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How one district helps students stay focused on class

Corrinna PoleDecember 10, 2020

Girl in Pink T-shirt Looking at the Imac-Julia M Cameron from Pexels

Learning during the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been easy on anyone. Students have had to adjust to a school year of extraordinary change and uncertainty. Between the external stress, social distancing, and new learning models, students are struggling. It’s no wonder that they are struggling to participate in class. 

Practices that support student motivation and engagement are more vital than ever.

Tony Williams is an Instructional Tech Leader for Copenhagen Central School District in upstate New York. We had a chance to talk to him on The Great Exchange podcast about the remote learning challenges his district of 460 K-12 students has been facing. He shared how his district kept students actively engaging with school during the pandemic and explained their blueprint for schoolwide tech rollout.

Interview highlights:

Tell us about the challenges your district has been grappling with. 

Teaching, in general, is a very challenging job. Our teachers are kind of up against it, especially now with remote learning challenges. More of our student’s lives are online and that is a challenge. Look around the world, and the whole thing is a distraction to our kids. Classcraft for us has been about redirecting those distractions for the things that we need our kids to do, which is to engage with the curriculum and learn. 

When everybody went on quarantine last school year, we were about as ready as we could have been. We’re in a much better place now. We’re learning as we go. At the end of our last school year, we all sat down and said, “What was the biggest hurdle during remote learning?” and we all agree that it was student engagement. That was the point where we realized that we needed to take a radically different approach to behavior modification and student engagement, and try something we had never done before.

What led you to start using Classcraft?

I heard about Classcraft several years ago when I was a middle school English teacher. To be honest with you, I don’t like video games, I’m not a gamer, I don’t particularly like fantasy. And if you had told me that I was going to need to use this gamified classroom, I would have quickly said “that’s not for me.” And that could be true, but just because it’s not for me doesn’t mean it’s not for my students.

The idea of something like Classcraft had been kind of growing on me. At the end of quarantine, it dawned on me that we’ve got to shift the way that we’re thinking radically and differently. It’s really not that radical because of Classcraft’s atmosphere and environment. It’s not radical to our kids, it’s where they’re at. 

If we can meet them in the middle, get them to buy into our program, and show them that we’re willing to buy into theirs, we’re going to achieve some really cool and amazing goals. So far, it’s been working so we’re pretty stoked about that. 

Tony Williams, Instructional Tech Leader for Copenhagen Central School District, shows off the 3D Classcraft logo he printed for his teachers.
Tony Williams, Instructional Tech Leader, shows off the 3D Classcraft logo he printed for the teachers at Copenhagen Central School District.

So, it’s been a way of making learning more relevant for your students? 

Absolutely. If you say to a student, “I need you to do this assignment, on your own, at home during quarantine, or else,” we know kids aren’t motivated by “or else.” Increasingly they’re not motivated by grades. So trying something different and getting them involved with the curriculum is important. 

Students are not going to be successful in Classcraft if they aren’t successful in the classroom first. When they don’t toe the line, so to speak, they take damage in the game and that is where Classcraft really does its thing because the team can jump in, help out their teammates, and you get this wonderful atmosphere.

We’re lucky that we’re not teaching remotely right now, but Classcraft provides an environment where kids can still be a little bit social with each other and also be completely distant.

One of my favorite parts is the Kudos section. For people who don’t know, Kudos are very specific, kind, inspirational messages from one student to another. They’re moderated by the teachers, which is awesome. Every morning one of the first things I do is fire up my Classcraft dashboard and look at the Kudos that students wrote the night before. If I were a fifth grader and I got this message from somebody, whether it’s a friend or not, that would really lift me up. That’s incredibly powerful. The person who writes the Kudos gets Experience Points (XP) and Gold Points (GP), but the person who receives it gets more. 

I know for a fact that kids are reading these, kids are writing these, and it’s making them feel good, and I like that. A lot of communication between kids this age is tech-based, and a lot of it is not positive. Classcraft gives us that environment to be social and only be positive.

Your school implemented Classcraft in mid-August. Has it been worthwhile? 

It really has. I can’t think of too many other resources that we get this kind of return on investment from — and not only that —  but it happened quickly. Have the kids pick out their characters and they’re involved in it right from the start. It’s been super impactful and we saw that impact almost on day one.

Anything that happens in the classroom can have a consequence in Classcraft. Some of those other resources kids are being rewarded for, like finishing their lessons online or completing a project online is  [creating] happier classrooms.

And it’s [provided] a better workflow. Because of social distancing, our teachers have to move to the classrooms. It takes about five minutes to set up. Our kids aren’t engaged in Classcraft during their classes because they have those five minutes of Classcraft time between, so it’s worked into our workflow as well. 

Walk us through your implementation process. 

Our elementary has a lot of different behavioral practices in place already that Classcraft nests nicely into, so I started there. I chose two teachers who agreed to go completely all-in for at least one year, and probably indefinitely, and let them role-model for everybody else. They ran with it —with my support—and it’s gained, almost like a little cult following in the elementary. Kids who aren’t on it,want to be on it, and kids who are on it are talking about it. 

It’s trickled its way up into our middle school. Because of hybrid learning, remote learning last year, and the fact that we have cohorts that are just massive, [our middle] now has an entire grade in one room all day. Seventh graders aren’t supposed to be in one seat all day, but that’s what we have to do. Their attention is waning, naturally, so we need these strategies like Classcraft to get them onboard and re-engaged. 

If I were to give somebody [implementation] advice it would be to identify the teachers you know are going to roll with it hard, then allow them to become experts, and model everything. Let them figure out Kudos, Quests, and Boss Battles, all that really cool stuff, so when the rest of the staff wants to get on board, you’ve got experts. You also become an expert yourself because you’ve been working with these teachers. Then you’ve got these kids who pick it up quickly 

So, start small, but also go all-in, get that ball rolling, and pick up as many folks as you can along the way.

You started using Classcraft with middle school students who have special needs. Why is that? 

A lot of these students have IEPs (Individual Education Plans) because of their attention difficulties. By no fault of their own, these kids are pre-dispositioned to not attend while they’re in class. Fidget tools are good but those are distracting. Redirection is good, but when you redirect one student, you redirect everybody. So, [Classcraft’s] extrinsic motivator that is so entwined in the curriculum is perfect.

Our entire middle school’s special ed is on right now. The only reason the rest of our middle school is adopting Classcraft is because it has been so impactful on the most challenging group of students to engage. If it can work with those kids, then there is absolutely no reason why it wouldn’t work with the rest of them.

It was cool how it worked out because we had this group of students who were [easily] distracted and now they’re far less distracted. They’re more focused on getting their work done so that they can engage the gaming aspect.

You’re using Classcraft as a parent, too. What’s that been like?

I have a kid in fourth grade who is on Classcraft, and I am all in on the parent portal. My kid is a reader. Every night she reads but she never shuts off her reading lamp. She gets five GP if she shuts it off. She has shut it off every single night for the past two months.

What I’m loving about this is that her home behavior is now linked to her classroom behavior. As a parent, I get to see everything she’s rewarded for in Classcraft and everything that she’s taken damage for. Then I can also reward her for exceptional behavior at home. It’s wicked awesome. I love it. My daughter raves about it, she loves it. 

What has the impact on your school been like? 

Here’s a perfect example, and it just happened. Our elementary teachers are on Google Classroom exclusively. Classcraft has an extension for Google Chrome called Classcraft for Google Classroom. I pushed it out this morning, went into one of the classes, and said “everybody open up your Google classroom and see what happens.” What it does is it turns their Google Classroom into a Classcraft classroom. They can see their character, their character stats, their teammates, crest, and their background. It was so cool. They all opened them up at the same time, got on Classroom and there was a collective “Wow,” that was just awesome.

The biggest impact is they’re engaged.

The other one that is incredible is that, if you do it right, Classcraft gives your students a lot of choice. They’re choosing to make positive decisions, which is great, but our teachers are allowing their kids to choose some of their powers, the behaviors they’re taking damage on, and the behaviors they’re getting rewarded for. So the kids are getting more of an ownership in their classroom, not just with their own behavior, but the entire class behavior.

There’s also more engagement in the curriculum. Rather than saying, “complete this assignment” our teachers are saying, “do this Quest” so three assignments in a row are no longer three assignments, it’s an epic adventure. And our kids are way more engaged in stories and adventures than they are in instructions. 

There is only a handful of software and resources that really speak for themselves. To be honest, Classcraft isn’t a lot of work, it’s different. If you’re open to being different then it’s not hard. The kids do the bulk of the work in Classcraft, to be honest with you, and they enjoy it. So it’s kind of a no-brainer. It’s getting the right teachers involved, offering your teachers the right tech support, and then embracing how the kids interact with it. That’s it.


Listen in to more conversations with educators making an impact on student engagement at The Great Exchange podcast. Check out Great-Exchange.com to stream inspiring sessions with leaders across education, tech, and gaming from Classcraft and Google’s student engagement summit. 

Interview edited for clarity.

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