We recently had the opportunity to speak with Lisa Holton, president of Classroom, Inc. – a nonprofit that develops literacy and leadership skills for middle school students in high-poverty communities.
The organization provides support for educators and works to put students in charge of their learning. They create programs, such as digital learning games, that engage students and foster the critical literacy skills that will help them thrive in school and beyond. Read our conversation to learn more about how Classroom, Inc. and First Book are partnering to provide children with more resources to strengthen their reading skills.
Developing Literacy & Leadership
First Book: Classroom, Inc. has a unique and creative approach to developing literacy and leadership. How do you describe Classroom, Inc.’s mission and approach to learning?
Lisa Holton: Classroom, Inc. is a nonprofit, and we use the power of gaming and technology to help struggling students in low-income communities develop reading, writing and decision- making skills that they need to succeed in school and life.
We do that by creating learning games where students take on the role of a boss in a professional workplace. It’s an immersive role-playing game. As students play the game, they start gaining confidence because they are the boss and are making big decisions.
When you are a gamer, you know that you have to fail to succeed. In our game, struggling readers are motivated and find a way to persevere in order to make the right decisions and lead their team well.
In order to play the game, you have to read closely, write clearly, think critically, and solve problems. Over the course of the game, students gain incredible literacy skills and also, often for the first time, see themselves in the role of a professional, see what it would be like to have a career, and how what they are doing in school applies to what the future might look like.
Classroom, Inc.’s goal is to have every single student want, and be able, to read every single book that First Book offers.
Utilizing Digital Media & Innovative Technology in the Classroom
FB: Can you explain the concept of blended learning and why it’s important for students?
LH: Blending learning can mean a lot of different things, but blended learning done well means that you are giving students more control over their own learning, you are giving them more opportunities to be collaborative, to have experience, to apply their learning. At the same time, you are giving the teacher what he or she needs to be effective in supporting every kid.
In our learning games, we use data to personalize learning. The games actually collect data because kids take assessments. So while they are engrossed in an activity—like reviewing somebody’s article in the journalism game—they are actually being assessed. That score can either send them to a challenge or a supportive activity, so the game is moving with them. It also sends the data to the teacher in a handy dashboard so the teacher can immediately see every single kid in the class and how they are progressing.
When you think about how that applies to learning, a teacher can use a game-based curriculum like Classroom, Inc. to immediately organize her class and them break them up into groups. So, one day, one group may spend more time on the learning game; one day, she might decide to pull all of the students she saw who were struggling with a particular common core standard out and have an individual lesson on that; one group might be doing a project based on the game.
In one of our learning games, you are the head of a community service organization. So, in that case, we have the kids design their own community service organization.
Expanding the Impact
FB: Have you seen how a student has been transformed through the literacy and leadership games?
LH: Sure, I’ll tell you a number of stories! First of all, every time you walk into a classroom and ask students what is going on, the first thing they all say is: “I’m the boss! And I’m making important decisions! I really like weighing the different facts and pieces of information.”
So, the power of decision-making is transformative.
Because the learning games put students in control of their own learning and they can go at their own pace, the games can serve a wide variety of students.
We had two tenth-grade young men who had just immigrated from Yemen, and they were using Community in Crisis, which can be used by 5th and 6th graders, but they were still working on their English language skills. The content itself, being head of the community center and having staff, was really respectful so even though they are 14 and 15 years old, they don’t feel like they are reading something below them, in fact, they feel like they are really important.
They were actually able to take their time and read closely, and in parts of the game when they didn’t know what was going on, they would just stop and use Google Translate. They said that by the time they reached the end of the game, they had hugely improved their English language skills. They had gained confidence, they had seen themselves in the role of an executive, and they felt for the first time in a long time they didn’t have to be ashamed about where they were in their learning trajectory because of their language, because they could do it on their own, at their own pace.
FB: That’s a great story. We recommend the game for students from fifth to eighth grade, but it’s really great to hear that the game is useful for literacy learners at any age.
I’ll give you one more story: our learning games are often used in summer programs in the South and West side of Chicago in some of the most challenged neighborhoods where just walking to school is a huge safety issue for kids. They are facing traumas that few of us can even imagine, and that means that you have to think about meeting those kids in a different place and offering them a new way in.
I was in Chicago last summer, visiting incredible kids who were loving the program. They were the editor-in-chiefs of our magazine in our game After the Storm, and their teacher said to me, “This is the first time anyone of these kids has ever seen what a workplace looks like.”
For many of our kids, they have never seen an office, so not only seeing an office, but understanding how you talk to your team, what it means to collaborate with new staff, and how to make decisions that affect other people is an important part of the students’ experience.
We forget that in America, you can live in a neighborhood that is so close to a huge metropolis city and yet be so far away and cut off from all of the resources.
Offering Teachers More Support
LH: One of the fabulous things is that First Book is offering our learning games online. We are a nonprofit, so we offer our programs free of charge. Up until recently, we’ve partnered with schools and brought in coaches to work with the teachers. We believe that the way we help students to succeed is to help teachers succeed; one doesn’t go without the other.
Now, we are able to start recreating a lot of the coaching materials and support that we have been giving in-person, online. We have created digital toolkits that include videos and resources.
Our goal is to reach every single teacher in a low-income community in America who wants to use this program. Whether you are in rural Vermont, whether you’re on an Indian reservation in Pine Ridge, whether you’re in South Central L.A., you might be cut off from basic resources, not to mention cutting-edge, innovative technology.
One of the biggest things we are doing over the course of the next year is to continue digitizing our Educator Tools, and First Book is helping us get out there and reach all of the educators we want to reach.
To find out more about Classroom, Inc.’s Read to Lead games, visit: http://www.fbmarketplace.org/free-read-to-lead-subscription