Listen to this episode on your phone!
John Meehan is a high school English teacher and the school instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. John is a member of the 2016–2018 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Teacher Advisory Council, a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2017, and a 2016 “40 Under 40” honoree of the Arlington Leadership Center for Excellence. A multi-time presenter at the annual conferences for Virginia ASCD, the National Catholic Education Association, and the Play Like a Champion Today conference at the University of Notre Dame, John is a champion for high-energy, student-centered instruction, and his professional Twitter feed (@MeehanEDU) is packed with a daily array of photos, videos, blogs, tweets, and podcasts of he and his students putting this same spirit into action. Mr. Meehan’s fully gamified high school English class website is likewise loaded with all sorts of ideas for classroom games, side quests, leaderboards, and world building storylines.
Unlike most other guests, John does have typical days! They have a fixed structure. He spends almost a full day in traffic if you add up the whole week, so he starts on his car pretty early (30-40 minutes in his car). This is a time he uses to listen to podcasts like Professor Game! He “fills his tank” in the mornings with instructional coach kind of content, and in the afternoon is more about the teaching he does. As an instructional coach, which basically is opposed to traditional PD in that it is embedded in the job of teachers, “strictly observational and non-evaluative through a partnership approach.” It’s like personal training for teachers, who can drop by his office and talk about the problems they might be having and he will be their guide in solving these issues, by setting goals, providing some directions and kind of being a human Google for them. Their work with him is strictly confidential so they can actually open up to reveal their struggles and really move forward! Research suggests that the success rate is around 85% better than the traditional model! The rest of his time he is teaching the class, which is great since he is actually in the trenches and doing what he’s preaching to others.
What looked initially like a great idea is also his FAIL story. His students, high school juniors in eleventh grade, were writing 8 to 10 research papers with primary-source integration and secondary-source critical analysis as well. It is not the most attractive type of deal to make a game from but he liked the idea of choice, where students could pick what to analyze instead of having a standard reading for everyone. He decided to have them make outlines of the paper with their choice of novel to read and bought some role-playing game dice, the D4, D12 and D20. He split them into battle stations, where they would review outlines of their peers, to see where they are strong and weak. They were able to self-select which was their station (they had different levels for different expectations of achievement) and there they would “battle” others in a similar level and review each other. This wasn’t a graded exercise but rather a review exercise. In John’s head, this was a great way to remove the “sting” out of a difficult project. The idea is they would spend 5-10 minutes in each station reviewing each other, which would lead to a voting to who had the strongest projects and those would decide first which dice to pick for earning their points based on their individual roll of the dice. It did not go well at all for John. Dice are fun, which became a problem, also the fact that each of them read a different novel became a problem because they were relating to the content for the first time instead of reviewing each other’s work. John feels it was overloaded. Then the fact that most of them weren’t too confident of what they had done and instead of the reviews they just went straight into the dice. It was like giving out cotton candy for dinner and then expecting kids to get back to the real meal. He was really excited about the game itself instead of what he wanted the kids to feel about the activity. He learned that it’s ok to have things that are not fun every once in a while. The students had trouble even being comfortable with the work they had done, so getting vulnerable was hard and just making jokes about it were easier and its what happened. The battles came up because he felt there would be no motivation or joy just in the comparing so he wanted to sweeten the deal. Always remember that you have to think what you want to get from gamifying something and also, as we’ve said before, it is fundamental to think of your players!
A great experience with gamification is related to an Escape Room type of experience. So he went instead of breaking out he was trying to get them to break in. They had stations were students rotate between those, a team challenge that required them to complete all of the stations. As an English teacher he was getting them into the story of a particular book, so for example for The Great Gatsby, he taught the characters, the plot but also a little of the whole backstory of how this fits into its time. For a lot more detail, as usual, listen to the full episode by clicking play above! Equity Maps by Dave Nelson is something that he’s been using for spider-web types of discussions to track how people are interacting and talking.
As far as a process, he follows the advice of Yu-kai Chou, in thinking first what you want your players to feel, and then what you want them to do. If you start with that, it is so much easier to go on into the rest, especially the theme that comes from that feeling. All the game mechanics, like rolling dice, come after and as a consequence.
A best practice would be the immersive power of storytelling and a theme for your gamification design, especially in a classroom. The clarity of one single story is extremely powerful. An example of this was a teacher he works with who reenacted, in the classroom, World War I trench warfare with her students (using paper and whatnot.) His favorite game to play is The Legend of Zelda from the original NES, and The Legend of Zelda the Ocarina of Time. All the open world concept, that is also totally asynchronous was awesome for him and great inspiration. He has a Santa’s list of people he would like to listen to in Professor Game: Gregg Toppo the senior editor of Inside Higher Ed and is the author of The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter, Michael Matera the author of Explore Like a Pirate and finally Dr. Katherine McKnight who is also an author or, among many other books, The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom, with the idea of “yes, and…” The book he would recommend for the Engagers is The Innovators Mindset by George Couros.
The random question was about how to promote the widespread use of gamification in a school! His answer is pretty cool, if you haven’t please listen to it by pressing play at the top of this post, totally worth it!
His final advice is to watch the TV series Survivor and see how they manage to change the game when the participants think they have it figured out, how all these things can happen. You can get started by thinking how many of these lessons can be incorporated into your class!