Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Pitch Yourself

My Art of Game Design class is a 9 week course block focused on doing exactly what it sounds like: designing games.  For the first three weeks of the course, each student is required to individually design a new game and share it in a 3 minute presentation to the class on Friday.  For the last 5-6 weeks, students work in teams on a single game that they polish to a high level (digital games are fully programmed and have custom digital art, strategy games are balanced through excessive play-testing, physical games have 3D-printed pieces and clear, printed rules, etc.).

Sitting between the two parts of the quarter is Pitch Day.  That was today.

On Pitch Day, each student gets up to 3 minutes to share a game idea, a sales pitch for why they would make a great teammate for someone else's game, or a combination of the two.  About 1/3 of the students focused heavily on the game idea itself, trying to draw others to their team.  The other 2/3 focused more on their own value-add with a team.  It was fascinating to see students pitch their programming skills (or desire to learn), promise to dedicate an hour or more every single night to work on the team project, or desperately offer to supply a team with creative ideas and donuts during late night game design parties if they could join a team.  I was worried students wouldn't take the process seriously, but it honestly felt like I sat through a 1-hour interview with 24 candidates today.  Almost everyone wanted a "job".

Part of the motivation behind an effective pitch is how teaming works, something I explained in detail last week to students:

  • Nobody is required to work on a team.  It does not hurt your chance to get a good grade if you work solo.  Last year, both the highest and lowest grades in the class came from students with solo games.  It is not dishonorable to go it alone, though I do my best to encourage students to look for a team since it makes the class more fun and generally makes the games higher quality.
  • Each team has an owner.  This person makes all hiring decisions.  He or she does not have to hire anybody.  He or she can fire anyone on the team, but like any business, there is a long process involved in firing.
  • A full time hire means that the other person is permanently on the team unless fired.  To fire someone, the owner must approach me and sit through a few rounds of mediation.  After several sessions, if this does not address the underlying issue, I will allow the owner to fire someone.  This never had to be used last year.
  • If an owner wants to hire someone but has doubts about their willingness to fully commit, they can offer an internship.  This gives the other person a week and a half to meet specified criteria in order to be upgraded to a full hire.  If they do not meet the criteria, they will be off the team.
  • The owner cannot be fired.  However, teammates can abandon an owner at any time to work on a competing game.  The game rights in the class (and legally) belong fully to the game owner, so teammates will need to create a different game if they take this route.
Last year, most students worked on physical games and heavily utilized the 3D printer for game pieces.  This year, 75% of students want to build something digital, most using the Unity 3D game engine.  I wonder if it bothers anyone that I have never used Unity in my life, but I am supposedly the teacher of this class?  So far, nobody even mentioned it.  Given the high interest this year, I do plan to learn alongside the students so I can be a more helpful resource.  I will also encourage students to build a new online network of game designers who can assist them as they run into challenges.

As teams start to form and ideas start to gain traction, I am excited to see where this all goes.  I plan to start sharing more student work as it gets developed over the next month.  Stay tuned!

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Connected Community

My grad school cohort, #WSUCohort1, recently discussed the need for connectedness and community for both teachers and students. Given one particular frame of breaking it down, I see two core reasons why someone would want to connect with other teachers:

  1. Create a professional network that challenges my existing practice, brings in new ideas, and offers support in implementing my vision for my classroom.
  2. Create a social network of people who can really understand what I do at work and why I do it. These are people who I can care for and who can care for me beyond just classroom practice.

Notice that I didn't say digitally connect, just connect. I think that connection is a human need that everyone seeks at varying levels.  The digital medium offers the ability to choose any plugged-in person in the world, not just those who happen to live near you.  The physical medium offers a much richer experience of connection (high fives, hugs, voice inflection, shared experiences).

When I think of other teachers interacting with each other in my Twitter timeline, I see both professional and personal connection at work at varying levels. A common thread I perceive amongst many of the most active users is teachers who cannot find the kind of connection they are seeking in their physical school, leading them to not only participate, but immerse themselves in a wider world of people who share their passion and care about them.

Getting back to our weekly #WSUCohort1 chat, my co-facilitator for the topic, Jen @JG0005, started Question #4 by asking about obstacles to creating a connected school. A lot of our discussion focused on teacher discomfort and unfamiliarity with digital tools like Twitter as a major barrier to a digitally connected school.

I asked the question:
Most of the time, I personally do not feel the unmet need for connection at either a professional or personal level. Part of this is due to some degree of introversion and a desire for quiet thinking time, but most of it is due to having my needs met with my face-to-face personal learning network. I spent the past 4.5 years working very closely on every single course with my high school math PLC, I work daily with an all-in co-teacher, I feel very comfortable discussing ideas and concerns with my principal and school counselors, and share a building and district with many other hard-working, passionate adults seeking the best long-term outcomes for our students. More than just pushing my work, these are people who care about me, my family, and other things I am passionate about. Having a classroom right at the busiest intersection of hallways means that my greatest challenge is hiding from all of these awesome people so I can finish my work once in a while. I am overloaded with meaningful, professionally-rooted connections.

However, my tweet above set-off a long discussion with a number of interesting points. Jen G @JG0005 looked at the angle of medium:
Kory @korytellers brought up the importance of modeling professional, digital connection with the intention of students using it in their future:
Jen @jenhegna, our course professor and fearless tech/innovation leader in Byron, pushed back with some of the unique aspects of the digital PLN that a face to face network cannot replicate:

Four days after our Twitter chat, there are still new posts being made on this thread. The topic is a hot button, as it pushes against the entire point of our class -- digital connection between teachers and classrooms. From my own reflection and the torrent of tweets coming at me since Wednesday evening, I do believe that all teachers should be part of a digital community of other teachers.

I think of it in a similar way to exercise: we all need it, but it meets more needs for some people than others. My wife loves to run, ski, or do anything that involves moving. It clears her mind, makes her stronger, and helps her sleep better. She is a much happier person when she is able to exercise. On the other hand, I only feel this need after not moving for 8 hours straight, and even then, it needs to either be short or part of a game to engage me. I exercise just enough to avoid early death.

For some, Twitter will fill an unmet need for professional and/or personal connection, making it more likely that the teachers will stick with it on their own. For others, this tug does not exist. This doesn't change the importance of modeling professional connection for students, giving students the opportunity to engage with others around the world, or opening yourself to a much wider set of ideas than you could ever see in just your physical network. It just means that it has to become a routine, a chore, a part of the work day, or more creatively a game.  If we want to convince other teachers to engage in a social, digital community, we need to consider that many will lack the tug that so many Tweeting teachers have pushing their sails.