In my Google Drive I have a folder called Top Secret. There are only two documents in that folder. The first is a Doc called HaHa! My HaHa Doc contains what probably amounts to three hours of school-themed stand-up comedy. I did stand-up, off and on, in college; maybe 10 gigs or so. One day, I’d love to put together an hour long stand-up keynote about teaching. The other Doc in my Top Secret folder is called Crazy Ideas. My Crazy Ideas Doc is where I write down the ideas I’ve come up with, have heard about and would love to build on, or crazy ideas I’d like to one day implement into my program. I feel it is time to share some of my crazy ideas because others have started to try them, and I want to lend my support and some I have tried recently and they have been working pretty well. So, why not share them all? Here, against my better judgement, are my crazy ideas in all there half-baked glory.

Rethinking College Debt and Jobs – I ran across an article on EdSurge that talked about MissionU. Billed as an alternative to college, MissionU says it can prepare people for successful careers in about a year. The part I love though is the fact that students don’t pay anything to attend MissionU and only pay back 15 percent of their income for three years once they land a job that pays $50,000 or more. In a world where it is getting harder and harder to justify the price tag of college, what if colleges had to put their money where their mouth is and only got paid if their alumni got jobs related to their field of study? For instance, A few months ago I listened to a great gimlet podcast about Start Up Bus. Start Up Bus is a hackathon where people meet for the first time on a bus that is headed to a pitchfest. The teams are formed and products and businesses are built as they are riding the bus to the pitchfest. My favorite company to come out of Start Up Bus was Course Align. Course Align aims to “to create data driven curriculum that clearly aligns to evolving business needs.” Basically, they want to help colleges align the majors they market or offer around what the workforce actually needs. What if we combined these ideas? While I want to be so bold as to say all students shouldn’t have to pay back any money until they get a job in their field, what if I tempered that and said: What if colleges used data about what jobs our country needs and incentivize students to go into those fields by letting them defer paying back loans until they landed a job in their field and made a certain salary? Why don’t colleges have to be held accountable for all the Psychology degrees they dole out? This might help balance the “follow your heart” mentality we preach to kids as we let them signup for nearly unemployable majors and crippling debt. While it is ultimately the responsibility of the student to research their career path, can we help nudge them a more promising career path? College needs to be disrupted.

Nudge Theory in Schools– Don’t take my shot at Psychology degrees above as a slight. Nudge Theory is something that I’ve written about a lot on this blog. I find it fascinating. I’ve tried to apply some of what I learned in my free time about Nudge Theory to my classroom, but I would love to see more work done by the professionals on how it can be applied to schools. For instance, we know that a simple text message reminder can have a big impact on behavior. I know many schools use different programs to directly text message parents, but can we design a way for teachers to text message students valuable tips in a safe, easy way? Can we take the ubiquitous inspirational sign plastered and ignored on every school wall and redesign them using Nudge Theory to actually be behavior changing? I think nudge theory could do wonders in schools and I hope to see more of it.

Less Inspiration, More Perspiration – I believe every teacher got into this profession to make a difference. Teachers come into the profession ready to change the world. The problem with this profession isn’t inspiration. It’s the fact that the education system beats most teachers down until there is no inspiration left. To help fix that, what if the “thought leaders” we see on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram stopped filling their timelines with inspirational quotes and spent more time sharing the strategies and how-to guides that helped elevate them to thought leader status? What if the next keynote we went to was a hands on activity where we tried some best practices that improve learning for our kids and helped make teachers’ lives easier? A few months ago, I put a bid in to buy I want to build a crowd-sourced repository for teachers that featured only how-to articles. I wish thought leaders would stop trying to inspire me and instead share that awesome trick that stopped kids from playing browser-based video games in class or that really cool tweak that they made to their rubric that changed everything. If you want an example of a thought leader doing it right, check out Alice Keeler. She writes tons about practical things you can do in your classroom to make a difference. We need more of that from our most visible advocates. And, while we’re at it, if I got to an education conference, why can’t at least one of the keynotes be an actual classroom teacher? Its like that time the Forbes 30 under 30 in Education article didn’t contain a single classroom teacher.

If You Won’t Pay Teachers, Perk Us – I’m in it for the money, said no teacher ever. I get that. And while the case for paying teachers more should be evident, I don’t see it happening anytime soon. So how about an alternative? I’ve written out a plan that sought to rally the community around spoiling teachers with what they all want, discretionary time. The basics: in many schools it is hard to get subs. One reason is because subbing isn’t steady work. What if we hired full time subs to not just sub in class, but also do all duties? Instead of a teacher doing hall duty and lunch duty, a permanent sub did it. This discretionary time can be given back to teachers to do with as they see fit. To give more discretionary time back to teachers, what if we, like Google, provided perks. What if they quick lube changed teachers oil in the parking lot while they are working? What if the local grocery store took teachers’ grocery lists and have it ready for them after school? What if the nail salon set up shop once a month in the faculty room? What if you could leave mail and packages in the main office and it would be taken care of? Could we learn from Google’s employee retention strategy and apply it to our teaching force? We can’t take a lot of school stuff off of teachers plates, so can we take the other time consuming parts of their life off their plate?

Teachers and Admins Should be In The Same Union – I’ve tried to research why teachers and admins are not in the same union (at least in NJ). I can’t find much on the topic, but I think teacher and admins, really all school staff, should be in the same union. It would go along way in building cohesion and helping people realize we’re on the same team. 

Silos Need To Be Busted – I’m not sure why we have subjects in schools. I am a huge advocate for project and problem-based learning because it helps students to use knowledge from a bunch of different fields in concert together. Take for example what The Apollo School is doing. Can we take this brilliant idea and ramp it up to where a students entire day is working as part of a team on things that matter to them?

Varsity Esports – kids love video games. We need to embrace gaming in school to embrace a population of students we often leave out when it comes to after school activities. Some schools are starting to explore esports – professional video game playing – as a thing. While it is mostly as after school clubs, I’d love to start a varsity esports league in my county. For example, I have 24 laptops that are capable of running, say, Overwatch. To play Overwatch, you need a team of six. That means I could have four teams of six. These teams would practice, just like a varsity athlete, and then battle it out with other schools complete with all the pomp and circumstance of “real” sports. Records would be kept. Playoffs would be had. Championships would be won. And we would be embracing something students love and making it part of their education/life balance.  As someone who coached varsity football, wrestling, and track for ten years, I would still support this. Anything that engages students is a win. Maybe they’ll even get a college scholarship.

Every Classroom Should Have a Dog or Baby in It – Maybe my craziest idea: can we better teach students empathy by putting a dog or baby in every classroom? What else could having a class dog or a class kid to look after teach students?

Alternate Ways To Run My Class – My program centers around running real businesses with students; we run the businesses together as a grade. I have two more models for running a similar program. If I ever change up what I’m doing I’d do one of two things. 1) Instead of running a business together as a grade, I’d let students start a business with a team of their choosing in, say, sixth grade. For the next three years, that team would continue to run that business. I’ve done year long projects with students, how would things change if they worked on the same project or business for their entire school career? 2) I’d love to style my class around The Amazing Race. Teams of students competed in competitions to earn real money to run their businesses. There’s a lot of holes in this idea as of now, but I can’t shake the idea of how cool it would be to treat my class, or any class really, like a game show.

Rethinking Technology Classes – 25% of the money my students make goes to our student-run charity FH Gives. With the other 75% of the money, we grow our businesses. What this means, among other things, I have the funds to buy students the technology then need to be successful while working on the projects that they design. For instance, I have students working on a tumbling composter and hydroponics systems. They did the research, drafted the design, and told me what to buy for them and I bought it. Early this year, students worked on making a wheel chair tracking system for our local hospital using RFID sensors and Raspberry Pis. They told me what to buy, and I bought it. Technology classes should be less about the tools and more about teaching students to find and use the tools they decide they need to be successful. I plan on diving deeper into this topic in a future blog post.

The Teacher As The CEO – You’ve probably heard that teachers should be moving from sage on the stage to guide on the side. And while I agree, I think we’re ready to evolve. To me, one of the most important jobs a teacher can have is CEO, or the Chief Experience Orchestrater, of the classroom. I’ve been lucky where my kids have partnered with Google, Microsoft, Skype, Slack, and many other national and local businesses and experts. I want to pack my classroom with as many experts and opportunities as possible so I can gave my kids the opportunity to do something great. I do that by creating the conditions for greatness to happen. I figure if I can make learning real and relevant for my students, rather than teaching them things that they could Google themselves, I can light a fire under them that will lead to a love of life-long learning. I plan on diving into this topic more in a future blog post, too.

There you have it. Most of the crazy ideas in my Crazy Ideas Doc. I’ve left a few out, but maybe I’ll be brave enough to post them one day.

Until then,




The Struggle is Real (Learning)

At FH Gizmos, our 6th grade edcorp, our slogan is your problem is our project. It turns out, however, that our own problems turn into our projects, too. Over a year ago, FH Gizmos was hired by Slack to create a desktop toy for their employees. During the initial phase of our Slack design project, students worked together to create 12 desktop toy prototypes to send to Slack so they could vote on their favorite. 

While the prototypes were out at Slack for review, we emailed every address we could find associated with New Jersey’s Manufacturing Extension Program (NJMEP), a non-profit dedicated to innovating manufacturing in NJ. We emailed them because we wanted help finding manufacturers who could turn our prototypes into real, finished products for Slack. The people who responded to our emails at the NJMEP couldn’t have been nicer. They loved the idea of turning students’ prototypes into real products and saw it as a way to raise awareness for New Jersey manufacturing, which has been hit hard in recent years, while also teaching students about the manufacturing process and potential careers in the field. The NJMEP introduced us to a machine shop that said they would love to help.

Around this time, word from Slack came in that the S-shaped fidget spinner was their favorite prototype. We sent pictures of the S-shaped prototype to our manufacturer and within a month or so, on June 19th to be exact, we got the first of the 100 S-shaped spinners we ordered. The kids were excited, I was excited, Slack was excited – and then school ended.

Prototype #2

We had told Slack we would have the fidget spinners to them by the last day of school. We had missed our deadline. While I was disappointed the kids wouldn’t be able to send Slack the finished fidget spinners themselves, I figured I would just box them up and send them and share the pictures with them. But a week went by, then a month, then it was August. We still only had one fidget spinner. The machine shop who agreed to help us kept giving me reasons why they were behind, until one day in August he simply said he had to close his shop. We had just gone from fulfilling a manufacturing contract with a huge client to being back where we started in June.

Slack, let it be known, was nothing but wonderful and understanding through this whole ordeal. They too understand how much authentic learning projects like these can teach students, but I can’t lie: I was crushed. I don’t like failing. But, in the spirit of what I teach my students throughout our design process, I tried to learn from this failure and turn it into an opportunity.

To start this school year off, I explained to my returning FH Gizmos Innovators the situation we were in. Together, we drafted an email to the NJMEP explaining what happened, and a pitch for them to share with any potential manufacturers who wanted to work with us. In late September, we heard back from VEP Manufacturing who not only said they would remake the S-shaped fidget spinners on rush, but that they would cover all the cost for the first 100 we ordered. Two months later, we got our finished products and finally filled our order for Slack.

I share this story because it is a great reminder that the struggle is real learning. Doing great things, big or small, often takes a long time and doesn’t follow a perfect path. The authentic learning my students do in Fair Haven Innovates is often messy and imperfect. It can be hard and confusing. The correct path is often unclear, if there even is a correct path. Such is life. By allowing students to experience the struggle, they get to use everything they’ve been learning in school’s silos, in an authentic context while also developing the soft skills they’ll need to be successful.

Packing the Slack order

I started working on long term, authentic learning projects like this with my students way back in 2013 with The Be About It Project. Then and every time since, not one project has ever been completed without a struggle. Persisting or pivoting through obstacles is something every student should have the opportunity to practice before they get into the “real world.” In fact, I long for the day that I don’t have to put real world in quotes when talking about the learning done in school because school will have been updated to be more like the real world, full of real and relevant learning for students.

Further, the beautiful thing about the struggle is that the struggle comes with opportunities. Through documenting our progress with Slack on social media over the year we were working on the project, FH Gizmos was able to land two more huge clients. I’ve mentioned before that my students having been pitching ideas to Barnes & Noble for the last four months. This week, students will make their final proposal to the regional buyer of B&N in an attempt to get them to carry our student-made products in their stores. On top of this awesome experience with B&N, we’ve just added another new client to the FH Gizmos portfolio: Skype!

Last week my students interviewed Ross Smith, lead engineer for Skype in the Classroom, as we prepare to help Skype redesign Skype in the Classroom. Here’s what amazed me about our interview with Ross and the overall progress we’ve made in Fair Haven Innovates so far: when my kids started with Slack a year ago, many students were nervous and unsure they could complete a project of that magnitude. Now, the creative confidence and excitement for this big design project for Skype is much higher. Where I had to speed kids up with Slack, I have to slow them down with Skype. Further, both with B&N and Skype, it was sharing our stories of overcoming obstacles that impressed them the most and likely convinced them to work with FH Gizmos. Had we not struggled, we may not have been in a position to take advantage of these opportunities. Understand, the payoff of the struggle might not be immediate, but the lessons will sink in overtime for students because the struggle is real learning.

Flexibility in the Gamified Classroom


Usually, I try to write something for this site every two weeks, but you may have noticed a month or more passing between posts lately. It turns out my last semester of grad school was a doozy, but I’m happy to report I’m done with school now and will be back to posting more often… soon. I say soon because I’ve been receiving quite a few emails asking how Rachel Cheafsky’s gamification journey was going, so I asked her to give us an update.

If you’ve read my last few gamification posts, you’ll know that I don’t do much Stage 1 gamification anymore. The Fair Haven Innovates program I’ve created focuses more on Stage 2 – Gamifying the Curriculum and Stage 3 – The Classroom Experience. Luckily, I get to live vicariously through Rachel, as we work closely together to try new techniques to enhance Stage 1 – Motivating the Player of my gamification system. Below Rachel talks about motivating new players in a new district across multiple grades. This has been a fun experience to tackle, but I’ll let her take it from here. As always, you may want to read The Gamification Guide and my old gamification posts to fully understand my system.

Hello all and Happy New Year! Last time we spoke, I had just finished my first year gamifying my 5th grade classroom. With the start of 2018, I am almost halfway through another year of gamifying my classroom, but this time a lot has changed. Let me fill you in!

For starters, I left my previous school district and started a new job in a new district. While I knew I was bringing gamification with me wherever I ended up, I’ve had to make some adjustments to ensure the successful implementation of gamification in my new school. The biggest difference this year, besides the age of my kids, is my classroom setting itself. I went from being a 5th grade math and science teacher back to a special education teacher. This year I have three 6th grade ICS math classes and one 7th grade resource room math class. The change in setting definitely warranted changes in my gamification style. First thing on the list, was onboarding my co-teacher. 

Luckily, my three 6th grade classes are all with the same teacher! Other special education teachers understand that this is a miracle in itself.  My co-teacher loved the idea of gamification and has been awesome in implementing it within our 6th grade classroom! We work well as a team and I’ve had a lot of fun implementing gamification with her.

Next, the biggest difference in gamifying in the 6th grade classes is there are a lot more students.  Last year, I only had 52 students total split between my 5th grade classes and the Class vs. Class competition was only between two classes. This year, the competition in 6th grade has over a 100 kids spread out over 4 classes. While more kids and more classes makes the competition more interesting, it also makes it different to manage. For example, a popular achievement card last year was earned when students completed their side quest, the name we use for homework. Every day students would receive a card for 10 ap if they completed their homework.  When I had 52 kids, this was manageable for me, over 100 not so much.  What did I do?  I just needed to adjust and make a new plan. Solution: two new achievement cards.  The first card is called Unity. This is worth more ap, 50 to be exact, and is given to students when every member of the class completes their homework.  Does this happen every day, of course not, but it does happen and it makes the students in our class hold each other accountable. To further motivate students to do their homework we created another achievement card called 1up. At the end of the week, students who’ve completed all of their side quests for the week receive a card for 50 ap. This way they can earn ap both as a class and individually, but in a way that saves us time since these achievements are earned on a less frequent basis. 

Next mission on the list, how do I make this work in a resource room setting?  My first concern was the class size.  I was used to gamifying a classroom with at least 25 or more students, this year my 7th grade class has just 7 students.  Would it still work?  Would the students still be engaged if there aren’t as many other students to compete against? Would I be able to utilize as many achievements?  All of these concerns crossed my mind as I embarked on the journey to figuring out a way to make it work!

Although I am still adjusting as I go, overall I would say that gamification still works even in a smaller classroom setting!  Of course, I have to make changes and adjustments in comparison with my larger classes, but I can still tailor it so that the students experience a gamified setting that works for our classroom.  Even though I only have one 7th grade class, they are still in competition because I grouped them into teams.  I split them into three teams so there is still a competition, just less members on each team.  

Some ap cards I had to adjust because there are less students in the room.  For example, Unity is worth 20 ap in this class because there are way fewer students.  Also because of the small class size, I am still able to utilize the side quest card for homework each day. 

I’ve said it before and I will say it again, gamification is the best idea I have brought into my classroom in my nine years of teaching.  It’s engaging, it’s exciting, it’s motivating and I have peaked my student’s interests in ways I never could have imagined. It has improved my overall classroom management and the overall climate of my classroom in general. The new thing I learned about gamification this year is that it is flexible. Chris has used it to teach high school English and now uses it in his 4th-8th grade classes. I have used it in 5th grade, 6th grade, and 7th grade both as a general ed teacher and now as a special ed teacher. I have used it with a lot of students, few students, and as a part of a co-teaching team. I even made some adjustments to my website to make it work for both classes as well. 

I never thought seeing Chris Aviles present on gamification would change the way I thought about running my classroom, but it really has done just that! He has some great ideas and lucky for me I will have the opportunity to pick his brain forever because we just got engaged at the end of the summer! Funny how things work out!  I will keep you posted on the second half of year 2 in my gamified classroom toward the end of this school year, this time as Mrs. Aviles!


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