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Paperless Is Not a Pedagogy

Alice Keeler

A Game-Changing Approach to a Back to School Syllabus by @MeehanEDU

Gamified Syllabus by John Meehan (1)
A Game-Changing Approach to a Back to School Syllabus by @MeehanEDU

A Gamified Syllabus

Guest Blog post by John Meehan

Hi. I’m John Meehan, an instructional coach and eleventh grade English teacher at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. I’m kind of a geek for teaching, and so when an education rock star like Alice followed me on Twitter (squee!) and invited me to share this resource as a guest blogger, I literally couldn’t say “YOU BETCHA!” fast enough.

Sneak preview: it’s a plug-and-play, fully gamified course syllabus for sparking crazy levels of day one student engagement. Interested? Read on!

First, some backstory: this summer, I had the chance to attend the Serious Play Conference at nearby George Mason University and spend a week delving into the transformative power of classroom gamification. Yes, it’s easy to dismiss game-based instruction as just the latest in a long line of passing educational fads. But don’t laugh: the same game-based approach to classroom instruction is being used by college professors like Dr. Anthony Crider at Elon University, the United States Military, Fortune 500 companies, multinational healthcare providers, and billion-dollar pharmaceutical corporations.

Why? Because [tweet]immersive, hands-on learning inspires curiosity, wonder, and excitement.[/tweet]

As teachers, this is nothing new.  Drawing from educational reform research dating all the way back to 19th century pioneers like John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and the later work of Benjamin Bloom, we know that students learn best from the classes where they feel most actively engaged. And so our goal is to help get students really excited about the work that they do in our classrooms in order to inspire deep learning through creativity and choice. For classroom educators, this means amplifying student voice, increasing student autonomy, and creating environments where we can foster growth mindset and help our students feel safe taking academic risks in a  student centered classroom with projects, presentations, portfolios, and performances. It’s self guided. Exploratory. Maybe even a bit of scaffolding with a spoonful of sugar. Because whether its English class, math class, science class, history class, religion, world language, or any of our elective course offerings — [tweet]we don’t teach content. We teach people.[/tweet]

The Game Template

And that’s how my year-long Dream Rush game was born.

This year, I wanted to kick the game off with a bang. From the first day when students are rallying supplies and loading into wagon trains, to the end of the year where we take a class trip to an honest-to-goodness abandoned 19th century insane asylum and students then use Google Sites to build their own character-specific mental institutions to offer detailed reflections on how awful these well-intentioned institutions ended up being in the long run: I want my students learning, exploring, and discovering new things at every turn in their year-long adventure through 400 years of American literature. I don’t just want my kids to read literature — I want them to LIVE it.

Go Beyond Reading the Syllabus to Sleepy Teenagers

So here’s how the onboarding game plays out:

Rather than going the usual “two truths and a lie” approach followed by an equally awkwardly routine of reading the syllabus aloud to a room full of sleepy teenagers, I decided to turn my day one rules, procedures, and housekeeping items into an all-out gamified supply race that blends icebreakers, getting to know you activities, and MEANINGFUL face-to-face dialogue — intentionally designed to stand out from the parade of other sign and return forms and the usual back-to-school procedural grind. If you’re like me, I want my students talking about my class at the dinner table from *the very first night*. So I start each year with a simple promise: “They say that your favorite class is the one that you like the most. And your best class is the one where you learn the most. If we both do our jobs right, this class will be both.”

Game on.

In the Dream Rush welcome game, students are randomly divided into five competing “wagon trains” in an effort to complete 10 different activities before the end of class bell rings, blending a mix of new school ed tech (Google Forms, Flipgrid, Remind, and Padlet) with old school pedagogies like collaborative learning and honest-to-goodness HUMAN INTERACTION — all of which are so critically important, especially in those first days of school. And along the way, they’ll likewise be…

  • Signing up to receive regular text message alerts from your class
  • Learning the ropes of your classroom with self-directed autonomy
  • Completing course intro surveys to help you know who’s who
  • Recording short video introductions to give you a sense of their tech savvy
  • Chatting with you casually without interrupting other teams’ progress
  • Posting selfies and bite-sized bios to help you put a face to a name
  • Submitting goals and short writing samples to gauge the work that lies ahead

I’m sharing this resource template and actively encouraging you to steal it for your classes. Save a copy of the Google Slides template and make it your own! Use it as is, or switch up the theme with a new coat of paint to fit the needs of your learners. Get your students working, thinking, laughing, and ENGAGING from the very moment that class begins until long after the final bell has sounded for the day’s instruction — as if they were somehow playing your class as if it were one giant video game. And just like that, you’ve got them excited to come back to see what you have in store for tomorrow.

That’s a game changer.

– John Meehan

John Meehan is an instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. He is a Class of 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader, an alumnus of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Teacher Advisory Council, and a scheduled presenter for the ASCD #Empower19 Conference March 16-18 in Chicago.


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