Wednesday, September 9, 2015

How My XP System Works

I thought I would take the time to really lay out the nuts and bolts of what I call my "XP System."  With my long-awaited blog post just a day away, I am hoping I inspire someone  (hopefully lots of people) to just do something different.

I teach middle school.  Some people think that makes me a little crazy.  They're probably right.  But I like it.  Middle schoolers are still kids.  They're not "too cool" to try things.  Gimmicks still work.

That's where this all began.  In one of  the early years if my teaching career,  I pulled an all-nighter playing one of the many games in the Call of Duty franchise.  I waited in line until midnight, rushed home, and played til dawn.  I dragged myself to work and noticed that several kids were dragging that day too.  We had something in common.  For them it was something to talk about with me.  For me, it was leverage.  It was opportunity.  It was engagement.

The whole goal behind games like Call of Duty, Halo, World of Warcraft and so on is to use your experience to impove your character.  Most games give you experience points, or XP, as you accomplish tasks or quests or missions.  I give kids assignments and award points.  Really it's all the same; the differences are simply semantic in nature.

So I decided to model a system of advancement based on military ranks in my classroom.  As students earned more points, or "XP" on assignments, they increased in rank or "leveled up."  Tests, quizzes, projects, homework... it didn't matter.  Points were points.  Students have a small card with a magnet displaying their rank.  I use Avery labels and my printer to make sheets of them.  Students stick their rank to their card and stick it on my metal cabinets next to their corresponding rank.  I encourage them to get students that they outrank to refer to them as "sir" or "ma'am."  That doesn't really work so well, but it is amusing.

But that simply would not be enough.  As players rank up in games they are given access to special privileges or better equipment.  In essence, they are rewarded.  Something had to accompany the advancement in rank.  So I began to "pay" my students every few weeks.  Higher ranks meant more pay.  I use raffle tickets for this.  I issue them every so often, and when I do, I draw names for some sort of reward.  I'm not going to lie, most the time it is caffeine, sugar, or food.  No one complains.  The way to a middle schooler's heart in through his or her stomach... trust me.  I use red raffle tickets for this.  The color makes no difference, but I use another color for something else.

That was the basic setup to start with, but it got fancier over the past few years.  I have added in some quirks that make everything a bit more entertaining.  When I was finishing up my grad work I took a class on educational technology.  One of the apps I came across was a behavior monitoring app called Class Dojo.  When students are in my room, there is a monitor that displays their names and point values.  When students are on task, complete work, participate, or cooperate they can be given points.  I began adding these points to students' academic XP Points a few years ago.  When students raise their hand (and the key is raising their hand) in my class, they get a point and a blue raffle ticket.  These tickets go into a separate drawing weekly for a few cans of soda.  If they blurt out, I encourage other students to steal the right answer from them because they can't follow procedure.

To make sure that students know procedure, I use a stoplight in my room.  It's simple.  Red means do not talk at all unless the building is on fire.  This is usually the setup we use for a test or quiz.  Yellow means raise your hand to speak.  This is the setup I use for instruction.  Green means talk freely as needed with group members or partners.  This is the setup I use when students are completing their work in class.  It is a quick visual cue and it makes expectations clear without saying a word.

But back to the fun stuff.  After I began keeping track of XP, I noticed some competition among some of my more successful students.  I believe in friendly competition in the classroom.  Any chance for students to flex their muscles and show off that they are smart is a win to me.  I had to encourage and nurture that, even if it meant a little bit of trash talk and gloating.  To me, if kept in check it was going to be a good thing.

That's where the title belts came in.  Kids would compare their XP or grades or ranks to each other.  For awhile, the student with the highest grade was simply referred to as the student who "had the belt."  At first it was just an expression.  Then one day at Wal-Mart I saw a toy wrestling belt and was compelled to purchase it.  The student that had "the belt" now had a tangible prize, a symbol of excellence, and crazy as it may seem, it was actually coveted by those who did not have it.  Authentic, homegrown engagement.  Champions get their picture on the wall for the duration of their title reign.  In addition, I award two bonus red tickets per pay period for holding the belt.  Students can only win one belt at a time, but may choose to pursue a new belt each grading period.

Over the years one belt evolved into several.  There's divisions now.  There's a division for 8th graders.  There's a division for 7th graders.  There's a tag-team division.  There's even one based solely on behavior points through Class Dojo.  I'm not going to lie, it's gotten a bit out of control, but it is fun.  Students love taking the belt off the wall and proudly wearing it around their waist or over their shoulder, much to the chagrin of the student who most recently had to give it up.  If a bit of vinyl and plastic can foster student motivation, every school in America should go buy a couple.  What do you have to lose?  10 bucks maybe... see if you can get it reimbursed :)

So now I have students who are major generals and world champions.  I have kids raise their hands because there is a lot of upside in doing so.  But there was something missing still.  Students who emerged as leaders, regardless of grades deserved something. 
 That's where the quartermaster corps came in.  Students who were helpful in class were given a separate quartermaster rank to set them apart from students who did not go the extra mile.  Kids beg me for a quartermaster badge.  The criteria are simple:  Come to school, be useful, and don't annoy me.  The last one eliminates a lot of students.  These kids get bonus pay on top of the red tickets they get for their rank, giving them a better chance to earn a reward.  These students have a separate place to display their membership in the quartermaster corps.

That's where things ended last year.  I added one more feature to my plan this year.  Once again I took a page from pro wrestling and introduced "The Briefcase."  The rules for this are simple.  Anytime I feel like it, for any reason I can award a student the Briefcase.  Inside is a contract guaranteeing the student an automatic 100% on a homework assignment or a 10% bonus on a test or project.  Regardless of their choice, they must use it prior to submitting the assignment or completing the test or project.  In pro wrestling, a similar contract is put in a briefcase granting a title shot anytime, anywhere.  I have four briefcases and have yet to award them, but plan to in the next few weeks.  Students may even have to defend their briefcase if they get cocky or misbehave.  The only rule is that there are no rules.

This may seem completely over the top and unnecessary, and I would wholeheartedly agree with you.  It's also different.  It's fun for the kids and for me.  I know this wouldn't fit every class, but thinking differently to get some student buy-in would fit.  Before I got to this point with my creation it blew up in my face several times.  Who cares?  I was busy creating while others were content with being boring.  That's just not ever going to be ok with me.

So teachers, try something new.  It just might work.

Monday, May 11, 2015

I'll Take Engagement for $1200

So I remade my Jeopardy template and am loving it.  The kids do too.  We had a game settled by $100 the other day after the final clue.  I thought kids might have to go to the office they were so mad that they lost.

What do you put on that referral form?  Overengaged?

Sometimes the formatting gets messed up because you may have to install a few fonts.  I tried to make it look authentic.  So if you need those, here they are, along with the template:

Fonts and the Template

The categories on the board are written in Swiss 911.  The dollar amounts on the board are also.

The clues are written in Korinna.

If you install the fonts and then open up the PowerPoint, you shouldn't have trouble.  But it looks good when it's finished:

Here's to hoping you have better luck getting your students to answer in a form of a question... and better yet why you have to do so in the first place.

Take care,

Mr. J.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Delicious History

8th graders turned in their trench projects last Friday!  They were fantastic, and I had to share some of them below.  I photographed some of the trenches because they were EDIBLE!  Many students built trenches out of  baked goods (cake, brownies, rice krispee treats).  I'm sure it was fun to build.  Here is a look at a few below:

Others were permanent structures.  Some very high quality work went into the production of some of these projects!  Take a look for yourself!

I shot a quick YouTube video of one of the projects.  Here's a tour:

More to come as I get pictures taken.  A few students are finishing up still.  Overall I am very pleased with the work and effort put in by so many students!

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Laying New Foundations

I'm doing some work on the down-low, trying to figure out just exactly how I can nudge my district into the future.

It's going to be tough, because I know that embracing new things is not always something people want to do.  But I have begun to make some progress.  People are beginning to listen.  Having a conversation is the first step.

While I am not applauding myself (because it really didn't take a whole lot of work), my district is once again on Facebook and Twitter.  Not groundbreaking stuff, but it is a start.  Our webpage got a bit of a makeover, which I am patting myself on the back a little bit for.  Nothing huge has been done (yet), but I think it is at least presentable now.  Here's some of my work to this point:

My District's Webpage

Pleasant Valley on Twitter

Pleasant Valley on Facebook

This stuff is little league compared to what I want to do.  We already use (sort of) Google Apps for Education.  By that I mean it is set up in our district.  We use Gmail.  The other major apps (Drive, Docs, Forms, Calendar, and Chrome) are not used across the board.  In addition, very few people use any other apps or online learning platforms to improve instruction.  There's pockets of use in places, but I want to work to streamline, revolutionize, and automate where possible.

I began to put my thoughts down into a prezi.  I did that because you can just throw a bunch of stuff on a screen and drag it around.  Here is my thought process as I am working on how to bring Pleasant Valley into the future:

Scroll around, there's no path set yet!

I think our district needs to take part in some of the new ideas when it comes to teaching, learning, and professional development.  There is so much out there at our fingertips if we'd just go and get it.  There are so many people that we can learn from and who can learn from us.  Synergy is a buzzword, but in this case it is what would happen if we decided to plug into the rest of the world instead of trying to do everything in-house, from scratch.

Since Gmail is to a point ingrained in our staff, I think the next thing to do is to branch out into a few more Google Apps.  I have tabbed Drive, Calendar, and Chrome to come next.  We are still hosting some of our files locally.  Others are stored in massive drive partitions in the cloud or who knows where.  Some of our storage resembles a library that has been hit by a tornado, then a hurricane, and then was left to sit for a couple of millennium.  That's no way to do things.

This is a personal preference, but Internet Explorer drives me nuts.  Chrome works so well with the Apps at our disposal that it seems silly not to make a switch to it in all places.  Most people won't notice the difference, and those that do will hopefully see the benefit.

With ideas like the flipped classroom and gamification, the more collaborative nature of the world and workplace, and the increasing expectations of students, we cannot be left behind to teach children for twenty years from now like it was twenty years ago.  Going Google and allowing the flow of instruction, resources, and communication to be continuous is the way to do it.  My district is not in a position (logistically or in terms of our student population) to go 1:1.  Our mobility would make it a nightmare.  But we could do it in terms of the school day.  We are small enough to eventually arm students with technology all day long.  We could provide the help that some will need by giving extra access before and after school.  We should not allow our students to be "off the grid" for very long.  

It would also be a great way to build partnerships with parents.  Most of the apps and technologies that could be used have a parent component or provide special access for parents.  The lines of communication could be opened in so many ways, and better yet, remain open.  By teaching our students how to use new things, we could ask that they share it with their families.  Over time we may be able to start putting parts of our instruction into overrdrive as school never stops.  We can access the hours between 3 PM and 8 AM the next day.  We can become more of a presence in our students' lives.

I think I have gotten the ball rolling (finally).  Some of what I just said I have been saying for years.  People have heard me, but no one was listening.  Then I got saddled with a Professional Growth Plan (thanks again).  I'm guilty of forgetting the finer points of running my classroom at times when I get excited about this kind of work.  I'm starting to think this is what I should be doing.  I'm hoping the people that make decisions in my district agree and let me loose.  

I want the challenges this will bring with it.  I want to help teachers and students.  I want to teach those that teach how they could do things they didn't think possible.  Technology is not an accessory anymore.  It's a way of life, and our students are people who have never lived a different way.

It's time to make some waves.  Man I am good at that.  People are probably sick of me.  

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Return of "inSPECt"

All of my classes are taking a look at how to read in a different way.  We have worked in the past on finding themes in our reading, but because of the need to replace the textbook (Falling apart, even the online one!), we are going to set forth on a journey to inspect the text.

inSPECt includes four themes:  Social, Political, Economic, and Cultural.  Each theme is present in our reading most of the time.  As we read, we are identifying the themes that go with the reading.  We then highlight them as we go, and point out why they are each theme.

I adapted this from Social Studies Can Be SPECtacular, by Anthony Fitzpatrick. 

You can see some examples of each theme as well as what the reading looks like when done correctly below:

Monday, January 5, 2015

A Graduation Speech

It is no secret that I want to lead a school someday.  As I have labored through the struggles and frustrations of being a teacher, I have often found myself wanting to impart some wisdom to students that can't be found in a textbook and isn't succinct enough to fit on one of those dated motivational posters that can be found on classroom walls.  You know the type... They point out things like "listen" and "silent" use the same letters, or give some generic quote about attitude or effort.

And I realized that if I ever got to lead a school, particularly a middle school, that one thing I would be called on to do would be to deliver such a statement at graduation.  8th grade graduation is a bigger deal in some places than others, but if nothing else the chance to help guide kids into the next stage of their lives is reason enough for the pomp and circumstance.

So what would I say?  I would say some things that I would have wanted to say all along.  Things that needed to be said, but at a different place and time.  Above all, it would be the truth...

You are about to begin the most important four years of your life.

You can't hide anymore.  It's time to make a place for yourself in the world.  It's time to be someone, anyone, unique and independent.  It's time to make choices, lots of choices.  Not just what classes to take, but life choices.  It is time to decide who you are, and who you aren't.  But not choosing isn't a choice; you can't sit on the sidelines of life anymore.

Here is a secret:  High school is awesome.  Being a young adult is awesome.  And while there are bumps in the road, there isn't an adult here that wouldn't go back if they could.  Sure, they might make some different choices.  There are people that they would like to have never met, and pictures of themselves they might want to burn (Why did I ever wear that?), but the positives far outweigh the negatives.  The bullies, the breakups, the bad hair days, and the drama always wouldn't be enough to stop us.  We would go back because we know something that I am going to tell you right now.

The whole world is in front of you.  

Nothing is out of bounds.  There is no impossible.  No doors are closed.  You get to decide who you will be.  You aren't too old, too tired, or too stuck in your ways.  Life hasn't passed you by.  It's about to say hello.  The only limits you have are the ones you place on yourself.  The only opportunities you will be denied are the ones you fail to take.

And it is more than just shaping your career.  It is shaping everything that is you, and that you will become.  You are creating the person that someday someone will marry, that someday will raise a family, and that someday will be asked to leave the world a little bit better than when you found it.

Kids are so anxious to grow up.  There will be time for that later.  Focus on who you want to be so you are happy when you get there.  You all want so badly to be grown up and on your own.  It's ironic, because when you do, and the real world gets a hold of you, you're change your mind.   Kids want so badly to be adults, but secretly we envy the adventure you are about to begin.  The thrill of choosing the path to take during your lifetime is one of the most exciting rides you will ever be on.

You can't hide anymore.  These are the most important years of your life, and you only get one shot...

No pressure.