Saturday, April 23, 2016

Reflections on connecting a classroom

I feel comfortable being a connected educator.  I understand how connection benefits and grows me as a teacher and person, and I understand the logistics behind building new and lasting connections.  Because I have been building connections for so long, I feel like it is just something I was born able to do, so when I made my first conscious effort to connect my classroom, I was in for a nice surprise: connecting is not as natural as it looks.  In addition, I later realized that what I asked my students to do is fundamentally different than what I do when seeking connection.

During the past quarter, the primary project for teams of students in my Game Design class was to (surprise!) build a game.  It could be a video game, card game, board game, anything -- as long as it was (1) awesome and (2) a game, it counted.  Students loved the challenge, and despite a lack of formal instruction on the tools used to construct digital games, many teams took that path and learned the logistics together.

One of my requirements for the design process is that teams capture their progress in two week segments, post a blog update, share out their learning to a wider audience, and use the incoming feedback to direct their next cycle.  I was not surprised when students resisted, so I kept pushing them forward to capturing their work in videos or writing and spread it across the web.  I showed students the game design subreddit, talked about Twitter users that would be good to connect to, and encouraged them to search for niche communities in forums and elsewhere that would take an interest in their project.  I even helped them take the reader's perspective when phrasing things, since nobody on the internet wants to do your homework.  However, they may gladly jump into a creation that you are passionate about and willing to open up.

After students got their posts online, [[crickets]].  Nothing.  A few teams got an unhelpful "good luck" or "sounds cool".  Nobody was willing to engage.  We talked about it as a class, and the consensus was that they were not far enough into their projects yet to really communicate the idea.  I agreed, but two weeks later we ran into the same issue.  Student motivation for the capturing and sharing was very low due to the lack of interest and response, opting to just focus on building their game instead.


When looking back on the failed project, I thought a lot about who I go to for feedback on my own ideas.  95% of the time, it is to people who I know, who I trust, and who care about me.  My poor wife signed up for a lifetime of reading tons of things I put together.  Some of my close friends, family, and co-workers get all of my long emails, blog posts, and Google Docs with a variety of things that get me excited.  Occasionally, I go to the wider Twitter community for feedback on ideas, but even in this case, I engage with someone via referrals of people I have existing relationships with.  In all situations, relationship precedes meaningful feedback.  If I want my students to seek feedback from the outside world, I need to help them build relationships in those communities first.

Taking a step further back, I realized that feedback and connection depend on audience.  My students were not asked to design games for a given market segment -- they were told to make something awesome that they would be passionate about.  As a result, they put little thought into their target audience, leaving them with no clear group to validate their ideas.  Feedback didn't even matter that much to the students -- they were focused on their main customers -- themselves!  When designing passion-based projects that have external connection as a key goal, I will make sure that students define their external audience and engage with that group to test and improve their work.

Finally, I realized how narrowly I was defining and thinking about connection in my classroom.  Shortly after Game Design ended, @jenhegna shared out a powerful video with one teacher sharing his class's varied connected experiences.  His class had activities that build community amongst the students and teacher, interactions across the school, connections with parents and community members during their projects, and purposeful outreach to authors and subject experts globally.  It made so much sense -- connection is not only an online thing -- it is all over, at all levels, in all places.  Online connection is one important component of a larger space.  This ah-ha moment has been the key to all of my planning for future courses as I look to make connection something that is deeply embedded at many levels.


  1. Hello Andy,
    As I´m studying pedagogics I have to plan a project about creating more attractive ways of solving mathematical problems. For this I have scanned lots of blogs and have been inspired of your idea using online communities as potential advisers for your students to help themselves.
    But I´ve got one question: Have you only made this online experiences considering game designing or in other subjects (e.g. math) as well?
    I would be grateful if you share your experience with me.

    1. Hello,
      From my experiences, I think that meaningful online engagement can only come when students are (1) working on meaningful projects and (2) take time to build a relationship in the network. If you are thinking about typical math problems, this is probably not the best path. If you are imagining something more investigative in nature, then finding people who have buy-in to student thinking would be a great place to start. Parents are often relevant, but designing solutions to other adults' challenges is a good way to pull them in as well.

  2. Thank you so much for replying so fast. You've been helping me a lot so far eventhough I'm still trying to combine my ideas with your suggestions.

    That's why I have another question. Do you think it would make it easier for students if I already build up some relationships in the networks? Because than we won't "waste" time with that and the students can use my relationships.

    1. Absolutely that will help. This will also give you direct feedback on their thoughts on working with your students -- do they want to help? Would they do it as a favor to you? Would they do it to help their own students? Would they do it because the projects are really interesting? The more directly connected to you these people are, the better sense you will have of why they are willing to engage with your students.

    2. Wow thank you so much Andy. I am now slowly getting an idea of how I could manage that.

      Sorry for bombarding you with questions but I am still trying to find a "non typical mathematical problem where I could include the parents". I was thinking about many different ideas during the weekend but I am not confinced of one so far.
      Do you maybe have an idea (as a experienced math teacher)?

    3. I don't have one that I have used, but I really like your idea of doing it in math class. I think scenarios that ask students to predict something, ideally something local or regional in nature, could be good. Ex: what will the population of [nearby city] be in 2025? It involves some research, fitting a linear or non-linear model to data, and has room for opinions (how much do the past 20 years really say about what is happening now)? Weird spikes and dips in the past data could lead to interesting family conversations that explain why they happened (assuming they grew up in the area). You might be able to practice something more immediately answerable as well -- one example is the Barbie Bungee Jump activity (Google it) -- that would be fun to get adult input with but will ultimately be tested by students. Maybe, rather than making it core to the curriculum, you have a monthly challenge question (some open-ended, some with a closing activity to get the "answer") and use it as a family engagement strategy. I might try it myself :)

    4. I've had my first math lesson last week and just wanted to tell you about it. It was great - so thank you for all your support and ideas. Now after teaching the first lesson there is one thing where i have found no solution so far.

      As you suggested I've used a non typical math problem and the students had one week to solve it. Now some of them stopped thinking by themselves and used the online community to find a person who was able to solve the problem (which obviously was not the aim). Any ideas how I could solve that problem so that it won't happen in the next lesson again?
      I thought about asking them to write a essay or something to report what they have done and what experiences they've made. Do you think that would help?

  3. Awesome! As for the getting out of doing work themselves, it is resourceful (a good skill to encourage), but obviously not that much math gets learned. For the next problem, you could put a twist on it and make the problem itself more personal, such as how many slices of pizza they are on pace to eat in their lifetime. By doing the problem that they can gets lots of help on first, they get used to reaching out, but now on this one the reference numbers are personal, so others can offer process suggestions and start dialog, but the student would need to run their own numbers in the end. You could also add the rubric items that (1) you must engage in dialog with an outside resource about the problem and (2) you much do your own calculations and be able to justify them.

    1. Hello Andi,
      because of the fact that the project will end soon, I want to thank you for your ideas so far. I am looking forward to using your latest instructions for a future project because this topic really has catched me! If I have results I'll let you know :)