The month of May on the school calendar represents grueling tests of will, perseverance, and endurance… and I’m just speaking for educators. If it is this great a struggle for adults, imagine what wanders through the young, developing minds of our students?
In my ninth grade Visions in Literature and Composition courses, May presents the final stage of freshman training. In attempt to maintain the attention of students (and the teacher), I save the popular dystopian literature unit for the end of the year. And traditionally, it delivers.
Last year’s freshmen were treated to a different approach to close the school year. I gamified the entire dystopian literature unit and presented the ultimate challenge: Escape from Durstopia! They were hooked from the outset, but when they began discovering new missions with links to next steps for success, they were locked in. I communicated from the InfoTech Hub (Google Classroom) and added slides to a shared Google presentation.
Teams formed when necessary and individuals raced to conquer challenges. Students were slipping side quests to me before anyone else recognized the opportunities to learn or create. A group comprised of students from both classes even joined forces and stayed for hours after school to stump their peers with a coded scavenger hunt. Impressive. My students were doing more work and producing greater outcomes than I would ever consider assigning. Learners were not merely invested; they were immersed in our gamified literary universe.
So why would I save this level of engagement for the final month when I have an entire school year to plan? Why not start the year in game mode and see where it leads?
With a final pep talk from Michael Matera (I urge you to read Explore Like a Pirate and follow the action of #XPLAP on Twitter), Tisha Richmond, Adam Bold, Nick Davis, and Carrie Baughcam in June, I left University School’s Summer Spark with the vision and motivation necessary to construct my story for freshman English. Thus, Durstopia expanded from a single unit concept to a year-long experience. Plans are currently underway in my imagination and on dry erase boards in my office.
The transition in planning is an invigorating challenge after years of teaching the freshman curriculum. I am restructuring the order of our department units (with common standards, learning targets, and assessments)—units I have helped create throughout the last two decades—to tell a learning story within the theme. Here’s what it looks like at this point in midsummer form (questions, suggestions, and brilliant insights are always welcome!).
The question resonates across the battlefield (Room A15) and echos throughout the high school hallways: Will the Greeks win honor, or will the Trojans rewrite history? Forget about Friday night’s upcoming game or what so-and-so said about whomever on social media. There is glory to be won in World Literature this week…
Upon completion of reading The Iliad, juniors in my English classes know a war is about to be waged, with reputations and lasting fame on the line. Here is the prompt to The Epic Paper, an engaging, versatile writing strategy that could be adapted to any content area:
The Epic Paper
“How does Homer portray the concept of HONOR in The Iliad?”
You, the epic hero, have received the call to adventure. After years of training for this moment, your mission is simple–accept the call and prepare for battle. With national pride and individual honor at stake, you must win everlasting glory and fame; your name will be remembered amongst the gods and your words immortalized upon Mount Olympus.
Enter battle armed with a formal essay loaded with critical thought about the concept of HONOR in The Iliad. Simply refer to your concept map to guide your writing, and, if necessary, seek inspiration from the Muse.
[Your basic thesis would look something like: “Homer portrays honor through ___________, __________ , and ___________.” You fill in the blanks and develop paragraphs supporting each aspect of honor.]
Anonymously type [double space, size 12, Times New Roman, 1 inch margins] your paper and hand it to Grade-Slaying Durst by __________. Do not allow hubris, foolish pride, or cowardice to blind you—this ignorance will lead to your demise, and ultimately be the cause of your team’s downfall.
This is war! May the strong survive!
Here are the major stages in the process once all of the papers are collected and randomly coded with a number and color so I will be able to identify the paper and its writer–but fate determines the teams. Anonymity provides a level of comfort for everyone, particularly the insecure writers. Let it also be noted that a Greek paper will remain on the Greek side but never cross paths with its writer.
Phase 1: Preparation for Battle
*Papers have been collected and divided into armies
3 Greek Armies = Blue, Green, and Purple
3 Trojan Armies = Orange, Yellow, and Red
*Each army must select the top two papers in their camp (defend your selections based on the writing rubric standards)
*Write comments on each paper
*Then have discussions to determine the top 2 papers
1) Complete a rubric for papers not advancing–these will enter 1 on 1 combat
2) In pairs, become the experts on the paper you want to take into battle!
Phase 2: 1 vs 1 Combat–Each pair of students per camp take the leftover papers (those which did not place in to top two) into direct combat around the classroom, Greek vs. Trojan. In these battles, even the weakest papers get defended for their positive qualities.
*Determine a winner of each WRITING STANDARD on our rubric
1) Content & Critical Thinking
4) Language, Voice, & Tone
#/5 = WINNER!
Phase 3: Championship Rounds of Battle–The top six papers from both sides of the classroom now enter a round-robin tournament in which each Greek paper battles each Trojan paper. Every battle is organized according to the criteria of different writing standards.
BATTLE #1: INTRODUCTION AND THESIS
Which paper has a more engaging introduction ending with a highly developed thesis?
BATTLE #2: CONCLUSION
Which conclusion leaves the reader with a greater sense of resolution and closure?
BATTLE #3: LANGUAGE AND WORD CHOICE
What paper uses exceptionally rich, lively, and precise language to enhance meaning?
BATTLE #4: CONVENTIONS AND USAGE
1) complete sentences 2) 3rd person point of view 3) present tense 4) pronoun agreement 5) punctuation and capitalization
DAY 3–BATTLE #5: FLUENCY
1) Seamless and purposeful quote integration
2) Sentence variety
3) Creative, varied, and smooth transitions within and between sentences
BATTLE #6: CONTENT AND CRITICAL THINKING
1) Excellent understanding of subject matter
2) Appropriate evidence and examples to support the thesis
3) Answers the question expertly
And there you have it…the 4th hour Trojans rewrote history, while the 5th hour Greeks did not even need a wooden horse to defeat the Trojans this year.
Phase 4: Written Reflection–In addition to the formative feedback I receive while walking around the battlefield, at the end of the epic paper war I have students write a reflection to verbalize their learning and provide me with more valuable feedback.
1) How did this activity challenge your critical thinking skills?
2) What did you learn about the craft of writing as a result of this activity?
Their responses recognize the benefits of our epic approach to a typical English class writing assignment. A majority of responses mention the intensity of competition and the challenge of defending someone else’s writing. What they are really saying is that because everyone is engaged in a class activity, they must be on their game–preparation, quick thinking, and strategy are necessary to defend a logical argument referencing specific examples (sounds Common Core friendly). Other comments highlight thinking deeper about the content of The Iliad and finding a new level of respect for some of their classmates’ talents.
The immediate impact on their writing includes such responses as learning new strategies for analyzing literary themes, effective (yet simple) changes to make throughout the writing (and thought) process, the significance of vocabulary on the delivery of content, and the importance of supporting a solid thesis with credible evidence. I read several thoughts about spending more time on analysis, less on summary (thank you!). One student concluded, “I have to write as if I am the reader. I have to make the reader enthusiastic about reading my essay, and understand my thoughts better.” One boy called the craft of writing, “…a powerful tool,” while another articulated, “The craft of writing is like art–everyone has different styles and some people are stronger than others, but in different areas.” Wow. Whose students are these?
As proud as those responses make me, I am most impressed with my students’ new respect for the efforts of their teachers. Many reflections mentioned the time-consuming challenge and “strenuous process” of assessing writing. Yes, minions…yes. Because readers were forced to evaluate standards separately, they gained a greater understanding of our writing rubric–that multiple factors must be considered in assessing the quality of a work. This should provide a clearer appreciation of my standards-based approach to grading, as I attempt to guide their learning toward a growth mindset (material for a future post!).
Organizing such an activity takes plenty of time and effort on the front end, but celebrating our writing in a competitive game–especially early in the school year–transforms attitudes and builds confidence for future assessments. My juniors are epic heroes–battle-tested and eager for the next quest.
“I now understand how papers are graded and I can make future papers better in multiple ways. I feel that my own writing will benefit because of this activity.”
That is honorable.