Sunday, May 21, 2023

A republished blog entry with Aurora Institute, and a podcast appearance!

Today will be a short blog entry just to highlight some recent multimedia appearances.

Back in January 2022, I wrote "From Good to Great, Initial to Ideal: A Way to Improve Exhibitions and Other Performance Assessments."  CompetencyWorks (the blogging arm of Aurora Institute) felt my piece fit thematically with some other current work in the field of innovative education and in blog entries they have been recently writing, and therefore republished it on May 15.  Special thanks to Laurie Gagnon, the CompetencyWorks Director, for thinking of me and sharing my writing!

This school year, I've spent some time and Edtech Elixirs space on the intersection of tabletop role-playing games and education, starting with my launch of Kentucky Educators for Role Playing Games in August 2022.  I've been humbled, flattered, and honored for opportunities to talk about KyEdRPG in Kentucky Teacher, a television episode of Kentucky Edition, and an article for Next Generation Learning Challenges.   The latest adventure involves Tom Gross and Dan Reem's podcast Teachers in the Dungeon, where they had me on as a guest for their May 16 episode.

I had a lot of fun talking with Dan and Tom, and special thanks to both of them for having me on. I hope you give the episode a listen (42 minutes, if you need to plan accordingly!), and while you're at it, subscribe to their excellent series, available on multiple podcast platforms.  

As the school year wraps up, my fervent wish for all the educators out there is to have a chance to catch their breath, spend time with family and friends, and recharge their batteries.  Enjoy a much needed rest!

Saturday, April 22, 2023

A shoutout for yellkey

Have you ever been in a situation where you need to share files or folders or websites and you don't have the time or the shared virtual space (like a Google Classroom) to easily do so?  The challenge is compounded when using Google Docs and their very complicated and long URLs.  There are, of course, custom URL shorteners available.  To take a popular example, allows you to customize the shortened link to more "natural language."  The effort of making a is worth it if you plan to use that shortcut often, or at least more than just the one day and the one session.  By creating an account with, you can also find shortcuts you made in the past, if you need to revisit them.  

Here's a helpful tip: putting the at the bottom of every slide in a presentation helps answer the eventual “What’s the again??” question that you’ll face repeatedly while facilitating a PD or leading instruction.  

However, and other shortener tools can be cumbersome.  You usually have to create an account and log in, it takes several clicks to make and customize a link, and the effort may seem more than what it's worth for a "just in time" sharing situation or for a temporary learning context. 

Several years ago, I found out about and it changed my facilitation life!  (Note that all lower case is how the tool presents itself.) The fact that I still don't see many others using it or knowing about it seems a shame, and that's what led to today's blog entry.

Here are some key reasons why I'm yelling about yellkey:

  • It's free!
  • It’s perfect for what I’d call “disposable shortcuts” in front of a live audience.  It’s when you need a shortened link to something that matters for the session at the moment, but no one will urgently need to access later today or tomorrow.
  • It is super user friendly.  You can make one in a few seconds without any account creation.  I’ve made one on the fly before in the middle of a PD. Simply paste the URL from your original site, choose the time frame (see the last bullet), and click the site button to generate the yellkey shortcut.
  • The yellkey shortcut is in natural language with a single common word after the forward slash – so you'll have none of the typo-causing “make sure you capitalize the second letter” or similar user error issues.
  • The common word is autogenerated, so it's a time saver in two ways over other URL shorteners - you won't have to creatively come up with something, nor will you have to deal with your initial choices being rejected as "already taken."
  • It has a built-in expiration that you set…as little as 5 minutes, as long as 1 day.   Perfect for, say, a sign-in Google Form at the start of a PD that no one should or would be completing later.

The only downside:  the shortcuts eventually get recycled after they expire.  So it’s highly likely that the same yellkey shortcut you use today will point to somewhere else in the near future.  When I've inserted a yellkey in a Slide for a live presentation, I usually go back and remove it afterward, lest anyone see it a week later and try to use it or share it with others.

"What about QR codes?" you might ask.  I'm a fan, and they can definitely be another way to quickly get participants to an online place.  However, there are two complications about QR codes worth mentioning.  The first is that a phone is the quick and obvious way most people read a QR code, but if you can depend on the participants having laptops, you may be providing a shortcut on the wrong device for the work at hand; consider what you are asking the person to do once they arrive to the URL.  (Watching a video or signing in for a PD may be easy on my phone, but I prefer typing up long survey answers or interacting with Google Docs on my laptop.)  The second is that people often forget that the density and complexity of the blocky imagery of a QR code is directly related to the length of the URL.  That's why something like a Google Doc produces a QR Code that participants often struggle to get their phone to read.  You could app smash and use a shortener for the URL and then create a QR code from the shortened URL, but you're increasing your steps. Of course, there is a "yes, and" approach - you could display both a QR code and a URL shortener like yellkey.

While this blog entry mainly contextualizes yellkey around its usefulness to a PD facilitator, it has classroom implications as well.  For example, a teacher might find it easier to share a site or Doc with students using yellkey than all the steps necessary to share something via a LMS platform message. Compare the steps necessary for a student to quickly share something with a classmate with yellkey versus the process of making an email, sending it, the receiver getting to their inbox, etc.

Yellkey is not a dramatic or complex tool, but it excels in making the sharing of URLs faster and easier!


Tuesday, April 4, 2023

NGLC Article and Interview for KET Kentucky Edition on Role-Playing Games in Education

Last weekend my youngest daughter, my nephew, and I watched Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves at the theater.  We thoroughly enjoyed it -- it was fun on its own terms, but it also rewarded you if you are knowledgable of D&D lore.

And with the timing of the movie's release, I've been grateful for the multiple opportunities to talk about role-playing games in education.  As I previewed in my last entry,  here are two examples that went online this week:

Special thanks to Sarah Helton at KET and Kristen Vogt at NGLC for helping to make the above happen!

For more on RPGs integrated into schools and classrooms, be sure to check out Kentucky Education for Role-Playing Games (#kyedrpg). 

Friday, March 31, 2023

Role-Playing Games in a Southern Indiana Elementary School

Today's blog entry is a combination of things related to role-playing games.   Firstly, if you're a Dungeons & Dragons fan, we need to celebrate the new movie that premieres today (I plan on seeing D&D: Honor Among Thieves with my youngest daughter this weekend)!  There's also some upcoming adventures on the KyEdRPG front:

I'll do an Edtech Elixirs entry next week with links to the episode and the article once they go live online. 

Meanwhile, in today's entry, I'm happy to share an interview with teacher David Bennett.  As you'll see, he brings several perspectives that I haven't yet discussed here or over at KyEdRPG: he's a Kentuckiana elementary teacher integrating role-playing games with his students, he's using a game other than D&D, and he's doing so in a short time frame during the instructional day.  Without further ado, let's get to the interview (slightly edited for clarity)!

David, welcome to Edtech Elixirs!  Tell us about yourself.

I started at Borden Elementary School in southern Indiana last November as a 5th grade teacher. I’m new to teaching after just leaving a career in marketing that I had for the last 5 years, with a company I’d been at for 10 years. I made the switch because I had always felt teaching was a calling, and during Covid I had begun to wonder about my future. I truly loved the job I had but felt it wasn’t really what I should be doing, so I started in the "Transition to Teaching" program at IUS.

You shared with me that you play a fantasy role-playing game called Pathfinder with your students during recess, which is definitely unique!  However, before we get more into that story -- can you tell us about Pathfinder and how it is different than D&D?

When I first decided to run a game with my students during recess, my original plan was to run Dungeons and Dragons. Character creation was easy with D&D Beyond, and there are plenty of ready made materials to use. However, our first session of combat was taking too long, and it was a lot to keep track of during a 30 minute recess. So I thought about other systems I’d played in the past and remembered Savage Worlds, which is a system that is slightly less detailed than D&D, with the idea being that you tailor make the system to fit your needs. However, I still wanted to do fantasy, so I looked at the fantasy options for Savage Worlds. It turns out that just around a year ago, Pathfinder and Savage Worlds got together and there was a port of Pathfinder for Savage Worlds made. Going just a bit deeper into the weeds here, Pathfinder was made as a continuation of the 3.5 system of D&D, using the old 3.5 rules, but creating their own world for the lore. The benefits to Savage Worlds is there are less skills and weapons, as well as less feats. Combat is simplified in that most monsters the players fight only have 1 hit point, while major villains have 3. Heroes also only have 3 hit points as well, before they fall unconscious. This keeps combat flowing because most of the time if the characters hit an opponent a simple roll will say if the opponent is still in the game or not. That means less time keeping track of hit points for monsters, When it comes to skill checks all skills start at needing a 4 or better on a roll, but unlike D&D skills are based on die types. So a starting skill is d4, while the highest you can get in a skill is d12. 

The shorter answer is, I chose Pathfinder for Savage Worlds due to the streamlining of skills and combat. Due to the short amount of time I have to play with the students, and the number of students who usually play, I need a system where I don’t have to keep track of 4-8 different monsters' hit points, or worry about what an appropriate skill check needs to be. The setting has enough lore that I have a good jumping off point, and there are premade characters that I can let my students look through to decide what they want to play. This makes character creation a breeze as well, as almost all needed information can fit on a half sheet of paper. Also, if you are just starting to roleplay with students and want a cheaper alternative to D&D with less rules, there are plenty of other options as well. The truth is, the system you choose isn’t nearly as important as how you play the game. Give your students the chance to make their own decisions and feel like they are impacting the world you created, and the game will be enjoyable to everyone, no matter what rules you are using.

What inspired you to start playing Pathfinder with your elementary students? 

To be honest, when I first started teaching, I didn’t really have any intention of starting a fantasy RPG group. I assumed that students today would be much like the elementary students from when I was a kid, and games like D&D wouldn’t really be on their radar. However, Stranger Things has really changed that, and when I started teaching I kept over hearing students talking about D&D. So I talked to Ms. Hurst, the principal at Borden Elementary, and asked if I would be able to run a group during recess. I wasn’t sure what the rules were for things like that. She recommended I make up a permission slip and students who wanted to try just had to get the okay. At first I had about 10 students sign up.  So really my students showed their interest and I just went about seeing what I needed to do to make it happen. 

When it comes to how many students play my numbers can fluctuate, especially when the weather has been too cold or rainy, and our session might be one of the nicest days in a week. I always let students know that I completely understand when they choose to go outside and play versus staying in and playing Pathfinder. I do this for two main reasons. The first is that unlike regular sports where being on a team is a commitment and the team will suffer if you aren’t there, tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) are collaborative storytelling and I can alter the events of the story to make up for a student not being able to make it so that the students who are there aren’t going up against a challenge they have no hope of overcoming. The other reason is, playing with someone who doesn’t want to be there isn’t fun for that person, or the other players. With only 30 minutes of playtime, students want to feel like they got to spend their time on something worthwhile.

What are the challenges of playing a TTRPG with elementary students, or playing for only 30 minutes?

My biggest challenge is giving each student a chance to shine in a 30 minute session. With some sessions getting up to 7 players, that’s less than 5 minutes of real action per player. Luckily for me, I have a bit of time I can spare right before the students have recess, so I usually have everything set up before they get up to play. The only other challenge is helping students to understand that their in-game actions can have in-game consequences. I had a student get bored in one of our sessions and grab a civilian and jump into a pit holding the civilian. I explained that now the town guards were going to be looking into this to figure out why he did that. Other than that, most sessions go as smooth as any other TTRPG I’ve run before.

Students learning natural consequences from bad actions in a safe game environment sounds like an awesome reason for using a TTRPG in a classroom! What other positive effects on your classroom culture and learning have you noticed? 

I honestly believe that for me the best effect is it helps me get to know some of my students who aren’t very outgoing during class normally. I’ve gotten to see sides of some of my students that I doubt I would have ever seen in the classroom setting alone. I also feel like the game promotes problem solving, and team work in a way that you can’t feasibly do in real life. I also think it's nice the types of students who play. At least for my grade level I’ve got kids in band, kids in sports, kids who are high achievers, and some who struggle. The mix creates an interesting dynamic in our sessions.

What advice would you have for an educator wanting to incorporate a role-playing game into an elementary classroom?

That’s tough.  While I certainly see positives in my game sessions, I also know that it’s successful because the students want to do it. I would never try to use role-playing games with students who didn’t show an interest. However, like any thing we do in life, you get out of it what you put into it. If you want to use it as just a fun activity where students roll dice and fight monsters, that’s fine. If you want to help them work on social skills like empathy, you have to put those situations in the game. You want them to learn to solve problems together as a team, you have to create a problem that they can’t solve with one person doing all the work. I’m not saying I’m a pro at this. I just think that TTRPGs can be a tool to help work on these issues, but only if you create those opportunities.

Reflecting on what you've done and looking ahead, what's next?

If I’m being totally honest, I don’t know that I’d recommend a recess session for everyone. I started it because I wasn’t sure how popular it would be, and I had no idea at the time of how to start an afternoon type organization. 30 minutes goes by so fast, and if you don’t have time to set up beforehand, and take down as well, you’re going to lose a lot of your time. That being said, I’m going to be working on an afterschool program for next year due to how much interest there has been.

Thanks again to David for sharing his wisdom!

Thursday, February 9, 2023

EduCon 2023

Last weekend, my teammate Rachel Albright and I went to Philadelphia for a three day event called EduCon.  This annual conference mainly took place at Science Leadership Academy (SLA) High School at Center City. SLA opened around 2006, with EduCon starting a few years later.  SLA has become well known for its focus on PBL and internships, and has led to other Philadelphia schools following its model; most recently they have opened a new middle school (SLAMS).

I've been feeling like attending EduCon specifically, and visiting SLA in general, was being nudged to me by Fate.  I first heard about SLA/EduCon when reading Reinventing Project-Based Learning last fall, and then read about SLA again a few months later as one of four schools highlighted in Running with Robots.  

On the first day of the conference, we were led by a senior student through a tour of the flagship high school.  Besides being impressed with her obvious enthusiasm and knowledge for what SLA has to offer, I was also appreciative that such innovative instructional practice happened in an older facility with few shiny frills, minus some new machinery and equipment.  SLA proves the point that while PBL, passion-based projects, and deeper learning may benefit from a school renovation or a new build, it certainly doesn't require it!

For the rest of the entry, I will highlight three EduCon breakout sessions I attended that personally stood out for me.

"The Case for Dreaming in Public"

This session easily won for best titled, and was facilitated by Timothy Boyle (founding principal of SLAMS) and David Jakes (veteran school designer and author of The Design Thinking Classroom). 

The session mainly consisted of "dreaming big" on what a new school might be and sharing those ideas with tablemates, which was intellectually stimulating.  But Jakes also shared anecdotes from previous school renovation/new build projects.  For example, he recommended having all stakeholders (educators and community members) meet for a "Salon Dinner."  At the dinner, he would pose two provocative questions: What would it take to get it right?  What would it mean if we did?  Jakes also shared an example when the answers to those questions led not to a school that could double as a community center, but instead to a community center that just so happened to be a school during the weekdays.  Such a realization factored heavily into its design choices, and of course the kind of instruction and student interaction such a building would have. 

"Challenging Traditional School Leader Pathways and PD"

This session was facilitated by three leaders of the School District of Philadelphia (SDP), one of the top 10 largest in the nation: Katie Culver, Brandon Cummings, and Rosie Tarnowski.  

A few years ago, SDP did a re-org that included changes in PD development.  Among other changes, they decided to prioritize support for principals -- not only because of the need for hiring, internally growing, and retaining such important personnel, but because philosophically, SDP believes principals are the most powerful change agent of their school building as well as their surrounding community.   This led to creating a new Leadership Pathway Framework (LPF) which articulates criteria for the assistant superintendents, principals, assistant principals, teacher leaders, and central office leaders.   In the session, they concentrated on one strand of LPF, Equity Centered Leadership.   These leadership competencies are nothing if not ambitious.  Consider this example, from the substrand "Trusting Relationships" in the Principal competency "Facilitates and Builds Trusting Relationships":

The SPD presenters noted that similar frameworks for teachers and students were in the works, and acknowledged that while such leadership competencies were meant to drive growth, raise expectations and determine PD needs of principals and others, they were not yet used evaluatively -- and there was internal debate whether they ever should be.

Additionally, SDP had recently launched leadership affinity groups.   To take one group example, black male educational leaders now have meetings and a safe space to share and speak about their unique experiences.  These affinity groups (as well as the leadership PD in general) have been highly successful -- see photo below for data --- but this has led to areas for future consideration.  For example, for educators that identified as another gender, or gay, should they form new and separate affinity groups? Participate in the larger one? Both?

Overall, it was exciting and inspiring to see such a large school district acknowledge the complex needs of its educational leadership and find ambitious ways to serve and grow them, particularly in the area of equity.

Let's Design a School!

While somewhat similar in tone to "The Case for Dreaming in Public," the major difference was the inclusion of a student panel facilitated by Mary Beth Hertz.  Four students from SLA's middle and high schools had some great insights about education.  Here are some paraphrased quotes.

  • Answering the question "I go to school and enjoy..."
    • spending time with my friends and teachers I like.
    • extracurriculars (to allow students to think about what they want to do with their future).
    • classes with connections, teamwork, community.
    • how each class is unique, and teachers that try to make things fun.
  • Answering the question "What is school?" For what I want to do, some of my classes are beneficial, but some classes are hard to take seriously because it feels like kinda the same thing over and over since I was 4.  It doesn't meet everyone's needs.
  • Answering the question "What do you think the purpose of education is? How is 'school' and 'education' different?"
    • Being educated is different for different people.  Some people like to educate themselves. Education is about learning about your own identity, and being mindful.
    • School feels like a competition.  School turns education into a hierarchy.  Awards ceremony can make us feel bad, because who wins feels more subjective than objective.  But sometimes competition can be motivating too.  More than an award, I appreciate a teacher checking in with me with "Are you ok?" Or give me a compliment.
    • I don't want scores and grades to define me.
  • Sometimes you need to be a teacher, and sometimes you need to be a person.  (This quote hit me hard!)

After the Q & A panel, we joined like-minded participants in groups to brainstorm what "our" new school might look like.  The students from the panel even walked around to give feedback and advice!  Although we had limited time, it got some great conversation going and had us questioning aspects of school we always take for granted.

Intriguingly, Hertz also shared that SDP is potentially piloting Walkabout Philly for high school students, hopefully in the 2024-2025 school year.  This would be the first Walkabout school outside of their original location in New York.  Walkabout Education centers around five "Challenge Areas": Wilderness Experience (a leadership building exercise for students before the start of school that involves actual camping), Service Learning, Applied Academics, Career Internship, and Presentation (similar to a Defense of Learning).  A ten minute video that explains each of these Areas is here and embedded below.  I'm definitely interested in following Philadelphia's journey in launching this school!

Walkabout School Model Overview from Walkabout Education on Vimeo.

Rachel and I definitely got some nuggets of gold from the three day conference, and were grateful to the EduCon educators and students who took the time to share their wisdom.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Guest Blogging on Deeper Learning at Aurora Institute's CompetencyWorks

Another short Edtech Elixirs entry with a publishing announcement!

I have written a two part series for Aurora Institute's CompetencyWorks blog.  I discuss the deeper learning work currently going on in Kentucky, from my perspective as a member of OVEC's newly launched Deeper Learning Team (one of eight such teams throughout the state).

While CompetencyWorks has highlighted me in past entries, or republished something I previously wrote in Edtech Elixirs, this is the first time I've actually guest blogged for them. I'm proud to discuss the work of our team, and it's a great one -- working with Carmen Coleman, Lacey Eckels and Rachel Albright is fantastic.

Please give the series a read, and special thanks to Aurora Institute for the opportunity!

Part One (1/19/23)

Part Two (1/25/23)

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

KyEdRPG in Kentucky Teacher


Back in September 2022, I wrote a series of three blog entries for the launch of my new site, Kentucky Educators for Role Playing Games.  I also interviewed Justin Gadd (Shelby County Public Schools) about his afterschool D & D club, and shared how Patrick La Mar (Oldham County Public Schools) integrated an Oregon Trail-style roleplaying game into a social studies lesson. 

Last week, Kentucky Teacher published an article highlighting all of the above: "The power of role-playing games for deeper learning experiences."  It's a great title and one that I whole-heartedly agree; game-based learning in general, and RPGs in particular, certainly have a lot of potential for deepening learning!

Special thanks to Audrie Lamb for writing the article, Justin and Patrick for taking the time to get interviewed, and Kentucky Teacher for featuring the #KyEdRPG site.