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.


  1. I'm thinking of gamifying my classroom in a similar way. It's nice to see how well it could work!

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