The Gatsby Game and VSTE (finally)

I tried to write a post all about VSTE, and well, it just made me want to write about what I presented at VSTE (The Virginia Society of Technology in Education).  So, two birds, one stone.

Let me tell you about this game I started playing last year.

My school runs on the modular schedule which means our academic year is broken up into 5 week units.  I teach mostly juniors- so junior year of English looks a bit like this: each junior must take the required Slavery to Civil Rights module (junior year is American Literature) and the research paper module (I don’t want to discuss how this works for AP History students in this post).  For the remainder of the year, they select three of four options.  In the modernism module, I teach Hemingway’s In Our Time and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in five weeks. Gatsby_1925_jacket

Take that in for a minute.  Five weeks.

As you can imagine, that’s a small amount of time to condense a lot of context, both literary and historical.  When I first start with this venture last year, I spent the first four modules trying to bet on the right horse- how much is enough to read Hemingway? To read Gatsby? To teach about the Lost Generation? Where do I put poetry? Interwar period? THE WAR(s)?  At the same time, I was starting to really entrench (sorry, I wrote Hemingway and then he was in my head) myself in game-based learning.  (Now, what I do isn’t true to the current definition.  I’ve come to learn that I’m more of a “playbased learning.”  I’ll talk about that perhaps in a different post.)  To me, the module schedule timing felt right for that kind of environment- five weeks.  But I would have to create the elements first.  And, because Hemingway was already complicated enough for an all girls audience, I choose to start with Gatsby.  41C1amNRGhL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

The first play of this game was relatively easy, but in many ways not quite a success.  I created stock figures, stereotypes of the 1920s: the mob boss, the mobster, the dectective, the police, the socialite, the press, the bank.  Each figure had a particular perk- the mob could steal, the press could publish, the socialites could curry favor, and the bank did what banks do.  Each character also had a security deposit box where they could keep evidence, pass messages, keep money. The objective was simple: convince the public that Gatsby was either guilty or innocent (depending on your character) by collecting or fabricating evidence from the story.  We played for a week; the students even built alliances, something I hadn’t considered.  They robbed with delight and I recieved everything from the hotel receipt from Myrtle and Tom’s affair, a faux newspaper that connect them mob boss to Gatsby bank accounts, a printout of Gatsby’s bank accounts, a string of pearls, a crime scene report…they were true to the text while being creative.  It was incredible.

TeapartyRules

Tea Party Rules from OneNote

And yet, I still felt that the game was amiss.  My students spent a lot of time trying to create evidence (sometimes just to create it) rather than thinking about the objective.  Moreover, while they were alive in the world of Gatsby, I didn’t feel they were connected to the time period, let alone connecting Hemingway and Fitzgerald to a movement. And, to top it off, I’m a tech teacher.  I pride myself on integrating technology.  This game operated mostly with brown envelopes and paper money.

In the middle of all this, I took the game on the road with my work partner.  We present at VAIS (Virginia Association of Independent Schools).  I kind of turned my talk into a “how to play a game in class” to “it’s not quite ready, what would you do” session.  The session was really invigorating- it was nice to see that other English teachers wanted to do the same thing- create worlds (whether virtual or digital) for their students to understand context. However, we didn’t really come up with a good way to modify the game.

So.  I finished last year learning OneNote, going completely paperless, and trying to figure out how to make Modernism different with a game that was going well for my students, but not for me.  Summer needed to be about work.  I’m going to flash forward a bit here- just imagine me at my desk, fast forward mode, bending furiously like a puppet on absurd amounts of caffeine, a furrowed brow while I pretend that I didn’t just cram everything for this year into the last week of summer.  You get the idea.

Facebook Capture

Facebook Page for one of the characters

This year, the game has changed and I am loving it. It started with Lauren (my work wife/partner):

“Well, if you don’t want them to create their own artifacts, you’ll have to reconsider your objective.”

(Cue my groaning)  “That would require taking the emphasis off Gatsby.”

“Yea.  Perhaps.  Or what if Gatsby was just an access point. What if, Fitzgerald, and not Gatsby was the point?”

And from there, the new edition was born.  The characters are chosen a bit the same- each student picks a historical figure to play as and they create a facebook page for that character.  This is still done in secrecy; we hold a Gatsby tea party to introduce the players to each other.  (I’m told I make a very good barkeep.) They come in costume, and ask questions (with some help on what kinds of questions to ask- no questions that can be answered with yes or no statements).  And then…then they get the rules.

acebook

The Gameplay Tab in OneNote

There are five ways to win, depending on the alliance you’ve created/chosen.  Each alliance has certain pieces of evidence and a certain amount of money they must collect to win.  In this version, I have already created the evidence and I have already printed the money.

What’s the difference, you might say.

In this version, you win evidence, skill cards, and money through challenges.  Now, these can be as Gatsby-related as I want or they can be time period related.  I even threw in a few writing challenges.  And, I DID IT ALL IN ONENOTE.  

Capture

Game Play Skill Cards (Can you tell I like cats?)

It. Was. Amazing.

Challenges

My Challenges Page in OneNote

I have everything from the Charleston set to modern day music,  a written piece on why Lucious Lyon in Empire is a modern day Gatsby,  a recreated Depression era advertisement and even an MLA citation for every Fitzgerald book our library owned.  This version allowed my students to get really entrenched in Modernism. What’s more, we played for FOUR WEEKS.  Alliances shifted, challenges became harder, and the competition was fierce.  Every single student was engaged.

The game still needs some tweeking- I’ve learned that evidence should move into circulation quickly (the last time we played, I was sure the mod would end before a winner declared) and that challenges were a great way to scaffold learning when applied correctly.  I am also considering taking the money bit out- it seems to complicate the game more than move the players.  I did love using OneNote, but the cards were challenging to keep up with; while my students didn’t know that they could easily copy cards into their notebook and I would be none-the-wiser, I should have a better system.  I experimented a bit with a twitter board in the collaboration space of OneNote with some degree of success, but I’d like to move away from having a tupperware container of “security deposit boxes” (aka brown mailing envelopes).

Challenge1

The Photography Challenge

I took this to VSTE (Virginia Society of Technology in Education) in December.  Despite my nerves, I managed to explain this to a group of educators (I won’t claim I did it well).  Point is, I’m learning that there are other teachers craving the same immersed environment.  They keep me alive.  (Shameless plug: go to VSTE.  If you are a technology oriented teacher, GO TO VSTE.  You will find your people.  I did.) I connected with one teacher who plans to do something similar with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and another who might take this to his history class.  Please do- take and adopt.  Maybe we can be friends, and I’ll tell you all about the Edgar Allan Poe/Forensics mashup I built with a fellow science teacher (next post spoiler alert).  I posted the pdf of the rules (thank you Lauren for being much more skilled in InDesign than me).  By all means, email or comment below, and let’s start having fun in the classroom!

PS: I have consent and permission to share student content on this post.

Gatsby Game Rules

 

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Dear Labyrinth, I love you.

Newly returned from the VSTE (Virginia Society of Technology in Education) conference, I know I need to post about the amazing sessions I attended or about the two topics I nervously bumbled through in front of other educators. I know I need to email other teachers some things I mean to share.

And I will, I promise.

But right now, I want to use this space to promote one of my favorite places and some of my favorite things.

This past month, my work wife Lauren (@iteacherFlorida) and I have been just swamped.  The modular schedule is still a bit challenging and this year we are co teaching journalism.  We’ve spent the past four weeks pushing 16 girls of varying abilities and grades into journalistic writing and the software program InDesign.  It hasn’t been easy.  It’s a good day if I’m driving away from campus by five o’clock.

Lauren took off for Budapest this weekend.  I am a little jealous.  (I have e86a6dce542670b98be757d1a11777c9my own vacation around the corner, so no hard feelings.)  Luckily, I knew just the place to lift my tired spirits.  Lauren and I have a few favorite places that we are religiously devoted to and Labyrinth is at the top of that list. I think I’ve professed my love of games to any one who knows me, but if not: I LOVE GAMES.  Tabletop games in particular; I grew up with “family game night,” a night dedicated to Scrabble, Sorry, Trivial Pursuit, and the like.  My family visits toy stores not for toys, but for the games. (They want me to share that they have since found a local store to buy their new games- I even took my mom to Labyrinth her first visit to DC and now its a staple on her return list to DC.)

Labyrinth isn’t a toy store.  Well, not in the way we think of toy stores.  Instead, it is a carefully organized and crafted collection of some popular games, a lot of new games, and games you never knew you will love.  What’s more, they partner with local schools to build communities of play.  It’s not uncommon to visit the store and find a member of their staff hosting a school, running a birthday party, or (and this is my favorite reason to come) teaching literally ANYONE how to play a new game.  Labyrinth has a store copy of almost every item, allowing customers to play the game before taking home their own copy.

I usually do just that- open the store copy up and examine how the mechanics works.  This really helps me think about how game mechanics are so drastically different (I talked about this a bit at VSTE).  I am, however, spoiled by Kathleen, the most knowledgeable tabletop gamer I know.  And, she’s really nice!

When I popped in this Saturday, she had the two games for me- both 1213151319agames she recommended based on my previous purchases and what she knows about the types of games I and my students play (I cannot begin to tell you how on the mark she is about this or how incredible it is that she remembers her returning customers, both young and old).  Today I picked up Spyfall and Codenames, and couldn’t help but add Batman Fluxx and Holiday Fluxx (thank you Looney Labs!).

And then, just when things couldn’t get any better, Kathleen whips up  a creeper and a keeper for both editions of Fluxx and hands me a reject pack for Cards Against Humanity.

See? She gets me. Labyrinth gets me.

I love that place.

You should too.  They’re right off the Eastern Market Metro- walk past the CVS and you can’t miss it. And if you don’t live anywhere near DC, I’m sure there is a local game store in most areas.  Indy shop owners are very dedicated people and the customer service will be unbeatable.

I can’t wait to play Spyfall and Codenames.  I’ll post reviews, but I’ve got to first post about VSTE and then I’ve promised a Fluxx Basics tutorial for the classroom.

PS.  I taught my other half how to play Fluxx, and now he insists this be the way we settle any disagreement. Ever. (I might have created a Fluxx monster.)

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Filed under Casual sunday, Game review, My Places, Uncategorized

Necessary: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

I was supposed to write a back-to-school post, but then back-to-school happened.  I promised I’d write by the end of August, and then September happened while October keeps on happening.  I promised myself it would be all warm and fuzzy and “yay back to school.”

c06-48Instead, I want to write to you today about some pretty complicated things, and if I’m being honest, I’m at a loss where to begin.  I’m going to try anyway: I teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain in my classroom.  In case you are unaware of the complication involved in that task, here’s a short briefing.  In this literary text, the author chose to use a derogatory term in describing the novel’s runaway slave, Jim.  He didn’t just use it once; he used some 271 times.  This fact has made Adventures of Huckleberry Finn arguably one of the most banned books of our century.  It is still officially and unofficially banned in parts of the United States.  I tell you this so that you will understand how controversial my next statement is: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a necessary book in a high school curriculum.

My intent is not to justify the literary merits of a book that challenged the status quo in its day, or to explain why Huck’s familiarity with that derogatory term is crucial to understanding the novel as an indictment of inherent racism.  You will have to read the book, without any personal agenda or attempt at racial politics to understand why Huck’s “alright then, I’ll go to hell” moment was and is a siren call in American literature.  You’ll have to read it to understand that when Huck calls Jim “my nigger”, it isn’t just a term of affection but an acknowledgement that in a corrupt, sickened culture, it is Huck’s white privilege that saves Jim and shames Huck.  You’ll have to read it to understand why Toni Morrison’s states “the argument that this novel is has been identified, reidentified, examined, waged, and advanced.  What it cannot be is dismissed.” 

I say this in so many words to every class I teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  I want my students to talk about that word, the history of racism in our country, and even the racism that still exists.  Most of the time, the conversations surrounding that novel are genuine, reflective, difficult, and redeeming.  For me, it’s an acknowledgement of my own white guilt, my own white privilege, and my own cultural heritage.  It reminds me that we still have so much more to do.

This is all just part of why I write you.

Today, a colleague shared with me an incident that happened while on dorm duty (I work at a boarding school).  Four students at my school took it upon themselves to reproach another student for supposedly using that same derogatory term in class. This may not seem so terrible. Everyone is allowed to voice their hurt, their uncomfortableness in being offended, intended or not.  Let me also share with you that none of these four girls are in the class that this offense was rumored to have been said.  These four students approached the other student in her bedroom.  One more thing- this class is currently studying, you guessed it, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

My first thoughts were scrambled in outrage.  Rage became questions: how does this cultivate an environment that promises integrity, compassion, or awareness of self and others, a motto my school holds dear? How does this cultivate an environment that promises integrity, compassion, or awareness of self and others, a motto my country holds dear?

The United States we all live in is built on innovation, creativity, and diversity.  It’s also built on the backs of slaves, the blood of brothers (and sisters, my inner feminist reminds me), and a complicated history.  And we can’t even begin to understand this legacy or inspire progress if we can’t find a way to talk about it.  I worry that my students are so occupied with the politicalness of their identities that they are unable to divorce themselves to think analytically about something.  But what worries me most is that what could have been a great conversation was instead an accusation.  There is no clear cut answer on many issues surrounding race, racism, and identity.  But there is a way to talk about it.

I don’t believe this is the way, and I really believe we as a community nation should start talking about how to talk so that our students we can have those genuine, reflective, difficult, and redeeming conversations.  And until we can do that, we doom every generation after us to not only dismiss Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the uncomfortableness it invokes, but we also deny any opportunity for the next generation to understand why Jim is crucial to progress.

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Twas the Night Before Class….

Sometimes I’m not quiet, I’m scheming.

I need to write about the VAIS conference that energized my teaching philosophy, but all I can think about right now is the Gatsby game that begins in my classroom tomorrow.  I’m like a kid at Christmas, an excited neurotic bundle.  I can’t wait to see it played, I can’t wait for feedback, and I’m already anticipating writing about it.

I can’t help it; I’m a gamer through and through.

This all started with “what ifs.”  I often find myself on Lauren Roy’s couch (she is the an education technology specialist at my school) playing through “what ifs.”  In my dream school, English is married to computer science or a technology class.  Video games are nothing more than interactive stories; novels are the original role playing games.  Yet so many educators are reluctant to join the two for fear we lose something.

I, on the other hand, think they would be great for each other.

It started like this:

“what if Gatsby were a video game”

and

“what if we took the desks out of my room”

and

“didn’t we just buy Ultimate Werewolf for Casual Sundays?”

and

“couldn’t Gatsby be an Ultimate Werewolf game?”

And suddenly, we were scheming. Two weeks later, and the Gatsby RPG  is ready for play tomorrow.  I’ve deviated a little bit from the original schematics (I’ll write more after the prototype is played through), but it’s just wonderful to know the fruits of collaborating with an amazing “what if” partner.  (Also, OneNote is a great tool to keep all those couch borne “what if” ideas.)

*Click the picture for better detail.*

OneNote Planning for Gatsby

OneNote Planning for Gatsby

For now, I’m giddy and can’t wait to play.  Will report back soon.

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Filed under Literature Related, Reflection

A Picture is Worth a Thousand words (ok, maybe more like 261?)

When teaching English, it’s easy to forget that visual literacy isn’t just the ability to read and interpret written text.  Especially in today’s world- infographics, ads, commercials, movies- they all demand some inference and interpretation very similar to analyzing a story.  This was very much at the heart of one of my favorite teaching activities to do with students.

In this particular case, I asked them to gather items for a character’s suitcase.  See if you can guess what character it might be (Some hints:  I was teaching American Drama and the movie is a classic).

Guess who's coming to dinner...

Guess who’s coming to dinner…

A pearl necklace, a scarf, a bit of lace, perfume, lipstick, tea, and heels?  This can only mean Blanche DuBois.  They even arranged it artfully so- leading us to discuss the things that would upset Stanley or how one might modernize the movie by substituting certain items (“who drinks tea anymore? I’d drop a Starbucks card in there bruh”) or updating her wardrobe (“girl has a thing for lace.  Someone get her some Gucci leather”).

The best part: this can be modified to do any character from literature.  Have a knapsack? Huck Finn does.  How about a green tarp?  Better see to Pilate (Song of Solomon).

And then, if you are really ambitious, snap a photo and you have an instant quiz/test question: “choose an item from the suitcase that symbolically represents that character.  Explain it’s significance and compare the item to the character.”  As I tell my students, no surprises here.  Just pictures turned into words.  Make it so.

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Things I Assume the Juniors Know But Don’t….

1. Annotate in a productive, fruitful manner.

2. Cite correctly in MLA style.

3.  Outline a paper.

4. Understand grammar lingo associated with paper editing, feedback, and construction.

 

Yikes.  Looks like I have some planning to do for next year….

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Reason #45 Why I love OneNote

It makes visual journaling soooo much easier….(and this yet after writing about a moleskin journal)Visual Journal Prompts_Page_1

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Filed under Literature Related, Reflection, Teaching Methods, Uncategorized

The Untarnished Moleskin

Mattias Aldofsson's fountain pen moleskin drawings

Mattias Aldofsson’s fountain pen moleskin drawings

I’ve been in love with journaling since I could remember/retain what journaling meant; I remember my first diary very clearly.  It was pink, glittery, and had a lock that was sure to keep out my little sister.  My grandmother bought it at the dollar store, along with the pack of pens that I would lose in the next hour.  But that diary….

It seemed to me (and still does to some extent) that both important people and everyday people alike kept a journal.  Lewis Carroll (of my beloved Alice in Wonderland stage) kept meticulous diaries, even though they would one day incriminate him.  Virginia Woolfe, the first writer I really understood as a woman’s writer, was an avid journal scribe.  Mark Twain was never seen without one, Kurt Cobin rarely seen with his but it existed.  It didn’t matter what walk of life, as a young girl I thought that people were supposed to keep diaries and journals.

I’d like to say that I kept up with my journaling through grade school naivety, through high school angst, and even through college busyness.  But only some of that is true- I went through spurts of intense writing, where every day was meticulously detailed, “Lunch: tray of fries.  Milk.  God, why can’t I stop eating fries.”  As I got older, details become ideologies ruminated at the end of the day, “How is it possible to know when you are in love, like the very moment?”  But the truth is journaling, like writing is hard.  And habit-forming, as in, you have to do it and make it a habit or you don’t do it and oops, where is that thing again?

And yet, I own at least seven, unused, neatly wrapped moleskins.  Every now and then, I take them out, fondle the unbroken spines (50 Shades of Molekskin anyone?), and wonder if today is the day I will write in one.

Hike Guy's Moleskin Page

Hike Guy’s Moleskin Page

I imagine some of my hangups are the same one my students face when asked to do an essay, rough draft, or even a creative writing piece; after all, the same questions they ask plague me.  What do I write?  How do I start? What if I get it wrong?  What is a good entry? How long should it be? Inevitable, I begin to compare anything I might do to the amazing work of others.  Like this guy, Kolby Kirk, and his amazing hiking journals.  I particularly love how his moleskins are hybrids of writing, mapping, and sketching.  I really like his philosophy that journals should be messy, dirty, interactive things that are free from constriction.  Like rough drafts, but fun.

And then, a thought happens: how could I use journaling in my classroom as a way to help my students become active journalists?  How could I help myself?  Where would one begin?  How would one start?  Could I start? I talk all the time about the value of a rough draft, a good outline, and a working thesis.  These are a lot like messy, dirty, interactive moleskins.  Maybe this is merit in journaling frequently in class, but how could there be proof without being intrusive?  What kind of negotiating would a teacher need?

And then: how do I let go of the part of me that wants to organize, label, and categorize every entry before I even start?  How do my students? Do I grade them?  How do I grade them if I want them to write freely?  Is the act alone enough to warrant a grade?

I almost think with my new project (gamifying the classroom), journaling will become a must- it must become both record book and reflection.  Journal prompts are a whole other issue- I have a love/hate relationship with using journal prompts in the classroom.  While I completely see the merit in a guided prompt, the non-teacher side of me cringes every time I see or use one.  I’m much more likely to use a writing guide, an insert if you will for my students.  I really like Mike Shea’s moleskin insert for writers; making one for high school students would be interesting.

The best start might be my own: unwrapping a moleskin of my very own this week and put the untarnished moleskin issue to rest.  Stay tuned.

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Reason #34 why I love OneNote

Because my students rock at outlining.

OneNote Essay Outlining

OneNote Essay Outlining

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Andy Looney Beat Me in Fluxx

Andy Looney!!

Andy Looney!!

Sometimes, the best part of my job isn’t my job at all.  Sometimes, the best part of my job involves play.  This was completely the case on Sunday, when Andy Looney of Looney Labs came to play with us during Casual Sunday.

Now that statement may not quite mean anything or sink in yet.  If you are a Fluxx player, then start melting.  Andy Looney, inventor of the Mensa approved game, Fluxx, ventured out of Looney Labs with 6 different versions of Fluxx, 4 of which were not published on the market.

I’d like to claim that I’m just so cool even Andy Looney likes to play Fluxx with me, but I don’t think I’ll ever reach that level of epicness.  My students however, are awesome.  It was their epicness that made things happen.  Let me explain.

A big part of my teaching philosophy involves gaming in the classroom. I firmly believe that strategic gaming is a great platform to engage play and higher level critical thinking skills.  About two modules ago (we teach on a module schedule), I asked my American Drama Module to create an adaptation for A Streetcar Named Desire.  My only rules: it had to be an adaptation, which means certain plot devices had to remain and the story had to be mostly recognizable.  Beyond that, no guidelines, no project format, no detailed page long project description.  Oh, and there was a prize: best project won movie tickets and me as a chauffeur.  For a boarding school, this was “jackpot”.  (Apparently using article is now not considered hip.)  As nervous as I was about the outcomes of this “open ended project” format (ermergawd I’m going to get cardboard-put-together-last-minute-diaromas), the students were much more in stress mode.  IMG_2274

“Can you at least give us a list of project options?”

“Can you tell me if my idea is right?”

“What if I do it wrong?”

This is exactly why I think teaching creative play in the classroom is so important.  I will spare you a diatribe until a later post, but I will say this: we have programmed our students to believe that thinking outside the box is too risky.  It’s not worth the risk of getting a bad grade, it’s not worth the risk of being wrong.  We have programmed students to think that creative play is wrong.  And that is fundamentally the opposite of what learning and the classroom should do.

Every single group blew me away.  I had a fairy tale adaptation, a Teletubbies version, a fake documentary, and A Street Car Named Desire Fluxx.  While they didn’t win, I did tweet their version to Labyrinth Games in DC (best game shop ever).  I didn’t realize this at the time, but Kathleen at Labyrinth sees Andy Looney for Small Business Saturdays (yet another reason to love this place).  In passing through, I showed Kathleen pics of the version, and lo and behold, in about the time span of a week Andy Looney wanted to come play it.

It was awesome.

 

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Filed under Boarding school life, Casual sunday, Teaching Methods, Teaching Philosophy