Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Ocarina of Time, 20 years on

Sometimes, I regret that I spent so much of my childhood playing video games; that I did not discover reading for fun until I caved in and finally read the Harry Potter series (5 books at that time) the summer after I graduated from high school.

That said, video games have always had a way of capturing rather than dulling my imagination.  Case in point, when I was little, my imaginary friends were all Nintendo characters, and I would have pretend adventures with them outside in the fields, woods and barns on our family farm; the adventures just happened to have a Nintendo theme to them.  So it is that the accusation of video games turning children into unimaginative couch potatoes never rang true with me--I managed to play outdoors and cultivate my imagination in tandem with--not in spite of--the video games I loved to play.

And even to this day, there are still some games that hold a special place in my heart.  Perhaps it is a different place than a beloved book holds, but it is still a special place nonetheless.

This week marks the twentieth anniversary of one such game.

In 1998, I was in 7th grade.  I had been late to the party with the Game Boy and the Super Nintendo, and had never known what it was like to look forward to the release of an upcoming video game.  By 7th grade, however, I was the proud owner of a Nintendo 64, which I'd gotten for my birthday the previous year.  It was the current generation of console in 1998, and so I subscribed to Nintendo Power magazine and began to search online for any morsel of information that I could on new games.

I'll never forget the first trailer I saw for Ocarina of Time.  It took an hour to load on our dial-up Internet, and was maybe 30 seconds long, but the image of a 3-D Link wielding a 3-D Master Sword against a 3-D Stalfos is forever etched in my mind.

After that, I began to count down the days until November 21, even talking my mom into reserving a copy ahead of time at Electronics Boutique.

I remember poring over preview screenshots in Nintendo Power with friends, and speculating on what the game would be like during lunch break at school.

Then, one gray November afternoon, we picked up the game, and my brother and I huddled around the instruction manual on the 20-minute ride home from Electronics Boutique.

Since I was older, my brother gave me (or more likely I demanded) first dibs.

I remember plugging the cartridge into the 64.  I remember the opening chords as Epona galloped across the field on the title screen.  I remember the breathtaking cinematic opening, with Navi flying from the Deku tree to Link's house.  I remember learning to roll, sidestep, lunge and backflip, all while collecting rupees to buy a shield.  I remember crawling too quickly through the crawlspace that led to the Kokiri sword and getting bowled over by a giant boulder.  I remember the moody atmospheric feel of the Deku Tree temple.  I remember the intensity of the boss fight with Gohma.  I remember the vast, unending feel of Hyrule field.

I could go on.  We played for hours that first evening, and made it up to Dodongo's Cavern.  It was like no game I had played before: it was immersive, like being in a movie.  The game's camera was much more cooperative and natural than the finicky camera in Super Mario 64, and the new Z-targeting mechanic was so intuitive that it felt like second nature by the end of that first evening.  The graphics were unparalleled, and Koji Kondo had outdone himself with a soundtrack that surpassed even that of A Link to the Past.

As luck would have it, Thanksgiving vacation was the following week, and Christmas vacation was not long after.  In those days and weeks, I enjoyed the feeling of experiencing something truly groundbreaking for the very first time.  I now know how rare that feeling is.  Few things, whether books, movies, TV shows or video games, become instant classics, and rarely do things that feel like they could be, actually end up becoming instant classics.

Did I know at the time that I was playing a game that would, twenty years later, still be considered by many to be the best video game of all time?

Maybe not in so many words, but even then, I had a feeling that this game was something special, which manifested itself in the shock at stepping out of the Temple of Time as Adult Link for the first time, and seeing the ring of fire around the peak of Death Mountain; in the haunting feeling of exploring the Forest Temple (still my favorite dungeon, by the way); in the cutscene of Kakariko Village burning, under attack by some invisible monster; in the mind-bending time travel mechanics of the Spirit Temple; in the harrowing escape from Ganon's castle, and of course, the final battle with Ganon himself.

Last year, I had the privilege to relive this excitement to some degree as I played through Ocarina of Time on my 2DS.  Sure, bigger games with better graphics and more features have come out in the years since, but they all in some way owe a debt to Ocarina of Time.

1978, two decades before Ocarina of Time came out, was a big year for video games with a wave of early classics hitting the arcades.  In 2018, two decades on, video games continue to evolve, and in some ways seem to have come full circle as VR arcades are beginning to gain traction.  Two decades from now, who knows what the video game industry will look like?  However, allow me to make one safe prediction: the 40th anniversary of Ocarina of Time will be a big deal.

Image taken from

Friday, May 11, 2018

Figuring out AP English

Figuring out how to best teach AP English has been one of the greatest puzzles of my teaching career.  Some of this has been logistical: due to scheduling quirks, including the fact that I teach 11th grade English as a Humanities blend along with U.S. History, I've never taught a distinct AP English class.  Rather, in a Humanities section of 20+ students, there have always been a handful of students taking AP English as a supplement to our regular Humanities curriculum, sitting in class alongside non-AP classmates.

For the first two years, I attempted to use Humanities class-time once or twice a week to work with the AP students by setting the non-AP students on a different task while I met with the AP students.  This proved to be too cumbersome, and in 2012, I opted to start weekly AP sessions outside of our regular class-time, before or after school, or during lunch.  This ended up being burdensome, too, as I was having three or four AP meetings a week at different times.  Two years ago, I decided to offer sessions on Thursday lunch and Friday lunch, allowing students to choose between one or the other.  This has worked quite well, and students who are unable to attend on a given week have been diligent about letting me know ahead of time and figuring out what they will need to catch up on.

The challenge with weekly meetings, then, became how to sufficiently teach the AP curriculum in 40 minute meetings once a week.  The short answer is that it's impossible.

This has forced me to be more intentional in how I structure the skill-building in my regular Humanities course so that I am truly laying a foundation that the AP English students can build on through their outside assignments and our weekly lunch meetings.  My Humanities course is by no means an AP-level course--every year, I have students who have only been learning English for a few years, and I simply cannot hit them with the intensity of College Board's expectations, particularly the high level of critical reading and the strict time limits on both the reading test and the essays.

Instead, I have sought to help all of my students develop the foundations of critical reading: being able to identify the relationship between speaker, occasion, audience and purpose; being able to pick up on the tone; being able to analyze how the speaker uses rhetorical strategies to accomplish their purpose.  This year, I developed lessons on logic to help students better recognize the structure of an argument.  This helped our later study of rhetorical fallacies to have more of an impact, as the students had a stronger grounding in basic logic than any previous group ever had.  Through our unit essays, we practice synthesis skills, and through our debates, we practice research and argumentation skills.  Each year, I learn how to teach, assess, and provide feedback on these skills more effectively.

This frees me up to assign essays to the AP students as extra assignments during the week, and to use the weekly lunch sessions as opportunities to workshop writing skills, discuss together, and provide direct feedback.  During the first semester, we focus on how to write the three different essay prompts on the AP exam--synthesis, rhetorical analysis and argumentative--one at a time, with the opportunity to revise and submit a second draft for each.

During the second semester, we practice writing each essay by hand within a time limit.  In the past, I struggled to know how to keep up with the grading: I learned very quickly that it would be impossible for me grade a full set of AP essays every week, in addition to my regular Humanities grading.  My instinctive alternative, asking the students to peer-edit each essay for each other, was equally impossible to manage and assess.  Finally, this year, I devised a rotating schedule that worked almost perfectly for me: the students would submit three full sets of timed essays throughout the Spring: one set in January, one set in March, and one set in April.  I would spend time grading these sets and providing feedback.  On the "off-weeks", students would write individual timed essays (rhetorical analysis in January; synthesis in February; argumentative in March) to be discussed and workshopped during our weekly sessions, and which I would check for a completion grade.  The week after each timed essay set was due, I gave a full multiple choice test after school in lieu of a lunch meeting to ensure that students had ongoing opportunities to apply critical reading skills and practice pacing under test conditions.

On Monday, April 30, I gave a full practice exam after school, both multiple choice and essay sections, which I made a point of grading and returning to the students within the week.

I've offered a full practice exam since 2012, and for years, that was the only piece of useful data that I had in predicting how the students might perform on the actual exam.  This year, I was able to collect valuable data points--at least four multiple choice test scores and four sets of timed essay scores--to track the students' performance, growth, strengths and struggles.  I created a profile for each student to share this data, as well as ongoing feedback.  After grading the full practice exam last week, I presented the numbers in a few different ways to help the students see how they might do on test day.

These are screenshots of a sample profile I made up to show the type of data I collected.

Collecting and working with this data took time on top of grading and giving feedback, but it was worth it.  As I told the students when I shared the data with them, the data tells them--and me--a more complete story than a single score from exam day ever could.  While a lower score than they hope for on the actual exam might sting in the moment, it cannot cancel out the growth and capability they have demonstrated throughout the entire year.

I feel like I can predict with reasonable certainty how my students will do on the exam next week.  There will be some surprises of course, both good and bad, but I know where each student is at now.  More importantly, I know where they have come from.  Not every student will pass the AP exam, but regardless, I am proud of the hard work they have invested, and their growth through struggle.

For the first time, I feel like I have a system that works as an AP English teacher who teaches AP as a supplement to a non-AP curriculum.  In fact, I can safely say that I wouldn't do this any other way--I'm looking forward to refining this in the future!

Friday, February 23, 2018

For Emma

To my Emma-Jemma,

Was this the fastest year of my life?

It hardly seems possible that an entire year has passed since your mama and I welcomed you into our lives, but at the same time, I cannot clearly remember what life was like before you arrived--those days feel hazy, as though they happened to somebody else, a lifetime ago.

I’ll be honest: I was never much of a baby person. If someone I knew was showing off their baby, I would intentionally keep my distance so that nobody would try to pass the baby to me. Holding a baby or even being in the same room as a baby always made me feel uncomfortable.

When I met you, though, I couldn’t stay away, and I didn’t want to let you go. I still don’t think of myself as a baby person, but you were never just a baby; you were my baby, and for some reason, that made all the difference in the world.

What I remember most clearly from those first days after you were born is counting down the minutes until I could see you and hold you again. You couldn’t do much more than yawn or sleep at that time, but I was still enchanted all the same.

Then, not long after you turned one month old, you started smiling at me. Giggles and games of peek-a-boo were not far behind.

Now you’re almost twice as tall as you were when you were born, and more than twice as heavy. You can crawl, and I’ll bet walking is only weeks away. Smiles, giggles and games are all highlights of my day. How many times have I read Jamberry to you? It’s easily in the hundreds. You haven’t gotten tired of it yet, and neither have I.

I actually got teary-eyed this evening when I picked you up to bring you to bed because I know that in the blink of an eye, you’ll be too big for me to cradle in my arms. I think I’m wired to always look forward to whatever’s next, to live in the future rather than in the present, but these moments are so precious, and I’m learning to cherish them.

Emma, the world is a beautiful place, filled with ducks and plum blossoms and tropical fish and everything else that has captured your imagination in your short time on the earth so far. But it’s also a broken place, and I think I worry about that more now that I’m a father. There’s so much that I cannot control, no matter how much I want to protect you from the world’s hurts.

Know this, though: you are loved deeply and unconditionally. You have a big family, biological and honorary alike, that spans the globe, who loves you. Your mama and your daddy love you. Most importantly, your heavenly Father loves you. This is nothing less than who you are.

Happy first birthday, my child--it has been a year of blessings, not the least of which has been the blessing that you are to us. I’m looking forward to life and learning with you in your second year!


Friday, February 16, 2018

News Circles 2.0

This is my first post in nearly three months; a few days after my last post, my family got caught in what I'm now calling the "feedback loop of illness" in which my daughter would get sick, then me, and then my wife, and by the time one bug had finally worked its way through our family, my daughter would get sick with something new and the process would repeat itself.

So far we've managed to make it through flu season unscathed, and are finally feeling collectively healthy again for the first time in a long time.
On top of that, with the debate season over, I finally felt like I had the time and capacity to blog again this week!

In September, I wrote a post about News Circles, a new routine for the beginning of class in which several students would share news from an assigned region of the world.

My intention from the beginning was to eventually hand over the reins to the students, an intention which I publicly announced in December.  I invited students who were interested in re-tooling the News Circles assignment to form a committee.  Ten students responded, and I met with them at a lunch meeting before Christmas break to remind them of the parameters:
-News Circle time should take five to ten minutes at the beginning of class, Tuesday to Friday.
-The organization should lend itself to a variety of topics, as well as a global perspective (i.e. not only news from Japan, or news from North America).
-Students should read at least two sources before sharing their news story and consider what differences, if any, they noticed between the sources.

Other than that, literally everything else could be reorganized.

The News Circle Committee rose to the occasion and came up with a far more interesting and workable system than the one I had in place first semester:

Instead of being assigned to one of seven regions, the committee opted instead to assign three or four students to particular days of the week, on a two-week rotation.  One of the issues in my set-up from first semester was that students could easily forget when they were supposed to bring a news story to share, as it was on a different day of the week each time.

Now, the students are assigned to Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, and either to 'A'-week or 'B'-week.  In other words, if a student is assigned to Tuesday A, they will share on Tuesday every other week, with those assigned to Tuesday B sharing on the other Tuesdays.  This has been much more intuitive, and easy for the students to remember.  While students here and there still occasionally forget, that number has gone down dramatically.

To ensure a variety of topics, the committee created a rotating topic system:
-Sports & entertainment
-Science & health

Because there are five topics and six days of news stories in each cycle, the topics rotate, and the students will share on a different topic each time they present.  Within this, the committee asked that the students assigned to a given day communicate ahead of time to ensure that they are reporting on stories from different parts of the world.

The committee chose to set aside Friday as a discussion day, to either talk in greater depth about a particular story somebody shared that week, or to address breaking news that nobody had the chance to report on.  Although some weeks have been "slow news weeks", and the resulting Friday discussions cursory or quiet, we have also had engaging class discussions on such topics as North Korea's involvement in the Winter Olympics and gun violence.

The News Circle Committee has created and maintained a calendar of the daily topics, and with my encouragement, has even taken responsibility for getting class started on Tuesdays through Fridays. I told them that because the new and improved News Circles (News Circles 2.0, as we call it) are their baby and not mine, they should be the ones to initiate it each day.  This means that I am sitting quietly at my desk when the students come into class, and that without any prompting from me, they begin the News Circles for that day when the bell rings.  The News Circle Committee members have even started to ask the students sharing on a given day to kick things off so that the committee members do not always need to do it themselves.

This has become such an ingrained part of the routine that when I was absent for the debate tournament last Friday, my sub reported to me that the students started their discussion of the week's news like clockwork and that she had enjoyed listening to a lively, engaging discussion before taking attendance.

This has been a good reminder of the power of giving students ownership and agency in their learning.  I am already starting to think about other ways to give students more ownership in other areas of class in the future!