Imagine you are a fifth-grade student watching the same ho-hum classroom news report your class watches every morning when out of nowhere Nick Fury’s face appears—revealing that he has a top secret mission for you. The day’s lesson just became much more interesting!
Nothing is more inspiring than a fellow teacher who goes above and beyond in the name of creativity, and Thomas J. Bussey, a 5th grade teacher in Fulton County Schools near Atlanta, Georgia, is a prime example of this. After serving as an assistant principal at a K-8 school for two years, Thomas felt drawn to return to the classroom, where he has been for the past two years.
When I found Thomas’s Twitter feed a few months, I was blown away by the creative ways he approaches his classroom. In one of his school year introduction videos, he materializes out of midair, wand in hand, a la Harry Potter. Thomas also gamifies his classroom, and his first gamification theme was Avengers, but then later morphed into My Hero Academia, DC Comics, and Stranger Things based on his students’ interests. Dressing up as Nick Fury, the Joker, and a “Magic Mirror,” Thomas brings his classroom lessons to life through self-created videos and immersive experiences! It makes me want to go back and experience fifth grade all over again—only this time with Thomas as my teacher. To see Thomas's Nick Fury secret message, click here.
I was privileged to ask Thomas a few questions about his creativity in the classroom.
Zachary: You do some really amazing gamification in your classroom, which gives your students a totally immersive experience. What prompted you to take this approach to classroom learning?
Thomas: When the pandemic started and school closed last March, I knew that I had to figure out new ways to engage my students virtually. In the beginning, I asked the kids to share their favorite YouTubers and to suggest shows that I should stream on Netflix. I thought that since these YouTubers were already engaging my students virtually, they'd be great people to learn from. It was engaging, but I felt we still needed more engagement after switching to the Hybrid model in October. That's when I picked up Explore Like a Pirate and started following the XPLAP community on Twitter.
Zachary: What are some of your favorite outcomes from gamifying your classroom?
Thomas: Gamification definitely increased student engagement above all else. I started small, only gamifying my vocabulary lessons, homework, and quizzes. My students’ average scores went up about 20 points on our weekly quizzes after we started gamifying in January. The added narrative of battling the various bosses and their understanding that they each had a role to play in the overall class success definitely made a difference. I posted a "teaser" video for the kids to see on a Saturday. They spent the rest of the weekend in our class chat talking about how they couldn't wait until Friday to face the boss, which really means, they couldn't wait to take a quiz!
Zachary: You have created some really impressive videos to immerse your students in a gamified experience. What was your favorite moment where you really "wowed" your students?
Thomas: My favorite moment was the initial Nick Fury Launch Video. We watch CNN10 Student News every day, but this time, it was interrupted with a warning on the screen and a loud alarm. The students were all virtual at the time, and I asked them all to turn their cameras on. The shock on their faces when our regular program was disrupted was PRICELESS! They genuinely believed that their computers were hacked by S.H.I.E.L.D. until they saw my face on the screen.
Zachary: Are there any tech tools that you can recommend to teachers who would like to do something similar in their own classrooms?
Thomas: My best advice is to simply start with what you have and just press record. I started making videos by recording with my cell phone and editing with iMovie, which was free on my Macbook. Since then, I've started using Final Cut Pro X, because it has a lot more features than iMovie, and spent a lot of time last summer watching tutorial videos to learn new techniques. Another amazing computer-based application that I love is "Snap Camera." It's free and allows you to record videos using all of the filters from SnapChat, plus countless user created filters. I used a Joker filter on that app to create the Joker video that I made. I use it for all sorts of filters during virtual lessons and prerecorded videos.
Zachary: Why is creativity in the classroom important to you?
Thomas: Creativity is important in the classroom because I think that it's essential to model that extra effort for students. When they see the amount of time that is put into creative lessons, most students understand when you ask for extra effort from them. Additionally, as teachers, we're competing for the kids' attention all day, especially in a virtual environment where the next tab on their browser can be Fortnite, YouTube, or any other streaming service. My lesson about fractions or prepositions has to be just as engaging if I'm going to capture and maintain my students’ attention, let alone get them to complete the work or participate in class. Lastly, the creativity is what kept this challenging year interesting. It drummed up so much excitement in my classroom and served as a reminder of how good it feels as a teacher when kids are engaged and excited to learn.
I can’t thank Thomas enough for his willingness to answer these questions. Make sure to check out his Twitter @thebesteducator and Instagram @thebesteducator feeds. Also consider supporting Thomas’s classroom through Donors Choose. Thomas also highly recommends the book Explore Like a Pirate by Michael Matera for any teachers interested in gamifying their classrooms.
For anyone interested in implementing ready-made classroom games and activies, there are also a variety available on our website. Click here for more information.
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