Kate Fanelli, a special ed high school math teacher at Beacon Day Treatment Center in a suburb of Detroit, was struggling with problems familiar to many special ed instructors. Many of her students had severe emotional impairment, were not interested in math and were easily distracted. They had a wide variety of ability levels. They avoided doing work, acted out, skipped class, and exhibited “learned helplessness.”
She could have accepted it as par for the course — 87 percent were on free or reduced lunch, and many were on medication, had psychiatric diagnoses and even court involvement. But she wanted better.
Inspired by hearing Marc Prensky speak at a conference, Fanelli did more research and then decided to make her class itself into a game. She adopted game characteristics such as avatars, leveling up, points, working at the right level of difficulty, embedded learning, and “semiotic domains” (mirroring what a professional mathemetician would do in the real world). This use of game elements in a nongame setting is called “gamification.”
Calling her game “MathLand” (not to be confused with the elementary mathematics curricula), Fanelli took the Common Core standards, broke them into 21 levels, and gave each a logical scope and sequence. She created lessons in Word and designed “levels” including information-gathering quests, labs, and more traditional lessons. She gave each level three parts: 1) the lesson itself, with step-by-step instructions, vocabulary, and 4 to 5 math exercises, 2) optional practice problems exactly like the lesson exercises which the student could get help with, and 3) a mastery test which the student must pass with a 100 percent score while working alone.
Fanelli gave each student a folder (kept in the classroom) which contained the entire syllabus and a portfolio which served as a cumulative record to track progress. Rather than listening to whole-class lectures, students studied the material independently and asked Fanelli (or each other) questions. The only whole-class lecture was once a week, when Fanelli addressed issues that the entire class seemed to be facing, such as how to graph or use a graphing calculator.
Each student started the year with zero points (an ‘E’) and had to earn 20 points to advance to the next letter grade. It took 100 points to earn an ‘A.’ Fanelli gave students points for passing each mastery test.
Fanelli also let students have avatars. She laminated faceless stick figures on notecards and sorted them on a bulletin board divided into avatar levels. All students began at “Apprentice” level, and level up by earning ‘dots.’ (Dots are punchhole-sized stickers from Office Max.) Dots were earned for completing a level, for every five days they are in class the entire time (with no bathroom breaks or counselor visits), and for good performance in class.
Once students earned 10 green dots they became “Professors.” Professors can have a larger avatar with printed clothing (though no face or hair). After earning 15 red dots at Professor level, students achieved “Genius” level and could add face and hair to their avatars. After 20 yellow dots at Genius level, students reached “Blue Dot Genius” and could make a nonhuman avatar. That was the final level and students could get unlimited blue dots. Fanelli also gave certificates for each status achieved and put associated dots on those.
Fanelli said this new approach saved her. She didn’t meet a student that wouldn’t participate. Students attended class regularly and got right to work. They no longer fearedfalling grades. They worked at their own pace and collaborated on everything except the mastery tests. If they were absent, they didn’t miss instruction. Students could see the end-point to the work and knew they could quit when finished. This approach encouraged good social skills, since students offered help to those behind them in the class. Test scores also improved.
Fanelli noted that the approach required that she plan the entire class by the beginning of the school year. She said there was less paperwork, and she took less work home. It was also easy for substitutes to manage the class.
On the downside, she had to respond quickly to students in class, and give instruction repeatedly; sometimes students waited to get her attention. She warns that she had at most 10 students, and too many more students could be hard to handle. She had no slow days. There was increased record-keeping since she tracked how each student spent time on- and off-task during class; she used a computerized grade book. She also had to finagle recording student progress in the school’s traditional grading system, where students can start with an ‘A’.
Fanelli said this approach can be used for any subject matter, but using good instructional design principles is a must. She advises using clear, explicitly stated objectives; giving students many opportunities for self-assessment and reflection; making connections while tutoring individuals to help them see the big picture; and integrating technology and manipulatives into instruction.
Fanelli recommends reading a few selected books to prepare:
- “What Video Game Have to Teach Us About LIteracy and Learning,” by James Paul Gee
- “How Computer Games Help Children Learn,” by David Williamson Shaffer
- “Mindset” by Carol Dweck
- “Never Work Harder Than Your Students” by Robyn Jackson
- “Why Don’t Students Like School?” by Daniel Willingham