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  1. Literacy Skills Through Text-Based Adventures

    May 2, 2012 by Josh Caldwell

    Choose Your Own Adventure

    Recently I introduced a group of my technology students to the text-based adventure Lost Pig, both as a way of broadening their reading horizons and as a gauge of interest in the genre. I posted about the experience on this site, but there’s a deeper level of learning going on that I feel merits its own post.

    When I first introduced my students to Lost Pig, I knew that they would find the experience challenging simply because it was an unfamiliar way to interact with text. As I expected, the majority of my students really struggled; they weren’t used to a game forcing them to do so much problem solving without any visual cues to help them. Right from the beginning players are preventing from going in any direction, and the player must notice that there is a noise coming from one of the bushes and then listen to that noise to progress. After a couple of minutes of confusion, the stronger readers figured it out an moved on. Gradually more and more students figured it out, until finally the stragglers moved on with a little bit of prompting. That’s when I made my first realization about IF.

    Interactive Fiction FORCES students to use reading comprehension strategies – you can’t just gloss over text that you don’t understand and move on; you are physically incapable of progressing until you comprehend essential elements of the text.

    This realization put my students’ frustration into a new context. The frustration they experienced trying to figure out the game is similar to the frustration they feel when reading a challenging text, only amplified. Students have to confront their comprehension issues on the spot, instead of waiting until a test or essay to realize that they didn’t fully understand what they read.

    Interactive Fiction provides immediate feedback about your reading strategies. At its best, IF is responsive and adaptive – trying to do the “wrong” thing will often result in a hint or additional information to help the reader self-correct. Misconceptions and misunderstandings can be dealt with in real time and with humor.

    Not only did the interactive nature of the game bring into focus the reading comprehension process for my students, it also actively helped them to engage and adapt. Imagine what we could do with an IF game purposefully written to model reading comprehension, a game that could articulate to the player how to make sense of the text. Students would then be more fully aware of when they are and are not successfully reading and comprehending the text, and they would be rewarded for demonstrating comprehension.

    Interactive Fiction provides meaningful rewards for comprehension. Students feel a sense of accomplishment from solving puzzles and besting challenges.

    I don’t mean to suggest by this that students shouldn’t seek intrinsic reward from reading, but rather that the gamely nature of IF engages in the reader a stronger sense of achievement. When the reader/player is actively taking part in the story, they can also take ownership over the accomplishments of their character. It’s one thing to read along as Harry and the gang work their way through the various enchantments protecting the Philosopher’s Stone, but another entirely to actually solve those puzzles on your own. While this can be the most frustrating aspect of IF for low readers, it is also the thing that is most likely to keep them striving. Well written IF provides gradually increasing challenges, allowing readers to build their confidence and invest in the story. The best written IF is fully adaptive, providing readers of multiple levels to be challenged and successful.

    Interactive Fiction allows for students of all levels to be challenged. IF can be written such that there are multiple clues, deeper plot elements to explore, point systems, or other opportunities for readers to challenge themselves.

    Where a traditional book can only provide one story, one experience, IF can adapt the story to meet the level of the reader. Skilled readers can be challenged to read deeply into veiled references that might lead them into a different storyline entirely. IF games can engage different levels of readers with point systems, Easter eggs, alternate endings, or even inside jokes that let a reader know they caught something that most wouldn’t.

    The potential for IF in the classroom is really limitless, and I’ve only just scratched the surface. If you’re interested in learning more, I would highly suggest Jeremiah McCall’s site Gaming the Past, where he uses IF to explore historical events. I also have an IF game (my first) that I wrote as a hardware/software/networking unit assessment for my beginning Computer Tech class that you can check out (feedback and constructive criticism encouraged).

  2. Engaging GTA Kids with Zork Graphics

    April 6, 2012 by Josh Caldwell


    Ever since I first encountered the Inform7 interactive fiction engine at GLS7 last year, it’s been lurking in the back of my mind, looking for a way into the classroom. The idea of introducing my students to the text-based adventures that I loved as a kid excited me, but actually working it into my curriculum had to take a back seat to my revamped grading system, an entirely new computer technology course, and too many other focus-stealing priorities to list. I was about to give up on the idea until next year when Read Across America rolled in bringing both inspiration and opportunity.

    My school has a fantastic community of readers, and as a staff we have dedicated Read Across America (March 2) to reading across all subjects. Every year I eagerly anticipate the day when students, dressed in their comfy cozies, carry around stacks of their favorite books. Teachers from every content area model a love of reading. Some classes allow students to read entirely independently, while others focus on content-specific reading, or readers theatre, or other literacy focused activities. All noble pursuits, but I needed something a bit different for my tech kiddos. Given that this was the first year for my computer tech class, I wanted something that the students would remember, something that would help them with their screen reading skills, but also something that would introduce them to kind of reading they likely hadn’t experienced. The time for Interactive Fiction had come! I was ecstatic, dreaming of a maze of twisty little passages all alike, but I just wasn’t sure if my students, the generation of realistic 3D graphics and visually astounding video games, would engage with a purely text-based game.

    They did.

    In fact, they LOVED it.

    After a brief introduction to the genre and a basic list of key actions (N/S/E/W, Examine, Take, Ask, etc) I let the kids dive into Lost Pig, a short yet challenging IF game written in Inform. What followed was a period full of frustration and excitement, successes and failures, groans of agony and screams of elation.

    I couldn’t believe how absolutely enamored my students were – eyes glued to their screens as they navigated dungeons, encountered trolls, and solved puzzles. As the challenges got harder, students scurried about the lab trying to bounce ideas off each other. They were playing a game, but it was a game without 3D graphics, or rumblepacks, or really anything beyond elaborately complex textual descriptions. They were defeating their enemies not with hyperrealistic weaponry, but with words and creativity. At the heart of it they were reading, writing, and thinking. And they were loving it.

    In fact, they loved it so much that they begged me to teach them to program IF.

    I haven’t gotten to the teaching portion yet, though I am pouring over the resources at Gaming the Past in preparation. I have, however, programmed my own game in Inform to get acquainted with the language. Not just a game, but an assessment tool as well, a quest that forces my students to apply their knowledge of computer hardware and networking to successfully escape in tact. It definitely needs some work and revision (comments/criticisms encouraged), but I hope you’ll try your hand at my first text-based game/assessment – Escaping the Gnome’s Cave.

  3. Still Alive

    September 14, 2011 by Josh Caldwell

    the cake is a lie

    It’s been far too long since last my last update, but believe me, I am still alive (bonus points if you’re hearing GLaDOS in your head right now). Over the last few months I’ve started several posts, and finished not a single one of them. I’ve had a lot of ideas percolating for a while, and it seems that every time I sit down to write I get distracted by something other piece of the puzzle that I feel should be looked into first, but no more! Getting back in the classroom with students has not only inspired me, but given me that chance to put some theories to the test, and I’ve got plenty to be excited about; in the upcoming days, weeks and months stay tuned for posts about topics including:

    • My deep tech-crush on Edmodo (badges, quizzes, PLNs and much more)
    • How I’m honing behavioral Kung Fu with Class Dojo (gamified classroom management)
    • Hopes that I’ve found my rubric holy grail in ForAllRubrics (sweet interactive rubrics w/iPad support)
    • My (mis)adventures in SBG (and, hopefully, ActiveGrade)
    • The joy-terror of teaching a brand-spanking-new gamified Computer Tech course without a net
    • Doing generally awesome things with a magical hand-help happiness device, or iPad
    • Oh, and I’m still teaching without a classroom of my own…

    I almost feel bad posting such a contentless post after such a long absence, but I’m hoping that by putting these topics in writing, I’ll feel more compelled to actually write the posts.

    Look at me still talking when there’s Science to do…

  4. Common Core State Standards at ASCD

    July 7, 2011 by David

    Although not an advertised topic for the ASCD Summer Conference, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) seemed to be a part of most of the sessions I visited. And for good reason: 43 states and DC have fully adopted them and are already working on a cross-walk from their current state standards to the Common Core. Oh, and by the 2014-15 school year there will be assessments created by two state consortia that will evaluate student progress on these new standards. I am disappointed that the state I taught in, Washington, has only provisionally adopted them pending the state legislature giving the final OK. The State’s lack in embracing the CCSS was part of the reason their application for the Race to the Top grant didn’t go very far, not to mention that delaying will only mean less time to get ready for those assessments and more educators feeling rushed to align their curriculum, not to mention simply become introduced to the standards and fully understand them. Heidi Hayes Jacobs put it this way: “Good information lowers anxiety. Lack of information causes it.”

    The speakers at the conference all recognized that the CCSS are the new reality but to a one, they emphasized the importance of really reading the standards, really understanding them, but cautioning that the goal is not to meet the Common Core Standards but to meet the standards along the way.

    Here are some of my favorite anecdotes about this idea:

    • Standards, or the CCSS, are like building codes: The ultimate goal is not to meet them. You don’t say, “I’m going to build a house to code!” That’s understood and says nothing about the design of the house.
    • When building a house you don’t make the blueprint up along the way. In other words, you still have to have a plan, or a goal. The standards inform this goal but don’t dictate it.
    • Content acquisition is the means, not the end.
    • Standards are the design considerations.

    Another theme that came up again and again was what some speakers called “unwrapping” or “unpacking” the CCSS. This close and careful reading of the standards has to do with taking an individual standard or anchors and pick out the verbs, nouns and noun phrases, and key qualifiers and determining their meaning local curriculum, instruction and assessment.

    For example, CCSS RI.8.9 says:

    Analyze a case in which two or more texts provide conflicting information on the same topic and identify where the texts disagree on matters of fact or interpretation.

    Paying attention to the important parts of speech you get:

    Analyze conflicting information and identify disagree(ment).

    As an English Language Arts teacher, or a teacher who expected the students to read in their class (hint: that’s everyone), it is also important to understand how this particular standard has increased in sophistication from, say 6th grade:

    Compare and contrast one author’s presentation of events with that of another (e.g., a memoir written by and a biography on the same person).

    Furthermore, both of these standards are the grade level equivalent of the overall anchor (#9, in this case), or what the students should be able to do by the end of the year:

    Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

    Overall I am very happy that this educational movement for common standards is here and pleased that those advocating for it are reminding everyone that they are not the end goal, they are student learning and deep understanding. Which leads me to my next topic, Understanding by Design …

  5. ASCD Summer Conference

    July 6, 2011 by David

    If there was one theme I kept encountering over and over at the ASCD Summer Conference in Boston was that good education is hard work and you can’t just port over a program, make a few tweaks and WIN. A component of this theme is that educators really need to understand the philosophy and pedagogy behind great ideas like Understanding by Design or even the Common Core Standards before really working with them. It seemed like in every session I went to it was a good hour to two hours of background and scaffolding the instruction before the speakers touched upon the meat of what they were there to discuss.

    As mentioned, Common Core came up a lot and just as often were words reminding you to really read through the standards, give your staff time to really get to know them, and yet they are still just something to do along the way to real learning, they aren’t the goal. They inform the goal, but don’t dictate it.

    You still need a goal, what do you want students to know or do? When you are building a house you don’t make the blueprint along the way. Similarly, when you are building a house you don’t say, “I’m going to build it to code!” and leave it at that.

    I also enjoyed how everything at the conference (well, at least the sessions I went to) were woven together and they all built on each other: Use Understanding by Design to set some meaningful goals, create useful and credible assessments (GRASPS), meet the Common Core Standards along the way and put it all together with Curriculum Mapping.

    I will go into these later and in more detail but I am excited about all the great ideas I took away from the East Coast. Part of me wishes I had a district/school/class of my own so I could frame my thinking around them but I have always enjoyed thinking about ideas in their pure form, without being tied to a specific situation, or trying to fit them into a set structure; like trying to figure out how this new-fangled square peg will fit into the round hole we already have and works well for us, thank you very much.

  6. What are 21st Century Literacies?

    June 17, 2011 by Josh Caldwell


    What is information literacy in the context of an MMORPG?

    How do you assess learning in a tabletop RPG?

    What makes a proficient reader of graphic novels?

    How do readers approach text in video games?

    What literacies will be essential for 21st century learners?

    When will formal testing adapt to the shift from individual knowledge to social knowledge, and what will that assessment look like? (more…)

  7. Is Gamification Really a Bad Word?

    June 17, 2011 by Josh Caldwell


    The first day of GLS7 brought with it plenty of spirited debate and intense arguments, as you are likely to have with any diverse group of passionate professionals, but none so hotly contested as the validity of gamification as an educational tool. Commonly associated with social media marketing, gamification seeks to engage consumers by incorporating game mechanics (most commonly achievements or badges) into otherwise boring or unexciting activities, such as filling out surveys – in essence, it’s the Madison Ave version of hiding your dog’s pill in a block of cheese. This arguably crass, commercial interpretation of gamification has tarnished the concept of using game mechanics in education for feedback or recognition. As a telling tone-setter in his Wednesday keynote speech, Eric Zimmerman characterized educational gamification as the beginning of an “unholy alliance” between marketers and learning researchers; certainly a reasonable call to be careful and cautious about with whom and for what reasons we share student information, but is that really reason enough to eschew gamification outright. Is gamefication so tied up in commercialism that we can’t have a successful discussion about it in education without adopting new terminology? (more…)

  8. Text Based Adventures in the Classroom

    June 16, 2011 by Josh Caldwell



    You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
    There is a small mailbox here.

    This simple, succinct introduction opens the door to the rich immersive environment of 1980′s Zork, the most iconic example of the text-based adventure game genre. No graphics, no sound effects, just the richness of language to draw gamers into the experience. Though text-based games largely went by the wayside with the advent advanced graphical environments, it’s hard to ignore such games as examples of the beauty and power of language in an interactive narrative. Would that my Junior High English students possessed such descriptive prowess. (more…)

  9. Teaching Without Your Own Room – We Should All Be So Lucky

    June 9, 2011 by Josh Caldwell

    I haven’t had a classroom of my own this year – I’ve been a vagrant, a wanderer, a man without a country – and I’ve grown to love it.

    Mostly. (more…)

  10. Gamify Your Class Website

    May 9, 2011 by Josh Caldwell

    Atari Games

    Given my love of gaming and my interest in the motivational value of video games, I’m surprised (baffled, really) that I’ve only recently heard of gamification. It’s not that the concept is unfamiliar to me, far from it, but this new (to me) terminology has opened the door to a whole world of people attempting to gamify education. Empowered by my new $5 word, I went on a marathon search bender to find out how people are gamifying their classrooms.