Using Power Cards to Encourage Power Reading: Gamifying Required Texts

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After a much needed summer hiatus and a rather hectic start to the Fall semester, I am finally carving out some blogging time. It’s been such a hectic start because, not only am I teaching an overload (for a total of 3 composition classes, one of which is 100% online), but I spent a good deal of my summer and start-of-term trying to gamify my FYC classes. As with all new methodologies, I am taking baby steps with this, but it was still a major undertaking. I’ll be writing a series of posts that deal with various aspects of how I gamified the course, including building a “game lore” and gamifying assessment. For this and the next post, I want to focus on one aspect of the class that I feel has been the most successful: gamifying the course readings.

The theme for my FYC classes this term is “How to Tell a True War Story.” The university’s freshman read this year is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, so I decided to use the book as a springboard to consider and explore the kinds of war stories we tell and how the lines between fact and fiction blur and often disintegrate in the process. In addition to the O’Brien book, we are also watching three war films: Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, and Restrepo. After watching each, students can select from a list of related texts (articles, videos, photo essays, etc.) to read. While the films are extremely high-interest and I knew I would not have difficulty with students not being engaged with them, I wasn’t so confident about the O’Brien book and our other assigned nonfiction book, the graphic memoir War Is Boring, or the companion texts for each film. So, I decided to try to gamify the class readings.

I found inspiration from John Hardison’s “22 Power Cards to Revolutionize a Class,” in which he describes how he gamified literary analysis by pitting teams of students against each other in a Q & A showdown that involved power cards similar to those in popular role-playing card games like Magic the Gathering and Pokemon. I liked the idea of turning close reading of O’Brien’s book into a competition, but I wanted to develop a more simplistic set of game rules and power cards, since students would only have half of a class meeting to prepare for the battle. I decided to divide the class into two teams and allow the two students with the most XP to be team commanders and select the members of their units. Each student came to the battle preparation meeting with an open-ended question about the book and the units worked to select, refine, and finalize ten questions to bring into battle with them. For the battle itself, each unit had 30 seconds to select a question and a defender from the other unit to answer it; the defender then had two minutes to consult with their unit on the answer before answering. As judge, I awarded the defender points based on the quality of their answer. The unit with the most points at the end of the battle won and all members of the unit received 40 XP.

For the power cards, I decided to allow each unit to go into battle with five defensive and four offensive tactical weapons. The defensive weapons included:

  • Walkthrough: allows the unit 2 minutes to refer to the novel and use it when answering the question
  • Cheat code: each unit member is allowed to prepare a one-page set of crib notes; the cheat code allows the unit 2 minutes to refer to any or all unit members’ crib notes and use them when answering the question
  • Glitch: allows the unit to re-use one of their discarded defensive weapons, pass on a question, OR recall one of their previous defenders
  • Pause: allows the unit an extra 1 minute to formulate their answer

The offensive weapons included:

  • Grenade: the unit may select up to three members of the defending unit to be removed from the answer formulation process
  • Seige: forces the defender to formulate their answer without help from their unit
  • Blitzkreig: reduces the defending unit’s answer formulation time to 1 minute
  • Raid: if the attacking unit has received a score of 4 on three or more answers, they may take away any of the defending unit’s remaining tactical weapons and add it to their own arsenal

These power cards forced the units to act strategically both before and during the battle, from preparing crib notes to sizing up members of the opposing unit to decide who were the weakest and strongest members.

The battle was exciting, fun, and frustrating for students all at the same time. Those who had not read as closely were obvious hindrances to their unit and those who were more competitive in nature had to learn to cope and recover when their ill-prepared peers failed to earn a lot of points or when the opposing team used a power card to out-manoeuvre them. On the flip side, very few students seemed ill-prepared and, out of 40 plus students, only one student could not provide at least a partial answer to a question. Both the highly competitive and quieter students could excel in the game, as their unit could use all members to help formulate the answer (unless the opposing unit used a power card that prevented them from doing so). I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of reading and analysis required to answer the questions that the students posed during the game, but the majority of students did not have difficulty answering them and providing examples from the book to support their answer. And even though they were  allowed to use the book or their notes once each during the game, one team declined to do so, and while they lost, it was only by a margin of 2 points. The takeaway from this is that by forcing the students to both collaborate and compete, I saw evidence of closer reading and deeper analysis of the assigned text from every single student who played the game (only four students total out of both classes did not show up on the day of battle). And they seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves and have fun, even when losing.

I have decided to use the Q & A battle again with our other book, War Is Boring, and will post about the results at the end of the term. In my next post, I’ll describe how I’m using collaboration to gamify the companion texts that students are selecting and reading in conjunction with each of the movies we are watching this term.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your own ideas for and/or experiences with gamifying assigned readings and making analysis and discussion of those readings more effective and fun.

 

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I Give Up! I’m Finally Going to Gamify My FYC Class

And I’m kind of excited about it. Okay. I’m ecstatic. I’m like a hardcore gamer two minutes before the midnight release of the latest Call of Duty.

If you’re a regular reader, you know from one of my past posts that I’ve been avoiding the gamification bandwagon. So, what, you may ask, inspired the change of heart? The only way that I can describe it is as a perfect storm.

First, there is the phenomenal success of my current second-semester FYC course, which is utilizing immersive role play and Second Life as ways to engage in critical analysis of the texts in our literature reader. I plan to go into more detail in a future post about what exactly we’re doing, how, and how successful it has been in terms of engagement and improvement of critical thinking/writing skills. While immersive role play is a major aspect of many games, I’m using it more for its emphasis on taking on the viewpoint of a particular role than for the play component of doing so. The fun that students are having as they adopt their roles, though, cannot be ignored, especially now that the semester is coming to a close and students are finally comfortable with their personas and taking risks with their interpretations of our texts and how they choose to communicate those interpretations in material media.

Students roleplaying in Second Life.
Students roleplaying in Second Life.

Secondly, I’ve been playing more games myself lately. I’m not really a gamer (at least I wouldn’t describe myself as such, especially in comparison to some of my students and my son). I do occasionally play one of the Lego franchise games with my son and I’m game (pardon the pun) for anything that involves Harry Potter (we even have a wizard’s chess set). But I recently experienced a personal loss and I’ve found games to be a way to keep my mind occupied, relieve some of the stress, and escape from the real world for a little while. I personally prefer puzzles, and the hidden object games for the iPad are ideal for me because they combine puzzle solving with literary or historical settings (like my current favorite Blackwood and Bell, set in Victorian England). The more I play, the more I begin to personally experience the level of engagement, immersion, and motivation that I regularly observe in my son when he’s playing his favorite PS3 games. Blackwood and Bell keeps me engaged because I can earn “money” for solving puzzles and I use that money to purchase items to add to my little plot of Victorian London. I’ve found myself spending quite a bit of time rearranging my buildings, decorations, and exhibits and trying to work out strategies that will allow me to level up and expand my landholdings without compromising the design of my “yard” (I, personally, care more for authenticity in my design than leveling up and simply throwing everything on my yard, and some of the anachronistic designs of other players’ yards drives me nuts).

My yard in Blackwood and Bell. It's a work-in-progress.
My yard in Blackwood and Bell. It’s a work-in-progress.

Next, I’ve recently discovered and become intrigued by interactive fiction (IF). I always enjoyed reading “choose your own adventure” books as a child, but because I was not a gamer growing up, I had never heard of or played IF. I discovered it after reading several recent articles on some free tools that have recently been developed that make writing IF easier for those without coding experience (“Make Games in the Classroom with Inform 7,” “Choose Your Own Classroom Adventure with Inklewriter,” “Interactive Fiction Game Design,” “Creating Interactive Text with Twin,” and Kevin Hodgson’s series of blog posts on IF). The concept of IF caught my attention, not from a player’s perspective, but from a writer’s perspective and the potential that I immediately felt it held for teaching FYC students about viewpoint, authorial choice, and reader engagement. Because it makes the reader, or player, the central, active component of the text, it places direct focus on two writing concepts that I’ve always struggled with communicating to students effectively: the primacy of the audience and the need to have a purpose for everything you do as an author.

Lastly, all of these things solidified into a single idea when my university announced that next Fall’s freshman read would be Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I was familiar with a few of the stories from the book and especially liked “How to Tell a True War Story” because of the pressures it puts on viewpoint, the author as authority, the reader as passive/active agent, fiction/truth, space/time, and the linear nature of the traditional plot development. I immediately recognized that IF would be a perfect way for students to engage with the book, as it, too, places pressure on these same aspects of storytelling.

But IF is not an easy concept, either as a player or writer. I recognized that I could not just throw students in the deep end of IF and expect them to swim. Around the time I was considering how to couple O’Brien’s book with IF, I was reading Jane McGonigall’s Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World as a way to prepare for the second iteration of my immersive role play course this summer and, in the course of talking with a colleague in the computer science department about that class, was lent a copy of Lee Sheldon’s The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a GameThese books, along with some articles I had been reading on IF (which I’ll discuss and link to in my next post), helped the gears to slowly begin clicking into place. As I continued to sketch out ideas, I began to get more and more excited by the prospect of turning my FYC class into a game; but not just any game. An IF game.

I plan to post about the details and the steps I went through to develop them in subsequent posts, so this post will simply be a summary of my plans.

Where to start?

Since I plan to ask students to write a piece of IF as the capstone project for the class, it only seemed right that I try my hand at it first. In this sense, being unfamiliar with IF was an advantage, since my students are likely to be as well, so I am able to experience the process as they will and thus I will be taking detailed notes as I work my way through it. But I’m a busy person and don’t necessarily have time to write just for the fun of it (as much as I’d like to). So, I decided that the best way to make the time I spend writing my first piece of IF useful would be to make the IF my syllabus for the course, so that they will actually have to play the IF in order to navigate the course. This will kill two birds with one stone: not only will I be gaining experience with writing IF, but it will also immerse the students in IF as they play their way through the course, thus allowing them to see what IF can do and to experience it as a player, so they will be more mindful of the player’s needs as they write their own piece.

But turning the syllabus into IF that the students must “play” will only work if students buy into it. Again, immersion, engagement, and motivation are all vital to encouraging this buy-in. In The Multiplayer Classroom, Sheldon points out that the more we can incorporate the game into the course, the better our chances of encouraging students to become immersed in the game. So, I decided to make the entire course a game that students would navigate and play via IF.

Theme

One the central principles of game design is theme and theme consistency. Since our focus text is about the Vietnam War, the game’s theme became apparent early on. The hard work was deciding how to adapt that theme to the FYC class and the students’ IF project.

Scenario

With this in mind, I developed the following scenario:

It is the near-future. Instead of weapons, wars are fought with words. America is on the brink of a second Vietnam War. In order to prevent this, a small contingent of military leaders and diplomats have developed the idea of an elite new force of writers who will use IF to invoke empathy and, hopefully, avert the war. The students have been recruited into this elite special operatives force. As recruits, they will go through some basic training before embarking on a series of missions that are all part of Operation “War Story.”

The game

I’ll go into more detail about the game itself in a subsequent post. Basically, I’ve divided the term up into missions, with each mission containing several assignments culminating in a boss level, which will range from a diagnostic writing assignment (at the end of “basic training”) to an annotated bibliography (at the end of the research, or “gathering intel,” mission) to a review of a piece of IF (covert surveillance) to completing their own piece of IF (endgame). Players must complete the boss level before they can proceed to the next mission. As they complete assignments, they earn XP (experience points) and as they accumulate XP, they rank up from recruit to private to private first class, etc. Their rank at the end of the term will be converted into a special operative status, with those displaying distinctive service earning an A, veterans earning a B, rookies earning a C, and those who’ve gone MIA (equivalent to a D) or AWOL (equivalent to an F) earning an NC.

In developing the game via IF, I’ve been able to integrate puzzles (quizzes), if/then scenarios (if you score a certain percentage on the quiz, you unlock a useful object), and objects (such as keys, tactical upgrades, and supplies that will help them complete the missions). I’m using AXMA, a non-open source (but still free) version of Twine, and it also allows me to integrate images, hyperlinks, videos, music, and sound effects into the game. I’m trying to incorporate suspense (a security breach, a mysterious package left by a late-night stranger, a phone ringing insistently) at strategic moments, such as midterm, to keep the interest level up and change up the pace of the course.

A final (for now) word about IF

The aspect of IF that I did not really consider at first, but which is becoming more and more interesting to me, is the level of reading literacy it promotes and requires. Most FYC course objectives include reading skills, but there is often so much work to be done to get students’ writing skills up to par, that reading gets short shrift. I recognize that reading and writing skills go hand in hand, but rarely do I have enough time to address reading to the same depth and degree as I do writing. Integrating IF as the syllabus for the course and requiring that students read several examples of IF pieces and then write their own IF, and all of the emphasis that process places on the reader and the reading, will allow me to focus as much on the reading process as the writing.

As I mentioned, I’ll be posting more in-depth posts that will address my use of IF and how I’ve turned the course into a game. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from others who have integrated IF into classes or who have gamified their classes (or both).

And if you’d like to start reading some IF, I highly recommend Muggle Studies.

Extreme Makeover: First-Year Composition Edition

 Some rights reserved by Pimthida
Some rights reserved by Pimthida

I have decided to do an extreme makeover of my First-Year Composition course. Some things are working quite well for the students–especially blogging as the main writing forum and the portfolio system for assessment–and I’ll keep those, though I’ll be tweaking them. But there are several things that I’ve been doing that are either failing to engage or substantively help the students or that I think I could be doing better–and that may even (gasp) be doing more harm than good.

There are three texts that have recently gotten under my skin and have influenced some of the changes I am thinking of making: “Roland Barthes, Reading, and Roleplay: Composition’s Misguided Rejection of Fragmentary Texts” by James Seitz, “Against Formulaic Writing” by Gabriele Lusser Rico, and Toward a Composition Made Whole by Jody Shipka. I really recommend that you read each them yourself, so I’m not going to spend time summarizing them here. Suffice it to say that each has inspired various aspects of what I plan/hope to do next term in FYC.

Here is an overview of how I’m thinking of structuring the course. Though I’ve outlined my ideas for the course in some detail, my main vision is one akin to free jazz–both in terms of what I do as a teacher and what I invite students to do as writers.

Students Be(com)ing Writers

Rather than having all students blog about a course theme, next term I plan to give students almost complete autonomy when it comes to their blogs. They’ll still have to have a theme for their blog, but that theme will be up to them. I will encourage them to select a theme directly related to their major or, alternatively, to a hobby/passion. They will still need to blog in a purposeful way, but what that purpose is and how they go about achieving that purpose will be something they will need to learn how to decide. Because experience has taught me that getting started is often the most difficult aspect of writing for students, I will encourage them to use their peers and myself as sounding-boards and we will spend quite a bit of class time discussing and practicing various invention techniques, as well as using the silent dialogue activity.

Rather than focusing primarily on formal, academic-style, strictly text-based expository and/or argumentative writing, I also plan to allow/encourage students to experiment with various mediums and genres, including alternative genres, such as comics, fiction, remixes/mashups, images, and videos, and multimodal pieces. I have found that, even when given the option of such non-traditional compositions, students are often reticent to try something so far outside their comfort zones or, in the case of a genre/medium they are familiar with and may already practice outside of the classroom, are uncertain of the appropriateness of such texts within the context of FYC. So next term, I plan to require students to select at least one alternative genre to use and to produce at least one multimodal composition. I plan to work closely with students to make sure these alternative texts are as purposeful as their more traditional compositions, maintaining a focus on exposition and/or persuasion.

Rather than the five reflective questions that I normally ask students to complete for each formal blog post, next term I plan to ask them to keep a writing journal, which will be more open-ended. I am hoping that the open-ended journal format will allow students to be more organically probative about their compositional practices.

Students Be(com)ing Readers

“Blogging is best learned by blogging…and by reading other bloggers.” –George Siemens

As part of the blogging workshop that I’ve started integrating during the first two weeks of class in order to orient students to what blogs are and what can be done with them, I have students locate several blogs on a topic of choice, subscribe to them, and add them to their blog’s blogroll. While I encourage students to read these and as many other blogs as they can/wish, I’m not sure that they ever take me up on the offer. Since next term they will be challenged to build and maintain a blog on a topic that they are either already an expert on or wish to become an expert on, they will need to locate and curate a network of topic experts that they can draw inspiration from and use as resources for their blog posts. So, next term I’ll have students read the blogs related to their own topics listed on the Academic Blogs wiki, subscribe to those they like, and regularly read posts from these and other blogs on their topic that they locate throughout the term. But they’ll also need to do something after they’ve read the posts. What they do will mostly be up to the student–post a response on their blog, add a comment to the post, share it with their social networks with an explanation of why they’re sharing it, etc.–but the point is that they are both frequently reading texts related to their own area of academic or personal interest and using them in some way beyond checking them off of a to-read list.

I usually require students to read and comment on their peers’ blog posts. This has been problematic with some groups because their commenting tends toward the formulaic and superficial, even after I have them study comments on blogs and create a list of good commenting criteria. I am trying to seriously re-think how I integrate comments on peers’ posts, but this has honestly got me stymied, so I may ask the students themselves for guidance on this aspect of the course.

Writing Work/Shop

I’ve never really integrated the workshop method, but this is something I plan to do next term. In addition to peer reviews for each formal blog post, every student will have at least one draft workshopped by the whole class. I want to shift the course’s focus away from outside texts (the reader and two nonfiction books my department requires me to assign) and towards the students’ own texts. Almost every interaction will be focused on what the students are composing and how they are composing/have composed it. We’ll tackle the risks, challenges, and exigencies of both traditionally academic and alternative texts head-on in both a supportive and critical mode.

I’ll also use the workshop to introduce various compositional techniques and tools, but only those that feel relevant and significant at the moment. Since they are the focus and facilitators of the workshops, the students will be encouraged to introduce issues, questions, and techniques to be addressed during the workshops, rather than passively relying on me to decide on what needs to be addressed. My hopes for the workshop method is that it will both aid students in developing and embracing a writing identity (situated within a community of other writers, both within and without their classroom) and help them to experience first-hand the multi-stranded, multi-directional, recursive nature of writing.

Collaborative Assessment

The assessment aspect of the course has been the most difficult to re-consider. While I think that the portfolio system is the best one available at the moment, I have been unhappy with the various methods that I have tried in terms of outlining my expectations and how the final grade will be determined.

I have been very happy with the results of the anonymous peer assessment that I piloted this term and plan to make that an integral part of the assessment process in FYC next term. Taking a cue from Alex Halavais, I’ve also decided to set some very abstract standards for an A in the course: the student must inspire, surprise, teach, or wow us. This reinforces the open-ended, organic nature of the course. And notice the language here: us. Since students will be responsible for assessing each others’ compositions, they will also be responsible for helping me identify those writers who meet this standard. Students can “nominate” a composition for this honor in several ways: sharing the post, commenting on the post, or liking the post via Facebook or Google+ (since the class will be using Google+ as our LMS, a +1 will be required in order to indicate a nomination). A composition will need to receive multiple nominations in order to “make the grade” and a writer will need to have at least two compositions that meet the standard in order to earn an A in the course.

This kind of abstract, open-ended assessment necessitates a new way of having students complete their writing portfolio reflections at the end of the term. Rather than self-selecting pieces for inclusion in the final portfolio, they will need to look to their peers’ responses to their pieces (their assessment form feedback, comments, shares, and likes) in order to select those compositions that made the most impact on their readers and reflect on what aspects of each piece elicited and merited their readers’ attention.

 

I’m not sure how close this comes to capturing the essence of my vision of the course–one that involves an organicity and improvisational openness that pushes against the expectations of FYC. My hope is that I can encourage my students to embrace this openness and use it as a steppingstone (for the reticent) or springboard (for the more adventurous) into a new identity as a writer and thinker.

These things rarely turn out exactly as you see/plan them, but that is part of the beauty of teaching.

I welcome your thoughts on my ideas and I’ll keep you posted . . .