Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Game Design Project

I recently had the opportunity to work with one of the ELA teachers at Swainston MS where I work as a Digital Learning Coach. Dana Hazzard approached me about teaching her students how to code using her class set of iPads. The idea presented to me was that the students would write a story for her that included some kind of game element. I would then teach the students how to code a game based on their in-story game.

I had taught elementary students how to code using Scratch, so I knew the potential and how easy it would be for students to understand coding concepts. This was done with the desktop and web-based versions of Scratch and I knew nothing about what was available for the iPad. After trying out several apps I finally settled on Hopscotch, an awesome app designed specifically for students to learn all about coding. I discovered Hopscotch's YouTube channel with many great tutorials. I settled on their 2014 Hour of Code tutorial for creating a food fight. Armed with these ideas, I spent all day in Dana's class, walking her students through the tutorial so they could get the idea of how Hopscotch in general, and coding in particular, worked.

Here's what Dana had to say about the project:
Working with technology in language arts is something I always try to incorporate in the classroom in an attempt to give my students exposure to the digital world and its’ every increasing importance.  When we do projects in class, I always give kids options to present information through media and that benefits kids with access to technology, but I wanted to do something that would give all the kids the chance to create with technology.  A lot of my students lack access to technology except at school and the ones with the least opportunity need the exposure the most.  The problem was to figure out a project that involved something that would be new for most, if not all, students that could achieve the goals of the content and keep students engaged.  Having the kids create a game seemed like a great idea. I frequently teach the elements of plot by having the 7th graders analyze their favorite video games. There’s a lot more buy-in from kids when they realize that their computer games use plot structure. Unfortunately, I knew that my coding skills were not up to the task and I didn’t have time to put myself through a crash course.

I worked with Mark Thomas, the digital learning coach for Swainston Middle School, on a way to have the kids start coding.  He suggested a software that needed to be installed on the iPads and we set up a schedule.  Once I had the end portion of the project in motion, I started working on the beginning.  So many students tell me that they want to be game designers that this as an opportunity to get them to learn about more technology jobs.  The project started with an article about the similarities and differences between programmers, game designers, and graphic illustrators. The students had to answer fact-based questions in sentence and paragraph format (DOK 1&2). In the next portion of the project, they had to write an original story that involved a food fight, invasion, or a maze (DOK 3 & 4). They spent hours perfecting their stories. The homework completion rate for the first two sections was over 85% for all classes. 

Mark Thomas spent a full day with us. My classes stay with me for Reading and English, so the students had 100 minutes of learning how to start their games.  I was so glad that I decided to ask Mark to work with the classes. He guided them through a process that I knew would have been difficult for me. He was so relaxed as he guided them through this process that the kids I thought might become frustrated didn’t.  The classroom was 100% engaged the entire time.  I gave the classes an hour each day to work on their games.  Each day they decided what they needed to do on their game the following day to help with organizational skills (DOK 3). Since I do not know how to code, the students had to rely on each other to figure out their problems, and they did. When the students couldn’t figure it out, they wrote down the questions to ask Mark later. They figured out problems and then started creatively manipulating the program to add facets to the game that Mark and I had never discussed. Several kids found that the game they created did not match the story that they had written and that was a major portion of their final grade, so they rewrote their stories.  Friday Mark came back and spent the day to help the kids with trouble-shooting.  Some classes barely needed him at all. Other classes never let him sit down. There were some tears along the way. One student found her game disappeared and she broke down—for a minute. Then she picked herself up, figured out what the problem was, and found her game.  That lesson alone is invaluable.

Students who had completed their games were deemed computer experts and they walked around the class to help their classmates.  One class ended up with six computer experts, but trouble broke out when one student named himself management and the other five quickly unionized. 

On the following Monday, the students read each other’s stories and played each other’s games.  I walked around and graded the games and stories while others played. The class was completely engaged. In fact, the classes had been entirely engaged for the full project.  The students were hard on each other. If the game and the story didn’t match, they told each other about it. Some students had managed to put Easter eggs into their games and the game reviewers were frustrated by being unable to crack the code.  All of the students had finished their games, but some games were better than others and they are consumers with high expectations.  This made me really glad that I had set up the evaluation so that they had to write at least one nice thing about every game. They wrote one nice thing about the game, but then made suggestions of how the game could be better or that the story needed to match the game more closely. 

We finished the project with students writing evaluations of the project for me and thank you notes for Mark. It was a complete success. The most common remarks were about the new appreciation that they had discovered for game designers and technology careers. Several students who do not have access to technology at home wrote that they hadn’t really considered a career in technology, but that idea didn’t seem so crazy now. Many wrote that they hadn’t expected it to be so hard followed by a request to do this project again.  A lot of students talked about how they know understood the connection between stories, plot structure, and games.  It probably helps that I have been connecting those three together since September, but I was glad to see that the connection finally seemed real to them. 

Upon reflection as a teacher, this is a project that I will definitely do next year.  It incorporated informational text in the article they read and analyzed, creative writing in the stories they created, and application by creating a game.  It hits the Nevada Academic Content Standards in several ways—RL 7.7, W 7.3, 3a, 3b, 3c, 7.4, 7.7, 7.9, 7.10, and SL 7.1b. It hit DOK 1 and 2 in the beginning portion of the project, and DOK 3 and 4 with the story creation and game creation. It helped them develop some of the 21st century skills that they need, but schools don’t always get to teach, and it opened their eyes to new possibilities. It reinforced hard skills like reading, writing, and synthesis as well as soft skills, such as organization, being helpful to others, being grateful for opportunities, communication, and perseverance.  The project was relevant to the students. 

I had set up the scoring process so that students who did the work would score well, which I will also continue. I wanted the students to be focused on learning, not on the assessment, and that also helped them relax. The one change that I will make to next year’s version of this project is that I will increase the informational reading, and spend a little more time on the writing process. The project took about a month altogether from when I gave them the first reading assignment to the game-review day. In class, the entire project took 8 class hours: 1 hour setting up the project and going over the informational text with them, 6 hours creating the games, and 1 hour evaluating the games. 

As a teacher, it was a great way to work with the digital coach. We have digital coaches, but I don’t think teachers always know how to use their expertise.  I began by having a 15-minute meeting with Mark explaining what I wanted to accomplish. He made recommendations of how to meet those goals, researched the software and made recommendations, and rearranged his schedule to be there. He made it simple for me to turn my class into a high-tech experience for the students.  I recommend that teachers excited by the possibilities of combining technology and content area talk to the digital coach about how to make it work in the classroom, especially if you are lucky enough to have Mark Thomas as your digital coach.
This was a phenomenal experience for me. I was concerned about students becoming frustrated with coding. I was also afraid that the time they spent without me would degenerate into chaos and problem after problem. However, when I came back on Friday to see what they had done, I was totally amazed! Students had gone far above and beyond my expectations. They had complicated game routines, intro sequences, game elements that I had never thought of, and a ton of creativity! There had discovered and used other commands in Hopscotch that I hadn't even touched on.

There were a couple of serious problems we had to figure out. But when I explained to the student why the game behaved it did, they always understood what to change in their code. There was only one problem that I could not solve and I still want to go back to that iPad and figure it out. But the girl who had coded that game had done something so awesome and complex that I don't think I'll ever be able to figure out what went wrong.

These are the kinds of activities that make teaching worth it. Students demonstrated collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. If you have Hopscotch on your iPad, search for Swainston and check out all the awesome games these students created!

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