I am just about coming up for air from this year, the summer holidays are upon me now and I will finally have time to reflect upon some of the classroom activities that have gone on in this final term. This post is about using the adventure game Myst in a literacy unit with my Year 5s. It has been one of the most memorable projects we have worked on this year and I am so thankful we had the opportunity to explore this games based learning approach. I hope to reflect here and in future posts what it is like to handle this type of exploration, discovery, learning and writing in my classroom.
The unit is completely inspired by the work of Tim Rylands and more recently by the work of Derek Robertson and his colleagues in LTS’s Consolarium. I was really interested in how the Scottish school in the pilot project had teamed up their older children with a younger age group. At the beginning of this term I had some quality time to work with our Key Stage 1 Literacy coordinator and show her the game and lay down my ideas. This was an important step as it forced me to articulate and crystallise my own thoughts on what the game could do and also perhaps get some buy-in from another colleague. Cathy immediately saw the huge potential to motivate the boys in her own class and so ideas began to turn into plans.
An ideal environment?
For over a year now I have been eyeing the possibility of this literacy unit with my children and with the increasing number of laptops in my room it finally seemed possible. Of course having a 1:1 resource is no prerequisite for this unit to take place as Tim Ryland’s video clips show a single user (the teacher) and the class watching on – but I imagined that many children would want to get their hands on the game themselves and I was also curious to explore what was possible with individual use. 30 laptops 30 games.
That is what we went for and considering the games cost us just over £4 each it was not particularly expensive to achieve. For me this was the ideal environment because I wanted the children to be the explorers – but much (as proved by many before me) can be achieved with just one copy of the game. Individual games did give the children a free rein, they owned the pace by which they explored and to some degree by which they wrote. Classroom organisation was a little more complex but importantly the children defined the game pace.
Many people have approached the use of the game to help inspire descriptive writing and narrative that draws upon the rich environment that a player can explore. Many different text types can be explored and so I decided to work on a hybrid text that could effortlessly draw in some of these into one. When exploring the game myself I found it useful to read a walkthrough guide that would in turn help me guide the children if needed. A game guide or walkthrough has the potential to be stylistically descriptive as well as having functional parts. In addition the games’ puzzles could be explained using instructional language. I decided on the game guide as the written piece because of these extended possibilities.
Games based learning at school
This Myst unit forms part of a wider school strategy to incorporate the best of games based learning in the classroom. It has proven to be very cost effective as mentioned above and the return has been amazing – the feedback from the chidren has been extremely positive. At our school we have role play corners throughout the early years and up to the Year 3 classes with a big emphasis on this sort of play. The children enjoy games and we have seen them interact using their Nintendo DS consoles for a long time now – the language of gaming is something they are very familiar with. Harnessing the enthusiasm for it is the key. During this unit directing their enthusiasm to perhaps more traditional outcomes (writing) has sometimes felt awkward but nonetheless important. We will be beginning a Nintendo DS project in Year 4 next year as once again we are inspired by those working in Scotland. Beyond these new projects something that has proven very successful is the use of games to promote the development of mental maths skills. This has been a school target and in Year 5 we have been highlighting a variety of different games and online activities that can help the children via our school del.icio.us bookmarking account.
Making a start
Although Myst is a game I wanted to retain the sense of narrative and not just say from the outset that we will be using a computer game. I knew that Myst would capture their attention, but I wanted to draw them in without even starting the game – in my own way. A while ago I bought my wife a wooden chest and filled it with her Christmas gifts, the chest was going to be a key prop in the tense opening of this literacy unit.
The Myst game pivots upon the special powers that books have in the story, so I placed a large anonymous book inside – a recipe book from home but I concealed the spine. With much intrigue and hushing of my voice I told the children that I had just taken delivery of this chest. No “This is what we are doing today in literacy…” or lesson objectives, just straight into talk about the box. Without opening it we talked about what it could be, what it could contain, why it could be special. I soon realised that within a few minutes the children were in that wonderful place between disbelief and intrigue. They not only asked questions about the box and the contents but how it could have arrived, who might have brought it – the anonymity of it all troubled and intrigued them.
On opening the box I told the children that I had received 2 scrolls throughout the week that told me of the arrival of something for the class (the box) and instructions not to open whatever was inside. I explained that I had been informed that the book has great power and carefully took it out of the chest, showing the children. We then talked about what this power could be, what properties it could have and how it may be magical (In the game the books are called Ages, a written creation that becomes a physical place which you can link into) The third scroll was inside the chest. I had written a code for the children to break, using Puzzlemaker – a message that would add another layer of mystery to the tale so far.
The children spent the next 20 minutes or so cracking the number/letter code and we shared our discoveries as a class as it progressed. Of course the code reveals more questions then answers and refers to the beginning of some sort of journey. You will have to break the code to read it in full!
We sat together and discussed the message that had been revealed from the code and questioned what meaning we could attriubute to it, what we knew already and what was yet to be revealed. Without saying much more, other than explaining that I was following instructions, I fired up the game and we watched the opening sequence of the game and the title film. The timing is crucial here, as I wanted to finish the lesson with this tiny glimpse of what was to come – the game begins overlooking a canyon in a place called Tomahnha, I moved the mouse and showed that we were in control and the journey had started, I stopped and said that it was time to finish. There were cries of disappointment and a great buzz as they left for assembly – our Myst adventure had begun!
In my next post about Myst I will explore how our Year 5 children became Myst Ambassadors and took the game to the Year 2s, and Gemma Coleman one of the Year 2 teachers will be explaining how it fitted in with them and their own approach to the unit.