Turning Your Class into a Game, Part 1: The Experience

Last week, I had the opportunity to evangelize about games-based learning and gamification in the classroom at the 2nd Annual CoRE Academy at my university. My audience was a wonderful mix of PK20 teachers and, from the nods of approval during the presentation and comments, questions, and requests for more information I received afterwards, I think I convinced some of them. Because my workshop was only an hour long, I had to cram a lot of complex information in. Really, each aspect of gamification that I discussed could have benefited from its own workshop. But since that was not possible, I’ve decided to create a series of blog posts that address each in a bit more detail. You can view the entire presentation to get a preview of all of the components I’ll be addressing and how they all fit together.

Games are, first and foremost, experiences. I’ve argued before that no matter how many fancy bells and whistles a game has or how robust the rewards system, a game that does not immerse the player in an experience that intrigues them and that they enjoy being part of will not be played for very long, if at all. My son, who is an avid gamer, gives a new game about an hour of gameplay; if he’s not hooked within an hour, he’s done with the game, no matter how many points he’s managed to earn. And a game that is not being played ceases to be a game. Just as a student who is not learning is no longer a student; they are a body taking up space. Just as game experiences need to be worthwhile and interesting, learning experiences need to be worthwhile and interesting.

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Assassin’s Creed is a game that has successfully created an engaging experience for players.

So the first step to turning your class into a game is to create the experience. Ask yourself what kind of experience would both engage your students and mesh with your discipline or lesson topic. And then begin brainstorming what roles your students might play within that experience, what the aesthetics of that experience might be, what environment(s) it might incorporate, and what kinds of interactions with that environment and with other players and non-player characters (NPCs) your students might have. I just finished reading Dave Burgess’s inspiring book Teach Like a Pirate (which I highly recommend to anyone who teaches), and he had an entire chapter on how to draw inspiration from the world around you to fire up your creativity and your classes. One of Burgess’s tips is to use your hobbies as a source of inspiration and it really works. I tend to get my inspiration for the experiences I design for my students from literature, movies, and video games. You can mix things up to make it even more fun. My second semester FYC class played a game I called “Murderers and Mad(wo)men,” which combined elements of Sherlock Holmes and Call of Cthulhu, and the game I’m working on now combines elements of The Hobbit and World of Warcraft.

As you draw on and combine various inspirations, you can make note of the aesthetics that you might incorporate. “Murderers and Mad(wo)men” had a steampunk aesthetic, for example. In The Multiplayer Classroom, Lee Sheldon recommends reinforcing the game lore (the story and aesthetic) whenever and wherever possible. This includes class environments (both physical and virtual), materials, and presentations. The syllabus is a good place to start since it is typically the first class-related item the students come into contact with. When you orient your students to the class on the first day, try to immediately immerse them in the game aesthetic to really drive home both the “this is a game” and the “this is not a game” (TINAG) dichotomy. By not presenting the class in a traditional way, you send a clear signal that your class is different and that students will have to adjust their thinking about what to expect and how to behave in the class. They know how to play games, so by mimicking the kinds of alternate realities that games create, they’ll quickly pick up the cue that this is a game-like environment and they need to play a certain role within that environment. At the same time that you want to clue students into the game-like nature of the class, you also want to, like games, create a sense of immersion. The best games are those that immerse the player so effectively within the game environment and their role within that environment that they almost forget that they’re playing a game. So, if you want your students to experience what it’s like to be scientists working to solve an epidemic, when they walk into the classroom on the first day they should walk into a science lab. And throughout that first meeting, they should receive clues that orient them to why they’re in a science lab (they’re scientists), what’s going on outside of that lab (there’s an epidemic), and what they’re role in this environment is (solving the epidemic). You can communicate these things via the syllabus (perhaps it could a memo or a brief on the epidemic), your introduction of yourself and the course (perhaps you’re the head of the CDC and you’re orienting them to the Center’s policies and procedures and what your role will be during the crisis), and activities that you have them do (I’ll leave that to your imagination). Now, I’m not a science teacher, but I very quickly came up with this example and the ideas for how to present it to students because I like zombies and almost every zombie movie/TV show involves scientists trying to figure out what’s causing zombieism and how to cure it. My love of zombies provides me will all kinds of ideas about aesthetics for a game like this. As Dave Burgess points out, inspiration is all around us; we just have to start paying attention and thinking outside of the box.

Once you’ve decided on the experience and the environments and aesthetics of that experience, you can begin outlining what role students will play. My students have taken on roles such as war correspondents (or at least armchair versions); cold case detectives; psychologists; attorneys, witnesses, and jury members for a cyberstalking trial; and members of an ancient Greek senate, just to name a few. For a more detailed discussion of how I’ve used role-play in my class, you can read my article “Alter Egos, Avatars, and Analytical Writing: Immersive Role-Playing in the Composition Classroom” in Virtual Education Journal. The goal is to have students play an integral part in driving the story the experience tells. They must become the main characters and it must be clear that without action on their part, the story does not get told. As I mentioned, I’m currently designing a game for my first-semester FYC loosely based on The Hobbit. The students are reading Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, so I decided to use the story of the hero’s journey as a basis for the game. It’s a story that they’re all familiar with since it’s an integral part of our culture, from comics to movies and novels to video games. I’ve re-contextualized the process of learning to write college-level essays into a journey that students must take through a perilous realm. They don’t know much about the journey or how they’ll reach their destination (college-level writing proficiency) when they first start out because, as their guide The Vagabond explains, their destiny is in their own hands. If they don’t complete each quest that they are presented with, they will go astray, lose time and perhaps their way, and risk never reaching their goal. Through the compositions that are the last part of each quest, they tell the story of the game–what they discovered during that quest. In the example of the epidemic outlined above, if the students don’t work to solve the riddle of the epidemic and figure out a way to stop it, then the epidemic continues and the story of how we defeated the zombies (or whatever the disease is) never gets told. We assume that everyone becomes a zombie, but we’ll never truly know. If students want to know the ending to the story, they’re more likely to take part in it. And the best way to make them want to know the ending is to have the experience centered around a conflict. Conflict is the driving force of games and overcoming the challenges that the conflict presents is what motivates people to play games. We can’t all be heroic in real life, but games give us an opportunity to defeat seemingly undefeatable foes and become virtual heroes (and the bragging rights of winning a difficult game makes us heroes in real life, too). In order to motivate your students to take on the challenge that the conflict presents, the conflict shouldn’t be too easy or too difficult. You can help to make sure that you’re creating a zone of proximal development in the experience you create by using experience systems, which I’ll address in my next blog post.

It’s also important to carefully consider what kinds of interactions student will have with each other and NPCs. There are two main kinds of interactions that drive gameplay: competition and cooperation. In terms of competition, there are three types: player versus player, player versus game, and player versus self. I prefer to focus students on competing with themselves, as this promotes goal-setting and self-assessment, two critical skills for 21st century learners. But some of our students truly thrive off of competition with others or with systems and you can address those kinds of players with things like leaderboards, character classes, and achievements. The best games actually incorporate all three types of competition so that all player types are being targeted. I’ll provide an example of how you could integrate all three into our zombie epidemic example in a bit.

But first, I need to address cooperation. Games use several different methods for encouraging cooperation among players. One method is by allowing or forcing players to work in guilds, which are small groups that must work cooperatively to complete quests or quest-related tasks. Another is by tying some achievements (which I’ll cover in my next post) to working cooperatively. And finally, some games allow players to trade/barter resources. All of these are excellent methods for promoting cooperation among students. I integrate guilds into all of my games, though I also allow for individual play, recognizing that, for some students, working cooperatively is a challenge and/or de-motivating. For example, in the game I’m currently designing, players will have a writing guild, which will meet for informal idea-design discussions during the pre-writing phase and to provide feedback on drafts during the drafting phase. The guild is a support system to help aid students on their journey, but it’s up to the student to do the work necessary to take part in that journey and their experience level is based solely on their level of gameplay, not their guild’s. I do plan to encourage quality guild work via achievements and uncertainty (which I’ll address in my third and final installment). But, I’ve found that the best way to motivate students to work together effectively is via cooperative competition; that is, having guilds compete against other guilds. I have found that this method increases intrinsic motivation and the quality of the cooperation among group members. When using cooperative competition, I would recommend rewarding the winners with achievements, rather than points, since achievements tend to be more intrinsically-oriented than points and you don’t want to risk decreasing the naturally-occurring desire to win with an extrinsic reward. For an example of how I’ve used cooperative competition and the amazing level of engagement it inspired, see my post “Using Power Cards to Encourage Power Reading: Gamifying Required Texts.” To give you an idea of how all of this might work on-the-ground, let’s use our zombie epidemic scenario. You’ll want to encourage students to compete with the game, of course (ending the epidemic before time runs out),  and with themselves (via experience systems), and perhaps even with other students (via a leaderboard). You could also have students work together in guilds to encourage cooperation. Perhaps each guild is responsible for a specific aspect of investigating and ending the epidemic and they must not only cooperate within their guild but with the other guilds, as well. Or perhaps each guild is trying to end the epidemic and the challenge is to either be the first to do so or the guild to come up with the most effective solution (if you want to present a challenge in which quality is more important than efficiency). There are various possibilities for how to structure both competition and cooperation and the best games involve as many of those possibilities as makes sense within the context of the experience.

Lastly, I want to address interactions with NPCs. NPCs are often part of games and I’ve been trying to integrate them more fully into the experiences that I create for my students. You are obviously an important NPC and you’ll need to decide what your role will be in the game and how you will interact with the players. Are you a boss, a guide, an enemy, a colleague, an unknown entity? You can also add fictional NPCs into your game via physical or virtual communications (text-based, audio, or video). So far, I have two virtual NPCs in the game I’m currently designing. Professor Percival is their teacher during the first two quests; he provides them with instruction in the writing process, sends them on virtual scavenger hunts to help test and hone their technical skills, teaches them how to be active readers, and provides feedback on their first writing assignment. Once they graduate from the professor’s apprenticeship, they meet The Vagabond, who is their guide on the journey through the perilous realm. Players in the “Murderers and Mad(wo)men” game received regular correspondence from an NPC who was a colleague who needed to consult with them on especially perplexing cases. If you’re teaching history, you could have historical figures become NPCs in your game. You can also have live NPCs in your game. Guest speakers and colleagues are two options. For example, in designing the zombie epidemic game, perhaps you could convince an epidemiologist to do a Skype interview with your class, only position it as part of the game: as director of the CDC, you’ve arranged for a conference call with an expert who has experience with a similar outbreak. If the expert/speaker/colleague is especially receptive, you might even be able to convince them to play the part and help reinforce game immersion.

The experience is the most important and motivating aspect of a game. Nothing else should take precedence. It’s vitally important to create an experience that hooks students immediately. Give careful consideration to where and how you’ll place the rabbit hole and the bait that you’ll use to lure them in. We often try to create these kinds of hooks for students: a thought-provoking question or intriguing bit of information to pique their curiosity and get them listening. But getting them interested is only a tiny portion of the challenge. Keeping them engaged and curious is equally important. If we follow that thought-provoking question or intriguing bit of information with a 45-minute lecture, we’ve lost an opportunity to truly engage students and motivate them to begin thinking about and acting on their interest. Following up that awesome first-day introduction to the zombie apocalypse with homework that includes reading 50 pages from a textbook sends a specific message: the orientation was just a superficial trick you used to get their attention. The icing might have been delicious, but the cake is going to be stale and tasteless. If you want students to stay interested, you’ve got to make the entire class an experience that is intellectually and aesthetically stimulating and in which they are the key ingredient.

Hopefully, you have a better understanding of how to create an immersive experience for your students. If you have any questions, please feel free to post them and I’ll try to answer them. And if you’re interested in all of the other ingredients necessary to make that experience rewarding and fun, the next two posts in the series will be appearing soon.

And if you’re interested in the CoRE program, I encourage you to watch this video.

 

Murder, Madness, and Mayhem: A Role-Playing Game for First-Year Compostion

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Murder. Madness. Mayhem. What new horrors lurk in the minds of men and women? Real life is scarier and stranger than any fiction. But an intrepid group of investigators are working to make the world a safer, saner place. No matter how old the crime, no matter how elusive the evidence, no matter how powerful those involved, they will leave no stone unturned in their search for the truth. They have no magical weapons with which to assault the dark things of the world. They simply have their wit, courage, and analytical skills to help them do battle with the horrors they face.

This past week I worked on summarizing the results of my attempt to integrate role-play writing into my second-semester FYC class in an article that I plan to submit for the Fall edition of Virtual Education Journal. For me, reflecting on past classes inevitably leads to a desire to begin planning a new (and hopefully better) iteration. Thankfully, I asked the students to provide me with both anonymous constructive feedback on the class and to talk openly with me about how they would redesign the class if they were taking it a second time. Their feedback had two major themes:

  • While they liked Second Life, many students felt it was too clunky and wasn’t integrated into the class in an effective way
  • Many students expressed a desire to have more f2f role-play

As I began to mull over how best to address the two issues, I decided to focus on finding an alternative to Second Life. I was looking for something with a less daunting learning curve that would allow for more challenge and exploration-based interaction. While nothing really presented itself, I did stumble upon a website that changed the direction of my thinking: Epic Words.

Epic Words functions as a portal for an RPG campaign (an ongoing storyline or set of adventures). A GM (game master) can create a campaign for any RPG and add any registered players to the campaign. The site offers several tools in one central location: character blogs, a campaign wiki, a discussion forum, quest logs, a calendar, a page for awarding and tracking XP, and the ability to create loot that can either be awarded by the GM or purchased by the players from merchants. Intrigued, I began to research the concept of campaigns and the various ways that players use tools and sites outside of the game to continue, reinvent, and hack the game.

As  I browsed through the various campaigns on the site, I began to see just how similar the RPG I had designed for my Spring 2013 FYC II class had been to one of the most popular tabletop RPG’s, Call of CthulhuTaking my cue from the game, I have started to sketch out what I hope will be an engaging and immersive RPG experience for next semester’s FYC II class, remixing and hacking the traditional tabletop RPG as needed.

Roles

In Call of Cthulhu, characters are called investigators. Players select the occupation of their character and establish their attributes via dice rolls. Like my class, the nature of the game naturally lends itself to selecting characters who would normally investigate unusual events, such as detectives, psychologists, scholars, etc. I’ll limit my students to occupations that will work with the texts we have in our literature anthology, but will allow them to suggest modifications if they wish. Students will spend some time developing their character’s backstory, creating an avatar for them, and creating a profile for them on Epic Words.

Guilds

While students really enjoyed working in role-based guilds last Spring, many suggested more inter-role interaction in order to consult with experts on other aspects of their “cases.” So, this time around students will have two guilds: a home guild that will be role-based and an expert guild that will be comprised of representatives from all of the roles who will consult with one another as needed.

Quests

The quests will remain the same: students will read assigned “cases” from the literature anthology, discuss and analyze them with their home guild, and select one case to focus on investigating for each quest. They will present their selected case via a blog post, determining what format their character might choose to write about the case in (case notes, interview transcripts, a newspaper/journal article, etc.), and also read and comment (in-character) on other characters’ blog posts.

Boss Level

Last Spring, students selected 1-2 partners to work with to create a penultimate project on one of the term’s cases. While the projects they created were creative, engaging, and demonstrated a deep level of analysis, next term I plan to push the envelope even further and ask students to work in a craft guild to develop and write a piece of interactive fiction about a selected case in which the player has to take on one of the roles from the class game.

Feedback

There will be no grades in the class. For some of my Spring students, this was frustrating and many of them expressed a need to be able to measure their progress and have an idea of just how successfully they were playing the game (aside from the formative feedback they received from me and their peers). Epic Words provides me with several tools that I can use to provide feedback and progress reports to students.

One form of feedback I’ll use to indicate successful completion of quest-related tasks and puzzles is XP (experience points). This has been very successful this term with my FYC I classes. While this term I’ve had to rely on Blackboard’s grade book  to record XP and provide students with a means of measuring their progress via a leader board (more on this in a subsequent post), next term I can use Epic Words, which will allow students to view their XP on the campaign’s XP page.

A second form of feedback Epic Words allows GM’s to create and award is loot, which has allowed a useful hack of Call of Cthulhu’s investigator attributes and skills. Rather than relying on dice roll to determine the attributes of an investigator, I can do so by awarding them loot for demonstrating mastery of various skills, such as research, analysis, creativity, etc. In addition to awarding them skills, I can also award them cash for participation and completing quests. The players can then use this cash to purchase investigative tools, such as flashlights, fingerprint kits, video recorders, and smartphones, from  a merchant (my merchant is called Doyle & Poe Investigative Merchants). Purchasing investigative tools will make their character more powerful. Again, all of a character’s loot can be tracked in Epic Words.

Endgame

How does completing quests and collecting XP and loot translate into a final grade in the course? In order to demonstrate the quality of their work and learning in the course, students will have to submit a portfolio of their game artifacts: their best blog posts; their XP; their skills, cash, and tools; and their forum and wiki contributions. They can then use this portfolio to advocate for the grade they feel they’ve earned in the course.

Design

Research has found that aesthetics can have a significant impact on motivation, immersion, and engagement among game players. I am planning to spend much more time on the visual design of the course than I did last term. Epic Words allows GM’s the add a background image and change the color scheme for campaign sites, as well as add images to pages. Being a fan of all (weird) things Victorian, including the neo-Victorian and steam punk movements, I think pulling design elements from these aesthetic styles will work well with the theme of the game.

Once I’ve finalized the components of the class and the campaign site, I’ll post updates here. I hope that this post inspires you to create your own RPG and/or try Epic Words as a tool for managing your games-based learning. I’d love to hear what you think of my ideas, how you’ve integrated RPG into your own classes, or how my post has inspired you to do so.

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.

 

All Together Now: Some Further Uses for Google Docs in the Composition Classroom

photo credit: KatieTT via photo pin cc

It took me a long time to become a Google Docs convert. I played around with the app as a tool for collaboration in an upper-level course one term and it was a total disaster, mainly because students didn’t know how to use it (and neither did I, really) and we often ran into issues when students attempted to access documents that I had shared with them (I think this had much to do with Google Docs’ bugginess at the time). I subsequently used Docs only when needing to access a document that had been shared publicly, and in doing so, began to see the utility in creating certain documents in the app so that I could hyperlink to and even embed them on a class website or whatever social media tool the class happened to be using.

The collaborative magic of Google Docs did not really appeal to me until I was forced to use the app to collaboratively edit an article that I had submitted to Hybrid Pedagogy. After submitting the draft of the article, the editors, Jesse Stommel and Pete Rorabaugh, provided me with feedback via the commenting feature and then Pete and I used the in-document chat feature to discuss how best to integrate their ideas with mine. As I worked to revise the document, Pete (virtually) worked alongside me, serving as both sounding-board and devil’s advocate and providing me with synchronous feedback on my revisions. It was an eye-opening experience, not just because I was unaware of many of the tools available in Google Docs (such as the revision history feature and the chat tool), but because of how powerfully the act of collaboratively revising a piece of writing affected me. I had always wrote alone, in isolation, never with someone looking over my shoulder and certainly never engaging in a dialogue about my rhetorical choices (and possible alternatives) as I was making them.

If writing collaboratively had such an impact on my writing, I began to wonder what kind of impact it could have on my students’ writing. So I began to consider how I could use this powerful tool that I had been poo-pooing for years as a weapon against the isolation, anxiety, and despair that I so often see plaguing my First-Year Composition students.

I know that there’s been a lot written about the value and utility of Google Docs in the classroom, so I won’t bore you with a rehashing of what others have already so effectively said. ProfHacker has written quite a bit about the app and their post “GoogleDocs and Collaboration in the Classroom” is chock-full of links to various tips and useful ideas. Getting Smart’s “6 Powerful Google Docs Features to Support the Collaborative Writing Process” provides an excellent step-by-step guide to using Google Docs especially for collaborative writing. And for a basic overview of Google Docs’ features and potential uses, you can browse through this slideshow:

 

By no means have I explored the full potential of Google Docs. But I would like to share a few strategies that I’m trying out in my Basic English Skills class this term that seem to be having an especially powerful impact on  my students’ writing.

Daily Journals

I’ve always used journals in my literature and writing classes, whether they were reading journals, learning journals, or writers’ journals, because I believe that the most powerful thing we can teach our students is how to be more “meta.” But there are several problems with student journals. The main problem is accessibility because I honestly never enjoyed lugging around armfuls of composition books, 3-ring binders, and plastic folders (or whatever else students had handy to stuff their hastily-thrown-together-at-the-last-minute “daily” journal into). Which brings me to the other problem. Since it was logistically impossible to check journals every day, I would usually take them up three or four times a semester, which meant that students could very well wait until the last minute to write all of their journal entries (but ingeniously writing each entry in a different color ink to disguise their act of subterfuge). This also meant that students were without their journals for the few days in which it took me to read and record their entries.

These are the reasons why I became an early adopter of student blogging. By having students blog instead of keeping analog journals, I could monitor their entries (and when they were doing them) without inconvenience to the students or myself. But students are sometimes hesitant about or resistant to making such informal, and often intimately personal, writing public. So, this term I have asked my Basic English Skills students to keep a daily journal (which can be on anything they wish to write about and functions to help them build their writing muscles) in Google Docs, which they’ve only shared with me. Besides alleviating any anxiety students might have felt about making their journals public, Google Docs allows me to easily monitor new entries (whenever a Doc is edited, the title turns bold) and to verify when students are completing their entries (by using the revision history feature). Aside from how much easier it now is to ask students to keep journals, I’m also enjoying reading their journals and learning more about their lives outside of the classroom (many of which are filled with challenges and struggles that often leave me in tears and/or feeling extremely blessed).

Writing in Teams

The sources that I referenced above have already pointed out the benefits of using Google Docs during the brainstorming and peer review processes. But I wanted to attempt to channel some of the power of those collaborative writing sessions that I shared with Pete Rorabaugh to help alleviate some of the angst that many of the students in a remedial writing class experience as they work their way through the entire writing process. So, I decided to have the students write in teams of three, with one team member serving as lead editor each week. The lead editor is in charge of each week’s blog post, which includes coming up with a focus question and locating 2-3 sources to help them answer their question, which they share with their team before the week’s first class meeting (I have had the teams indicate each week’s lead editor in a spreadsheet in Google Docs so that I am aware of which students are in charge each week).

But it gets really interesting when the teams come together in the week’s first class meeting. The lead editor creates a Google Doc, which they share with their team and me, and type in their focus question and a brief summary of how they plan to answer it. What follows is a 30-40 minute session in which the team discusses the question, the lead editor’s sources, and their plan for answering the question completely in writing in the Google Doc, observing a strict rule of silence (I adapted this activity from Lawrence Weinstein’s “Silent Dialogue” activity in Writing Doesn’t Have to Be Lonely). The purpose of this activity is to force the team to flesh out the lead editor’s ideas and to communicate all of their ideas in written form. This is beneficial for the lead editor because it provides them with sounding-boards and devil’s advocates and by the time they leave class, they have a much better grasp on what it is they want to say and how best to say it. It also benefits the other team members because it gives them more practice in expressing their ideas in writing. And it allows me to monitor the team’s work and provide my own feedback early in the writing process before the lead editor begins writing a draft that might be too ambitious in scope.

Aside from the pedagogical functions of the collaborate brainstorming session, the human factor becomes more obvious and explicit (a factor that, unfortunately, we as teachers often forget about). The docs lay bare the students’ hesitancies, their false starts, their doubts, their over-shootings, their assumptions, their candor, their egos, their camaraderie, and their humor. Here’s an example of one team’s silent dialogue session:

The next step in the process is for the lead editor to come to the next class meeting with a rough draft that they share with their team and me. The team then begins the process of revising, proofreading and editing, and designing the blog post. Again, I can use the revision history feature to monitor the transformation of the draft, verify that all team members are contributing, and provide feedback on the effectiveness of their work. All in all, this aspect of the collaborative writing model has been successful because of the synchronous access that Google Docs allows me to have to the students’ writing process, and I’m not sure that it would be as successful without it.

What I think I see as I read through the teams’ weekly brainstorming and collaborative writing sessions is a sense that they are not alone, that they have peers who are capable of helping them and who are invested in their writing as much as they are their own.

What a powerful thing for students to feel.

And while I can’t say with 100% certainty that the writing that is being produced would not have been as good if the students were not using Google Docs, I’m so confident that it is that I’ll be putting it to the test in my regular FYC classes next term.

 

Remediating Remedial Composition

Osmar Schindler (1869-1927): David und Goliath, 1888 via Wikimedia Commons

I’m a big fan of Mike Rose because I think that what he says makes a lot of sense. I just don’t understand why more university administrators and those in charge of remedial writing courses aren’t listening to him.

If you don’t know who Mike Rose is, you should get to know him by reading his blog or a few of his books, especially Lives on the Boundary, which is the first book of his I ever read. I read it after discovering his seminal article “Remedial Writing Courses: A Critique and a Proposal.” As the title of the article suggests, Rose first critiques the praxis of remedial composition and its theoretical underpinnings and then offers an alternative method for teaching students who require remediation in writing in a way that better eases their transition into the first-year composition course. Rose’s critique, then and now, questions the idea that students who arrive at university with substandard writing preparation need to be taught the very basics of writing, i.e., grammar and mechanics and sentence construction, as though they were primary school students, rather than the adults that they are, and the assumption that the mastery of these basics will somehow allow them to go on to succeed in the typical FYC course and their other college classes. As Rose points out, the entire construction of remedial composition courses dooms them, and by association the students who must take them, to failure:

Many of our attempts to help college remedial writers, attempts that are often well- intentioned and seemingly commonsensical, may, in fact, be ineffective, even counterproductive, for these attempts reduce, fragment, and possibly misrepresent the composing process. I believe we may be limiting growth in writing in five not unrelated ways. (1) Our remedial courses are self-contained; that is, they have little conceptual or practical connection to the larger academic writing environment in which our students find themselves. (2) The writing topics assigned in these courses—while meant to be personally relevant and motivating and, in their simplicity, to assist in the removal of error—in fact might not motivate and might not contribute to the production of a correct academic prose. (3) The writing teacher’s vigilance for error most likely conveys to students a very restricted model of the composing process. (4) Our notion of “basic skills” has become so narrow that we attempt to separate the intimately related processes of reading and thinking from writing. (5) In some of our attempts to reform staid curricula we have inadvertently undercut the expressive and exploratory possibilities of academic writing and have perceived fundamental discourse strategies and structures as restricting rather than enhancing the production and comprehension of prose.

Rose goes on to propose that remedial writing courses do just the opposite of what they (typically) do now. He envisions, and in fact has helped to design and administer, remedial writing courses that don’t assume students can’t meet the challenges of academic reading, thinking, and writing, but actually ask them to dive headlong into the proverbial intellectual deep-end, with the instructor guiding and coaching them as they struggle to navigate  academic discourse and add their voice to the academic conversation. This is not much different from how many of us approach traditional FYC courses. The main difference in remedial courses, at least in my experience, is the crucial need to not allow remediation to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

In remedial writing courses the challenge is not so much overcoming students’ unfamiliarity with the praxis of academic discourse as it is overcoming the label that students who are placed in remedial classes are given and the expectations (or lack thereof) that are associated with that label. In general, I have found that three types of students end up in remedial writing classes. The first group are those students who know that they have been placed in a remedial class and either resent it (because it does not count towards their degree hours and forms a barrier between them and the “real” classes that their peers are taking) or see it as a judgement on their writing ability and perhaps even on their merits and prospects as a student (I suspect that many of these students hypothesize that remedial is synonymous with “not meant to be here”). The second group of students do not even realize that they are in a remedial class or what that means. These students are often shocked to learn that the class signifies a deficiency on their part and will only count as institutional credit. The third group of students overlap with the other two, but I identify them as unique from their peers because they don’t actually belong in a remedial class but, because of poor testing skills or some other fluke, have been placed there. These students could do very well in my traditional FYC classes and therefore excel in my remedial classes, providing models for their peers to emulate. (On the reverse side of this is the fact that I always end up with a handful of students in my FYC classes who would greatly benefit from a remedial writing class and rarely are able to pass the traditional class).

Because of the precarious emotional and intellectual states of many of these students, the main function of a remedial writing class often becomes one of constant and intense encouragement as you arm your students to go out and meet the forces that they believe have been arrayed against them. If they feel like David going out to meet Goliath, then writing is the rock you must convince them they can sling. They have to believe that becoming a better writer is achievable or you have lost the battle before it has even begun (and it is an ongoing battle that you must fight all semester long). But forcing them to write self-contained paragraphs for a semester is not going to prepare them for FYC. Mollycoddling them with simplistic writing prompts is not going to help them face their next college writing assignment. And knowing a verb from a gerund is not going to help them compare and contrast two psychological theories or analyze a political cartoon or classify and analyze the medical symptoms of a hypothetical patient.

So, I’m doing things a little differently in my remedial writing class this term (the first that I’ve taught in a while) and following Rose’s four-tiered plan, which is founded on real writing challenges (the kind that students will be faced with as college students, not primary school students) that are situated within highly relevant contexts.

The Context

I have designed the class much like a journalism course in that the students will work together to design and publish a blog. The theme of the blog will be completely up to the class. At the moment, students are writing their first blog post, which is their proposal for the blog’s theme. Once students have identified potential themes, I’ll allow the class to vote on which theme they think will be the most interesting to write about this term. Once the theme is selected, the blog will function much like an digital newspaper, with students working together in groups to identify relevant stories, compose the stories, design the post layouts, and publish the stories by a deadline.

The Challenge

Students will write in small groups of three to four, rotating the role of lead editor each week. The week’s lead editor will be in charge of identifying sources for a story and sharing those sources with the other members of the writing team. The team will work together in class to brainstorm and outline the story and the lead editor will draft the story before the next class meeting. At the next meeting, the team will use Google Docs to collaboratively revise, edit, proofread, and design the blog post before the editor publishes the story to the class blog. The writing team will then have to create a VoiceThread that contains both the Google Doc in which they collaborated on the post and the final post itself. I will use the VoiceThread to provide feedback both on how effectively they collaborated as writers/designers and on the strengths and weaknesses of the final post, and the team will respond to my feedback and establish goals for their next post.

Rationale

My hope is that by having students publish their writing on a blog and select the topic of the blog, they will be more invested in the  act of writing and what they are writing about. Also, by asking students to work in writing teams, I hope to take the onus off of the individual student and provide them with a support group of peers. Because we will be using Google Docs, I will be able to monitor each team’s writing process and function as a member of each team myself. Since the class meets in a computer lab, I can be present both physically and virtually (a veritable hybrid teacher!), depending on where I am needed most by any given group.

The Technology Sticking-Point

I hesitated about using technology so heavily in a remedial course. My first instinct was to teach the course naked (figuratively speaking), going bare bones in an effort to achieve a type of Zen simplicity that I hoped would funnel over into the students’ thinking about writing. I did not want anything to complicate the already complicated relationship that many of these students are likely to have with writing. But in the end I could not get past the power that asking students to “publish it” rather than “hand it in” holds for my traditional FYC classes. I am sure that there will be some students who struggle with the technical aspects of the class and this may stifle their writing progress or even lead them to resent me and/or give up on the class. But I am hopeful that the risk of losing a few students will be trumped by the empowerment that the rest of the students will feel as they make a tangible footprint on the digital landscape.

I may be completely off my head in how I’ve planned the course. It may be that too many of my students will allow the remedial label to narrow their vision and foreshorten their potential. Too many may go into technology panic mode or feel that their writing skills are too inferior to be publicly evaluated and commented on. I may lose my nerve and ask them to abandon the field in mid-battle if I begin to see too much fear or hesitation on their part.

But, as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I’ll let you know how we fare.

In the meantime, if you’d like to read about another instructor who is taking a radical approach to remedial composition, read “A Model for Teaching College Writing,” which describes how Barbara Vance helped a group of struggling writers become a team of documentary filmmakers.

Creating a Learning Skatepark, Step 1: Deliberate Practice

photo credit: Andrés Navarro García via photo pin cc

In my last post, I shared a video that compared learning to skateboarding; while this video has had a major positive impact on my teaching philosophy, I mentioned the negative impact that it has had on the control that I feel I have over the learning that takes place in my classroom:

I think that everything Dr. Tae says is true about learning. And it’s kind of scary because it means that there’s even less that I can do about my students’ learning than I thought. They all learn at their own pace, learning is not always fun for them (and if we think that we can make it fun all the time, then we’re deluding ourselves and setting ourselves up for failure), and failure is guaranteed (at least at first).

I thought that I would write a series of posts that address how I have remixed my classroom as a result of these realities. I now see myself less as a sage on the stage or even a guide on the side, and more of an architect. As Albert Einstein said, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” The first thing that is necessary for creating conditions for learning is allowing students the freedom, space, and time to practice (and failure needs to be both expected and acceptable, but that’s a topic for another post). It does no good to create the conditions for learning–a skatepark, to use Dr. Tae’s analogy–and then try to tell your students what they need to do and how to do it. And then tell them they get one chance to try it and if they fail then, not only will they be penalized with a bad grade that stays with them for the rest of their time at the skatepark, but they won’t get any further opportunities to try to master the trick (unless it’s by re-taking the class again next term) and they’ll have to move on to the next trick on the list of tricks they must learn, whether they’ve mastered the first trick or not. And guess what? The next trick is even harder and requires mastery of the first trick. This is no more of an effective way of helping students learn as it is to put your kid on a bicycle with no training wheels, tell them they’ve got one chance to get it right, and then give them a big push.

But just any old practice is not going to do. One of the characteristics of learning to skateboard is working at a skill or trick until you get it right, not half-way or almost there, but right. This requires a type of practice called deliberate practice, which requires both a focused and concerted effort on mastery of a skill and reflection on what worked and what didn’t work during each practice session. I often have my students read this article from Time on the role of deliberate practice in becoming a great musician and we discuss the similarities between learning to play an instrument (or learning to perform a skateboard trick) and writing. What the studies on deliberate practice make clear is that the most important thing about practice is not how long or how much you practice; it’s about being able to recognize what you did wrong and making a commitment to figuring out how to do it right.

And this is what I require my students to do with each of their writing assignments (which I now call opportunities because, at the skatepark, every session is an opportunity to practice with and learn from other skaters). Firstly, I use a portfolio system. This allows students some freedom from the pressures of being graded on each writing performance. It also means that I’ve removed the sticks and carrots from my classroom. If students do anything in my classroom, they have to do it because they want to. I refuse to bribe them into being there and doing anything they don’t truly want to do. Only hardcore skaters are allowed at my park. And, yes, that means that some students drop or opt out. That’s their choice.

The second way I have integrated deliberate practice into my writing classes is by requiring students to self-assess each of their writing “practice sessions.” I’ll discuss my method in depth in a future post, but basically each student has to answer a set of questions about their final draft that addresses what they think is working and not working in the piece. They also have to set goals for themselves for their next “practice session,” selecting at least one weakness in the current piece they will work at weeding out of their next draft (and, if necessary, the next one and the next one, etc.). I then focus my feedback around their assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of their writing and where they need to focus their deliberate practice efforts.

photo credit: Kalexanderson via photo pin cc

But what I really wanted to focus on in this post is allowing my writing students to have some deliberate practice with engaging in the academic conversation–the type of dialogue that I want them to have with the sources that they are integrating into their blog posts. By far the most effective method for teaching students the type of summary and response that all academic writing engages in that I’ve used is Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s “The say/I say/So what?” method. But even with providing them with the templates from the book, my freshmen still struggle with how to effectively agree with someone (and disagreeing they won’t touch with a thirty-nine and half foot pole). So I designed a couple of different spaces  that allow them some deliberate practice with agreeing and disagreeing with their peers in preparation for agreeing and disagreeing with their sources.

We begin with a safe zone–the physical classroom–and a buddy system–peer groups–for testing the academic conversation waters. Students are grouped from the very first class meeting with 3-4 peers with whom they will stay for the whole term (I’ve considered the idea of rotating group members, as some instructors do, but once students become comfortable with each other, I think fear of failure decreases dramatically, so right now I’m opting for building a layer of protection with the peer groups). Their groups are where they will test out their ideas, bounce around arguments, and receive feedback during the entire process of brainstorming, drafting, revising, and publishing a piece of writing. I’ve spent quite a few semesters eavesdropping on the conversations that go on during these group sessions and am always surprised at how honest students will be with a small group of peers, especially once they have connected with each other and realize that everyone else is just as lost as they are when it comes to this academic writing thing.

Once students are pretty secure about their ideas and how best to communicate them, they publish their piece on their blog. I won’t spend time here discussing the benefits of having students blog. There are pros and cons and I have weighed them both and tried various methods and have had overwhelming success with public student blogs, both in terms of the quality of the students’ ideas and their writing and in terms of the feedback from the students on the positive impact of blogging on their feelings about writing. Among the many reasons why I require my students to blog, one is the dialogue that it creates around the students’ own writing. That’s the whole purpose of a public blog–to generate a discussion about an issue or topic. How much more exciting do you think students find it that their writing will be read and discussed by their peers rather than unceremoniously tossed in the trash after a cursory once-over by their profs? Just ask your students this question and see what happens. And if it doesn’t excite them, then you need to find something that does and that may not involve blogging (but that’s okay, there’s other ways to skin a cat).

The point of publishing their writing on their blog is so that the entire class has an opportunity to read what they have to say and respond to it in some way. So I require students to read and respond to at least three peers’ blog posts each week (I’m currently trying out a system of rotating students between the roles of bloggers and readers/commenters; I’ll let you know how that turns out and whether I’ll make it a regular practice or not). I give them some guidelines on how to comment on a blog post using a handout on commenting in online discussions that I found online and remixed to focus on blog comments. And then I let them practice–deliberatively. And I model effective blog commenting by commenting myself (more on the importance of role models in the skatepark later). One thing I’m trying out this summer is having students use Storify to create annotated bibliographies for their research, embed their “stories” in their blog, and then read and comment on each others’ bibliographies. So far, I think it’s working. Here’s a snippet from the comments on a student’s annotated bibliography post:

There are a couple of things going on here (all good, I think). Students are practicing agreeing and disagreeing with each other and they are providing feedback on the reliability and relevancy of research sources. The hope is that they will internalize these assessment skills and learn to apply them to their own research and writing practice.

That’s my hope, anyway. I don’t expect these kinds of comments from every student with every blog post. Some will get it faster than others. Some will not get it until the very end. Some may never get it (but hopefully will down the road if they get another instructor who’s willing to provide them the chance to try). And that’s okay. I’ve provided them with the space to practice in, some guidelines on how to know when they’ve got it right, and the freedom to try and fail as many times as they need to to get it right. If they learn anything, I hope it’s that it’s okay to suck at something when you try it the first time and that it doesn’t mean you can’t get better at it, and maybe even great at it, with a little deliberate practice.

I’m interested in how others are integrating deliberate practice into their classrooms and which methods you’ve found effective and ineffective. So, please share your ideas, stories, and questions. After all, students aren’t the only ones who benefit from deliberate practice.