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The Mac Lab Way

A Break in the Tedium

The kids were milling around while three of us—currently acting as proctors for yet another pointless round of standardized testing (well, pointless from my point of view)—were discussing how to make our students’ experience at school more fun and engaging.

We reached no consensus, of course, because there is no single solution for every classroom.

Action is required. Agreement is not. The status quo is intolerable and unconscionable.

— Skocko / Note to Self
Student Graffiti (Anonymous)

The Case of the Curious Graffiti

Just before the break ended I happened to look down and noticed the compact, neatly-depicted graffiti on the concrete at my feet. I laughed aloud but the humor was lost on my peers.

A student had voiced my oft-heard battle cry.

Tweet during the panel discussion at Adobe’s HQ in San Jose

Yes, School Sucks

The prior summer I’d voiced those same words at Adobe’s headquarters while sitting on a panel discussing risk and the positive power of failure.

Heck, that was nothing new. I’d been saying the same thing to my students since shortly after I began teaching in January of 2002. I didn’t like school when I was a kid and it didn’t appear that the experience had improved much in the intervening years.

Many students still feel the same way. School sucks.

What’s a teacher to do?

Accept the premise and declare your willingness to act.

Note to Self
Repurposed Student Graffiti (Skocko)

Anyone Can Complain

While the students finished the second half of the day’s standardized testing, I opened my laptop and added my own voice to the photo of my kindred spirit’s graffiti.

After all, she did add the smiley face to her commentary. The least I could do was to acknowledge her minor civil disobedience and reaffirm my intent via a little Photoshop magic.

We quixotic souls cannot simply accept and perpetuate the status quo.

You don’t have to know anything to be brilliantly negative. Do you understand that, sir? Anybody who can speak can be brilliantly negative. The only sign of intelligence is to be brilliantly positive.

— R. Buckminster Fuller / High Times Magazine Interview

But How?

The question begs answering.


How do we fix it?

Take calculated risks.

Note to Self

Kids respect risk. Especially when they’re directly involved in the gamut.

Note to Self

The Backstory

Two weeks into my first teaching gig—remember, I took over mid-year—and the kids were not the slightest bit interested in listening to their new teacher, much less following his instructions. So on a Friday morning I flipped on the projector, hooked up my laptop, and said, “Look what I just taught myself to do with Flash.”

A red circle moved from the top of the screen to the bottom and back up again.

As you might have already guessed, the animation did nothing to enhance my credibility.

Then I went out on the limb:

I’m going to teach myself Flash over the weekend and show you what I learned on Monday. If you still think I suck at Flash after watching my animation, you don’t have to listen to me for the rest of the year. But… If I don’t suck—if my animation is actually kind of cool—we’ll all learn Flash together. Deal?

— Skocko / Spontaneous Compulsion

I pitched all five classes that day.

Needless to say, after quizzing me and making sure I was serious and the deal was legit, the kids accepted the offer. I admitted—truthfully—that I knew next to nothing about Flash but I didn’t tell them I was damn good at typography. I played to my strengths, worked all weekend, and mastered a very small, very specific portion of Flash.

When you think about it, it really wasn’t much of a risk. They weren’t listening to me anyway. I had nowhere to go but up.

And up we went.

Capitalize on your victories.

— Note to Self
Google Search Result

We’re Number 1!

On the day I took over the Mac Lab, I also inherited Valhalla High School’s website. I created a /maclab directory and uploaded a simple collection of pages to serve each of my classes.

I should mention that I suffer from a typically fatal condition (for educators): I seem to have been born without the direct instruction gene. I’ve managed to survive by recording and uploading instructional videos to guide my students.

Lot’s of instructional videos.

A couple of years and hundreds of videos later, a student discovered we were the number one “mac lab” result on Google.

Wow! Pretty cool.

And then the men in suits showed up.

First Impressions

Men in Suits

Okay, so maybe they weren’t carrying big guns. And they weren’t dressed in black. Or wearing sunglasses. But they were wearing suits, loitering by the door, and looking around our classroom.

I approached. “May I help you?”

“Is this the Mac Lab?” one suit asked.

“Yes it is.”

“Do you know that you get more web traffic than the rest of the district combined?”

“Is that bad?”

Share everything. Put all of your curriculum online.

— Note to Self

The Outcome

Our /maclab directory on Valhalla’s website was to be no more.

But these were benevolent suits. They moved our files to a new server and a new address.

And that’s how maclab.guhsd.net was born.

Build it. Someone will come. And they’ll be grateful.

— Note to Self

Small Sample

I’m a student from DMU university in England and am currently doing a degree in Interactive Design. I think your tutorials are great. I’ve learnt more using them then I have in a year of my degree.

— College Kid

I’m a lecturer in the Design department at Griffith University (State of Queensland in Australia). I recently stumbled across your MacLab site and was really impressed. Whilst our own websites will of course continue, I was wondering if I could refer some of next years new students, if they are having difficulty, to your Flash 8 tutorials? The tutes are so well written and whilst covering all the basics, they also incorporate new and additional features.

— Prof 1

I’m a college instructor at Boston College. I first saw your tutorials a few years ago and showed them to a few students looking for additional help. At one point, I believe I wrote asking for permission to direct students to a few tutorials. It’s been awhile, so I just wanted to be sure you knew you’d have some visitors from Boston College to your site. You do an amazing job and I can only imagine the time you’ve put into developing this online resource.

— Prof 2

Look this site is absolutely amazing. I’m still not sure who runs it or why but I have been on it all day. The resource here is sweet. Never thought I would get the hang of flash in one hour. After that hour I just clicked around to see what else was there. So why are you doing this or is this for real students? I like the photos. Where are all these people and who are they? Makes me feel like there is something big I’m missing out on. Looks like a big creative party.

— Lifelong Learner

Unintended Consequences

Think about it…

  • I failed to connect with my students so I embraced Flash.
  • I am absolutely terrible at direct instruction so I embraced videos.
  • My position gave me access to the school’s website so I embraced the internet.
  • And most importantly, our district embraced and supported my crazy ways.

None of this was part of a master plan. I made it up as I went, trying to survive the rapids while simultaneously trying to learn to swim.

At no time did I imagine these efforts would connect with anyone but (hopefully) my students.

Wrong again.

Story of my life.

Mistakes are a map. Failure is a flashlight. Use both to find and forge your own path.

— Skocko and Swartz / Note to Selves
Flash Video Tutorials c.2008
Photoshop Video Tutorials c.2008

Raise the bar. Lead by example.

— Note to Self

Your Site Sucks!

Ah, Balend. What a debt of gratitude I owe you.

It was the fall of 2008 and I was flying high. ROP Outstanding Teacher. District Innovation Award. Valhalla Teacher of the Year. A steady flow of appreciative emails.

Awards and accolades from grown-ups are nice. But they don’t necessarily impress the kids.

— Note to Self

Big Deal

Balend was certainly not impressed.

Your site sucks. It’s so old school. It’s the 21st century, Skocko, get with the program!

The kid was relentless.

It was he, not I, that led the way to the Web 2.0 world.

Swallow your pride. Accept that you don’t always know what’s best.

— Note to Self
Archived copy of my first Mac Lab blog post. Image by Bassam S. (My Mac Lab avatar since that day.)

Evolution Indeed

Virtually everything in that screenshot was yet to be when that first post went live.

The blog forced me to put my hopes and dreams into words—and actions.

For anyone to see.

Bare your soul. If you can’t dare to dream aloud, how can you expect your students to?

— Note to Self

Feature the Kids

It also allowed me to showcase student work as never before.

For everyone to see.

What an unexpected world of difference that made.

Post the best student work online. It changes everything… in more ways than you’d ever imagine.

— Note to Self
Mac Lab traffic from the top 100 cities. (Simulated word cloud.)

The Global Classroom

With Google Analytics feeding us data, we finally got a real feel for the Mac Lab’s reach.

  • Visitors spent an average of almost 10 minutes per visit
  • They came from over 9,000 cities in 188 countries (and all 50 states)

It was difficult to wrap my head around how we’d grown.

  • 325 posts
  • 1,600 pages
  • 8,200 media files

And even more difficult to abandon. But our evolution was taking us in a new direction.

Just because something is working doesn’t mean it’ll always work. Or that it can’t be improved upon. Adapt and evolve or you’ll become irrelevant. Or extinct.

— Note to Self
Adobe Systems, Inc. presented me with a Global Impact Award in 2011 for the blog’s contributions to education.

All Good Things…

Just as the caterpillar’s death heralds the butterfly’s arrival, the blog’s demise allowed our newfound experiment in gameful learning to take wing.

But before we follow that thread, we need to take a look back to a most eventful year. One that continues to shake and shape our learning environment.

September 2010 through August 2011

When something “feels” right, sometimes it is. But you’ll never know unless you learn to trust your intuition.

— Note to Self

A Moment of Clarity

After a month of exploring research, it had become apparent that I’d chosen the wrong focus for my master’s degree.

Motivation and Engagement sounded good at the beginning, but it was far too broad and nebulous a topic.

Intrinsic Motivation. Now that was a concept I could wrap my heart around!

Choice > Compliance.

— Note to Self
How to be Happy in Business by Bud Caddell.


I have no idea of the circumstances that led me to Bud Caddell’s blog—though it was probably mindless surfing to escape the dry, arcane, seemingly endless research papers I was tasked to read—but I do recall vividly the crystalline moment when his Venn diagram lit up my mind.

The next day he answered my email and granted me permission to use a modified version of his How to Be Happy in Business graphic for educational purposes. With attribution, of course.

Thanks, Bud!

Bud Caddell’s Venn Diagram Modified with Permission

ZIM! The Zone of Intrinsic Motivation

We teachers are really good at what I want you to do.

But seriously, how many of us consider what the kids want to do? Or what they’re good at?

All within the context of the learning environment, of course.

ZIM! is a conversation, a negotiation, and for those who find it, a celebration.

Cultivate the conversation. Encourage and engage in negotiation. Synthesize the celebration.

— Note to Self

Pavlov’s Classroom

We’ve all—students and teachers—been thoroughly conditioned to expect certain things in the classroom.

ZIM! runs contrary to our respective conditioning. It fails to conform to the norm—to our expectations.

Therefore, ZIM! is easy to reject out of hand.

ZIM! is a key to this perceptual prison. But you can’t turn the key by yourself. You must act in concert with your students.

— Note to Self

The Omega’s Alpha

For all its simplicity, ZIM! is a difficult concept to convey.

Luckily, Dan Pink provided ZIM!’s complimentary component in his book, Drive (which I read over winter break).

Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose.

AMP—an acronym Pink inexplicably failed to coin in Drive—connects directly to ZIM!

AUTONOMY: The desire to direct our own lives.

MASTERY: The urge to make progress and get better at something that matters.

PURPOSE: The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

— Dan Pink / Drive

With shared Purpose, Autonomy leads to Mastery. Without Purpose, Autonomy leads to Chaos.

— Note to Self

The Purpose-Driven Classroom

It wasn’t hard to arrive at a consensus. For educator or student, some aspect of school sucks in one way or another.

Our overarching Purpose was (and is) to actively seek out and implement change to improve the learning environment in the Mac Lab. We do not wait for the “right time.” We start right here. Right now.

And we document our journey. All students maintain their own blogs and I post my lectures and tutorials online each and every day.

We make our experimental crusade public and transparent so others can more easily start their own movement.

Broadcast your intent. Invite scrutiny. Embrace accountability.

— Note to Self
I wish I knew the artist’s name because his point is spot on.

What About Grades?

Yeah, grades.

What are we going to do about that?

The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table.

— Dan Pink / Drive

Take the issue of grades off the table.

— Note to Self
I catch a lot of sh*t for this rubric.

Changing the Game

Tie that rubric to policies and expectations. Tie it to everything from AMP to ZIM!

When grades are tied to sustained effort in a Purpose-driven classroom, anxiety fades as engagement grows.

Dispense with homework and the World’s Simplest Rubric leaves no doubt as to the student’s standing.

They know. You know. Everyone knows. You’re all part of a team working toward the same goal.

Foster resilience and perseverance. Insist on iteration.

Daily observations > Weekly quizzes

— Note to Self

Trading Places

What about the kid who gave it her all, day after day, but never truly grasped some of the material?

What about her? Admit it. She held up her end of the deal.

She didn’t fail. The teacher did.

Embrace the responsibility and grow stronger, wiser, and become a better teacher as a result.

Subject yourself to formative and summative assessment.

— Note to Self
The website that opened my mind to new possibilities.

The Game is Afoot

Did you know that a well-designed game leverages Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, Duckworth’s Grit, Dweck’s Growth Mindset, and Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow?

I sure didn’t until encountering those surprising connections in month nine of my master’s program while working through the introductory quest line at Gamestar Mechanic.

Okay, so maybe my digital mentor didn’t reference those researchers directly, but the concepts were certainly front and center.

Could game mechanics enhance motivation and engagement in the classroom?

Always dare to wonder: What if…?

— Note to Self
The game that forever changed the Mac Lab.


I must admit that I wasn’t looking forward to playing World of Warcraft (WoW) over the next 10 days. I wasn’t, that is, until Gamestar Mechanic opened my mind.

What if WoW isn’t just a form of gamer crack? What is it that makes it so engaging (and addicting)?

I played all weekend.

On Monday, I told the kids we were going to find a way to gamify the Mac Lab and asked for volunteers to help design a system. Of the 20 who volunteered, a solid dozen worked through the summer testing ideas for our fall implementation.

No wonder Nick Yee, a leading researcher of MMOs and the first person to receive a PhD for studying WoW, has argued that MMOs are really massively multiplayer work environments disguised as games.

— Jane McGonigal / Reality is Broken
Computer Science in the Mac Lab?

The Reluctant Participant

Late in the summer of 2011 a district administrator invited me to participate in a week-long pilot program at UCSD.

I politely declined.

The administrator reissued the invitation.

With papers to write for the completion of my master’s and a new school year to prepare for I didn’t have a week to spare. In addition, I’m a new media arts teacher. What’s computer science got to do with the Mac Lab?

Stop living (and teaching) in a silo. All subjects are interconnected.

— Note to Self

The Power of Code

Just as I feared, code’s allure seduced some of my best digital artists that fall.

And every year thereafter.

The Mac Lab is dead. Long live the Mac Lab.

It’s not about you. It’s about the kids. It’s about offering them new opportunities.

— Note to Self
Innovate or Die

Incremental innovation in times of accelerating change leads to unplanned obsolescence.

— Note to Self

The Power of Purposeful Action

Walk the walk every day and invite your students to join you.

Couple your message with doggedly-determined action.

Embrace and embody your purpose.

Persistent, consistent words and deeds build bridges.

Bridges you and your students will use to turn what if into what is.

The cart sometimes comes before the horse. Conspire with your students and take bold steps. Publish your victories then share the stories with administrators.

— Note to Self
Shared Vision = Purpose

Innovation is a team sport. You need students and administrators on your side. Cultivate relationships with both camps.

— Note to Self

Progress Report

The Mac Lab is, and will always be, a work in progress.

There is no such thing as a perfect learning environment.

All we can do is strive to offer more flexible and more varied opportunities for our students to learn and grow and dream.

And to always, always wonder: what if…?

Remember: Action is required. Agreement is not. The status quo is intolerable and unconscionable.

— Note to Self

Final Words

This post is a work in progress.

It, like the Mac Lab, is subject to change as the need or inspiration arises.

Much is left to be said, but for now, I’ll close as I began, with a quote from Illusions.

Everything in this post may be wrong.

— Richard Bach / Illusions (paraphrased)

Links, Credits, and Clarifications

First and foremost, #respect to all of you who are proactively modifying your respective learning environments in these frenetic times. You’ll probably comprise the majority of those who’ll take the time to read this inarticulate call to action. No criticism of your practice is intended or implied. As always, my primary audience is the guy fumbling at this keyboard, trying to learn what he most needs to learn. (What a self-absorbed sod I am!)

Additional #respect to anyone who read every word even though you may disagree with virtually everything I’ve written. We don’t have to agree; we just need to act. I’m interested to hear how you handle some of the challenges the students and I are trying to address.

Now, to the particulars.

Oh how I wish I knew who tagged the concrete with school sucks so I could give her credit (it looks like a girl’s hand to me).

About those first two weeks as a beginning teacher…

The prior teacher took a sabbatical to join his wife teaching at an American school overseas. (She’d already begun that fall.) He told me they’d probably not be returning and the job was mine to win or lose. Most of the kids already knew me as the unofficial site sub (I live a mile away and was the go-to guy in emergencies) and a student teacher (in another classroom the prior spring).

Both positions, by the way, rank near the bottom of the kid cred scale. Most students resented any attempt to divert them from Yahoo Games (the favored pastime during class). When I say I had no where to go but up, I wasn’t exaggerating.

A bakery in Georgia recently displaced us at the top of Google’s results for mac lab.

Wait… A bakery?!

Dec 2015 update: We seem to have reclaimed our position at the top of the rankings.

Algorithmic karma?

Men in Black was created by Lowell Cunningham and brought to the big screen by Sony Pictures. I found the image on this very unusual page.

A small sampling of email I’ve received may be found on this page. I corrected grammar in a couple of the quotes (above) but the originals were simply copied and pasted.

I shamelessly stole “failure is a flashlight” from my good buddy, Rob Schwartz.

The old school Flash and Photoshop links are from this page which ceased to be relevant before it was fully developed as we moved on to the blog shortly thereafter.

The Wordle contains the top 100 cities to visit our blog as reported by Google Analytics. I tried to capture the essence of the data but it’s not exact. Valhalla High School students (El Cajon) accounted for 45% of our traffic so the city’s name should have been larger. The addition of hyphens was necessary to preserve multi-word names.

Bud Caddell’s Venn was originally posted on this blog (he maintains multiple sites) but he seems to have deleted the post I encountered that day. His poster may be purchased here.

ZIM! also owes a nod to Lev Vygotsky.

AMP, as noted, comes straight from Dan Pink’s, Drive. AMP seems to owe (most of) its existence to Deci and Ryan’s Self Determination Theory. After reading Drive and That Used to Be Us over winter break, I implemented AMP and the World’s Simplest Rubric on the day we resumed school in January 2011 and we’ve never looked back. Here’s a little more food for thought if you’re interested. (Yes, I’ve read them all. Some more than once.)

I would love to give the artist credit for the “Please climb that tree” drawing but I have no idea who he/she is. Anyone out there have the answer?

NOTE: The effort-based rubric only works if the vast majority of your curriculum is online (or otherwise at the kids’ fingertips) and the students are engaged in self-paced learning from the moment they enter the room. They start the class, not the teacher. And no one is ever, ever finished—what a deadly concept in a self-paced classroom—there’s always something more to do. Only then is the level of engagement as obvious as day from night.

As much as I wish all students would choose to earn an A, it’s never happened. I still consider that my fault.

Putting the onus on the teacher comes directly from this scene in Mr Holland’s Opus. The stark truth in Well then you’re a lousy teacher cuts too deep to pretend it wasn’t true in that context. We need to rise to the challenge as Holland did in the following scenes. Failure makes you better… but only if you persist until finally meeting the challenge.

Our WordPress Plugin, Game On, is powering a growing number of classrooms around the world. You can learn more about it here. Thanks to Gamestar Mechanic and World of Warcraft for the inspiration.

I love this line from Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken:

The first time I sat down to play the game, my friend Brian cheerfully warned me that “World of Warcraft is the single most powerful IV drip of productivity ever created.”

— Skocko: After playing for over a decade, I’d have to agree.

That’s what I want to create for my students. More on her book here (scroll down to find it).

The UCSD Pilot Program was driven by a National Science Foundation grant aimed at rekindling computer science programs in high school. I only agreed to participate after learning of how important the issue was. I do not teach a stand-alone CS class but rather fold it in to our Digital Arts program. (Long story.) The architect’s rendering of UCSD’s Supercomputer Center comes from this page.

Finally, none of this would be possible without the supportive administration team at Valhalla (I’m no longer the webmaster), the support of our district, and the wonderfully diverse collection of students who actually buy into my crazy ideas, or, like Balend, drive change themselves. And those kids produce some stellar artwork, too. Check it out!

Desks fit nicely into rows and columns. Students do not. Find a way to differentiate and personalize knowledge acquisition and assessment.

— Note to Self
For context, see (re)Imagine.