Monday, August 22, 2016


That first day of school.

As a student, those words sent shivers down my spine. As a teacher, those words absolutely terrify me. But the reason I'm terrified of the first day of school as a teacher might not be what you expect.

On the first day of school, I want to welcome my students. And get to know them. And build a sense of community. And let them know what to expect from my class. And I have to do all of this in between accomplishing all of the things I'm required to do like fire drills, tornado drills, distribute planners, etc.

This year, I attempted to accomplish as many as my goals for the first day of school by playing a tabletop game called Witness. In essence, this game requires players in groups of four to communicate and collaborate by piecing together clues to solve a mystery.

I've wanted to integrate tabletop games into my classroom the past couple of years, but quite honestly, that's pretty much as far as I went. Thanks to my sophomore collaboration team, my theoretical want became reality. Of course, this took a good ole game night to learn HOW to play the game and a materials session to put together WHAT we needed for students to play in class. (Thanks for Joshua Trevino for putting together to awesome graphic on slide #5!)

Anybody who has ever tried to use tabletop games in class knows that the most important part is the debriefing. Here are the debriefing questions I used with my students:

  1. What did you like / dislike about the game?
  2. How would the game have been different if you weren’t allowed time to write/jot down notes individually? How would the game have been different if you couldn’t talk to your group at the end?
  3. I picked this game because I think it gave  you a preview of what it takes to succeed in sophomore English and after. What skills did you use in this game that you think you will use to be successful in this class? In life?
Here's one of my first hour student's initial responses to the debriefing:

And here's another from 3rd hour:

And we can't leave out 6th hour:

7th hour ends my day with a bang:

My students' next step is to take their notes from the debriefing session and expand in the form of a blog post. Here are the instructions:
  • Write an at least three-paragraph blog post for a student who was absent the first day of sophomore English:
    • Describe the game and how it worked to the best of your memory. Remember your audience is a student who was absent, so use detail!
    • Describe your reaction (and any others' reactions) to playing the game. Include what you personally liked and/or disliked and why.
    • Reflect on the educational value of the game. Include what playing the game showed you about how people work together, how different people think/process information, and/or what skills the game required that will help you in this class and/or life.
A few of my students did a great job in their reflection on the game:  Damien thoroughly explained the game and what skills he thought it required; Victoria nailed how the game introduced key skills in my class; Kaia did a great job of writing to the audience identified in the prompt; and Hank compared this game to the old classic Telephone game.

Finally, I hope to have my students play this game again in the future to continue working on collaboration and communication skills. What ideas do YOU have for using tabletop games in the classroom?

Thursday, August 4, 2016

A Tabletop Game Approach to Teaching Rhetoric

First, a confession: it’s been over a year since I began toying with the idea of integrating tabletop games in my classroom, but I have yet to use even one.

Recently, I attended my second MNU Games and Learning Conference. So, the pressure is on now. No excuses.

A key part of the conference was time to play games from the Center of Games and Learning’s games collection. One of the games I played was Snake Oil.

How to Play the Game

The goal of Snake Oil is simple: convince a customer to buy a product in 30 seconds. The player who is the customer selects a card that provides a descriptor: anything ranging from “senior citizen” to “beggar.” The other players have six cards in their hands with words like “TV” and “glasses.” Players combine two of the words to create a product the customer would want.

For example, I might pitch “TV glasses” to the “senior citizens”: “Have you ever trouble seeing that TV from across the room? Ever been frustrated by misplacing the remote control? If so, our new TV glasses are for you! This simple device allows you to view and control your TV on your glasses! Simple to set up, easy to use: buy TV glasses today!”

After players pitch their products, the customer selects whose product they were most persuaded to buy before the next player takes on the role of the next customer with a new customer card.

How to Teach the Game

While the history of snake oil is interesting enough to warrant playing this game with students, its application to teaching rhetoric is what really strikes my teacher fancy. I can easily identify several different common core state standards that my students will strengthen as they play the game:
  • Speaking & Listening: 9-10.4
    • Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.
  • Speaking & Listening: 9-10.3
    • Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence.
  • Writing: 9-10.1.b
    • Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience's knowledge level and concerns
  • Literacy Learning: 1
    • Engage in literacy learning through a collaborative and community effort and in an integrated fashion, rather than as discreet skills in isolation.
The last literacy learning standard integrates key skills from the Framework from 21st Century Learning, too often ignored in the high school "core" areas.

How to Modify the Game

I have no doubt in my mind that my students would enjoy—and learn from—playing Snake Oil in small groups. I also have no doubt the inherent silliness of some of the cards would distract them from the educational experience.  To combat this distraction without taking away the fun, here are three modifications to the game to maximize learning:
  1.  Have students play in groups of six: four students who would play in each round and two “judges” who would decide the ultimate “winners.” During rounds, judges would take notes of the best “rhetorical moves” by each player to help them select the winner.
  2. Create rhetorical appeals cards to turn up the heat: In addition to drawing a customer card—or in the place of drawing an customer card, players must tailor their pitches to the appeal(s) on the card. This modification will make students sweat as they try to tailor their pitches to specific appeals!
  3.  Create fallacies cards and work together: Turn the game into a cooperative game by selecting one customer card for the entire group. Then, place a hefty stack of fallacies cards face up in the middle. Individual players can use their word cards to create products that the team then pitches to customer together. The goal? The team integrates fallacies into their pitches in the order of the cards until they are all gone.

How to Debrief

One of the most important things I’ve learned about using tabletop games in the classroom is that debriefing after playing the game is the most important step for learning. Mark Hayse and Lauren Hays taught me that debriefing sessions should start with experience and then move to reflection. The Greater Kansas City Writing Project taught me that students must have an opportunity to write about their learning. Therefore, I will use journaling as a tool for debriefing, in addition to discussion. Here are some prompts from them that I will use to maximize learning in my classroom:

  • What did you like/dislike about this game?
  • In ____ (30 seconds or 3 sentences), summarize and describe the game as you would to a friend.
  • What skills did game players need to use to play this game? In what other contexts would these skills be needed?
  • What did you learn about _____ (the rhetorical triangle, appeals, fallacies)?

I won’t lie: writing this blog post was part guilt assuagement. I wanted evidence of what I’ve gained from my professional development in games and learning. But even more importantly, I wanted something to hold myself accountable. Now my plans for integrating games are public, so this fall, I’m doing it! Join me, and don’t be shy about telling me YOUR ideas and reflections!