The Object of the Game
Let me begin by saying, I do not base my definition of being academically successful on how well a learner does on any standardized test. I do, however, feel it’s one of my responsibilities to provide learners with opportunities to develop skills that are being assessed by said assessments. It’s important to feel confident when entering any assessment. Most importantly, it is vital people are able to articulate and compose in such a way that their message shines rather than being obscured beneath the burden of poor language choices.
Historically, the conventions and revision portions of the state test have been areas for improvement. Examining data including student writing, the need to address conventions is clear. In addition, having a firm understanding of appropriate and correct capitalization, usage, punctuation, and spelling is essential in any workplace as professional communication demands this.
Unfortunately, grammar is not the most exciting topic to teach. There are few who are thrilled with diagramming sentences as I am. There is much pressure to teach grammar in conjunction with other literacy tasks, not in isolation. As a result, many of today’s students are lacking a fundamental understanding of conventions.
How, then, could we effectively teach understanding the value of and correct usage of grammar?
It needed to be fun. It needed to be low-stakes with high rewards. It needed to be collaborative.
It needed to be games.
There are simple truths in the value of play. Albert Einstein explained, “Play is the highest form of research.” Fred Rogers explains, “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” Professor of Literacy Studies, James Paul Gee, researched how games, video games, in particular, can support and reflect how we learn, particularly in the sphere of literacy. And although we did not use video games, similar cognitive processes happen when playing other games. The results are deeper learning. (Here is an overview of the Grammar Games we played.)
We began by inviting specific learners who were struggling the most with conventions. It was primarily to provide additional support for this particular group. Incidentally, many of these learners penned the sentences that inspired many of the challenges in our games. We examined paragraph responses and essays to find trends and common mistakes across grade levels.
We began seeing, however, even learners who knew more about employing correct conventions were benefitting from the games. It served as reinforcement of what they already knew, but the games also gave learners the chance to explain their responses and choices in conventions. It also boosted their confidence in a potential role as a leader in peer revision.
The sessions made their thinking more transparent to us as facilitators. We could then not only clarify why these choices were correct or incorrect, but we could also use this thinking to help inform our instruction. In response, we could design other workshops and minilessons.
Since there were several different games, the rules vary, but there were 3 that remained constant. The rules can be summarized as teamwork, iteration, and modeling.
Teamwork. Learners worked cooperatively with a team to solve their convention conundrums. Collaboration helped to reinforce those who knew quite a bit about proper conventions while also providing extra support to those who needed it.
Iteration. Learners were also able to have multiple attempts to arrive at the most correct responses. Iteration encouraged creativity and risk-taking because participants knew they could try again. This piece reminded learners about the importance of editing and revising. Plus, since they were working in teams, learners were more comfortable with asking peers for ideas.
Modeling. Since iteration was part of each of the games, it was essential to leave the learners with an example of correct conventions. Once a team had a successful response, learners would huddle together to take note of the correct choices. It was time to discuss why these were appropriate changes.
In many ways, these 3 rules mirror how language is acquired. When we learn our first language, we cannot do so in isolation. Language is a social act, and it only makes sense that learning conventions should also be social. When toddlers begin to talk, they are not chastised for the mistakes they make in language. On the contrary, linguistic play is encouraged. Despite the playful element of acquiring language, there also must be moments of modeling the correct or accepted convention.
It’s difficult to learn if you don’t know what you don’t know. The grammar game sessions allowed learners to work on sentences with common errors made by themselves and peers. Many students write and once an assignment is completed, they do not revisit their work. They see a grade and may even see the mistakes, but they rarely have a chance to correct or revise their errors. Our games asked learners to do just that. They increased learner awareness of conventions, and many of us began having discussions on how important these choices are.
The more, the merrier. Although we began with invitation-only sessions to play the grammar games, word began to spread. Other learners wanted to join the fun. We began making the sessions open to all learners, and we saw more learners eagerly anticipating future sessions.
Having multiple facilitators at each session helped create more excitement to the sessions. It’s a great opportunity for learners to meet their future teachers, and it showed how the department collaborates to create rig=ch learning opportunities.
It’s a beginning. The play and creativity was not just for and from the learners. Educators also flexed their imaginations. Rooted in responsive instruction, our grammar games allowed us to flexibly diagnose the roots of the errors as well as provide strategies to remedy future grammatical missteps.
We understand this is not a panacea. We understand we still have much work to do, but the gamification of grammar provides us with a structure to attend to the needs of our diverse learners across grade levels.
Our professionalism keeps us focused during staff meetings and professional development. We contribute significantly to the formulation os possible solutions to several campus needs, but developing our grammar game sessions was a start of something different. It was an invitation for facilitators to create and imagine innovative and engaging ways to improve their communication skills. It was an invitation to invent various entry points to a challenge we all shared in our Literacy classrooms. It was an invitation for us to meaningfully play alongside our peers and our learners.
In the immortal words of Joshua from the iconic movie War Games, “Would you like to play a game?”