Teaching students with an ‘XBox imagination?’ Bring the game to them!

From the beginning of my teaching career, right up until present day, I’ve repeatedly encountered the same problem within the realms of creative writing. How do we teach children, mostly boys it has to be said, whose imagination seems limited only to story-lines relating to XBox or Playstation games?

Time and time again, I’ve excitedly climbed up story mountain with my pupils, only to be confused and disappointed when the main character suddenly pulls a sub-machine gun out of his pocket, murders everyone brutally before living happily ever after.

Sidenote: I realise that I am bypassing the issue that games like Call of Duty: Black Ops and GTA 5 are certificate 18 games, and no doubt shouldn’t be played by eight year old children who aren’t mentally prepared for the content of these games. Regardless of how I feel about this issue, the fact is that it’s happening. It’s happening in high school and it’s happening in primary school.  Like it or not: the kids are hooked.

So what can we do here? It’s pretty obvious really. Use the games’ characters, settings and storylines as creative writing stimulus.

Bring the game to them. 

arksurvivalevolved.jpg

We’re told often that the more relevant topics are; the more our students can relate to the characters and themes; the more engaged they’ll be and the better outcomes we’ll get. It’s only natural then that a story based around Lara Croft will produce better writing than one based around Snow White.

Just to note: it’s not that these particular students have a lack of imagination. Writers write what they know about – they use their own life experience – so for kids who spend an hour a day in an alternate games reality, this is what they know.

With this in mind, I’ve attached a little writing stimulus, based on the game scenario from Ark: Survival Evolved. As it happens, the game (like many others) has a pretty good story line. The main character is stranded on an island, inhabited by dinosaur-like monsters, and has to find ways to survive and escape. This has the makings of a great action story!

The creators of Ark, like many other games’ developers, have successfully created an entire cyber world, providing even more scaffolding for children who struggle at coming up with their own ideas. Visit the website and see for yourself: there’s gameplay clips and pictures which make great stimulus for students who both have and haven’t played the game, and there’s a huge, detailed glossary of creatures that inhabit the island, like this description of the ‘Glowtail’ below. Providing students with ready-made creatures like this can be just the inspiration that some need to just start writing. Plus, they’ll develop reading comprehension skills along the way! 

As a teacher, it can be incredibly deflating to see your students struggle to come up with ideas, and even more so when they continuously repeat the same predictable action scenarios.

But remember: it’s pretty rubbish for them too. Many students are actually desperately excited to come up with a good story. It’s just that sometimes, it’s too big of an ‘ask’ to have them create characters, a setting, a story-line; all of this before they’ve even thought about how they’re going to write this, punctuate it, spell it and make it grammatically correct. Even when we do provide a ready-made world for our students to write in, it’s often a place that some students just can’t see in their heads. All things considered, it’s no wonder that some students liken ‘Big Writes’ to an exercise in torture.

If left uninspired and unsupported, your struggling writers will only worsen in confidence over time, developing that ‘can’t do’ attitude. Why not harness the good feelings that they have in relation to their game-play and fold this into their literacy work? Give them a ready-made canvas, on which they can comfortably and confidently paint their ideas. Bring what they know to them so that they might explore what they don’t in safety, unleashing some creativity (and even enjoyment) along the way.

Agree/disagree? Have you encountered XBox imaginations in your classrooms? Are you already an expert in game-based storylines? I’d love to hear your ideas:

 

Slow writing? Quick progress for weak writers.

When I arrived at secondary school, I’m ashamed to say that I’d never heard of ‘slow writing.’ In fact, I only heard about it through a chance encounter with one of the English teachers in the work room. I was grumbling away about the lack of progress in my special needs English group and at the point where I felt like nothing I’d tried was working, when she suggested that I try ‘slow writing.’

Basically, the idea is that students are told what each sentence must include. For example, sentence one must start with an ‘ing ly’ opener; sentence two must include a connective and so on.

It’s true that this is very prescriptive, but it has worked wonders with my SEND writing group.

Previously, these students just couldn’t generate the ideas needed for a lengthy piece of writing, even with planning frames and speaking prep time. Many also were incredibly frustrated because they had the ideas, but just didn’t have the ability to get these onto paper. Then there were the students at the upper end of the group, who can spell and write, but tend to write huge streams of unconscious waffle.

Did they like this style of writing? Not at first, no. The group did complain a lot about having to write what they were told. I also had issues in that this approach relied on them understanding at least basic grammatical words and terms. Even with examples and explanations, I found I would have to recap individually what a simile was, or what a sentence with a subordinate clause would look like. Really though, as I find with any new approach, the key is training students up over time and patience.

We’ve just completed our fourth structured ‘slow write’ this term and the complaints have dropped. The work that my group is producing is of much higher quality and they’re all very proud of themselves. They’ve also built up their SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) knowledge as a positive side effect of this.

I’ve attached a slow writing sheet – Mr. Bean at the dentist – slow writing task and example – that I used with my SEND group at the end of a unit of work based on Mr. Bean. We watched a video clip of Mr. Bean getting up late for the dentist and I showed students examples of slow writing to match this. Their task was then to complete slow writing for the second half of the clip, following the set structure. While this isn’t really my kind of humour, I find that Mr. Bean is a MASSIVE hit with KS2 and SEND KS3 students so the fact that they’re happy and engaged certainly helps! Here’s the clip in full:

Slow writing really is such a simple idea, but it has made a huge difference to the progress, skill, understanding and confidence of some very weak writers. I will certainly be using this again.

 

Teacher Wellbeing: I kept a Gratitude Diary for a year and this is what happened…

Editor’s update (20.11.17): Since writing here, the big change is that I felt ready to leave the security of secondary employment and ‘go out on my own.’ Looking here at the benefits  I noticed over a year ago, I wonder if had I not developed and maintained this daily habit of gratitude – and through this happiness – if I’d have had the courage to leave my safety net and leap into the unknown. As it was, I felt a strong sense of trust in both myself and the world’s plan for me. I knew that this was something I needed to do, and that whatever the result was, I would be grateful and happy for the experience. I still keep a gratitude diary – in fact, I’ve migrated to the Six-Minute Diary – and have now branched out into gratitude washing-up! 


This last week, I came to the end of my ‘gratitude diary.’ I tend to use online calendars to keep track of events and tasks, so when I was given my school diary last year, I thought I may as well try out the latest ‘fad’ in positive thinking. Every day – usually on a night – I have written down as many things as I can think of that are good about the day: things that I’ve done and enjoyed, funny conversations or complements I’ve been given, lessons that have gone really well and just generally things that I’m grateful for.

After a year, I’ve noticed the following things:Gratitude Diary cover

  • I seem to feel a lot more positive and it seems more natural. When I started out, my instant reaction to problems would be negative – I’d have to think really hard to re-frame this in my words (and my head) to appear positive. I had to force it. After a year, I feel like my natural reaction is instinctively positively.
  • I’m often complemented on my cheery disposition. People tell me that they love to see me because I’m always happy and positive, and apparently inspire and motivate others with my sunny outlook. This is probably the nicest complement I could receive.
  • When things do go wrong, and I do allow myself to sink into the misery of a bad situation, it doesn’t last as long as it used to. I just keep telling myself that ‘the only way out is through’ with the certainty that the bad feeling will pass.
  • I am more forgiving of others. I don’t seem to get anywhere near as angry or annoyed at people any more – I certainly don’t carry around bad feelings towards others. I feel like I’ve developed a greater sense of empathy towards people: I actually try and think about the other person’s side of the story and consider why they have acted in a certain way, rather than immediately writing them off because they haven’t met my expectations.
  • I’ve become more accepting of both people and situations. Where I’ve realised that good friends and I have grown apart, I’m okay with that. I’m happy to accept this as part of life and wish them happy, fulfilling lives.
  • I moan less. I worry less too! My situation hasn’t changed – neither have the things that I used to complain about – but my attitude is much more ‘c’est la vie.’ While I still plan ahead and look to changes I can make to improve my situation, I can do this without taking anything away from my present situation; I consider myself lucky to have the problems that I do.
  • I protect myself from ‘Dementors’. If I always feel down/upset/angry after talking to a particular person, then I make a conscious decision to distance myself from them and instead gravitate towards happier people. When I come across people who behave in a consistently cruel, arrogant, selfish and bullyish manner, my initial reaction now is to feel sad for them. People that have to bring others down rarely feel good about themselves deep-down and often miss out on the genuine, rich friendships and connections that the rest of us enjoy.
  • I am much happier in my job. Even after a ‘bad’ lesson, I can pick out at least 5 things that went really well – a brilliant question or answer in discussion, a student who made me laugh, a support assistant who got the best out of a challenging child, a child who worked really hard on a piece of work… Even at times of the year when the deadlines are looming, I still feel genuinely grateful to be able to work amongst such wonderful adults and children.
  • I am much happier in general, day to day. I realised a few years ago that if I based my happiness on some future goal i.e. I’ll be happy when I lose a stone; move house; get a new job; have 2 weeks in the sun… then I’d never keep a hold of it. My gratitude diary reminds me be mindful in appreciating even the most mundane moments of my daily life. As a result, I’m much more content overall – just from noticing what was there all along.

Gratitude Diary 1We hear it time and time again: what you focus on is what you get more of. Taking a few minutes each day to think on all of the wonderful things/people/moments/challenges that have been part of my day is something that is now part of my daily routine. What I once thought to be a fad is now a good habit and one that yields countless results.

Next year’s diary has arrived today and with it the prospect of more love, joy and laughter ahead.