12 Tips For Starting A Game-Based Program At Your School

I see the fact that I’m creating this post as a fantastic sign.  Why?  Because, it means that the idea of using games for learning is spreading and that people are moving from an “ideas” phase to a “let’s do this” phase.  Several people have asked me how we got started with WoWinSchool and if I have any suggestions.  From experience, here are some suggestions that are emerging:

WowinClass1CV_1011171.  Put the kids first. It’s all about them anyway. You really must have a heart for them and what’s good for them.  Recruit educators who believe this first, because they’re the most important factor, then, recruit your gamer teachers.  Let this first suggestion frame every decision made.  (A big thanks to Diane Lewis for nailing this one at her VWBPE presentation on the topic.)

2.  Find the principals who will support you, champion for you, and advocate for your kids and the awesome things they’ll be doing.  Find the ones who “get it.”  If you can’t find those, find “the willing to get it” crowd.  Involve your district leadership as well.  Not only do they need to know what you’re doing they can also be a huge resource.

3.  Recruit your IT folks.  You’re likely to need some special attention from them.  Bring them on board as partners with your project.  Praise them and market how awesome they are as they support your project.  (They too often are overlooked or get a bad rap for doing their jobs.)  They’ll need to know what impact any games will have on things like bandwidth,  your filter, etc.  You may have to gather that research for them because they’re probably very busy with other issues.  My IT people have been amazing and have really gone above and beyond (such as providing bandwidth impact graphs, and helping to set up a MineCraft server on our local network).

4.  Start as a club.  Starting as a club is a great way to begin.  Clubs are a safe place to fail and they’re typically voluntary.  After-school, before-school, or during a club period is a great time to for your kids to meet, play, and learn.

5.  Find your “at-risk” learners and “fringe” kids.  Really, most of our students are at a minimum, at-risk for extreme boredom, and many of our labeled “at-risk” learners are simply bored with school and don’t see relevance.  These students are ideal and usually need something engaging and relevant to anchor them in school.  We’ve also seen some incredible things with students who are identified ADD/ADHD and even the mildly autistic.  Let the kids “own” (or “pwn“) their learning.

6.  Read and share your reading.  Have some supporting research.  We’re building a list at http://wowinschool.pbworks.com/w/page/5268741/Supporting-Research.  Also consider having a few copies of Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy and Prensky’s Don’t Bother Me Mom — I’m Learning on hand to loan.holiadore

7.  Tie your project to one or more instructional goals.  Our primary charge is to foster learning, right?  It’s a big step for many to see video games as tools for learning so a clear alignment to instructional goals really helps.  This doesn’t have to be especially formal, particularly with a club format, but alignment to existing learning goals is a great idea.  Also, don’t neglect the opportunities that arise to address topics such as leadership, digital citizenship, and media literacy which are too often overlooked in our standard course of study.

8.  Get parents on board.  Communicate with them clearly and often about the project and your expectations, goals, and what will be involved.  Consider hosting a parent orientation event or informational videos that explain your project.

9.  Market your program.  Be transparent about everything, both success and failures.  Document everything because you’re a pioneer in an emerging area.  Market your learners’ work and connect them to a global audience.

10.  Invite visitors.  Even after you’re underway, many people still won’t understand what you’re doing.  Invite them to come see.  This not only broadens their understanding of the possibilities of game-based learning it’s another opportunity for your students to showcase what they know.

11.  Connect.  Connect and network with educators who are doing similar work.  Have them talk to your decision makers and district leadership.  Once your project is started, connect your kids with other kids!

12.  Remember suggestion #1.

These are some points that have helped make mine, Peggy Sheehy’s and Diane Lewis’ projects successful.  What would you add?  What have I left out?


Minecraft in School? Yes!

Characters in MinecraftYes, I know I’m late to this game.  How did I miss it?  About a month ago, I started noticing Minecraft popping up in education technology discussions.  I’d heard of the game before and after a very cursory glance dismissed it.  This growing buzz I began to hear, though, got me asking around.  Of course, who had answers to my questions?  Students!  One even said, “Here’s my account info, try it out.”  So I did.

Within 20 minutes of game play, I’d shelled out the $20 to buy my own account.  There is something incredibly compelling about this game.  Don’t let the funny 8-bit-looking graphics fool you.  There’s more here than meets the eye. …much more.  Why?  Because this is a true sandbox game.  A sandbox game is a virtual world that allows free-roaming with almost no artificial barriers.  On top of this, this is a building/creating game.  Yes, punching trees for wood may seem silly at first, but then you find that you can construct things with the materials you’re collecting.  A few pieces of wood yield planks, four of these planks yield a crafting  table. And from there, a world of building potential is opened up. Within an hour or so of play, I’d constructed a makeshift castle and had begun to dig deep underground to find iron, coal, and other resources to build a variety of tools.

So, what do I, the educator-gamer do next?  Of course I put on my teacher glasses and begin to ask, “How could I use this with students?”  Immediately the ideas begin to come to mind.  Here are a few of my early brainstorms:

  • Give students login information and have them all log into a school-hosted multiplayer server (Yes, you can host your own private server).  Tell them they have arrived on a deserted(?) island (think Lost, maybe?).  They need to work together to build a society.  Who will gather resources?  Who will build?  Who will plan?  How will they feed themselves?  How will they defend themselves from the skeletons/creepers at night (though these villains could be turned off as a feature).  The key here is to have them plan and write all of this based on their in-world experiences.
  • Have students journal daily life on their island as though they were a real person in a real place.  Imagine… “Day 1 – Not sure how I got here.  Haven’t seen another person.  All was fine until nightfall.  I began to hear a groaning sound in the forest and that’s when I saw the zombies.  Now I’m holed up in a cave hoping they go away.”
  • Have students think of a real-world machine and attempt to recreate it in their Minecraft world.  People have even made basic computers out of Minecraft materials.  Yes, it can be that complex.  You can craft circuits with basic logic functions out a material called redstone.  Players have built working rail stations, musical instruments, and more.

Of course the multiplayer potential for the game opens up lots of collaborative opportunity.  Imagine different classes working together to build something, different grade levels, or even students from schools in two different parts of the world!

Other folks are talking about this game’s potential as well.  Check out Bryan Alexander‘s posts on the topic.  John McLear has a nice post on the topic as well.  Also, check out this interesting discussion on the same topic at Minecraft Forums.

Some of the principals in my district have asked me for ideas for a project similar to the WoWinSchool Project for earlier grades, either as an elective or a club.  I think Minecraft would be suitable for 4th through 8th graders (many high schoolers would certainly enjoy it too, though).  What are you thoughts?  Let’s here them!


Challenge: Write A Guild Mission Statement

banner_legacy In the education world, we love to talk about how we’re preparing our learners for life in the 21st-Century (a phrase that’s really getting old by now), and to be competitive in the global marketplace.  However, I wonder, how often do we give them authentic learning experiences, with context they’re passionate about, to actually try the the things we say we value in education?  Enter World of Warcraft.  Now here’s an environment they’re passionate about because they’re experiencing it through play.  Part of what our learners have been experiencing is the social aspect of the game, specifically player guilds.  About a week ago, we inducted each of them into the student guild, The Legacy.

We’ve discussed what it means to be a guild, how a guild might be organized, and what its purpose might be.  Afterwards, we discussed mission statements and their components while examining the mission statements of companies from Apple to Avon (Avon’s is a novel, by the way.  Perhaps they should hire one of our kids to re-write it!).

After both peer editing and teacher feedback, we’ve compiled their work on the project wiki.  I think you’ll be amazed at these, recalling that they were written by 8th graders.

You can find them at:  http://wowinschool.pbworks.com/w/page/Write-A-Guild-Mission-Statement

Great work!


Flash Mob Antics in World of Warcraft

Today wrapped up our last major event in WoWinSchool for the students at Cape Fear Middle.  As the district’s after-school programs are winding down, so does the busing.  The students at Suffern Middle’s program will continue playing for a few weeks.  To celebrate a successful first year of the program, we wanted to get the kids together, in world, for some fun.  What’s more fun that a Gnomish Flash Mob?  Now, if you’re unfamiliar with flash mobs, I highly recommend watching some of Improv Everywhere’s videos, they’re lots of fun.  But, a flash mob in a virtual world?  Why not!

wump2_sWe started the event by having each student create a gnome.  We specified that they should have either pink or green hair, and their name should end in –wumpus.  As the crowd began to assemble at the starting area, I could already tell this would be fun.  We had names such as Firewumpus and Applewumpus, among others.  Each of our students were logged into our Ventrilo server, so I gave them instructions on creating basic macros.  We made macros for /dance, /cheer, and /say “Wump!”  Before rolling out to Ironforge, we practiced our timing.  “Three, two, one, Dance!”  Seeing 20+ Gnomes in a coordinated dance is a beautiful thing (or totally weird?).

Ironforge was mostly dead.  We had a challenging time of getting anyone to interact with us, so we boarded the Tram and made for Stormwind.  Stormwind, was where the magic began!  Our first order of business was to surround a bystander, kneel, and in unison ask, “Are you the Great Wumpus?”  Now, I don’t know about you, but World of Warcraft is over five years old, players are burning through content, and hanging out in a capital city for any length of time is a clear indication of “I’m bored, but what else am I gonna do?”  It’s not every day, you are deified by a swarm of mohawk-sporting gnomes.  The lady Night Elf invited us to a play a quick game of follow-the-leader, and we obliged.  When she walked, we followed walking, when she jumped, we jumped, occasionally uttering a random “Wump!”  She began casting an area effect spell, we marked her as a traitor, and quickly swarmed the nearest player.  Now, this guy, Elladan, was a breath of fresh air.  He engaged us and played along.  “Are you the Great Wumpus?”  “Indeed!  Gather ’round!”  Yes!

Elladan began to play along with our antics and before long a crowd had gathered about this strange sight:  a lone Night Elf druid surrounded by over 20 jumping and spastic gnomes.  Things went along until some player dropped a campfire.  Now, here’s where our students really shined.  I told them on Ventrilo, “Type ‘Fire Bad!’ and scatter!”  Within seconds, our little swarm responded and onlookers were laughing and even sending me compliments via /tell.  Elladan even offered to tell us a story, to which we responded with simultaneous “Ooohs! Ahhs!”  If you can recall the aliens in the crane game in Toy Story, you’re pretty close.

wump1_sOur time was drawing to an end, so we randomly jumped up and ran to Goldshire.  We had quite a following trailing behind us, now.  From there, we exclaimed, “The evil Hogger must die!” and ran to the Hogger encounter nearby.  The level 80’s who trailed along made short work of Hogger and we realized that we had about five minutes left.  We began saying things like, “The Great Wumpus is calling us home.”  One student said, “I see a light at the end of the great wump,” and we began logging out on the spot.  Elladan, our new steward, pleaded with us not to forget him, and I assured him he’d be immortalized (Here you go, Elladan!).

We had a blast, and the students very quickly filled in their roles, especially once they realized they had an audience.  It was a great way to wrap up our activities.

-Lucas (aka Garwumpus)


Students are prepping the day before the VWBPE Tour

Students are prepping the day before the VWBPE Tour

I’ve always been told that ownership is a powerful tool in student learning, and I have always believed it.  However, the experiences and observations of the past two days have truly validated that assertion.  Today, our incredible (and I don’t use that word lightly) students in the WoWinSchool Project led a small group of educators from around the world on a virtual tour of World of Warcraft as part of the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education Online Conference.

I was approached about a month ago by conference organizers asking if I would like to host a virtual tour.  When I asked if I could have our students lead it instead, they graciously (and courageously?) accepted, and the Know Your Gnomes session was set.  I’m not sure our students fully grasped the implications until yesterday afternoon.  (Perhaps some of the best learning happens in the 11th hour?)  I asked them how they’d like to organize the tour and they decided forming two groups would be best, and probably the most comfortable for them.  They then began to organize themselves based on who felt most comfortable leading a discussion on what topics within those groups.  One would take quests, another would cover movement and navigation, while another would talk about communication and so on.

That’s when I sensed a bit of stress among them.  When it hit them that they would be talking to complete strangers from other countries about this program, they very quickly went from silliness to seriousness.  In fact, in my 10+ years as an educator, I’ve never seen such an abrupt transformation among students.  In their minds I think they were beginning to take ownership of the idea and realizing that they, in fact, would be the experts teaching the teachers.  It was incredibly powerful.

The VWBPE tour is underway and the kids have their "game-faces" on.

The VWBPE tour is underway and the kids have their "game-faces" on.

When I asked them if they’d like to do a trial run, they hastily agreed that it would be a good idea.  It was at this point, I think, that they began to rationalize what would actually take place during the tour.  The “what if” questions began gushing out.  “What if they don’t understand English?”  “What if they can’t get into Ventrilo?”  “What if I misspell something?”  I worked to put their concerns and questions to rest, honestly, not knowing the answers to many, and encouraged them to have some faith in themselves.  At this point they really put their “game faces on.” (Pardon the pun!)

This morning, they literally rushed to the lab and quickly began to help get set up.  Some logged in right away and began greeting the early comers to the session.  I can’t begin to tell you how suddenly professional kids, who are just ask likely to yell “Your Momma!” across the room, become when things got started.  We had participants from as far away as Israel!  It’s at this point that I should probably offer up an apology to the participants from VWBPE.  Your experience in this tour may have been good, but I know it was nothing compared to what I saw taking place.  The real magic was taking place in the lab at the school and I really wish you could have seen it.

You see, ownership is an incredibly powerful tool in student learning.  Teachers, your kids will amaze you if you tap into it, I promise.  I’d also argue that never before have so many opportunities existed for classroom teachers to really share with the world what their students are creating.  “Creative capital” is something that every child has and it behooves us as educators to tap into it, because in our ever-changing global economy, that’s where they’ll one day shine.

Students have split into groups are sharing with VWBPE attendees.

Students have split into groups are sharing with VWBPE attendees.

There are so many tools out there for classroom teachers to use, too.  Have the Skype chat to show off their work.  Have them create a wiki and share their creations.  Publish a book of their writing!  Trust me, show your students that the world is watching, and step back and watch them perform.  They’ll PWN the learning!


Diving Into Deadmines

rhahkzorMonday marked our first day back on the project following our Christmas break.  Though I was out sick with a cold, I was able to log in from home and work with some of the students in the project.  Four of our highest leveled players wanted to do their first dungeon run into Deadmines, and they wanted me to take them.  So, I logged into my hunter, Weyr, and met them at the meeting stone in Moonbrook.

As we jumped into the instance, things began to get interesting.  We ranged in levels from 12 – 15, so we were a bit low, but the kids were determined.  What really amazed me is that before we began fighting, the students were discussing strategy!  “Who is going to tank for us?”  “I can do heals.”  “You should get full mana before we start.”  Before we’d encountered our first foes, the students were thinking critically about what would happen and how we might succeed.  Another observation is that the students are readily adopting the game’s jargon and using it properly (tank, mana, aggro, heals, etc.).

Our first pulls were chaotic affairs.  Due to our lower level the Defias Miners and Overseers were coming out of the woodwork for a chance to beat on us.  Whether they realized it or not, students became acquainted with the concept of “aggro radius,” or the imaginary radius around a character at which aggressive creatures will come after you to attack.  After a few wipes, we made it to the first boss, Rhahk’Zor, a particularly hard-hitting and tough Ogre.  At this point, the students had decided that my pet dragon hawk was the best tank, so they discussed how we might beat the boss.

“I can heal as a Paladin and you can heal as a druid, so maybe if we both heal, we can do it.”  As a former science teacher, that sounds a great deal like a hypothesis to me!  So, we tried it, and Rhahk’Zor made short work of us.  The students were determined, and though our time was running short, they wanted to take another stab at it, again, with similar results.  “I don’t think I have enough mana to heal this fight,” one said.  “Maybe we need be higher level.”

Again, the collateral learning is huge here.  One, the students are using trial-and-error approaches to overcome a difficult situation.  The amazing part about it, is that they are doing this in a completely virtual environment in which they are not clear about the underlying rules and their mentor is working with them from his home 20 miles away.  The learning is completely non-threatening and the reward is clearly defined:  the satisfaction of beating the boss.  Another thing they’re learning here is teamwork.  They must rely on each others’ strengths and trust in their teammates.

I can’t wait to go back.


Reflections and Updates

WoW's Mini-Map

WoW's Mini-Map

Work, both with the project and outside the project has kept me extremely busy lately, and the new content and mechanics included with the 3.3 update have kept me busy in-game during my free time.  So, what’s going on with the project over the past week?

1.  Turnover.  Unfortunately, we’ve had several students decide to move on to other after school projects.  On the bright side, there’s still a waiting list of students interested in participating, so, those spots are immediately filled.  One thing that seems to be changing is that our core group of committed students seems to be growing.  To me, there are some interesting parallels to long-term guild membership dynamics.

2.  Emerging Leaders.  A couple of our students are beginning to emerge as leaders.  As they are mastering the game’s mechanics and learning the quests, they are increasingly being called on for assistance by their classmates.  So far, they’ve been quite willing to peer tutor.  It is becoming more and more apparent to me that this game can really foster that sort of relationship.

3.  Ownership.  The idea of ownership is critical, I think.  If our students take ownership of their role in the project, of their characters, and soon, their identity as a guild, I believe their engagement (and the potential for learning) will increase.  This is happening, but it’s slow.  This is more of a meta-game concept and will require reflective thought on their part.  The educators in the project, Peggy, Craig, and I, are actively pushing this sort of thinking.  In fact, I recently created a message board for our students as a means of providing a forum for our students and teachers to interact and also to document this journey.

4.  Collateral Learning.  I wish there was a way to easily document the collateral learning that’s taking place.  To really appreciate it, you’d have to have a good profile of our kids’ current knowledge and understanding.  This is what I call ninja teaching, because these students are learning and they don’t realize it.  Here are a few examples of things that fit this category:

  • Cardinal Directions – How many times have we reviewed this concept since we began?  Many of the students in my group could not have readily drawn a compass on paper and correctly labeled North, South, East, and West.  The quests they’re getting in-game are constantly using these to direct the players to specific destinations.  There is also a tie-in with overall spatial reasoning as well when students hit their “M” key to bring up their map and conceptualize that the arrow is their avatar, its orientation is the way they’re facing, and the symbols on the map (new with the 3.3 patch) are their desired destinations.  I suspect that soon these things will be more automatic for them.
  • Vocabulary – We’re not making any efforts to tone down the gamer lingo or game vocabulary.  Several times already, we’ve stopped game play to define terms, especially when asked, but otherwise we’re going for full immersion.  This also applies to the quests that the students are getting which are vocabulary rich.  Here’s an example of an early quest that many of our students completed.  I’ve highlighted some of the vocabulary that I don’t typically hear middle schoolers using:
  • “A Refugee’s Quandary – We drove the troggs out of Gnomeregan, but then it all went so horribly wrong! Now our home is completely irradiated, and we gnomes have been scattered all over Dun Morogh.  In my haste to get away from the radiation, I lost all my personal belongings and tools. It was the trolls that got them. They stole my chest, my box, and my bucket of bolts! They took them back to their camps southwest of Anvilmar.  I’m no adventurer – could you find my things and bring them here to me, please?”

  • Technical Skill.  Students are already troubleshooting and fixing technical issues on their own.  Early on, we had sound/volume issues due to access permissions.  One student found a solution, shared it with the class, and now the students know how to fix this.

So, we forge ahead with this our final week before the Christmas break!


First Contact


Earlier this week students from Cape Fear Middle School and Suffern Middle School had their first in-game contact with each other.  In some ways it was similar to the kinds of interactions you might expect if you put a random assortment of middle schoolers together at school dance.  There was a  little mingling, a few timid “‘Sup’s?” and a few silly emotes.  Then, they ran off to complete a few more quests before the day was over.  Could this be the beginning of a guild?  Yeah.  I think so.