Well, tomorrow is the first day of the fall 2007 school term for students and teachers in Edmond Public Schools (Oklahoma) where we live and our kids attend school. I have been amazed this summer to watch both our 9 year old and 7 year old play and learn on Webkinz, and most recently watch my 9 year old demonstrate and explain how he plays Avatar: The Last Airbender on our family GameCube game system. At times, like today on a Sunday afternoon, it is eye-opening to see how motivated our kids are to get into those virtual environments and start playing as well as exploring. My wife has wondered if “the wheel of wow” and other games of chance on Webkinz are transforming our 7 year old into a compulsive gambler… I don’t think this is happening, but it IS clear the creators of that online environment have done a good job creating a virtual space so engaging and compelling that young kids want to keep coming back there, EVERY DAY.

When Alexander and Sarah are in Webkinz or playing Avatar on the GameCube, they are self-directed in their learning. They are constantly exploring new possibilities, testing out pet theories (no pun intended since Webkinz is based on real “pets”) and being challenged to read as well solve problems. The Avatar game in particular is full of complex puzzles with hints and mysteries. I think Alexander would be happy to sit and play the game all day long, as long as he was able to get something to drink and eat periodically! (Being parents who believe in balance and boundaries, we don’t let him do this, of course!)

These sorts of learning and play experiences contrast sharply with the prospect of returning to school and getting ready to sit in a desk most of the day.

El Toro Grammar School

We are very excited about the teachers our kids have this year, and are enthused to remain at our same elementary school as last year, instead of going to the choice school which our kids were selected by lottery to attend if desired. (We opted to stay because of the strong social bonds our kids established last year with friends, and the fact that moving schools again would have been unfairly disruptive in their lives– they had to go through that last year when we moved from Texas.) Despite our enthusiasm for our school and teachers, I’m wondering what the experience is going to be like for our children leaving the freedom and diverse learning environments of summer into a “regular” classroom of desks, textbooks, and bells to signal the “official” start and stop times for “learning.”

School starts tomorrow, and everyone is pretty keyed up about it as they usually are this time of year. When we lived in Lubbock, our house was literally right across the street from the elementary school– we could watch the kids walk across a field and they were at school. Here in Oklahoma, our situation is different, but it is better in many respects. I am going to take a “before” picture of my 7 year old’s hands today, which I will label “pre-recess.” The calluses she developed in relatively short-order last year playing every day on the monkey bars and other types of outdoor equipment before school, during morning recess, and at lunch recess were pretty amazing! I’m guessing we’ll see the same thing happen again this year. Sarah knows an amazing number of hand jives and songs that she learned in recess… and I’m sure this year she’ll learn even more. Alexander played lots of soccer at recess, but also learned over twenty different string figure tricks with his friends at school– so many, in fact, that he may launch (with my help) a video podcast about making string figures later this fall. The academic benefits of school last year were OK– the main thing we were excited about last year was related to Alexander’s “home run book” (Eragon) and our personal experiences witnessing the power of reading in his life. Those dynamics continued over the summer, as he voraciously devoured the first three Harry Potter books and is now well into book 4.

Tomorrow after the kids are all off to school, I’ll be heading to Goodland, Kansas, where I’ll be presenting a keynote and two workshops with teachers there on Tuesday. The start of a new school year is often filled with nervous expectations, some fears, and also some hopes. This year is no different for us.

I am really looking forward to hearing what Bob Sprankle will have to say next week as he takes up the author’s chair here on “Moving at the Speed of Creativity” for three days as a guest blogger. I’ll likely post a few more things this evening, but as of tomorrow morning this blog will be turned over to Bob. As I drive to Goodland, I’ll be listening to more of the podcasts Bob has published from BLC 2007. Our circles of networked learning continue to grow and expand! Many thanks to Bob for agreeing to guest blog here for a few days and share his perspectives about learning, schools, students, teachers, and technology! 🙂

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