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New assignment this fall in Minnesota schools: deal with 'Pokémon Go'

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Looking at Pokémon Go outside Hopkins High.
Looking at "Pokémon Go" outside Hopkins High School on Aug. 17, there were no Pokémon characters, PokéStops or Gyms. That could change as students arrive at schools.
Solvejg Wastvedt | MPR News

School administrator John Wetter took on an odd assignment over summer break at the request of one of his principals: Track down any PokéStops or gyms lurking on Hopkins school grounds.

Wetter, technical services manager for the Hopkins public schools, understood. He knew the language of "Pokémon Go," the smartphone, GPS-driven game where players walk around the real world capturing virtual Pokémon characters.

The game became a worldwide phenomenon over the summer with sometimes funny stories of people staring down at their phones walking around, and sometimes into, real-world landmarks.

Pidgey Pokémon appears outside North Junior High.
A Pidgey Pokémon outside Hopkins North Junior High on Aug. 22.
Solvejg Wastvedt | MPR News

Now, though, with students preparing to return to class this fall in Minnesota and across the country, some school leaders worry the lure of "Pokémon Go" will be an overwhelming distraction for kids. 

That's why on a steamy August day, Wetter began searching for PokéStops — places where players can pick up helpful game pieces — and gyms — arenas where creatures square off, virtually.

He uncovered no PokéStops or gyms at Hopkins High School. Later, though, he said he found a gym near one of the district's elementary schools. He asked game developer Niantic Labs to remove it from the game. The company accepts requests for removals via its support website, although it declined Wetter's request saying there wasn't enough evidence of a problem.

Wetter said he'll appeal Niantic's decision. He'd also like to have the option to block "Pokémon Go" entirely at Hopkins schools, although Niantic wouldn't comment on whether it will offer schools that choice.  So far the game has only been blocked at sites such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Not everyone buys the concern over the game. Some educators are embracing the interest in "Pokémon Go" as a potential teaching tool. 

In Hopkins, English teacher Marissa Grodnick plans to offer writing assignments focused on the game, perhaps an essay on the pros and cons of the explosive popularity of "Pokémon Go."

"Any time something becomes a big pop culture sensation, as a teacher I try to just kind of ride the coattails," she said, adding that it's her way of keeping students engaged.

Eric Gunderson demonstrates a game he created.
Eric Gunderson, personalized learning coach at Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul, demonstrates the "Pokémon Go"-like game he has created for teachers to use as a learning tool.
Solvejg Wastvedt | MPR News

Whatever was the pop culture hit of last year is no longer, and you have to grab onto "whatever's new, whatever's trending, whatever's quick," said Grodnick, a 13-year teacher who's been through many of these kinds of cycles.

At St. Paul's Washington Technology Magnet School, educator Eric Gunderson made a spinoff of "Pokémon Go" that students can play on their district-issued iPads. He created it using an augmented reality app called Aurasma. He printed pictures of eggs on sheets of paper. Get the printed egg in view of the iPad's camera, and an animated animal appears onscreen, a knockoff Pokémon.

The school mascot is an eagle, making a "Pokémon Go" connection easier.

"Because we're the eagles they're all kinds of bird-related, or flying-type Pokémon," said Gunderson as he clicked on the animal and moved the app to a Google form where students would answer a question. Teachers could use the game as a quiz platform.

Pokéman Go-like game created for St. Paul schools.
Screen shot of a "Pokéman Go"-like game created by Eric Gunderson.
Solvejg Wastvedt | MPR News

University of Minnesota professor Lana Yarosh would applaud that approach. Instead of eliminating the game, she said schools should teach students to manage the distraction of "Pokémon Go."

"You're going to have kids that actually start thinking about this critically and developing these resilience skills for the rest of their life so that maybe then when they go home they can think about, 'OK is now the time to play Pokémon? Is now the time to do homework?'" said Yarosh, who noted that she's reached level 25 on "Pokémon Go."

The Minnesota Department of Education said it hasn't gotten inquiries from school districts concerned about "Pokémon Go." A spokesperson for the Osseo Area School District noted that students face many distractions. "Our leaders are very skilled in dealing with whatever the distraction of the day is," the spokesperson wrote in an email.

In the end, worries about "Pokémon Go" as a distraction may fade quickly. A Bloomberg report this week  showed the popularity of Pokémon Go already declining on several measures. Good news, perhaps, for teachers who would rather not be PokéMasters.