Game changer

Game-based learning give students a challenge outside of textbooks

PHOTO: Susan Gonzalez
A student forms their first name initial with Play-Doh while holding a hula hoop. The teacher guided him through a series of tasks while blindfolded as part of a game that was meant to teach trust.

Aiden Alexander is stranded in the middle of nowhere and armed only with a few items, including a cinch sack and machete, after his car runs out of gas. The rain makes the situation more difficult — it’s a lot to handle for an eighth grader.

Luckily for Alexander, it’s just a game at a workshop meant to teach him how to think on his feet as a sticky situation changes.

Using games to teach students isn’t a new concept. But some hope this classroom technique can be revamped to focus on “21st century skills,” such as critical thinking and creativity, as Alexander learned about in his game.

Game-based learning might also soon make its most substantial debut in Colorado in the fall of 2016 as the basis of a new school in the Aurora Public Schools system.

Game-like learning is exactly what it sounds like: Teachers use games to teach. Engaging with hands-on activities allows students to learn both specific lesson and a broader concepts, like how to collaborate as a team or how to solve problems, simultaneously.

“Games are really good at helping players achieve a goal,” said Ilena Parker, senior communications manager for Institute of Play, a nonprofit organization that promotes using games to teach students. “They help you learn the skills you need to achieve that goal. They give you feedback on how you’re doing and they let you try again when you fail.”

Earlier this month, the institute held a workshop in Denver, where students and teachers could sample educational games. This was a joint event with William Smith High School and the Hive Denver learning community.

According to some research on game-based learning, students who use games to learn work harder voluntarily. Studies have also shown students who use games to learn will retain more factual knowledge and skill-based knowledge than their non-game playing peers.

While the games are fictional, the lessons are not, Parker said.

“Games are really awesome at developing 21st century skills, things like creativity, collaboration, communication, problem solving, critical thinking,” Parker said. “Teachers can kind of incorporate learning goals into a game and it makes it more engaging and more memorable for students.”

The Institute of Play, which also operates a school in New York City, is working with leaders at William Smith High School, an expeditionary learning school in Aurora, to give game-like learning a permanent home. If the district’s school board approves, The Studio School, as it’s being called, will open in the fall of 2016 and use game design and student input to shape curriculum.

“Educators spend so much time trying to develop ourselves and design curriculum, thinking about ‘what would be great for students to do? How do we want them to learn? Let’s create this amazing experience for students,'” said Jackson Westenskow, who is helping lead the push for The Studio School. “And the one group we never ask for help with that is the students.”

But introducing more games into classrooms does not come without its challenges. A 2014 survey of teachers found that finding money to pay for the game materials and technology, identifying games that fit with instruction, and creating professional development programs so teachers are trained to use games effectively in classrooms, are potential barriers.

Back at the institute’s summer workshop, Alexander said he wouldn’t mind learning this way regularly. While the game was mentally tough, he enjoyed the challenge.

“I liked the freedom it had. It helps with critical thinking because I had to think of a way to go along with the situation,” said Alexander, who attends Excel Academy in Denver. “I would love to play this in school.”

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.



Language barriers

Aurora school district expands translation and interpretation in response to parent demands

Patricia Shaw, an interpreter for Aurora Public Schools, left, shows Indonesia Maye how to use the transmitters during a back-to-school event at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy on August 6. Maye was hired by the district to interpret to Somali students and their families at the event. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Hsa Mlu, a mother of four children, recently started receiving communications from her sons’ Aurora schools in her native Southeast Asian language, Karen.

“I am so excited,” Mlu, who has two sons in Aurora schools, said through an interpreter. “I am sure it’s going to be better for parents.”

In the past Mlu said that when she received communications in English from her children’s schools, she would rush it over to a friend’s house — even in the rain or snow — to ask for help.

“I didn’t understand what I had to do or what it was for,” Mlu said.

Mlu is one of the parent leaders who has been working with the nonprofit organization RISE Colorado for more than a year to ask Aurora Public Schools to improve language services. Parents, like Mlu, have shared stories with the district and the school board, about how their language barriers have prevented them from being more involved in their children’s education. Teachers also said it was a problem for them.

Top 10 languages in APS by number of parents who have listed it as a preference for communication

  • English, 26,617
  • Spanish, 11,316
  • Amharic, 386
  • Nepali, 268
  • Somali, 241
  • Burmese, 205
  • Vietnamese, 174
  • Arabic, 171
  • Karen, 157
  • French, 119

Source: Aurora Public Schools

In response, the district last year started working on translating some documents, and training secretaries and school staff to use the district’s system to send out automated calls in various languages. Board members responded by passing a resolution to prohibit educators from relying on children to translate official or formal discussions with parents. And this summer, the district included $200,000 in its 2018-19 budget to centralize language services under the communications office.

“Our families are feeling really excited that their voices were heard,” said RISE Colorado’s co-founder and CEO Veronica Crespin-Palmer.

Now Aurora educators, such as principals and teachers, can use a simplified, common form online to ask the district for help with translations or interpretations for their students’ families.

It’s a change from years past when language help was scattered among various district departments with each department available for only particular purposes. It was a process educators and families said wasn’t easy to understand.

Having all of the district’s expertise in one office now should help in coordinating and filling language requests, said Patti Moon, the district’s chief communication officer.

District officials expect that the simplified process will increase demand for translation or interpretation services this school year, and so the district is preparing to expand its abilities with the allocated money.

In part, that means adding services in more languages. Right now, Aurora has in-house language services for Spanish, but in a district where families have listed 143 different languages as their preferred language, there’s a need for more.

In one step to make more interpreters available, the district has been certifying its own bilingual staff in translation, so they can be available after work to pick up assignments translating or interpreting for school or district events. Currently, district officials say there are more than 120 district-approved interpreters, and officials want to recruit more. District interpreters and other staff can provide interpretation in 14 languages.

The district also has a partnership with interpreters-in-training from the Community College of Aurora.

Aurora also plans to use some of the money to improve quality by providing professional training to language services staff.

But the parents’ work will continue, said the mother, Mlu. Parents requested to continue monthly meetings with the district’s language staff to provide feedback about how the schools are rolling out the changes. The district agreed to continue the collaboration.

In addition to streamlining its internal communications, the district is providing one service designed for parents and the community: the introduction of language identification cards.

RISE parents designed the business-size cards that the district printed in the top 10 languages, with a blank space for people to fill in their name to show school attendants what language they speak. Accompanying one-sheet forms include translations of common requests such as excusing a child from school, requesting a meeting with a teacher, or asking for an interpreter. (See a copy of both below)

The cards will be made available in schools for parents to use and have an easier time communicating simple requests, or asking for an interpreter.

Crespin-Palmer said she hopes the cards, the process, and the changes the district is making can be a model for other districts.

Mlu said she appreciates the significant changes she’s seen so far. But, she said, she’s still wants the district to know she’s watching.

“We are parent leaders, and we keep watching the for the interpretation and translation to improve,” she said. “We’re working toward it too.”