Category Archives: Language Arts

Ready… Aim… and a Little Strategy Too.

“Shoot ‘Em Ups” were next on the list to knock out during the teacher camp.  I played a little Galaga, a little Asteroids… the classics.  Then I had to venture off and locate a game that I thought would be something fun and that could be used in my classroom.  So I found one that was fun… used in the classroom?  Well… I’d use it in the classroom, but since I teach middle school, I doubt some parents would be as eager as me!

The game I found was Zombie Trailer Park.  Awesome game.  And really, not particularly gory, but when it comes to little men beating the undead to… uh… death?… with a shovel, or a combine mowing down the hordes in its path, I could see where there would be some objections.  It’s times like this that high school looks really appealing!

Anyway, as with the rest of these games, I’m having to re-educate myself continuously to understand how games can be an integral part of my Language Arts curriculum.  As I’ve read from James Gee, or heard on podcasts I listen to such as EdGamer, the game itself is really just a vehicle for the skills and practices we want children to be able to master.  And where else are they more motivated to learn mastery of a skill than in a game?  So Zombie Trailer Park is not a complicated game.  You start with Shovel Men, then when you’ve built up enough cash, trailers, farm houses, garages, etc., you unlock the ability to build farmers with shotguns, guys toting wagons full of flaming moonshine, as well as a pickup truck full of good ol’ boys with high-powered machine guns mounted to the truck bed.  The zombies start to throw some curve balls as well, adding “frogs” (they leap), “Big Honkin’ Zombies” (the big unstoppable guys), and “screamers” (they… well… they scream) to the original sauntering horde of walkers.  (These are all my names, by the way.  If the game offers specific names for the different types of zombies, I didn’t see it posted anywhere.)  As the levels progressed (there are 4), I found myself learning through each failure how to come back at those stupid zombies the next time and change up which type of building or player I built when, and even the timing of when and how many to build.  At one point, I consciously thought to myself how much I was strategizing through each wave and each level.

Wait, go back a second.  Did I just say “I found myself learning through each failure how to come back…” Huh.  Imagine that.

From Zombie Trailer Park, I had to continue the zombie theme when it was time to tackle the “Strategy” genre.  I chose to play Rebuild, which is a kind of Sim City/Civilization meets zombie apocalypse game.  Not sure why this hasn’t been done before.  Who knows… with my limited knowledge of modern gaming, I’m sure it has…  Anyway, I started in on Rebuild and found it to be a fun little strategy game.  The premise is that you have a band of survivors who have fenced off their own little section of the city.  You have a leader, some soldiers, some scavengers, a scientist, some builders, and a small group of citizens who can be taught to take on one of the other player types if you choose to train them to.  The game begins by scouting out the surrounding area, working to clear strategic areas from the zombie menace, then moving in to reclaim that area and add it to your base camp.  Throughout the game, you have to keep track of how happy your people are, how much you have in the cupboard (before they all starve), and you have to keep a few people back to guard the settlement from those pesky brain-eating hordes.

I was required to play the game for just a few minutes and found myself still trying to expand my base and train my citizens about 2 1/2 hours later!  There were a lot of aspects of the game that reminded me of Civilization — which is probably one of my favorite games of all time.  These games are clearly designed for learning.  The player has to match up the danger level of the scouted area with the number and skill of the soldiers going in to “clear” it.  If I choose to save a church over, say, a hospital… I will have to deal with the consequences of that choice.  There is a clear link between strategy games and the kind of cause/effect or problem-solving skills I try to teach in the English/Language Arts classroom.  Take away the zombies — by why would you want too?! — and I could use this to supplement teaching of The Giver, in which the characters make life and death decisions to maintain a “utopian” society.

Then I started playing a game I found called Battle Panic.  Very addictive… stupid orcs.  That’s all for tonight.

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What’s Your Platform?

Continuing with the 3D GameLab teacher camp, I’ve been looking at more styles of games and how they would best fit in my classroom.  I already introduced a couple of my classes to the text-based games like Zork — and more of them enjoyed it than I thought!  I originally gave them some time during class to play from a list of pre-selected games.  The only requirement, I said, was that they had to dedicate the first ten minutes of class to playing Zork.  When I told them their ten minutes was up, nearly 80% of them kept playing!  Awesome response!  I’m definitely thinking of taking this to the next level and having one of my other classes use this in conjunction with some reading, writing, and problem-solving activities.  I’ve been thinking of requiring them to create a map and develop a walk-through guide based on their playing experience.

Today I had the chance to play some online platform games — flash-based versions of Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog.  While I enjoyed dusting off some old favorites, I didn’t see much of an application to the classroom for these two games.  However, as part of the quest submission, I had to find an example of a platform game on my own and share it.  The game I found — and could definitely see using in class — was called Invertion.


This platform definitely had more problem-solving skills involved than simply jumping on a Koopa Troopa’s head.  There were levels where you had to split yourself in half and control both sides — with the understanding that your other half would be controlled using the same commands, only backwards.  Take that a step further when you’ve got players moving forward, backward, and upside-down on the ceiling!  I really enjoyed this game and saw how this could offer a challenge to my students beyond what I saw as being readily evident in Sonic and Mario.  Don’t get me wrong — I love those games!  I just don’t see them as passing the “would I be able to vigorously defend the use of these games in my curriculum?” test.

I like the way these games foster creative thinking and problem solving — I found myself thinking through all of the possible solutions to each level as I played through Invertion.  As I relate these games back to the learning going on in my classroom, I can see comparing the type of problem-solving that happens here with the way a character in a novel works through their own internal and external conflicts.

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On Your Mark, Get Set… Not So Sure.

As part of my 3D GameLab teacher camp, I’ve had the opportunity to run through a set of games through one of the Gaming quest chains.  I’ve played Narrative Games, Fighting Games, Graphic/Text Games… and now I’ve reached Driving Games.

While I enjoy a driving game as much as the next person, I have played them for a while and I’m not sure what the educational value is.  I could see using the game as a starting point for writing a narrative in class related to the “story” of the game.  I could also see using this as a springboard for having students write a how-to on “How to play this driving game.”  Even those uses seem a bit of a stretch, though, compared with the obvious usefulness of the Narrative Games.

Maybe I just need to go play it some more.  Oh well… 🙂

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Action-Adventure Games: Legend of Zelda

When I saw that one of the requirements for a quest in my 3D GameLab camp was to play an online version of Zelda, I started humming the music in my head.  I loved that game as a kid! Compared with some of the other games we’ve been exposed to — or reminded of — in 3DGL, I think Zelda would be a good game option for students who struggle with reading.  I picture a hierarchy of games for students based on their literacy of skills that starts with something like “Zelda,” progresses to “Peasant’s Quest,” and culminates in having the advanced students try their hand at “Zork.”

As “Zelda” is less text-based than the others, I could see using that with ESL students as a way of having them follow the story without having to rely completely on text.  Much like the others, it also requires some problem-solving and a need to follow along with the story to understand why Link is on this quest.  Students would have the opportunity to write about the journey and steps necessary to complete his quest, as well as make predictions regarding the story — or even go beyond the game and write their own sequel (even though there have been a multitude of them by now).

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All ideas and no assistance…

I’ve had some great ideas lately for projects involving the use of technology — most notably Web 2.0 technology — that I think would really engage the kids with the material. Multiple problems arise when I try to plan out these projects and implement them.

Problem #1: I’ve never worked with some of these tools before…
The Web 2.0 tools that are available are just mind-boggling. (Or should that be mind-blogging?) Blogs, Wikis, social networks, etc… the possibilities seem endless, and I think that’s where I’m running into a few problems. The possibilities do seem endless, and that’s probably making it more difficult for me to narrow down my focus and intent. There are so many things the kids can do with these different tools, it’s difficult to pick just one or two components and use those effectively. So many of the teachers in my building are either anti-technology or simply afraid to try using it, that there is very little building-level support for coming up with tech-related lessons and projects.

Problem #2: This takes a lot of setup and instruction before the kids even know how to use a Web 2.0 effectively…
At one of our last district meetings on implementing technology and 21st century literacies in the classroom, part of the discussion focused on teachers’ fears that they couldn’t use technology because the kids were already “masters” of the Internet. As “digital natives” they already knew so much more about the digital world than we (the immigrants) did. I don’t think this is true at all. The kids know of the digital world, but I don’t believe for a second that they are masters of it. I used that assumption that they were masters at the beginning of the year, but many of them, even at the 8th grade level, don’t know how to post something on a blog unless it’s MySpace. I can’t even remember how many times I told them to e-mail their essay to themselves so they could work on it at home and the response back was, “How do I do that?”

It takes a lot of setup and pre-instruction to get the students ready to use Web 2.0 tools, and my problem with that is the lack of tech support at the building level here. So far, this year, we’ve had two different tech coordinators for our building, with long periods of no tech coordinator in-between. We currently have no tech coordinator for our building. Even the ones we do get are not necessarily teachers, so when I go to conferences and hear about the LA teacher working with their building’s tech coordinator to prepare students for a Wiki project, that doesn’t seem like a reality here (at least not yet.) The district-level tech facilitators have been great, but they can’t come to your building every day to help out with something. It is nice to see people getting excited about some of the ideas I have for integrating Web 2.0 tools into the Language Arts curriculum. Most other teachers are so freaked out by words like “blog” or “moodle” that they don’t want to have anything to do with them. That’s completely understandable… when I didn’t know what they were, they confused me too.

Problem #3: I’m still new and this and I’m overwhelmed…
I know this is coming off as being a long and rambling complaint with a list of excuses… a new baby at home, increased responsibilities and a leadership role at school, family health problems… I don’t want to make excuses, but with all that’s going on in personal-life and professional-life, I don’t have time to run a one-man show with regard to coming up with lessons and projects that use 21st century tools.

If anyone has any solutions or suggestions, I am all ears (or eyes, as this is a blog and not a podcast!)