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Monday, December 21, 2020

Nihon no Okami: A Game to Teach about Japanese History and Worldviews

I have previously posted about a game we found to teach about Japanese history called Warlords of Japan. In grade 8 social studies in Alberta, our curriculum focuses on worldviews and the things that shape them and change them. We do a case study about Japan, focusing on the Edo and Meiji periods to learn about a period of government-imposed isolation and then the subsequent adaptation and modernization sparked by the Americans' forceful demand to Japan's leaders to open their borders to trade.

Warlords was fun, but it was created in the 1990s and its pedagogies aren't current. It also misses big parts of our curricular outcomes, only focusing on the feudal period before isolation. My teaching partner Tara and I decided that we needed to design something more rooted in current best practices in teaching and learning and game-based learning specifically, and more aligned with our curriculum.

We created a game called Nihon no Okami, or Okami for short, which translates to 'Wolves of Japan' (our school's team name is the Grey Wolves, and we often name our games in accordance with that). The game is very loosely based on Warlords of Japan, and shares the area of control Risk-like gameplay elements and the idea of the map with that game. Mostly everything else has been redesigned.

In Okami, students work in groups called goningumi, each of which is assigned a home shiro (castle). The goal of the game is to gain the most territory, develop the best local economy, with the happiest people. This works out to gaining territory in the game, as well as making economic and social improvements to their home shiro. The whole game (which was the entirety of our case study about Japan as it addresses all outcomes in the Program of Studies) takes eight weeks to play. The game changes as the weeks progress, representing the different periods in history: pre-isolation, isolation, civil war, adaptation, and modernization.

The gameboard for Nihon no Okami

Tara and I are open source teachers and want to share this game with anyone who can use it. We have developed a teachers' guide, which will give you the information you need to recreate this game in your classroom, along with links to all resources and handouts. We want you to hack it and make it work in your setting. Our request is simply that you share back what you do so we can learn from you, too. You can find our e-mails in the teachers' guide, or you can comment on this post to share back.

Jars of Koku (a unit of measurement of rice, the currency of Edo Japan) and the currency in Okami

We use principles of game-based learning borrowed from the now-defunct Institute of Play to design all our Social Studies projects:

  1. Everyone is a participant
  2. Failure is reframed as an iteration
  3. Everything is interconnected
  4. Learning happens by doing
  5. Feedback is immediate and ongoing
  6. Challenge is constant
  7. Learning feels like play
When using game-based learning in the classroom, two outcomes are important. Firstly, it's important that the game is fun and the students feel invested in the game and in their learning. Secondly, and more importantly, it's important that they learn. We know from research about effective teaching that students must find the work they do intellectually engaging, and "fun activities" don't really cut it. We believe we have created a careful balance here to position the learning in this game as knowledge they need for gameplay, and by connecting this with games, we have deeply connected the learning of history to something that's important in the worlds in which our students live.

In terms of these outcomes, we believe our design has been successful. Our students loved playing this game, and were visibly and audibly engaged in both the game and the learning required by it. We also believe our students have learned a lot. We outline assessment practices in the teachers' guide, and most of our students were demonstrating high levels of achievement through the iterative assessment practices this game involves. 

Two students strategizing

A final note about the competencies games develop. When we play games, we learn skills that are important in school and in life. We learn collaboration, cooperation, sportsmanship, patience, strategy, long-term thinking, if-then thinking, among others. We get opportunities to coach our students on character, citizenship, and personal development. We see our students' humanity shine through. And that's got to be worth something.
Sunday, September 13, 2020

Studio Art Process

 I teach an art option class in addition to my Humanities teaching load. I love teaching art. It's such a relaxing pause in the day, when I just get to help kids create.

This year, Covid has thrown a bit of wrench into option scheduling. Typically, students rank their option choices and get placed in courses they're interested in. Because we need to keep kids in their homeroom cohorts, we've moved to a wheel approach - the students stay in their homerooms and cycle through every option, spending about eight weeks in each one.

This made me reconsider how I taught art. Typically, I'd teach it in a project-based way, so everyone would work on drawing or pottery or printmaking at the same time, though they'd have choice in what the drew or made or printed. But now I would have students in my class who don't consider themselves artists, and very likely, some who are actually very anxious about making art.

I'd been considering the Teaching Artistic Behaviour (TAB) approach for a while, and this was just the push I needed to jump in. I read Engaging Learners Through Artmaking: Choice-Based Art Education in the Classroom (TAB) by Katherine M. Douglas and Diane B. Jaquith (Alberta teachers, hot tip! I borrowed this book from the ATA library!), and once I learned more about the practicalities of this approach, I was ready. I knew this approach would help everyone find an artform that felt good to them, regardless of their past artmaking experiences, and would meet them where they're at.

The TAB approach can be summarized in three sentences:

  1. What do artists do?
  2. The child is the artist.
  3. The art room is the child's studio.

Being a teacher who lives every day and thrives in student choice, I'm starting at the far end of the choice spectrum. I am planning on having each student create at least one 2D and one 3D project over the course of the eight weeks, knowing many students will do more than this. Allowing them so much choice, I knew I needed to scaffold them through the idea-getting phase, experimentation and learning of the medium, creation, and reflection phases of a project. So I created a graphic that will guide them through the process, which is a morphing of studio art practice, creativity, and design thinking theories.

My plan is to have students conference quickly with me before they move to the next phase of the project, giving me an opportunity to guide their practice, and give feedback.

I know my students will need help with the inspiration phase, as well as learning new techniques and skills. In my Google classroom, I have assembled some resources they can use for Drawing, Pastels, Watercolour Painting, Acrylic Painting, Printmaking, Calligraphy, and Collage & Mixed Media. I'll work on doing the same for 3D artforms as well over the next couple of weeks.

Students are not restricted to these media. If a student has a digital tablet and wants to get better at digital art, sure! If a student wants to make comics, go for it! However, I want every artist to improve regardless of where they're starting from, and to do this, we'll be learning the Studio Habits of Mind vocabulary and what it means. This will play centre stage in assessment, as well.

Every day, I'll do a minilesson to teach a skill or technique. I'm thinking that 

My biggest worry is that many students will need me at the same time, and with Covid precautions, we're avoiding movement as much as possible. So I'm making each kid a set of three cards, which I'll laminate. They'll leave the "Happily working" one on their desk unless they need me, in which they'll replace it with the "I need a conference" or "I need help." I've created a little form called "I need something," too, which they can fill out to let me know what they need.

As with anything, I'm sure this process will become refined in the hands of my students, so we'll see what happens!

From Safe to Brave

 A couple of years ago, we started our year in grade 8 Humanities by having the students create a user manual. It was good, but it missed the mark in a couple of ways, namely, the students didn't use them beyond the assignment. In an effort to more purposefully set students up for the work they would do throughout the year in Room to Breathe, we hacked it, and came up with From Safe to Brave.

The purposes of this beginning of the year task are:

  • We all learn more about the people in the room.
  • We can start to build trust in order to take creative risks. We want to become brave so we can do outrageously awesome things this year.
  • Students can hone in on the things that fascinate them, and their learning preferences, so they can make good decisions about what they want to read, write, speak, view, listen to, and represent about in Room to Breathe.

Feel free to make a copy of the slidedeck and hack it at will so it serves your learners.

Developing Classroom Norms

 We know that establishing a culture of trust in a classroom is a prerequisite for creativity to flourish. Among one of the things my grade 8 team has done to establish a culture of trust at the beginning of the school year is to develop a set of grade 8 norms. We were inspired by a video we saw from Edutopia about a teacher in Maine who did something very similar with his students. We have developed a process that works well in working with our 100+ group of grade 8 students to create a list of ten norms that guide us through the year.

We explain norms to our students as what is "normal" in a given situation. Norms change based on the activity - what's normal in the stands of a major league hockey game is different from what's normal in a library. We explain that we want a set of norms that will serve us in whatever situations we might happen to be in.

We work with our students over the course of the first week to take them through a divergent and convergent process to guide them through the norm creation.

Day 1: Brainstorming

At our school, we teach in teams, with two teachers sharing two classes. We have one Humanities teacher and one Math/Science teacher for each of these two homerooms. We have four homerooms in grade 8, and thus, four teachers. However, we work very closely as a team, and so we like to make time during the first week of school for all the grade 8 students to meet all the grade 8 teachers. We have thus designed the brainstorming round to have students rotate through with each of the grade 8 teachers. This year, amidst COVID, we did this brainstorming outside so students could easily distance from each other and we could have the students move around.

We begin with our own homeroom, and then rotate classes through each teacher. Round 1 begins with this prompt:

Question 1: Think about your best school year. Describe how it:

  • Looked like

  • Sounded like

  • Felt like

We type the words and phrases the students suggest in a shared Google doc. We rotate the students to the next teacher, and then tackle the second question:

Question 2: Think of when your learning is at its best. Describe how your learning space:

  • Looks like

  • Sounds like

  • Feels like

The students rotate to the third teacher, and respond to the third question:

Question 3: Think of the relationships with the people who impact your learning in a positive way. Describe how they:

  • Look

  • Sound

  • Feel

The last question is the most open. The students rotate to the fourth teacher, answering this question:

Question 4: What are your hopes and dreams for this school year?

By the end of the brainstorming round, we have four classes' worth of ideas for each of these four questions.

Day 2: Summarizing with Adjectives and Adverbs

On Day 2, working with our own homeroom, we print a copy of all the brainstorming - enough for one copy for two students. We explain that the students will see a lot of things in common between the four classes. Their first job is to look through the brainstorming and pick out themes. Once they have the themes identified, their next task is to assign an adjective or adverb to the theme. For example, if students found "collaboration" as a common theme, they might choose the adjective "collaborative." If they found a theme of "focus," "focused" would be an appropriate adjective/adverb. One way we teach our students what an appropriate word would be is if we can say "We are ____." Some themes are harder than others to find adjectives and adverbs for, like "growth mindset."

The homeroom teacher then asks the groups to share their adjectives and adverbs, compiling them in another Google Doc full of the adjectives and adverb mindsets the students brainstormed.

Day 3: Live Draft to Converge

One fun thing we often do in grade 8 is a live draft. If we are doing research projects in science, for example, and we want only one group to cover a topic, we do a live draft, so students don't all select the same topic. We've used this concept for our norms, asking each homeroom to narrow their list of adjectives and adverbs to 20 mindset words, with no repeats allowed. By the end of this live draft, we have 80 great words.

Our teaching team then sits down, and from here, we select 20 words we'd be happy living with. We do this because we can take the time to contemplate the words, and the situations in which we would use them. Some words are often very similar, and we can discuss the nuance of each word, selecting the most generous one.

Then our team created a Google form with these 20 words in checkbox voting style.

Day 4: The Vote

Our students get this Google form and every student gets to vote for their top 10 words. 

Our teaching team looks at the results, taking the top 10 words as our final set of grade 8 norms.

The result is an incredibly diverse, thoughtful, and purposeful list of norms. We make a poster with the norms and display them in prominent spots in our classrooms.

Here are the norms our students chose in 2020:

Here are the norms from 2019:

It's interesting to see which words are the same both years and which ones are different.

How We Use Them

Before beginning a task, we will ask our students, "What norms would be important for this task?" Students will suggest 2-3 norms we will keep in mind for the activity. One of my colleagues has remarked how much smoother a task runs when she remembers to ask for norms versus when she forgets. 

These norms replace classroom rules, because, really, who needs that? If something goes awry, we can talk about it using these norms: "Were you being inclusive just now? How might you change things up to be more inclusive?"

They do wonders to establish a culture where everyone agrees about what's normal in a given situation and help each other behave in expected ways. 

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

#NeedATeacherAskATeacher: Informal Mentorship as Support for Pre-Service Teachers During the Time of COVID19

As the world turned sideways a few weeks ago with COVID19, teachers with students from K-12 and post secondary responded with collaborative spirit, professionalism, optimism, and love. The hashtag #NeedATeacherAskATeacher was created by a group of educators and leaders soon after schools closed indefinitely in Alberta as a way to support practicing teachers and parents who were navigating both online education and or homeschooling.

The Unlikely Design Challenge of Moving A Practicum Online

At the same time as this support community was established on Twitter, University of Calgary pre-service teachers were beginning a four week online course which was redesigned by an amazing team to support students in what would have been their practicum in schools. In this course, students prepared a lesson plan to teach to their online cohort. Instructors worked to build relationships as quickly as possible because these pre-service teachers needed to trust their small groups to simulate the age group that they planned to teach. Imagine how playful this could be, as they were asked to bring props, materials, and even invite their own children to participate!

These pre-service teachers, although very well supported by their instructors and their cohorts, no longer had the wisdom and experience of partner teachers to share their experience, their educational philosophies, and their tricks of the trade in real time as they planned and taught their lessons. 

How Might We Create An Opportunity For Pre-Service Teachers to Still Learn From Practicing Teachers?

Enter the spark of an idea to invite the #NeedATeacherAskATeacher community to create an informal mentorship opportunity, connecting pre-service and practicing teachers during these unprecedented times. In the world of design, we would say this was a smash up between creating a collision space for the wisdom of experienced teachers and the questions of pre-service teachers. When asked to participate, many teachers responded quickly, saying that they wanted to pay it forward, or that they appreciated mentors when they were starting out, and also that they looked forward to learning from pre-service teachers, who might be better versed in technology and online learning. 

Voices From the Field

As a professional learning tool, Twitter inspires and motivates as a powerful professional learning tool, connecting teachers far beyond the walls of their classrooms. This was an attempt to amplify the online field experience for pre-service teachers. If they couldn't be in the classroom, perhaps the wisdom could come to them. Alongside the invitation for pre-service teachers to ask specific questions, we began by asking practicing teachers an open ended question based on the course outline, as an opening for teachers to share their advice. The responses below offer a wide range of things for all teachers to consider as they begin to teach in an online setting. 

What's Next?

Generosity and reciprocity are abundant in this grassroots initiative designed to offer pre-service teachers those bits of wisdom that happen on the fly in busy classrooms. We'll continue to ask guiding questions to the community and invite pre-service teachers to ask their own questions as well, creating an interesting "pop-up" professional learning opportunity for all involved. Jump in and join the conversation!
Thursday, March 19, 2020

Room to Breathe (R2B): Personalizing the Language Arts through Student-Designed Projects

This post was updated in February 2021.

The Origin Story

My teaching partner Tara and I knew we needed to redesign the way we taught Language Arts to our grade 8 students this year. What we had been doing was okay, and we did some pretty neat things with our kids, but it certainly wasn't streamlined, and engagement was pretty variable, depending on the task. So we went away in the summer with lots of things to think about, good books to read, and ideas to percolate.

When we met over coffee in August, we came to the conclusion that we wanted to do a reading/writing workshop-style approach. In this initial conversation, we wondered about how we would teach the other strands that are a part of our curriculum: listening, speaking, viewing, and representing. We thought maybe we could do something with these on Fridays. I was just pulling out of the parking lot when Tara called me on handsfree saying, "Wait a minute. WHY would we only do these strands on Fridays?? Why not all the time?"

This is how Room to Breathe was born.

R2B In a Nutshell

Students self-design projects that include an Inhale (Reading, Listening, Viewing) - in other words, text interpretation - and an Exhale (Writing, Speaking, Representing) - in other words, text creation. When they design their projects, they associate "I Can" statements - our entire curriculum reworded in kid-friendly language. Students conference with their teacher before they begin, and again at the end of each Inhale and Exhale. This allows us to help set students up for success when they start, to identify skills that need to be taught, and what resources will be needed. It also allows us to collaboratively assess the student work with the students (more on that later!).

Room to Breathe is the bulk of our English Language Arts instruction time. In 2019-2020, we had time for two full rounds of R2B (that's six projects), a class novel, and a final project. The way Room to Breathe is designed, students achieve all the outcomes from the curriculum over the course of the year (sometimes many times over!).

If you'd prefer to see us explain it to you, we recorded a presentation that we presented at the Calgary City Teachers Convention, in which we share the logistics, practical considerations, and philosophy of our Room to Breathe approach.

The Logistics

We created a flowchart for the Room to Breathe processes to help students get the hang of it, at first. Once they get used to the process, they don't need to refer to the flowchart - it becomes a part of their muscle memory.

Students use a planning sheet to organize their idea before we conference. The planning sheet includes the "I Can" statements, as well as a spot for the student, teacher, and parent to sign when approved.

A selection of some of our "I Can" Statements

The very first set of conferences to get the first Inhale approved is fast and furious, but then meetings are spaced out. We learned that finding a way to stagger that first set of conferences is the way to go, and often have an assignment the students are working on prior. This year, we did a practice inhale-exhale with a shared article and some poems to practice together how to annotate a text during an Inhale, and then had the students write an Exhale their own in the style of one of the mentor texts. Students then signed up for a conference when they completed this initial assignment, spreading out the first round of conferences.

Students set their own due date for the completion of their task and write their name on our classroom calendar on the due date. That becomes their next conference date. As we progressed through the year, we found ways to streamline this. In the classroom, we used a big calendar on the whiteboard for students to write their due date on, which informed us of our conference schedule for the day. Students knew there could be a maximum of four conferences scheduled each day. During emergency online learning during the COVID lockdown, we used a Google Calendar with bookable appointment slots to scheduled one-on-one conferences.

We offer minilessons based on student needs and questions that we compile as we conference prior to beginning a task. Here is a slidedeck we are continually adding to based on our minilessons. These minilessons come organically from what the students need. Not all students are required to attend a minilesson, only those who the minilesson applies to. Why learn about how to analyze a song if you're working on creating a stop motion video? Sometimes this means we repeat minilessons throughout the year, and that's okay. This is about meeting the students' needs and helping them grow.

The Principles

Now that we've gotten the "what" out of the way, we want to dig in a bit deeper into the "why."

A few principles guide our work and have been designed to be heart and centre in R2B.

For student learning to be truly personalised, they need to be the ones making decisions about what to read, view, create, and share.

We have heard people bemoaning the idea that today's youth don't read and write anymore. This is simply not true. In fact, students are reading and write more than ever before using social media and other platforms. In addition to all this reading and writing, they are engaging in sophisticated forms of content creation through platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Tik Tok. The problem is that this kind of text interpretation and creation is sometimes not acknowledged or honoured in classrooms. Of course, we want our students to interpret and create in more critical and analytical ways. But by using the topics and ideas they already care about and allowing them to design their own tasks around these interests, student learning will be incredibly personalized and rich.

We were very inspired by the incredible book Beyond Literary Analysis as we designed R2B and their website Moving Writers has been instrumental as well. In both resources, Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell offer real strategies and methods for using topics that captivate our students and design tasks around them.

Assessment is teaching.

Most of the most powerful work in R2B happens during conference times. We have a chance to sit, one-on-one, with our students and really talk about their learning. When we look at the work that they completed and talk about what they are proud of, and what their next steps are, they get immediate, actionable feedback about what to focus on next. Because this project is ongoing, the feedback they receive is immediately implementable. 

Guess what this means? We don't take grading home. It means being intensely present during the one hour we work on R2B each day, but then our planning periods and after school time can be used to plan for student learning and respond to their needs.

Assessment happens here, not alone, on my couch.

We collaboratively assess and grade all work in R2B with our students, during conferences. In these assessment conversations, and following a conversation about what they learned and demonstrated in their work, we ask our students to suggest a grade for their work. In 99.9% of situations, students' perceptions of their own work are in line with our perceptions. We assess against the "I Can" statements the students selected, and if they can provide lots of evidence to show how they met the outcomes, there is no reason why they shouldn't receive a 4 (our school board uses a 1-4 indicator scale for assessment and reporting). 

The conversation, however, has quickly shifted from one of evaluation and judgment to one of learning - how can we, together, help you improve the complexity of your thinking and learning? We had mentioned that we wanted to push our students into analytical and critical thinking, and to support our students, we created a continuum of thinking:

This document has proven very useful for assessment conversations because if they aren't finding themselves using analytical, evaluative, and creative thinking, they are not demonstrating mastery. It also helps the students when they're designing a task. If they propose they're going to watch the movie Mean Girls and then summarize the story, this isn't designed in such a way that they can access analytical thinking. In our conference, we'll help the students redesign this proposal so it takes a more critical stance. In that example, it might become "I'm going to watch the movie Mean Girls, and identify the character archetypes present. Then I'm going to create a short film using character archetypes to help build meaning." Or it might become, "I'm going to analyze the movie Mean Girls, and then write a review about the movie, answering the question 'Does this 2004 film hold up in 2020 in how it portrays teenagers?"."

Student choice and ownership leads to authentic text interpretation and creation.

The proof in this approach has been the incredible engagement of our students. Our students can't wait for the hour in their day when they can truly breathe and focus on something that they have designed to explicitly engage themselves in their own learning. We have had an incredible range of student projects, which you can check out on our blog.

A Special Note About COVID-19 and Online Teaching and Learning

Many of us have found ourselves in situations where we need to be designing work that students can complete at home and submit online. As we learned about schools being closed indefinitely in our province, we breathed a sigh of relief because R2B could continue, business as usual. 

We continued R2B with our students during emergency online learning. Students used Google Drive to work on their projects, as they had done while at school. As mentioned, we moved all conferences to Google Meet, which students signed up for using Google Calendar. For those teachers who are finding themselves in interesting teaching scenarios, be that full online learning, a hybrid approach, or in the physical school with health precautions, Room to Breathe will work for you.


Please borrow any of our resources if they are helpful to you. Make a copy. Hack them. Make them yours. And then tell us about it! Tweet at us: @luckybydesign (Erin) and @bestcircus (Tara).

Get in Touch

If any of these resources are useful to you, you've been inspired by our approach, or have any questions for us, please reach out to us! You can find us on Twitter at @luckybydesign (Erin) and @bestcircus (Tara), or you can e-mail the Creativity Collective at