Interview with a Teenager

Interview with a Teenager:

Tips for Communicating with Students about Game Violence

IMG_7964By Sarah Avery, Zulama Community Advocate, Educator

Last week I sat down with my sister to talk about video games in education. During our discussion the topic of violence in videogames came up. As a teenager who is often exposed to media of all sorts, including violent media, she had some advice for parents and teachers who struggle with teenage consumption of media.

  1. Open a channel of communication with your student.  In order to do this, parents and teachers must be open to students’ opinions and respectful towards what they have to say.  By inviting them into a supportive environment, you as the parent or teacher will have more room to discuss what the student wants to share with you.  #Communicate
  2. Ask the student how they feel they are doing in the virtual world.  The easiest way to start a discussion is to ask specific questions about the games, shows, or movies they watch.  It’s not enough to ask general questions.  We all know the “how was school today” question can get limited responses, but asking about a specific teacher or favorite class can get discussions going.  Try asking about the most recent level they beat, goal they accomplished, or challenge where they are struggling. #ShowInterest
  3. Be educated about popular games.  It’s important for parents and teachers to know more about a game than just a title.  You must know the context and goal of the game. Two games that have the same goal may have drastically different game play, one game might only be jumping over mushrooms and another might have guns.  Just be educated about different games your student wants to play.  #EducateYourself
  4. Setting expectations is good. Each student needs to learn that there are things expected of them and in order to earn and deserve respect from the outside world, they need to respect themselves. To do this they need to understand that accepting responsibilities for their actions is always best.  So, teachers and parents need to make their expectations known and realistic.  Your student will mess up, but positive reinforcement is best.  #RespectYourself

These are her closing thoughts: “The use of the Internet can be a great benefit and comes with the power of knowledge, “but with great power comes great responsibility” #Spiderman #UncleBen.”


Education, Videogames, and Violence: Should we use games with violence?

Education, Videogames, and Violence: Should we use games with violence?

By Sarah Avery, Zulama Community Advocate, Educator

Increasing student engagement in the classroom is a challenge that all teachers face.  One solution is to use videogames in an educational way.  Many games fit nicely into the classroom, such as The Oregon Trail and Scrabble.  Games can be used to review content, like Jeopardy, or to build 21st Century skills, like Minecraft.  They improve communication and collaboration skills, as seen in games like Clash of Clans while also teaching students to explore their creativity and inventiveness in games like Little Big Planet and Epic Mickey.

However, what happens when the educational value meets with animated violence? Games like Assassin’s Creed and The Testament of Sherlock Holmes offer much educationally, but are often questioned for their animated violence. Assassin’s Creed in particular has been praised for its focus on historical accuracy. Players are immersed in time periods and famous events while meeting historical figures. Colleges have even used this game in history courses to show students visual representations of periods they are learning about in class.

The problems arise when you learn that the player is an Assassin who kills throughout the game with a variety of weapons, all of which specific to the context of the game.  For example, Assassin’s Creed III is set during the American Revolutionary War and the hero is a half-Mohawk, half-British assassin.  His name is Connor Kenway, but he was raised in a Mohawk village by his birth name of Ratonhnhake:ton. During this game, he uses tomahawks, bows and arrows, muskets, and other period specific weapons.  Players dive deeply into Native American culture and explore reactions to the Revolutionary War. praises the game saying the game was “the most anticipated title in Indian country in recent years.” They continue in the article, “‘Assassin’s Creed III’: A Critical Success and Cultural Milestone,” to quote others praising the game for its ability to capture the Native American culture and the hero’s passion for protecting the new world.

With all these glowing educational points, can we allow this game to be played in high schools? Common Sense Media says no. During their review of the game, they bluntly say that “[p]arents need to know that Assassin’s Creed III is not only violent and bloody, but you also play as an assassin who must find and kill targets. This might be more disturbing to some parents than games where you shoot aliens to defend earth (Halo) or stave off a military attack (e.g. Call of Duty).” They argue that though it does teach American history, the violence is too graphic for children. Parents, on the other hand, who reviewed the game on disagree. Out of 34 reviews of the game, the average age of maturity to play the game is 11, one year below the average age supported by 141 member reviews (teens and parents). Even more surprising out of 107 reviews, teens feel the average age acceptable to play the game is 12. Many members say that there is an option to turn off the animated blood in the game and that it is possible to play with minor instances of violence, it all depends on how the player plays the game.

While this is only one example of a violent but educational game, we could also consider Apotheon, a downloadable computer game where the player must save the world from the Olympian gods. Along the way, the player must kill countless humans who side with the vengeful gods while being exposed to Ancient Greek art, history, culture, and mythology. In Call of Duty: World at War the player experiences the reality of World War 2 in the heat of battle. In this first person shooter game the player shoots people and throws grenades, though it is still possible to turn off the blood and gore.

So, at what point does the violence outweigh the educational benefit? The same question could be used to discuss movies.  Movies like Hotel Rwanda, Ghandi, and Schindler’s List have been praised for their historical accuracy and profound messages, though the events surrounding the films were violent. Should we stop teaching about wars to protect our children from violence? Should we stop exposing students to famous art pieces, like The Death of General Wolfe or images from the holocaust? Or uncomfortable novels, like How to Kill a Mockingbird or The Hunger Games? At what point can we disallow material from an educational setting based on side content?

Perhaps the defining feature of the violence is the perspective of the viewer. Many games mentioned above are played from a first person point of view, meaning the player looks through the character’s eyes as a actions occur, whereas in movies or art, the viewer is disconnected from the action. Despite these differences, many researchers believe that no matter the perspective of the violence, the violence is still detrimental to students. That brings us back to the main question: Where should we draw the line on education resources that include violence?

Do you think educational games with violences should be used as educational tools and allowed in classrooms? Let us know in the comment section below.




Tsuro: The Game of the Path

Zulama Staff

Zulama staffers playing Tsuro

Today’s lunchtime game at Zulama was Tsuro, a beautifully crafted board game. We had 4 players. We played twice, and each round took less than 20 minutes.  We can best describe the game as “Chutes and Ladders meets Chess”. The game play mimics the metaphor of choice vs destiny in life. Ideal gameplay involves thinking ahead by about 3 turns, which hurt my brain but is a fun dynamic. We think the ideal is probably 4 players. I’ve also played it with 2, but thought 4 was more interesting and fun.

Overall, we liked the game, but thought there was too little control by each individual player to really make it feel like a true strategy game. It was a fun, enjoyable play, but we aren’t clamoring for a rematch.


The board, pieces, and box.

Some of us wanted to sit and ponder our moves for a while, while others were more impulsive. If you’ve played this game, did you feel the same way, and/or did you put a time limit on each player for each turn?

And yes, we were eating El Burro tacos. Mmmmmmm!

You can see our scores and more information about the game below!

Possible Points Points Awarded Judging Criteria
Components 5 4 How do the pieces feel, look, and function?
Setup 5 5 Is the game easy and fun to set up?
Rules 5 1 Are the rules clear & concise?
Quality of Gameplay 10 8 There are lots of different kinds of games. Fun games, serious games, fillers, epic journeys. This rating is for how well the game does what it sets out to do.
Fun-ness 10 8 10 being “I want to play it all the time” down to 1 which is “I never want to play this thing again!”.
Overall group score 5 3.375 Each person gives an overall score, this is the average of all scores
Game Title Tsuro
Designer Tom McMurchie
Artist Shane Small
Publisher Calliope Games
Year Published 2012
# of Players 2 to 8
Mfg Suggested Ages 8+
Mfg Suggested Playing Time 15-20 mins
Language Dependence none
Honors Creative Child: Game of the Year & Preferred Choice
Dad’s Gaming Addiction: Favorite Games
Geek Dad Golden Bots
Category survival
Mechanic strategy, chance
Family Tsuro of the Seas

How to Discuss Media Literacy with Your Students

Mrs. Hilty’s Classroom, Fort Cherry School District Every “Tweeting Tuesday” students tweet about class content they found interesting. Tweets could be about a novel they’re reading, an article they analyzed, or a class discussion.

Mrs. Hilty’s Classroom, Fort Cherry School District
Every “Tweeting Tuesday” students tweet about class content they found interesting. Tweets could be about a novel they’re reading, an article they analyzed, or a class discussion.

How to Discuss Media Literacy with Your Students

Sarah Avery, Zulama Community Advocate, Educator

When preparing students to become 21st Century citizens, we know they need to be proficient in a wide range of skills. They need to be innovative communicators, collaborators, and individuals who harness their creative talents. They also need to possess critical thinking skills and the ability to determine the credibility of a source; differentiate between fact and opinion, right and wrong; form opinions on social justice and civic duty issues; and make connections while sifting through information, including information given to us by the media.

According to the President of the Marketing Firm Yanelovich, Jay Walker-Smith, “we’ve gone from being exposed to about 500 ads a day back in the 1970’s to as many as 5,000 a day today” (Johnson). An average child will see approximately 20,000 300-second commercials in one year and by the age of 65, they will have seen approximately 2 million, according to the A.C Nielsen Co. By the time children finish elementary school, they will have seen 8,000 murders on television and, by the age of 18, 200,000 violent media acts (Herr). The sheer amount of information we take in is startling. So, how do we prepare our students to work through these messages designed to manipulate them? By teaching them media literacy skills. Media literate youth and adults are better able to understand the messages sent by television, internet, magazines, advertisements, video games, music, and all other forms of media.

So we all know media literacy is important, but where is the time to fit it into our schedules? How can we teach another topic in addition to the required content for standardized tests? Should I just leave media literacy to the english classes? In my experience as a teacher, I have struggled with these questions and more. Some days we feel like we’re struggling to stay afloat with all the requirements, so why would we want to tackle another topic?

Seth Ashley, in his article, “The Need for Media Literacy in the Digital Age,” poses a few questions to consider when deciding to incorporate media literacy into your course. “What does media literacy look like in the classroom? How can teachers know when they have been effective? How can teachers help students become motivated and engaged rather than disaffected and cynical?” In my attempt to answer these questions, I have provided some suggestions below that you can implement in your classroom when discussing media literacy. If you have any ideas or suggestions on blending media literacy into your content area, please add them to the comment section following this article.

  1. Analyze Sources: How can you help your students understand the difference between sources? You probably already limit the types of sources your students can use for any research they do. What do they say about this restriction? Do they feel it improves their research or constricts it? Helping them to make these distinctions will foster stronger media literacy skills when they are surfing the “net” on their own time. Take a look at different domains with your students.  What differences will they find when comparing a .com site vs a .edu site?

  2. Use Social Media in Your Classes: We all know that the best way to learn is through experience.  If we as teachers are able to help students experience this form of media in a secure environment, we can monitor and instruct students’ use of social media as well as foster positive social media skills. We can become role models of the social media world by demonstrating a positive way to interact online. It is so easy to be dismissive of others over social media because consequences are not immediate, like in a face to face conversation.  We can help stem the flow of cyberbullying if we, as teachers, stand up as role models for our students in the use of social media.
    If your school has blocked various social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, why not make an interactive bulletin board where students can collaborate on class discussion topics?  This allows students to take ownership of their education and environment.  Your students could “tweet” something interesting or a question about the class as a ticket out, post “Instagram” pictures as a character study, “pin” engineering project ideas to the wall, or update their “status” to respond to a teacher posed question. The interactive project ideas are endless.
    Another idea is to start a class blog. There are many platforms out there for free or for price blogs. Having a class blog is a great way to showcase student work and allow students to interact with content while outside of class. A few personal favorite platforms are Edublogs, Weebly for educators, Kidblog, and Glogster edu. This can also lead to lessons on civic responsibility when using the internet and internet safety. To learn more about creating a classroom blog, check out Michelle Lampinen’s article, “Blogging in the 21st-Century Classroom.”
  3. Don’t Isolate Media Literacy: How can we help students see the connections between the media and their lives? Media Literacy is integrated into our lives. Whenever we turn on the tv, surf the internet, drive down the road, or listen to the radio we must flex our literacy muscles. As adults, we understand the messages the media throws at us; but, our students who have grown up with more media exposure than we can possibly imagine need some extra help fending them off. Try working with cross-content teachers to address media literacy and create connections between different subjects. We know careers often cross content areas, so by blending content area instruction we can best prepare students for their futures.

According to Leslie Meredith, the TechNewsDaily Senior Writer, an AVG study found that “92 percent of youngsters under age 2 already have a digital footprint, meaning identifiable photos and other personal information has been posted of them online. Half of kids ages 6 to 9 regularly use social networks” (Meredith). Even if television and internet media was removed from students’ lives, they are still exposed to manipulative messages while riding public transportation or listening to the radio. The fact remains that no matter how we try to shield our students from the ugliness of the world, eventually we know they will have to step out and work through it on their own. Media literacy is as much a part of the 21st Century skills as collaboration and communication and we will be there to help our students develop the skills necessary to handle media discriminately and appropriately.



Ashley, Seth. “The Need for Media Literacy in the Digital Age.” The Blue Review. Boise State University, 20 Feb. 2013. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.
Herr, Norman. “Television Statistics.” Tv & Health. California State University, 2007. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.
Johnson, Caitlin. “Cutting Through Advertising Clutter.” CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 17 Sept. 2006. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.
Meredith, Leslie. “Internet Safety For Kids: Almost All Children Under 2 Have A Digital Footprint.” The Huffington Post., 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.

Professional Development Needs an Overhaul

Zulama  Teams with Educurious at SXSWedu conference

Bev Vaillancourt, Editorial Director

FullSizeRender 3As I boarded my flight to Austin, Texas, to attend the SXSWedu conference, I mulled over just what I might be hearing and seeing, but mostly I wondered whether the presentation Jane Chadsey from Educurious and I had planned for the conference would be all that we hoped it could be.

Several months ago Zulama, Educurious, and Working Examples submitted a joint application to SXSWedu to share our thoughts on what makes for a truly dynamic professional development experience. Titled Professional Development Needs an Overhaul, the presentation brought together what we believe to be best practices in designing fully engaging professional development. We were committed to bring to Austin our shared passion for education and our shared belief in the importance of teachers as collaborative decision makers in the professional development process.

To our delight, our session room filled to capacity and then some. For two short hours educators collaborated on discussing adult learning and its relationship to design thinking.

  • Who are the stakeholders in professional development?
  • Is it limited to teachers, or does it also include administrators, school board members, and students?
  • What are the outcomes for each and are they the same?
  • Is there opportunity to fail and fail fast, and then iterate within a dynamic culture of support, synergy, and creativity?
  • What role does relevance play for each stakeholder and how is that determined?

We discussed motivators and performance based on small steps that includes time for reflection. Importantly, we discussed an overarching respect of the process, which means dedicated time for individuals to work in teams within schools, a district, and across districts to problem solve. We stressed that professional development must be an experience that includes “flow.” And, as we ended, we reminded everyone “don’t forget the fun.” Professional development, as all learning, really needs to be fun to succeed.

With our Problem Solving workshop finished, Jane and I were off to enjoy the rest of the conference. Student agency and student-led learning perhaps were the overriding themes of SXSWedu. From the session on Acton Academy where teachers are termed “guides” to several sessions on personalized learning, trust in student curiosity and ingenuity permeated the many sessions held in three different conference venues over four days. And, not surprisingly, project based learning was often heard as the vehicle for moving students beyond core content to meaningful and engaged experiences.

Project based learning forms the core of Zulama’s courses. But, exactly what is PBL and how can its design maximize content knowledge and engagement? Many consider the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) foremost in PBL training. What a bonus to have BIE presenting at SXSWedu! So, off I went on Tuesday morning to fine tune my PBL skills. The core question BIE posed was “How can we evaluate good project based learning? Importantly, determining the outcomes and figuring out how project based learning can be authentically assessed drives the process. What is it students want to learn? How will they know they’ve succeeded in accomplishing what they’ve determined as outcomes? What will get them there?

FullSizeRender 20BIE stresses that project based learning must be the “main course, and not the dessert,” of classroom strategy. Curious about just how powerful PBL can be for kids? Take a look at Media Saves the Beach, a student-led science project that crossed all subject areas and drew on the individual talents and skillsets of each group of students. No well-crafted lesson plan could have taken this project to what it became as students totally immersed themselves in finding answers to problems that directly impacted their community. Guided by a teacher who trusted the inherent curiosity and learning capacity of his students, mutual respect for skills and knowledge yielded sophisticated project data overlaid with significant community relevance and scientific importance. Perhaps Scott Nguyen a high school student presenter said it best the last day of the conference, “Students are very capable, far more capable than you think.”

Maker Spaces ruled at SXSWedu this year. Computer coding certainly has found an important place in maker spaces. Take a look at this KIBO / beebot project that combines computer coding with robotics. Primary age kids code what they would like the robot to do by sequencing and scanning bar codes on a series of blocks. Touch a button on the robot and off it goes on its programmed path. Young kids are building entire KIBO/beebot villages out of cardboard and props, and then sending their robots on their merry way to navigate around the village. I can tell you that adults at SXSWedu were having a grand time stringing coding blocks!

The primary outcome of education should be to put more ownership in learners’ hands so that students can navigate everything they will encounter in their lives. – Stacey Childress of the NewSchools Venture Fund

This statement underscores Zulama’s philosophy of student-centered classrooms and student directed learning. If there was one main take-way for me from the SXSWedu conference, it’s that educators can play a pivotal role in expanding collective, creative experiences that powers learning on student terms driven by student interests. Authenticity – real tools, real meaning, real processes that significantly impact students outside of the schoolhouse walls – is what 21st Century learning must be all about. “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience,” wrote John Dewey many years ago. Then, as today, his words give deep meaning to that very personal experience called education.

Beyond all of the sessions I attended, and beyond all of the energized conversations I had the honor of sharing with exceptional educators, the most profound moments for me at the conference came from a SXSWedu showing of a movie called Conducta, translated as Behavior, set in a poverty-laden village in Cuba. It is a deeply moving story of a teacher who places her students in front of the system and cares more about who they are and what they can become than what the system says they should be. The movie dramatically reminds us of how deeply young people feel righteousness, and how quickly they understand injustice. But mostly, it reminds us of how one teacher can help any child find vision and hope. This belief fueled the energy of the SXSWedu conference, and made it well worth attending.