One way that I can help my students on their SML journey is to model it by doing one myself. I don’t get to spend much time in class working on my own project, obviously, but now that it’s spring break I’ve been able to put aside a few hours for myself. My progress thus far is slow going. But I’m so glad that I’m doing this, because 1) I love my project and 2) I’m always rejuvenated when I change my role from teacher to student. Authentic, independent, self-motivated learning is HARD. Resilience is not easy!

(SML, Self-Motivated Learning, is my school’s name for our GeniusHour-like activity that is happening with over 400 students. Click here to read more about it.)

My Goal:

portapi retro arcade

I want to build a DIY video game arcade that can play the Super Nintendo classics I grew up with, using a Raspberry Pi microcomputer (pictured below). I’m going to use this set of instructions as a guide. But I don’t plan on finishing the arcade’s exterior this spring as I think that might be too ambitious (after all it took the author of those instructions 200 hours to make a prototype). I’ll consider my project a success if I can get the computer and joystick set up and playing Super Mario Brothers 3.


This is a lot harder than it sounds, though, because while the Raspberry Pi packs a lot of computing power into a machine the size of a credit card, it’s nothing at all like working with a MacBook or PC. For example…um…where’s the screen? I’m a bit embarrassed to report that after two hours of work on my project I have yet to successfully get the monitor, mouse, and keyboard working. That’s right: I can’t get the computer to turn on. But I have an idea of what to do if the problem is with the software on the Pi, or if it’s something wrong with the hardware itself. But once I DO get the machine working, I think I have a clear idea of which steps I’ll take and in which order.

How is this helping me be a better teacher?

1. It’s a reminder that massive projects take a while to get started. What seems easy to the teacher (perhaps because they have taught the unit for so many years) is usually wholly novel and brand new to the students. Respecting that, and giving students time to ease into any major project, is essential.

2. Working on a topic that I know little about makes me feel incompetent. That’s a feeling that I don’t often have in school anymore. As the teacher, I am the expert. History and geography are my passions. With the shoe on the other foot, being a learner again, I’m reminded of how exposed learners feel when they are up against something challenging. Feeling incompetent is not a fun experience for anyone. I need to design lessons and activities with the zone of proximal development at the center.

3. Part of the reason I’m flailing around is that I don’t know how to filter out information that’s above my novice understanding. There have been so many times in my research when my eyes skip over huge chunks of an article. I often think to myself that one of my more tech-savvy friends would be miles ahead of me by now. This is a great reminder that as a teacher I need to help my learners construct mental models to house their understanding. Experts see patterns that novices miss, and right now I have no clue what those patterns are. I just have to keep my nose to the grindstone on this project and hopefully I’ll end up with a successful result.

4. And that’s the last key takeaway: it’s really hard to NOT have a fixed mindset. I really don’t want to fail at this project. How is that possible, you ask? This whole project is designed to be “failure-proof”! But I don’t care about “Fail = first attempt in learning”. I want to build this video game arcade, and I’m going to be ticked off if it doesn’t happen. Of course it would be possible for me to not complete the DIY arcade and still feel that I learned a lot. But that means I need to be flexible about my desired outcome. Maybe I won’t get there, maybe I’m too ambitious, or maybe it will just take me a bit longer. And that’s fine. Teachers, let’s remember and respect that our students have their own goals for our classes.

Well, that’s all for now. I’m going to continue documenting my school’s Genius Hour journey here, and will definitely keep plugging away at my DIY video game arcade.