A few weeks ago my students and I wrapped up the first unit of our game-themed writing class. While my thoughts were heavily preoccupied by my first foray into using conferences to assess student achievement for the unit, I have been super excited about what my students learned from the work we did together. If you want to know why I use themes to guide the work in my writing classes I have blogged about that before and similarly you can learn more about why I chose to use games as a theme from previous blog posts. In this post I want to focus on the benefits I noted as I read my students’ papers (their deliverable for the unit) and during our conversations about the work of the unit. I originally thought games would offer an engaging and useful framework for our work as writers, but in truth games have already provided so much more and midway through our second unit I see so much more that games can offer for our journey as critical thinkers and writers.
As I explained in Begin Play and Breaking Out, our first unit focused on what we can learn from games. We spent a lot of time playing games (roughly divided into four types of games: board, party, electronic, escape) while we also engaged with a number of texts ranging from podcasts to scholarly articles to provide foundation for discussing and writing about key questions:
- what are games
- why do we play games
- can games make us better
- can games make the world better
- how important is play
Of course, we also participated in more traditional writing class activities such as claim development and MLA review as well as developing the standards that would be used to guide both writing workshop and assessment. My goal for my writing students is, of course, for them to become better writers, but I believe strongly that in order to improve as writers they need to engage with texts at a deep level. As a result my writing classes always spend a lot of time pushing beyond superficial knowledge and reading to question and investigate so we can all hone our critical thinking skills. I want to challenge my students’ thinking and I want them to challenge my thinking. We did all that and more by focusing on games in our writing classroom.
Beneath the Surface
Initially as we played games together, we all acknowledged that there are benefits to games. They are fun and relaxing and challenging (either in turn or simultaneously) and they help us build social bonds, but those ideas are commonly accepted as the benefits of gaming. However, as we read more theory and research about the impact of gaming and play we saw that games can change the ways our brains work and, in fact, the way human society works. We learned about the benefits of play for adults and those suffering from illness and injury as well as children. We learned how gamers have banded together to achieve significant accomplishments. We learned about the negative effects of play deprivation. These ideas are just a few of the observations that my students reported to me from our work through this unit which made it clear to me that my students had learned or further developed their ability to look beneath the surface of a topic.
Challenging the Norm
An important part of honing our critical thinking skills (in life as well as school) is to question. Too often our news media or political leaders (or social media) establish a narrative that everyone just accepts without question. This deleterious habit has led to so many of the problems we face as humans both domestically and globally. I suspect it has also caused all of us personal problems as well. Over and over my students told me both explicitly and implicitly that our work led them to challenge the commonly accepted narratives about play and gaming. While my students were a receptive audience for this concept because most of them are gamers, they have learned how to explore a question and gather evidence to support a discussion about a controversial topic. They have learned to push back on a commonly held view and that can only be to their benefit and the benefit of society.
Embracing the Gray
When we first began our unit, my students doubted their ability to craft an essay of any length exploring the question of what we can learn from games, but as we played, explored, and discussed games they developed nuanced claims about the impact of games and play on our lives and world. Those claims are a source of tremendous pride to me. In our increasingly polarized society where even our leaders and pundits refuse to admit that there are vast arrays of gray area between red and blue positions on a variety of issues from voting rights to health care to climate change, we need more people to recognize that there is common ground to be found in the gray areas and that solutions to our problems will be found through nuanced arguments and not hackneyed shouting matches.
Our gaming theme helped students develop their literacy and critical thinking skills by exploring beneath the surface, challenging norms, and embracing gray areas. We learned that there was a lot more to this theme than simple fun and games.