Game Theory, Classroom Decoration, and Moving Furniture: Teacher Prep

I realize my blogging has slowed a bit recently. It’s summer, so I’ve been relaxing a little. I played through my free copy of “Infamous” (thanks to Sony!) twice and started “Assassin’s Creed 2” this week. I enjoy playing video games. A recent change to games has gotten me thinking about motivation and teaching. A huge part of teaching is motivating kids to do work that is, sometimes, unpleasant. Part of doing that is making it relevant to them and help them see how it benefits them to learn it. But, there are other kinds of motivation. Video games have “trophies” or “accomplishments.”

So, here’s how it works. Most, if not all, games these days have these things. I am going to call them “awards” because I don’t want the XBox vs. PS3 war to get involved in this. So, when you do something significant in the game, you get an award. Sometimes it’s when you solve a problem or complete a level/quest/mission. So, my avatar kills the first bad guy and I get an award titled “First Kill.” Other gamers can look at my award list to see how far I’ve gone in the game based on awards like this. But, sometimes the game gives an award for beating it on a hard difficulty. InFamous had an award for beating the game as a hero and as a villain (why I played it twice).

Here’s another thing: the awards sometimes are for doing things like flying for more than a certain amount, or doing an impressive number of actions, say, 100 fistfights. You might get an award for traveling 100 miles on foot, say. The game had an award where you search for “shards” that are hidden all over the game space. It’s laborious and painstaking. You have to go all over the place looking all over the city for these shards that could be anywhere. Why do this? Well, if you get all the awards in the game, you get a Super Big Award (Playstation games call them Platinum Trophies).

Okay, so as an adult, it’s like, um, big whoop. You don’t get money or anything useful. Just words on a screen that say you accomplished something.

But, to others, that could be a big deal. If among your friends, gaining a Platinum Trophy in Call of Duty is impressive, then you might want to invest the time and energy to do even unpleasant things like searching all over the place for shards, or trying over and over and over to pull off a certain stunt move.

You probably see where I’m going with this. Have you ever noticed how stoked even high school kids get over a gold star on their paper? I did. They love stickers and stamps acknowledging their good work. What if they got a certificate for mastering a given standard? Sure, it might cost a little money. But, what if kids were mastering standards just to get the certificate so mom could put it on the fridge?

It could happen.

So, besides my “research” by playing video games, I’ve been going into the classroom and getting it ready. I have never done this before, this early. Never. I usually waited for the prep day, or a day or two before, to get my room ready. But, my Favorite Woman in the Whole World is going in to meet with her club officers for the clubs she advises. So, I went in, too. She usually puts bulletin board paper all over the walls, with borders, to make it look better in the room.

I find there is a huge benefit to decorating the classroom. When I began teaching, I went on the theory that we should focus on the learning and lesson and there should be little to no decorations. Plus, teenagers don’t go in for corny teacher decorations.

LOL. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Today, I go out of my way to decorate. I have corny posters and inspirational posters. I’m putting up posters that have information about the 6+1 Traits of Good Writing and the Parts of Speech. And punctuation marks. I have a really cute bunch of cut outs that have talking commas and semi-colons and such that tell what each mark does. Neat! I put up purely decorative stuff, too. The purely decorative items help me create rapport with my students. For example:

My freshman biology teacher, Mr. Levy, had a picture of Spock framed above his board at the front of the room to remind us that science was logical. He pointed at the picture from time to time if we said silly things. Not only did it teach us to remember to think during science class, but it let us into his world a little bit, too. He was easily one of my very favorite teachers and a model for me in my own teaching. So, I have some silly things like a giant poster of Darth Vader (Come to the Dark Side… We have cookies!) and a poster of The Fellowship of the Ring. No reason, I just like them. But the rest of the stuff in my class is teaching, even when the kids are zoning out.

This year I decided to get some bulletin board paper and put it on the walls. I got all fancy, too. I got blue sky paper with fluffy clouds. It reminded me of Toy Story (Andy’s room) and I thought it may similarly make the kids feel good, too. They grew up with Toy Story (it came out in 1995, the year many of them were born), so it has been around in the culture for as long as they have been alive.

See, teaching is hugely dependent on psychology. I want kids to enjoy being in my classroom. I want it to “feel good” to be in there. So, on one hand, I evoke a fun feeling with the clouds and blue skies. I subconsciously remind them of Toy Story with it. That’s pleasant. But, I find that the decorations also, subconsciously, communicate the amount of care that I have taken to get ready for them. Even if they don’t think about it, they feel like the class has been designed and arranged for them. I think this sets a tone for the students immediately that this is going to be a good class, that I’m a good teacher, and that they need to take this seriously.

When I directed the school musicals, I always made sure that the the first number was very good and well-rehearsed. First impressions count. When the first number went well, when the singers hit their notes, the dancers hit their marks, the musicians rocked the house, when it all came together, then the audience could relax, knowing they were in good hands for the evening. Same thing with classes. Kids should feel immediately that they are in the presence of a capable teacher who cares about them and the class. I think taking the time to decorate and clean is a good way to do this.

Cleaning? Yes. With the cutbacks, I don’t know how much our custodial staff will be able to do. It used to be that I could count on someone sweeping every day and mopping the floor every couple of days. Trash got taken out, things cleaned. But, not lately. And, that’s not a dig at our custodians. They work hard, very hard. But, there are fewer of them now. The classroom was kind of dirty at the end of the year. The floor was sticky, the counters were dingy and there were about 1,000 staples in the wall. I removed, I’m pretty sure, every staple. I used a magnet to pick up errant staples, swept, mopped, vacuumed, and scrubbed. The carpet needs cleaning but the linoleum (I have both in my room!) looks pretty good. I moved desks and used the vacuum to get stuff out of the computer keyboards. Some of the walls have the paper up and one of them even has posters on it now.

It’s coming together.

One of the other things that is informing my classroom design is how I will teach. I am working on trying to have a class that is very student centric. I want the kids to have choices in how they learn and what they learn. This is why I’m thinking of using the award system, too. I want to present to the kids the standards they need to master. I will, as my Favorite Woman in the Whole World suggested, put the standards in words that make sense to them. Then, I will, hopefully, allow them to choose how to learn these skills and how to demonstrate their mastery to me. One catch is that we are using Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) wherein we have common assessments among the grade levels. I’m not really sure how many common assessments we have. The reason that is a “catch” for me is that it dictates to the students, to some degree, what ways they will demonstrate mastery to me. I think we can live with it, though. I think I can still have a class where the kids have a lot of choices.

For example, I want one part of the room to be set up where I could address a number of the students with a PowerPoint or other demonstration of the skills. Another part of the room should be set up for students to work in a group, another part of the room has computers for them to work on, and another has area for independent work. And, I need to be able to get to all parts of the room for this to work because I have to be able to monitor all of this activity. I won’t be able to focus on one area for too long. So, I’m moving stuff around, getting those areas of the room sorted for the various activities. It’s not the normal way for me to set up a class and I’m feeling excited about doing all of these new things.

So, yeah, that’s what I’ve been doing. I reckon this huge post makes up, somewhat, for not doing it in a while.

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