Summer solstice snow #CF2US14

Our last full day in Seattle certainly was full! We woke up late (again) and headed down to 3rd Ave to pick up a hire car for the day. Lee had booked it over the phone the night before – a standard 4 door car for $67, not bad. Sadly, as always happens, the person behind the desk at the pick up place added extra for insurance – $40 extra! This was annoying because we had specifically asked on the phone if the quote given included insurance and we were assured it did. This has happened to us before and, as with this time, we weren’t bold enough to argue. The people behind the desks at car hire places are rogues, rascals. They do anything they can to get extra money from you. My suggestion is to ALWAYS get the quote emailed to you and specifically ask the salesperson to indicate in capital letters that the quote includes insurance. Another thing to consider if whether your travel insurance covers you for car accidents. It often does. Anyway, lesson learned on our part – we just have to be less meek (a trait that we’ve passed on to our boys for better or for worse – they are forever being pushed in front of in lines!).

Ultimately our day was worth the extra $40 anyway. We hired the car specifically to drive to Mt Rainier, something Lee has been wanting to do since our last visit to Seattle in 2012. It’s such an impressive mountain, snow capped and looming over the city of Seattle. The drive was pretty easy and the closer we got, the landscape became more and more natural and pretty. A spread of wild flowers bloomed on the side of the highway and Mt Rainier grew and grew. The boys were so engrossed with its growing size, filling the car with ooohhhs and aaaaaahhs! We paid the $15 to get into the park and began the steady assent up the mountain – my palms got sweaty cos I’m not so good with heights. We stopped off a few times to get photographs of the views – all lush green and cloud white. The last stop was the best according to the boys – we finally got high enough up to get out and play in the snow! Reflection Lakes were partially frozen and just gorgeous. It was like being in a Christmas card! We are so lucky! After a hilarious scramble down a snowy embankment – picture me falling on my butt three times – we made it to the lake. Of course the first thing the boys did was make snowballs and their favourite target was their slow moving mother. We made a snow man and a snow dog and laughed that it was summer solstice and giggled at the authenticity of our realised dreams. Seriously.

Before our fingers fell off from frost-bite, we got back in the car and made our way back down the mountain. Our next destination was the music store where Kurt Cobain bought his first guitar. Unfortunately after a quick phone call to the store we discovered we wouldn’t make it to Aberdeen before they closed. We decided to try anyway – as you do. It took us over and hour to get to Aberdeen – making it there 15 minutes after the store closed. Lame! Our disappointment hung heavy in the Aberdeen air – oh, wait, that IS the air at Aberdeen! Seriously, that place is depressing. It gives an accurate sense of why Nirvana’s music has that moody, broken quality to it. The town is eerily quiet. Cliche? Yes? An accurate description? Well, I guess you’ll have to trust the veracity of my description because I strongly doubt you’ll ever visit there yourself; it’s just not somewhere I’d recommend. We did revisit Kurt Cobain Riverside Park – a kind of shrine to Kurt that was established by a caring Aberdeen local. The park is adjacent to the bridge that Kurt frequented often in his youth. He slept under it after he was kicked out of home for whatever reason teens and people in their early 20s get kicked out. It’s a special place for Nirvana fans – a pilgrimage point for the diehards – but it is sad too, just like the rest of the town. It gives a sense of the despondency that pervades many of Kurt’s art. I try to get a sense of him there, but all the scrawlings on the bridge beams just talk to me of those who love him, for their own reasons, and the sounds of lawn mowers, cars and scrawny dogs barking just takes away any pseudo spiritual experience I could get. That doesn’t mean it’s not a cool space, it totally is. The recent addition of Kurt’s air guitar was pretty cute.

We returned the car at 8pm and walked the long walk back to the hotel. The boys were washed out so we left them to play their games and headed down to the brewery next to the hotel – The Six Arms. The food was meh and Lee said the beer was watery. Worst of all was the music – Coldplay, Muse and The Killers! Not cool. The night did end well though, as we got a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, haha.

Sunday was a sort of nothing day… the boys went swimming, despite it not being swimming weather, and we took our final walk down to the Pike Street Markets. We bought fruit for the train and chocolate pasta to make for dessert with Jeff and Joanie, which we are told tastes great with icecream! Oh, and we ate breakfast at The Crumpet Shop. Yup, you read that right, crumpets in America! I got one with honey, the boys had jam and Lee had eggs and smoked salmon. Whilst they weren’t the best crumpets I’ve had, they were tasty and the homemade chai was delicious. It surprises me how popular this shop is! Crumpets are SOO hipsters ;)

We boarded our AMTRAK train at 1.40pm and are currently headed to Montana. The family room is great – so roomy, the boys are stoked and the novelty of being on a train hasn’t worn off, which is great. Tomorrow we’ll be meeting up with Jeff and Joanie in Shelby and heading to Glacier National Park!!

Oh, Seattle, how we love you!

The train to Seattle from Portland was cruisy – four hours of alternating napping and reading, perfect. The best part, of course, was that we ended up in Seattle!
We arrived at Union Station, which happily is in the city centre, and tried our best to haul all of our bags up the hill to our hotel. We made it to an ATM and grabbed some cash and then a cab. The cab driver was pretty hilarious – a socialist who cared for the environment but resented people walking slowly across the road or who took all his change. We potentially were guilty of the latter, oops!
We got to our hotel way before check-in, so dropped off our bags and headed down Pike Street to check out the town.
Our first stop was Pike Street Farmers’ Markets. Love it here! Our last visit to Seattle was so rushed that we didn’t get to appreciate this community space enough. We bought yummy dried fruit, admired the crowds buying seafood and tasted chocolate pasta – yum! We also got cold pressed apple and lavender cider – yum! We navigated our way through the rush of locals and tourists and headed down to the pier for clam chowder and tomato soup – the boys had theirs in sourdough bread bowls which the couldn’t finish.
We hiked it back up Pike Street and finally checked in to our hotel. It’s a beautiful hotel – big apartment, great games room, excellent service. The boys went for a swim and played electronic darts – happy boys! We then headed north on Pike to experience the colour of the gay community and the awesome that is Elysian Brewery. Love that place.
The next day we slept in – yay! Every other day has been hectic with very early starts. It was nice to rest. We got up in time for the hotel breakfast and regretted it as soon as we saw the powdered eggs, weird ham circles and other foods of dubious origins. It was a quick decision to head back to Pike St Markets for doughnuts. OK, only I ate them… tiny doughy balls of yumminess. Once again we headed to the pier with the plan to ride the huge Ferris wheel but it was packed at 10 in the morning, on a week day, so we gave it a miss. Phew! I wasn’t keen at all.
Another ten minute walk and we found ourselves in the oldest part of the city – so pretty – for the Underground Tour. Loved it! We had the best guide of the lot, she was hilarious, passionate and knowledgable. We learned so much about the origins of Seattle – and a lot about their obsession with toilets! Thanks Mr Crapper! The resilience and determination of the founding fathers of Seattle was inspiring. It was also cool to discover that a woman was integral to the rebuilding of Seattle after it burnt down.
After spending far too long in the toy store opposite the tour, we headed to Pike Brewery for refreshments and food, but mostly refreshments, lol. Lee said the beer was awesome but not as good as Elysian Brewery. The food was yummy too – I recommended the vegetarian nachos!
The evening involved catching the monorail to the Space Needle and me defeating my fear of heights! The Space Needle is great – worth the long lines! The views of Puget Sound and Seattle city – oh those shadows! – are stunning. Truly. We ended the night with pizza and ice cream. What a great day!

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The long flight, the short flight and the train trip #CF2US14

If you don’t know by now, my family and I have once again flown East for summer… very East. This is our fourth trip to the USA and the first one that won’t feature attendance at an edu event. We will be spending time with some of our favourite edu peeps though, as we traverse the continent from LA to NY.
The first leg of the trip is always tiring but rarely unpleasant. We fly Air New Zealand because I’m an uneasy flier. AirNZ have a great safety record, but more importantly they’re really friendly and look after us. Unfortunately flying to the US with them inevitably means a stop over in Auckland. This time our stop over was for 5 hours! There’s not a great deal to do in Auckland airport for that long, however they do provide super comfortable chairs and lounges in an open, flexible space which is pleasant. Lee and I managed to organise the chapters of our PBL books, grab some ZZZZs and then indulge in edamame and Japanese beer. Can’t complain, really.
The flight from Auckland to LA was good too. Great big plane, awesome service – food was tasty for vegetarian plane food – and I managed to half watch a couple of films. I also read half of The Fault in Our Stars, a super easy read thanks to Green’s powerful characterisation. Actually, that reminds me that I listened to four chapters of A Users Guide to the News by Alain deBotton on the other flight. Such an awesome book. I will be buying it as soon as I find a hard copy!

Arriving in LA, we discovered that an armed gunman had been ‘sighted’ in the army barracks two blocks away from our hotel. Welcome to LA, huh? Despite that we still headed down the road and found the most amazing food at Roobios – the original fish taco restaurant! Amazing! If you’re ever in the US, look up Roobios. Their food puts Baja Fresh to shame, and that’s saying something cos we really love Baja Fresh fish tacos! We also found a Five Guys Burgers and Fries – Lee nearly died of excitement because he loves the YouTube vid where the guy reviews their double cheeseburgers – DAYUM! After stuffing ourselves with tacos, we managed to buy and eat some fries from Five Guys Burgers and Fries, just so we could get a ‘ghetto grocery bag’, lol!

Early the next morning we were back on a plane, this time a Delta flight from LAX to Portland. I love Delta – they are really friendly and the service is great! They give you a drink and a snack and you don’t have to pay for a blanket – a lot better service than Virgin America where everything costs something, even the headphones! The flight was rad – tiny plane but that didn’t bother me for two reasons:
1. The view is awesome. We saw snow capped mountains!
2. I was reading the second half of The Fault in Our Stars. I confess, there were tears!

Portland is awesome. Seriously. We’re pretty confident that this is THE city we could easy live in. Our first meal was at the Elephant Delicatessen – the most amazing world of food you can imagine and so cheap! I was actually overwhelmed by the selections and all the different counters, lol. We settled on soup and pizza. It was great to have a range of vegetarian options to choose from! We then walked down Burnside Rd to Powell’s City of Books and ended up lost in there for two hours. If you’ve ever been, you’ll know how easy that is to do! The map of the store helped a lot – we spent $171 and have much heavier luggage thanks to the many books we purchased. Well worth it! Next stop was the Doc Martens store where Keenan got his first ever pair – a big deal for our family, a milestone really! Did I mention how cheap Docs are here? Finally we headed to Deschutes Brewery for some delicious craft beer and cider. So Portland!

That night we were treated to dinner with the lovely Suzie Boss and her husband. She made us delicious vegetarian lasagne and a stunning three tiered strawberry and cream sponge cake – our boys were stoked! She also took us to see the beautiful roses at Washington Park. I wish we’d had more time to discover all of Portland’s secret spots!

Right now we are sitting on the Cascades train heading to Seattle. Well, we’re not heading anywhere right now because the train is stopped due to track work – fun times! Still, it won’t be long and our journey will be back on track, so to speak, haha!

A fortnight of visual learning

The last couple of weeks have been a bit manic. Lots of teaching highs that have been obscures by lots of administrative (and personal) lows. My year 12 students continue to push their thinking about Orwell’s significance, my year 7s have loved every minute of Winton’s ‘Lockie Leonard’ and my year 10 students have shown a growing appreciation for poetry. On the flip side I’ve been dealing with the death of a colleague, the grinding reality of traditional assessment and reporting as well as completing far too many forms about photocopying and printing. It’s just been a weird ride and as a result, I haven’t felt compelled to write anything meaningful. I have, however, been collecting visuals from Twitter and Facebook – these images, I think, track my thinking and learning over the last ten days or so. I only just realised that I’ve been an unconscious bowerbird; stealing the gems of wisdom others have captured through well-selected images and groovy fonts. Can I just say this, THANK YOU. They helped. They inspired me, challenged me, made me laugh. I, sadly, haven’t been considerate enough to record who each image belongs to. Do me a favour? Claim ownership by commenting below?

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Using design to hook my students into their project

One of the best parts of PBL is the hook lesson (or the project launch, whatever you wanna call it). I know it’s dumb to think that the very first lesson is the best part, but seriously they are as memorable as the concluding celebration of learning but with WAY less anxiety, and therefore honestly more fun.

Year 7 are currently working on a project that engages them with the highs and lows of transitioning from childhood to being a teenager. They’re reading the Tim Winton novel Lockie Leonard: Human Torpedo and will be creating a website to help year 6 students in NZ and Perth to support them in their impending transition. Designing a hook lesson for this project was tricky; I wanted them to be engaged in the ideas of the project, but I also wanted them to have fun and think critically. I still can’t remember how I came up with the idea I ended up going with, so if you suggested it to me, you should totally claim it by adding a comment below.

Students came into class and were put into teams of four – two boys and two girls. On the board I wrote the following:

photo(36)Each team was given a variety of building materials (just a bunch of random things that I could find in the staffroom), making sure each team has the same amount of each material.

Screen shot 2014-05-26 at 8.48.17 PMI set the online countdown timer to 20 minutes and left them to it. The class was loud with designing – loud! There was also quiet focus and excited sharing of ideas. I loved watching the different ways in which my students approached this task. I walked around the room and gave encouragement to teams, but mostly I stepped back. They certainly didn’t need my ideas – it was an ideas factory in there! When you think about it, this is a really, really hard task. It requires students to think critically about what they know about the experiences of teenagers – the good and the bad – and then think creatively about how these experiences can be represented metaphorically through the elements of a theme park. Oh, and add to that the need to actually create these elements from very basic materials, under the pressure of a ticking clock and negotiating the ideas of peers. Tough!

After 20 minutes, this is what students presented:

Screen shot 2014-05-26 at 8.48.36 PMSome of my favourite elements of the designs were these:

- a rollercoaster that represents the emotional ups and downs of teenagers

- the mega-drop that represented being dumped by your boyfriend/girlfriend

- dodgem cars that represent fights with parents and teachers

- a ferris wheel that symbolised school achievement: sometimes you’re on the top and sometimes you’re on the bottom

- maps discarded on the group symbolised the refusal of teenagers to follow an established path

- a kiosk where you can buy stupid things because that’s what teenagers often spend their money on

- the giant swing which represents the mood swings of teens

- a haunted house that symbolised the anxiety and fears experienced by teens regarding school achievement

- a tug of war between teenager children and their parents

The day after this lesson, one of my students if we could build something else cool. He’d obviously enjoyed this creative design activity! I was really impressed with not only the designs if my students, but the ideas that they presented. This will definitely put them in good stead for the rest of this project!

Involve me and I learn…

Last Thursday was, officially, one of my most memorable days as a teacher. Ever. It was terrifying but awesome. After five weeks of studying the essays of the marvelous George Orwell, my year 12 students were ready (sort of) to complete the first part of their Module B project – participating in a debate about Orwell as an essayist in front of Australia’s top Orwell scholar, Dr Peter Marks, author of George Orwell The Essayist. Pretty intimidating, right? I confessed to my students (after their debates were over) that I could never do what they had done. They were truly, truly amazing.

The project’s driving question is ‘What would Orwell have to say about our world today?’ and students were required to participate in a debate and write a personal essay answering the above driving question. I know it seems weird doing PBL with year 12, but for me and my students it is natural. They are used to the pressure of sharing their learning with an audience beyond the classroom. Obviously they were still freaked out before the debate last week – they were well aware of who Dr Marks is and what he has contributed to the study of Orwell’s essays in particular. So, how did I manage to get Dr Marks at my school? Did I pay him? Nope. I just emailed him and asked. We had been in contact way back in 2009 when I discovered that he had written his PhD on Orwell’s essays and organised to meet him at Sydney Uni so I could photocopy his (entire) thesis. Asking Peter to come to my school was risky, I figured he’d be too busy… but he happily fit us into his busy schedule! How cool is that?

On the day, my students spoke passionately and confidently for their team’s position – arguing whether Orwell was a rebel, saint, prophet or common man. Peter was so generous in his praise for my students, letting them know their speaking skills were superior to those of many university students and encouraging them to enroll to study at Sydney Uni. You can imagine the delight of my students! The value of his visit went beyond praise of my students, as he shared so much of his knowledge about Orwell as a writer, person and thinker that will certainly help my students not only in their HSC but in life – seriously, Orwell was one amazing human being. I will always be grateful to Peter for giving up his time to support my students’ learning. His visit allowed me to see my students in a new light, as young learners distinct from HSC students. This is a powerful thing.

Finally, it was super, super, super cool to have one of my students tweet me to share with me her thoughts about PBL and learning after the debate:

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Pitching serious games is serious business

Over the last six weeks my year 9 gaming students have been working hard researching, planning, designing and preparing to pitch their serious video game idea to game designer, Dave Kidd. You can read about the project here. To begin the project, I showed my class a game review by Hex and Bajo on Good Game. It is a review of the video game Papo and Yo which I found particularly moving when I saw it review. It uses the video game form to communicate a powerful message about alcoholism and its impact on children. You can see the review here.

We spent time in class discussing the role of video games in wider society and how they have the potential to do good. Students worked in small teams to brainstorm a range of issues that need action or advocacy in our world. From this list, each team selected an issue they would like to design a serious game around. They then researched the issue to develop their appreciation for the seriousness of the issue as well as what they wanted their game to communicate and to whom. The issues students selected were wide-ranging: youth homelessness, kidnapping, bullying, teenage drug use, suicide, childhood innocence and racism. The next part was more complex, but also more creative. Each team had to brainstorm and then work-up their game elements: narrative, genre, sounds, objectives, feedback, resources, graphic style etc. I also asked them to consider their audience, the message of their game and organisations who would be interested in publishing their game.

I am a complete newbie when it comes to game design, so a lot of these aspects I had to teach myself via YouTube and other online sources. In order to give some expertise (and credibility) to the project, I invited Dave Kidd to speak to my class about his experiences with game design. Dave has designed the popular text-based zombie adventure game Zafe House Diaries which is available on Steam. His insight into the challenges of designing a video game – from the early stages of narrative to the finer details of coding images – was inspiring for my students. One student told me afterwards the he was going to start his own game design company. It was nice to also have some reassurance that I wasn’t completely off track with my expectations for what students would need to prepare for their pitch! The cool thing was that Dave agreed to come back and hear my students’ serious game design pitches. Having an expert from outside of the school who actually works in the field of gaming as a designer was so powerful for my students’ learning. My students have two weeks between hearing Dave speak and when he would return to get their pitches ready. In that time I ensured each team presented a ‘draft’ pitch to the class and received feedback and feedforward from me, Gerard (the awesome uni student doing his honours research on my gaming class) and from their peers. The class took this really seriously and all teams improved as a result of the feedback they received.

The big day came about and I was just as scared as my students. I knew that the teams were prepared to varying degrees yet this is part of the learning process. During the team pitches, I was truly proud of what all teams had achieved. They all took the project super seriously and had developed some interesting and original concepts for their serious games. Ultimately the two most effective pitches were from the only to teams of girls! I loved this so much, as it really affirms my belief that gaming is not a male-exclusive domain and that the creativity and innovative thinking of girls can (and do) bring something unique and powerful to the gaming world. The most effective pitch was for a game called ‘Through the Streets’ which gives the player insight into the causes and effects of youth homelessness. The runner-up team had a really creative game call ‘In The Dark’ which explores the consequences of parents failing to be honest with their children in an attempt to (naively) protect their innocence. I really loved the ideas for both of these games but what made them so successful was the time put into fully realising each concept as a game that truly has potential to be made, as well as a game that would have a profound effect on the player.

Below are the comments that Dave emailed me about the top three games. I have to admit, his high praise of my students brought tears to my eyes. This course has caused me a lot of heartache in the last term (Am I doing games justice? Am I too serious? I don’t know anything!) so it was cool to have someone from outside of the school appreciate and value my students’ learning.

The most notable was Through the Streets. Out of all the ideas, this was easiest to imagine as a final game. The conventional, RPG-like system is well suited to the issue — homelessness is about tough decisions, constrained choices, survivability, risk-taking and development — and this idea is such an obvious fit that I’m surprised it hasn’t been done by the serious game dev crowd. The little touches, like the radio, are really clever and give it a kind of ‘indie charm’. I genuinely hope they continue with it.

Next is In the Dark. The through-the-looking-glass idea is great (and it’s interesting to see how this theme was in other presentations too), and I’m impressed at how thoroughly they fleshed out the concept, resources, assets etc. I’ve no doubt that there’s a complete game floating around in their heads, and they seem to be so organised that they could probably pull it off.

But unlike Through the Streets, I didn’t get the sense that the gameplay really connected with the project’s goal (the ‘serious game’ aspect was mostly contained in the theme – the gameplay seemed like an action game talking to magical creatures). But my god, this might be the first game to have a ‘hug’ button! Extra points for that.

The third notable one was Trail Blazer. There were a lot of really interesting things about this. Multiple endings, for example, is something few designers think of, but is really important (I think) for serious games. The nod to Oregon Trail is surprising – it’s a very old game, but very excellent and suitable. They also mentioned something about how your actions in one scenario can influence the next scenario – again, this really fits with serious games (ie, there are consequences). They were also the only team to put together a kind of prototype — the MS Paint style graphics were actually pretty cool — and I’m still blown away that it was written in batch code.

This feels like a classic indie punk game from the 80s, with the kind of content you’d expect from high school boys. I think it’s kinda great to be honest. And it’s quite straightforward to make, especially for these guys. I’d love to see them do it!

I will endeavour to post students’ PPTs and websites here so you can read more about their serious games.