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AIU course for teachers focuses on integrating games into classrooms

| Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Teachers attending a conference Tuesday at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead brainstormed games that would help students learn. Kelly Woleslagle, right, an East Allegheny School District teacher, demonstrated a and educationg game invovling a hula hoop.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Some items the teachers got to choose from to create a learning process during a conference at the AIU ion Homestead Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015. The Institute of Play helped 35 teachers to design and create learning techniques for students to use.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Representatives of the Institute of Play in New York came to the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead to help 35 teachers desgin and create better learning games for their students Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Teachers Angie Kennon of the Elizabeth Forward School District (with cone on head) and Melissa Costantino of Avonworth create games to help their students learn. They took part in a conference at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Moss Side Middle School teacher Marilyn Allshouse tests out another team's game during a conference at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015. The school is in the Gateway School District. The Institute of Play, based in New York, helped 35 teachers design and create learning games that they can take back to their classrooms.

With only a pile of kids' toys, an index card listing an emotion or two and a few days of instruction from the New York-based Institute of Play, about 35 middle-school teachers from 14 schools had to devise a game that would evoke the emotion on their cards.

So “anxiety” became holding hands and stepping through an upright hula hoop while holding a beanbag with your chin. “Silly” was a series of increasingly complicated acts of bouncing, bobbing and balancing cones, cups, hula hoops and balls. And “collaborative” became building shapes from colorful wooden blocks without directly touching the blocks or touching your own team's colors.

The Institute of Play's TeacherQuest course at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead this week is teaching teachers how to design and implement games in their classrooms. They can use the skills in their lessons, or teach them to students and have them design games around what they learned in class.

“I made a game about grammar, because grammar is boring, and I did some other improvisation-based games, but a lot of kids also designed games around things like vocabulary,” said Anne Meals, a teacher from Elizabeth Forward Middle School who was mentoring the other participants after doing the program last year. “It gives them some ownership in it because they're designing the games themselves.”

Teaching game design, both to teachers and students, helps them emphasize critical thinking, problem-solving skills and collaboration in ways that aren't part of typical professional development courses, said Rebecca Rufo-Tepper, director of professional development at Institute of Play.

“It's not enough today for them to have literacy and numeracy,” Rufo-Tepper said. “It's also about problem-solving, creativity, empathy, thinking about what tools are the best for certain tasks; skills not necessarily taught in schools.”

The “collaboration” team of teachers from Upper St. Clair's Fort Couch Middle, South Fayette Middle, Hampton Middle and Gateway's Moss Side Middle school started by puzzling over tasks their players could do collaboratively, then thinking of limitations that would make them work more closely together.

In the game that took shape, players would used graph paper to draw shapes for other teams, who would have to cooperate to stack blocks of different colors without touching them directly.

The final games likely will go through several changes, as they gather feedback, and are tweaked following rounds of playthroughs by the teachers and by kids at the Allegheny Valley School District on Thursday.

“The best part is when kids give their feedback, because they're just so honest,” said Megan Cicconi, the AIU's director of instructional innovation who helped bring the program to Pittsburgh with support from the Grable Foundation. “They're so eager to be masters of their own learning, but their constructive criticism is just so brutally honest.”

As more teachers like Meals go through the program and become mentors to others, staff from Institute of Play won't have to come back to run the sessions themselves, Cicconi said. The institute has online lesson plans that mentors can use to replicate the seminars, and that participating teachers continue to use throughout the year to design games for their classrooms.

The program runs through Friday at the AIU's central office, with a total of eight months of lessons and support online.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or

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