Sunday, September 1, 2013

Monkey Business: The Gamification of AP English

Monkeys: whimsical, goofy, playful stuff.

Business: goals, achievement, bottom line stuff.

Why can't school be both?

That’s what I’m attempting to do this year:  Monkey Business, specifically “Battle of the APES,” the gamification of my Advanced Placement English class.

So what is gamification? According to the Oxford online dictionary, gamification is the "application of typical elements of game playing (e.g., point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of encourage engagement with a product or a service.” It's an attempt to make "the hard stuff in life fun.” Shouldn't that be the goal of every educator, possibly the goal of every human being: to make the hard stuff in life fun?

When playing Minecraft, my 11-year-old is wholly engaged, he is collaborating with friends, he is receiving immediate feedback, he is laser-focused on problem-solving, strategizing, learning whatever it is he has to learn to get to the next level.

Engagement? Collaboration? Immediate Feedback? Problem-Solving? Talk about educational buzz words. It’s little surprise then that gamification has become a national trend in education: from online educational games to classroom curriculum designed with challenges, quests, levels, experience points, and badges.
Now, I will be the first to admit I smell the perfume of hypocrisy here...on my very own wrists. If you've read my posts in the past, you may recall that I'm a big proponent of the Alfie Kohn camp of intrinsic motivation. I am generally not a fan of stickers, tickets, candy, movie passes to get students (or teachers) to perform well.
However, I am a proponent of making learning fun, of wholly engaging students, of providing specific and timely feedback. And so, I'm admittedly walking a fine line here. I'm attempting to gamify my classroom, to use XP points (experience points), badges and leaderboards to remind students of their progress, to nudge students extend a skill, to energize their learning, but I am not using candy and stickers to coax them into behaving or completing a task. A fine line, I know.

My other challenge (beside possible hypocrisy) is my lack of experience. I don’t even qualify as a newbie gamer. The last time I gamed was was about 25 years ago in front of a Ms Pac-Man console at a video arcade. Yeash.  I don’t even play Farmville or Candy Crush on Facebook.

I do have one secret weapon, however: my son Eliot; I can plug into my students’ generation within the comfort of my own home.

And so, this summer, Eliot and I sat down to gamify.

First, the concept. That was easy.  I have been using the term “APES” (Advanced Placement English Scholars) forever: “Battle of the APES,” then, was the logical choice for my game concept (and the availability of campy 70’s images from the Charlton Heston Planet of the Apes movies was an added bonus).

Then, the fun part: apes research. I learned that a group of apes is called a shrewdness. Cool,  since I’ll be asking them to be shrewd in their analysis; in essence, tracking their “shrewdness.” I learned the essential differences between monkeys and apes. I learned about their habits, intellects, predilections. I learned there are five main branches in the ape family: humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, gibbons (with many subdivisions). I learned that unlike monkeys (but like humans) apes have broad chests and do not have tails. I imagine we’ll have fun all year alluding to our other parallels with our fellow primates. “Battle of the APES” is proving to be a chunky metaphor.

The game itself?  Eliot asked me what the end goal of the game would be. I had to think about the most important outcome for AP English: the ability to write a substantial literary analysis essay. Then we broke it down into badges or skills. That, too, was pretty easy:
  1. Answering the prompt: directly and fully addressing the prompt throughout their essay.
  2. Commentary: providing convincing support and analysis.
  3. Embedded Quotes: embedding short, key quotes into their commentary.
  4. Vocabulary: seamlessly using the language of literary analysis within their essay.
  5. Conclusion: building up to a greater idea, a larger human truth or question.
We agreed that these will make worthy badges. Aside from the traditional grade, mastery of each of these skills (within their timed writings) will earn students a badge (a sticker I created containing an ape and the skill demonstrated) which they’ll stick on their binders.

     “What will earning all 5 badges get them?” Eliot asked me.

     “A 4 or 5 on the AP Exam, a successful college career, and the life-long ability to read critically and write...” (he cut me off)

     “No, what will they GET? In a game, it has to build up to something. They have to GET something at the end.”

Hmmm, I thought. This is where my philosophy wavered and hypocrisy reared its head: I don’t believe in bribes, in freebies, in stickers and candy.  Yet, for gamification to work, Eliot insisted, earning all the badges has to add up to something tangible. After some soul searching and internet scouring, I found a golden ape (a small gorilla pin they can put on their letter jacket or elsewhere).

In my mind, I made peace with the golden ape in the following way: Each student is competing with him/herself to achieve the requisite AP analysis writing skills which will lead them to perform well on the AP exam and more importantly bring those skills with them to college and beyond. The golden ape will remind them of their intellectual ability and their intellectual growth. I’m ordering the pins, and that’s where I’m currently hanging my ethical hat.

Next, the team component. Eliot insisted that “all the best games” have a team component. This is where healthy competition comes into play. Each team of APES (orangutans, bonobos, etc) will compete in classroom challenges which can earn xp for their team.

Teams (shrewdnesses) will earn xp if an individual ape earns a badge and when the group completes / excels on a classroom challenge: deciphering a poem, analyzing an essay, creating a metaphor, reenacting a scene, etc. A shared google spreadsheet will keep track of team xp, and the leaderboard will be magnetic apes (one per shrewdness) climbing up my magnetic whiteboard.

The team prize? At the end of each quarter, the winning shrewdness will determine how we spend one class period ( they can go “ape-wild” for one class period: subject to school rules, my approval, and relevance to APE-worthy skills).

No, I’m not altogether sure about this.

Yes, I’m feeling anxious about it.

Yes, I’m excited about it.

Yes, I’ll keep you posted on the state of my Monkey Business.