Spotify and the Learning Environment

A year ago this week, while at the 2014 Middle Grades Institute, a colleague suggested using music to improve the learning environment. He remarked that between class transitions or during breaks in class, he was continually piping music out to his students to get them excited, comfortable, and engaged in the classroom learning.

After some faltering efforts, I took his advice and this year started using Spotify’s free version to create set lists of music to match the learning environment. Spotify has a wonderful selection of music from which to choose. Deep Focus selections provide a background for our writing sessions while more upbeat pop sets help us get our Minecraft sessions in motion.

Where at first I was concerned that the music would be a distraction, students have reacted very favorably. Indeed, by choosing the right “tone” for the set, I believe the learning environment can actually become more productive. In response, students have reacted very favorably to this change in the learning environment.

After becoming comfortable with this change in the learning culture, I took it a step further ( I began asking students to create set lists. In doing so, they began personalizing the learning culture.

If you want to experiment with a free, easy to use, and adolescent-approved change to your learning environment, check out Spotify. You may be able to make your learning environment a more productive, attractive place for middle schoolers to grow and learn.

Google Maps and Personalization

It’s never easy to admit being “late to the party” but for some reason, I haven’t taken full advantage of Google Maps. For whatever reason, perhaps the complexity of Google Earth, or not having the time to learn more about the application, or simply having other tasks to accomplish, I’ve never quite managed to utilize Google Maps very effectively.

That changed on Tuesday. As part of our PLP Exploration, students have been encouraged to explore local summer opportunities related to their interests. Students interested in coding searched for code camps, students interested in sports searched for sports camps, and so on. We started locally, moved to the New England region, and eventually across the United States.

Summer opportunities identified by students and inserted on a shared Google Map.
Summer opportunities identified by students and inserted on a shared Google Map.

It was a great way to get more resources in front of students, identify possible secondary education opportunities (most colleges seem to have vibrant summer programs), and practice skills of digital citizenship. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a good way of sharing all this information. Bingo. Google Maps. I did a quick search, used the Help function, and before you know it, I was working with the “new Google Maps”.  The application allows the user to create personalized maps and then to share those maps with others. Users with accounts can create and utilize as many maps as they want, all saved in Google’s My Maps. These maps can then be shared by link or embedded into websites.

I know, I know. Why haven’t I been doing this for years? Good question. However, the My Maps application has immediately developed curriculum changing potential. As students created entries for our shared maps, including an appropriate symbol, brief description, and appropriate resources, the variety of standards and skills required to achieve proficiency jumped out at me. Writing, geography, digital citizenship, and transferable skills were all needed to complete this simple exercise.

Can you imagine having students create personalized maps of their communities, journeys, and studies? What about the integration of art, visual elements, and descriptive writing? The possibilities are limitless. Moving forward, students will be asked to develop personal maps that explore their interests and to put integrate those maps into their PLPs. Better late than never rules the day.

From the Field: Psychology and Interventions Into Action

As part of continuing professional development, I recently read this article: Social-Psychological Interventions in Education : They’re Not Magic by David Yeager and Gregory Walton.  My response on how to put this research into action is below.

The Yeager/Walton article provided some very useful information that was, at times,  seemingly at odds with current practice in schools. I was particularly interested in the idea of timely, stealthy interventions at key junctures in a student’s academic progression. As a middle level teacher, I recognize the importance of creating a positive experience for students as they encounter two of the most important transitions of their educational lives: from elementary school to middle school and from middle school to high school. The author’s discussion of timing interventions to support students’ engagement, sense of belonging, and achievement was well-taken. Using the strategies and interventions proposed by Yeager and Walton could have profound effects on student performance and foster a sense of belonging that could have dramatic impacts far beyond my classroom.

The first useful tip from the authors’ study is the idea that successful interventions do not have to be highly defined, overt exercises explicitly outlined for students (like much of our current curriculum). In fact, the authors recommend a far more subtle approach. “Although these delivery mechanisms are psychologically powerful, the interventions are in an important sense “stealthy,” a quality that may increase their effectiveness (Robinson, in press). In none of the interventions were students exposed to a direct persuasive appeal or told that they were receiving “an intervention” to improve their performance” (Yeager and Walton, 19) I think this is something that educators miss too frequently. Browbeating students with the latest information on how to be a better student can often have the opposite effect; it can sometimes ‘turn students off’ and fail to achieve desired results. Instead, we need to develop these interventions in a more concisely targeted manner that will engage students in brief interventions that have, hopefully, long lasting impacts.

A second important aspect of these interventions is their timing. “If effective psychological interventions alter recursive processes in school, then the timing of these interventions is critical. In many cases, it may be essential to deliver psychological interventions at key educational junctures, such as at the beginning of an academic year (Cohen et al., 2006; Cohen et al., 2009), during an important transition such as when students enter a new school (Walton & Cohen, 2007, 2011; Wilson & Linville, 1982, 1985), or before an academic gateway….” (Yeager and Walton, 22). It would seem that these interventions would be particularly effective when used as a support for students entering significant transitions wherein they may also begin to question their academic ability or standing in the educational community. By creating a system of brief, stealthy, and effective psychological interventions, the educational system as a whole could develop a supportive bridge for student movement across these transitions.

Finally, I was taken aback by the different examples of how strongly stereotypes can impact students’ self-perception of their ability to succeed in the educational environment and how those perceptions can lead to disengagement and failure. It made me consider the practices, procedures, and protocols that schools currently have in place that may reinforce negative self-perceptions for students. The first example that comes to mind would be our discipline system and the use of detention. I wonder how many students, when given a detention, use that experience to self-identify as someone who cannot succeed in the educational system, as an outsider, and worse, a failure. Perhaps, instead of detention, we could institute a practice of interventions that would help students develop more positive behavior.

Technology, Hapara, and Differentiated Instruction

An important element of my classroom information management includes the use of Hapara. This desktop management tool integrates with Google Drive to provide teachers access to student folders.

Through the application’s user interface, teachers are given an easy-to-navigate desktop that displays student documents. When the cursor is placed over the file, the application provides a pop-up window so that teacher can view progress. To access the document, the teacher simply clicks on link and joins the student’s work. As a time-saving device, Hapara is superb. In addition to document access, teachers can also view email accounts, blog posts, and Google Site updates.

After using the application for 2 years, I am starting to explore more of its features and have recently discovered the utility of its shared file function. This has been a dynamic addition to my efforts at differentiating instruction for all students.

The shared document function allows teachers to “drop” documents into student folders. This allows teachers to customize assessments for specific students and then distribute them with ease. Modifications, accommodations, and differentiated instruction can be facilitated “under the radar” or beyond the social implications that can occur with modified work.

Students then complete the assessment online and then save the work to their folder. Teachers can then assess the work, also online, and provide specific, timely feedback. If you are looking for a technology tool to save time, allow for increased differentiation, and make your job a bit easier, check out Hapara.

@MinecraftEDU: 6 Reasons For Classroom Use

Three or four years ago I asked students who I knew were avid gamers if there was a simulation/modeling game that would match with our social studies curriculum. They gave me some suggestions but in the interim, the sandbox creation game Minecraft exploded. With the help of our technology integrationist, we began piloting the educational version, Minecraft EDU in our classroom here at Main Street Middle School. After a year and a half of gaming once a week in the classroom, it’s hard to imagine not having Minecraft EDU as an essential part of our curriculum. Here are seven reasons why.

Digital Citizenship

Before employing Minecraft EDU as part of our curriculum, I enhanced our digital citizenship curriculum. This included explicit teaching of digital citizenship principles, review of technology standards, and outlining expectations for the game (with significant student input).  This instruction culminated in the student-led design of a Minecraft Charter that outlined the principles and expectations for game play.  Launching the game was a nerve-wracking experience. Because I am not a programmer, I served as a coordinator; my students did most of the set-up and problem solving to get the game online. As a teacher, I needed to trust them to demonstrate their digital citizenship by making good decisions,  communicating, problem-solving, and giving constructive feedback related to the game’s implementation in the classroom. Minecraft EDU has become an important classroom tool that has helped students develop a deeper understanding of digital citizenship.

Literacy and Integrated Technology

Each week, students are expected to take a screenshot of their progress and insert that into a pre-existing Google presentation. Accompanying each picture is an explanatory paragraph, based on Common Core writing standards, that explains how the picture (and underlying game play) relate to our curriculum. In addition to emphasizing the writing process, this practice also allows for the incorporation of academic language and vocabulary that reflects curriculum topics. Writing about an interactive learning experience has served to motivate even our most reluctant writers.

Classroom Management

Student response to the integration of Minecraft EDU in the curriculum has been extremely positive. Students are enthusiastic, engaged, and to be honest, appear to relish the responsibility and opportunity offered by utilizing this technology. I won’t say there haven’t been any issues — a herd of horses mysteriously started spawning in one session — but by and large, students have been really responsible with the game platform. There is a collective pressure to keep the game in the curriculum and I think this has made the classroom more dynamic and engaging. Subsequently, and in my opinion, classroom management feels a bit easier. I attribute this to the heightened responsibility and collaborative efforts between student and teacher that have been a product of introducing Minecraft EDU.

Collaboration, Teaching and Learning

One of the most pleasant surprises that has arisen from the employment of Minecraft EDU is the improved collaboration between students. Remember, students are the gaming experts. Their expertise becomes a shared experience for all the students. When novice players need help, I simply direct our expert players to address their needs. Watching kids who might otherwise not have a chance to shine collaborate with fellow students is reason enough to play. It appears to contribute to the self-confidence of the students who mentor their peers. Furthermore, the interaction between novices and expert players transcends social boundaries. Minecraft EDU provides new opportunities for students to have positive social interactions.

Autonomy, Motivation, and Mastery¹

Introducing Minecraft EDU into the curriculum has forced me to give a portion of control to the students. When students spawn into their worlds, they are independent and autonomous decision-makers who must navigate an interactive virtual landscape. As their skill level, or mastery of the game improves, they can complete more complex tasks, develop goals, and improve their gaming skills. The freedom to independently operate in a digital world appears to motivate kids not only to get better at the game, but to continue developing their mastery of technology.

Student Creativity

Finally, the integration of Minecraft EDU has provided an explosion of curriculum related creativity and interpretation. Students have re-constructed scenes from novels, built working models of Newcomen steam engines, and replicated the Ziggurat at Ur. And that’s just the beginning. Students have created movies, presentations, and teaching videos for their classmates all based on their gameplay.

Try this. Google any structure in the world, followed by the term “minecraft”. The possibilities are truly endless. Using the game responsibly, creatively, and with student-led collaboration can add a potent and effective learning tool to your classroom.


  1. Ryan, Richard M., and Edward L. Deci. “Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions.” Contemporary educational psychology25.1 (2000): 54-67.

Students Lead the Way

Since initiating a personalized learning plan pilot project in the 2013-2014 school year, I’ve been amazed at the power this tool has to meet the developmental, creative, academic, and technological needs of students.

And that’s not just my opinion. 79% of 8th grade pilot project participants responded with a 4 or 5 on a survey asking students if they enjoyed working on their PLP site (answers of 1 = Not Really, answers of 5 = Absolutely). As recently as Monday, January 26th, 82% of 17 students new to the project answered with a 4 or 5 to the same question.

One would think that these results would be cause for celebration, and indeed, I’m becoming more and more convinced that the marriage of technology, adolescent brain development, and the autonomy provided by the personal learning plans is a very good match. But these developments have also been cause for a great deal of reflection about the pervasive, standards-based, assessment-driven educational philosophy that has become the norm.

Are standards important? Absolutely. They provide a common framework for educators seeking to improve those skills that have been determined as most important for college and career readiness. I use them all the time to structure lessons, develop instruction,  and to create valid and proficiency-based assessments. I have no problem with utilizing them to make my classroom a more structured and productive learning environment.

At the same time, I’m becoming increasingly aware of the authoritarian nature of a standards-based, top-down system that asks students of wildly different interests, abilities, and aptitudes to “meet the standard”. Should educators contemplate a different framework? One that allows students to develop understanding related to personal interests, utilizes intrinsic motivation, and encourages the use of technology to explore and differentiate the learning?

As a small test of these ideas, and in an effort to develop student interest in a new unit on Industrial Revolution, I shared a Google Doc with the class. I created a simple table, some basic instructions, and three time periods that would be of importance. Students then were allowed to explore resources. The results were amazing. Check out this time lapse video of student minds at work.

Next up? We’ll classify the ideas, re-define our questions, and then compare what they have found to the unit I had tentatively planned. I can use student interest to help guide the way. To my thinking, this constructivist approach, on a foundation of standards and teacher guidance, contributes to a positive learning culture. More importantly, this framework is one that has resonated out of personal learning plans and into the curriculum. Students, indeed, are leading the way.