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Teachers test learning games on Allegheny Valley students

| Friday, June 20, 2014, 7:17 a.m.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Highlands Middle School math teacher Jessica Faish goes over some of the rules to a math game to Keidyn Perle, 13, of Cheswick, during an evaluation of the game at Springdale Junior-Senior High School on Thursday, June 19, 2014.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Highlands Middle School learning support and co-math teacher Faith Foster holds her deck of math cards during a game for Springdale Junior-Senior High School students on Thursday, June 19, 2014.

About 40 Allegheny Valley School District students on Thursday participated in a pilot program to increase student engagement through games in the classroom.

The program is called TeacherQuest, and it's administered by the New York-based Institute of Play to support educators' abilities to design game-like lesson plans that maximize student involvement and retention rates.

The institute is piloting the program in Allegheny County after the Allegheny Intermediate Unit secured a grant through the Pittsburgh-based Grable Foundation to bring it to the area. About 20 teachers from eight Allegheny County school districts were chosen from roughly 50 applicants to participate, according to Megan Cicconi, AIU curriculum and reading coordinator.

The intermediate unit reached out to the Institute of Play, she said, to expose educators in the county to “cutting edge” methods of crafting curriculum.

“Anytime you can bring a program to the county that will help teachers engage students, it's a worthwhile and positive thing,” Cicconi said. “It's about experiential hands-on learning. The teachers who participate here can go back to their respective schools, as well, and serve as ambassadors to the program.”

The Institute of Play first came to Allegheny County last summer with its MobileQuest program, which was meant to teach educators the basics of digital game design. For TeacherQuest this year, the institute is shifting its focus to the design of analogue, or physically hands-on, games for middle school curricula.

“We want teachers to gain a deeper understanding of the process of designing games, which I think is more easily done through a physical platform,” said Daniel O'Keefe, lead learning designer at the Institute of Play. “We start from the beginning — establishing a goal — and go from there, exploring game modifications and the unintended consequences they can sometimes create.

“I think that, when people effectively design games to meet their goals, it tends to generate student-centered spaces in which they're more actively involved than in teacher-centered spaces.”

Participating teachers began the week-long summer portion of the program on Monday at the AIU building in Homestead. They began the following day crafting their designs, and subsequently tweaking them, leading up to Thursday's forum at Springdale Junior-Senior High School.

A total of 38 students entering 7th, 8th or 9th grade in the Allegheny Valley School District turned up as test subjects for the teachers' games.

“It's probably the most important part of the process,” O'Keefe said. “They're the experts. No one knows how they learn better than they do.”

The students broke into groups and played the teachers' games covering various subjects.

Representing the Alle-Kiski Valley on Thursday were two Highlands Middle School teachers — Jessica Faish, an 8th grade math teacher, and Faith Foster, a learning support specialist who assists with her class. The teachers presented to their students a “Gin Rummy” influenced card game that's meant to help students group together like terms in algebra equations — a process with which many students struggle, Faish said.

“It's something that some students are great at, and some students struggle with, but it's always something I've had a hard time driving home,” she said. “The students seemed to respond positively to the game, and they learned quickly. We're looking forward to using it in the classroom this fall.”

The summer portion of TeacherQuest ends today, but the teachers involved will remain active in the program through the end of next school year. Aside from completing several reports on the evolution of their games, the teachers will have access to a shared online forum, where they can upload their concepts and accept or provide feedback with their fellow educators.

Foster said she's looking forward to sharing her experiences with her peers at Highlands Middle School.

“We have a team system in the middle school, so we're going to start with sharing our ideas there,” she said. “Hopefully, it'll catch on with the rest of the school and, ultimately, the entire district.”

Hannah Kern, who is entering 8th grade at Springdale Junior-Senior High, is hoping the principles taught by the institute come to her school.

“Geography's not my favorite subject, but I had a lot of fun learning about it on (Thursday) with the game we played,” said Kern, 13. “I think it's a good way to teach certain subjects.”

Cicconi said the Allegheny Valley School District was chosen for the test session because the district and AIU have a strong working relationship.

“They've secured a STEAM grant through us every year since the inception of the program,” she said. “They've been able to do some pretty special things. Really, there are a lot of special things happening in education all across Western Pennsylvania. This is just another example.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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