Making Games: A Different Approach To Learning

Kids shouldn’t sit in front of television screens all day, but they do. Since we can’t get them away from the television set, why not use games as tool for teaching. Using games as an educational tool provides opportunities for deeper learning, such as the increase in memory, performance, social interaction, and classroom engagement. In addition, there is more than one way to teach using games. Mind Shift shares an article about how making games can be used as a form of learning. Game making is one way to create a space where students are empowered to freely experiment with their own way of framing ideas and choosing perspectives.

Gamestar Mechanic is a great example of a game-making tool that can be used for learning. Gamestar Mechanic is a web-based software platform with a drag and drop interface that makes it simple for kids to make their own games. Kids can take the content they have learned and turn it into a game that they can use or other classmates can use. If a child can turn their classroom notes into a fun, engaging and exciting game, this is reassurance that they know the material.



Gamestar Mechanic continues to grow and is becoming widely used in the classroom. Gamestar Mechanic is currently used in more than 7,000 schools, with over 600,000 youth-created games published and played over 20 million times in 100+ countries.

Game design shows kids that coding is ultimately a semiotic system. Coding has become very popular, and can be challenging to understand and learn. Gamestar Mechanic involves language and can make coding easier for kids. Teachers are encouraged to step away from the traditional methods of pedagogy and bring gaming into the classroom.

John Monberg wins CAL Alumni Award for Innovation and Leadership in Teaching and Learning

John Monberg

Photo by G.L. Kohuth from MSU Today

We would like to formally congratulate WRAC’s very own, John Monberg, for winning the College of Arts & Letters Alumni Award for Innovation and Leadership in Teaching and Learning! Monberg is an Assistant Professor in the WRAC Department who has shown tremendous innovation inside and outside the classroom.

“I’ve worked hard to identify activities that both enrich the educational experiences for students and help to create enduring resources for communities,” Monberg says. “When the complex details of a real community are brought together with the wide variety of skills that students bring in terms of visual design, user experience, video production and writing for specialized audiences, wonderful things happen.”

Jeff Grabill, Chair of the WRAC Department and Professor of Rhetoric and Professional Writing, expresses the challenges of rhetorical education, “How [do we] provide students with compelling ways to learn how to participate as public citizens?” However, Grabill says that Monberg has tackled this question quite well. “He thinks carefully and deeply about the new resources and infrastructures needed for us all to meet the challenges of participating as citizens in a complex, global world.”

Monberg is enthusiastic about the department’s commitment to joining together teaching, technology, and community. “This commitment allows us to understand some of most significant questions our society faces as our world is transformed by changes in technology and culture.”

In regards to Monberg’s leadership in the education world, Grabill says, “I have never seen a colleague engage in such a sustained project of innovative teaching and learning, and it has pleased me a great deal to see the attention his work has received from the larger university community in addition to the accolades from the greater Lansing community.”

Lorelei Blackburn Wins Kairos Teaching Award for Graduate Students

PhD student Lorelei Blackburn received the Kairos Teaching Award for Graduate Students earlier this year. Professor Ellen Cushman praises Blackburn’s attentiveness to her students and her effective teaching methods: “Lorelei is a masterful teacher: reflective, flexibly structured, and responsive to her students’ needs. Her assignment arcs not only represent well the shared learning outcomes of our programs, but seamlessly integrate to give students robust, project based learning experiences. Whether its first year writing or project management courses in the professional writing major, Blackburn delivers the goods and her students learn.” Ohio State University’s Distinguished Humanities Professor Cynthia Selfe nominated Blackburn for this award.

lorelei blackburn

The Legend of The Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail, classic computer game of yesteryear, started in 1971 as three student teachers struggled to get their students engaged. Hello, pedagogy. The game started on a teletype machine available in a janitor’s closet in a junior high school. Interestingly enough, the cold war inspired the US to create grants to out-pace Russian technological innovation. As such there was a boon in PC manufacturing, leading Minnesota public schools to be one of Apple’s first large-scale commercial customers, putting 500 Apple II’s in classrooms across the state. And since the game came on a diskette it was shared easily.

oregon_trailThe game came to be the cult classic it is now when programmers who’d played the game as kids added graphics and retooled the plot a bit, coining the phrase, “You have died of dysentery.” The educational innovation of The Oregon Trail is that it gave students instant feedback, which served to keep students engaged and more importantly learning.

While The Oregon Trail started in a history classroom, it’s effect on getting millions of students using computers is the genius. In fact, you can now relive the magic with an app. In 2009 an iOS version of the game was launched, with already over 3 million downloads. Mental Floss does a lovely job recounting the legend of The Oregon Trail. Hop over to their post for the rest of the story.

The Art of Science

Poetry is brought to life through a myriad of ways: spoken word, dance, performance, etc., but has recently been unexpectedly mixed with robotics. While it might not sound like these two subjects would go hand in hand, educator Sue Mellon has found it to be a rewarding combination.


Image via Mind/Shift

The dioramas are the student-made visual representations of the poetry. Due to the help of the robotics, lights will flash and colors change when a student says a certain word in the poem (for example, saying “water” triggers a blue color in the diorama to deepen). Working on a physical project based on poems helps the students connect with, and understand more deeply, the poetry they are studying.

To me, it also says that perhaps these categories aren’t as separate as they seem. Often, we mark a separation between things like “science and math” vs. “the arts.” What is so intriguing about robotic poetry, then, is that it’s not only innovatively teaching students how to connect with words, but it also shows us that we shouldn’t make such a distinction between the “categories,” since there is inherently art in science, and science in art.

Read the full article from Mind/Shift here

Teaching with Twitter

Image of phone displaying a Twitter feed. Twitter is famous for sharing information in only 140 characters. Beyond sharing thoughts, general life updates, and news dissemination—a few of the typical ways Twitter is used—is the idea of using this site as an educator to stay connected with students and parents. Mind/Shift details 28 different ways we can teach through tweets.

One of these is to use Twitter to encourage student discussion to continue beyond the classroom. By connecting the students on one platform, and with things like hashtags to keep organized, they can ask questions, share ideas, and continue their group learning beyond the allotted class time. Another of the 28 ways is that it allows announcements to happen in “real time”; the cancellation of class, an update on a project, etc., can all be shared immediately to a social media platform many students are already regularly checking (potentially unlike their email inboxes).

It can also help students create professional online networks. For those who are already tuned into Twitter, it can be used to help teach them how to politely connect with those in their desired job field. For students who aren’t as familiar with the site, it teaches them how to effectively communicate, all while helping build their personal brand.

Personally, I have often seen professors syllabi stating when students send emails, it should have a clear and detailed subject lines, and if the message itself is more than five sentences, the students should come into office hours instead. This is another issue than can potentially be sidestepped by educators using Twitter; students would need to be concise as they only have 140 characters, and teachers wouldn’t need to spend as much time sorting through piles of emails. What are other ways Twitter can be used to expand education? Let us know on Twitter! – @msuwrac

Trying to Write

Writing is sometimes difficult and messy, even for professional writers. I recently attended a talk about writing instruction in academia with fellow writers and writing teachers. When asked, “Who here likes to write?” not a single hand went up. This isn’t surprising because, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, the pleasure in writing isn’t in the act itself, but in the finished product. Writing itself isn’t always a fun activity.

Compounding this is the persistent myth that writing must be perfect. This myth of perfection, that every word must be the exact right word, makes an already trying task even more difficult. I teach a writing class that focuses on style and method, and this misconception is one of the major hurdles that many of my students face. At the start of semester, many just want to be told the magic formula for easily writing well.

As most writers will admit, such a formula doesn’t exist. What do exist are methods to address lack of fun and the intimidation of perfection. In his book Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, Kenneth Goldsmith describes an assignment he gives his students: choose a piece of writing by someone else and simply type it all out. While Goldsmith uses this assignment to address issues of remix and creativity, it’s also a great way to get students writing.

The act of forcing fingers through the motions of stringing words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, of experiencing language and syntax and punctuation in a way that removes the pressure of authorship allows students to focus on style: how the words flow together, how the sentences are balanced in structure and rhythm, how the writer’s voice is reflected in their stylistic choices.

Writing is a difficult process and coming to terms with this allows us to savor the joy of seeing our words laid out on the page all the more. In the classroom, this activity sets the stage for discussing style along with writing fears, invention techniques, and ethos as writers. The focus on reproducing writing gets students past the anxieties of the looming blank page and ready to write on their own. It helps them to develop realistic expectations for what the writing process feels like: sometimes tedious, sometimes difficult, rarely perfect. It gets them started, which is often the hardest aspect of writing. That’s why this activity is also a great trick for all writers who are struggling with writer’s block. Reproducing someone else’s writing can distract you long enough to get creatively unstuck and get to what most would agree is the pleasurable aspect of writing: the act of having written.

Angela Shetler is an alumna of the Professional Writing program at Michigan State University. She currently teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Sydney, Australia. Fueled by coffee, you can find her tweeting at @ashetler and writing for beyondwords, a blog for professional writers, editors, and designers.

The Why and Where of Remedial Writing

In my last blog entry, I outlined a brief history of basic writing and outlined several questions that have been on the table in our first year writing program. Let’s get to work on the first question: How do we redress the imperfect educational system of remediation within an imperfect educational system of the United States? Okay, so I’m answering my blog’s title question with another question.

First, remedial writing programs takes different shapes at two- or four-year colleges, and Masters- or PhD- granting universities. The difference rests primarily in the background and needs of students enrolled in these classes. Students entering community colleges may be immigrants with varied educational history, first generation students whose training in U.S. schools didn’t prepare them for college, high school drop outs, returning adults, and lifelong learners. Though writing classes in two-year colleges often have the goal of preparing students to succeed in advanced writing classes, a recent study of 100,000 two-year college students in urban areas suggests that these efforts could better focus on writing needed in workplaces. In two-year colleges, these programs have come into question because of their cost, qualified success, and educational goals: why prepare students to write for advanced, college writing classes when the students’ intent is to find jobs in the skilled labor market?

Students seeking degrees beyond the Associate’s degree often place in remedial classes after taking an entrance exam. These students have high school diplomas, are the best students to have graduated from their schools, have histories of academic achievement, and may be international or heritage language speakers. Many graduated from the K-12 education in the US system, which has seen educational goals limited to teaching to the test thanks to Bush era educational policies. Small wonder there’s been alarming increase in numbers of students needing remedial writing classes.

All this focus on the student who needs the kinds of educational opportunities an intensive writing course prevents policy makers and program administrators from turning our attention to “fixing” the student. This focus on the student places the onus to change solely on the students. But let’s also consider teachers, teacher trainers, and the institution of schooling. Now, I’m not saying that K-12 teachers are to blame for underprepared students. If we want to address the problem systematically as a country, we need educational reform in K-12 settings that 1) increases the number of qualified teachers in classrooms, 2) equally provides resources to schools, 3) allows for varied forms of writing assignments and not just those appropriate to score well on tests (5 paragraph essays), and 4) we need to respect teachers and train them well to meet the challenges of schooling. There are more ways to reform, of course, but these would be a good place to start.

We think there’s another place to begin this work as well—the place where future teachers and professors get trained, or not, to do their educational work in the first place. How are our preservice teachers and instructors of first generation students trained to build upon students’ knowledge and learning as they interact with content? What can we do better?

At MSU, we want to do our part in contributing to educational reform by refocusing our efforts on training future teachers and university instructors. Instead of focusing on what students’ lack, we’re focusing on what we as teachers and teacher trainers owe to students. We think there’s systemic reproduction of teachers who were taught the content areas of their disciplines, but haven’t learned how to teach students this content.

So we did what universities and policy makers do. We set up a committee. The Preparation for College Writing Sub-Committee of the First Year Writing committee created two innovations in our preparatory classes that we’re now piloting. First, we hoped to better address the curricular needs of our students through asset-based, culturally sustaining pedagogies; and second, we hoped to promote teacher inquiry and innovation by placing preservice teachers in our writing classes. The idea is that these preservice teachers can act as peer mentors and teachers-in-training at once, while the instructors gain an opportunity to innovate their practice through engaging these preservice teachers in reflective practice. The preservice teachers work with the instructor to engage in activities and classroom work around the rich reading and writing assignments of a college writing class, that they in turn can use in their future high school classrooms. I’ll explore findings from this pilot project in my next blog posting.