An interview with Carina Hilbert
Carina Hilbert is finishing up her Masters in the Art of Teaching in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages through the University of Southern California. She is a presenter and instructor on blended learning and is certified in both English and Spanish, 6-12. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan with her two brilliant children, a needy dog, and a loud cat.
My alternative high school is over 90 percent free and reduced [lunch], and my middle school about 77 percent. … It’s very hard for most adults to be able to understand how schools have changed. Schools have dramatically changed, even in just the last five years, let alone the last 10. When most adults think back to what high school was like for them, they think it’s still that way. It’s not. The stress loads are higher, the graduation requirements are higher, the test scores and all of that. The stress is off the charts for all students, not just the ivy-league bound kids anymore. And the stress is really taking a toll.
We have kids who move three and four times a year. When you’re just starting to make friends at this school and you’re switched to another school, what do you do? A lot of kids just become isolated. So I look at things that could seem silly like Classcraft, and they really don’t seem so silly. That’s a positive thing. For my kids, they really like their phone. That phone is their lifeline. They don’t have a landline because they might not have a home. If you tell them they can use that phone as part of the game in class, it’s huge for them because it’s part of their identity and makes them feel normal.
They’re more likely to pay attention and try to learn something if they think that they can be themselves. That’s why the avatars are so important. If there’s any way they can see that they’re important, like they are to their teammates … Then it’s, “I have power in this class. I am somebody in this class.” To a lot of kids who hear the opposite on a daily basis, that means a lot to them.
My middle schoolers love it. They ones who are serious gamers are actually teaching the others how to log in. I’ve got one sixth grader who has no Internet access at home at all, and he has friends who are inviting him over to their homes just so that he can log in on their computers and customize his avatar and train his pets, which is helping him get more connections socially than he had had before. It’s really turning into this positive thing for him.
I can take that excitement and we can divert it, twist it, do whatever it takes, and then it’s, “Yay, I get to talk with partners today!”, and that excitement builds. The kids who are angry or who don’t want to be there, they’re not cool anymore. They’re not as cool as the kids who are helping everybody figure out how to gain more points. They’re not as cool as the kids who are excited about the class and trying to learn more so they can gain more points. So they’re silent, and they’re starting to turn around.
I don’t care what the make-up of any district is, there’s always this thing of the rebel is the cool one, and the smart kid is made fun of. What I’ve been finding is the smart kids are getting respect in ways I rarely see so that it turns into, “Can you help me with this?” “Wow, how did you get that many points?” A couple of my students who started the trimester trying to be invisible now walk in with their head held high, and kids who normally never socialize with them are coming up to them.
This is the way it should be. We should be making it so that our strongest students have that kind of social power. We as adults can’t do it. It has to come from the kids.
The urban district that I’m in, I’m very hesitant to remove Health Points (HP) when students haven’t done their homework. When you have kids who live out of their cars, there are going to be times when they don’t have their homework. So I don’t think that’s exactly fair. A quick way to lose points in my class is if they get sent out. They lose a lot of points if I have to send them out of the room for whatever reason, or if they’re tardy.
I mostly try to run the game in such a way that they lose Health Points if they’re disruptive. They don’t lose a whole lot, but that’s as many times as they’re disruptive. But then they can also get Experience Points (XP) if they turn their behavior around. So for some of my students who are used to only getting negatives, they start seeing those positives.
I don’t give out extra credit. I give out extra points in the game. To them, that’s the same. … I had a student last trimester who was one of those seventh graders who thinks he never does any wrong. I pulled up the Analytics one day, and I said, “Look at this.” Once he saw all of his behavior on a list … “Oh wow, I’ve been losing a lot of points.” … For them to be able to see that for themselves and see how they’ve been doing, that has been a powerful change.
The change that was huge this year was being able to pick their skin color. That was massive. For my students, especially in the urban environment where I am, for them to be able to pick their skin color and look more online the way they really look, or the way they wish they looked … They love that.
Anything to make them feel good about themselves. I know a lot of adults worry, “Are we always telling kids that they’re better than they are?” That is not my problem. My problem is the other way around. My problem is I have kids who do not see how smart they are. They are beaten down emotionally and mentally every day. So anything that is positive and beautiful and amazing, they need. … That’s how some of my alternative kids, even though they’re older, have gotten into the game.
We have kids with serious life issues going on outside of school, so anything positive ends up becoming very powerful.