First Steps and Pitfalls: How we got started…

This is the second post in a collaborative blog series telling the story of three teachers, in three different classrooms using gamification to create a more meaningful and engaging learning environment. The first post laid the foundation as Santha Walters (@santhawalters), Liz Lambert (@LambertClass), and Phillip Loomis (@TeachLoomis) discussed their reasons for infusing gamification into their English classrooms. Not an English teacher, no worries! These strategies can be used in any subject or grade level.

“That sounds awesome, but I have no idea where to start!” – Random quote from the majority of teachers who hear a great strategy but have no idea where to begin.

Teachers often hear about great ideas and strategies to use in their classroom. However, rarely are they provided a roadmap to use as they embark on the new journey. That is the focus of the upcoming posts in this series. Providing teachers with the steps they can take to begin using gamification in their classroom, no matter what they teach. Not only are Santha, Liz and Phillip going to be providing the first steps they took in implementing gamification in their classrooms, but also some of the productive struggles they have encountered during the process.

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Santha Walters (@santhawalters) – 8th Grade English Teacher, Logan Fontenelle Middle School

unnamedFor me, my gamification process started with reading and a flow chart. I used Matthew Farber’s Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning (New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies) book to both understand why gamification was a sound strategy and how to go about getting started.

After pursuing several chapters, I came up with this flowchart to share with my collaborators in the gamification project to explain how I was seeing things play out.    

fullsizerenderI decided on a house system based loosely on the Harry Potter book series. The entire team of 121 students was sorted into four “houses” or teams. Dividing them equally, it ended up being approximately 30 students per house. These teams spanned the entire body of students I teach, so students in 2nd period who were in House X were also grouped with students in 3rd hour in House X and so on.   

One of my first steps in creating the teams was to build them in a way that they were of equal intellectual strength. Calling on my team of special educators, I asked them to help me uniformly distribute the kids across the four houses. After the team here at Logan identified all the students I teach with special needs (SPeD) and high ability learners (H.A.L.), we then focused on making sure that each house had the same number of SPeD and H.A.L. kids. This appears to have done the trick as the intellectual strength of each house seems fairly even.

As far as pitfalls, I think the biggest challenge has been counting up points because I provide so many different avenues for students to do the teamwork (they can make worksheets, do worksheets, create teaching videos, do quizzes online) and they are not divided by class period anymore. However, I would much rather spend this time counting all the work they have turned in than writing emails to parents about students who have not completed their grammar work. The honest truth of it is that one of the reasons this is so time consuming is because so many students are turning in and actually doing their work–which was the goal to begin with! Some say “be careful what you wish for,” but I would wish for this level of engagement a hundred times again. The raw potential in the gamification strategy is astounding.

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Liz Lambert (@LambertClass) – 7th/8th Grade English & Math Teacher, Lewis & Clark Middle School

I made the decision to go “all in” with gamification after meeting with my colleagues over the summer to discuss grammar. Leaving the meeting, I felt overwhelmed. I didn’t really know the ins and outs of gamification, and coming up with a whole new method ounnamed-1f delivering instruction and measuring student progress seemed completely daunting to me.

As I drove home from that meeting, I remembered this game I played with my husband called Pandemic, a strategy game where all players are given jobs and work collectively to eradicate diseases from all over the globe. A lightbulb went off. I decided to turn my grammar curriculum into a huge game of Pandemic. When I pitched the idea to my kids, they thought I had completely lost it, but after the first week, they were hooked. To help students “buy in,” each student was put into a group of “researchers,” given a job, and sent somewhere on the map that I had hanging in my classroom. Each destination on the map represented a different grammar concept. My journey into gamifying my classroom had begun!

Gamifying my class has allowed my students to learn at their own pace, to pick activities to practice each grammar concept that interests them while promoting creativity, and to collaborate with their peers. Even though this process has been wonderful for my class, we have encountered some pitfalls. As with any technology device, sometimes, things don’t work the way they are supposed to. It also has been time consuming for me as the teacher. I have spent several plan periods just counting points that each student earned on a given day for their group. However, these times are so worth it to me if it means my students are learning, growing, and are diving deeper into the content. Their assessments are showing that they are understanding the material better than ever before, so those plan periods I’m spending counting points are not as time consuming as offering test retakes and study sessions. I have simply restructured my time and how it is being used. The time is absolutely worth the reward.

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Phillip Loomis (@TeachLoomis) – 7th Grade English Teacher, Logan Fontenelle Middle School

Playing strategic board games and role-playing games (RPGs) was a passion for me many years ago. While only a very occasional player now, I still feel the lure these games have on me. It was this feeling that jumped out at me when Santha Walters (@sa8cffed134ca4f139629ae75f3f87ba25_400x400nthawalters) first spoke to me about gamification. How could I tie that emotion into a grammar lesson?

In order for gamification to be successful, I knew two things; first, it needed to be engaging to my students, and second, I didn’t want to add significant time to my day to run it. To do this, a little reading was needed. It began with the book, Level Up Your Classroom: The Quest to Gamify Your Lessons and Engage Your Students, by Jonathan Cassie (@joncassie). The four mechanics (Table 1) and six properties (Table 2) he outlines provided me with the vehicle for my ideas to reach the classroom. Similar to Santha, I created four houses (all with equally mixed abilities), and began designing a ‘house cup’ type of contest. I provided various ways in which students could compete through the form of work they chose, outlined ways in which both personal and house points could be earned and lost. And off we went.

The largest pitfall that I’ve subjected myself too so far was during my first game, when I rolled out a game without clear instructions about how to earn/lose points or identify specific conditions for victory. In Cassie’s book (Available through Amazon) , he specifically mentions the need to have both clearly defined rules and the conditions to win available for the students. This is where I jumped in without being adequately prepared. In my attempt to ‘feel my way through’ the first couple of days of a game to make any needed tweaks, I confused both the students, and at one point, myself. The lesson was taught, and the assignments were accomplished, but to stumble so quickly into a new game significantly decreased student buy-in. Spend the extra hour or so ensuring these aspects are set, and explained from the start. You’ll save time doing this now compared to catching up and explaining changes of the rules later, which may include the need to correct student and house points.

Table 1

Mechanics Purpose
Agen (Greek: Struggle) The skill factor of the game
Alea (Latin: dice) The chance factor of the game
Mimicry Players assume a different identity
Ilinx (Greek: whirlpool) A momentary lapse of game stability

Table 2

Fundamental Properties, Jonathan Cassie’s, Level Up Your Classroom
1. All games are in some way a combination of the four mechanics.
2. Games have strict rules that all players must follow.
3. Game-winning conditions are clearly defined.
4. There are many different ways a game can end-not just one.
5. Players try hard to win because winning is desirable.
6. Games can be played repeatedly with different outcomes.

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Gamification has not only transformed the way the curriculum is being presented to students but more importantly the learning environment in these three classrooms. Students are engaged, collaborating, and completing more work than ever before!

Over the next couple of posts Santha, Liz, and Phillip will be diving deeper into how their gamified classrooms and units are setup. They will be showing examples and providing more resources and ideas! Make sure to click Follow on the right of this page so that you don’t miss any of the upcoming blog posts!

Written by Jeffrey Bernadt, Santha Walters, Liz Lambert, & Phillip Loomis