Technology Pursuit

Blending Technology Into the Language Arts Classroom

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The Power of Story: #games4ed 6/8/17 Takeaways

Story has the power to enthrall and engage, to help us learn and remember, to draw us in and connect emotionally. Storytelling is the innate way humans have communicated throughout time.

That’s why students need to know how to tell story. It’s arguably the most powerful way to make a point and to teach. And that’s what we chatted about the other night in our#games4ed Twitter chat.

We chatted about Choose Y0ur Own Adventure stories, collaborative writing, contributing to classroom RPG games, and integrating non-story telling apps into narratives. Here are some of my favorite takeaways:

  1. Using CYOA games to make mundane topics exciting. Classroom expectations are often a dull lecture that students hear several times in the opening days of school. I love what @Alex_Milton6 did: Create a CYOA game to review classroom expectations. Not only did this achieve his goal, but it also sets a fun tone for his classroom and provides a schemata for his students if they choose to write CYOA games in the future.

Also, @daveh3rd came up with a new idea of using CYOA to teach systems of the body — a perfect marriage CYOA with a non-ELA content. This just goes to show how great CYOA can be used across the curriculum.

2. Collaborative writing provides a safe place for struggling writers. Writing feels “dangerous” to many students. I hear capable students often say they’re just “not good at writing.” Somewhere, they’ve adopted this mindset. One way to help change this is through collaborative writing. Pairing mentor students with weaker students can help “bring out the most,” as @ZapEdu mentioned. The trick is truly working on collaboration, not the mentor students taking control of the process.

3. Elegy for a Dead World for creative writing. I’ve known about Elegy for a couple years now and have yet to use it. I’ll be revamping my poetry unit for Brit Lit later this summer, and I’m committing to using it.

4. Encourage students to help create your RPG game. Many teachers run overarching role-playing games in their class, either as a unit or throughout the entire year. While teachers may enjoy creating the game, allowing students to brainstorm and submit ideas, as @Alex_Milton6 suggested, promotes student voice and ownership.

To see the archives from the chat, check out

#games4ed meets Thursdays at 8pmET. Join us for great conversations about game-inspired learning in the classroom!

Celebrate Life — in the Classroom

Early in my teaching career, I adopted the “Celebrate Life” ceremony from another colleague.

For the few first minutes of every class, students and I would add parts of life we celebrated that day: an A on a math test, a new nephew born, tacos for lunch.


It didn’t matter how big or mundane it was. In fact, the more mundane, the better. (Not to say that tacos are mundane.)

At the first parent-teacher conference after we started celebrating life, a mother leaned over and said, “There’s one thing my sons just love about your class.”

I braced myself. Would it be a book we were reading? The group activities? The upcoming Renaissance Faire?

She continued, “You do it at the beginning of class every day? There’s a list you make of the good things going on. They just love it.”

OK, I was disappointed that the highlight of the class wasn’t connected to the learning or my teaching methods or anything connected to language arts. But, I decided, that’s great. And as the conferences went on, more parents gave positive feedback about it.

Eventually, a year or so later, I gave up the practice. Because standards. Because presenters and consultants stressed that we only had 50 minutes, so we’d better make those minutes count. Because I had to squeeze in reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary into my curriculum.

So I cut Celebrate Life.

More than ten years have passed since then, and I’ve grown as a teacher. I’ve learned teaching is not about standards, or content, or AYP.

Teaching is about relationships.

Conversations build relationships, and one of the best practices that helped me know my students better: Celebrate Life.

Next school year, I’m bringing it back, but I’m innovating it, too. Inspired by the #shiftthis Twitter chat and the  Miss5th Whiteboard Genius Pinterest board, curated by @LibbiAnn [whom you should probably follow on Twitter], I’m planning to transform one of my bulletin boards into a whiteboard for students to write their daily celebrations.

While some days we’ll simply celebrate life’s great and mundanely great events, I love the idea of guided responses, too. Like this one that prompts students into Random Acts of Kindness:

Or this one, that asks students to share their talents:

And this one could easily be content related…or not! Love this play on Jeopardy!

Creating a “Celebrate Life” board is such a simple way to build relationships with students and a classroom culture. Plus, doing on the white board has these other benefits:

  • Students reluctant to speak up can still comfortably share
  • Students can add to the list throughout class if something new comes to mind
  • Reviewing the board can be a great way to spend the last 1–2 minutes of class so they leave your room with a positive mindset
  • On the other hand, if students are wound up coming into the room, the Celebrate Life board can provide a way to share their thoughts so they can focus on their learning later.

Amazing Assessments: 6/1/17 #games4ed chat

Assessment: A word that makes many teachers groan, roll their eyes, and sigh.

As we talked about during the chat, however, assessment doesn’t necessarily develop these feelings. Conjuring a grade or number to match it is what create the negative connotation in assessments.

How can we make assessments, dare we say, amazing? Perhaps aiming to make every assessment an unforgettable, adrenaline-thrilled experience is far-reaching, but we did chat about many ways that made them effective and less grade-y and number-y.

Without any further ado, my favorite talking points:

#1: Sharing expectations with students. @legendlearning Aryah Fradkin is effective teaching 101, but sometimes in the midst of February and the weight of the school year, we forget about not just setting expectations but sharing them with students. This can be especially important in #gbl. Yes, we want games to be fun, but that’s not the only objective. What do we want students to gain from the game play? How is it connecting to what we’re learning, or about to learn, in class?

#2: Great reflection resource! When we talked about how to encourage students to go deeper in their reflections, @marianaGSerrato shared an @edutopia resource that I immediately knew I needed. Each section has a variety of questions about learning, and Mariana’s student select one question from each section to answer.

#3: How often in the process do students reflect? @MrRoughton’s tweet gave me pause. How often do my students reflect? Some will naturally reflect so, but not all. As I work through my plans this summer, I need to check that students are reflecting at a few checkpoints — not just the finish line.

#4: Keep games short. Another of @MrRoughton’s comments brought up an interesting point: Student-designed games that were shorter turned out better than longer games. Game-design is tough and complex; keeping it streamlined and focused on the objectives can result in better products. Perhaps some of it is due to the time allotted. Today, I learned about Parkinson’s Law, that any project will take the amount of time allotted for it. If I have 60 minutes to create a game, I’ll have a game in 60 minutes. If I have a week to design a game, it’ll take me a week. The question is this: How much better will the game be?

Want to see the transcripts of the chat? Check them out here!

Join us for #games4ed Thursdays at 8pmET!

Vocabulary Dominoes: A Game for any Content Area

Homemade pink cards made with Google slides used with Funemployed cards.

This DIY game is a Game-Smash of Dominoes and Apples to Apples/Funemployed/Any text-card game that you currently have.

How to play: 

  • Players hold 5 cards in their hands at all times.
  • A player lays a card down either next to or directly above/below an already-played card that somehow connects to his card in definition or connotation.
  • Players must then explain and argue why the connection makes sense.
  • The rest of the players either confirm or reject the card
  • Play continues to the next player.

Setup: To modify the game to your own content, you’ll need to make some of your own cards. I used Google Slides to create my own set of vocabulary cards. You can create your own text or print blank cards and have students write in words and definitions. Then add cards from another game (I use Apples to Apples or Funemployed).

My students have further modified by adjusting the points earned for definition cards and turning cards sideways (as you can do with dominoes blocks.

It’s a game that we’re still developing and fine-tuning, but with its basic mechanics, players learn it quickly.



#games4ed Takeaways — Webinar Follow-up 5/25/17

“My Tweetdeck is a big ball of chaos” — Jonathan Spike said it, but everyone involved with the #games4ed last night would have to agree. The chat was fast-moving, impossible to keep up with, and filled with genius #gbl and #education knowledge!

The chat was a follow up to Steven Isaacs and Matthew Farber’s EdWeb webinar earlier in the afternoon, Games as a Centerpiece to Student Learning. Here are a few of my favorite takeaways:

  • Assessment in #GBL Classrooms: How do you assess student learning through gameplay rather than a traditional assessment? Chatters suggested using reflections through Google Forms, using students’ screenshots with annotations, and teacher conferences with students. The great Mitch Weisburgh mentioned that some teachers let students suggest the form of assessment to use — an amazing example of student voice.
  • Differentiation: One way to differentiate in a #GBL classroom is through the types of assessments used. Students can also be paired up to work together through games, or in RPG games or game design projects, students can choose roles that they feel capable doing. (It all comes down to student voice & student choice, baby.)
  • StoriumEdu!: Storium is a great collaborative and gamified story writing platform, but some stories do contain content for 18 and above. The great news: Storium is now developing StoriumEdu, which will provide a safe place for younger students to collaborate in story writing!

To read the transcripts and peruse the resources from the chat, go to Participate.

Join our #games4ed Twitter chat Thursdays at 8pmET to level up your classroom!

Game Design in College Composition? Yep.

For their first unit of the year, my college composition classes aren’t writing essays. They’re designing games. Digital Breakout games, to be exact.

I’ve taught college composition for four years, and the same concerns keep nagging at me about these young writers:

  • They want to create the perfect draft the first time. The end.
  • Instead, they see revision as editing their grammatical errors.
  • They provide surface feedback in their peer reviews.
  • They don’t feel purpose or authenticity in their writing.

These are issues I need to address, and they aren’t easy fixes. However, the first step in my attempt is to shake up our first unit and instead of focusing on “writing,” we’ll be focusing on game design.

The secret: The game design process mimics the writing process. It mimics the major steps of EVERY creation/maker/design/invention process.

Clearly, for any writer or designer who ever created, there is no single process, and processes can change depending on the project. But the key steps remain: Ideation, Creation, Feedback, Iteration, More Feedback, Iteration, etc, until the project meets Nirvana or the final deadline, whatever comes first.

By teaching writing students game design, we’re also teaching them the design process for writing (or art, or inventing, or whatever you’re making.) That’s just what I want to do — the put my students into a design situation they’ve never been and discover that the steps are the same, and that all the steps are important and applicable to writing.

Here’s my plan in more detail:

  1. Ideation. Writers will first have to work together in groups to analyze digital Breakout games that currently exist, find the patterns, and then develop their own themes and ideas. They’ll also need to consider the age and purpose of their game.
  2. Creation. After the team delegates parts of the game to work on, writers will begin creating those components. In a digital Breakout game, many of the components include writing, so this also serves as a baseline assessment for me to see where my writers are in their abilities.
  3. Feedback. Teams will playtest other teams’ games and provide feedback. This will require some frontloading in demonstrating what clear and specific feedback looks like.
  4. Iteration. Back to work revising the game. Students may have to adjust the game — Was it too difficult? Too easy? Should they remove some red herrings? Did they see “tricks” other teams had in their games that they want to adapt to their own? (Then it’s back to Feedback, as needed.)
  5. Publication. The games will then be submitted to the Digital Breakout EDU sandbox, publicized via social media, and shared with our local teachers if applicable to their teaching areas.

In addition, the plan hits a liberal number of 21st Century Skills, so there’s that.

Granted, this process could be taught with any writing activity: Essays, arguments, short stories, heck, even haikus. (In fact, starting with shorter writings, like poems or short shorts, might be more effective in teaching the design process than longer texts.)

But why is game-based and game-inspired learning gaining momentum? Randy Pausch touched on it in his book The Last Lecture. Games, if well-designed, have the ability to teach without the learner knowing it. Mars Generation One teaches argumentation while students explore their space station, and FanGeopolitics teaches the interconnectedness of foreign issues in geography disguised with professional sports draft mechanics.

Many young writers are anxious about their writing. I get it: writing is personal. It makes you feel vulnerable.

Games — especially a game created as a team — have lower risk involved. Designing a game is more playful and less threatening than writing — or at least that’s what I’m hoping for my students. By experiencing the design process through game design rather than writing, my goal is for students to be less obsessed with writing the perfect draft the first time, less threatened with giving and receiving feedback, more open to deeper revisions.

I want them to see writing like game design. Go in knowing it won’t be perfect, but knowing you can also have fun in the feedback/playtesting and in your revising/iteration.

Playing it Smart with Summer Planning

Last week, I got a wake up call from my body.

I was in the ER with my son and his broken arm (Moral of the story there: Don’t ride bikes next to a kid who is texting and biking) and I inexplicably passed out. Whether or not it’s connected, the next day I started the worst case of bronchitis I’ve had in 20 years.

Over the past three months, I’ve been more sick than I’ve been since my three kids were extremely young.

Message received, universe: I’ve worn myself out. I need to take better care of myself.

Obviously, rest is the first priority this summer, but I’ve also had to think about my priorities. I often do “fun” school stuff during the summer. The stuff that isn’t vital to learning. Stuff like

  • Creating new gamification ideas
  • Reading lots of education books
  • Re-designing my physical classroom layout
  • Browsing Pinterest boards

These aren’t bad activities. To some extent, they all have a positive benefit in the classroom. However, I had to re-examine my priorities and what has landed me here in the land of cough drops & cold medicine.

It was time to take an honest look at what took up the most time or gave me the most stress this year. At first, the answers varied. Assessing writing and work. Staying caught up on planning during speech season. Motivating the senioritis stricken. All of it came down to one word.


This is what stresses me the most. When I’m on top of it, my teaching is most effective. I’m in the flow. When I’m behind, I’m straddling water, and it’s easier to lose student interest, and in turn, student learning.

This summer, I’m focusing on these goals:

  • Revamp my peer feedback methods. Teach them to give stronger feedback. The more students can give feedback, the less weight is on my shoulders.
  • Making a visual layout of each unit of learning — and accepting that it’s a work in process. This includes reviewing the “rough” areas of my units the past two years and smoothing them out.

For years, I’ve heard the tired mantra “Work smarter, not harder.” It’s about time I took it to heart.

Final Countdown!–#games4ed Chat Takeaways

This past Thursday (May 18, 2017), #games4ed took on the end of the school year as the chat focus. As usual, I have some favorite takeaways from the evening:

  • Minecraft Beta Codebuilder: Microsoft recently released the beta Codebuilder for Minecraft! I wasn’t sure about the access to it, so Minefaire shared the options:
  • Some educators like @MarianaGSerrato have their students write letters of advice for next year’s students. Other twists include @PerkyScience’s method of students creating videos on Flipgrid or having students write letters in their avatar character.
  • Reflection can also be shown through game design. Have students create a game as a capstone project based on something they’ve learned this year.
  • Finally, I’m very excited to be playing with the app Deck.Toys. I’ve been dreaming a “game map” for my units for a couple of years now, and this app combines this idea with locks ala “Breakout” Games. Check out the samples below:
  • Join us for the #games4ed any Thursday at 8pmET!


Hosting a Words With Friends Challenge

It’s the end of the school year here. Seniors are gone, but British Literature is 50% juniors, most of whom have qualified for skipping finals.

So just what do you do for two days for students who have “checked out”?

Host a Words With Friends challenge!

Matt Farber inspired me to do this when he wrote about Words With Friends Edu in his book Gamify Your Classroom. I set up an account and a classroom, and then shared the code with the students.

After that, the challenge took off! Many students worked on their games throughout the two days. The best part was tallying up the scores. Even after students posted their total points on the board, they returned to their games and continued playing!


Flipgrid Reading Reviews

For our final reading response of the year, I tried the new Flipgrid app, and let me tell you–amazingly simple and simply amazing.

After creating a Flipgrid account, I started my first grid and shared it with students with the following information:

Share the best book you read this year! Include a SUMMARY of the book and WHY the book was the best!

Things to consider for your video:  Background music? Setting/background? A guest? Notecards? Props?

Awards will be give for the following videos:
-Most attention grabbing
-Most creative
-Most persuasive

I was so impressed with the ease of the program. Students could easily make their videos. Plus, creating the videos also provided another way for students to practice their speaking standards and overcome nervousness of speaking to a camera (which is similar to nervousness of speaking to an audience).

Then, one student took it another step in creativity by adding credits:

Jacob’s video opened the door. Then Chism, whose book was Gym Candy, set his reading response in the weight room:

From then on the creativity exploded! I never imagined two students teaming up to do this:

Or an homage to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off!

On just one assignment–so much creativity! Yes, some students kept it simple and straightforward (you can see more here), but they were able to face the camera and create a great go-to resource for next year’s students who are looking for an independent reading book!



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