Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Designing Online Learning Experiences That Empower Students

Earlier this year, I was inspired by a teacher who required her students to assess their prior knowledge and then choose their learning path for each lesson. Soon after, my co-teacher and I made specific changes to our math workshop in order to increase student agency and ownership in our own classroom. Our goal was to provide ways for students to direct their own learning while also considering long-term projects as performance assessments.

I’ve recently started learning more about empowering students from author John Spencer. In this short video, he suggests 10 ways teachers can start offering choice for their learners.

I considered each of these suggestions when designing my latest online math content, a learning quest through Classcraft. My students engaged with this quest during their independent work time in math workshop over the course of four weeks. Each task in our quest includes a part of our fictional story from our “realm,” lesson content, assessments, and game rewards for student players.

Each location on the map contains lesson content and
learning tasks for students to complete. 

Student Choice in Daily Learning

Each learning task includes a variety of teaching materials such as charts, videos, songs, and examples. Students can choose how they want to learn and practice each skill.

My students are able to choose which topics they practice first. They can build their confidence with topics that were easy for them to understand during small group instruction or they can choose a more challenging task.

We provide students with ongoing instruction in each topic as they progress toward mastery, allowing them to spend more or less time on a topic based on their need.

My students determine when they will take the formative assessments for each topic based on their personal progress.

Student Choice in Final Performance Assessments

Project Format
When many students have shown mastery of most of the topics, we give students choice about how they want to demonstrate their learning with final performance assessments. Students can choose the format, audience, and specific topic of their project.

Project Management
While working on projects, students manage their own work. My role as the teacher is to help students stay on track and provide additional resources as the need arises.

Students have chosen final project ranging from paper and pencil tasks
to creating teaching videos and using manipulatives to model a problem.

Evidence of Empowered Students

One of the benefits of teaching in small groups in a math workshop format is that my co-teacher and I have a clear picture of each student’s progress toward mastery. At the same time, we want our students advocating for their learning needs. Part of what makes this possible is the visual aspect of the quest map. It makes it very easy for students to track their own progress, plus they are motivated to complete tasks to gain points toward leveling up. We have found that students are advocating for their learning needs more often by expressing their need for additional face-to-face help with specific topics. This is empowered learning!

Friday, February 16, 2018

Worldbuilding: Creating a Sustainable Classroom Environment for Gamification

Gamification has so many benefits including increased student engagement and willingness to take on new challenges without the fear of failure. We have been using Classcraft, an online gamification platform that transforms our learning into a game, and we are off to an amazing start! Part of what has made us so successful is that my students had been practicing necessary online learning skills since August, and now they are able to apply these skills independently within a blended learning environment.

I think it’s normal for the newness of an experience to wear off after a while, and it’s easy to fall into a predictable pattern of learning and planning, so I’ve taken intentional steps to keep our learning experiences fresh and engaging.

It’s my goal to create a classroom environment- our own gaming world- that makes our gamified blended learning sustainable. Community, story narrative, and engaging content are key aspects to consider when worldbuilding.


Online learning is not synonymous with isolated learning. The community aspect of a classroom should transcend the actual location of learning- whether that is online or face-to-face. Regardless of where and how students are learning, they should have opportunities to interact with the content and their learning community.

Building a positive community within a competitive gaming situation is critical. Friendly competition is great, but what’s even better is a collective community that is genuinely interested in the learning of everyone involved. One way that we build our community is through collaborative battles within our game. Boss battles are formative review challenges within Classcraft where my class work together to defeat a fictional character. When the class is counting on every student to work hard and be prepared, students are motivated to invest in their peers. It’s powerful stuff!

My student groups also compete throughout the day for extra XP. The red team created a goal without any prompting from me, showing me that they are interested in building up our community too. Classcraft also has random events that can award students points, deal damage, or provide a silly way to have fun together. Whatever the outcome, whether good or bad, we are in it together, and it reinforces our community.


Each quest within our game includes a fictional story. This narrative follows us from one adventure to another. An interesting story goes a long way toward keeping students interested in completing online tasks. I realized that my struggling readers were sometimes missing the narrative of our game because it was difficult for them to understand.

For that reason, I started creating short “quest trailers” that help students jump right into the story and understand the objective for the quest. It was a big hit with students, and after I started using these videos, my class as a whole was more interested in the story behind our game.

Since the quest trailers are a bit time consuming to create, I’ve also been using Blabberize to help students get excited about quests. It’s a quick and silly way to engage my learners, and they are excited to start making their own blabs in the near future.

Secret missions are also a bit hit for my students. I let them know that I’ve “hidden” an extra task in our quest with a large reward. They can unlock the secret mission when they complete a certain task, but they don’t know what that task is, so they are extra motivated to complete their work.

Engaging Content

Let’s be honest. Boring content is boring content. If I want my students engaged, then I need to find and create resources that they are interested in. Our online lessons include a lot of various media- articles, infographics, visual charts, pictures, Youtube videos, book read alouds, songs, and teaching videos I’ve created.

Here are a few of my favorite tools and sites for finding and creating engaging content. I'd love to hear your favorites too- add a comment below!
  • Playposit allows me to make any online video interactive for my students.
  • Flipgrid is a great way to allow students to interact in online discussion or demonstrate their understanding for an assessment.
  • Wonderopolis is a fantastic site that provides students with interactive images and videos on a variety of topics. It’s a great way to encourage students to explore a topic.
  • Thinglink allows you to make any image interactive. There are lots of different pricing plans, but the basic version is enough for me.
  • Kidsdiscover has some great infographics for download.
  • TheKidShouldSeeThis has short educational videos that are perfect for my learners.

Every Game Needs a Gamemaster

In this journey into gamification, I’ve realized that my students take their cues from me. While my role is to prepare content, give feedback, and provide instruction so each student moves toward mastery, I also have the important role of Gamemaster.

It’s important that I show my excitement and willingness to be silly and play with my students while we learn. I’m both the teacher and the Gamemaster. I set the tone for a positive community and a positive game experience, which means my students need to know that I’m all in!