Category Archives: COETAIL

😀 – Emoji as Evidence of Student Learning in MYP Individuals & Societies

Can you read this?

⪫👑 ▼🌎🗻℄=🌄🌆


💪⚔❤☮💬👍👥👑🏪🌾👞 or 🐪+🐑👑⎚♚✋🌄🌆😡💂▲😵🙏🌞9👑📝👑🚯👐📚←👑⚔🌎👐💰9👑💪🌄🌆🔨💪🔨🌱🌊



Or maybe this?


(English “translations” will be revealed later)


I’d like to share the story of a short assignment we did in recently in Individuals & Societies class. It was a very simple assignment, but the way the students responded to it was so interesting and exciting to me that I feel compelled to describe it at length.

Since the assignment was thought up and executed so quickly, what follows is not really action research or anything nearly that formal, but just a narrative where I’ll try to sort out my thoughts and share what I think was interesting about the project.

🎯What we did (and why)

📚Too Many Notes

Last week I found myself with a problem. I was absent one day, and my substitute plans called for my Year 8 students to research the Incas, Mayas and Aztecs as part of our MYP I&S unit. The problem? I hadn’t realized just how well they’d been taught a varied palette of powerful note-taking strategies by the Year 7 team, including Jennilea and Caitlin, last year. When I returned to my room and flipped idly through a couple of the students’ notebooks, I was shocked to see page after page of detailed, organized notes. A few of them had taken nearly ten pages of handwritten notes on their Pre-Columbian civilizations.

What bothered me about all this almost disturbingly successful note-taking was that I didn’t feel I had an interesting enough payoff waiting for the students at the end of this research. I’d planned to just have the students who’d researched different civilizations do a little jigsaw to share what they’d learned, maybe pull out some big themes in a short discussion, and move on. But now I wanted to be respectful of all that research by letting them create something with it, to let them climb a bit higher on the Mayan step pyramid of Bloom’s Taxonomy (revised) towards the beating sacrificial victim’s heart of Creation at its apex. (I realize that’s not the official metaphor)

I only had a couple of days before the end of the semester, so I couldn’t actually have them go through a full-scale project of any kind, but I wanted to do something interesting. I racked my brains for ways students could summarize or reproduce their learning quickly, in just a class period or two, but in a way that everyone could finish and which would also be fun. Posters? Too boring. Prezi? Too dizzying. Comic books? Take too long. Puppet show? Skit? Interpretive dance?

Emoji. Remembering an epic emoji retelling of the plot of “Les Mis” I’d recently seen, I wondered if it’d be fun to tackle the story of South American colonialism in a similar way.


💩 Explaining the Bison

While the idea was obviously quite silly, I couldn’t stop wondering if it could work. I figured that if students could summarize/crystallize/retell the high and low points of the colonial encounter in a series of emoji, it might actually have some value as a record of their learning and connect to the unit’s big themes and questions. Would it really be that different than, say, creating a detailed presentation retelling the most important events from this period in history?

Well, yes it would, obviously. The first things you’d lose would be any sort of detail or subtlety. But we didn’t have much time, so that all might work in our favor.

It wouldn’t be a presentation, but they’d still have to choose what information to retell – they’d just be using a predetermined set of tiny pre-made images instead of slides. Or it’d be like creating a detailed historical timeline, only using emoji instead of those little images of Cortez’s head, etc. that are always floating above and below a timeline.

Sequential visual storytelling boiled down to its essence. The heart of a strange Venn Diagram where the serious ideas of historiography collide with the cute forms of modern hieroglyphs. If it turned out the juxtaposition and/or sequential progression of the emoji didn’t actually convey anything to viewers, then, I reasoned, the students could show their learning by explaining the sequence to others, in the same way that that poor old prehistoric cave painter must have had to patiently narrate to his or her friends what exactly was going on with all those bison.


💡The Plan

I wrote up this experimental assignment as if it were a small summative assessment, just to help students take it more seriously, and told them if they succeeded it might turn Pinocchio-style into a “real” assessment in the future. I tied it in with our larger unit questions, etc., which are about global interactions and specifically the relationships of power and resources during colonialism. Here’s what I came up with:

Objective strands:
A – Knowing and Understanding
What does this look like in this task?
Task-specific clarification
A – Knowing and Understanding
ii. demonstrate knowledge and understanding of subject-specific content and concepts, using descriptions, explanations and examples.
ii. You demonstrate knowledge of the history, motivations, and effects of the interactions between a Pre-Columbian civilization and the Spanish, using a short story of emoji descriptions and examples, supported by an explanation paragraph.

Task directions:

Tell the story of the colonial relationship between the Mayas, Incas or Aztecs and the Spanish by using only a series of emoji in a row (140 characters absolute maximum). Your story should be historically accurate, make sense (as much as possible), and answer the question “Who gained and lost from this global interaction, and how/what/why did they gain or lose?”

Plan/Outline (students were encouraged to include around 4/5 of these in their story, backed up by research and described in an explanation paragraph): 

  • Origin and early history of the Mayas, Incas or Aztecs 
  • Facts from your research about their civilization – government, infrastructure, culture, geography, population, economy, etc.
  • First meeting(s) with the Spanish, and the Spanish motivations/journey/technology, etc. 
  • Effects and changes, gains/losses (resources taken, lives lost, culture changed, etc.) 
  • Facts from research about life in this area after colonialism – government, infrastructure, culture, geography, population, economy, etc. (could include national flags, religious symbols, modern money, sports, etc.) 
  • Final thoughts / judgment on the relationship (thumbs up/down, for example) [note: nobody did a final thumbs-up or thumbs-down. As you’ll see, perhaps it was because this idea was too clumsy for the rather more nuanced stories students ended up telling]


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What happened and what we learned by doing

The first thing that happened, before the students really got down to business, was that I had way more fun than I should have had creating a Twitter account for the class to share their ideas.

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Once I had the account in place, I decided my second tweet should be about a llama.

There is no llama emoji.

This immediate standstill got me thinking that we should start a glossary of basic terms. How would you say “llama” in emoji? Would it be done through pictures of animals, or through some kind of rebus-like sound puzzle? I remembered that there are three basic types of Chinese character – pictograph, ideograph, and phonetic borrowing. This might be a useful distinction to try to make, I decided.

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I tacked all this on immediately before throwing the assignment at students, and while I didn’t expect them to use the terms like experts, I hoped they would grasp the three main ideas. If I were to do this again I’d be interested in making this linguistic angle a bigger part of the project from the start, and perhaps connecting it to some meaningful history lessons in Egyptian hieroglyphs, the story of the decipherment of Mayan glyphs, etc. In any case, after having all this thrown at them I think most of the students got the distinction, and I felt that the three types of expression proved almost immediately to be useful language for discussing their creations.

I noticed that some phonetic ideas caught on and were used by almost every student, like the instantly famous “ink-a” invented by (I think – this was in the dark ages before I realized everyone needed to sign their tweets to the shared account) Aaron:

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I myself added a phonetic definition which turned into a part of many stories (and which I would soon grow to hate), the absurd and regrettable”cone-kiss-ta-door”:

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However, I noticed that after a certain point during our first period sharing ideas, those students who had algebraic or crossword-puzzle-loving minds exhausted their glee at coming up with new phonetic expressions. As we all started to realize the power of visual storytelling, the more primitive pictographic representations started to dominate. For example, Avan started out with a lot of phonetic jokes, like the ant-des mountains…

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…but then he moved quickly to a very baroque style, where he tried to use the emoji almost as a word-for-word substitute for English, trying to cram in actual dates and specific facts from his research:

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This is the first example I used at the top of the post. Its full explanation, as Avan wrote it, is as follows:

Incas: Largest empire in pre-columbian America, covers several regions of South America, Specifically Peru, Machu Picchu, Southern Colombia, Northern Chile, Northwest Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Andes mountain range. Centered in Cusco, Modern Day Peru:

⪫👑 ▼🌎🗻℄=🌄🌆

Began in 13th century in Peru, when the Sun God Inti sent his son Mano Capac to kill his brothers and lead his followers through the wilderness settled near Cusco in fertile valley.


Incas were fierce warriors, yet prefered peaceful negotiations. Offered gifts for leaders and promised benefits, including education and crop storage. They expanded their empire to 800,000 square kilometers and included 10 million people. Was connected by roads and bridges. Usually Llama transportation:

💪⚔붙❤☮💬👍👥👑🏪🌾👞 or 🐪+🐑

Government was organized, the emperor controlled the entire empire from Cuzco. Had a fearsome army, used language of Quechua which is still spoken today by millions of South Americans. Built many pyramids, possibly for sacrifices. Worshipped the sun god who they believed started the civilization. Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui was believed to have set down the practice in which rulers were prevented from inheriting the possessions of their predecessors, thereby ensuring that successive leaders would conquer new lands and accumulate new wealth. He also focused his efforts on strengthening Cusco, the center of the empire, he expanded Sacsahuaman, the giant fortress that guarded the city. He also embarked on  an expansive irrigation project by channeling rivers and creating intricate agricultural terraces.


With the arrival of the Conquistadors (Specifically Francisco Pizarro) in 1532, the last emperor ,Atahualpa, was kidnapped and held for ransom. After paying a release fee of $50 million in gold in today’s money. Atahualpa, who was promised to be set free, was strangled to death by the Spaniards who then marched straight for Cuzco and its riches. Much of the conquest was accomplished without battles or warfare as the initial contact Europeans made in the New World resulted in rampant disease. So many of the incas died from Smallpox, and the superior warfare of the Spanish were able to defeat even the mighty army of the Incas.



While this attempt to faithfully summarize and retell facts from research was definitely the level of detail I’d hoped for when I came up with the idea, I found some of these ideas from research weren’t exactly lending themselves well to emoji form. Avan’s idea-for-idea story wasn’t that easy or fun to follow, even with the explanation.

Interestingly, Avan moved past this style and, apparently realizing that in trying to use emoji in such complex ways he wasn’t taking advantage of their strengths, he suddenly emerged with an austere and mature style, summarizing the entire colonial relationship without any phonetic shortcuts or numbers or algebraic operators, just a simple story told in a series of nine pictures. Avan had, in two hours, invented an entire language for expressing his research, and he had told his story in baffling but thoughtful detail, but then he went a step further. He came up with this artistic, brief, but meaningful distillation of his knowledge:

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 10.37.58 PM

That is to say, if I may dare paraphrase a masterpiece, that the Spanish traveled across the globe with steel weapons, guns and horses, and took back all the gold that would fit in their ships – to build palaces with.

I’ve described this all in a mock-grandiose way, but it really was exhilarating to watch this evolution (which not just Avan but several other students went through extremely rapidly), from playing around with phonetic ideas and puns, to trying to express complex (and research-based) concepts, to tweaking, summarizing and revising their stories in order to make them more impactful as visual stories.

By the end of just two periods or so the entire class had learned each others’ visual glossary and were borrowing from each other (“az-tech”, “ink-a” and “cone-kiss-ta-door” being three of the favorite phonetic creations, “sheep+camel=llama” being one of the most commonly used pictographic shortcuts), and almost everyone managed to post their main “story”. Most of them were recognizable as a more elaborate version of Avan’s simple summary above, with beginning, middle, and end (the looting of resources and heading back on boats). At some point, to my excitement, emoji versions of native myths began to be appended to the beginnings of the stories, and the conversion to Christianity started to become a consistent element of the ends. The Columbian exchange became a big part of many stories once we noticed that there were emoji for tomatoes, potatoes, etc., and the Japanese facemask emoji and the skull emoji started to tell the grim story of European diseases’ decimation of the American peoples.

As examples of the more mature and complete story which I saw from many students at the end of our second full period working on these, I’d like to use Uku, Aman, and finally Jiwon’s stories. Uku didn’t have time to finish his English explanation paragraph to accompany his emoji story, but by this time he almost didn’t have to. I projected it on the screen, and the class nodded in appreciation. He didn’t use any phonetic shortcuts, just a more complex version of the shared pictographic and sequential storytelling techniques the class built up over the preceding periods.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 10.51.45 PM

Aman’s story, similarly, was so clear (or at least it seemed to the class and me at this point) that we didn’t ask for an English translation when he posted it. We just scanned it visually, nodded, and appreciated it. It’s hard to describe, but I feel like we’d actually created a collective visual language for telling stories about history within a few hours, and that by the end of the last period students were all able to read this language. Aman had one of the more memorable descriptions of Aztec human sacrifice at the start of his story:

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 10.56.38 PM Jiwon’s was also one of the later efflorescence of more “complete” stories, and I think she struck a good stylistic balance between use of phonetic shortcuts and the extremely effective repetition-for-emphasis of pictographic or ideographic symbols. The horrors of disease, war, forced conversion and colonial profiteering were never so starkly shown. An emoji “Heart of Darkness”.

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Again, while I realize I’ve used a mock-grandiose style to appraise some of these creations, I’m doing it with sincerity. I was very impressed by the students’ creativity, speed, sharing of ideas, and ingenuity during these two or three periods. I really do think a lot of the students, and the class as a whole, went through several stages in the evolution of their use of this new language in mere minutes, and it was incredibly fun to watch the process.

By the way, I promised the “answer” to Jiwon’s tweet above at the start of the post. It seems almost unnecessary to share it, since I hope by this point you’ll have recognized most of what’s going on in there, but here it is:

The conquistadors heard that the Incas had a lot of resources so they sailed to the Incas which triggered a war between them. The Spanish fought with horses and pistols but the Incas only had wooden weapons and llamas on their side. Also the conquistadors carried an alien disease which killed most of the population. Due to the influence of the conquistadors, most of the Incas culture switched to Christianity. The Spanish easily won the war even with smaller number of people and returned to their country with money/resources.”

A nice summary paragraph, but I’m glad we’ve got the emoji version, aren’t you?


🍔🍟Takeaways – What we learned

  • I think this assignment was a success. My students summarized and shared their learning publicly in a way that was not only fun, but also forced them, thanks to the space and intelligibility restrictions of the medium, to make very clear decisions about the biggest themes and most crucial events in our unit. In just a few class periods they used their notes and knowledge from research to create an interesting, engaging creative product – a small product, but a product nonetheless.


  • From a broader perspective, I think this shows that emoji is/are a language as flexible and able to convey meaning as any other language, and could definitely be used as a component of an academic assessment. I could easily see using assignments or small projects like this not only for history, but to summarize or retell fiction in English class, for example.


  • We learned that some students are very motivated by the idea of posting their work publicly on a forum like Twitter. Two or three people kept trying to drum up interest in our emoji tweets from a strange assortment of celebrities including Oprah and Jimmy Fallon, and I was surprised to see the rise in their level of interest once it became theoretically possible that Oprah was watching.


  • We learned that the best emoji style might need to evolve after trial and error within a group. We started with no shared vocabulary and ended up with many stories featuring a nice balance of phonetic cleverness and pictographic directness, using the glossary terms we invented together. This part of the assignment might not have been directly connected to Individuals & Societies, but I think studying, defining and codifying a group’s evolving use of a new language could definitely be part of a meaningful English project.


  • Similarly, we learned that some of the best emoji storytelling techniques might parallel good persuasive writing. Students noticed the value of stylistic approaches like brevity, repetition, metaphor, and logical progression of ideas.


  • We learned that Year 8 students could manage a Twitter account jointly without any incidents of vandalism or misuse. I tried two models of Twitter access, appointing two gatekeepers who tweeted for everyone after they submitted their ideas on a Google Doc during the first period, then on the second day moving to whole-class simultaneous posting, and since nothing major seemed to go wrong, I’m still not sure which model I think worked best. If the project lasted for a longer time, particularly if students had more access to the account outside of school hours, I would guess that the first “gatekeeper” model might work better, perhaps even with me as the gatekeeper. But for a project of this brevity, we had no problem all using the account together at the same time.


  • We learned that student interest in this topic is high. There was some actual clapping when I described the basic idea. Several students worked obsessively on several versions of their “masterpiece”, refining bits here and there. A lot of students typed the emoji very quickly on their phone (I hadn’t anticipated this) and sent the phrases to their computers, trying out new combinations. It seemed to me that a lot of the students thought the idea was as fun as I did, which definitely made it even more fun for me!

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What do you think? Is there any place you could imagine emoji storytelling in your curriculum?




Filed under COETAIL, Education, New Literacies

Rendered view of G7 Minecraft server

Screen shot 2012-12-01 at 2.19.42 PM


I made this by following suggestions from here and here.

This is my first try, and I’m not good enough at the programs involved to even change the view – so Tyler’s house really dominates the view. But I’ll try to see what else I can do and add some more impressive images soon.

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Filed under COETAIL, Education

Minecraft Mania – Course 5 Final Project Reflection

I’d like to briefly describe the project under consideration at the start here: it’s a narrated video tourist guide to a virtual structure based on a real-world building or artwork from the Renaissance or an important historical empire, for Grade 7 MYP Humanities. However, due to technical issues involved in setting up server space for the students, none of the video reports are finished yet, so these reflections will be mainly about the process of setting up the server and beginning the modeling.

UBD Unit Planner for Project

1. What were your goals for your lesson/project (Standards)?

The academic side of this project, while I think it’s solid and interesting, is not really the heart of this initiative’s innovation, and I’ll try to explain the reason for that now. The academic goals of the project were focused on meeting the standard MYP criteria for a Humanities (a.k.a. Individuals and Societies) project about Empires and the Renaissance.

Although the goal of this final project was to plan and implement a unit/project/lesson which used technology in a way that would be “redefinitive” on the SAMR model, for this project it would be possible for students to reach almost the same outcomes by not using Minecraft at all, by making a slideshow or other type of model of their building. This was, however, by design – due to the unusual nature of the tool being used (Minecraft), I planned from the beginning to make the academic side of the project something that could be completed by students who – for technical reasons, parental refusal, etc. – weren’t actually proficient in Minecraft, and it would be possible to meet most of the project’s academic goals by making a slideshow or other visual representation of the structure.

In other words, the use of Minecraft in this project – considering only its academic goals and standards met, and not its wider possibilities – is not necessarily redefinition, but could be seen as mere “substitution”.

However, I think the redefinition aspect of this Minecraft initiative is definitely present and has great potential, but it’s not on the individual project, or even unit level. The use of technology here which I think is most interesting, powerful, and “redefinitive” is three-fold:

1) The opening of a shared virtual space for physically or temporally separated students to work on models together; and

2) The possibility of mixed use of the space as a place for both expressly academic work and free creative expression and play; and

3) The maintenance of the same virtual project space into the future, to be added on during future projects.

It’s the third one that most intrigues me – I think would be amazing for a particular grade level to have a Humanities “world” strewn with construction projects which had been tied in to different units, at different times, throughout the year, and this project was the first step toward that.

2. What tools did you use? Why did you choose this/these tools for this/these task(s)?

Minecraft, of course! Reasons for the choice were:

1. Student interest.

Over the past year several of my students have made models in Minecraft as supplements to their project work without being asked (pyramids, temples, volcanoes, biome simulations, etc.). When we’ve shared these extra-curricular models in class, the interest and excitement level was always very high. I want to find a way to let students have the chance to make similar models as “official” parts of their Humanities projects.

2. Educator interest.

At the same time, many people in my extended personal learning network of educators have been discussing the game and gaming in education in general, and I’ve seen high interest in Minecraft expressed by educators around the world.

3. Personal interest (the less said about this, the better)

3. How did you go about introducing your lesson/project?

First, I had to lay the groundwork for the acquisition and setup of Minecraft in an academic setting. This started with meetings w/ my amazing admin and IT department last year. The introduction of the project involved a lot of intermediate steps after that, some planned out well in advance, some less so. Here’s a list from an e-mail I sent out a few days after the project was official underway. It details some of the steps that led up to the actual project start:

    • Parent letters for signature went out last week for 7A and 7B, and an e-mail version went out earlier this week to 7C. 
    • I set up accounts with numbered usernames for everyone in G7, named which are all linked to one e-mail account so we can reset the passwords and take them away from students if necessary (or for reuse next year).
    • I requested server space for educational use from a recommended hosting service – We can theoretically have up to 100 users on each server at any one time. In a rather surreal development, several dozen squatters from around the world were holding deathmatches in one of the servers before I had the chance to change the security settings, but I’ve successfully evicted them, changed the server to private, creative mode, and re-booted the world they were using.
    • I’m planning to only have the G7 multiplayer server on from about 5-10 in the evenings, and if there are any parent complaints or any issue of people spending too much time on it, I can change the hours.
    • We designed a Humanities project where students, in teams, will propose to study an important Renaissance or imperial structure or work of art, write a report on the structure and its importance, model it in Minecraft, then conduct a virtual tour while narrating their report. Students who aren’t experienced in Minecraft will still be able to pick a structure and complete the project regardless of their modeling skills.
    • Rebekah and I used about one class period each to get students set up with their accounts earlier this week, but this will mostly be a project to be worked on entirely for homework. One of the neat possibilities about this is that students from all 3 G7 classes can collaborate on the same buildings during the hours when the server is on in the evening.
    • The G7 students have been using the server for the past 3 evenings, and have already built dozens of separate buildings – not all are historical, but everyone seems to be having fun, and construction on 5 or so major historical buildings has started already. Attached is a shot of the Colosseum, Big Ben, the Parthenon, and Juulia’s cathedral as of yesterday.
    • So far there have been an average of 10-15 students from all three classes online, building things peacefully, during the evenings. However, since the virtual world includes things like fire and lava, there is the possibility for vandalism of others’ buildings. I see these issues as a chance to explore evolving digital citizenship issues in a new space, and aside from a few hiccups I think the G7s can be trusted to share this construction space in a…. well, constructive way. There are hourly and daily backups of the world that we could restore from in an emergency, but so far I think most students have been regulating their own risky behavior and learning to share space with their neighbors.
    • I’d be glad to take anyone on a tour of the current state of the server if you’re interested. We have a few extra account codes – if any teacher or admin wants to set up an account and look themselves that’d be really cool. If any teacher already has an account, I would just have to add them to the “whitelist” (the list of people who can go on the server). Rebekah was on for a while last night, and the students seemed to really enjoy showing her around their buildings.

4. How did the students react? Include actual samples of student reflection (video, images, etc)

[long story short, reaction was overwhelmingly positive and resulted in an immediate and enormous construction spree – see the relevant section of video presentation above]

5. Outcome? Did you meet your goals?

As described above, the academic side of the project is still in progress, but server has been a success overall (but with issues of digital citizenship and responsible behavior still being explored), and the three main “redefinitive” aspects outlined in section 1 seem to be creating some powerful interest in the server both from students and other teachers.

6. Evidence of learning? Remember to include student evidence like video, images, reflections.

[Again, please see the relevant section of video presentation above, which includes a lot of student feedback, including: ]

Student Feedback:

I think overall it is going well. We are able to work on a lot of the project in a short period of time. However, there was some vandalism that made the server a bit unsafe to use. Sort of like the medieval time!

I prefer minecraft because it’s a game and easy for us to learn how to play the game. It’s motivational if it’s a game. 

I think Minecraft is a good source for students to make buildings connected to Humanities. But I do not like about people burning and breaking buildings down because students take a lot of time building it. But it is a good idea to cooperate with other students and friends to make a historical building. 

I think the renaissance report would be best because we can all have a video about our building and we could all have something different to say in each of our videos. Also making a slideshow would not be very fun and you maybe cannot show the whole building itself with moving around. 

I think so far this minecraft project is going well because we are all working hard and I think we should continue this for a while. I really don’t like all the griefing that is going on and we should somehow fix them.

Students are still working on their academic reports, and have already shown some great learning about their historical structures being modeled, and evidence of learning in other ways has been tremendous. Students have learned and demonstrated new skills of digital negotiation of a shared space, finding each other and figuring out how to deal with the problem of numbered usernames. They’ve had virtual events like parties, come together to put out fires and stanch lava flow, taught each other construction techniques, figured out etiquette for visiting other peoples’ houses, used Skype as an additional communication tool for times when Minecraft’s chat function wasn’t sufficient, and any number of other things.

7. What would you do differently next time? What did you learn? (Reflection)

A lot of these reflections are on an ongoing process. The first thing I’d do differently would be to set things up more collaboratively and with more input from others. I tried to meet and ask for advice from several people, and I got some terrific advice from friends on Twitter, but I also did a lot of the planning on my own and think some aspects of the setup could have been stronger if I’d sought more advice. Another thing would be to have set up the timetable of this rollout differently. I think things have worked out OK, but as it turned out I set up the server quite quickly once the space became available, and wish I’d have had more time to plan the project, meet with my teaching partner and IT department to set things up beforehand, etc.

In terms of how things have progressed since students have had access to the server, I think the biggest issue has clearly been “griefing” or vandalism. The game includes things like TNT and fire, and it’s relatively easy for someone to use them undetected. I think dealing with these issues, however, has resulted in some of the most powerful learning and reflecting on digital citizenship both for the students and me, and I am glad we’ve had to struggle so publicly and openly with the issue of destructive behavior on the server.

It’s been an interesting journey. However, since student feedback overwhelmingly identified vandalism as the biggest problem with the server by far, I’ve recently taken steps to turn off TNT and fire by using mods and plugins. Destruction remains an issue, but it’s less likely now that someone will lose an entire building to fire, and I think some traumatic events could have been avoided if I’d modded the server from the start.

One thing that has been extremely interesting about all of this is the social simulation side of it. I – as the overlord of the server – found myself becoming suspicious of students, following them around to see if they were behind the vandalism. I also deputized some students by making them “OPs”, which gives them access to more commands, and I quickly found that my OP brownshirts had constructed a jail for incarcerating suspected “griefers”.

This whole social microcosm of crime, suspicion, punishment, and rebuilding after tragedy has probably been the most interesting side of going on the server for me, even if it has been slightly unpleasant in its moral and ethical implications at times. I wanted to create a place for peace and creativity, but found myself spending a lot of time thinking about rules, punishments, and banishments. I think I’m starting to reach a balance between accepting that the students will do crazy things on the server, but also doing what I can to minimize uncertainty or conflict so that it won’t – in the words of one of the students – be like “medieval time”.

8. How do/did you plan to share this with your colleagues?

Here, on Twitter (hashtag #yisminecraft), through a Pecha Kucha talk I recently gave (video to possibly follow soon), and by inviting people to tour the server.

9. What was your greatest learning in this course?

I think it was the realization of just how much more productive, cooperative and organized the students are when they’re passionate about something they’re doing. It’s something you hear all the time, but watching entire cathedrals rise in just a few hours really demonstrated the power of motivation to me.

10. Did this implementation meet the definition of Redefinition?

As explained above in section 1, in terms of the goals of this pilot project in Humanities (integrated into the curriculum) itself, no – but in terms of the collaboration between all sections of the grade, the ongoing digital citizenship negotiations and combination of academic pursuits and play in the same space, and the creation of the shared space for possible future use, a resounding “yes”.


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Audience Inspires Art

source: Me. Note the contrapuntal juxtaposition of analogues. What bold compositional legerdemain!

In recent months Instagram – of which I am a very infrequent and frankly unskilled user – has given me a great example of the inspirational and creative power of community, sharing, and audience – all of the things that educators are always saying should be part of projects that encourage student learning and achievement.

The example worked like this: I am a terrible photographer. I’m shy and hate being on either side of a camera. I feel like taking pictures of people is a really invasive and weird thing to do, so I usually only take pictures of large buildings and monuments. But I feel so self-conscious and trite standing around pointing my camera at large buildings and monuments that I rarely take the time to focus or even point the camera properly. During an entire year abroad in London, I took a total of 2 rolls of photographs, and half of them are of my thumb, the other half of Stonehenge.

But Instagram has changed something. I’m still a terrible photographer, but I feel the urge to take pictures of things. It’s not a lot by most people’s standards, but I’ve probably posted more photos to Instagram in the last few months than I’ve taken in the last five years combined. And I want to add more. The only real reason for this shift? Having an audience, even if it’s just a few people.

I can’t remember having personally been part of such a clear example of how an audience can energize creativity  (or at least interest) where none existed before. I’ll try to keep the lessons of Instagram in the back of my mind when planning projects for students.

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My Semester in Tech

The semester’s far from over, but I’m thinking ahead to final grades and winter break already. I’ll try to take advantage of this mood to make a few reflections on my use of technology in the classroom  and out over the past couple of months.

Push Notifications 1

Last year, I would frequently have students share their finished work with me – by sharing on Google Docs or e-mailing it to me – and then I would sit down with a heavy sigh and start making a spreadsheet of who had turned in what. This year, for each project, I’ve been creating a Google Document with a blank table, and telling students to add their own names and links to finished work. For more complex projects, I’ve been adding more columns for each blog post, reflection document, etc. that’s required. This simple change has been a big success – I think it’s saved me some time, but I also think it’s got some ancillary benefits for students – they get a visual reminder that it’s their responsibility to fill in the gaps in the chart, early finishers can proudly add their names to the top of the list, and late finishers have an easy place to review some of the turned-in work (if it’s public) to get a better idea of what they should be doing. Vandalism of the shared document is a distinct possibility, but it’s easy to discourage after a couple of shaming trips through Revision History.

Push Notifications 2

Conversely, I think I’ve been getting some positive results from pushing a bit more information out to the students, particularly through the use of e-mailed Google Calendar invitations as homework reminders. Last year I think I tended to only place this information on my blog or in a central Google Doc of class reminders, but thinking of my workflow as an adult, my e-mail inbox is my main way of telling when someone wants something from me, so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t take the extra minute or two to push reminder e-mails out to students’ inboxes.

Push Notifications 3

It’s a small thing, but this is the first year that we’ve had a database that allows one-click sending of an e-mail to one or all parents in a particular class, and I’ve really appreciated the function. In previous years I’d often found that dredging up a parent’s e-mail seemed to take forever, and half the time they had changed addresses since the last time I’d collected them. The new system we’ve got makes communicating with parents almost instantaneous (so thanks, IT department and Veracross). Another thing this new system is great for is for finding, within just a click or two, where a student currently is (or should be) in the building. Invaluable.

The Death of the DVD

Confession time. Earlier this semester, I wanted to watch part of a video which was on a DVD about 10 feet away in a cabinet at the back of my room. I found and watched a streaming version of the clip instead. It probably wasn’t good to take up some of the school’s bandwidth just because I didn’t want to go fish around for the disc, but, well, it happened. Something similar’s been happening with some of the resource books I have around the class – I’ve actually spent more time looking at PDFs of certain books with the students than I have passing the actual books around. I love books, but overall I’m at peace with this odd development.

Google and Apple

This is a very minor thing to note, but I think this semester I’ve started mentally distancing myself a bit from my previously feverish admiration for these two behemoths. While I still use their products constantly, I sense possible rumbling portents of their upcoming Microsoftification, and I think I’ll be ready not to care. A couple years ago, I was really excited about seemingly dozens of things like SketchUp (since sold), Blogger (haven’t used it in ages), Google Plus (tumbleweeds), Ping (avalanche of tumbleweeds), etc. The fact that the two of them seem to be starting to getting a bit childish and evil-er in their competition with each other – Google forcing me to use Chrome for various things, Apple killing iOS Google Maps, etc. – is making my preemptive mental cold shoulder that much easier.

The Twitter Convergence

For a couple of years, my window to the Web was my RSS reader. I might be late to realize this, but this past semester I’ve really noticed that, since I’m following the Twitter feeds of most of my news sources, Twitter has begun to almost replicate my RSS inbox. So, yes, Twitter is still the place where individual people can bore us with what they had for breakfast – but it’s also now the first place I go for news, blog updates and, well, pretty much everything else. I’ve also started to notice a greater awareness of, if not use of, Twitter among the Middle School students. They still don’t seem interested in it at all, but they’ve heard of it.


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Cargo Cult, Part 2

In a previous post I gave free rein to my disapproval of a One Laptop Per Child “experiment” (maybe I’ll stop doing the scare quotes – just imagine scare quotes in future) which involved dropping off a few boxes of Motorola Xoom tablets in a remote Ethiopian village. In this follow-up post I’d like to turn down the sarcasm and try to think a bit more calmly and specifically about how the OLPC approach seems to differ from my ideas about tech and education.

I actually think this was an interesting experiment in many ways, even if I disagree with what I know of its methods, and it does point to some interesting areas for future thought – how necessary are teachers? To what extent can current handheld devices provide a satisfactory elementary education, and satisfactory by whose standards? Which viewpoint is more culturally patronizing: OLPC’s apparent assumption that all Ethiopian villagers must learn English, or (my position in my previous post) to assume that maybe they don’t need it and won’t use it? Is patronizing intervention better than no intervention at all? I could analyze my mixed feelings about this for hours. I’d like to switch gears and jot down a few more focused thoughts on relevance that this article might have for me personally as an educator interested in technology integration:

  • Reading about this experiment makes me grateful to be in an educational environment made up of assorted stakeholders and different voices.
  • Parents and students at our school have a say in their own education – decisions aren’t all being made by invisible people on the other side of the world. Don’t even underprivileged students deserve something of the same experience?
  • Our school provides a supportive social environment where students learn how to interact with each other – with and without technology. Don’t even underprivileged students deserve something of the same experience?
  • The “education” (I’m back to scare quotes, sorry, I’ll try to control myself) in the experiment by OLPC seems to lack a moral or ethical dimension, and in fact the experimenters are delighted when the children “hack” the devices. Would OLPC be equally overjoyed if, in a few years, the students used their tablets and new English skills to scam people around the world with spam 419 e-mails? Education isn’t just learning how to use language or technology, but the concomitant imparting of skills in good citizenship when using these tools.
  • When we do use technology, we use it to connect humans to other humans, and we do it with thoughtful and experienced guidance, even if it’s sometimes with a “light touch”.
  • We use technology to help students produce authentic projects, not passively absorb (even if through a game) predetermined, pre-loaded content.
  • Games can be part of education. Computerized sing-alongs and quizzes and cartoon videos can be part of education. But only if they provide something meaningful to the student at that point in the student’s life, and build toward a larger underlying understanding. Otherwise it’s either just a game, or just memorization – but neither of those is necessarily learning, or education.
  • We learn together – teachers and students – and we use technology to constantly improve and refine what we learn and how we do it.

For all these reasons – and not, I hope, just because of a childish instinct for occupational self-preservation – I don’t think that we’re ready to exchange teachers for a few boxes of solar-powered tablets. Not even for very poor or very isolated children. Maybe in a few years this program will conduct a similar experiment, but with online devices – and with living human teachers and students on the other end of the line. That’s an experiment I’d be much more interested in hearing about.

A less top-down communication method than leaving monoliths, also from 2001

A less top-down communication method than leaving monoliths, also from 2001 source:

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Cargo Cult, Part I

In my last post I argued that good tech integration might require a “light touch”. However, I’ve recently read an article which makes me consider the risks and limitations that would await anyone taking this approach to an extreme.

In this article (here as well) from just a few days ago, there’s a very striking example of a recent “light touch” success story, as told by the founder of One Laptop Per Child at MIT Technology Review’s recent EmTech conference.

It seems that OLPC went to rural Ethiopia and set out – like the coyote setting out birdseed for the Road Runner, or (provocative allusion alert) the Starchild from 2001 placing a monolith for apes to find – some enticingly sealed boxes containing around a thousand solar-powered Motorola Xoom tablets.

We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up.”

What a delightful shiver of pleasure goes through the first-world reader at this amazing story of learning in action! A human being – one who knows how to survive in one of Earth’s most complex and difficult environments, who probably knows how to butcher a goat, start a fire, build a house – found a Motorola tablet’s on switch! What an unexpected result! I was so startled and bemused that I sat up in my lounge chair, spilled caviar on my smoking jacket, and almost lost my monocle!

“That was my third monocle this week!” source:

The astonishing results continue:

After several months, the kids in both villages were still heavily engaged in using and recharging the machines, and had been observed reciting the “alphabet song,” and even spelling words. One boy, exposed to literacy games with animal pictures, opened up a paint program and wrote the word “Lion.”

The apparent aim of this project, aside from illustrating every possible meaning of the word “patronizing”? To get illiterate Ethiopian children to play with apps, in order to teach them English. Never mind that they would then be the only people for miles around to speak English. Never mind that the only things for miles around for them to read English on would be these tablets. Never mind that once the tablets break down, the majority of these children will have gained absolutely nothing except for the fading memory of playing some sing-along alphabet apps. The important thing is… something something English!

The bold little rascals not only used a lot of apps but they “hacked Android” as OLPC’s founder puts it (or, in slightly more realistic terms, changed their desktop wallpaper)!

 “…the kids had gotten around OLPC’s effort to freeze desktop settings. ‘The kids had completely customized the desktop—so every kids’ tablet looked different.  We had installed software to prevent them from doing that…’”

Learning in action!

If I seem a bit skeptical of this experiment, it’s because I am. Not of its results, but of its aims and methods. Of course students can learn on their own. Of course if you air-drop interesting tools or games into a remote area, people will find uses for them. Of course students don’t need teachers guiding them at every turn. Of course kids will sing the alphabet along with a tablet app. Everyone knows how kids work. They play with things, and learn.

But – and maybe this is simply the fault of the way these articles were written – what’s the long-term plan here?

  • Will there really be no support or service at all for these devices, aside from monitoring the kids’ use like lab rats?
  • Did anyone ask the adults in this village if they wanted their kids to waste time learning to use touch-screen technology that they might never see again in their lives once this experiment is over?
  • Did anyone ask the kids if they wanted to be lured into learning English through colorful educational apps?
  • Did anyone at any stage question the apparent assumption that learning English is such an important goal that some Ethiopian village children should be tricked into it at tremendous expense?
  • Wouldn’t hiring an English tutor to come out to the village a few times a week be orders of magnitude cheaper than 1,000 Xoom tablets?
  • Did anyone, at any stage in this, say “Wait a minute, these kids aren’t lab rats, and we aren’t gods?”
"This Motorola Xoom has opened a whole new world for my backward people! No... words...!"

“This Motorola Xoom has opened a whole new world for my backward people! No… words…!” source:

Seriously, what’s the endgame here? After they learn English, will somebody help these kids use it somehow? Or will they just record their use of the tablets until they break or OLPC loses interest, and then leave the kids to their own devices (no pun intended)? Are we hoping that the children start a religion based on Motorola? Do the pre-loaded apps on these tablets include plans for a giant catapult to launch one brave Ethioponaut back to the One Laptop Per Child headquarters…?

to be continued in Part 2


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