Teaching Writing Through Video Games, Part I

I’m so excited to present today’s guest post by Sarah Jones, whom I met through the Ohio Writing Project last summer. Sarah is an avid writer, reader, and gamer and is working to incorporate the workshop approach in both her Writing Through Video Games and Spanish classes. You can connect with her via email at jonessj2@miamioh.edu or Twitter @jonessjteacher.

Today Sarah will share two ways you can bring video games into your writing classroom TODAY. On Friday, she’ll help us think about incorporating video games into whole units of study. 

“This is the only English class that I actually want to write for.”

I get that a lot in my small elective called Writing Through Video Games. I designed the curriculum a few years ago as a writer’s workshop and now we are adding Writing Through Video Games II next year. Now that I have established the class, the students know what to expect when they walk in: we’re not playing video games, we’re writing about them. This class came out of my desire to have my students be more invested with their writing and from my love of video games.

As teachers, we always discuss how we can get our students more engaged in our classrooms and in their writing. For some students, essays about literature they did not choose to read are not relevant and it is easy to find the “answers” on the internet. I wanted to teach craft, style, and structure in a way that was engaging. The writer’s workshop was the perfect way to be engaging with rigor and relevance but I needed a lens with which to teach my students how to write better. What were my students often engaged with? Video games!

Most research polls now say that around 97% of our students play games in some fashion, whether it’s Candy Crush or Grand Theft Auto V. I have had hours of conversations with students about a game’s mechanics and flow of story, the development of characters, the pros and cons to purchasing a game, or the profound impact a particular game had on their lives. Whether we like it or not, video games are important to our students; now what do we do?

We invite our students to write game reviews, top ten lists, autobiographical pieces, and so many more. We don’t need a class solely devoted to the study of writing through video games, especially if video games are not your cup of tea! We just need to give them the option; a way to use their interest in video games to help them practice their craft.

Here are a few small ways you can implement the lens of video games into your classroom!

Notebook Time

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An easy way to include video games in your classroom is during notebook time–or Quest Logs as we call it in our class! My students have been inspired by:


  • Images of characters or landscapes from games
  • Graphs and statistics about gamers or opinions of gamers
  • Famous quotes from games
  • Lines from great writing about video games

I find most of my images and graphs from places like Statista and Google searches for images. Gaming outlets on the internet also have a lot of the mentor texts you can use for notebook time like IGN, Gamespot, Metacritic, and PC GamerScreen Shot 2018-04-18 at 7.49.01 AM

Dungeon Forum Fridays

Video games can also be the source of great discussion and research. My students in Writing Through Video Games use NPR’s articles and stories about gaming to develop new ideas and opinions about their favorite hobby for discussions. We do what we call a Dungeon Forum on Fridays (based on Spider Web Discussions by Alexis Wiggins) where they read an article ahead of time and hold a discussion about the topic. Dungeons in many video games are designed to be cooperative, just like these discussions, and online forums are always open to everyone to jump in to say their opinion. During these discussions that are focused on the article, I always stay out of the discussion and let them lead it. I just take notes in the background and map out the web of their ideas, solutions, and references to the text!

My students also tap into TIME Magazine, The Guardian, Polygon, and Kotaku to find articles to support claims, pose discussion questions, and inform themselves about the gaming world. I generally search for articles based on topic, but I find that Keza MacDonald, a video game editor at The Guardian, has some intriguing and sometimes provoking opinion pieces. My students tend to disagree with her ideas and tone frequently and it brings up interesting counters from the students! Using an article about video games to start a discussion will spur some compelling debates and get most students involved in defending their opinions. Here are the articles that my students enjoyed the most:

What are your thoughts on adding small ideas about video games into your classroom? I would love to see your comments below!



Making the Most of the Final (Exam) Countdown: Climb the Reflection Ladder to Avoid the Senior Slide

I have two full weeks of classes with my seniors before their IB and AP exams begin, and after a semester of preparing students for those exams using methods I described in January, one of the biggest questions on my mind is this: how can I help students write as sensitively, authentically, wisely, and sophisticatedly in their traditional exam essays as they have in less traditional pieces like prompt books and additional or alternate scenes? Continue reading

Revision? Pshhh…I write best under pressure.

My husband is in a grad school program that requires a lot of writing. He likes to write, and he’s a good writer, so that’s not a problem….except he also works full time with crazy hours and we have two small-ish children. He’s just juggling way too much. So I was not surprised at all when he casually informed me yesterday that his final paper for this semester (15-20 pages, a bunch of research needed) is due next week, and he hasn’t started it yet.Copy of #tweaching

Right away I felt like I was talking to one of my students: “Trust me. I work best under pressure. I can sit for hours staring at the screen and write nothing. Then when it comes down to 2am and I have to do it, I write my best stuff.”

Though I don’t doubt that many are successful following this philosophy, I often wonder how much better they could be if they’d let their ideas marinate a little. I discussed this post with fellow Moving Writers blogger and my classroom-mate @ZigThinks and he was adamant that in the last days (or even hours!) before something is due, he really “dials in” and his thinking gets sharper.  

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t done it myself, too, but I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit that at least a little time to think through my ideas, or revise, or rethink always makes my writing better.

So how can we get kids (and my husband) to get going and give their writing the time it needs?

Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: What Were Giraffes?

Mentor Text: What Were Giraffes? by Amaan Hyder


  • Descriptive writing
  • Social commentary
  • Tone
  • Poetic form

Background: As I said last week, my Twitter feed has become a pretty important source of poetry for me. I follow poets, teachers and poetry journals, and they all dump lots of great poems onto my screen. (Sometimes it feels like too many, which is a pretty good problem to have.) I’m regularly dropping poems into my analog notebooks, and filling up the poetry folder on my drive.

This has given me a resource that has been indispensable as a poetry teacher, one I can tap whenever I need to. Things are organized in various schemes, but I’m generally able to find something to use for the purposes I have in mind.

As I also said last week, I try to make it so that poetry is a frequent part of regular business in my classroom. What’s really cool about this is that it enables me to build a culture around our different approaches to poetry. We’re writing for various purposes and we’re analyzing consistently. That’s awesome, because it allows us a chance to grow as poets and readers of poetry.

WWGIt’s also cool, because it allows me an opportunity to use poems for different purposes, like I did with the poem I’m sharing this week. Kaveh Akbar, a fine poet himself, is a great follow for poetry teachers, because of the poems he shares. (He is on a bit of a hiatus from Twitter right now.) He popped this one into my feed in March, and I took it straight to my classroom.  Continue reading

5 Things Your Students Can Learn From Blogging

5 Things Your Students Can Learn From Blogging

This year, my AP Literature students had the opportunity to participate in a poetry blog share with students from other AP Lit classes across the country (shout out #aplitchat squad!). I liked the idea of this writing opportunity from the get go for several reasons—students would have an authentic audience, sharpen their critical reading skills, have the opportunity to see how other students develop insights about complex texts, give and receive feedback, and have a long-term, self-directed writing opportunity.

But what appealed to me the most? The chance to turn my kids loose to write in the wild. Recently, Hattie wrote about growing independent writers through blogging and Tricia put her finger on the many ways blogging is both powerful and useful. And this week my friend Brian wrote about the ins and outs of his blogging unit.

To tailor to my students’ needs, my poetry blog requirements have remained simple and flexible: Student blog posts must analyze a self-selected contemporary poem. Easy enough, right? Right. But there’s a ‘but.’

Our quest this year has been to narrate our ideas, insights, and conclusions about literature in our own unique and authentic voices—aiming always towards engaging, effective, sophisticated, and intentional writing that is conversational (but not a conversation), and offer readers not just proof of reading, but a depth of analysis that is interesting and thought provoking.

It’s a tall order, I realize. But that’s why student blogs are awesome. It gives students a chance to practice writing in a virtually fail free zone, and they learn important lessons not just about reading and writing, but themselves as writers and what it takes to craft engaging, effective writing. But the freedom of blogging is what makes this type of self-evaluation and practice possible.

My students have embraced this, too. I love the message of Ashton’s headline.

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Here are 5 things your students can learn from blogging. (I know, because I’ve learned them, too.)

  1. Voice and style 1

Think of blogging as the anti in-class essay.

Of course, you can focus student blogs on any topic, theme, or style to meet any academic purpose, but for me, blogging frees my students from the constraints of what they believe assigned essays should sound like.

For starters, there’s no official rubric or handbook, the style is incredibly familiar, and the pressure of page length is off. Because blogs offer students creative control of layout and themes, it’s this same ownership that encourages not just a unique layout but a considered style and voice in their writing.

My students are discovering over time that who you are on paper is who you are, so they strive to show how interesting and intelligent they are with the voice and style of their writing.


  1. Mentor text habits of mind2

It will come as no surprise to you that every author I’ve heard speak this year has this one thing in common: all of them read. They have influences and mentors and other writers they aspire to.

The beauty of mentor texts is they’re all around. In our blogging project, students have taken cues from mentor texts we’ve studied in class, but just as importantly, they’ve paid attention to the writing of others, both professional and non. They’ve assessed what works, what doesn’t work, and what makes for an interesting and engaging post. And blogging provides them a safe space to play with different craft moves they might not try in class.

This risk-taking and awareness is difficult to teach. So the prize goes to blogging.


  1. Quality control3

Last month as I was drafting a post for WVCTE, I knew I was writing something that I was going to be proud of. Conversely, I’ve written plenty of posts where I’ve left it and let myself feel quite the opposite — sometimes a tinge of disappointment or even a cringe. My students are learning this, too.

Because of our blogging project requires students to comment on one another’s posts, my kids are learning what kinds of topics, format, analysis, and style elicits comments from their readers. My students are learning that depth of thought, voice, and authenticity win over their readers far more often than fancy formats or photos.

I hope my students are discovering the awesome balance of professional and personal in their writing. That yes, they write for their audience, for me, for the grade and the assignment, but that their work and their writing is far more satisfying when it’s writing they can be proud of.


  1. Audience awareness4

Speaking of readers, how great is it that blogging offers students an opportunity to be published writers? My students have shared their posts on social media, tweeted them at the poets who penned the poem they analyzed, and even extended their blogging into personal topics, as well.

What I like most about giving students a real, living, and available audience (who isn’t me) is the intrinsic drive to craft quality writing.


  1. Writing on a deadline5

Students are used to copious due dates and deadlines in their academic lives. Teachers, of course, live by deadlines as well, the bells signaling us constant reminders of what we need to do and when. But writing on a deadline? That’s its own animal.

I realize I’m going to contradict myself with Quality Control, but sometimes, you just have to crank out the words and get the job done. This is a fitting lesson for my seniors who are so close to crossing the threshold into demanding college majors.

I’ll thank blogging once again for reminding my students of the grit it takes to meet your deadlines and get the job done the best way you can.


Are your students blogging? I’d love to have you tell me more about it! 

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!





Also Twitter: A Useful Tool for Teaching Structure

I’ve spent a lot of time this year chatting with colleagues about Twitter and its usefulness to educators.  Mostly, we chat about the challenges of getting used to its format (it’s not fun to figure out–I almost gave up in my first week or so of fiddling with it), but sometimes the question is simply “What’s it good for?”

My answer is always the same:  Connections to great educators, incredibly fast news updates, amazing animal and nature videos…and the greatest comedy on the planet.

I could recommend some great follows for Serious Teachers or nature lovers out there, but for now I want to suggest to you that comedy Twitter is

  1. The best Twitter (as they say on Twitter) and
  2. A great resource for teaching students about writing structure with fun, playful mini-lessons.

Continue reading

March Museums and Mash-ups: Springtime Experiments in the Classroom

As the daffodils start sprouting near sidewalks and the draft in my apartment warms to where I don’t feel compelled to don a housecoat at all hours and become more of a Rose Nylund than I already am, the longer, sunshiny, pollen-y days give me the itch to experiment.

In the last two weeks, my classes tried two experiments. One, a virtual field trip to the collection at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, offered students a chance to learn about the context of August Wilson’s Fences by examining photographs and artifacts related to the play’s 1950s Pittsburgh setting at closer range than a real field trip might allow. For example, students interested in athletes of the period could zoom in close enough to see the frayed stitching on a buttonhole in tennis great Althea Gibson’s Wightman Cup blazer, the tiny script of the cartoon on the back of a Hank Aaron baseball card, or the pencil marks on a protest sign that called out a baseball player turned segregationist city councilman (if his former team had been integrated, the poster posited, then the community ought to be, too). (Think of how you could pair an artifact like that with Rebekah’s picket sign mini-study!) If you can think of any reason to take students to this collection (or, better yet, to the museum itself) go. The collection prompted some profound questions and gave students a taste of one strategy actors use to prepare for roles.

Our second experiment is a kind of a high-resolution zoom lens for text (I say “is” because we are still in the midst of it!). 

As I read seniors’ drama analyses a few weeks ago, the comment I found myself repeating was “Can you share some evidence to support your ideas?” Students could see the “forest” of our dramas, but they weren’t acknowledging the trees. Many students are worried about using quotes on their final exams. “Quote the text anytime you have the chance in class,” I tell them. “The more you use the words, the more likely you are to know them by heart.”

Easier said than done. These students have to hang on to four plays–their lines, their conventions, their themes–and compare and contrast those plays through the lens of an exam prompt.

So how, in the midst of a crazy-fast whole-play study that demands students’ navigation of four different forests, can I get them to stop and appreciate a branch, a blossom?

Enter the mash-up.  Continue reading

Using Blogging to Grow Independent Writers (or: How to Kick Your Little Birds Out of the Nest)

Copy of wilson james

It’s second semester and my AP Seminar kids are knee-deep in their official Performance Tasks. For those unfamiliar with the AP Capstone program, that means my kids are doing giant, independent research projects and I am required to take a very “hands off” approach.  I can give general instructions to the whole class, and I can ask lots of questions, but I can’t give specific feedback on drafts or tell kids what to change or add or delete. At times (read: All the time)  it can be a little (read: A LOT) frustrating. My students have so many questions and sometimes I just want to tell them what to do.  

Though it nearly broke me last year, this year I’ve come around to this idea of independence. Teaching this course has forced me to rethink how and when I give feedback.  It’s made me consider how I prepare my students to be ready for all this independence– how I can relinquish control and kick my little birds out of the nest.

I can’t just cross my fingers and hope for the best; I need to help them build habits of good writers and researchers. How do you craft quality research questions? How can you give useful feedback to one another? How do you look critically at your own work? How do you use your own reflection to push your writing forward?

There are tons of great resources on this very blog for helping with all of those steps–the practicing and skill building steps.  This one from Rebekah gave ideas for different ways to approach writing conferences. This one has awesome suggestions for how to help students begin to be more independent and ask better questions during conferences. But that final step–the pushing them out of the nest step–that’s always just been the last day of school for me.  Until this class, I’d never considered what it might look like to step back completely and let them take charge. 

This year, I introduced reflective blogging with my students to slowly release control. They write, everyone reads, and everyone comments. Here’s how it’s made them more independent:

Continue reading

Teaching From My Twitter Feed: Two different Modest Proposals

twitter feed


Twitter never ceases to amaze me for its ability to come through with exactly what I need at the right moment.  This week my students are studying Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and my colleagues and I wanted to pair it with some modern satire. Though Swift’s text certainly has some shock value (eating babies?! Gross!), it takes awhile to get there and we knew our students needed an on-ramp into that challenging piece of satire.


We wanted something the students would latch onto, but we were struggling to find just the right piece. Satire only works if the reader has the background knowledge to recognize the target. We sifted through a bunch of things and found something we liked well enough, but then Sunday morning, this popped into my feed:


Really?? Seemed too good to be true, but it wasn’t.  It was perfect.  AP Literature teacher Roy Smith (@english_roy) wrote my lesson plan for me without even realizing it.


    • It’s current. It sharply targets recent calls to arm teachers. Even my least aware students know about the proposal to arm teachers.
    • It’s accessible. It is short enough that my students will engage quickly. The list formatting appeals to readers with low stamina. 
    • Its structure mirrors Swift’s.  The opening reels the reader in, there’s a sharp shift to the proposal, and then the argument is laid out logically.



Here’s what I did with it.

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“Listening Is an Act of Love”

Full confession: I wanted to say something profound, to share some brilliant new teaching strategy that had emerged from my classes over the past month, but as I sit down to write on one of the first sunny days of a very gray February, I’m feeling a little tapped out of great ideas. Like Hattie, knowing that I have just two months to get my IB students ready for their spring exams is making me feel a little white rabbit-y, and I think all the newness of a new school, new students, and a new city has made me stick to familiar lessons rather than pioneer new ones. Though I haven’t invented any new lessons, in the past week, I did re-learn an important one: to borrow from the title of The Princess Diaries’ Lily Moscovitz’s cable access show, I’ve been reminded to “shut up and listen,” because–to quote another public broadcast show host, StoryCorps’ Dave Isay– “listening is an act of love.”

The lesson began when my freshmen held a Harkness-style discussion of The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve not taught the novel before, so I didn’t have many resources to draw from and I worried all month about what I should have been doing differently. Should I have asked more questions about symbols? Should I have reviewed comprehension questions after each assigned reading? Should I have shared more instructions about how to find and think about Notice and Note signposts? And should I have guided our first big discussion of the book so that I could make sure students were probing deeply and thinking critically?

The students’ mature, compassionate, and well-mannered self-guided discussion on Tuesday and Wednesday gave me my answer: “No…you should shut up and listen.” They didn’t need me to make magic happen. For two days, students talked thoughtfully about Holden, challenged each other to support ideas with evidence, and coaxed each other to speak when some classmates sat silent for too long. And as I listened to my students, I realized that they had listened to Holden Caulfield in a way I never had as a student. When I read the book during high school, I couldn’t get past Holden’s rough shell to appreciate the “catcher in the rye” inside, but my students “got” him, and they appreciated the way Salinger seemed to “hear” people their age decades ago.

As I read some revised paragraphs from the freshmen later in the week, I tried to listen again. The ninth graders’ revisions showed me that they had heard my questions about which pieces of evidence supported their ideas, and their writing told me we needed to talk some more about building momentum and ending with a “click.” As I listened, I learned that these revisions didn’t need grades yet, they just needed feedback, more questions that showed I was still listening.

Standing in the eye of a group-work hurricane during my IB classes was also a time to listen. As students worked together to put scenes from The Merchant of Venice on their feet, I sat at my desk or wandered around and listened in on conversations. The project’s assessment depended on that listening. I looked forward to final performances, certainly, but the skills I was really looking for were demonstrated during planning. As they brainstormed and rehearsed, students justified their costume choices, their sets, their props, their gestures, and their expressions with evidence from the text. To the passerby who just looked inside my room, it would appear that I had given the class a day off, but a good listener could hear how much the students knew and understood about Shakespeare’s problematic play.

And then I greeted my seniors on Wednesday, the day when we learned they had lost a classmate in an accident, I knew it was also time to listen. A day intended for more scene work was instead a time to talk together or be quiet together or find comfort in a routine…a time to listen to each other–to memories, to questions, to the little funny stories anyone tells when they’re trying to cut the silence and the sadness.

And then I came home Wednesday night to news of more students, miles away, who had lost classmates, too. And the next day, those students channeled their anger and fear and sadness and frustration and mourning and love into a powerful political voice. Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and their classmates in Parkland are making the world shut up and listen. Sometime, somewhere, someone else must have listened to those students, listened to the point that it empowered them and assured them someone would always listen.

And so I will keep practicing the lesson I re-learned this week, all the while hoping that listening is just the first act of love I can offer communities who are hurting. Let the next act be action, changes that protect the young voices demanding to be heard. 

What’s the best thing you heard (or overheard) this week? When have you felt listened to? How can we teach our students to show each other that they are listening? How can we help our students be heard? Please share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman.