Monopoly Hackjam 1You know it’s not your typical inservice day when you find the Assistant Superintendent playing Monopoly with a group of third and fourth grade teachers. That is exactly what you would have seen last Friday, however, as some of our elementary teachers learned how to hack their math curriculum.

In an attempt to model the kinds of learning I hope to see teachers using in their own classrooms, to engage my learners, and establish a context for the work we would be doing the rest of the morning, I used stole hacked an activity which I learned about from Chad Sansing and Meenoo Rami. Although I hadn’t attended their session at Educon, I read a few Twitter and blog posts by others who did, after which I promptly began kicking myself for missing it.

After an interesting conversation with my supervisor (Me: “Can I spend a little money on my inservice workshop?” Boss: “Of course, what do you need?” Me: “Do you trust me…?”), I began planning how I was going to use the Monopoly Hackjam. My goal was to use the game as a way to get teachers thinking (as Seth Godin says) at the edges of the box.

We were going to be working with two fairly mundane topics: planning for the last three weeks of math instruction prior to our state exam, and developing resources for our highest achieving learners to use when they test out of a unit. I had two goals: to stretch the constraints (both real and perceived) to get to the most effective plans possible, and for the teachers to own the process.

What better way to prime the day than with a Monopoly Hackjam? Teachers entered the room to find at each table a brand new Monopoly set and a large zip top bag containing a fairly random assortment of other items: paper clips, sticky notes, small stones, etc. The guidelines were simple: on your turn, hack the game by changing a rule or introducing a new one.

A few teachers were uncomfortable with such an open-ended task. “I thought we were going to be working on PSSA planning,” one said. “What is the point of this?” asked another. I reassured them there would be a debriefing afterwards and I would connect it to our other work. The groups for the most part dived in with gusto, however, and soon we had some rather interesting variations.

My friend Kristen Swanson, visiting the session as an outside observer, made an interesting observation: the group in which the Assistant Superintendent was playing had created the most conventional of the games; they made straightforward and incremental changes. The group next to them, however, had the most extreme version. The first player began the game by flipping the board over to its blank, back side. Almost immediately, there were real cash and credit cards out on the table, and it wasn’t long before they were using sticky notes to create their own spaces, including my favorite, “Make Mike tell you his PIN number.”

There was a wide variety of directions and interpretations in the room. One group started the game with all properties in foreclosure and the players had very little cash. Another charitable group created a rule that the first property you bought had to be given away to someone else. A third group was more self-centered and each person was creating rules that benefitted only themselves, including this by the youngest player at the table: “The winner is always the youngest player.”

During the post-hack debrief, there were a number of thoughtful reflections, some of which are paraphrased here:

  1. Even in the extreme group where the final product least resembled the original Monopoly, the rules settled towards a group norm, and later rule changes tended to tweak or finesse the game rather than create major upheaval.
  2. All of the games were generally recognizable as Monopoly, and the broad parameters were essentially respected.
  3. Despite the wildly different directions and thinking, the primary goal was accomplished: all the participants ended up with a game they loved and enjoyed playing.

We followed with a discussion of what hacking was, and landed on an understanding that hacking was not wholesale reinvention of something, but rather taking someone else’s work to remix and remold for your own purposes.

The group now began to tackle the task of hacking the state assessment. I am not a fan of test prep for the sake of test prep. I do believe, however, that there are some valid things we can do to enable each student to approach the assessment with success and confidence. Let me be clear: by “hacking” the assessment, I was not proposing anything illegal, immoral, or unethical. What I did want the teachers to do was think about their instruction and schedules in flexible, even unusual ways, to make the most of the time. Some of the parameters were hard boundaries: we cannot push the test back, and I was not willing to suspend regular math instruction to replace it with additional test prep. But even with these restrictions, teachers came up with some interesting and thoughtful proposals.

We applied the same kind of hacking thought process to the enrichment materials. Earlier in the year, I had introduced curriculum compacting as a strategy across all classrooms in grades 3 and 4. Because of some mistakes in the way I communicated the process, it came across to many teachers as a needlessly rigid and restrictive mandate. To correct this, I asked the teachers to hack the process. Given a few non-negotiables (there must be a pre-assessment, students who test out will get replacement learning activities), the teams worked for about an hour to remake my work into a useful and usable tool instead of just one more district initiative.

The teachers who commented on the morning to me seemed to think it was both productive and fun. For me, however, the real win was in the conversations I heard as I was circulating to assist and answer questions. Every one of them was centered on what we can do to improve teaching and learning for all our students.