brave new world

At Quest to Learn, large support staff fuels gaming curriculum

Before quizzing his middle school students on the features of the Neolithic Revolution, C. Ross Flatt had them play handmade board games about it. Acting as leaders of a budding civilization, the students managed a flash-card supply of food, settlements and other key resources, and built an army to protect their territory — marked on a laminated map — from invaders.

Then, rather than ask them what struggles they think Neolithic societies faced, Flatt had them describe the scenarios that tripped them up during the game.

“Did you ever get in trouble during the play of game and realize you didn’t have a stable food supply?” he asked. One student said he experienced a drought, while another said a cold snap not only depleted her resources but left her open to raids from other starving players.

For Flatt, one of a dozen teachers at Quest to Learn, a Chelsea middle school, these game-centered classroom exchanges are routine. But they are also the result of behind-the-scenes tinkering from a fleet of non-teaching, in-house curriculum specialists.

I visited Quest to Learn, which is in its third year of operation, after touring its sister school, ChicagoQuest, during a conference about digital learning earlier this fall. I wanted to see how the model developed by the Institute of Play, a nonprofit that works on game research and development, looked here in New York City.

What I saw was that Quest to Learn is flooded with specialists, whom the school calls learning strategists and game designers, at a time when one trend in school management is to devote as much funding as possible to teaching salaries, even if it means scaling back on support staff. The specialists are helping the school pioneer a multi-tiered curriculum development approach that tailors technology and hands-on, multi-player games to individual classroom teachers.

The approach has yielded mixed results so far. Last year, the school got a B on its first-ever city progress report. But it is also providing a rare alternative for middle school students who learn best when they are learning independently and doing hands-on projects, according to Arana Shapiro, the school’s co-director.

“We don’t think the test scores are the be all and end all of what’s happening at the school,” she said. “We measure things like systems thinking, digital media tool use, social and emotional learning, collaborative skills, teamwork.”

In place of traditional class subjects like pre-algebra or English, Quest to Learn classes have names like “Being, Space and Place,” and “Sports of the Mind.” Assignments are called “quests,” and they add up to a completed “mission” at the end of each 10-week-long trimester.

In Lencey Nuñez’s eighth-grade science class, “The Way Things Work,” on a recent morning, students were working in small teams to map the topography of various cities using the computer game SimCity.

Eliza Spang, a learning strategist, said the project is building off a trimester-long unit on geology that began early this fall, when students played a scavenger hunt game on 18th Street outside the school, and later another board game.

But planning for the unit began in the late summer, when Spang met with Nuñez and Shula Ponet, a game designer, to outline the fall trimester’s “mission”—in other words, the final project that the classrooms lessons and assignments would build up to. From there they worked backwards to imagine what lessons to teach and how to integrate gaming into them. They met weekly, first to design the games and then to play them with each other and with eighth-grade students.

“They give us feedback on what worked, what didn’t work, what we’d change,” she said. “We have teacher feedback and student voice to create a game that is engaging to students. Teachers are super creative, but game designers bring a different view of the world.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”