Bloxels for 4th graders–game design thinking

Design (Thinking) Process

[Taught: 2017-18 school year to the present]

Using an app-based game-creation platform called Bloxels, I tasked 4th graders with making the most fun game they could–for an audience of their classmates, the wider school community, and anyone playing in the the Bloxels Arcade.(1)

Students worked in small groups, framing their efforts with design thinking, a highly human-centered process that emphasizes imagining (or empathizing with) users’ experiences, creative problem-solving, and swift iteration. Within each group, students took primary responsibility for one of three roles: Character Designer, Layout Designer, or Story & Theme Designer.

(1) The games students shared to the Bloxels Arcade contained no personally identifying information.

“What Is an American”? 3D-printed monuments of unsung heroes from the American Revolution

3D monument models atop a library bookshelf

During the 2018-19 school year, The Town School’s the 4th-grade faculty significantly reworked their Social Studies curriculum. The result was a year-long consideration of the question, “What is an American?”

For their culminating project, 4th-graders researched lesser-known participants in the American Revolutionary War–especially enslaved Africans, Black freemen, First Peoples, and women. Then, in their Technology class, using Tinkercad and working in small groups, students designed monuments to commemorate the “heroes” they had researched.

Once 3D-printed, we placed the monuments on wooden bases (which were cut and painted by the school’s Facilities Department). Affixed to the front of the bases were QR codes, which linked to Google Docs that contained information (composed in 4th-grade Writing class) on the historical figures’ wartime contributions.

The final product was displayed in the school’s library for all visitors to see and interact with.

Computational thinking with Fox Makes Friends

During the 2019-2020 school year, in their Technology classes Nursery 4 (N4) and Kindergarten students worked on a project designed to expose them to some fundamental concepts of “computational thinking”—namely, decomposition (breaking down bigger tasks into more bite-sized pieces) and sequencing (putting a series of steps in order).

Using the book Fox Makes Friends as inspiration, students followed a recipe, of sorts, in order to (like Fox does in the book) ”make” friends—to construct pretend friends alongside real friends, their classmates.

Using a variety of craft supplies, N4 students created two-dimensional “friends,” while kindergarteners worked in three dimensions.

“When Fox wants someone to play with, he takes his Mom’s advice and sets off to make a friend. What happens along the way surprises him! Fox is about to make the best friends he could ever hope for, but not in the way he imagined.”

Image and text reference:

Digital Citizenship – S.O.S.

photo of the ruins of the Roman Forum

During the 2016-17 school year at The Town School, I was tasked with expanding the digital citizenship curriculum for grades 2-4. (What follows most closely resembles what I did with 4th grade classes at Town up through the 2018-19 school year. For 3rd and 2nd graders, I did a more pared-down version.) This same year, some grades in the Lower School re-introduced Ethics classes into their curricula, which helped to anchor these digital citizenship lesson in Town’s mission-based ethical code–“S.O.S.,” which stands for “Self, Others, Surroundings.”

The Town School’s mission-based ethical code, “S.O.S.”

Total instructional time for the lessons (for 4th graders) that follow is about two hours–comprised of two, hour-long class periods. The first class period is dedicated solely to “Self,” while the second is dedicated to “Others” and “Surroundings.”


In the digital citizenship version of S.O.S., considerations of “Self” centered around students preserving their reputations online. We began our discussion of this part by talking briefly about what a “reputation” is, about what “online” really means, and about the what similarities and differences between a “regular reputation” and an “online reputation” might be.

Next I informed students that, technically speaking, most of what we’d be talking about on this topic doesn’t, shouldn’t, even really apply to them. Firstly, their school’s policy was that students were not permitted to use personal devices (smartphones, tablet computers, laptops, etc.) in the school building, nor were they permitted to access social media sites and apps on school devices. Secondly, I pointed out (by way of an as-brief-as-possible look at Terms of Service/Use language in a handful of social media apps and websites) that none of the major social media apps that most students have heard of (such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc.) are meant to be used by anyone under 13 years of age–or, at the very least, not without a parent’s permission and supervision.

Age Restrictions for Social Media Platforms (as of 09/2014).

In the wake of this information, which struck most students as a minor revelation (and major disappointment), I avoided chiding or embarrassing kids who, earlier in that or some other class period, may have admitted to (or even bragged about) using social media outside of school. The decision whether or not to have social media be a part of their lives, I explained, is ultimately up to their families. Their school is not looking to police their lives outside of school; but, I told the students, the school’s faculty and administration have realized that social media can have such a major impact on students’ lives outside of school that it’s effects are often felt in school–and is therefore a subject that we needed to talk and be informed about.

I pointed to SnapChat as an example of both the incredible scale that social media operates on and the major vulnerabilities present in all social media. That is, we looked at how aspects of our–digital–lives that we may think of as private and temporary can very easily become public and permanent.

Snapchat usage statistics, mid 2015 to early 2016
SnapChat usage statistics, mid 2015 to early 2016. (Slide design by Julia Henderson.)
An example of SnapChat’s vulnerabilities. (Slide design by Julia Henderson.)

Following this example, I told students that they did have some protections online–namely, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). We didn’t get too deep into the specifics of this legislation, but I tried to illustrate some of the issues involved by showing students Common Sense Media’s “Follow the Digital Trail” video, which I’ve found to be extremely efficient and effective in conveying ideas about privacy, caution, and agency.


The opening slide for the “Others” part of the lesson is subtitled “Cyberbullies, Haters, and Trolls–Oh my!” As these terms were often unfamiliar to most students in the class (but not all of them, for better or worse), first we worked on a definition of the term “cyberbully.” Then we talked about the basic perceived difference between “hater” and a “troll.”

These definitions lead us to the discussion of “Surroundings.”


I began this part of the lesson with a discussion about what it might mean to be responsible in one’s online “surroundings.” We couldn’t recycle paper online or be sure to push in our chairs in a video game (well, not really), I offered, but we spend so much time in “cyberspace,” “with” other people, that it made perfect sense to extend S.O.S. into this realm.

I tried to convey the real importance of being a good digital citizen by pointing to the cover article–by Joel Stein–from the August 18, 2016, issue TIME magazine:

The cover of TIME magazine, August 18, 2016. By the time we reach this point in the digital citizenship discussion, students can quickly and easily recognize that the figure on this cover is meant to be a troll.

Stein’s article makes a compelling case for the very great stakes involved in leaving this “culture of hate” unchallenged. I’ve felt this position could be summed up (or, at least, have its foundation built) for my students with the following quote from Stein:


Following this weighty point, I took the students back a step to talk about what a “forum” is–both in its original form and in relation to cyberspace, mentioning along the way (with help from Stein’s article) the near-utopian idealism that early internet architects carried with them into cyberspace.

What I suggested, then, is that, if we agree with Stein, the cyberspace equivalent of this–


could turn into something like this–


Speaking of vandals, and looking to tie some of these issues to students’ everyday lives (or, at the very least, to 4th graders’ everyday academic lives), we then had a quick discussion about what the impact of bad digital citizenship might be on, say, a student trying to do a research project for a class, only to find that someone’s been messing with a source that student relies on to learn about something.


To counter some of the potentially daunting and even unsettling notes these considerations of digital citizenship might sound for students, I would end these discussions on notes that were both empowering and hopeful, as well. I found that Common Sense Media’s “Pause and Think Online” video is extremely effective in this regard. I’ve yet to show it to a class that hasn’t been clapping and singing by the end of the song, or that hasn’t asked to watch the video again as soon as it’s finished.

Over the past couple of years, it’s been been both fascinating (given the rapidly changing pace of the nature of digital citizenship in recent years) and highly valuable (in order to keep my own understanding of these issues relevant) to hear from my colleagues who’ve taught my former students, in order to learn what’s stuck with students and what hasn’t from these lessons, from these discussions. I see it as incredibly vital that considerations of digital citizenship become truly integrated throughout a great variety of classroom spaces in schools, and that this integration is both flexible and responsive, given that we, as teachers, will continue to encounter digital citizenship challenges none of us has even thought of yet.

“Through My Eyes” – Oculus Rift + interactive fiction (+ Harry Potter)

Created for:

Project length:

  • Medium-long (approx. last quarter of the term, final group project design document).


  • Diondra Arroyo
  • Enid Brown
  • Kelsey Buttendorf
  • Jullie Harten
  • Matt McGowan
    • my principle contributions: “Persona,” “Context Scenario” and “Narrative Flowchart”


  • As a group, produce a full, thorough design document on a project of mutual interest.

For our final project, my group came up with an Oculus Rift-driven, interactive fiction learning game experience titled “Through My Eyes.” Here’s the concept brief:

Through My Eyes - concept brief
(Layout by Jullie Harten)

The full design document is here:

“Through My Eyes” – full design document

and these are my principle contributions:


TME - persona
(Layout by Jullie Harten)

Context scenario:

TME – context scenario (pdf)

Narrative flowchart:

(Page layout by Jullie Harten)
(Page layout by Jullie Harten)

Teaching design at the AMNH… with POV Mad Libs!

During a Game/Mobile Design internship at the American Museum of Natural History (Fall 2014) I worked on a program called “The Neanderthal Next Door,” which was

a 27-session youth program for 21 12th-graders that’s designed to develop and implement a digitally augmented (augmented reality-enhanced) print activity guide that explores the topic of human evolution through the frame of Neanderthals.

The piece of the program I worked on the most was developing a design-thinking approach that would guide the 12th-graders in their work. Given the time we had with the students, I thought an approach that used a selection of Stanford’s Bootcamp Bootleg cards would work best. Below is a post about a few of the sessions that the program’s director, Barry Joseph, asked me to write for his blog,


Instructor facilitating POV Madlibs for high school students
The POV Mad Libs discussion – lead by the program’s Science Educator, Marissa Gamliel.

One of the many shuffles I did of's Bootcamp Bootleg deck.
One of the many shuffles I did of’s Bootcamp Bootleg deck.

And here’s an earlier part of the program curriculum focused on design (using the Bootcamp Bootleg deck):

d-school cards for sessions 9-16 (pdf)

Making art history come to life with “Frieze Tag”

Frieze Tag wireframe - Figures assembled

Created for:

Project length:

  • Short-medium (final two weeks of class, design document).


  • Matt McGowan (solo project/assignment).


  • Design a learning game; produce a design document that contains a detailed software analysis (or landscape audit), related classroom activities, and a mockup or prototype.

My response to this assignment was a design for a multimedia, augmented-reality learning game/app called “Frieze Tag!”

The full design document can be found here:

“Frieze Tag” design document (pdf)

These are a few screens from the mockup (or rigged-path prototype) I created for the prototype:

And here are some images from the “Klepsydra” segment of the 2004 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony in Athens:

“The Great Mural of Our People” – a MinecraftEdu + Makey-Makey design

Drawing of Stonehenge builders rolling stones

Created for:

Project length:

  • Short (one week, design document).


  • Matt McGowan (solo project/assignment).


  • Integrate tangible computing into another assignment done during the semester.

I elected to add a tangible element to the design I did for the course’s “Empowering narrative-making in others” assignment earlier in the term–a MinecraftEdu-based project entitled “The Great Mural of Our People” (the text of which is here, for comparison’s sake). Here’s the result of adding Makey-Makey to the mix–wherein students design simple, interactive machines that simulate laborers operating the same machine together: