‘Thomas Was Alone’ Lesson 2: Re-imagining a story

Following on from a previous lesson with a reading focus, a class of Y6 children use the text-rich computer game ‘Thomas Was Alone’ as a stimulus for writing practice.

20130605-070749.jpg Although the formal SATs tests have ended, I still need to collate evidence of the children’s independent writing to support my assessment of their writing levels. As the children had engaged well with the game’s story during the previous lesson I decided to capitalise on this motivation by using the game as a prompt for writing

Reflections on Organisation

This ‘lesson’ itself (actually more of an assessment task than a learning opportunity) was relatively uninspiring in its execution; once I had shared the writing task with the children they had about 10 minutes to plan and then 45 minutes to write their stories, with no support. Alone.

As with their SATs tests, the children were seated in pairs, facing the front of the classroom. This is in contrast to their regular table groupings – usually a formation of 4-6 children, facing inwards. (The ‘front’ of the room is defined by where the electronic whiteboard is, actually at the side of our ‘U’ shaped classroom. There’s a non-electronic whiteboard on the opposite wall, but somehow that doesn’t seem to say ‘front’ quite as strongly as something that glows and has a computer attached to it.) Some children initially commented on how they actually liked sitting this way (‘Can we keep the tables like this?’ ‘Yeah, I think it’s good!’) although this novelty appears to be wearing off as they are eager to return to their previous tables. I think there’s a place this type of seating arrangement – I have seen an improvement in some children’s writing over the past couple weeks as they have been required to write independently, at length, on a number of occasions.

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Unlike the previous lesson where the children read the game’s story, collaboration is not allowed. During the task, as with the previous tests, I notice children ‘shielding’ their writing, with books and their hands, where they would usually be eager to share and show what they have done. Eyes are very much focussed on their own pages. Personal space is defined by rigid postures and, as I look around the class, I can see a clear channel of dividing space across the middle of each table, between each pair, that is rarely crossed. Only shared resources, such as rubbers and rulers, are allowed to inhabit this space. There’s the usual sense of purpose, but without the familiar buzz of enjoyment. Whereas the focus is usually on the process of learning, here it is the outcome that is most important.

The Stories

The stories produced by the children are an interesting mix of literal – those that describe the game’s characters as quadrilaterals moving through levels – and those that mirror the games’ personification techniques in order to create characters with more complex personalities. When I ask them how they felt about the task, some children comment how easy they found it to write a story using the game as inspiration. When I ask why, one child suggests that having played the game they experienced the story directly from a characters perspective. Another child, however, states that they found it quite difficult to bring in their own ideas as they kept thinking about the ‘real’ story – so, as with any writing prompt, this didn’t suit all of the children.

Marking their work later, I’m pleased to note that the children’s stories at least match the quality of those created during other recent assessment tasks. Some are perhaps slightly longer than they would usually produce, which is perhaps an indication of their enthusiasm for the task. Grammar and punctuation has been applied well in most cases – at least as effectively

Summary

So, did using this game as a prompt for writing make the children better writers? No. (Clearly, in this context, there’s no expectation that it would.)
Did using this game as a prompt for writing make the children worse writers? No.
Did using this game as a prompt for writing make some children more eager to write? Yes. For some, using this game as stimulus appears to have had motivational benefits. For others, it wasn’t an easy task.

Extracts, for your reading pleasure:

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Minecraft: Purposeful Building to Prompt Persuasion

Cocreation is what sets collaboration apart from other collective efforts: it is a fundamentally generative act.” – Jane McGonigal (2011)

During an hour-long afternoon session, a class of Y5 children use Minecraft as a fast-paced writing prompt.

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The Y6 children’s participation in Minecraft Club has evolved over a number of months – and this has perhaps contributed something to the uniqueness of their experience. (A shared history, steady development, an ongoing purpose, time to reflect and review). However, the ‘reality of school’ often requires that experiences are broken into smaller blocks of time, book-ended by breaks. I therefore wanted to explore how plausible it was to use Minecraft as a stimulus – with a different class – in a stand-alone literacy based lesson, without dedicating hours of time to gameplay.

So, I set the first task, on the board:

Create a building with a purpose in Minecraft.’

I also listed the basic skills: communicate, cooperate, collaborate, design, build, plan, adapt…

I set up a server – using Minecraft Edu – with a new, flat world.

Following my very quick introduction, the children were in. Keen to make the most of their limited time in the game, they quickly got to work. Children who were not familiar with the controls rapidly found their feet, building and collaborating, seemingly with ease. (Note: I have never had to actually teach children how to use Minecraft – they just do it, learning from each other. Those already in the know are always happy to impart their knowledge. Those with even the most cursory experience of computer games seem to be able to apply their prior knowledge of, for instance, controls or game boundaries to enable them to get going very quickly.)

After just 20 minutes of building the children’s creations were complete – or at least as complete as time allowed. The variety of ideas was interesting: a hotel, llama statue, pool, haunted house, roller coaster, mansion… As usual, I wonder: How do these ideas surface so effortlessly? Where do they come from?

We discussed their progress against the task and the basic skills. Some children said they had adapted when others encroached on their space, after initially getting annoyed. Some explained that they had communicated using the chat function and by placing signs outside their buildings. One pair had even, unprompted, incorporated a list of rules for behaviour into a wall of their hotel. Not too bad for approximately 20 minutes of exploration.

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On to task two:

Create a poster to advertise or promote your building.’

The children used the ‘Print Screen’ key on the keyboards to take screenshots of their constructions, cutting and pasting them into Powerpoint and Word, along with a title and persuasive sentences and paragraphs to promote their buildings. Bearing in mind the short amount of time available (and the fact that very few of the children knew about the ‘Print Screen’ key -`Oh, so it`s like doing a screen shot on an iPad’) the finished posters are relatively sparse but reasonably complete.

I initially wondered whether dragging the children away from the game itself would be difficult or spoil the lesson for them. However, they genuinely seemed eager to create their posters and approached this task with a similar amount of enthusiasm. The game and the poster all seemed bound up with the same task – I wonder if this enthusiasm would have been maintained if they had been asked to use pen and paper instead of continuing on the laptops?

There finished results could not be considered to be a true representation of this class’ potential literary capabilities – clearly with more time, ideally during a subsequent lesson, more work could be done on extending and improving the writing, using these as starting points.

What this work does show, however, is that it is perfectly plausible to use Minecraft as a prompt for literacy and / or skills based learning in a tight time-frame. This may be important, particularly in those schools that rely on short bursts of rationed weekly time in an ICT suite.

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Two random but related points:

1. Googling ‘Minecraft’ at school now brings up the local authority ‘blocked‘ screen. Grr…

2. Putting children on the bus at the end of the day, a child I taught last year (now at secondary school) called me over:

‘Mr B – we’ve got Minecraft at Secondary now!’

‘Great! What are you using it for?’

‘Oh, just for messing about on really…’

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Reference:

McGonigal, J. (2011) ‘Reality is Broken‘. Jonathan Cape, London.

Challenging the Reader: Using Interactive Fiction in the Classroom (Part 2)

Some of the children finished their interactive stories today, created using Twine.

The end picture from the story 'Death Road'.

An illustration from the end of the interactive story ‘Death Road’.

Reflections on the children’s use interactive fiction:

This was the third and final session for most of the children. I have been impressed how they have sustained a very high level of engagement throughout. Children always work at different rates – this activity’s non-linear focus offered the opportunity for all children to adapt, build and edit stories of differing lengths and complexities. The merging of genres – blending story and game – seemed to be key to the engagement for some.

Many children expressed a wish to trick or defeat the reader. Some stories, therefore, included a number of rather dramatic, video-game-like pitfalls, traps and tricks designed to disarm, disable or even kill the reader! Death – as in games – is not permanent and the reader is simply ‘respawned’ (some children used this vocabulary, carried over from Minecraft) back to the beginning for another try. Here the reader – as a player – was often seen as someone to challenge, as well as to entertain.

There was a sense that children, as writers, were constructing virtual worlds for the reader to inhabit, rather than writing simple stories. (Maybe it’s this ‘choice’ that can help to distinguish between ‘reader’ and ‘player’?) Linking different locations – providing choices and options – gave their writing a sense of space and development that is sometimes absent from more linear compositions.

The visual GUI meant that all children could use a mind-mapping approach to build their stories, as they progressed. This allowed them to reconstruct and reframe their ideas as they wrote, rather than having to produce a plan before they began. Ideas developed during the writing progress, rather than being formed or set beforehand.

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Stories are build using the GUI.

The genre gave the children a rare opportunity to write authentically in the second person. They were eager to play / read each other’s stories and offer constructive feedback, both on the ‘gameplay’ and the use of linguistic features. This feedback was received enthusiastically and led to genuine improvements, based on peer assessment.

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Variables allow for different outcomes depending on the reader’s previous interactions.

The ability to introduce simple code as part of an otherwise ‘literacy’ based lesson has been interesting. All children created links between pages. Some used variables when they saw a use for them in their stories, rather than using code for the sake of it. The activity also provided an opportunity for some children to explore the use of basic html, allowing them to insert pictures into their stories.

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html used to include illustrations.

Dropbox provides a very easy way of ‘publishing’ and sharing the stories – copying the finished HTML story files into the ‘Public’ Dropbox folder produces a direct, sharable html link to each story. Publishing these on the class blog meant that children could access each other’s stories. These browser-based stories are also playable on mobile devices, and not just the laptops that they were produced on. This added another element to their writing – children seemed satisfied that their work was being consumed in a range of different forms.

Click the link below to play / read a finished story by one of the class:

(disclaimer: you’ll probably die!)

Death Road by Simon (pseudonym)

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A Virtual Tornado – Minecraft, Griefing and Natural Disasters

During this week’s Minecraft Club I cast myself in the role of the ultimate griefer, subjecting my class’ virtual town to a series of destructive tornados. This was an attempt to stimulate discussion and – ultimately – some insightful writing about the impact of a natural disaster. During the last two weeks, as part of our ‘Natural Disasters’ topic, learning has revolved around meteors, volcanos, earthquakes and tornados. This was an opportunity to combine their enjoyment of Minecraft with our topic work.

The news was broken through the BBC website - edited using hackasaurus

The news of the virtual event was broken through the BBC News website – edited using the hackasaurus website. (Click the pic to see the ‘live’ page).

Using the electronic whiteboard I showed the above news article, followed by this footage of the town being destroyed by a tornado:

Given the amount of time and energy the children have invested in the creation of this town, I was quick to point out that what they were watching was an alternative version of this alternate reality and that the map – as they last left it – was still safely saved on my laptop, for them to resume work on next week. Nevertheless, the children reacted with genuine emotion in response to the destruction of their town. Some children watched aghast as the tornado made light work of their creations. Others responded excitedly as they observed the virtual event, expressing theatrical horror (‘Why have you done this?!’). A few were keen to express their theories about how this had been achieved (‘It’s a mod! He’s installed a mod!) As a collective experience, there was something quite dramatic about witnessing the destruction of these familiar landmarks, giving it a bizarre kind of authenticity and realism that you wouldn’t necessarily expect.

(Technical Aside: I produced this video using the Weather and Volcanoes mod along with Minecraft 1.4.7 – this took a reasonable amount of learning on my part, using a number of online tutorials to guide me through the process. Negotiating the various blogs, wikis and forums that are crammed full of this stuff, I was impressed by the amount of work that clearly goes into creating these texts – many produced by children in their spare time – free from assessment and official pedagogic judgement, but full of purpose, bound by a sense of community. Finally, I recorded the video using a screen recorder and stuck it all together using iMovie.)

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After the event, the ‘assignment’ was set in MinecraftEdu.

Having watched the video, I gave the children the opportunity to explore (using MinecraftEdu) what remained of their town. I asked them to comment on what they observed and to record their feelings using the book and quill, ‘publishing’ the books in a chest in what remained of the library. These reactions would be used to help the children produce a newspaper report about the event later in the week.

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Again, the children’s in-world behaviours were interesting. Some children, after a brief look round, went back to their default behaviour in the world – riding on pigs (a possible reference to this video? I’ve certainly heard some of the class singing it…) Some rushed straight to their creations, relieved to find them intact. Others reacted vocally to specific scenes of damage (‘Oh no! It’s got the library’) or took a wider perspective, elevating themselves high above the buildings. Some made attempts to begin to rebuild the town – in spite of the fact that knew that they would not be returning.

It was notable, however, that the dynamics of the place had changed and that many of the community rules were being broken. Animals were no longer respected (it turns out that my circle of empathy does extend to virtual sheep and pigs) and property was destroyed in a variety of ways. Visiting the library to read the children’s books I found myself victim of a heavy spiderweb bombardment! It was clear that this event had prompted some children to play the game in a very different manner, in some ways reflecting their initial behaviours when we began the club. How quickly chaos can descend!

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From above: The tornado in action.

Discussing this behaviour later, those responsible for the majority of the griefing maintained that they only reacted in this way as a response to the temporary natured of this world (‘We know its not being saved!’). This also led to discussion of how different people might react in different ways following real-life natural disasters.

I won’t see the full extent to which this activity influenced the children’s writing until next week. Regardless, I feel that this activity – as with most of the things that happen in class involving Minecraft – shouldn’t actually need a piece of writing attached to legitimise or prove the validity of the learning involved.

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Dramatic scenes as the tornado takes hold.

(During next week’s club I will return to the regular child-led program – a couple of children have mentioned that they prefer it when I’m not directing them in the world as they like the opportunity to build what they want. I also noticed the absence of two of the regular club participants this week – perhaps a reaction against being told how to spend their lunchtime in the virtual world?)

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Minecraft Books – Text in the Virtual World

I have been interested for a while in getting the children to produce their own texts in Minecraft. So far they have used signs and the chat log to communicate short messages, but nothing at length.

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As today’s Minecraft club happened to be on World Book Day I suggested that they could use the book and quill to write their own books. Within minutes an existing building had been re-purposed as a library and a range of texts were being produced and placed in chests for the children to share with each other.

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‘No Noise!’ – setting expectations based on experience of libraries in the real world.

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‘Animals are really interesting’ – A non-fiction text in Minecraft.

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Narrating the unfolding events.

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This text seems to mirror the second person perspective of the interactive fiction we started constructing during the morning.

I would like to explore the potential for using Minecraft as a location for creating and sharing text, particularly having seen the ease with which the children were able to create these initial examples.

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Someone has caught on to the concept of trolling!

Gamifying Stories – Using Interactive Fiction in the Classroom (Part 1)

Merging creative writing and coding to create interactive stories.

‘Interactive fiction’ has been around for years. Reminiscing recently about my early computer use I recalled how I enjoyed playing and creating what used to be called ‘adventure games’ on the Spectrum. This prompted me to consider whether I could find a place for this genre in the classroom.

Delving a bit deeper (otherwise known as ‘googling’) it turns out that other teachers have followed similar thought processes. For instance, a recent case study of 9 and 10 year olds found that creating an interactive game helped to ‘improve literary and social skills amongst the students’. Particularly inspired by this post by Jason Sellers, who had taught using interactive fiction with an (albeit slightly older) class of children, I decided to introduce my class to an interactive game, initially as a reading activity, with the intention of getting them to create their own interactive fiction.

Reading / Playing Interactive Fiction

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‘The Mythical Forest’ on Playfic.

During ‘independent reading time’ one afternoon last week, I shared a link to a game called ‘Mythical Forest’ by Cooper McHatton. The children’s reactions were interesting. Some children were initially disappointed by the lack of visual representations of scenes (Playfic hosted games are text only) while others were clearly enthralled by the game and the problem solving process involved in playing and communicating with game, in order to navigate through the story.

Reviewing the activity at the end of the lesson, a number of children stated that they had been frustrated by the method of controlling the game. Some found it hard to understand exactly what instructions the game would and wouldn’t understand – and a few were annoyed that they could not progress as the computer ‘didn’t get what they meant’. This was the children’s first encounter with the world of interactive fiction and the learning curve was too steep for some. What was clear, however, was that many children liked the idea of being able to ‘win’ a story, rather than simply reading through it in a linear way.

Having initially intended to extend this activity to get the children to author their own game (note how I’ve started to use the words ‘game’ and ‘story’ interchangeably now) I felt that this objective was maybe a bit ambitious using Playfic – at least at this point.

With a little more investigation I soon found Twine – an ‘authoring system’ for creating interactive fiction that incorporated more visual elements than the ‘Inform7’ language that powered Playfic, yet still allowed for the use of coding. A key different was that Twine stories use hyperlinks rather than text input, which I felt was an effective way of bypassing the text input system that some children found problematic.

Writing Interactive Fiction

This morning, as an activity as part of World Book Day, the children started the process of creating their own interactive fiction games using Twine. They began by watching a video of author Marcus Sedgwick from the World Book Day website that gives tips for writing effective descriptive scenes and characters. The stimulus for their stories was the idea of a character (the reader, or player) waking up in an unknown location with amnesia. They were given a simple writing frame with three boxes to help structure their stories, written in the second person. The first box was for the story’s first location. This could be anywhere they liked – indoors or outdoors – but I specified that it needed to have two possible exits. Boxes two and three were for the locations that could be reached through these exits.
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Having sketched out their initial ideas I then showed the children what a Twine story looked like, using a quick introduction that I had come up with. Twine stories take the form of a small and easily sharable html file that can be viewed through a browser.

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Pictures can also be used in Twine, linking to images hosted on the internet.

There’s a good introductory guide to using Twine here so I won’t go into detail here, suffice to say that all of the children quickly began to compile their stories in the visual browser, adding links between their locations with ease.

The visual interface helps children make connections between the settings in their stories.

The visual interface helps children make connections between the settings in their stories.

Coding

As this was the first lesson and time was short, I only introduced the idea of using slightly more advanced coding (beyond the basics of creating links) to a couple of individual children. This example specifies that once the player has picked up an item (the gadget) then the page will no longer show the item as being present in the room. (This example uses an if / else command and setting a variable called $gotgadget.)

Combining coding and creative writing in Twine.

Combining coding and creative writing in Twine.

Reflections and next steps

Using interactive fiction provided an effective way of creating interesting texts, combining traditional literacy and technology. All children were motivated throughout the session and the activity catered for children of a range of abilities – with extension provided through the complexity of the stories that the children created, along with ability to merge coding with creative writing.

I plan to continue helping the children to create their stories. There’s certainly plenty of scope for developing these texts beyond the initial stages, providing the children with another outlet for their descriptive writing that also involves problem solving and – significantly – the motivating concept of ‘winning’.
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