Thursday, February 19, 2015

How to Innovate an English Class? Flip, Gamify, and Post Online: Some Notes from a First Time Gamer

There are 3 major ways I have re-designed the learning experience for my students to make the English class a little less traditional. Shortly put, I've flipped the class, gamified curricular assignments, and connected students to real audiences via digital platforms such as blogger, and as result, class time is more meaningful, needs-based, and student-centered (due to flipping). Students have been more motivated (due to gamification) because there’s more options and more differentiation for each unique learner, and lastly, students’ demonstrations of learning are more authentic, relevant, and purposeful because we collaborate online, displaying our work to real audiences at other campuses.

I've shared some insights, strategies, and past experiences about my successes with getting students to collaborate online, to think, write, and read for each other (Go here and here for JoelGarza’s thoughts on that topic as well). Right now my classes (along with a school in Memphis, TN) are using this blog site to share work, exchange ideas, and hopefully collaborate on some joint projects as we currently read William Shakespeare’s Macbeth together.

In terms of flipping my class, I’d like to share more details on that later, but one strategy I’ve employed is podcasting (using GarageBand), which enables one to cover topics in a 20-30 min segment that would have taken days to get through in a traditional lecture/discussion format. Here’s a sample of something I put together with some former students to prepare my current sophomores for their study of Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play.” (Try here if YouTube vid didn't work)

All this has been great, but what I want to share right now are my insights and reflections about what it’s been like to gamify an English class for the first time. If you’re unsure of what “gamification” might mean watch this: 

In my class, our unit is on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and I’m in the thick of it as we speak, journeying through chaotic but amazing new territory with my students, and I’ll confess, we’re not sure how it will all turn out. So far, there have been some profound successes, and my eyes have been opened in more than one way. I must tip my hat, at this time, to Seth Burgess of Lausanne Collegiate School for blazing the trail on this bold expedition and for doing most of the preliminary designing to make this venture work as it has.

Here’s a quick breakdown: we’re using where there are 6 courses which function as “levels.” All students begin with an access code to enter “level 1,” and all students start with 0 “XP” points (as opposed to starting at 100% and being graded punitively). Students may gain XP points by completing both required assignments (examples: small written essays, digital essays, performances of play, online quizzes, etc.) and what we call “optional grind assignments” (examples: translating lines to modern English, making props, designing costumes & sets, posting on the blog). Students are not graded on an A to F scale for these assignments; they are either awarded the full XP points (which could be 5, 10, 20, or more depending on the volume of work) or nothing. ONLY when they have mastered the task (meaning some students will make multiple attempts) will students be given credit, and they are not penalized for making multiple attempts. Once enough points are gained, a student will receive a new access code to move on to the next level. As they move up the levels assignments get more challenging, but the students have more and more options as well. Some students will never make it to level 6 and “beat the game,” but many will. The beautiful thing is that a student could stay at level four but do enough “grind assignments” to ensure a superior score by the end of the project.

Some insights so far:

-Grading and failure have a completely different value when assignments have been gamified. In the video above, Avi Spector talks about “failing forward”; I call it failing towards mastery, which is something that traditional grading can sometimes discourage. (I bet Edison “failed forward” on a daily basis and look where it got him…) Grading is now a team effort between teacher and student not an adversarial stand-off. As a result, there’s more trust in the classroom.

-Differentiating assignments and providing options for students have directly fueled their motivation and drive. One student the other day smirked at me and said that he was going to focus on assignment X for points instead doing Y or Z because assignment X was so much easier. He thought he found a loophole; I say he found his learning style and the assignment that fit it best.

-Speaking of learning styles, watching students choose their path of success (and each is different) has taught me so much more about each individual’s method for learning. Seeing what they choose gives me feedback on how to engage, motivate, and stimulate each student for future units of study as well. Interestingly, there have been some surprises in this arena: (1) I have some students (who were “weak” English students) who are excelling in ways they never did before, and that has revealed to me that the content-area was never the problem: it had everything to do with how the learning experience was being designed. In other words, it was my problem. (2) I have some students who are typically “strong” English students who are lagging, and this concerns me. Why the dip in performance? Could it have something to do with self-management? Still working that one out…

-Because students have options and are working at their pace and according to their interests, class discussions have become so authentic! Students bring a kind of what-I-need-to-know mindset to the classroom, asking real questions to serve a real interest on their part. I have always felt like even the most successful class discussion days were tainted with in-authenticity (whether it be the teacher forcing the direction of a discussion or a student desperately grasping for something to say to please the instructor…). These discussions have been authentically urgent, student-directed, and so insightful! I haven’t been in control of my classroom agenda for 2 weeks, and it’s an awesome feeling!

Some concerns so far:

-What do you do when a student doesn’t seem to be good at self-management? What if they tank and fall behind? I’ve noticed that there is a widening gap between students who excel at self-management and those that do not when one gamifies their curricular approach. What do you do about that gap?

-How does an English teacher grade efficiently and stay on top of what is a gargantuan task of providing a constant feedback loop? In other words, I’ve noticed another widening gap between the overwhelmed teacher and the uber-motivated student. How do you keep up when considering the grading tasks of an English Lit. teacher?

These are my thoughts so far. This is all so new, so please leave a comment, suggestion, etc. I don’t have all the answers on this, but I am discovering some amazing gains from this approach as I go. I’ll update more later.

-Jared Colley

Here's another helpful resource from Philip Vinogradov that I got at EduCon this year.


  1. Thanks, very much for the details and the candor!
    On the excited side: I'm willing to give just about anything a try if it means student-directed energy on a daily basis! I can even imagine this working kind of like grade-school centers—one self-selecting group focused on characterization, another on rhetorical devices and their effects, another on staging and direction, etc. How often do gamifying students present to each other? I’d love to have each differentiated interest informing the others.
    On the less-than-excited side: I'm glad that you're up front with the difficulty of a feedback loop--that's one thing that gives me pause about gamifying. (Or maybe we're biased as English teachers: Accustomed to lengthy unit-long assessments, we are out of practice at the kind of quick turnaround that's standard operating procedure for, say, a Spanish I instructor.) Finally, as for differentiating assignments and providing options, how/would this differentiation impact your design of a standard final exam for a year-long course?

    1. Thanks, Joel, for the comment! We did two things to encourage students to share their differentiated journeys of learning with each other: (1) students could earn extra XP points if they presented their essay, performed their scene, or explained their created product of learning with the class. (2) Teachers (and students) would post excellent demonstrations of learning to the blog site as well (, and this (by itself) may not have encouraged student sharing directly, but we also awarded XP points to students who commented on the work of their peers as demonstrated on the blog, which created incentive for audience feedback.

      There's no getting around the feedback concern: it's A LOT of work for the humanities teacher, no doubt! Here's one suggestion: feedback for their writing could be staged according to the "game level" they're at - meaning that maybe the teacher just focuses on mechanics and MLA formatting at levels 1 & 2. At level 3, perhaps the feedback could be more about paragraph composition and sophistication of sentence structures. The later levels the teacher could focus on deeper matters of composition such as the quality of argument being developed by the student in question.

      Your last question is more difficullt to answer. We (as in me and Seth from Memphis) both plan to give an "assessment test" over Macbeth at the end, but it's for us - not the students! Did we adequately teach Macbeth to our students via this highly differentiated approach? The exam assesses the success of the teachers' project design more than anything else because students in terms of engagement, participation, and effort undoubtedly rose to the occasion.

      Another thought related to assessment: offers a great interface for creating online quizzes (that can be timed with a randomized database of questions), and students did have to make perfect scores on what we might call "reading check" assessments to move on to higher levels. I know that's not a deep assessment, but it did ensure that each student is where they needed to be in terms of reading progress and comprehension of the text's themes, plot, and character development.

    2. About semester finals specifically:

      As I envision my final exam at the end of this semester (as in May 2015), the assessment that might creep up on such a test would focus less on the specifics of the text we read or on what students did to respond to it in differentiated ways and instead would assess their ability to use certain literary terms or concepts that all students had to master for purposes of responding to any of the prompts or questions provided in the gamified levels of the project. (I would rather a student demonstrate mastery of concepts like tragedy, hamartia, peripety, catharsis, dramatic irony, etc., than recall what they learned about the specifics Macbeth itself, and the way we designed this project would make that possible and fair for all students, no matter their chosen path of discovery...Or that's what I'm hoping see!!!)