Toggle open
Learning Library Blog Visionary teacher is passionate about amplifying student voice
Expand breadcrumbs

Visionary teacher is passionate about amplifying student voice

By Tim Douglas
April 1, 2017
Img id 932 Version Id M1 SG3 Z Bn Cg YJS Cx NRRH3r H im68f Tv Ua

What’s in a game?

For Steve Isaacs, who is a teacher of game design and development, quite a bit.

For starters, games are giving him a fulfilling career at William Annin Middle School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, where he’s taught for 19 years.

“I created my job,” he says. “This was never on the school’s radar, but I built it.”

But perhaps the best aspect of teaching gaming is that it allows his students to play with a purpose. They may not be learning lessons in conventional ways, but they are absorbing information and enjoying the process.

“I’m fascinated with what is behind making games…the type of thinking, the creativity,” says Isaacs, who was named iste’s 2016 Outstanding Teacher. “This really gives students choices and lets them tap into a passion.”

Which suits Isaacs just fine. He’s not against traditional classroom settings and delivering lessons in the usual ways. He just believes that, in this day and age, there are better ways to prepare learners for the world. Games are largely dependent on technology and effective ways to use it.

For Isaacs, this is the ideal nexus to instruct modern students. He’s a firm believer in the maker movement, which allows students to be hands-on with their learning and to create products.

“I see this as empowering learners in the makers’ age,” he says. “I provide resources and support to the kids rather than direct, traditional instruction. This lets the students really own their learning.”

His nonconventional approach to instruction applies to the physical environment as well. Isaacs admits that he is on a quest to build “the perfect space.” Through donors and the parent-teacher organization, he’s fortified his classroom with high-definition, large-screen televisions and added every gaming console imaginable. To top it off, he’s filled their space with a variety of comfortable furniture. Desks are out; Yogibo is in.

He’s quick to add that relaxation and comfort are not the enemies of instruction. Game creation takes effort and teamwork. His students need to create as they depend on each other.
“The real goal is to create a studio where each person has a role and a function and will learn,” Isaacs says. “In game design, there are so many parts to play, from graphic design to how the game will work. It’s not a linear path.

The students work together to use the tools to make games. They have a lot of options for how to get there and a great deal of learning to do along the way.”

Their learning is put to additional tests as well. For the past few years, Isaacs’ students have posted their accomplishments for various audiences via blogs, a variety of websites and a host of social media platforms. This opens the students’ work to several new worlds and allows experts to evaluate their products, creativity and thinking.

“I’m very passionate about student voice. This lets educators see what we’re up to and challenges students to show their best effort.”

As committed as Isaacs is to technology and the value of gaming, it all came about thanks to a bit of good fortune. He started as a teacher in special education and was based at a science and technology magnet school where he quickly saw how his colleagues were using technology to enhance their students’ education.

It didn’t take long for Isaacs to get hooked on edtech integration and then eventually expand to gaming.

“I just happened to be there, but being there really opened my eyes.”

He continues to keep his eyes wide open and to evolve – as do his students, who are currently exploring cutting-edge technology via virtual reality – and his enduring curiosity may also help explain his passion for Minecraft, a game that allows users to create their own worlds using building blocks and other resources. For Isaacs, the game is revolutionary.

“When I brought this into the classroom, it was a huge aha moment in education because I wasn’t the expert, the kids were,” he says. “I saw their enthusiasm and I saw the potential of creating games and learning within Minecraft. I became the lead learner.”

He’s so committed to the game, he’s now helping to take the power of Minecraft on the road. As one of the producers of Minefaire, a Minecraft fan experience, Isaacs is bringing together thousands of educators, parents, students and experts to demonstrate how this game can be used to transform education and thinking. And for Isaacs, the collaboration is as important as the content.

“We need to be connected,” he says. “All of us – families, the community – but especially for us in the edtech world, where change is happening so fast and it’s a relatively new experience.”
Game on.

Tim Douglas is a former television news producer who also served as a senior media consultant for several speakers of the california state assembly. today, douglas is a freelance writer who covers a wide range of topics.