Helping Students Pull Back The Curtain To Find Empathy

This year at Sickles, Fair Haven’s elementary school, I started Sickles Studios. Sickles Studios is our student-run news show. I’ve written before about the unbelievable difference a student-run news show can make when we let kids highlight the amazing things their peers, school staff, and community members are doing. There is one major difference I’ve found between an elementary vs. high school news shows: I’m helping my little ones pull back the curtain to help students learn how things work.

When I was teaching high school kids, I was able to send anchors out in their cars to go to get the scoop on a feature. With third graders, it is much harder but every bit as important. Last week, our Friendship Club held a school-wide food drive for our local soup kitchen, Lunch Break. Originally, we were going to do a piece on the success of the food drive, but our awesome principal, Cheryl Cuddihy, teacher, Pam Greenhall, and I thought it was important for students to see how the food got from the school and onto the plate of someone in need. We wanted to take students to Lunch Break, but the logistics just didn’t work out. Instead, we went and filmed the process for the kids to see. Check out the video we made about Lunch Break featuring the made-for-the-limelight Mrs. Rizzo!

By showing our kids what happens when the food leaves our school, we hope to grow empathy in our students. Often, especially at the elementary level, students either don’t understand or are disconnected from the end results of things like food drives and they don’t see the people and the processes involved in the systems they interact with on a daily basis. Another example: our students have recess in a township-owned park. The park is beautiful and well maintained, but how does it get that way? To find out, Sickles Studios booked an interview with Mr. Breckenridge, Parks & Recreation Director for Fair Haven, who talked about the parks, his job, and some of his hobbies. Kids gained a better understanding of the work that went into maintaining the park and the people behind the curtain.

Pulling back the curtain and helping show all the moving pieces that make systems work helps teach empathy. Empathy makes people better and I’m proud to promote it through Sickles Studios. Imagine if students (or anyone, really) thought about the people and the hard work that goes on behind the curtain before they acted. I bet a feature on the custodians who clean up after students in the lunchroom could lead to more students throwing out trash. I bet a feature on where garbage goes when my kids put it at the end of the driveway or into the lunchroom garbage cans could lead to more recycling.

Consider harnessing the power of a student-run news show as a means to improve school culture and help teach empathy.

If you were inspired by Mrs. Rizzo and the work she and the rest of Lunch Break are doing, make a donation! They’re making a difference in our community.

Until Next Time,

GLHF

Gamification: Problem Solving in the Fifth Grade Classroom

You might recall that I’ve been working with Rachel Cheafsky to gamify her 5th grade classroom using the technology she has available to her. Well, Rachel has been killin’ it! Last time, she wrote about achievements in the fifth grade classroom. This time, Rachel wanted to check in and write about her latest gamification revelation!  Here’s Rachel:

I am a halfway into my first year using Chris’ gamification system.  It has been fantastic! The best part about it, besides how it has made the climate of my classroom more positive, is that new game mechanics can be brought into the class at any time. For instance, when I run into a problem in my class, I can create a new game mechanic to help build a solution that my kids love. For example, here’s how we helped students learn to better stay on task and self-monitor their volume using Task Master:

Throughout the day, I see two classes with 25 students each. Since gamifying my class, my kids are more motivated and engaged than ever. This is great, but sometimes that motivation and engagement can cause a bit too much excitement: the classroom volume can become way too loud. Additionally, even though students are more engaged, I still have students who need to be refocused and encouraged to complete their Quests (gamification isn’t a silver bullet). I wanted to use gamification to come up with a better, positive way to help kids self-monitor their volume and better stay on task.  

Two weeks ago, I was monitoring my much louder class’ independent work. Students were working hard, on task, and talking at reasonable volume. Everyone was following expectations. It was a perfect! I knew I had to build on this moment and unleash a secret achievement. I stopped my kids and said,  “the class has unlocked a secret achievement!” My kids love to unlock secret achievements because they can earn AP for trying new things and thinking outside the box. I love secret achievements because it lets me use positive reinforcement to solve problems. It’s fun watching students use divergent thinking each day in an effort to discover these secret achievements. I let the kids know how impressed I was with the way the entire class was working. As a class, I asked them what we should call the secret achievement for when the class is working hard and focused. They decided to call it Task Master.

Chris always says that achievements have to be concrete to be fair. You can’t reward a kid for helping because helping isn’t measurable, but you can reward a kid for performing the actions that helping requires. So what does Task Master look like and what is the concrete criteria for it to be earned?

Chris and I had planned the idea for Task Master last month. Task Master is a new event that is played all week and is won by one class every Friday (Chris says: I’ll be talking about events in the second part of The Gamification Guide, which is 75% done!). I created a chart called Task Master and hung it up in the front of the room. One half of the chart is for my first period class’ points and the other half is for my second period class’ points. The first way for the class to win Task Master points is for the secret student to be on task:

Period 2’s secret student was on task!

Before my kids arrive, I put a sticky note on the board, upside down, with a student’s name on it.  At the end of class, I reveal the name on the sticky note and announce if that student was on task based on the criteria the students and I came up with. If they were, they earn their class two Task Master points! The accountability within this achievement is amazing because the students generally don’t want to let each other down. Students try remain on task in case they are the secret student for that particular period.

Let’s not forget about my other problem, volume! This is the other half of the Task Master event. During independent work, I load a volume sensing app Chris made for me on Scratch (Chris says: I remixed and modded an app on Scratch. You can find it here, if you’d like to use it). I plug in a microphone, set the sensitivity, and project the app onto the board. The app monitors the class’ noise level.  When they are too loud and it goes into the red, an alarm sounds.  When the alarm sounds, the opposing class earns one Task Master point. For example, if first period sets off the alarm three times, first period doesn’t lose points, but second period gets three Task Master points. We decided to award the opposing team points because it keeps the game engaging the entire period. If students only earned a point at the end of class for not setting off the alarm, as soon as they set off the sensor, the game wouldn’t matter anymore; there is no longer an incentive to keep their volume down. By giving the opposing team a point when their class it too loud makes Task Master always matter.

I’ve been using Task Master for two weeks and it has already changed my life!  The students are more on task and the volume already has gotten so much better.  They are taking ownership of their own behavior and even monitoring each other in a positive way since they’re all on the same team. The days of stressing over noise seems to be long gone! They are still excited by gamification, but now they are also excited to beat the other class and earn the Task Master achievement, worth 50ap, on Fridays.  It’s a win-win for everyone!

The beauty of achievements in my system is that they can reward kids for displaying heroic traits, completing heroic deeds, push kids out of their comfort zone, and, as in Rachel’s case, act as positive reinforcement for classroom management. Instead of using negative reinforcement, my achievements can be used to reward students each and every time they meet a teachers expectations encouraging the behavior to become habit. For example, like Rachel, I had a problem. I was sick of students doing Slides presentations. How many Slides can one teacher stand?! I pushed kids out of their comfort zone and solved this problem by creating the Outside the Slide achievement. Students could still do a Slide presentation, but if they gave a presentation that didn’t use Slides they earned the Outside the Slide achievement and the AP that comes with it! Soon, students were coming up with new, exciting ways to show me what they’ve learned. Thinking outside the slide became a habit and everyone was happier and more engaged by the new, creative presentations. Don’t be afraid to harness the power of achievements and gamification in your classroom!

Until Next Time,

GLHF

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