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#openschools, open source, open world: 3 keys to an open classroom

Written by Chad Sansing
February 06, 2013

This #dlday, the author of one of my favorite projects is absent. I’m going to attempt to describe her work and then offer my own commentary on it. Once she returns, I’ll ask her to add anything she’d like to this post.

Twine

Not too long ago, my students and I negotiated new learning plans. Most kids set up time to read, write, and work on projects each week. Some students negotiated short-term plans rather than container plans; they’re at work finishing very particular and long-lived projects, like building a Minecraft controller and developing an Instructable on the process.

A handful of students decided to play Axe Cop Munchkin. During the game, each player kept a game-log. After the game, each player used his or her notes to draft a super-hero fan-fic narrative set in the Axe Cop universe. I gave feedback about organization, style, and mechanics, and most students dutifully, if not enthusiastically, made their edits and revisions. A few of them even made Pulp-O-Mizer book covers for their stories.

The author whose project I’d like to describe, however, went in a different direction.

I frequently share things that I think are cool for makers with my class. Last week I found Twine, a tool that “lets you organize your story graphically with a map that you can re-arrange as you work.” You can also code instructions into each story node to make it a hub that branches out into any number of different nodes. Thanks to this functionality, you can use Twine to story-board text or create text-based games for the reader like Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. Twine exports stories as web-pages that let readers move through each node of text linearly or hypertextually.

In fact, you can code more than branching paths into code. You can code in images, HTML, or even a stylesheet. You can code in variables, as well – and that is what caught my students’ attention. I have no idea of everything that Twine can do, but my student saw an opportunity to make her super-hero fan-fic interactive. She wants to include inventory items and other variables, such as character stats, that change according to “player” choice.

I realized today that part of the appeal of coding the story is empowering the reader to change it. I realized that I am teaching kids whose ideas of narrative go something like this: the story sucked, but all the side quests and stuff in the world were cool. I am teaching kids who abandon story-lines so that they can make characters sky-dive from planes just to try to land on the heads of sharks.

Is my teaching like that? Is there enough to do and learn from in the room so that kids who resist, abandon, or dare to reprogram the curriculum don’t feel abandoned, lost, purposeless, or punished? Do I recognize enough kinds of literacy and achievement to value and protect multi-dimensional learning? To value and protect specialized learning in places I normally don’t look? Is it possible that my class offers students growth in skill trees I did not adopt, author, or design?

Do I ever hope so.

This #dlday, I am beginning to realize the three keys to the open classroom I so want to build.

  • #openschools: My classroom needs to be open to my kids. It needs to be shaped, governed, and assessed by them. It needs to meet their many and diverse learning needs, interests, and affinities. Why? Because the narrative of covering a curriculum or following a pacing guide is mine, not theirs. It is only relevant to the conflict between me and the system. That story sucks, but the side quests into student-directed learning and all that is possible in this connected world of ours are cool. The students are not here to confirm for me my own notions of myself as a teacher; I am here to help them find themselves in their learning. Our class must be co-op; I must play alongside students and help them find and finish their quests.

  • Open source: The stuff we use must be able to follow kids out of the classroom; the stuff students bring from home must be usable inside the classroom. It does us no good as a trusting community of learners to pretend that we don’t exist outside of each other’s time together. If we want to help kids become life-long learners, than we cannot blackout parts of their lives with rote schooling. Our classrooms and schools should be hackable to fit how and what students need to learn to keep on learning. Our schools should be hackable so kids want to keep on learning. That means that the stuff we use needs to transfer outside of schools and that the how, what, and why of our teaching needs to fulfill authentic needs and wants in students’ lives. School cannot be a black box or a phone that is illegal to jailbreak. It needs to be the stuff of making. It shouldn’t cost my students anything to be themselves and to learn as they will in my classroom. They should be able to learn from me, not from a scripted, purchased version of me.

  • Open world: My classroom needs to be a kind of procedurally instanced “dungeon” for each kid – an area to explore and conquer that is not a closed system or a place where their love of learning crashes every day because of a bug in my teacherly programming. My kids need to be able to “raid” my classroom repeatedly to “farm” different, spiraling learning rewards from it. They need to invite in other mentors who can help them use our resources to accomplish their goals. They need to be able to leave – or to leave at the end of the day – with the capability to “drop” inventory they don’t need in order to pick up new “items” – content, skills, and capacities – that let them make metaphors – and then concrete connections – between what we do and what they want to do in life. My classroom needs to be a fully-featured part of my students’ lives – a dungeon, location, or map – rather than a casual game, mini-game, licensed-game, or ban kept separate from life.

I’m not out to gamify my classroom, but I think it’s important to reflect on my students’ idea of narrative, which is different than (although not entirely alien from) mine. My classroom – my career – is not my story to tell. Rather, it is my work to help my students see that when they abandon the stories that suck, they begin writing lives of their own. That is both a joy and a terror, and I am humbled – digitally, materially, and humanly – to stand beside my students through both.