Using Symbolism to Make Sense of the NFL Anthem Protest & Confederate Monument Debate


Using Symbolism to Make Sense of the NFL Anthem Protest & Confederate Monument Debate

The recent controversy in the NFL over players protesting the national anthem surged back into the news this week when NFL owners voted to penalize teams whose players do not “stand and show respect” to the flag during the national anthem.


On a serious note, I know this topic touches upon deep, significant cultural issues involving equality, national pride, and so much more. That’s why I believe it is an incredible opportunity for educators to discuss symbolism and WHY symbols and their debated meaning matter. Without further ado, let’s talk about the two most significant symbols right now: the flag and Confederate monuments. To do so, I’ll break down HOW symbols are formed and why the context and interpretation of these symbols influence their effect.

Symbols are defined by their context

In literature, we begin to notice symbols as they appear in our text. Many high schoolers have been asked to consider how a mockingbird symbolizes multiple characters in Harper Lee’s seminal novel To Kill a Mockingbird, or why F. Scott Fitzgerald chose to have Jay Gatsby reach toward the green light across the bay. We, as readers, take what we know about the narrative surrounding the symbol and do our best to assign meaning.

If context is crucial to understand symbols, I’ll ask you to do a quick exercise: what is the first “text” you think of when I mention the U.S. Flag? Keep in mind that a “text” can be anything - book, poem, song, movie, etc. Don’t limit yourself to a novel or nonfiction book.

I’m guessing the majority of participants in this exercise would land at one spot first and foremost: The Star-Spangled Banner. Great! This is a poem/song we can easily deconstruct to develop a context. The kicker? Nearly everyone in the United States is familiar with this text!

With any text, it helps to know the historical and authorial context first. Francis Scott Key wrote “Defence of Fort M’Henry”, a poem about the British bombing a US fort during the War of 1812. Scott drew inspiration from seeing a US flag flying triumphantly over the fort in victory, somehow surviving the canon blasts from the British fleet.

But what about the lyrics? I’m going to post the “meat” of the song - the middle eight of the 14 total lines that give us the setting of the scene:

Whose broad stripes and bright stars
Through the perilous fight
O'er the ramparts we watched,
Were so gallantly, yeah, streaming?

And the rockets' red glare
The bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there

For nearly every major sporting event, Americans hear these lines and certain images come to mind. They hear words like fight, ramparts, rockets, bombs, and the visual of the flag surviving it all, and the symbolism of the flag begins to take shape. I recall in elementary school being told about Francis Scott Key writing the poem in the midst of a battle. I recall trying to recite “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a child, only having confidence in the line about the bomb because, well, I was nine and I could associate it with plenty of pop culture exposure. All of these recollections shape my interpretation of what the flag means.

Okay, second exercise. What is the first mental image that comes to mind when you think of the US flag? I’m betting that another nine out of ten participants would picture this guy right here:

Raising the flag at Iwo Jima

Raising the flag at Iwo Jima

And why not? This photo, captured during the Battle of Iwo Jima, won photographer Joe Rosenthal the Pulitzer Prize and turned the flag-bearers into modern-day celebrities. If we take this image, coupled with the context of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, a common theme begins to emerge.

When I first heard about the NFL national anthem controversy, I could not, for the life of me, understand why a contingent of Americans assumed the flag symbolized the troops. However, when I started considering the main context through which people experience the flag, I was able to understand the perspective of others who I had previously not appreciated. When the seminal text and image associated with a symbol such as the flag is littered with military language and visuals, it is a bit easier to understand why Americans equate the flag to military service. As mentioned in the disclaimer, I am not saying this interpretation is necessarily the correct one, but it is easy to make the case that the US flag symbolizes military victory based on context.

Symbols are defined by a reader’s argumentation and how compelling it is to others - not necessarily the author

One of the most fascinating aspects of symbols are that often times the author had NO intention of creating the symbol when creating their piece - instead, a convincing reader or group of readers birthed the symbol out of their own interpretation. When I taught symbols in a high school English classroom, I always emphasized that symbols are nothing more than persuasive arguments made by the reader based on their interpretation of the text. A symbol cannot be absolute - it is a hypothesis backed by evidence from the medium in which it is found.

I could think of no better example of symbolism as a persuasive argument in contemporary America than Civil War monuments featuring Confederate leaders. Although the controversy stems on whether a person’s biggest travesties outweigh their accomplishments, the true issue lies in how many people believe in a symbol’s representation and how that representation changes over time.

Take, for instance, the debate over removing statues of General Robert E. Lee from places like New Orleans or other major cities. On one side, Lee’s statue serves as a grim celebration of a Confederacy that fought in favor of the tenets of slavery (among other reasons). On the other side, Lee represents the lost lives of southerners and those who felt like the Union stood for government overreach.

Again, the argument circles back to symbolism. What has changed in recent years where suddenly people have decided to remove these monuments? The answer is simple: viewers of these symbols have made persuasive arguments that swayed enough of a majority to change their represented meaning. Instead of a majority opinion seeing Lee as a martyr, they see him as a symbol of slavery. Between the Civil War and until recently, the majority viewpoint saw Lee as the embodiment of those who gave their lives, regardless of the cause they fought and died for. Does this make either side right? Not necessarily. Instead, it simply means persuasion moved the needle enough.

But what about monuments for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, two founding fathers who both owned slaves? The majority interpretation of the symbol of these two men has not shifted away from heroes of the revolution and formation of the United States to their ties with slavery. Could this change with time? Absolutely. Has the opinion of their symbolism shifted enough? Not at this moment.

Symbols are everywhere - and they matter

Hopefully, this is your big takeaway from this blog post - symbols are NOT just for discussing in an English classroom. Symbols are all around us - in pop culture, our society, our music, our movies, and much more. How we interpret these symbols and, more importantly, how we appreciate others’ interpretation of symbols is crucial to healthy discourse. Right now, people are struggling to appreciate each others’ interpretation of symbols such as the flag and Confederate monuments. It’s up to us to instill this value in our community, our students, and ourselves.


First Look at Oculus Go - 3 Ways to Leverage Standalone VR in the Classroom


First Look at Oculus Go - 3 Ways to Leverage Standalone VR in the Classroom

As soon as Oculus Go came out, I quickly ordered one for our College of Education. After a week with Oculus Go, I thought I might share a few quick ideas for using it in the classroom.

3D Modeling with SculptrVR ($4.99)

My first question with VR is always the same: how can we move from passive viewing to active creation? With our HTC Vive, we love to use Blocks to create 3D designs and models. In Oculus Go, I like to use SculptrVR, which is quite similar to Google's Blocks app.

One big advantage of SculptrVR is the ability to export creations as .obj files. These files can then be 3D printed or exported into another program like TinkerCAD

Collaboration with Keep Talking & Nobody Explodes ($9.99)

I wrote about Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes in a previous post, but it bears repeating here because it works perfectly with the Oculus Go. The premise of the game is simple: one person wearing the Oculus Go sees a room with a bomb in it... a bomb with a variety of modules that need to be disabled. The other team members have a large and convoluted manual that explains how to disarm the bomb, and they must communicate with the person in the VR world to determine how to do so. 

Since the game only requires the person in VR to be seated and manipulate the modules on the bomb, the Oculus Go actually works as well, if not better, than having the full room scale HTC Vive setup we've used in the past. Just Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes alone makes the Oculus Go a great buy for our students to use to practice communication and collaboration.

Students playing Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes at a station.

Students playing Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes at a station.

Problem Solving with Land's End ($4.99)

One of the more transformative puzzle games of the past few years is Monument Valley, a mobile app that used perspective and a unique art style to stretch players' minds. The creators of Monument Valley also created Land's End, another beautiful puzzler that uses a player's gaze in VR to solve a variety of unique puzzles. 

In the game, players traverse a picturesque island, navigating by looking at dots that light up when a player fixes their gaze on them. Once the game confirms the player can move in this manner, puzzles emerge that rely on a player's problem-solving to manipulate rocks, water, and much more to discover a solution.  I could easily envision players handing off the headset when they get stuck to have a friend consult with them regarding a solution. 

Some students showing each other how to use the Oculus Go

Some students showing each other how to use the Oculus Go

Do you have any ideas for ways you plan to use VR in education? Any other Oculus Go users out there? Share in the comments!



Collaborative Play: 3 Games that Help Build Social Fabric in the Classroom

In her “Games Can Make a Better World” TED Talk, Jane McGonigal discusses four gamer qualities that will contribute to improving humanity: Blissful Productivity, Social Fabric, Urgent Optimism, and Epic Meaning.

According to McGonigal, games promote Social Fabric because playing games with others involves an incredible amount of trust, whether it is playing by the same shared rules, agreeing to chase the same goals, or stick with a challenge or mission together the entire time.

During our course on Video Games & Learning, we wanted to explore games that help explore and cultivate Social Fabric. Below are three video games that approach Social Fabric in unique ways.

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes

The premise of Keep Talking is clear - one person in the game enters a room with a ticking briefcase and some complex modules on said briefcase, along with a countdown timer. In the limited time allotted, the player in the game must describe the ticking bomb’s modules to his or her fellow players, who each have access to a long-winded instruction manual. Those teammates need to find a way to explain the methods to disarm the bomb to the player in the game without making any mistakes.

Keep Talking GIF.gif

Social Fabric is all about trusting your fellow teammate not to lead you astray and put you in danger - Keep Talking is a perfect example of this concept. Players realize that they must ask meaningful questions, convey information in new ways, and respect fellow players’ frustrations with the limited information each person has.


In a departure from Keep Talking, what if you needed to work together to solve puzzles with another player, but you had no form of verbal communication? In Way, you can see your partner and see your world, but you cannot see all of the obstacles in your world. Your partner, however, can see the obstacles, and they must communicate these obstacles to you using nonverbal communication.


Way explores social fabric through the creation of a new, nonverbal language you create with your partner. Teams of two developed hand gestures, signs, and representations of the physical space that became agreed-upon norms in the game, then used these communications to complete the challenges. Way places a lot of trust on two strangers committing to the norms they have established and sticking with your partner through many failures and iterations.

Minecraft: Education Edition

A game that needs no explanation, Minecraft: Education Edition might rival The Oregon Trail for the most ubiquitous edugame in existence. Our twist to develop Social Fabric was quite simple: unite teams of three in the class to work together to survive and develop a societal “totem” that best represented their group. In the challenge, groups lost points for every member of their team who died and gained points for impressing the judges with their creations. With a common goal to unite them, the teams made sure everyone in their team had enough food, shelter from mobs (re: bad guys) in the game, and supplies handy to design their totem.

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It was fascinating to see how many of our students were already so well-versed in Minecraft without us even mentioning a tutorial or to be prepared to play before class. Even those who had never played seemed to thrive because others felt invested in their success and well-being, a definite component of Social Fabric.


Although you might not have access to Keep Talking, Way, and Minecraft, how can you develop activities or exercises that help students develop a sense of Social Fabric? How can you design mechanics of your course to include mutual interest in success?

A colleague of mine mentioned that some fields and courses experimented in team testing - the idea of grouping students together during the course, then pulling one of their tests as the score for the entire group at major assessment intervals. Imagine how motivated you would be to ensure that every member of your group knew the content and felt confident in their abilities! Although it may be nigh impossible to implement such a strategy in your role, how can you inspire that same sense of mutual benefit to collaborative learning?

If you are interested in having students analyze the McGonigal Gamer Skills she identifies in the aforementioned TED Talk and the 21st Century Learner Traits in these games, this handy Google Doc should do the trick.

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5 Innovative Ways to Use Pokemon Go & Google Tools in the Classroom

5 Innovative Ways to Use Pokemon Go & Google Tools in the Classroom

1. Use Google Draw to Create Pokemon Go Parodies, Memes, etc

Let’s be honest - one of the best parts of a phenomenon are the memes, spin-offs, parodies, and pop culture created from the topic, and Pokemon Go is no different. Just ask Pokemon Gogh, various Pokemon memes, or even Walter White if you have any doubts.

So how do we help students create Pokemon Go-inspired creative projects? I mocked up a quick Google Draw Pokemon Go Template to help students create faux sequences, but the sky is the limit for designing similar situations. This Google Draw Template allows for more customization, including the creation of a pokemon, filling out their stats sheet, and choosing their type. Students could add characters from a novel, history, or animals/plants from real life into the game and how their story fits into the gameplay. What if there was a rift in history, and players had to capture wild presidents scattered all over the globe? Honest Abe would definitely need a Razz berry and Master Ball to be caught, right?

2. Use ARIS or Aurasma to Design Small Scale Pokemon Go-like Games or Scavenger Hunts

What if you could create an educational version of Pokemon Go for your students? Too good to be true, right? With a bit of elbow grease and the right app, the concept is far from fiction. ARIS, a platform that allows you to create choice-based adventures tied to geographic locations, could help you turn a school building into a living, breathing Pokemon Go simulator around the subject of your choice.

If you wanted creatures to pop up out of everyday objects, take my colleague Ben Brazeau’s advice (@braz74 if you want to follow him) and use Aurasma to create augmented reality creatures popping up around your room, school, or neighborhood to teach concepts.

Other apps create the concept of a geocached “scavenger hunt,” such as Goose Chase. Teams can compete to find various locations, complete certain tasks, or accept various challenges that simulate the gameplay designs of Pokemon Go.

3. Create Your Own Pokemon Using Knowledge of Science, LA Writing, etc in Google Slides

Want to go beyond simple images and memes regarding Pokemon Go? Have your students create their own Pokemon, utilizing the understanding of families, phylums, and much more in Science class. Ask them to brush up on their writing with a description of the pokemon to go into their pokedex, and use their understanding of history to explain the best landmarks to find this creature in town. The Google Slides template I made helps students easily add their pokemon, write about its attributes, and give a summary about its backstory and features. What kind of attacks would Jane Eyre have? Would your jackalope pokemon be grass type? Normal? All considerations to make when creating your unique pokemon or basing it off a character.

4. Use Google Maps to Track Species & “Characters” (a la Pokemon Go)

Google My Maps allows users to overlay writing, images, and video on top of existing Google Maps, which connects perfectly with the concept of Pokemon Go. Users in various cities have already capitalized on Google My Maps as a way to document where various pokemon can be found - check out this crowdsourced example from Madison, WI. This method could also be used in the classroom - have students take their newly-created pokemon from the Google Slides activity above and put an icon on the world map of where it might live. Students could hypothesize where their pokemon may migrate and use the distance tool to calculate how far they would have to travel. Students could create a pokemon ecosystem and lay it out on a Google My Map, complete with write-ups about each character or animal and a cutout image to go with it.

5. Play EduGames Similar to Pokemon Go in the Classroom

Pokemon Go is not the only game with educational potential. Having students jump into the Radix Endeavor allows students to categorize animals and their eating habits based on - no kidding - scooping poop. Similar to Pokemon Go, it involves collecting animals and using the data to make crucial decisions.

As noted by edugame expert Matt Farber, Argubots Academy shares similarities with Pokemon Go. Just like pokemon squaring off with hit points and attacks, players can arm their argubots with different attack claims and evidence to defeat the rival bot over a contentious topic.

If those games do not fit your curriculum, why not gamify the entire classroom with a Pokemon Go theme? Students could break into the teams (Mystic, Valor, Instinct, and more they could make up) and take on the role of a trainer leveling up their skills in the classroom. Overlaying the gameplay terminology on a classroom setting would not be hard - it would just take a crafty teacher to make it happen!