Engaging the Struggling Student

Engaging the Struggling Student

Beverly Vaillancourt, M.Ed
Educator, Instructional Designer

“Games teach you how aspects of reality work, how to understand yourself, how to understand the actions of others, and how to imagine.” Raph Koster, A Theory of Fun for Game Design 

“Games help us band together and create powerful communities from scratch.” Jane McGongigal, Reality is Broken

Education expends a great deal of effort on struggling students. School systems, prompted by both federal and state directives, commit resources for testing students, compiling statistics, and managing curriculums and perhaps entire school buildings, all focused on the struggling student. Politicians recognized the importance of addressing the struggling student and commit additional resources to write laws and policies to deal with the social consequences associated with failed school systems. It’s an accumulated cost that defies calculation.

I’ve often heard comments about the skill and enjoyment struggling students show when playing video games, with the caveat that if they would spend more time on their school work and less time playing video games, their grades certainly would improve. I have to wonder if when we are talking about the struggling student if we really are not talking about students who are disengaged, along with parents who are equally disengaged, or perhaps more so.

What keeps a teen interested in school? One tenet I firmly believe is that every individual wants to succeed, though that success activity may not be what most view as success. Chronic truancy, a route taken by too many struggling students, is an activity that defines success, at least for some. The system has been thwarted, control gained over adults who are jumping through hoops to pull the student back into mainstream education, and admiration gained from others who view schools as negative places.  Success really is in the eye of the beholder.

Video games offer an alternative reality for kids who fail within traditional school settings. They succeed with games and succeed big. Importantly, they learn the value of iteration. Failure becomes a positive and highly social experience because strategy gained from the feedback of others playing the same game pays off. The warm glow of success becomes a welcomed experience. This is so very different from the social experiences of so many struggling students in schools.

The deep learning that occurs in games is voluntary, involves every modality, and is driven by high interest. Toss in perseverance to the max as the individual moves into higher levels of game play to meet both short-term objectives and long-term goals. Isn’t this learning process exactly what we hope happens in the classroom? Isn’t it all about engagement and not about an individual’s ability to learn in ways educational systems have decided they must learn? Wouldn’t it be quite the educational success story if educators could get struggling students as invested in school tasks as so many are in video games?

According to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2013 statistics, gamers make up 32 percent of all individuals under the age of 18. There is an average of two gamers / American household, while 51 percent of all American households include a game console. It may surprise you (maybe not) to learn that on average every American house has a PC, smart phone, or dedicated game console.

But what if education harnessed the power of games and technology to reach the struggling reader? Zulama is invested in the exciting paradigm shift happening across the country in education. This new paradigm couples the power of technology with best practices in how to foster deep and long lasting learning. It’s a paradigm that supports a deep dive into content and drives a belief in one’s ability to control their destiny through effort, perseverance, and engagement.  It is, in every way, an exciting time in education, and one that should and must alter how education views the struggling student.



Infographics courtesy of Institute of Play.


An Open Letter to a Struggling Student

An Open Letter to a Struggling Student

By Amy Stefanski

STEM Teacher (GlassLab Summer Intern 2014)

Dunlap Valley and Dunlap Middle School(s)

glasslabDunlap Community School District #323

Dear Struggling Student,

At times, it’s hard to put pen to paper. STEM concepts and terms can be difficult; when I took this job, I knew that teaching them was not going to be so simple. It is my job, my purpose to motivate and empower you to understand these complex theories. Beyond that, it is my job to help you understand how these theories impact your life and those around you.

You are not alone, and I am here to help you find your voice.  Your other teachers are here to help too – but it looks like my materials are causing you to struggle.

I’ve often asked myself these questions:

“How can I help?”

“How may I motivate you to not only learning, but enjoying my materials?”

“How can I support you?”

As I look to you, however, I see your attention drawn not to your books, but the lit screen on your tablet and the vibrant sounds erupting from its speakers. It’s another game you’re playing, I realize. My new lesson on engineering design and pollution lays flat upon my desk, present and necessary but yet unseen.  Another question pops into mind:

“How can I compete with a video game – your video game?”

A realization comes to mind: I don’t have to compete with it. We can use it together!

A team of people have made something just for you – a video game where STEM concepts are fun!  My dear friends at GlassLab Games have created a video game to help you solve critical issues of pollution and design called SimCityEDU.

It is a mission-based game where you solve a number of problems in a thriving city.  The terms you’ll learn are no different from the ones I would otherwise teach, and they will be on a platform you already understand.  Take the city in your hands and be empowered to drive your own solutions. You can solve it your way.

If you have trouble, don’t fret! GlassLab has created an awesome tool that tracks your progress in real-time. This is your quest – your journey – so I won’t hover or draw attention to you, but if you need me I can rush to your aid. We will get through this, and you will succeed.

You love games, and I know these materials. Together with GlassLab Games, we can work together to make learning easier and more fun! Let’s do this!

Motivating Struggling Students Through Games

Motivating Struggling Students Through Games

Bev Vaillancourt , M.Ed. Educator, Instructional Designer

Every educator is thrilled when a student finds his or her passion. It’s what drives us through the more difficult days and rekindles our passion for working with kids. Golden moments for an educator are when you know you’ve made a positive difference in the life of a child. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

Some students who take Zulama’s game design courses are quite able students. They are self-motivated, independent learners who thrive on the discovery of new ideas and have a personal quest for knowledge. Others are struggling students who may or may not attend school on any given day. Working with students who see little purpose in attending school provides wonderful opportunities for making that lifelong difference in the life of a child.

quote 450According to research presented in Education Week, “only 10 percent of students who were far behind their peers in college and career readiness benchmarks in reading in 8th grade were able to meet readiness benchmarks in 12th grade … only 6 percent of students far behind in science and 3 percent of those far behind in math had caught up by the end of high school…[while] only about 1 in 10 students who were “far off track” in reading or math in 4th grade met the on-track benchmarks in 8th grade.” The data suggests that students who struggle academically early in their school experience find limited success in school as they move through the grades. The problems are compounded by socio-economic status. According to a review of the literature by the organization DoSomething.org, there is a seven fold likelihood that students in the 16 – 24 age category will drop out of school if they come from low income families.

How to best address struggling students drives federal, state, and local educational policies. Education applies well-researched learning theories to instructional methodology for the struggling student. Thus, learning strategies for struggling students highlight the importance of scaffolding so that lessons include visual clues, plenty of time for discourse, group work, and a focus on higher order thinking skills described through the 5 Es: engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate.

These instructional strategies truly are important in order to maximize student learning and prepare students for jobs we can identify today and for ones that exist only in our imaginations of what the future holds. It’s also where the power of games and game based education can play a significant role in changing students’ attitudes toward school and fostering a personal belief in one’s capacity to learn and participate in the dynamic environment of school. For the struggling student, it is not how we see education as relevant to a student’s life, but how they view that relevance. That’s where students buy into what school offers; it’s where the rubber meets the road.

photo 5How can games make a difference and bring relevance to motivate the struggling student? The Institute of Play captures the intrinsic power of games when it states, “Many experts believe that success in the twenty-first century depends on education that treats higher order skills, like the ability to think, solve complex problems or interact critically through language and media. Games naturally support this form of education. They are designed to create a compelling complex problem space or world, which players come to understand through self-directed exploration. They are scaffolded to deliver just-in-time learning and to use data to help players understand how they are doing, what they need to work on and where to go next. Games create a compelling need to know, a need to ask, examine, assimilate and master certain skills and content areas. Some experts argue that games are, first and foremost, learning systems, and that this accounts for the sense of engagement and entertainment players experience.”

We know a wealth of learning happens during game play. Problem solving, content knowledge, collaboration, strategy, optimism in one’s believe to overcome obstacles, goal setting, understanding that rules are necessary and bring order to potential chaos, and a belief that failure can be overcome with perseverance and iteration.

Each of these game elements sounds strikingly familiar to what is expressed as qualities lacked by struggling students. The power of games can bring struggling students to school, develop desired qualities that instill a personal belief of the potential of personal success, and empower them to attempt academic challenges once thought not possible. More than that, games offer career possibilities and provide relevance to mainstream education for able and for struggling students. According to the Entertainment Software Rating Board, video games are played in 67 percent of all households. That’s a lot of gaming. According to Statista, video and computer games combined is a 14.8 billion dollar industry.

Games and game design provide a place for the struggling student to start. They willingly roll the education dice and find purpose in coming to school. Games can be the game changer for students and for the individuals who invest their hearts, time, and talents into making a difference in the life of a child.

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 Andrew.Wheatley@madisonmohawks.org or Nikki Navta at Nikki.Navta@Zulama.com.

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.