I was excited to when Cecilia Flores, our PYP3 teacher, invited me to collaborate with her in the transdisciplinary unit “Sharing the Planet”. I never turn down an invitation if it means using my imagination; if it includes envisioning creative scenarios; and above all, if it involves opportunities to listen to students making meaning and taking charge of their own learning.
Cecilia revealed the following to me:
- The key concepts considered for this unit were responsibility & reflection.
- The PYP Attitudes she wanted students to demonstrate were independence, appreciation , and commitment.
- The central idea was “People make choices to support the sustainability of Earth’s resources”.
The invitation was formulated as follows: “can you help me write a story that integrates mathematics, science, geography, and a variety of ATL skills other than literacy skills? I looked at her and said, “ Don’t you know, I always look forward to challenges like this?” [Fill this space with a series of lines describing an exchange of looks that try to suit the feeling of looking what to say next] We proceeded discussing different scenarios that students would enjoy, and as I was about to leave her classroom, she said: “Oh, and I want students to think they are in a video game”.
More than two years ago, when I was still working in India, I wrote about the gamified readings I was creating for my MYP Spanish students. Those readings focused on developing language skills, and to create an unusual scenario in which students had to use a variety of strategies to accomplish the mission in the story. This time, the challenge was that there were specific concepts to address, specific mathematics and science concepts to practice, and, most importantly, it had to fundamentally have a strong relationship with the central idea.
For challenges like this, having navigated the worlds created by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Terry Pratchett, Tom Holt, Andrzej Sapkowski, Michael Ende, and Amish Tripathi helped considerably.
Connecting children’s reading experience to play is not a new concept, and there are many examples of game elements in print books, such as in Edward Packard’s “Choose Your Own Adventure” series published in the 1980s and 1990s. Likewise, movable books, including pop-ups, are hybrid formats that elegantly fuse educational elements with play.
I am aware of the fact that technology enables the use of gamification to motivate people in different manners. It is argued that new ideologies on digital reading are the best way to motivate readers—especially reluctant readers— because they blur lines between books and games (Martens, 2014). However, Cecilia and I wanted more than blurring the lines. We wanted students to be able to make this story theirs and eventually tell it as if they had lived it. We wanted them to feel the journey as they travel back and forth in the story. Also, we wanted them to feel the tension of discoveries and use all of their senses to express how that made them feel. In other words, we wanted the story to awaken the need of dialogue with others.
One negative aspect of gamified reading is that it can easily lead to commodification of readers and the reading experience, turning an imaginative experience into an endless quest for rewards. For this reason, as I was writing the story I placed paid special attention to the socio-emotional aspect of the plot, making sure there were sufficient situations that invited students to act empathetically. Besides the images that accompanied the text, I also prepared a collection of sounds to accompany students’ reading of certain chapters; videos that represented a series of “mirages” that appeared in the story; as well as a series of puzzles.
In this collaboration, we wanted students to have an experience that meant more than simply completing a task. We wanted them to touch, to feel, to hear, and to scratch their heads when situations became difficult. We wanted them to understand how even though the journey was individual, everyone was in the same situation and, conversely, was automatically a resource.
The video at the end of this post provides a quick look at the journey. Yet, what is impossibly to capture in a video or in a photo is the excitement in children’s journeys and in their eyes; the way in which they use the power of their imagination to solve overcome difficult situations; the profound connections they make with characters; and the way they transfer experiences to their lives.
Every time I went into the PYP3 classroom, I came into a room that hosted 13 universes, each of these universes being a child. Witnessing how they were truly living their story allowed me to see how any possible struggle (either reading or writing) simply became a challenge they were ready to embrace because the journey was theirs. And to be honest, I feel lucky to know they let me in their world every time I asked them a question about where they were. Isn’t this the best gift a teacher can have?
When young children are given a world, they populate it with stories, with dreams, and with possibilities. We should never let our adult hopes and views of the world to terminate the amazing potential they have to bring to life learning journeys, and experiences that, possibly, we, adults, have lost sight of.
Martens, Marianne (2014). Reading and “Gamification”. Children & Libraries: e Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children 12(4), 19-25.