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We Could All Use a Level Up

Matthew Winner is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for his leadership and commitment to libraries and museums around the United States.

Matthew Winner is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for his leadership and commitment to libraries and museums around the United States.

Leslie Bushara

In 1989 I was asking my elementary school librarian if she had any books on Nintendo or the Super Mario Brothers nearly every time I visited the library with our class. The language of my childhood friendships included unrelenting talk of end-game bosses, secret warps, and unlocking extra lives via the Konami code. Not surprisingly, today we rarely go a week in our elementary school library without one of my students requesting video game-related books or content. But while games may have once been perceived as a distraction or viewed strictly for their entertainment value, I believe video games play a unique role in today's 21st century classroom. It is for this that I am honored to be recognized as a White House Creating Lifelong Learners Champion of Change.

My work as a teacher librarian in an elementary school over the past six years has afforded me a number of opportunities to rethink the way we approach learning and in what ways we provide authentic learning opportunities for our students. Students today have access to information in ways unprecedented to the likes of those even a decade prior. It is the role of the teacher librarian to not only create lifelong learners, but also effective users of information and technology. 

Not ironically, many of today's students are already adept at using technology. It is our charge to model how said technology can be used to access and use information through an inquiry-based process. To be fluent in these technology tools is to speak the language of the 21st century learner.

Video games have been a part of mainstream culture throughout the entire lives of today's learners. This realization informed many of the steps I have taken to integrate gaming into my library program and instructional practices. 

In 2011 I began developing math lessons incorporating the Nintendo Wii gaming console as an instructional tool. Shortly thereafter I partnered with Meg Hearn, a Math Support Teacher at a neighboring school, to write a book for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) entitled Teaching Math with the Wii (to be published October 2013 through ISTE). Our work centers around the understanding that kids are well-versed in the language of video games. They log countless hours on consoles, working endlessly to level up, achieve high scores, and master new skills. By using the Wii in the math classroom, the students have access to a tool of which many are already fluent. Students are engaged and make meaningful connections to the math curriculum while exploring math concepts through a context that is inherently relevant to the students' interests. This might include exploring the concept of prime and composite numbers in the context of an iceberg balancing game on Wii Fit Plus or demonstrating a mastery of geometric shapes by identifying lines and line segments created during a speed slice challenge on Wii Sports Resort. 

Not long after, a Twitter colleague and I founded the Level Up Book Club, an online gaming and game-based learning book club for education professionals. Jennifer LaGarde, a teacher librarian in North Carolina, and I shared a common interest in gamification, the practice of applying game thinking and mechanics to ordinary tasks in order to motive, engage, and, otherwise, increase productivity. Level Up Book Club members participated in weekly challenges, fought to earn top ranks on the leader board, and journeyed on epic quests of professional growth.

While the thought of meaningfully and intentionally incorporating video games into one's instructional practice may be intimidating to some, it's ever important that we allow the interests and unique strengths of our students to influence or inform changes in our delivery of instruction. In order to create lifelong learners, we, ourselves, must also demonstrate what it looks like to be a lifelong learner. Finding new ways to interact with technology and help students make meaningful connections with what they're learning is a challenge I welcome warmly. With every new opportunity to learn comes another chance to level up.

Matthew Winner is a Teacher Librarian in Howard County Public Schools.