Saturday, August 31, 2013

Teach anything with just three apps?

I am a minimalist. I love finding ways to do more with a lot less. I hope someone speaks at my funeral about how I touched the world in a significant way using only what fits with me in the casket. It could make a great visual.  If nothing else, I’ll be clutching my iPad.

I was recently musing about what’s the least a teacher would need to teach anything. I tweeted this and it got a little bit of attention:
I was exaggerating somewhat, mostly because I didn’t really go through all the CCSS and I had to fit it in 140 characters. I would certainly need a few other apps, even if just for recording notes while working. I’ll give a slightly longer list of the bare necessities below, but first here was my main thought behind this.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I think all learning should be posed as a creative problem solving activity involving three steps: find information, process it and present the solution.

Elaborating a little more, students need to
  • research the problem at hand and gather resources or information that they already know
  • process all that, getting their brains around it, synthesizing seemingly unrelated ideas, adding in their own thoughts
  • present it in a way that suits the people who need to hear the solution.
So my tweet assumed that the iPad has a browser and the learner can access the Internet. That can help a lot with the “find it” stage.

30 Hands and iMovie are my favorite apps for narrated slideshows or videos, respectively. They’d be used for the presentation piece.

Being a little more realistic, I’d need some apps that would let them store the things they find. They also would need to process it all. I gave it more thought and made this list of suggested apps. I’m including the two I already mentioned, just to give more detail.

30 Hands - This is a great free tool for slideshows and I have a demo and review about it here. You can use your pictures as backgrounds, add text and draw on the slides. It is very simple to record narration for each slide, then it exports as a movie to the Camera Roll. I love it!

iMovie - I don’t usually by apps that cost $4.99, but this app feels like it’s worth so much more. You can easily add pan and zoom effects to pictures you’ve taken and edit videos you recorded (or even those slideshows you made with 30 Hands). It is also simple to add narration, transitions and titles. It’s a portable video studio.

Google Drive - Information gathered in research and your own thoughts could easily be taken in the Notes app that comes with the iPad. But Google Drive is free, so why not add this to the list? Sure, it’s limited compared to the version you’d have on your desktop computer, but I’m still amazed with how useful it is for productivity.

Doodle Buddy or SketchBook Express - Both of these drawing apps are free. These would be mostly for the presentation part of the process. We use them in school for titles and other graphics. Doodle Buddy is extremely simple. SketchBook has layers and some very good drawing tools making it promising, but possibly more complex than you’d need for most projects.

Inkflow - I haven’t paid for the Plus version of this yet, so for me this is like a stack of paper and a black marker. I love it for flow charts and visual thinking, so it’s definitely a tool for the processing stage of the learning process. You can also export the drawings and notes as jpg or PDF to use them in presentations too. (Side note: When talking at the coffee shop, this app becomes the proverbial napkin on which I illustrate my ramblings.)

Voice Record Pro - This audio recording app is incredibly versatile because of all the apps you can export it to. Files also can be opened in iMovie as the background track. So presentations can be recorded as a speech or conversation, then in iMovie you can add pictures or images you drew using any of the above apps. It also converts to mp3 so you can send it to others in a flexible format. (Bonus: I’m not including Video Star as a “must have”, but if you record yourself playing live music with Voice Record Pro it exports to Video Star so you can lip sync. Fun!) I wish Voice Record Pro had better tools for editing, but for free it is great.

GarageBand - I debated about including this app because original music is usually not necessary in a presentation. Still, there will be some topics where such a projects will be greatly enhanced because of the possibilities of this app. (And for some students it can make all the difference.) Like iMovie, it is $4.99, but whenever I use it I find myself sticking it in people’s faces, raving about how much it does for that small price. All the virtual and Smart instruments are outstanding.  For the basics, it is very intuitive to record and edit tracks.  As with Voice Record Pro, you could use this for any audio recordings. It certainly has more editing capabilities than that app, though sometimes I need iTunes on my computer to get the files where I need them.

So there you have it. I’m going to give my minimalist approach a try this school year as much as possible. I’ll edit this as necessary.

What am I overlooking? Are there any other apps you consider to be the bare necessities?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

6 ways to teach like an artist

New for 2014: Follow the continuing Teaching Like an Artist series on

Note from 11-8-2013:  I wrote this post at the end of summer.  I've been developing the idea both in writing and by trying to live it out.  After three months of that, I wrote a related article here:  Five Benefits of Teaching Like an Artist

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge." -Albert Einstein

"I am an artist....  I am here to live out loud."
 -Emile Zola

We've probably all seen the websites and books that encourage us to teach like different things--pirates, rockstars, champions.  I didn't search long and hard, but I imagine there are probably lists out there already about teaching like an artist.  In one way or another, we're probably saying the same things.

I like the idea of teaching like an artist, though, because it allows for passion, personality and maybe even some insanity.

Artists dream and bring the dreams to life.

It's fun to hang out with artists.  They can straddle the line between deep insight and admiring things that just look, sound, taste or feel good for reasons they don't care to figure out.  They show us another angle we wouldn't have seen on our own.  

Our students would have a great time hanging out with people like that day after day.

To me, art is love expressed freely.  It might involve a lot of other emotions too, but behind it all there is love for something.  Art is something powerful + you, the artist.  And what comes out is unique.  Artists know how to capitalize on that uniqueness and make the world a better, more beautiful place because of their work.

Almost everyone falls in love with another person.  We go through the stages like most people and similar events happen in all the stories.  But artists put those things in words, songs, pictures or other creative works in ways that inspire, connect and encourage those who experience the art.  Artists remind us we're not alone, that there's something worth getting out of bed for and that at times life will demand everything you can possibly give.

School needs more of these people!

I could go on, but for now, here's the list:

6 Ways to Teach Like an Artist

1)  Think of a new way.
Make a habit of putting a new spin on something you always do.  Give it a new name, retype the version you've used for a decade or use some other tool to present it.  Don't change it for change sake, but make it your own.

Artists let personality and talent shine through what they do, but when we have kids showing up at the door every morning we forget to let that happen.  Purposely put your touch--some twist no one else you know would come up with--on something new each week.  If you can sing a little, sing more.  Draw?  Draw more.  Write poems.  It will be worth the extra couple hours on a weekend.

2)  Share your work.
This might be the best way to stay inspired and inspire others. It is certainly easier than ever to share your best work now, yet I'm continually amazed at how few teachers do so.  Artists know it is rewarding to see how far their ideas go.  Whether it's a blog, website or Pinterest, start an account and start sharing.  The joy of finding that someone else, possibly on the other side of the planet, used your work with her students will add significance to your hard work.

3)  Notice what you love and love it out loud.  
Students need to see more adults who are passionate about something.  I go from class to class in my district working with many teachers and too often the only real life examples I hear are related to jobs and making money.  Too often it's in the language of the mass market and commercials.  No wonder the kids are bored.

Life is filled with exciting opportunities to learn, grow personally, meet deep needs and leave a mark.  There are reasons to be so grateful you can't help but tell about it.  Do your students know what you're passionate about and thankful for?  Do they know why you decided to be a teacher?  Are these things expressed in ways that only you can?  

This isn't necessarily to make them love those things too, but it can show them what passion and joy for living look like.

4)  Let yourself feel and express the negative emotions too.
Let's face it, artists can be troubled people.  We know the stories, but chances are if you've made any serious attempt to be an artist of some sort you've felt it yourself.

It is frustrating to care so much and have your hopes dashed.  It might have some benefits to always see what others don't notice, but sometimes it can feel like you're the only one one the planet dealing with reality.

We can either avoid the things that cause the negative emotions or we can accept them as part of the work.  I've dealt with this personally for my entire career in the schools, but I'm trying to be brief.  When it's all said and done, here's what I've got: 

The heart that makes great art is also more sensitive to the pain of real life, so expect it to hurt.  Just keep doing the work because the only alternative is to stop really living. 

5)  Risk failure.
Seth Godin convinced me of the importance of this in The Icarus Deception.  In fact, he said if there isn't risk, it isn't art.  As with #4 above, fear of failure will always come along if you're working like an artist.  Expect it and live with it.

The best teachers I know are the ones who give everything knowing very well it won't always work.  They might look stupid for a few minutes when the new technology isn't coming through.  They might waste hours planning a lesson that is ruined by a snowday and some students in rotten moods.  They might have to reteach another lesson because the video they made didn't really do the trick.

This isn't a suggestion to be completely stupid.  Know the cost and proceed like a professional who does have bills to pay.  

It won't hurt to loosen up though.  Face the fear of failure and press on.  You'll learn some of your best lessons when you realize you survived the awkward moments.

6)  Tell the story in your way.
I know you'll be busy if you're teaching like an artist, but be sure pay attention to what's going on.  Tell that story.  First of all, tell it to yourself in a journal.  Record what you're learning.  I don't care if it's a sticky note or an email to yourself, don't let the moments slip by.  Keep track of them and polish them later if you find a reason to show them off.

But definitely show some of them off.  Tell the stories to colleagues and tell some to the world.  This goes along with sharing your work, because the story itself is art, but by the story I also mean the big picture.

It's not just about the art you made, but it's how it was accepted.  What did the students learn?  What did you learn?  What did you notice that everyone else should pay attention to?

Obviously you could write these things in a blog or maybe you'd even write a book over the summer.  It's all easier than ever.  But don't limit it to written narratives of what happened.  You could also write a poem, a song or a video (or a video with your poem turned into a song) inspired by what you learned.  Find a creative way to present it.  Call it an example for a student project or show it off at parent night.  

Just keep reminding everyone that it's worth doing the work.  

The world needs what only you can do.  

Dream big,

work hard 

and do it with passion.

What would you add to the list?

Note:  I already mentioned Seth Godin's book The Icarus Deception   I also want to point out that his book Poke the Box had a huge impact on me.  Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon also influenced how I view my work, which in turn inspired much of this article.  All the books are pretty quick reads, so check them out at a library or buy a used copy on Amazon.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

8 things I emphasize in game design lessons

I love games, I make games of various types and I work with educational technology in a middle school.  This means I often have very excited students (usually boys) telling me their dreams of making computer games.  

On one hand I love their passion and I try to encourage them.  I have used it at times to motivate some otherwise very unmotivated students.

At the same time, I am wary of presenting a false picture of what it takes to make a successful (or even a good) game.  "Making it" with games (like any creative venture) can be frustrating.  I don't take it lightly when dealing with their hopes and dreams along with the very real possibility of failure.

I don't always have the chance to teach the class or guide all the aspects of the game design lessons when I'm supporting the classroom teacher.  Sometimes I do, sometimes I'm just in the room and working with the students.  From my experience as a game designer and my time with these students, though, here are the top 8 things I always emphasize in game design lessons.

1)  Don't think about money.  Don't even think you could live off any game you make.  Whether a card game, board game or computer game, you'll most likely invest hours of time and make no money at all.  Most people who make games do not make enough to live off them.  That's reality.

I've made a couple party games that have sold all over the world and I made very little money at it.  Most of my friends who have made games, some a lot more successful than mine, still keep their day jobs.  I make it a personal goal to never talk about the money.

2)  Approach it as a hobby and think about the people who will enjoy your game.  If you have fun with it and are grateful when you see others enjoy your work that is a great reward.  Remember that your work can inspire others, make someone smile or bring good friends together.  Those are great things and if you enjoy doing it, keep doing it.

In fact, I'd even go so far as to say if you're good at it, you should do it.  Sometimes when I wanted to give up on a game I'd push through simply because I felt a responsibility to see that idea go as far as it possibly could.

3)  Game design is work.  It seems like you'd get to play all day, but there are plenty of parts to the process that you won't enjoy.  They won't seem fun.

If we're talking computer games, there is a lot of work up front before you'll even be able to play a game of any complexity.  Learning to program is not easy.  Some applications make it easier than it used to be, but if you really want to build a game from the ground up it's going to require hours of learning, programming and testing.

I have programmed for years and just my simple Flash game, Pegged, about made my head explode when I tried to do the scoring piece.  Seriously, I had to get away from all people and noise, staring at my notes until it hurt.  No one gets that until they've seen it, but trust me.  It takes work.

4)  Know the difference between a dream and a wish...and make sure you're following a dream.  This applies to a lot more than game design, but it's good to throw this in.

When we wish for things we think about the end result--maybe we think about it too much--and we would love to somehow get to that without any real work.  We know we really want that end result.  It would be great and we'd be so happy to see it come true.  But it's a wish because it's a fantasy.  The end doesn't happen without the work.

To me, a dream is more realistic and worth working for.  Maybe some would call this a goal or a plan, and those calculated terms can comes into play, but I like to call it a dream.  It still involves the heart.  It's great to dream, but work toward the dream.  

I always say girls wish that One Direction would stop by their house when they're in town.  Boys wish they could make a living making computer games.  Both are about as unlikely.  Dream, but live in the real world!

5)  It is good to play many games, but do it with design in mind.  The fun part of the hobby of game design is that the "research" can be playing games.  I try to play as many as I can.

When you play, though, don't get so caught up in the playing that you forget about why you're taking the time to do it.  Learn what works and what doesn't.  Watch how the game affects others.  Think about what you understand and what you don't.  Make sure you know what makes something fun.  

Along with this, read about as many games as you can too.  Read reviews of good and bad games that you probably won't be able to play.  Read the rules or details of games from genres or styles you don't like.  Even though you don't actually play them, you'll still learn a ton.  Know what people have done and try to find the areas that are yet unexplored.

6)  Read articles and watch videos about game designers and the design process.  Austin Kleon, in his book Steal Like an Artist, says we do this not to get their ideas, but to get the thinking behind their ideas.

Look into the people who make your favorite games and figure out what makes them tick.  Read interviews about people who made successful games you don't really like.  What led to the decisions that resulted in those games?

When you read their stories you should get a better idea of what I meant about all the work that goes into it.  You will almost never hear a designer say that a game just fell in place.

7)  Record all your ideas for games.  You'll never be able to make them all and many of the ones you try to make won't really work.  Still, every idea is worth keeping because:

  • In any art you should form the habit of getting and recording as many ideas as possible.
  • It very well can be useful in another way at another time.

Watch my video on how to make games if you're interested in hearing more about keeping a game idea notebook.  (There are a few other good tips in that two part series as well!)

8)  Keep producing while the others play.  Never just play.  This might sound a lot like tip #5 above, but it encompasses all your research, play and work on game design.

If you do the things listed above, you'll be working on your craft even when it feels like you're having some fun.  You'll be getting better every day while others are playing and that's a huge edge.  

Links to resources

I usually make board and card games, so I am mostly familiar with those resources.  Here are a few starting points based on the steps above and some are related to computer games as well.

  • Designer interviews at Fair Play Games - I interviewed a lot of board game designers several years ago.  Their tips on design can still be useful.
  • Tips for Success from Dominic Crapuchettes - Dominic is the most successful game designer that I know personally.  He worked hard to bring his dreams to life and he's enjoying the rewards.  
  • Tom Vasel's game designer interviews - Tom interviewed many game designers over the years.  Here they are compiled on the Boardgame Geek website.
  • The Boardgame Geek - Speaking of this site, it's a great place to learn about tons of games (good and bad) throughout the ages.  They have subsections of the site devoted to video games and role playing games too.
  • Inspiring Creativity - Here's a post I wrote in 2012 about a friend of mine who creates iOS games.  Be sure to read Kory's post about how he made Blockhouse.  It's a great example of the work that goes into even a "simple" game.
  • Meeting with experts - Last school year two of my designer friends met with some of my students in a Google Hangout.  I wrote about that experience and some of their tips in this post.
  • My posts on game design - This is not the most organized way to find the information, but the link will take you to all the posts tagged "computer game programming" from this blog.  
  • Making What's It to Ya? - Here's my fairly detailed account of how one of my most popular games became an idea in my head and went around the world.  Here's the brief story as a video.
  • How to Make Games - I linked to this above, but wanted to put it here two.  Part 1 and Part 2 of this presentation can be found on YouTube.  They haven't been very popular, but I gave away some gems in there, in my opinion!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

New Creative Learning Systems Lab

I'm in training this week for our new STEM lab from Creative Learning Systems, so I put the video below together for our Facebook page.

This is coming to our middle school.  This lab represents everything I wanted to accomplish in my math class years ago as well as all the technology integration and project based learning I've worked toward the past few years.

Lots of learning and fun ahead!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Back to School Deal from Fair Play Games - What's It to Ya? x4

My friends at Fair Play Games are selling bundles of four copies of my party game What's It to Ya? for only $7.99 plus shipping.

What's It to Ya? is the basis of many of the critical thinking game activities I have on this site.  It's great for several subject areas and works well for Sunday school and youth groups too. (Here's a review from a youth leader.)

The bundle of four copies is enough for 32 students in a class to play, so it's great for group games after doing the other activities with the entire class.

For this price, it's also a great option to give the game as gifts or prizes in a classroom, especially if the students are familiar with the game from the classroom activities.

Be sure to check out my many fun, free games based on What's It to Ya? (a.k.a. Oh, Really!).  

Note:  I made the game What's It to Ya?, but I no longer am receiving royalties on this edition.  I mention it on my blog to help my friends at Fair Play Games and to make it available as a fun learning activity for as many students as possible.