Monday, August 31, 2015

Returning to Healthier Habits (thanks to a game)

When I got married in 1997, I weighed 110 pounds.
Both numbers have increased. Significantly!

My husband and I used to have a gym membership and we'd dutifully go and work out.
This changed when we had children.
(Bringing a baby along was impractical and we didn't want to pay a babysitter so we could exercise.)

My parents bought us a treadmill for us and rain or shine, someone in the family could be found taking a jog in the basement.
This changed when I adopted my skinny pig and he became free-range.
(We were scared he'd run under the machine and skin himself alive.)

My husband and I bought our family a Nintendo Wii and it included a Wii Fit which we used regularly.
This changed when I started to work on my capping paper for my M. Ed.
(I needed the time I was using on the Wii to write this stressful but, in the end, satisfying academic paper.)

Excuses, excuses!

& I wonder why it's 18 years & 38 pounds!
After over-indulging on delicious meals while in Baltimore, and weeding through my clothing to realize how few of my pants still fit me comfortably, the adult members of the house declared ourselves to be members of FlabBusters and really make a serious effort to eat better and exercise regularly. How would we do this? We talked about it and decided to return to using Wii Fit. I will admit that I was pretty nervous about this. There was no way I would be able to match my previous high scores. I was sure to get discouraged.

Guess what? You can go home again (or in this case, play an old game again). I know it's only been two weeks, but why does this seem to be working?

Not Too Much Guilt but Just Enough Pressure

The Wii Fit game weighs you - but only when you choose to do so. However, when you start a file (or "rejoin" after a while), it does match your home screen size with your test results. All but one member of my family received an "overweight" rating. (The kids decided to join "Family Flab Busters".) It was a little alarming to see a pudgy avatar version of yourself, but you only see it when you first log in. All subsequent activities that use your "image" keep you at "regular" size. The pre-generated dialogue praises you when you log in daily and cheers when you rack up 30 minutes of exercise. It leans more towards the "carrot" rather than the "stick". (I compare this with my husband's use of DuoLingo, which had the adorable owl mascot crying if you didn't visit every 12 hours for a practice session. Darn emotion manipulator!)

Meet-able, Enjoyable Goals

I was worried that I'd never get back on my scoreboard, but the nice thing is that if I match one of my old scores, it will note it as an achievement. Not all the exercises are dependent on your end results or score. I worked on my triceps for a strength exercise, and other tasks that could not use the Wii Balance board or the Wiimote, and it still credited me with the minutes I worked out. And usually it's fun! I get a real sense of accomplishment when I finish a Hula Hoop marathon and my husband still has to laugh when the Soccer Dodge game flings a cleat or panda mask at my head and it hits me.

Family Support and Friendly Competition

My son has been an incredible inspiration for everyone. He wakes up in the morning and immediately does 30 minutes on the Wii. If a nearly 13-year old boy has that kind of determination and perseverance, then I should follow his lead. Sometimes we even watch each other work out until it's our turn (no criticisms allowed). My son really likes to overturn some of the old records we had for certain games (like my boxing prizes) and so we compete with ourselves as well as each other indirectly. The collaboration is the attractive part and once everyone realized that, we even re-added Just Dance to the mix. My kids and I have set a family goal to dance to every single song on the disc and work our way from Just Dance 4 all the way back to the original. It no longer bothers the kids if Mom gets the high score on a song like it did in the past, because we are all having fun together and more often than not, it's now the kids seizing the crown.

I forget what research says is the appropriate amount of time for a habit to be firmly instilled in a routine, but I hope that this renewed interest in exercise, combined with some healthier eating, will help me get trimmed, toned and together! If I can do with while playing a game from the comfort of my own home, then all the better! Who says video games lead to obesity?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Standing for Principles or Shooting Myself in the Foot

This is a challenging post for me to write. Let me begin it with a tweet.

Now let me rewind further back to fill in the blanks that led me to this position.

Back in 2014, Microsoft bought Mojang and Minecraft. As usual, my colleague and GBL guru Liam O'Donnell was ahead of the pack. He wrote this post lamenting the action. At first, I didn't understand the concern. Like a blow that doesn't develop into a bruise after time has passed, it began to impact me.

I am very cautious about corporate involvement in education. It's why I prefer the ECOO conference over the Connect conference in Niagara Falls. When I was younger, I didn't see the difference between a conference organized by a volunteer, non-profit group with business sponsors and a conference run by businesses. Talking with people like Liam and Tim King and Peter Skillen helped me realize the difference. The true purpose becomes a bit muddy when large companies join the party - it's to help student learning but it also involves selling a product.

Many groups have shown interest in the work that GamingEdus has done since 2011. Although I was initially flattered that this included organizations connected with Microsoft, I was reluctant to agree to assist in any way. It didn't feel "right". It felt like I was selling out. I don't want to be a shill or a drone, preaching the Minecraft gospel under a Microsoft banner. I didn't want the "company-approved Minecraft expert" badge. The more Microsoft became involved in Minecraft matters, the less I wanted to continue to offer workshops on the topic, or promote our server. The members of GamingEdus have provided free professional learning for years on our Professional Play server, but it was big news when Microsoft announced their big version. At ECOO, our Minecraft LAN party was an evening adventure of anarchy. No longer.

One of my colleagues was surprised at my negative attitude. "This is your chance to share with a bigger audience. You can share your message as you travel spreading theirs." (This is a paraphrase of our conversation.) The sad thing is, I couldn't and wouldn't be able to stay true to our message if I were to be Microsoft-sponsored speaker. You can't obey two masters. GBL isn't just about Minecraft. It's about student choice and voice, and acknowledging game culture and school culture. It's about pursuing your passion, be it making maps or executing explosions. It's about play, and discovering in ways you want instead of a forced tutorial. It's community. The Microsoft-Minecraft machine doesn't appear to be like this for me.

I don't want to exaggerate, but I've been experiencing a version of the stages of grief once I realized that Minecraft as I knew it has changed.
1. Denial
2. Anger
3. Bargaining
4. Depression
5. Acceptance
At first, I doubted that the corporate acquisition would affect me. Nothing would change. But it did. Every time I see a tweet promoting the Minecraft extension to Windows 10 or Minecraft toys sitting the local mall's Microsoft kiosk, I was forced to realize that it was different. Then, I was ticked off. I was offended when I heard that Microsoft wanted to send "experts" to come and talk to my school board about how to use Minecraft in the classroom. (Kudos to certain board personnel that realized that we had in-house expertise as well as external sources.) I was furious that people who knew and loved the game less than I did were now the idols that others admired. My bargaining stage was brief: Could I possibly still offer a workshop or two as long as it was local? What if talking about Minecraft can get me to Saskatchewan, the last province I need to visit? Our TLLP could remain at arms-length from the new developments, right? I'm firmly in the fourth stage right now - I've spent five years touting a game and a philosophy I believe in, exploring more via my GBL PLN, and it's the end of an era.

I'm not going to burn all my kids' Minecraft shirts, or forbid it from being played in the house. On the contrary, my son's 13th birthday party will probably be Minecraft-related, so that his friends in the U.S. that he plays with on the GamingEdus server can attend with his other pals. I'll still write for the GamingEdus website. If Ontario teachers are not in a work-to-rule position in the fall, I'll continue to run a Minecraft Club for my students, and offer Minecraft as one of many tools for students to use to support their understanding and learning. Heck, when I have free time, I'll jump on the GamingEdus server and do some leisurely virtual fishing. I just cannot promote the game as I once did to other educators. Just before I finished writing this final paragraph, I searched for the hashtag #minecraft on Twitter, and the results were dominated by Edutopia articles and teacher workshops. This authentic game has been co-opted and I can't leech the fun or the cash out of it like others hope to do.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The New Victorians

This train of thought began with a book I read, and decolletage. In this YA novel, set in the 1800s, it was fashionable and acceptable for women to show off their cleavage in a way that the later generation (the Victorians) would find shocking and immodest. My husband and I had a great conversation about shifting public moral standards and a few incidents that followed the discussion made me realize that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In what seems like today's "anything goes" society, there are still some taboo topics, especially in schools.


Please, please, PLEASE do not let this paragraph suggest that I am a card-carrying member of the NRA, or that I am a fan of firearms. Just read my examples to understand why I feel that sometimes we go overboard with our actions.
  • There is a teacher at my school who forbids her students from saying the word "gun". They aren't allowed to say it at all. If they need to reference it, they have to spell it.
  • There have also been many cases of schools suspending students for infractions relating to guns that appear to be over-reactions: chewing food into gun shapes, pointing hands like a gun, and even refusing to use a student's sign-language name because part of it resembles a gun shape. 
  • When I first started to incorporate Minecraft into my school program, the first concern that arose was about the level of violence and it always seemed to comfort some adults when I'd say "there are no guns in Minecraft".
  • I didn't even realize that in my neighbourhood, there is a program that encourages youth to hand in any sort of weaponry to the police station in exchange for a more "appropriate" toy - and this includes the brightly coloured, plastic super-soakers (which are no longer called "water guns" on the packages). (Note: I couldn't find a reference to this in Toronto and linked to an American example instead.) 
  • My daughter's cosplay outfit is challenging to assemble this year, as Fan Expo Canada regulations state that people in costume cannot bring replica guns with them, and her character of choice this year is Zoe from the zombie shooter game Left 4 Dead. I totally understand the reason for the rules - no one wants someone with a real gun to enter a crowded space and start shooting - but my girl's desire for attention to detail is just going to have to live with an absent and/or inaccurate weapon accessory for her costume.
Usually it's difficult for me to articulate how my views and opinions are formed, but on this subject I can point to a specific book that I read while in teachers' college that made a huge impact on my attitude towards children's violent play. Who's Calling the Shots by Nancy Carlsson-Page and Diane Levin provided a great balance for me in terms of dealing with students. 


Once again, I'm not a tobacco lobbyist, but I think that our zeal to exterminate smoking has lead to some fascinating situations.
  • In a graphic novel that describes the space race in the 1960s, the author was under a great deal of pressure to exclude scenes of the scientists smoking as they worked.
  • My students in the past had some difficulty making their health comics with digital tools of their choice because he fantastic kids' online tool, Bitstrips for Schools, does not have cigarettes as objects to be added to any scenes.
  • Popeye candy sticks used to be candy cigarettes but changed their name so they wouldn't encourage children to smoke.
  • Santa Claus rarely appears in any illustrations smoking his pipe anymore.
Smoking is a nasty habit with significant health risks for smokers and people exposed to second-hand smoke. It's just, amusing I guess can be the word, to see how enthusiastic some can become in our goal to exterminate the practice, to the extent that historical smoking needs to be "whitewashed".

I myself am not 100% clear of the purpose of my mini-rant - maybe it's a knee-jerk reaction to folks who claim that a particular object or practice will lead to the ruin of society as we know it (e.g. comic books, watching TV, playing video games, shaving, dressing in certain ways, etc.) Whatever my rationale might be, I think it's important to be able to have conversations about these "taboo topics" because that can lead to increased understanding. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Downsizing south of the border

I'm on vacation with my family right now. We're staying with my mother-in-law (MIL), who is a teacher in Maryland. Every year around this time, I have some sort of related reflection for my blog. Last year, it was comparing Canadian education to American eating establishments. The year before, it was Maryland's tax-free week for buying back to school items.

This year's theme is downsizing. My MIL has changed grades and rooms, even though I suspect she is coming close to the end of her teaching career. (This will be her 29th year of teaching.) Her assignment for 2015-16 is teaching pre-K (our version of Junior Kindergarten). Although it will be a big change, she's looking forward to several aspects, like the absence of standardized tests (because they start in Grade 1 here) and the extra adult support combined with the class size cap (with no more than 20 students and both a para-educator and volunteer parent with her at all times). It has been a real challenge for her to limit the amount of supplies, books, toys, puzzles and other resources she wants to purchase. She is accustomed to buying what she needs for her class. We've been helping her set up her classroom and clean her basement. She's accumulated a LOT of things over her many years of teaching that she no longer needs. We have twelve boxes to take to the used book store and an ungodly amount of garbage bags of items destined for Goodwill. I'm doing my part by taking a large collection of Lego back with me to use in my STEM / Makerspace area of my Library Learning Commons.

New carpet, courtesy of her school.

Her class reading nook - 95% her own purchases.

It's hard to downsize in education - and I'm not talking about the terrible downsizing of teaching staff due to reduced enrollment, or cut budgets that are still supposed to provide the most up-to-date technology. I like buying and bringing back new trinkets and decorations to incorporate into my class. Here in the United States, their "teacher stores" are plentiful and glorious - filled with gorgeous posters, activities and teacher treasures. This time around, I couldn't resist getting a new bulletin board border set, a marble construction set, some cute castanets for teaching kindergarten music, a bigger timer while I was there. I didn't really NEED all these things. After all, less can be more. It's better for students to create the resources, isn't it? After all, the all-kindergarten school in TDSB deliberately discouraged pre-bought posters and built rooms with white walls so the focus would be on student art. They have resources, but are particular about what kind they obtained. How much of these things do we really need? I remember reading this article on teaching overseas from ETFO Voice magazine. A quote from Shamim Murji resonates when I think about what we "need" to teach:
We take for granted the resources we have in Canada. I remember sitting in my classroom the first day of September, after my project in Liberia. I was grateful for the roof over my head and the windows in my classroom.” It is a common refrain that the PO experience changes the way you look at the educational environment.
 There is an exception to bucking the materialistic trend by minimizing - downsizing a library collection, a.k.a. weeding, always has to be accompanied by accumulating new books. There are new titles, by new authors, waiting to be discovered and it would be a shame that some writers aren't discovered because "I have enough books already". While I'm here in America, I'm reading for the Canadian Children's Book Centre "Best Books for Kids and Teens". There are some great new books that my students will really enjoy.Excluding books, I'll try harder to simplify my professional life and not fill it with objects that I will need to give away when I get close to retirement - but chances are I'll still be bringing back a little something special each summer after visits to Lakeshore Resources.

(I'll try to add some photos to this post after we do some more cleaning.)

Monday, August 3, 2015

Why Attendance (Could Be) Everything

Yes, yes, another blog post about my summer school experience. I've been scrap booking all my summer school photos into my annual teaching photo album, so it's given me a visual reminder of all we've accomplished. My amazing crew of eleven superstar students were absolutely delightful to be with for our time together. The time was brief, and not just because we only had four weeks.

This was the first year that I had significant attendance issues. The rules are quite clear: if a student misses three consecutive days of summer school, they are demitted, because they have been absent for a large portion of instruction time. The key word here is "consecutive". I actually had to digitally insert one of my students into the class photo because we only had 1.5 days where every single student on my class list was present.

There are a lot of factors involved with student attendance, and many of them are out of the control of my wonderful 8-year-olds. Some had religious obligations. Others had medical appointments. Still more families had long weekend vacations planned. For families not close by, there were transportation arrangements to be made. Another had an unexpected family emergency and could not complete the last week of school at all.

The majority of my students wanted to go to summer school. They (and their families) made Herculean efforts to come, even if it meant they were only there for a short portion of the day. I tried very hard, as I mentioned in my early July post to give adequate time for assignments. I didn't want to penalize anyone for extenuating circumstances. I also didn't want the students who were there for every single day of summer school (... let's be truthful - one student) to feel like we were in a "holding pattern", waiting or stalling for others to catch up so we could move on to new challenges.

The title of this blog post sounds a bit alarmist. Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. The student that was there every day built at least six items during #lmmss3; the student that missed the most time created two. Who am I to say that the student who missed at least nine days did not get as much of a benefit as did the student who attended all eighteen days?  Yet, how much more rich of an experience could it have been if the student was around? It's not just about the work; it's about the time spent ... tinkering in the Creation Quadrant or talking with new friends about their latest discovery on Webkinz. (My clever students discovered that good virtual money could be made by answering academic questions on Quizzy's Corner, but they preferred to go mining and sell their gems to Arte Fact in the Curio Shop. They also found that by buying new Webkinz themselves, they could increase their virtual bank accounts dramatically.)

As I did some lazy research into the topic prior to clicking the publish button on this post, I found an article about an area in the UK that forbids absences during the school year due to family vacations and actually levies fines on those who insist on pulling their children out. I hesitate to institute such strong measures. After all, learning can happen anywhere, not just between school walls. It's just that summer school is a shortened time, so I/we feel the absences much more than during a typical school year (18 vs approximately 190 days). I know for myself that there were several post-assessment math interviews that I couldn't conduct because the student wasn't around for me to chat with them and use that particular tool to measure their success by comparing results to their pre-assessment math interview. Poor attendance has some serious consequences for school and jobs. I hope there are things we can do to minimize the "damage" and that my click-bait title is more hyperbole than anything else.