A Note to the Reader: Game On, our WordPress plugin, is a piece of our #RethinkHighSchool puzzle. (When I say “we” or “our” I’m referring to my ongoing collaboration with students and other teachers.) The other pieces of our edu-puzzle thus far are: The Mac Lab Way, relevant bits of our classroom’s history; Small Annoyances, odd bits of my personal history; (re)Imagine, my policies, expectations, and evolving edu-philosophy; and most recently, Game On: A Work in Progress, which explores the game mechanics we’ve built into the plugin.

As the title suggests, this post will cover strategies which have evolved over the years. Hopefully, you’ll find it of some value. As one who firmly believes in Bach’s, “You teach best what you most need to learn,” I know I will. So, my sincere thanks to you, in advance, for the help! 


What’s Your Story?

Because Game On (referred to as GO from this point forward) is so customizable, users can easily create any backstory to build their game around. But as the folks at Pixar like to say, No amount of technology can overcome a bad story. So take some time to build your story well and weave your assignments, challenges, and resources into the narrative.

Our story? The School Sucks aspect is featured at the very beginning of The Mac Lab Way and our action plan is detailed in (re)Imagine. Authenticity is built in. If the kids are going to buy into your story, there’s got to be a chance for them to connect to it in meaningful ways.

You need a why—as in the answer to, Why are we doing this? Sure, making knowledge acquisition more fun and engaging is important but profoundly altering the learning environment to make it more student-centered is even more so.

Ask yourself, What do I hope to achieve?


What’s Your Purpose?

In Drive, Dan Pink describes Purpose as, The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Purpose, as I wrote in (re)Imagine, isn’t something we add to lend credence to our intent; Purpose (with a capital P) is the cornerstone of all we’re hoping to achieve. Purpose is where we begin, what we lean on, and why we’re willing to consider embracing these wild ideas.

It’s not difficult to agree that some aspects of our education system are broken. The leap—the epic goal—is to state your intent to do something about it, back up your words with actions, invite the kids to take an active part in the adventure, and share it with the world.

The details of our epic goal are outlined in the related posts linked in the Note to the Reader at the top of the page. Please feel free to copy, paste, edit, fold, staple, and/or mutilate any or all of our strategies that you may find of value. Conversely, feel free to reject it all and simply use GO as you see fit.

Does that sound reasonable? On to the strategies!


In the Beginning…

That’s what my class looks like when the bell rings at the beginning of the period.


In the End…

That’s what my class looks like when the bell rings at the end of the period.


How and Why

Much of the why and some of the how is covered in (re)Imagine. (I strongly urge you to read that post as this outcome is part of a research-based, unified plan.) What’s not mentioned there, is the application game mechanics within this type of classroom culture.

About midway through last year I introduced two new mechanics:

  • False claims will result in: 
  • False claims will result in: 

It worked well enough but the loot was a little too generous and the details (and options) weren’t nuanced enough. More on that in a minute.

Years before I’d ever heard of gamification, I started charging kids for missing time at “work.” (Hey, we’re supposed to be preparing them for the real world.) I updated the spreadsheets each weekend and carried the updated copy for each period on a clipboard. On it I’d note off-tasks, tardies, absences (the clipboard was also a seating chart), and restroom passes. Absences were 60 minutes and the rest were 30 minutes each. Truancies, once they came to light were an additional 180 minutes. The message was clear: Take care of business or it’ll cost you! Kids would come into the lab outside of class to make up time (I opened the lab early, stayed late, and had two open labs on Saturday each month). Kids recorded their extra time on a second clipboard near my desk. That clipboard was a primitive Leaderboard with time as the only loot that mattered.

Sounds harsh, right? But it cut tardies and restroom passes to near zero. Plus, it worked in conjunction with a lot of the strategies in (re)Imagine that I was beginning to employ prior to reading related research while earning my masters degree (in 2011) or beginning to devour books like these in my post-masters life. Kids, for the most part, loved the Mac Lab and they nearly always had positive minutes, some in outrageously copious amounts (14K minutes—Corey A—was the record for a semester).

The addition of the Early Bird and the Bell to Bell Bonuses offset the penalties and created an environment where kids hustled to class and worked even more diligently to pad their loot. To balance the inevitable absences and occasional need for an actual restroom break I added a new mechanic for students in one, two, or three periods:

  • | |

Because some kids can’t make MLSS (Mac Lab Saturday School) for whatever reason, I added this mechanic:

The object is to find a balance of sorts as we try to create a more fun and engaging, self-paced, student-centered learning environment.


Freedom with Responsibility

Please don’t take this personally, but on hearing about our system, the number one question most teachers ask me is, How do you keep kids from cheating?


Do some students try to cheat? Of course! There’s no such thing as a perfect system.

Newsflash: Everyone cheats—even you. Do you come to a full stop at every, single stop sign and never, ever exceed the posted speed limit? Cheater! But we know that we could be pulled over and ticketed for our transgressions, right? So what do we do? We find a personal balance and lead a (mostly) responsible life. Nobody’s perfect.

The answer, or at least the one that seems to work for me, is to give kids even more freedom to choose to do the right thing while stressing the responsibility (and consequences) involved. I ask them not to make me the guy who has to enforce the rules. Freedom with responsibility is embedded in our classroom culture from day one. In the Mac Lab, we’re all on the same team. Cheating actually conflicts with our Purpose. Plus, the game has ZERO impact on their grades so I have ZERO hesitation when calling a kid out for making me the bad guy. And guess who clicks to claim the Damage?

  • | |   
  • | |

Students pay for their own tardies and absences—and they do it in a timely manner or it costs them double. I’m going to provide store items for all additional penalties next year (like the Bogus: Claim Your Tardy) and warn them that involving me after that will always result in treble damages. (I’ll let them look up treble.)

I can’t count the times I’ve been occupied at the start of class and a few minutes later discover a few self-declared tardy purchases sitting in the email queue. (Admins have the option to receive receipts from purchases.) GO can become the classroom equivalent of golf with students calling penalties on themselves.

Freedom with responsibility is a powerful concept to impart to a group of kids. Wrap it around your Purpose, embrace it yourself, invite kids to accept it, and in time it will become an integral part of your classroom culture.


It Takes Time

Students and teachers have been conditioned to expect certain things at school. Breaking that conditioning takes time and persistence. If you want kids to adapt, you must lead by example. Every day.

No pressure.

Don’t expect magical results instantly. Using GO is a learning process for everyone—especially the teachers. What I would suggest is that you embrace a daily challenge. What follows is one I’ve tried (that works) and one I’m adding for next year.


The 411 (Daily Information)

From (re)Imagine:

Imagine students walking into your room, reading information on the board, opening their Chromebooks (or notebooks) and beginning the day’s work without you having said a word or lifted a finger—all before the factory-inspired school bell has rung!

Wouldn’t that be something?

That happens in my class every day. The without lifting a finger part is a bit misleading as the writing on the board, the daily blog post, and the respective embedded video(s) must be taken care of in advance but the benefits—to both you and your students—far outweigh the costs (in time and energy). Again, read (re)Imagine for more details.

Empowering students to begin the class on their own is a powerful first step in creating a more student-centered learning environment.

I also experimented with adding loot to the 411 in order to make it more quest-like. (Cloning these Store Items each day was a huge time-saver.)


Again, the loot was too rich and lacking in nuanced options. I’ll be working on refining this strategy for the fall.


POD Page (Point of Distribution)

Though the 411 is a perfect remedy for What did we do yesterday? it’s not much help when it comes to Do you remember that quest we had last month? In response to the need for a centralized page to collect quests, resources, quotes, etc. I’m going to give the POD Page a go.

I’ve begun by creating some initial topics into which quests will fall and hope the system resolves the inevitable confusion encountered by some students—especially those who add the class during the course of the year.

Each of the rectangles is an accordion which opens to reveal its contents. I’m trying to make it easy to find content by topic first. Again, only time will tell if this strategy is sound but it has to be better than the 411 all by itself.


Get WoW-ed

Would you like to play a game?

Seriously, may I suggest you play the first 10 to 15 levels of World of Warcraft? WoW is the game that convinced me to pitch gamification to my students. (I had to play during a 10 day stretch when earning my masters.) You can play the first 20 levels for free.

After a bit of research, I began as a human hunter. (A hunter is among the easiest classes to solo.) The lore is also more easily grasped because, well, you’re already human. The first few quests are simple and straightforward. Once you get to Goldshire (about 15 minutes into the game), the story begins to open up. You’ll soon see that there are far more quests than you need to complete. Choice enters into the equation and that makes all the difference.

Plus, notice how there are no real instructions about how to play the game. You learn as you play. Each quest comes with instructions—where to go, what to do, why it’s important, and what to do when you’re done. Try to fit your subject matter into this conceptual model. How might you offer students various paths to mastery of the material? How might this make the learning environment more fun and engaging?



Important: I’ve published, but not completed this post. It, like Game On, is a work in progress. Check back for updates. I’ll be writing and updating as inspiration calls. Since I’m dyslexic, you’ll undoubtedly encounter grammar issues (and other confusion). It usually takes me 20 or 30 read-throughs to catch most of ’em.

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