anti-PARCC/testing hate mail. I’m just an educator and trying to help educators.

Anyone who wants to can use this video with their teachers is welcome to do so. Good luck, have fun, and if you found the video useful let me know!

In Media Blooms


Unnamed imageTyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden. The barrel of the gun pressed against the back of my throat, Tyler says, “We really won’t die.”

  • Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk

For years, Fight Club was my Sophomores’ favorite book. The dystopian, coming-of-age tale about grown men emasculated and enslaved by a society they desperately want to escape appealed to my mostly reluctant readers. 

Fight Club was also part of my larger move toward an engaging, student-centered classroom. Fight Club was the hook I used to engage my students with Transcendentalism and was one of many changes I was making to re-engage my kids with their learning. Other changes included blending and gamifying my classroom, but all was for naught if I didn’t rethink how I was teaching. I wanted to hook them early in a lesson and keep them interested throughout a unit.

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