Saturday, January 16, 2016

Universal Design for Learning and the STEM Lab

I am putting this together to begin to document a process I created 13 years ago and employ each year I teach.  As new educational concepts emerge my process easily assimilates into those new concepts.

Background: Universal Design for learning is broken down simplistically into Engagement, Representation and Action and Expression.  Using these simple guidelines we will explain how Mr. Parry’s (my) STEM lab addresses each of these core areas by explaining how it works in the Financial Literacy, Participation, and General Lab elements.

Part I – Financial Literacy


The first of three areas in UDL is engagement with the goal of providing multiple means of purposeful, motivated learners through options for self regulation, sustaining effort and persistence and recruiting interests.  The financial literacy portion f the STEM lab is designed to teach life skills which many students do not receive at home.  This includes managing a checkbook, paying taxes, filing out time sheets and learning how to pay taxes.

Motivating the student population is based upon the skill level (honors / grade level), the number of students with learning disabilities, the students social economic background (including morals and values) and their general willingness to be challenged.  At the core of all of this is a\ students individual grade which, given the history of education and how they have been conditioned, be the thing that is the underlying driving force.  Taking that into consideration all elements of the lab are tied into their grade.  Therefore, we utilize this inherent process of a students need to get a good grade and tie it into the core elements of the lab.  A student must perform in class to earn participation points which are tracked daily.  This in turn will count for “hours worked in a week/month” and generate a paycheck.

Facilitate personal coping skills and strategies then becomes the next stage of this process.  Not all people make the same amount of money.  This is career readiness training.  Not only must the student track their personal wealth, which includes taking money out for taxes, paying rent, buying food, car payments, utilities, etc., but they quickly discover that they are living pay check to pay check.  The goal is to push students and empower them to find solutions to earn more money which will be a common aspect in life.  However, they face the reality that this not easy and they have to learn how to cope with this situation and strategize how to do better.  An example of this would be to start their own business which is an entirely different process I teach incorporating elements of AP economics through microeconomic principles.  Another example would be to pay for “college” and thus have a student loan which would entitle them to earn a higher salary.

Developing self-assessment and reaction is an informal process and used every Friday which is our pay day.  Students can easily see where they fall after each pay period.  Their reaction is how they cope and strategize to do better.  In this most students plod along waiting for someone, their elected leaders in class at times, to solve their problems.  A rare few fail, but if they are failing in this they are generally failing in all other aspects of the class and are typically beyond our help.

As the lab develops we enter into the realm of providing options for sustaining effort and persistence.  The lab is designed to constantly ratchet up the intensity level.  We are in a learning environment.  Once we master specific elements there is no point in allowing a student to just coast along.  It doesn’t exist in life, so it shouldn’t exist in the learning environment either.  As we ratchet up the intensity level the goal is to attempt to heighten the salience or importance of goals and objectives.  Because of the gap between the ultra motivated and the lackadaisical (and this varies by class and year to year), we offer a process that differentiates for our learners.  For the ultra achiever we put them on a separate track which parallels their class, but introduces introductory level Advance Placement concepts.  For the rest of the class we just keep raising the bar one step at a time.

Specifically with the financial literacy portion we require students to earn $20,000 a marking period.  All money made transitions into the next marking period.  The process is designed that people should earn a minimum of a “C”, but there is a defined bell curve most years.  The elite students earn the “A”, the average students earn the “B” or “C” and those lackadaisical ones earn less.  Each marking period continues with the student taking what they have built as their financial base and working towards earning the $20,000.  Through the various lessons we offer “bonus money” which becomes a motivating factor in pushing them to achieve specific tasks in various lessons.  Through this process we ensure that we both teach critical financial management life skills and constantly reemphasis the salience of goals and objectives for the students.

Another element of the financial literacy portion of the STEM lab is to both vary the demands and resources to optimize challenge and to foster collaboration and community.  Within the lab we introduce the concept of individual business ownership.  This can both provide the students in the long run with more money, but it also forces them to grapple with the complex aspects of managing the finances of a small business.  These students have to work with other classes in other counties to obtain loans; they have to manage and track their company pay records online so that the “banking groups” in other classes who have loaned them money can see their progress. 

With that foundation set forth there are different levels of “business” taught in class.  The first is the simple business model for the average student.  They don’t produce anything but their intellectual property and they sell it to Mr. Parry who represents buyers of the bigger advanced companies in the lab.  Students companies make money daily from answering the warm ups and from writing follow up questions which must be answered by another person.  This process encourages students to hire classmates to work for them.  Students can also make money from answering the analysis questions, summary questions and completing the homework ahead of schedule.

Students who hire their peers must them attempt to foster collaboration and community seen within the business world.  This includes having to decide what to pay their employees, and for the employee if they wish to work for this employer.  All of this goes through a process of trial and error.  Sometimes people get angry with each other.  Business owners have to  fire workers at times because they hired too many people, paid them too much and are going bankrupt.  Since all students can thus run their own business it really isn’t that much of problem regarding their grade.  Where it becomes an issue is when the student, who is willing to be paid by a peer to answer the warm up, is unwilling to run a business and do the same thing they would have done for a peer.  This is not to say that all people should be business owners because many small businesses fail.  It is simply pushing students to take a risk and try something they are intimidated by in a controlled environment where actual failure doesn’t destroy your credit, your finances and your life.

Thus, we are trying to push them to show them the options for recruiting interests.  A student who has the choice and the autonomy to make their own decisions to improve his/her grade is a more enabled student.  That general principle tied into the lab is designed to force them to find financial solutions to financial problems they will face in life.  It’s all well and good to be told by someone what you are worth, but we want our students to understand that to optimize their relevance and see their true potential and value.  As this is a controlled environment the worst thing that happens is they feel “stress” at having to make a decision. 

After thirteen years of employing this system the majority of the “stress” felt by students is the requirement to work outside the “typical expectations” such as write a paper or complete the worksheet.  In this system it employs decision making which constantly builds upon itself.  Students will see some failure, and some of those consequences follow them into the next marking periods, but this is not a situation which is unrecoverable.  It necessitates a greater use of recognizing expectations, improving personal coping skills, building better collaborative and community networks within class and outside it with other classes around the state, and being willing to make a personal decision without having a clear result apparent at the time of making that decision.

Up next will be Part II: Participation....

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Civlab Government

My use of civlab is designed to incorporate every lesson I use.   I will attempt to recount the basic premise behind my first two major lessons and their impacts via civlab.  This will cover my first lesson.

My classes are Germany, Portugal, Italy, France and the UK.  About one third of my students are veterans of civlab when I taught them in US history.  This year I have a good mixture of leaders with only a handful of less motivated students.  I can not stress enough how important it is to have leadership in a class to make civlab work.

My use of civlab also incorporates and economic concept.  Students have jobs in class, get paid on Friday, pay for rent, food, materials, etc.  Thus, I create the full real world package.  Nation state for the class, individual economic experience for the individual student.  Students get a timecard signed daily which accounts for 11 percent of their participation grade.  Students also keep a checkbook to track their money which accounts for 14 percent of their participation / lab grade.

Lesson 1 - purpose of government.

In this lesson I give some background notes on the purpose of government (safety, order, public services, economic - financial security) and the 4 major things you need to have a government (people, government, sovereignty, territory).

Once that is done we look at 4 major issues.  I show students a picture or series of pictures.  They have to identify the issue, decide if the US government should support that issue, and list positive and negatives for that action.  We discuss each of these four things as a class and then vote using a direct democracy on the issue which is then directly applied as part of our culture into the lab.

The issues we examine are Polygamy, Abortion - Pro Choice - Pro Life, Aid to the Poor and Homeless and Income Inequality.

This year one class legalized polygamy - Portugal - feeling that it was wrong to prevent it if we can accept gay marriage.  All other classes outlawed it citing that you could only love one person and they couldnt accept more than one couple - gay or not - together.  I used the issue of two female friends dating one guy.  If those ladies are best friends why not share the fella.  Didnt sit well with the girls.  IE - he is my man and i will not share him.

Abortion was legalized in all classes but you had to show you were raped before you could have an abortion.  There was strong debate here and the majority vote won out only by a very slim margin of a couple of votes in every class.

Aid to the Poor and Homeless led to us deciding to pass some form of welfare in each class which we expanded upon in the next lesson I will mention later in another post.  The main concern was were these people pictured disabled or just lazy bums.  There was discussion around implementing a program to track each person but when faced with the cost (each class started with about 400 million) it was too staggering to deal with at that level.  So we voted to push the implementation back and addressed it later in all classes.

Income Inequality was our toughest issue.  How do we close the gap between my 2 very rich people via job in class ($90 hr) and our poor factory workers (40 hr).  They all pay 30% taxes.  Only Portugal made significant changes to their tax system.  They dropped taxes for the middle class to 20% and the poor to 5%.  Granted this came from one of my veterans from last year, but it was universally supported once she explained it.  All of my other classes decided that people would have to suck it up and deal with it.

At the end the summation was that our government had some things to improve upon in all classes regarding maintaining order, public services, protection an economic security.  We grasped the concepts behind why it isnt easy for a country to just fix their problems with a vote.

My underlying focus of every lesson possible is to show that in the end it comes down to economics and there is generally no simple fix for anything, even if you throw money at it.  For ever positive there will be a negative consequence.  Typically most choices are all "bad" given the long term consequences, thus students have to strategize on which one is the least "bad" and go with that.

Today France made an excellent choice in not attempting to stimulate their ecconomy.  It is reasonably sound and given the options of minimum wage increase with tax increase, raising tariffs on trade partners, or funding exploration missions, their decision to do nothing and allow the economy (which is slowly growing) to keep plugging along without aid was great.  All of my other classes attempted to do something which leads to excess tinkering and more problems.  It is like grilling food, just let it cook and stop messing around with the lid and disrupting the heat/cooking process  Again though, the leadership came from veterans who have been through it before and have the knowledge to make good choices.

Well that is the nutshell of the first lesson.  More on the second lesson later.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Primordial Ooze Of My Teaching Career and The First Steps as a Gaming Teacher

Let me being by prefacing that this post is about my personal experience using gaming as a method of teaching and is weaker on the professional discourse.  It talks about my baby steps into this world of using games to teach a large group of students Social Studies Concepts and how I became a CivLab convert .  I think that Mr. Parry summed up the use of CivLab in a way that showcased all of the benefits of using the simulation in a professional manner, but I think that some of my own background is applicable here.  I am humbled to have been included in the inner circle that has helped develop the system into what we have today.  I have been using CivLab in classroom for four years and my part of the story is different than the Parry Brothers that were pioneering this system, which is why I have included it here.  My teaching career has been a journey and will continue to grow as I grow as a professional, just like any teacher’s.  I felt that this section would help those trying to understand where we all came from using this system. 

The Primordial Ooze Of My Teaching Career and my First Steps as a Gaming Teacher
In 2008, I moved schools and was feeling a bit like a fish out of water.  I had just moved states and everything around me was different, except the teaching strategies that were being employed in the classroom.  They were all the same.  We made posters, did research projects, gave students notes, and gave traditional reading assignments.  What constituted good teaching was the same and everyone celebrated the “Best Practices” that had been printed repeatedly throughout the educational discourse for the last 20 years.  I kept doing what everyone had done for years, until I met a fellow teacher that introduced me to a concept that had an aura of educational power and potential that most people were afraid to touch:  Educational gaming as a class instead of an individual.    

The power of the use of a video to teach students has been discussed for years and been beaten to death.  Some say that a computer can never replace a teacher.  Others have touted the benefits that could help those who struggled in a traditional classroom.  But overall no consensus was ever reached and gaming had a remained mostly an individual experience in a computer lab by each student.  From my own experience, I played video games like Number Munchers or Oregon Trail, whenever I went to the computer lab, but I always felt like I lacked guidance from the teachers on what I was supposed to get out of these games.[1]  Usually, it seemed like a way for my teachers to take a breather from the hubbub of the school year and let us have a little fun. 

So when I became a teacher, I had almost dismissed the power of gaming as a teaching tool.  No classes at the university discussed this topic.  Sure we talked about the power of the internet or how a blog might be integrated into a classroom that I was sure would not have the technology to implement these things.  When I student taught I was relegated to an old overhead projector, a copy machine that was jammed half the time, and computers that were about five years old in the Media Center.  Talk about not being excited about the power of computer gaming in school.  It just wasn’t feasible and so many teachers I talked with thought fun stuff like that was not for the serious business that is school.  How could gaming ever be used to reach everyone in a classroom full of thirty students?

My discussions with Mr. Parry launched my brain into a tizzy.  I spent a couple of my off periods discussing the finer points of how to use a video game in my classroom to teach economics and government concepts.  It was exciting!  My passion for gaming could be translated into something that was remarkable for learning! 

After our discussions, I quickly went home and pulled out my laptop to begin working on tailoring Capitalism II as a way for my students to learn.  I was teaching self-contained Special Education Government classes at the time.  Many of my students had failed government previously and hated the economics unit with a passion, because if taught through notes it can be dry as the Sahara.

I was determined to give this a try and, quite frankly, I was scared.  This could totally bomb.  I could be verbally assaulted by my students.  My finicky laptop might not work or shut down.  Who knows?  But that day I witnessed something that I have never forgotten.  I taught students with learning disabilities as a whole class how to build a store, sell items, how to gain imports, sell exports, compete with competitors, brand a product, and balance supply and demand.  I did all of this without a single moment of misbehavior and even the students that usually checked out became interested.  The girl that always proclaimed how much she hated government became a leader that helped her class sell shoes and make the most profits of any of my classes.  Talk about a good day! 

After all of this happened, I was hooked and convinced.  I used the same strategy the next year, with student that were in the Autism Spectrum/ED Program and came up with the same results.  Students like games.  They liked controlling the simulation and enjoying the immediate outcomes.  They learned how to work together and practiced the art of human discourse to make decisions.  My students all scored well on the economics unit exam both times I used the strategy.  I felt like I had done something spectacular and I wanted more.  So when I was offered to teach US History the next year and be a part of the multiple school experiment that was CivLab, I jumped at the chance.  If I was working on this by myself and it was good, what could I do with a game that involved multiple schools and classes competing against one another at world domination? 

Looking back on those days, I had stepped out of the primordial ooze of my teaching career and was in a more advanced place.  I was ready to take on a bigger project and do it year round!  The next installment of my journey will be coming soon!

-Mr. Schwarten

[1] At the time I had discovered how to beat Oregon Trail in 45 minutes if you were a Banker from Boston and bought all the supplies you could ever need.  Was that really what my teachers wanted me to learn from OT?    

Friday, May 30, 2014

Teaching with Civlab


This is a blog designed to focus on a new teaching technique that we created over the past decade. We feel it is time to explain our program to the general public and share our experiences. The primary goal of what we do is to create a living virtual world through which we teach social studies content to our students. This isn't just a simulation which has a short goal and takes only a few days to complete. This is a complete methodology which requires "out of the box" thinking on the part of the teacher with the goal of having students live a lifestyle for 180 school days. We believe learning needs to be a creative, fun and applicable process. Reading and writing are very necessary but the need to critically think is just as important and this is where we feel Civlab provides an invaluable tool.

Teachers that participate in this program teach middle school and high school. We teach a range of students from those with IEPs, 504s, grade level, honors, and Advanced Placement. We are all located in the state of Maryland but in different counties, Washington and Montgomery respectively. All of our classes are between 58 to 47 minutes in length.

Tech Tools:
The main program we use as our foundation is Civilization 4 BTS. It serves as a virtual map, a logistical tracker of macroeconomics, and an interface where classes interact with each other. We have adapted much of the XML coding and some of the DLL coding to enable us to manipulate this game into a teaching tool. We don't allow the guidelines of Civ4 to restrict how we apply it as a teaching tool. Instead we create our own functioning MOD used by many teachers / classes so that when we need to apply a concept we can do it instantly. We also can add too this MOD or take away aspects from this MOD as we coordinate our teaching.

We assign each class a country in the civ world at the start of the school year. We focus on keeping most of them in America or Europe based upon our content and will generally reset the year and boundaries. We use a accurate world map we have designed with countries we have put in place (Civ4 has preset nations and locations. We adjust these to be correct for the modern world). Since this is a living process we allow "spill over" from year to year. Ex. If the class that is France ends their year in tremendous debt that debt gets "inherited" by the next class in the next school year to a certain degree (along with all subsequent inflation, etc).


Accountability is everything in order to ensure participation and create the correct learning environment. Each of our participating teachers uses a slightly different method, but in short success in the lab is tied into the students grade.

Our daily lessons are designed to connect what we are learning about to the situations the students experience in the lab as they interact with other nations. In short they can engage in literally anything that is in the real world (minus drug cartels - although wine running became a thing this year instead of opium during the Opium Wars). Classes can deal with issues as simple as a diplomatic or fiscal policy decision to full scale nuclear war - deterrence problems (although we try to avoid this because it is very destructive...and in our lab America always loses).

On the whole we might actually look at the actual Civ4 program in class each day for a period of 2-5 minutes on average. The rest of what we do is within the "normal" scope of teaching lessons. Civ4 is just the program that allows those decisions to come alive with consequences. It is a fun experience to see a class apply their content with "expected" results only to have those "expected" results suddenly run into road blocks as they clash with the goals of two or three other classes.

We can successfully implement a 1770s to 1860s United States History course at the same time as a World History Course, AP Economics course and U.S. Government courses. Although our content is different we can coordinate as teachers the crossing points of our content via Civlab so that a War of 1812 happens near to the same time as WWI for different classes in a different part of the state. Every class learns and applies its content within the "vision" of civlab that they have at that time.

This coming year we are going to work on adding some cross county collaborative projects which were very successful in the 2012-2013 school year as students applied what they learned by working together through Civlab....more on this later.

Our success in pushing the envelop and developing typical education skills along with content understanding using this system has been outstanding. We are adding to what we do every year and intend on sharing out our experiences in the 2014-2015 school year.

Just to give you a general idea of what you will see, on the whole in a single day Civlab allows us to teach the following content successfully to our students...

1. Geography
2. Macroeconomics
3. Government - Legislative, Executive, Bill to Law process
4. US History
5. World History
6. Current Events
7. Global Economics
8. Geopolitics

Ex. We are talking grade level students debating the Macroeconomic issues of raising taxes verses borrowing money. Successful debate with both accuracy and passion inside of a process of using Congress where we are making real laws for Civlab (thus teaching the Bill to Law process)that students care about. Then when a third of the Senate doesn't get their way they stand up and state they are going to filibuster causing a major uproar within the class, forcing the other Senators to demand to invoke Cloture and the President to get mad at all of them. This then hurts us in the Civlab so that they either compromise or we suffer the consequences.

There is literally no better way to learn how real world politics or even historical politics have worked than to live the experience. Not only is this process invaluable for the critical thinking but when taken and applied to a DBQ covering a similar matter then depth of understanding and analysis is greatly enhanced. You know you have nailed it when students can immediately draw a parallel from Civlab to what we just learned or read about in our content.

I'm sure I have left out a few things that my colleagues will add to this. This doesn't include the DBQs, High School Assessments, etc that we strive to have students fulfill but we will discuss these in later posts.