Category: Student Engagement

The Pac-Man Model of School

Ready! Chomp – chomp – chomp – ch – ch – ch – chomp. Eat the dots. Avoid the ghosts. Clear the screen. Repeat.

How many hours did children of the ‘80s invest in Pac-Man marathons, navigating that maze, staring at the same straightaways and right angles? Enough to create repeatable patterns to clear each screen with nearly mindless precision. Yes, the game required some strategy and skill; however, once players understood the concept, game play was reduced to a matter of accumulating as many points as possible by eating dots in a maze before running out of lives.

Flash Pacman

Got some time to kill? Play a round of Flash Pac-Man on-line.

Old School Design

Pac-Man is a classic video game—as old school as it gets. However, while fans of retro video games still exist, many of our young gamers are not attracted to the simple graphics and redundant concept. With more appealing options available (such as Call of Duty games) to this generation of gamers, Pac-Man fails to maintain their attention long enough to keep them engaged. As video game systems continue to be part of our everyday lives, improved models have evolved to meet the standards of emerging technology and consumer demands. The most popular games present stimulating challenges, authentic experiences (multiplayer options, online gaming, first person views), multiple options to explore, real-time feedback, ability to save progress, and fast-paced action.

Toru Iwatani designed the game to have no ending, as long as the player had at least one life remaining. Only the gifted arcade all-stars would see the game through all 255 screens. Sounds frustrating to the common gamer; yet, we continued to insert the cartridge into the Atari 2600, reset the game, and play again.

The Pac-Man Model

It’s no wonder, in the Pac-Man model of school, students feel trapped in a maze, facing the same routine everyday. The bell signals the start of another day. Down one hallway. Turn left. Then right. Hesitate. Look around for a moment. Resume.

Even during his strongest moments, Pac-Man is a consumer, not a creator. Times of empowerment are limited. The best players take advantage of each power pellet. They make significant progress toward their destination in a short amount of time. However, the further they advance, the more the game seems to speed up. The ghosts get quicker and return to the chase almost immediately. After chomping one ghost (surviving a quiz?), Pac-Man knows he will be challenged by a similar test again.  

Do we ask more from our students? Not according to the Pac-Man model of school. Naturally, students will do the minimum amount of work to meet their desired outcome—possibly engaged but far from invested. If students do not see the end goal from one unit to the next, or do not construct meaning from their learning, they will not find much purpose in our lessons. After the first week of school, their routines are set. They take the paths of least resistance to clear one screen, only to be presented with another. Unit by unit, compliant students complete the coursework, survive the tests, and meet expectations.

Although the system is mundane, the experience is not easy. Enduring the routine is intense. When students let their guard down, there’s a chance of ambush. One wrong move can mean disaster. Anxiety builds with the constant sense of being chased. Heart rates increase and hands get sweaty. Students are always on the clock. Learners do not get time to explore concepts in depth, connect with content, or simply take a break. Teachers can relate.

As intrinsically motivating as setting new personal bests might be, there’s always the temptation to collect a prize. Incentives and bonus points do not make the player better. In fact, pursuing the dangling fruit can misdirect Pac-Man from his course and into danger. The only purpose for such bonuses is to outscore other players.   

Even the benefit of multiple opportunities is limited. At every wrong turn, players lose a life. Eventually, they run out of chances. Sounds like the end of a mark period. Students have better accumulated enough points; the time has come to report a grade.         

In a Pac-Man model of school, point chasing is the sole purpose of the game; players run to survive. Each of the four ghosts represents a nemesis of learning. While students chase their grades, the ghosts’ relentless pursuit increases student stress and turns assessment to anxiety.

Blinky, the red ghost, is a chaser. It pursues Pac-Man, hoping to force him to make the wrong turn. In school, Blinky is the aggressive red pen of grading. Every mistake takes another life, subtracting points at will. Despite possessing the power to communicate feedback and encourage next steps toward improvement, Blinky’s negativity increases academic anxiety by exposing flaws.

Pinky, the pink ghost, is an ambusher. As a sneaky shape-shifter, Pinky is the traditional pop quiz seeking gotcha moments that catch learners unprepared. Pinky uses speed as an advantage to get ahead of Pac-Man. Likewise, the pop quiz mentality typically has punitive intentions, often grading behaviors and compliance rather than understanding. Who did the reading? Who completed the practice problems at home? Who’s unprepared? When such behaviors are factored in an academic grade, Pinky sabotages the accuracy and validity of the reported grade.

Inky, the blue ghost, cannot be trusted. He is variable, unpredictable and likely to change over time. By weighting grades, adding extra credit, deducting penalties, or assigning random amounts of points to each assessment, Inky’s grading practices leave everyone confused. Each number reported lacks meaning; it merely throws more points in the pot. Four out of five on the assignment. Thirty-seven out of fifty on the quiz. Seventy-one out of seventy-five on the group project. Zero on the homework. 103% on the test?

The orange ghost, Clyde, plays the role of feigned ignorance. Morally, he recognizes flaws in traditional calculation of grades. However, Clyde is slow to adapt. In fact, he is pokey when it comes to finding better solutions. Everyone understands how the 100 point scale works when converted to a letter grade, right? Clyde pretends there’s a way to distinguish an 89 from a 90 when measuring learning. Clyde’s random behavior excuses the 10 percentage point increments separating A, B, C, and D. He even attempts to justify the remaining 60 ways to identify an F. Clyde ignores the inaccuracies of averaging scores from early in the learning process with the end of learning and plays dumb when questioned about the impact of calculating zeros in the final grade. He sees nothing wrong with reporting scores by title of assessment rather than by each standard assessed. Feigned ignorance can be a killer in the grade book maze.

It’s time for a system reboot. While retro video games rekindle childhood nostalgia, old school thinking belongs in the past.



Framing Powerful Memories of School

Remember the excitement of fifth grade? We had enough tools in our backpack to read and write, problem solve, ask big questions, and attack the world with vibrant eyes and independence. Every Friday, I rushed off the bus to search encyclopedias (remember those?), call my grandparents, and contact library reference desks to find the answer to Ms. Setzer’s weekly trivia question. She piqued my curiosity and inspired my thinking with an optional weekend challenge.

By Monday morning, I proudly placed an answer on Ms. Setzer’s desk. Nothing beat the feeling of conquering another quest, and the look of satisfaction in my teacher’s warm smile. During the week in Ms. Setzer’s class, I eagerly completed daily content lessons so I could sit in the oversized chair—the one by the fish tanks—on the stage in the back of the room. In that sacred space, I had time to read for pleasure, solve brain teasers, learn how to play chess, or work on a project.

The most memorable project extended well beyond the fifth grade curriculum. Our school was running a silent auction to fundraise for a charity. Each student was asked to reach out to family and friends for auction items. My buddy and I brainstormed ideas from the oversized chairs in the back of the classroom. What could two fifth grade boys possibly contribute to the cause? Continue reading

Welcome to Durstopia!

The month of May on the school calendar represents grueling tests of will, perseverance, and endurance… and I’m just speaking for educators. If it is this great a struggle for adults, imagine what wanders through the young, developing minds of our students?

In my ninth grade Visions in Literature and Composition courses, May presents the final stage of freshman training. In attempt to maintain the attention of students (and the teacher), I save the popular dystopian literature unit for the end of the year. And traditionally, it delivers.

Last year’s freshmen were treated to a different approach to close the school year. I gamified the entire dystopian literature unit and presented the ultimate challenge: Escape from Durstopia! They were hooked from the outset, but when they began discovering new missions with links to next steps for success, they were locked in. I communicated from the InfoTech Hub (Google Classroom) and added slides to a shared Google presentation.


Teams formed when necessary and individuals raced to conquer challenges. Students were slipping side quests to me before anyone else recognized the opportunities to learn or create. A group comprised of students from both classes even joined forces and stayed for hours after school to stump their peers with a coded scavenger hunt. Impressive. My students were doing more work and producing greater outcomes than I would ever consider assigning. Learners were not merely invested; they were immersed in our gamified literary universe.


So why would I save this level of engagement for the final month when I have an entire school year to plan? Why not start the year in game mode and see where it leads?

Spark GamersFile_000

With a final pep talk from Michael Matera (I urge you to read Explore Like a Pirate and follow the action of #XPLAP on Twitter), Tisha Richmond, Adam Bold, Nick Davis, and Carrie Baughcam in June, I left University School’s Summer Spark with the vision and motivation necessary to construct my story for freshman English. Thus, Durstopia expanded from a single unit concept to a year-long experience. Plans are currently underway in my imagination and on dry erase boards in my office.


The transition in planning is an invigorating challenge after years of teaching the freshman curriculum. I am restructuring the order of our department units (with common standards, learning targets, and assessments)—units I have helped create throughout the last two decades—to tell a learning story within the theme. Here’s what it looks like at this point in midsummer form (questions, suggestions, and brilliant insights are always welcome!).
Continue reading

Visions, Voices, Creative Choices: Preparing Learners for the Future

What a week. By the end of an emotionally-draining, anxiety-ridden election week, many find themselves struggling to breathe, smothering under the weight of an insecure future. Each breath as shallow as the destructive rhetoric of intolerance forcing American voters to choose a side—a blade that cuts deeper than partisan politics. With respect to our right to have a voice in the democratic process, what message did adults express to a generation of impressionable children?

Rather than answer that question, I ended the week in the most comforting place I know—with my family. As the father of two compassionate, open-minded, respectful children, I maintain hope for the future. While I cannot protect them from all the realities they will encounter, I will continue to model empathy, encourage dialogue about their questions, and equip them with knowledge and courage to overcome ignorance.

Raising children to become critical thinkers and selfless citizens feels overwhelming at times, but parents are not alone. They have a support system and powerful ally in education. Together, we send a message of hope built on trust, protected by knowledge, and secured by an understanding that all lives matter.

Before closing the week by spending a quiet Friday night watching movies with my family, I attended a two-day conference: The 7th Annual National Convening on Personalized Learning. This year, The Institute for Personalized Learning focused on Preparing Learners for the Future, “to produce learners that work independently, are able to drive their own learning, and want to learn out of curiosity.” From one presenter to the next, all conversations challenged traditional thinking about the way we do school. In fact, every speaker inspired an audience of educators to rethink their vision of school. Breakout sessions shared models of success and struggle to personalize learning, while reinforcing the fact that personalization is not a pre-packaged educational program, initiative, or buzzword. It is a culture-shifting philosophy that puts learning at the center of all decisions, leverages student voice and choice, and empowers every student, every day.

Here are my notes and greatest takeaways from two days of rich dialogue, challenging thoughts, and memorable conversations with passionate educators… Continue reading

Writing With the Stars

We spend hours of our academic lives attempting to analyze and interpret the literary works of others. We strive define what an author’s text says, then determine what the writing means. While critical thinkers recognize the benefits of these literary discussions and classroom activities, occasionally we have to ask, “What does this matter?” Why dedicate so much time studying the words of authors whom will never share the truth? If we could simply ask Shakespeare if he intended to communicate what was recently Shmooped

The process is frustrating at times. It assigns students the role of the confused reader and authors as the untouchable expert. Learners in my high school English courses should consider themselves writers as well as readers. The most effective strategy I’ve used is to study our own work as literature. Here’s how. Continue reading

Clipboards and Conversations: PD with Purpose

I recently had the rare opportunity (and pleasure) to observe my colleagues’ classrooms throughout two school days. In total, I entered twenty-four classrooms and, after reflective collaboration with the rest of the leadership team, enjoyed conversations about nearly fifty observational rounds. While out on tour, my purpose was to collect data about the amount of differentiation and level of rigor our students experience in a typical day of high school to provide direction for future staff development. What I recorded on a clipboard may prove valuable; but what I experienced has already made a significant impact.

My greatest take-away is the need for all stakeholders to increase innovative thought in our vision of school–by students, teachers, and administrators. Students should spend more time creating, not simply doing, in a school day. Teachers should be coaching more than instructing. Administrators should attack the status quo, think big and ask, “why not?” All leaders should empower others by asking more questions than providing answers. We can make significant improvements to what we do and how we do it. So what holds us back? Continue reading

A Radiant Reflection 2015

Last year at this time, I committed to my one word for 2015: radiate. The time has come to check for accountability to see if I achieved the expectations identified in last year’s post. With humility and gratitude, I reflect on my opportunities for professional development and personal growth in 2015.


Radiate: To move from one’s center requires taking action with direction. It is time to emerge, flow with thoughts, and take action to produce something useful.

In 2015, I resumed my endless quest to promote a culture of learning through innovative engagement strategies, healthy grading practices, and assessment for learning. After years of exploring project-based learning, differentiation, genius hour, feedback strategies, and the paperless classroom, I began working with a personalized learning model in high school communication arts. The process was challenging but the results were rewarding. The efforts of my students and support from colleagues, along with my transparency in documenting the journey, led to a surprising honor. I received the 2015 Herb Kohl Fellowship Award for “the ability to inspire a love of learning in students and motivate others, and for leadership within and outside the classroom.” While the recognition was gratifying, it became a motivator to raise my personal expectations and professional contributions to education. Continue reading