Straight A Grant Brings Zulama to Butler County ESC

Straight A Grant Brings Zulama to Butler County ESC

Zulama is pleased to announce that the Butler County Educational Service Center (BCESC) is the recipient of a Straight A Fund grant that will bring Zulama’s Entertainment Technology Academy to three Ohio districts: Madison Local, Monroe Local, and Talawanda City.

With the grant, the districts as well as BCESC receive permanent licenses for Zulama’s Entertainment Technology Academy. The grant presents an exciting opportunity for districts to share resources as they expand Zulama’s course offerings to students in grades 7 – 12 throughout the region’s schools.

Ongoing professional development opportunities are central to the grant’s parameters, including a three-credit professional development course on games based learning offered to teachers in Butler County through the University of Miami College of Education. The University of Miami will be responsible for “assessing and monitoring the project” to determine retention rates of students enrolled in Zulama’s courses. They will also study the impact of core Zulama elements on core curriculum teaching practices, such as project based learning and personalized learning.

Georgine Bowman and Andrew Wheatley, both Zulama Certified Trainers, are facilitating training and mentoring of teachers new to Zulama’s curriculum. Through implementation of the grant, participating school districts hope to “retain students who traditionally would enroll at a local technical college or online program.” By the second year, “ regional districts will have access to the Zulama curriculum utilizing the BCESC alternative school.”

Straight-A-FundAs defined in the grant, “The integration of the Zulama curriculum will change the culture of teaching and learning across all the districts. First and foremost, the partners anticipate seeing a difference in student engagement and achievement. [Students] will want to come to school, want to complete their assignments and will be ready to learn….” The grant application cites research that games and game design improve overall student achievement. Students in Butler County will take a deep dive into a variety of core subject areas as they learn about game design and create games. Anticipated outcomes for the grant include improved attendance, reduced behavior referrals, increased levels of achievement, and enhanced technological skills among Zulama students.

Individuals interested in learning more about Butler County ESC’s Straight A Fund Grant are encouraged to contact Andrew Wheatley at or Nikki Navta at

The Power of PBL

The Power of PBL

Beverly Vaillancourt, M.Ed

Educator, Instructional Designer

Bev_compressedI worked with high-risk high school students for several years in a special high school completion program. The kids came to me as seniors with barely a high school credit to their name. Most were chronic truants. Some were dropouts we connected with and brought back into the system. The goal was to get those young adults out into the working world, have them pass the five GED tests, civics, and health, and graduate them with their class. And they did! I had the privilege of being the teacher of 130 students over seven years who became high school graduates as a result of the program.

Many of the kids simply did not like each other. Though we were in an off-campus setting, old feuds from the high school setting prevailed. Once given the opportunity to succeed, their motivation to finish school was actually not a problem. Getting beyond their dislike for each other was an obvious barrier right from the start. Each year I found a community service project to start our school year as the first of several projects we worked on together. It forced the students to work together and gave them a purpose; at least that’s how I thought of it then. Looking back, I now realize the students were immersed in 21st Century Skills. The “project” took a disconnected group of students and gave them a purpose on which to focus their energy and passion.

One year the group built a play station for a local daycare. The large play station came in several parts, with lots of screws and bolts. It was “some assembly required” to the max! The guys saw it as a guy project. They could lift the heavy pieces into place, and right in their cars, every one of their cars, was a set of tools waiting to be used. They instantly took on individual roles, some pulling pieces into place, others driving bolts where needed. They forgot they were supposed to be at odds with each other because the intrinsic joy of building and the showing their finely-tuned building skills overcame any past disagreements. It was poetry in motion.

What about the girls? The guys dismissed them as unnecessary and let them know it, not only in what they said, but very definitely in how they behaved. At least they did until one of the girls picked up a screwdriver and started securing a timber, demonstrating obvious skill. Time stopped at that moment for the guys. Another girl picked up the printed directions and started reading the directions aloud, step by step. A third helped organize the sequence of the assembly. By early afternoon, the play station was built and the kids looked at what they had constructed with pride.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the project can be best described within a social context. A dramatic and long-lasting change came over the group as the play station project progressed. They recognized and respected individual skills and shared a common purpose. Collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, voice and choice, and the creation of a product – all enhanced 21st Century skills ruled the day. And every day they could drive by the day care center and say, “I built that.” Their product was a public good. It was shared with the community in the local newspaper, and their image in the community became positive.

idea team finalThe power of project based learning is truly unlimited, not only in building important personal skills, but also in helping students learn how to function in the real world. Project based learning is a keystone of Zulama’s courses. Project based learning is not one person working on a project, but a group of engaged individuals sharing talents though collaboration. Everyone brings his or her unique qualities to the project.

Zulama students work in small groups to innovate, design, engage others, and assess in the form of ongoing iteration. Zulama calls these small group and group process IDEA Teams. Teamwork builds self-reliance, self-confidence, accountability, and most importantly, responsibility. In the first Evolution of Games IDEA Team project, students create the game board for the ancient game of Ur that originated in Mesopotamia. Students take a deep dive into the history and culture of this ancient time and place and then translate their knowledge onto a game board. Who does the research? Who creates the art? Who constructs the game board? Who presents it? When does the group meet and what are they responsible for sharing?

Royal Game Of Ur Game Board

Royal Game Of Ur Game Board

This early project sets the social context in which the class functions. Just as with my play station-building students, IDEA Teams find purpose and pride in what they accomplish, not because a teacher has told them what needs to be done and how, but because they determine their set of expectations and strive to meet them.

It’s exciting to read about the energized project based learning environments in the Danville, Kentucky school district and at High Tech High in Philadelphia. It’s equally exciting to walk into Zulama classes and see the social engagement and cognitive investment when students are immersed in game design and project based learning. Research supporting project based learning is compelling. I saw the benefits of project based learning play out for 130 young adults who walked with great pride at graduation. Class projects became defining moments in their education and had a dramatic and positive influence on their futures.



Optimizing Student Performance Through Project Based Learning

Optimizing Student Performance Through Project Based Learning

Beverly VaillancourtBev Vaillancourt , M.Ed. Educator, Instructional Designer

All of Zulama’s courses offer meaningful, hands-on, project based learning experiences. Project based learning requires students to step beyond the textbook to apply knowledge to real world experiences. The goal of project based learning is to create a product that answers a driving question or solves a problem. Students engaged in problem based learning use information to seek solutions to real problems by making connections between content and real life situations. Project based learning expands the “oh?” to the “aha!”

Project based learning is an IDEA team experience. Students work in groups of various sizes for a project. One individual serves as the project manager. Each member of the IDEA team contributes his or her talents to the project. Students share their talents, determine project responsibilities, and engage in the iterative process throughout the project. And, it all starts with the IDEA team’s first meeting.

IMG_0208John Larmer and John R. Mergendoller present seven essentials of Project Based Learning in their September 2010 article Seven Essentials for Project-based Learning, found in Volume 68, Number 1 issue of Educational Leadership online. The Seven Essentials highlight the best practices of instructional design.

The Hook – Larmer and Mergendoller describe this as the “entry event.” Project based learning begins with an activity that captures student interest and creates a desire to know more.

Driving Question – The driving question can be teacher or student generated. Student generated is preferred. The “hook” should spark several driving questions for students to consider. The driving question creates a purpose for the project and a desire among students to research and learn more.

Student Choice – In project based learning students choose the type of product that best suits the team within a set of parameters established by the teacher.  This student choice allows for greater ownership of the project and end product and allows for individual talents to drive the project. Students value and appreciate each other’s skills.

21st Century Skills – Students entering the global learning environment must understand how to use technology and collaboration to develop creative and innovative solutions to complex problems. Teamwork and collaboration are essential elements of project based learning and the IDEA team experience.

IMG_0185Seeking Answers- In project based learning, IDEA teams generate questions and seek answers to them. This creates student ownership of the learning and develops a sense of relevance and meaning.

Iteration – Peer review is integral to project based learning. Students create or use pre-assigned assessment rubrics and share feedback. The iterative process includes peer review, authentic assessment, and project revision. Instead of students working in a competitive grading environment, students work together to improve each other’s projects with the goal of each IDEA team achieving a high level of success and project satisfaction. Importantly, failure is seen not as a dead end, but as part of the learning process. Sometimes that means starting anew. And, that’s okay.

Project Showcase – Every IDEA team product is presented in some way, not only for peer review, but also for review by professionals in education, government, business, or other professional field.

Project Based Learning allows students to take charge of their learning. The teacher becomes the facilitator, guiding and providing support as needed. However, through inquiry, collaboration, brainstorming, problem solving, and creative design, students turn content into a critical thinking laboratory with real life implications and importance.

Redefining Failure

by Beverly Vaillancourt, M.Ed

As long as our failure is interesting, we will keep trying — and remain hopeful that we will succeed eventually. Jane McGonigal

Perhaps you share my impatience with a car that does not start. I’ll attempt to start a lifeless car about five times before I give up and look for an alternative travel plan. I find failure of the car to start totally frustrating and quickly lose interest in the problem (and affinity for my car). My failure is complete. For my son, however, a car’s failure to start is game on. With his interested peaked, he dives under the hood to find its cause. Time has no meaning and each successive failure adds a new clue and a new element of interest to the problem. He’s not content until he has succeeded in starting the car, no matter how long it takes. He’s at it, happy as a lark dealing with one failure after another. He views the problem as a challenge – a game to be won.


In her book, “Realty is Broken” (Penguin Group, 2011), Jane McGonigal talks about why failure makes us happy in games, while failure in real life typically expresses itself as disappointment, diminished interest, and a lack of motivation. McGonigal notes that in games, feedback from failure becomes a rewarding experience. Failure is uplifted from its negative connotations to become something far more positive. With positive failure our sense of control is reclaimed and our lives move back to being goal oriented.

Can this redefinition of failure find a place in today’s schools? Can persistence in one high interest failure experience carry over to greater tenacity in another, far less interesting failure experience? If so, how does positive failure become infused in school systems where grading and standards are established benchmarks of success?

Failure in the traditional sense reduces an individual’s willingness to take risk. Risk is very much present in the traditional classroom. Asking or answering a question can evoke a variety of social consequences from admiration to rejection. Assignments carry the risk of a poor grade. Tests can become barriers to success. So should success be assured no matter what the effort? Or should failure be placed in perspective as part of the journey to success?

In essence, can classrooms carry the elements of a game where all tasks are perceived as fair, accomplishable, and with enough strategy, time, and learning, become winnable?

14144449475_ed1814934b_bThey can, and they must. Schools can become frameworks of success for all students. Courses in games and game design can change a student’s attitude toward “school” and build confidence in his or her ability to take on challenges. Games offer problem-solving experiences within positive social contexts that allow for risk taking. Games offer optimism in the face of defeat. Games offer a classroom model for student success.

Is it important for everyone to play on the same level to learn new skills? Or, is the ultimate goal of education to enhance necessary skills required for individuals to take on new challenges, discover their talents, and intuitively recognize that learning is a lifelong process?

The opportunities for change are within reach. All it takes is crafting each learning activity as a problem to solve that taps into the interests of individual students in some way, and at some level. Just walking away from a car that doesn’t start is not good learning. At some point, every student should want to dive under the hood. That, in every measure, is success.

The Time is Right for Mastery Learning

The Time is Right for Mastery Learning

by Aaron Samscropped-IMG_0421

Aaron Sams is the co-author of “Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every student in Every Class, Every Day” (Aaron Sams and Jonathan Bergmann, ISTE 2012). In a flipped classroom, content is delivered online through video lectures or online readings. This, in turn, frees up class time for project based learning experiences. The Flipped-Mastery model allows teachers to facilitate classroom discussions and provide critical thinking experiences for their students that support the framework of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Adapted from a longer work published in Educational Leadership Dec2013/Jan2014

One aspect of education that is being questioned is that students should all learn at the same pace.  Rate is defined as a change over time, and the rate at which learning takes place can be defined as the change in learning over a period of time. Time is fairly constant in our schools, and the amount of content mastery depends upon the amount of learning that takes place in that amount of time. However, learning should be constant, and time should be variable. This ensures that all students learn what they are expected to learn, but do so in the amount of time necessary for each individual. A mastery learning approach, studied by Benjamin Bloom in the latter half of the 20th century, was shown to be challenging to implement due to two issues.  First, when is a teacher to deliver direct instruction if students are all at a different place in their learning?  Bloom’s version of mastery learning exposed and accepted the diversity, but was logistically prevented from meeting the individual needs of learners. The second challenge was assessment.  How many versions of a summative assessment can a teacher have in his or her filing cabinet, and how many times could a student take the exam to demonstrate mastery?  This model was not practical for the typical teacher. There just wasn’t enough time for a teacher to implement a mastery approach alone. Mastery learning struggled to take off in the 70s. But we now live in the age of online video and learning management systems (LMS).  The problem of instruction delivery is solved with short videos that teachers can easily create. Learning management systems now offer easy ways for teachers to create online tests which can be different each time a student takes an exam as well as customized paths of study based on a student’s current abilities and understanding of content. Leveraging these tools has led to the development of the Flipped-Mastery model. Mastery learning has a place in schools, and the Flipped-Mastery model leverages today’s technology to overcome the logistical hurdles of the past allowing teachers to individualize learning for each student and puts student learning at the center of each classroom.