It's weird writing about myself. Ego and modesty fight for what to include and what to leave out. I'm guessing that you who visit this page and bother reading about me want to do business with me of some sort. I'll lean a bit towards the bragging side, then. Be assured, though, that all the information in this page is true.
About Mr. Greenberg
Teaching is like most government jobs in that, unless you do something extreme, you have a job for life. Or, more realistically, the job is there as long as you want it, for most people tire of the job before they reach retirement. When a teacher mentions to those outside the profession the number of years he or she has been in the classroom, the response is invariably one of admiration for putting up with the students for so long a time. If my experience reflects the broader population of teachers, we tire of the ever-shifting and rarely sensible policies, not the students.
I taught high school for twenty years, mostly in the inner city. Though my main subject was English, I also had the pleasure of teaching Latin, math, and video game design. It was refreshing to step outside my usual expertise. I also coached wrestling and Academic Decathlon, both affording me a great deal of fulfillment and enjoyment.
At Camelback High School in Phoenix, where I spent thirteen years, I reached the level of English Department Chair. At Phoenix Union Cyber High I was the lead teacher, an unofficial title that recognized me as the person in charge when the only administrator left the building. At Primavera Online High School, I was promoted to the position of curriculum developer. By all reports, my execution of those duties was sound. They never brought me as much satisfaction as teaching though.
Whenever possible, I looked for ways to conduct class differently. I remember bringing in dead squids, exotic fruits, a video of my knee surgery, among other props. Once I channeled Grendel, grabbing an unsuspecting student from his chair and dragging him downstairs and out of sight. I took my class to the practice football field so they could hear the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables. When we studied a poem that mentioned the game snap-out, my students got to go outside to play the game. I read short stories to the students once a week. I think that my efforts to make my classroom experience different from those of other teachers gave the students a greater appreciation for the subject matter.
Unfortunately, that sort of freelance approach to teaching was frowned upon to a greater and greater extent as my career progressed, to the point that uniformity became the official policy. When I left the Phoenix Union High School District, administrators expected to be able to visit the classrooms of all four Sophomore English teachers and witness the same lesson being taught the same way with the same handouts and PowerPoints. The idea was that all students, no matter which teacher they had, would receive the same education. I won’t devote the space here for a detailed argument against this idea, only to say that it is a good thing I got out when I did.
If you are reading this on my website, then you probably already know that I weave technology into my teaching whenever possible. The power of what could be done with those early Mac computers became obvious when I was coaching wrestling. My school was hosting the big regional tournament. The district had assigned an athletic director who knew nothing about wrestling to run the tournament. Disaster was only averted when our head coach stepped up and took over the scoring table. I realized that the scoring and organization part of the tournament could be handled by a computer program, one that I could write. The next year we hosted the regional tournament again, this time using Pin Point, my program for scoring and keeping track of the many bouts. Pin Point was a success, so much so that the folks that ran the next eight regional tournaments asked to use it.
This emboldened me to try teaching with programs that I had written. At first it was just programs to randomly call on students or assign them to groups for cooperative work. Then it progressed to simple whole-class games. Finally things came together when I took on the responsibilities of Academic Decathlon coach. Those aspects of my teaching career are detailed in other articles on this same page under the title The Games.
Looking back over the years, I have to say that I stumbled upon the career that suits me better than any other. The goal was not to make money, but instead to give kids an education, to enlighten them, to explore with them the wonders of the world. I could not imagine spending those twenty years in any other way.
For the sake of argument, allow me to redefine learning. We usually think of learning as an acquisition of a preexisting body of knowledge like Russian history, guitar techniques, or Latin grammar. In that sense, learning takes place mostly in school, books, tutoring, or technical training sessions.
To better understand what I’m about to explain, however, I’ll temporarily redefine learning as feeding the brain’s curiosity. The mind naturally hungers for coherent input. Feeding it is learning, or at least that’s what we’ll call it for the duration of this piece.
This definition sheds new light on people’s fascination with video games. A player learns on many levels. Most obviously, a player is learning the specifics of the game, how many jewels it takes to level up, what kind of metals will sell best in the galactic market, or what tactic is best for beating the giant mosquitos. A trivial waste of time, no? Actually, yes and no. If that is all the player learns, the ins and outs of an ficticious body of knowledge, then it would be no better than gaining a detailed knowledge of the adventures of Bilbo Baggins or the TV series Lost. This does feed the mind’s curiosity but would hardly rank above the category of entertainment.
As argued by such prominent authors as James Gee and Mark Prensky, players are learning much more valuable skills at the same time. Given a problem space, which is the logistics of the game, the player learns to solve the problem. The player experiments, fails, assesses the reason for failure, forms a new approach, and tries again. That skill is central to all we do as humans. A person who is not able to effectively find solutions to problems will struggle in life. A person earnestly playing well-designed games will build up that skill in a safe environment. The mind thirsts for this type of learning too. We derive a satisfaction from quickly solving the problems to us, in games or in real life.
Under that broad term problem-solving skills are a myriad of skills that we hold in high regards today. In massively multiplayer online games players communicate with each other in real time, forming alliances, making deals, and organizing strategies. Players are free to break alliances, but they suffer the consequences of having done so, just as in real life. In role-playing games, players often have to manage their resources. A typical feature is a backpack that can hold only a certain number of items (or a certain weight in more sophisticated games). Does one discard food in favor of a tool? A tool in favor of ammunition? In the real world we have to manage our resources too, and we suffer the consequences when we do so poorly.
But unlike the best-selling authors in the field of games for learning, I believe students need to learn more than life skills if they are to play games in school. Though problem-solving skills underlie the school’s curriculum, the standards require much more specific knowledge. Playing StarCraft or Rollercoaster Tycoon in school would teach the players many valuable lessons about life, but in the end the student has not mastered the skills required by the standards.
As long as that thirst for knowledge holds a player’s attention so tightly to a game, why not make games that do teach what the standards call for? That’s where I come in. I make games that feed the players’ hunger for particular knowledge and their drive to find a solution, but I make that knowledge and solution specific to the learning objectives. Rather than learning what happens when you attack elves with iron weapons, players learn what happens when you add two vectors. Rather than finding an efficient way to build a virtual theme park, players learn an efficient way to find an unknown angle given a diagram of geometric figures. The hunger for specific knowledge and the desire to find a solution drives the students to learn what they are supposed to learn.
There is another component that keeps a player glued to a game, competition. Learning the particulars of a game and figuring out how to succeed bring victory. Sometimes that is victory over the game. Sometimes it is a personal victory of beating a previous score (think of the wildly addictive old-school game Tetris). Sometimes it is victory over other players. That is also an important feature in my games and the way that I use them in the classroom.
I have found that students do latch onto my games as they would a commercial video game in spite of the fact that there are no fancy graphics or avatars. Why? Because, contrary to popular opinion, fancy graphics and avatars (and zombies, spaceships, jewels, ogres, railguns, levitation powers, mana, etc.) are not the glue that binds players to games. It is the thirst for specific knowledge, the desire to solve the game’s problem, and the drive to compete. All of these are compatible with learning objectives and standards of our modern school system.
I’m tempted to end here, but I’m afraid if I do you may get the impression that I only create games for math. Though math games have been part of my offerings from the very beginning, I have also made games for language arts, science, fine arts, history, foreign language, and music. Many have been general-purpose games useful in a variety of subjects, like those for acquisition of vocabulary terms. In fact, when I began designing games for learning, I was an English teacher only, not even certified in math. At least for now, though, the new games I’m developing are for math because they are quicker to make and in high demand. In time I will return to writing games for all disciplines. You can get a feel for the variety of my games by visiting the original Mr. Greenberg’s Games website.
A resumé is usually a tool to get a job, a summary of a prospective new-hire to make the task of choosing easier. I'm including my resumé here because nowhere else on this website do I lay out my specific qualifications with dates and details. If you are a home-school parent wondering whether to trust what you read on this site, this may answer some of your questions. If you are a school administrator weighing whether or not to pay for the games I'm selling, perhaps the information in this resumé will tip the scale.
On the off chance that you are an employer looking for someone just like me, I'm listening. I might be interested in an offer commensurate with my skills.
By the way, yes, I am deliberately spelling resumé with one accent mark. I am fully aware that the French spell it résumé and that many English authorities write it without accents at all. Since I'm writing in English and we do not normally pronounce a final e in a word ending in the pattern vowel-consonant-e, I choose to show that we should pronounce the final e by accenting it.
Disclaimer: I feel bound by federal law, or more accurately by the training I received about the federal law, to never reveal any information about students, past or present, including their names. I’ve read the law. It’s not as restrictive as that, but still the voice of the trainer whispers in my mind “You can’t publish the names of students… ever!” So I will refer to students by first name and last initial. That way they know they are being acknowledged, but I won’t feel I’m violating my teacher training.
At Camelback High I took over the responsibility of Academic Decathlon coach in the 1997-98 school year right before the regional competition. The previous coach had let the team dwindle down to a single student. That student wanted to compete at regionals, but his coach said no. When my school’s administration told me that I would be coaching the next year, I registered the student for regionals and took him as the only representative of Camelback High. His name was (presumably still is) Andrew K. I think of him as my first Academic Decathlon student.
The next year I did some recruiting and built up our numbers to twelve. I was lucky too, because we had the right mix. An Academic Decathlon team had to be composed of at least two students whose GPA was below 2.5, at least two students whose GPA was below 3.5, and at least two other students. My twelve students (Derek W., Owen D., Marie M., Diana B., Steven S., Jeremy B., Derek L., Katie M., Sarah K., Matt B., Alex A., and Keala S.) had just the right mix so we could field not only a team, but a respectably competitive team. That first full year that I coached we fielded a full team at regionals, took home a smattering of medals, and earned the award of the most improved team in Arizona. None of them had ever been to an Academic Decathlon competition before. They had no veterans to guide them. There is something to be said for those who are willing to bond and face the unknown together.
I coached the Camelback High Academic Decathlon team for six more years after that. I developed an unorthodox approach to our studies, opting to have the students feel the squids, climb the trees, and sing the songs rather than just reading about them. We build video games to help us learn. Once the word got out, I had no trouble attracting students, including the perfect ringers for Academic Decathlon… smart students with low GPAs. I felt much of the time that I was learning right alongside them, as no single coach could be an expert in math, music, literature, history, science, public speaking, interview, art, and writing. For that reason, some other schools had multiple coaches. The students trusted me enough to explore all the subjects with me.
We had as many as forty students some years studying for the competitions, several of them earning medals in the competitions. I can’t list all of these students, nor would it be appropriate to do so. Instead, I’ll tip my hat to a few that stood out in my mind.
Sarah K. — Took a gold medal and best in region for her speech about bagging groceries. She also set the example of scholarship for the other students.
Derek W. — Always an enthusiastic supporter of whatever we were doing. He distinguished himself as a capable programmer when we took to writing video games.
Will M. — A member of my team for all four of his high school years. He managed to put aside the difficulties of a hard life to study more than other students.
Shawn T. — The most academically adept of all my Decathlon students, he and a few of his friends helped us to our one and only appearance at the state finals.
Dulce J. — An exemplary student, she gave an air of serious fun to our studies. She also had a strong moral compass and spoke out when things weren’t right.
Julio R. — He is the only one of my students, that I know of, to go on to a teaching career of his own. That warms a teacher's heart!
Scott G. — He was all about cars and being a teenager, but turned out to be one of the highest scorers at regionals.
Heidi M. — She was so dedicated to the team that after her family moved out of state she still came back and won a silver medal at regionals.
Kristin L. — She was one of the few that could handle being a successful athlete and studying earnestly for the Academic Decathlon studies.
Adam K. — Only with us for a brief time, he proved to be the most naturally skilled computer programmer I ever taught.
Arleth T. — She kept things real when we started to drift from activities that would help us win the competitions.
Damon D. — Success in Academic Decathlon takes more than just a strong brain and good study habits. Some students have a willingness to explore things, to investigate, and Damon was chief among them.
Jessica C. — A lover of literature, she immersed herself into the curriculum to the point of obsession, leading to some hard choices. She also cooked goodies for our trip to Montana. Thanks!
Jimi S. — He knew when to lighten the atmosphere and when to settle down to the business of studying.
Josh S. — He took to heart the idea of learning by doing. He learned by experience, for instance, that it isn’t a great idea to eat the Cranium play-dough or roll on the dry sand after swimming in the ocean.
Daniela G. — What a brave and vivacious student! She was the life of the study sessions, always keeping us on task and smiling.
I'd like to mention also that in the 2001-02 school year I had six Muslim students on my team, in a school that had no more than a dozen Muslim students total. Two of the female students wore traditional Muslim outfits every day. Talk about courage! They even took time out to pray at the competitions. If you’re not sure why I mention this, note the year and think about what month the school year usually begins.
One of my favorite parts of coaching the Academic Decathlon team was taking the students on field trips. We made short trips here and there within Arizona to see a bronze foundry, a Native American pottery artist, or the Glen Canyon Dam. We traveled to California three or four times to visit museums, aquariums, missions, etc. In my last year as coach, I took 33 students on a charter bus up to Montana to experience first hand what we were learning about the Lewis and Clark expedition, and then down through New Mexico to get a feel for the setting of one of the novels we were reading. For me it was the trip of a lifetime, and I believe many of the students share that feeling.
We were not the most successful team at Academic Decathlon competitions, though we had our sparks here and there. I would argue though that we learned as much in our unconventional ways. And if I’m wrong on that, then at least we found great fun, great friends, and great adventure along the way.
When Phoenix Union Cyber High School opened in the winter of 2005, I won a $10,000 grant from AzTEA to start a class in video game design. I used the grant money to buy software and pay Marc Prensky to fly out and speak to the students. The software I bought consisted of Bryce, Carrara, and Poser for graphics, and Runtime Revolution (now LiveCode) for programming.
I divided video game design into three arenas: graphics, programming, and design. Different students excelled in each of these areas. In this article, I’d like to acknowledge a few of those students.
Marlena M. — For some reason it is surprising when a girl steps up and proves to be the best programmer in a class. Marlena did so.
Skylar K. — The class clown is often the smartest person in the class, and Skylar was certainly both. He was a good programmer, but his real talent lay in his ability to come up with unique designs for games, designs that worked and achieved the goals in interesting ways. For instance, he designed a circular chess game, which sucked the pieces into a black whole in the center of the table during play.
Desiree M. — Desiree was an excellent graphic artist, helping to design the set and characters for our most ambitious video game.
Sam W.— Sam designed the armor, characters, and weapons for the dragon battle game. He stood out for his insistence that the game include a warrior who was heavy rather than all of them looking like body-builders. This was an unpopular idea, but he persuaded the group into making it so.
Laura H. — Laura was another student who proved that girls can hold their own when it comes to computer programming. I think that some people are born with the talent of writing code, Laura included.
Andrew B. — Though Andrew did not stand out as a graphic artist, a game designer, or a programmer, he worked hard to make sensible, meaningful games. Sometimes hard work trumps talent, and I think that Andrew exemplified that idea.
I’m glad I had the opportunity to work with these students and the others who took the course. The course was replaced by a CTE course after just a year and a half, but it was fun while it lasted, and the students got to learn skills that are not normally taught in high school.
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