Planning to Write: Video Game Reviews

Video Game Review Planners

One of our writing components in our Video Game Design unit, now underway and nearing competition, is a persuasive piece of writing, in which my students analyze through a design lens and then review a video game. This kind of writing will also set the stage for our shift into Argumentative Writing down the road.

Video Game Review Planners

I love how invested so many of my students, particularly my struggling writers, feel with this particular assignment because they are writing an opinionated piece about something they know very well. They are sharing their gaming knowledge. Of course, like all of our writing assignments, it begins with planning out their ideas, and these graphic organizers show some of the thinking behind the writing of the reviews.

Video Game Review Planners

We also read and watched a few mentor texts (printed reviews and a video review), talked about how to express a strong opinion with a critical lens, and how to identify the design components — graphics, sound, playability, controls, etc. — that are the “language” of video game reviewers. I am hoping to get a podcasting station set up this week, and allow them to podcast their reviews, too. We’ll see if time runs out on us …

Video Game Review Planners

Peace (in the plan),

An Hour (or so) of Code

Hour of Code 2016

We didn’t spent an hour with coding this week, but I did introduce my sixth graders to the Hour of Code site yesterday, and gave them time to dig into some of the activities. As in other years, I explained why we talk about programming and code in an ELA class this way:

  • Not all of us will be computer programmers but nearly all of us will use technology. It’s good to have a basic understanding of what goes on “behind the screen” and to understand that people program the software that runs our games, apps and more
  • Programming is a logic puzzle, requiring patience and sequential thinking. The Hour of Code activities are engaging and move from easy to challenging in a solid way
  • We’re into our Video Game Design unit, and I have been sharing information and video about paths towards game design opportunities down the road, and computer programming, obviously, is a huge and growing field
  • You can read what I wrote for Middleweb two years ago about Why We’re Learning About Coding in Writing Class. I think my argument remains valid.

Some of my students were completely hooked by the Hour of Code, and I will be using the site as an “extension learning” opportunity as some finish other projects. Along with a new activity connected to Moana, the activities with Minecraft, Angry Birds and Flappy Bird are all favorites.

Hour of Code 2016

In one of my classes, I had a student how already used Scratch, and a small group gathered around him as he taught others how to build an animation in Scratch, all on his own. I thought that moment was pretty cool and just let it unfold without my interference.

Hour of Code 2016

Peace (coded to run in all of us),

Before The Video Games …. There Are Storyboards

Game Design 2016

We’re in the early days of our Video Game Design Project, in which my sixth graders are learning how to use a narrative “story frame” to design and publish a video game via Gamestar Mechanic. As a writing teacher, my aim is to show how story can become the backbone of a video game, and how the reader “plays” the story that the game designer has written. It’s all about expanding the notions of Digital Writing, and how games are emerging as the place for inventive storytelling.

Game Design 2016

This week, students have been brainstorming their “story frames” and that work is done before they can start designing their games. I want them to have a “map” of where they are going before they starting designing with blocks and avatars and rewards and more. I am always pleasantly surprise by the detail of their brainstorming and their imagination.

Game Design 2016

Our theme this year is “the Hero’s Journey/Quest” — a topic we have been building off since September (in the past, these games were all science-themed, but this year’s shift to Next Gen Standards for our science teacher created a bit of a problem for us, so we’ll try again next year).

Writing and Game Design Compared

We connect game design to writing process and we do a lot of writing in this unit, from Game Developer Reflections to writing persuasive Game Reviews (as podcasts) to using their “game worlds” as setting for short stories, and more. I aim to use their engagement in game design to spark their interest in writing across genres.

Writing in Game Design Classroom

As a mentor text, I dissect my own game for them. My game – called The Odyssey of Tara — is a riff off The Odyssey, where our hero — Tara — has to make her way home, fighting monsters and battling obstacles along the way.

Odyssey of Tara video game

I’m looking forward to playing my students’ stories.

Peace (jump dodge run),



Survey: State of Technology and Media 2016

state of tech teaser collage

These are results of my annual survey of my sixth graders on their views and use of technology and social media. We used these slides as discussion points for a unit we call Digital Life, which we just wrapped up with a talk about advertising and the web, and how to use tools to filter out ads and tracking.

Peace (beyond the screen),

Slice of Life: A Gift of Words

(This is a post for Slice of Life, a regular writing activity hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write about the small moments. You are invited. Come write with us.)

Never Give Up

“This is for you,” she said, finishing up the last bit of art on the page. I had been wondering what she was doing. As the rest of the class had moved on to another activity, she had been hard at work. “Because this is what you always tell us.”

And with that, this sixth grader handed me this beautiful hand-drawn sign, which I immediately put up in the classroom. Sometimes, it’s nice to hear that the message is getting through. Always, it’s humbling to receive a gift of your words coming right back, amplified through the art of a student.

Peace (persevere),

At Middleweb: What They Wrote About

I wrote about this project, including the overarching plan and the collaboration between myself and my social studies colleage, in more detail over at Middleweb.

My sixth graders finished our version of their Letters to the Next President right on Election Day. The next day, we knew who had won. Yes, we will add President Trump to the salutation and ship the letters out nearer to Inauguration Day. I hope the transition team isn’t in such disarray that the letters get lost.


As I was going through and assessing the final version of the letters, I kept track of the topics they chose to research and write about. This was a combination research/civics/writing assignment, mirroring some of the amazing work done by older students at the Letters to the Next President site (nearly 12,000 letters from middle and high school students).

It is no surprise that the environment was a popular choice. Young writers often are worried about what is happening with Climate Change (yes, Mr. President, it is real and not a hoax) and the plight of animals in the changing world. I suppose “pollution” could have fallen under the “environment” umbrella, too, but there was enough distinction to warrant its own category for my purposes.

Again, you can read more about what we were up to at Middleweb.

Peace (in what they write),

Frozen Readers (The Mannequin Challenge)

Mannequin Challenge Collage

I led a deep and somber lesson this week with my sixth graders in our Digital Life unit about “Online Bullying.” I know the lesson is important but I always try to balance the negative aspects of online behavior with the many possible positives, and try to make sure my message is “Most of your experiences in online places will be a positive experience, but if it isn’t and you feel alone and threatened, know you have people like me who care deeply about you and can help you.”

We talk about the aspects of viral media, about how the potential for embarrassment and targeting can reach unknown levels, through YouTube or Instagram or Snapchat or whatever. The “public space” is greatly expanded with social media tools.

The very next day, in order to provide some ballast for that lesson, I talked about the not-so-negative aspects of various viral social media projects, such as the Ice Bucket Challenge. I asked if any had heard of the Mannequin Challenge. All hands in all four classes went up into the air. Well, I said, we’re going to do it. That led to cheers. Kids really do like being part of viral media, replicating what they see when they are online that seems cool and on the edge of something.

Since we are in the midst of reading independent books, I told them that our theme would be Frozen Readers. As I filmed with my camera, they should put themselves into a frozen reading stance. I later stitched the videos from all four classes together and shared it back with them (which I may share out publicly later, as I need to navigate the privacy issues — the short video here is just a taste of the larger video).

It was great fun, with lots of excitement, and a positive lesson on being part of something larger than our classrooms. Plus, our focus was on reading and books and literacy. Win-win.

Peace (stop right there),

#DigiWriMo: Sculpting Stories with Sound

Making Sound Stories

My sixth graders are in the midst of creating Sound Stories — small stories that are built for audio, with sound effects being the driving force behind the writing and then learning how to use Garageband as the tool for sculpting stories. I wrote about this last year, too, for my column at Middleweb.

The basics: They have a list of known sound effects that I have pulled from the Garageband loop library. They choose five to seven of those sounds on the list and write a small story, with those sounds embedded or embellishing their story. They record their story on Garageband, and edit in the sound effects.

There’s a lot of excitement in the air this short week before Thanksgiving. They do enjoy using Garageband and using what are called Foley Sounds (side note: check out this cool site where a professional Foley Sound expert challenges us to figure out the sound), even though I purposefully give them only limited instructions. I want to see if they can persevere and figure things out, and turn to each other for help. Mostly, they are fine, but you can almost visually see the lines between those students with learned helplessness (they ask for help before even trying to figure out how to solve a problem) and those who just need a push forward, and space to figure it out, into resilience.

I’ll try to see if I can post a few of their sound stories another time. Here is the one that I made last year, which I shared with them as a mentor text.

Peace (sounds like this),



Strange Juxtapositions and Strong Realizations

Vets day

We had our annual Veterans Day celebration at our school yesterday, just days after the election of Trump. I am not involved in the planning of this event, which mostly is done by the fifth grade as part of their unit on the United States Constitution. The entire fifth grade does this powerful choral recitation of the Constitution with veterans as their audience during a special breakfast. Their voices remind of the “we” of the Constitution.

After the breakfast, all of the veterans come into the gym, where the entire school is waiting. We sing songs and listen as each veteran stands up, introduces themselves, connects to a grandchild or child or niece/nephew in the audience, and then receives a loud applause from the school. The two central songs were written by our music teacher. It’s beautiful to hear all those hundreds of voices singing to the veterans, to honor the commitment to our country’s ideals. (And I am one of those who gets to listen — I served in the Army National Guard in my life before teaching and join the veterans in the chairs.)

As emotional as the event was, and always is (and this year, there were nearly 65 veterans who came to our school to be honored), I could not shake the strange sense of disconnect in myself from what I was witnessing here as celebration and what I witnessed in the presidential election. I should note that the small town where I teach is fairly conservative. I know this already from my many interactions with the community, and the way the town consistently underfunds our school (we are at the bottom of the state’s list for local funding and support for schools).

Soho Voting

But I was still rather shocked to see that this town where I have put my heart and soul into for 15 years, my entire teaching career, voted for Clinton, yet only by a margin of about 50 votes. That means that half of the voters who turned out support a president-elect, one whom I can’t even come to grips with the fact that he made it into office (he probably is shocked, too), and against whom I will work to remove and block as much as I am able. This is not a town of struggling families, not the demographic that seems to have been the wave of support for Trump. This is a solid middle class white suburban town (with some pockets of poverty), with many families connected to the local air bases.

I looked around at the veterans in the room — some from the Korean War, some from Vietnam War, some from the Gulf Wars, and some still in active duty. I thought about the day’s theme of these men and women fighting and serving to protect our rights and freedoms. I wondered about the message we were sending to all those young people — that our Constitution allows a bigot to become president because freedom of choosing leaders is a wide net —  and whether an election like this is a symbol of contradiction.

I wondered if it was just me, thinking that.

Knowing how the town voted, I suspected that while I was not alone in those thoughts, there were plenty in the room of adults who would disagree with me, and call the election something more positive.

I’d be lying if I didn’t also wonder to myself: do I really belong here as a teacher in this kind of town?

But, of course, I do. Maybe like never before. I am never overtly political in my teaching. I duck and weave when my students ask about my politics (outside of the classroom, I ‘d call myself a slightly left-of-center pragmatist but I do live in a very progressive, far-left city). I am purposeful, but thoughtful in my classroom. I am sure I have bias — in what materials I select, in how I teach my lessons, in the writing I ask my students to do. All teaching is political, to some degree.

This election reminds me of the importance of open minds and open hearts, and the role that educators can play in helping our students discover the values of our country. It’s OK that we can disagree. It’s not OK to let fear and intimidation stand, in or out of school. Active engagement in the world will become a renewed focus for me and my classroom. I’ve always known and celebrated the potential of teachers to shape lives, in a positive way.

Sitting in the midst of the dozens of military veterans, in gym full of hundreds of attentive children, it became even clearer to me what one of my paths forward to confront the results and message and tone of this election must be. Now, more than ever, teachers matter. I’m not going anywhere.

Our Veterans Day ceremony ended with a rendition of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. I’d like to believe that Woody would not stand around, either. He’d pick up his guitar and do something.

Peace (in our land),