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Making Games with Kids That Need Big Challenges

The next installment of the Field Day blog: Wisconsin teachers who know how to lead gifted students.

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Field Day Lab is hosting a launch event on January 21 in Madison to introduce new fellows, launch new games and platforms, and celebrate 2015’s accomplishments while looking forward to 2016. RSVP here.

One of the privileges of being part of Field Day is meeting so many creative, forward thinking people who are passionate to learn, who will push the boundaries of “accepted classroom activities,” and who are willing to sacrifice their own comfort and time so others can shine. In a word: teachers. So if no one minds, let’s take a moment and brag on some of the teachers at a recent Game Jam for Gifted & Talented students.

Twelve teams of teachers and students filled the room, having driven up to two hours from central, mostly rural, Wisconsin (CESA 5). Right away, it was clear that this was a special group. If you’re a teacher, you know that giving up a full day of teaching isn’t easy. Neither is all the coordinating it takes to organize the necessary permissions, technology, and transportation to select and bring along four students. After getting to know the teachers a little better, we could see they shared a number of admirable characteristics: openness to learn something new, humility to allow the students to teach them, and willingness to put their students’ interests and needs above their own.

Many stepped way outside their comfort zones at the Game Jam to try new technology or teaching models for the first time. Amy Anaya, the Gifted & Talented coordinator at Iola-Scandinavia Middle School, had no experience with games before attending the workshop. “One of the students we brought is helping us teachers understand the tech side of building the game,” she said.

“We want to keep the light burning for gifted education, to keep the students engaged and let them be creative.” — Dorothy Gannet, CESA 5 Coordinator

In fact, it was because of a student that the team from Iola-Scandinavia was even able to attend the Game Jam. Earlier that morning, they had car trouble. The teachers tried everything — and then one of the students asked if he could help. He saw something the teachers had missed and fixed it. In no time at all, their van was road-worthy. Amy beamed with pride that this student had been instrumental in making the day possible.

“I came because I need to learn more,” Julie Breunig, the Gifted & Talented Specialist at Sauk Prairie Middle School, said. “I need a stronger foundation so I can see how game design fits with the curriculum and to train staff to incorporate it.”

CESA 5 Gifted Education Grant coordinator, Dorothy Ginnet, PhD, enjoyed watching the students and teachers interact and have fun. “We want to keep the light burning for gifted education, to keep the students engaged and let them be creative.”

Keeping gifted & talented students engaged and teaching in ways that facilitate their creativity isn’t easy. It takes more time to prepare. Much like game design, it takes trial and error. “Some of the students on my team struggle in school,” said Chuck Baldeshwiler, who teaches 4th-8th grade in Nekoosa, WI. “But they are enjoying today. My goal is that these kids can teach others.”

At least half of the teachers said their students struggled in school simply because they were bored. “Our top students are not usually challenged, so this is exciting and so rewarding,” Amy said.

“I’m impressed with the level of engagement in our students,” Sue Zigler, teacher at Sauk Prairie, said. “In fact, some of the students talked and interacted today when they never would have at school.”

The teachers were filled with belief in their students and excitement to watch them grow — not just academically, but personally. “My desire today is that students learn to persevere and overcome obstacles. Sometimes our gifted and talented students don’t know what to do with failure,” shared Rebecca Murphy. She teaches science at Adams-Friendship Middle School. “They are learning how to overcome frustration when there isn’t an easy path from A to B. One of my students was very upset during lunch. But after hearing Jim Matthews say that ‘design is 99% failure and 1% figuring out what works,’ now he’s smiling and very engaged.”

Brionne Roberts-Bray, the Library Media Specialist at Parkside Middle School in Wautoma, brought her students because they are from a small, rural district with limited opportunities. “I want the students to have the skills to do this on their own, to transfer it to programming, so they can build on it and take it further.”

“These kids are the future,” Julie said. “We want them to be creative, to problem solve, to work together. It’s not always easy to teach creativity, but it’s important because it leads to higher levels of thinking and processing, learning through trial and error, learning how to fix problems. Today’s project opened up the students to do this. I saw their self-esteem increase when they did something difficult.”

We applaud you, Wisconsin teachers! Thank you for giving your time, your resources, and your brain power long after the school bell rings. Thank you for your creativity and passion. Thank you for doing whatever it takes to help each student learn in the way they learn. We know it’s not always easy. We’re privileged to work with you and hope that what we do here at Field Day can make your jobs easier and, of course, even more fun!


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