Creative Writing Games for Stage 3 and above

I don’t like ‘ice-breakers’ as a rule. They tend to be far too pushy for people who are naturally introverted. So as I thought about kicking off a new set of Year 7s this week, I opted to create a simple writing game which later we’ll use as the basis for art making – drawings made from text. This is an example – and great for getting people who think they can’t draw to write (and then make a drawing). The game is designed for table work, so I’d suggest 2-8 players. It lasts about an hour. You’ll notice in the games that there are objects. For my purpose these things are simply concepts, but they could be physical things or even mathematical formulas etc., It’s a pretty low tech game, but I guess you could do this online.

The aim of the activity is to get students to think creatively and to critically follow rules to re-frame their original position. Let me know if you use it or modify it! Creative story writing game.


Write for free, it’s good for you!

This headline is a lie. There are people working day jobs who now believe when a producer or editor comes up with this week’s theme, that they have every right to crowd-source the writing from the suckers online. This is actually a job now — tapping into people someone in the office knows and offering them the chance to write for the big-league as though at some point there would be even the slightest pay back.

Ethical practice or part of the network culture?

I don’t believe it’s ethical to do this, nor is it part of network culture. It’s part of media-culture to get as much for free as possible. The exception here being The Conversation, which I have to say was a great online publication to write for. The difference between blogging and writing is a fee when it comes to ‘proper publishing’.

It isn’t okay to even try to tap-me-up for a freebie on the basis you may know someone who I know. It’s even less exciting if that person hasn’t bothered to ask how I am in a year or so. I realise there are plenty of people who believe network culture is about sharing, crowd sourcing everything and giving every idea and insight away for ‘the love of it’. The reward seems to be presented through the opportunity to ‘tweet your association’ as though this has some lasting credibility or increases your social or financial status. It doesn’t, but it’s a great way of getting free work. I have no time for people who seek to profit from others using this disingenuous form of ‘collaboration’. Screw that, why would I want to devalue my work by increasing the value of yours?

If I choose to post to my blog — it’s because I want to. If you’re tapping me up for free because you’re boss told you too — don’t be shocked if I’m offended. I value the work I’ve done in relation to kids, games and families. Why would I want to give that away simply to fill someone else’s agenda?

It’s shallow for online media properties to ‘crowd source’ when they also like to complain about copyright, journalistic erosion and budget cuts. I’m happy to be taken seriously, and happy to work with editors, copy-editors and publishers around video games and families. I welcome writing pieces for organisations which I believe are promoting awareness for social-good. However, please don’t  ask for freebies in order to fill your space — I value my work, and so should you.

Writing tools for imaginative minds

Writing in Word sucks for anyone using imagination towards creative expression. I have no doubt that those who love to write in linear forms, obsess over grammar and follow templates love using Word, but for millions of the rest of us, it doesn’t inspire and Banksy seems to get by without it. I often wonder if people become habitual Word users eventually, more interested in the oxford comma than a new idea.

Ideas were never meant to be put into Word, they are to be drawn, torn up, scribbed on, re-arranged and debated. Word almost certainly means ‘critique’ and ‘literal interpretation’. Hands up who wanted to work in a typing pool when they were young, and who wanted to be in Hanoi Rocks until Razzle died.

Many people, especially creative people are all about being difference engines. The easiest way I know to explain it is to cast your mind back to childhood (tempted to sing “up and around the bend). The kids who loved to ‘read’ comics didn’t finish them in moments, but pondered them for weeks. What was going on between the frames was just as important as visual text. They processed it, imagined what was going on and what wasn’t — and most of them wrote and drew their own comics. Comics were not academic when I was a kid. A sure sign of a vague, wandering mind — the smart kids read books and the diligent kids studied grammar. I liked books and writing too, but liked comic books and was obsessive over the fluidity of handwriting and the formation of letters into words. I grew up to study illustration and typography. I was probably in my mid-20s before I was forced to use Word.

There is an alternative. Scrivener2 is a great non-linear writing tool. I don’t have the inclination to explain it all here — suffice to say, if you like to work in pieces and figure out how the pieces come together, you’ll like it. Then there is the other tool Literature and Latte make – Scapple. It’s a mind map gizmo. It lets you think in organised pictures — move pieces around, and then drag that drawing into Scrivener as the basis of a document. You can also use MindNode too, but I’ve moved to Scapple because I just find it faster to use.

When you’re done — compile your masterpiece for Word, PDF, ePub, Kindle, iBooks and even share it via Amazon.


Academic writing workflow for geeks

Warning: This post is about writing not gaming, so you might want to bail here.

At this point in my geek-evolution, I have managed to use just about every widget and tool around. Most of them I’ve concluded are like having a baby rattle on a pram. Ultimately you’re occupied, even happy, but someone is pushing you from A to B.

Now when it comes to creating a workflow for writing, it’s actually quite hard if you’ve been bashing the rattle as long as I have. Which tools to choose, which to ditch. So many choices, so many things I tried and abandoned. Worse still, so many things I used in a basic way, avoiding filling out the details. Live in the pram means wasting crazy amounts of time procrastinating, experimenting and avoiding commitment. A decade of using this stuff requires some degree of conscious remedial effort to get out the pram and walk around again.

The key is to remember this is that writing is about getting from A to B. Yes it’s about grammar and conventions too, but for many students – it’s about A to B. In my case, I’ve got to write this thesis thing, which seems rather dense and complex, and there’s only one way these things get done efficiently.

Everyone is different, by my brain doesn’t work well by starting at A and going to B thinking, so Word is useless to me. Word is a drag on academic writing, and it usually trows up talk of ‘referencing’ using End Note. I hate End Note, it crashes, it’s spawned of DOS and a resource hog in my view. Some people love it. I figure the same people who like to line up for things in shops. I’ve used Diigo and Mendeley for years in serious (and successful) protest.

I like to write using two tools. IA Writer, a bare bones, clean typing machine and Scrivener, which is an organisational powerhouse for writing an non A to B methods. I won’t dwell on Scrivener, plenty have done it already. But as yet, Scrivener and Mendeley are not wired together, which is frustrating. However, the solution (for me) is Papers2 and Scrivener.

I had to bite the bullet, and face up to being the consequences of spending too much time in the pram. I exported all my Mendeley references and notes in BibTex format and imported them into Papers2. I then used the smart keywords gizmo in Papers2 to semi-organise what I had (some clean, some dirty) into rough themes. Next I made folders for related (sort of) papers, cleaning up my tags I went. For example, I’m working on a narrative analysis of New York Times reports about games as networks right now, so I have a folder and keyword tags for that. I can also import my Diigo online-articles into Papers2 using the same process. Yes it’s boring, but it has to be done if I’m ever to walk upright in the sunlight.

The biggest question I had was – how do I insert references as I write. First, let’s assume I’ve cleaned them up (as Mendeley often gets them wrong). In addition, Mendeley’s ‘cite’ function into Word is still slow and clunky. I have to use two programs at the same time – and always fight off Word’s insistence that it knows better about formatting. In my Master’s years, I found OpenOffice to be less irritating with Mendeley, but ultimately the high-lords of academia only speak [doc], so more conversions and ‘save-as’ inconsistencies occurred.

The solution for me has been to use Papers2 double ‘control’ tap cite as you write. As I write in Scrivener, I just double control tap to bring up a gizmo that then lets me insert a reference (as a sort of short code). An example is something like {Seale:2010ip} 

When I’m ready,I can compile it for a format I want (word, pdf, epub) and so on right out of Scrivener. For most people, writing ends up in the infamously over-bloated Word as I’ve said. Using Papers2, all you have to do is tell it Word to compile your exported Scrivener text, and all you’re wonderful references turn into a flat Word [doc]ument.

One key advantage for the writing process is that you can now organise and re-organise ‘pieces’ of writing to different ends (some for blogging, some for journals, chapters and so on) plus be able to compile for many formats. No more A to B writing, no more citation dramas and lost time.

Writing isn’t just about wrangling Word and EndNote. It’s all about workflow. Sync your documents to SkyDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive and you have a complete system whereby you have a few ‘source of truth’ files, and an almost endless ‘lab’ for writing on multiple platforms and devices. 

The Utopian Journey

A few years ago now, Judy O’Connell ran a project called ‘A book in a day”. It was one of those innovation ideas Jude magics up. A year later I helped Jeff Agamenoni with a similar book project in his Great Falls Gifted and Talented Class. It was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done to be honest, and Jeff’s ability to enthuse and motivate his kids should not be under-estimated.

Next, I highly recommend you check out the work of Martin Jorgensen. We used his Lightning Bug site to help the kids develop all sorts of writing, gradually encouraging them to write more and more around the topic theme – Utopia, where the kids studied Animal Farm. In the two years that passed, Jeff and the kids published their stories online – so parents could order printed copies. These are impressive works, illustrated, typeset and some 10,000 words of imaginative stories based on the themes in Animal Farm. They have been to book signings in the local library, and reported in the local press. These kids are publishers and writers in their own right.

This year Jeff’s taken it to a new level. Tales of Utopia 3 is on iTunes. I highly recommend you shell out the modest charge, and read their work, or use it to think about how you can get past the assessment and into the public sphere. I guess, this shows how it takes a while to go from an idea to a solution, but also how that solution can be adapted almost endlessly.

Entering the new commons. Teachers can’t write.

“Historically, we humans have experienced an impulse to write; we have found the materials to write; we have endured the labor of composition; we have understood that writing offers new possibility and a unique agency. Historically, we composers pursued this impulse to write in spite of—in spite of cultures that devalued writing; in spite of prohibitions against it when we were female or a person of color; in spite of the fact that we—if we were 6 or 7 or 8 or even 9—were told we should read but that we weren’t ready to compose.”
Kathleen Blake Yancey, Florida State University, Tallahassee. “Writing in the 21st Century”. February 2009 National Council of Teachers of English

When I read this I thought – omg. If I had an iphone at the time, I might have tweeted it too.

The new commons for student writing

Kathleen argues that without a planned curriculum (the central way in which formal education has been constructed), the use of writing has always taken the primary ‘colors of the time’. She maintains this as being a rudimentary skill in pursuit of testing students understanding of ‘the text’. Despite a ‘new’ curriculum – it seems likely that composition will continue as it is now in the majority of student experiences.

The report goes on to look historically at writing as composition though modern history, identifying letters from the European trenches of World War 1, letters to loved ones etc., as examples of self-directed composition enabled by the ability to send and receive it though systems such as the postal service.

It outlines how being able to write a personal letter transformed writing, through to today’s hyper-connected world composition is has turned “its attention to the visual and to audience—is needed.”

In this model of composing, meaning – created through the interaction between visual and verbal resources is central and a key consideration and motivation is understanding the role of audience and the social nature of writing.

The report goes on to discuss how social platforms have become the new ‘commons’. As people themselves become more mobile in the 40s and 50s, travelling further from home and community – physical ‘common’ spaces began to shrink as communities stopped using them. I can vividly recall playing ‘down the common’ with friends – and it was a hub of activity for latch-key kids like me. How times change.

Students today are learning composition in pixels, though social apprenticeships – from following Photoshop tutorials, learning about writing a better blog or telling a digital story, or simply updating their status on a social network – and we are learning in the new commons created by the internet, because that is the authentic audience and virtual spaces that kids have immediate and persistent access too. Socially, we are far less likely to let kids gather in spaces than 30 years ago – and even if we do, our helicopter parenting habits will probably give them a mobile phone too. Social networks and virtual spaces have become a ‘third space’ – in which kids can ‘hang out’ – and the method by which they compose short or lengthy messages is though technology.

Why don’t teachers use the online common room?

I’ve noticed, on occasions I attend conferences – that the 95% of teachers are text-consumers, and the ‘work’ asked of students is based on a Blooms approach to unpacking them in essays, reports and other text-types that have are socially and academically acceptable. 95% seek out new texts and sessions that give handouts and 5% will attend anything ‘computerised’ – despite most EdTech’s these days focusing on pedagogy and strategy, not ‘tools’.

Teachers are far more likely to see physical spaces – their staff room, conferences, subject plenaries as their commons and to look for teaching materials in the form of ‘texts’ than use the metaverse. They are very unlikely to compose a blog post, send a tweet or create new information, but highly likely to buy a text that someone else has composed, or personally recommended during a professional development session.

It is no surprise that students predominantly work alone or rarely offered research challenges that cannot be hacked out in front of Google for 10 minutes, as writing is tied to assessment, using an academic writing style – supporting the idea that knowledge passed on by the teacher is singular, valuable, and must be remembered.

The advent of paper and pen, and word processor, flash drive, email perpetuates this culture and marginalises composition and publication online – from the classroom.

What does composition look like today?

Composing from self interest (forums, applications, games interaction) or self sponsored (emails, facebook, playlists, photo galleries, youtube) is far more likely than writing for school, which is seen as work.

Teacher use of technolgy is in composition for ‘work’ – creating tests, tasks, powerpoints, reports etc., Activities closely related to their job, to transmitting and reporting on the student ability to ‘work’ within Blooms Taxonomy. Their self interest is annexed – if indeed they use sites such as Facebook, or simply email.

School assessment is hung up on reports, exams, essays, LMS, posters and presentations – for a very narrow audience – the teacher and the examiner. Developing assessment beyond the current method is challenging.

95% of teachers have no interest in entering the digital common room, participating with others or encouraging writing in pixels in social spaces with their students – as culturally, this is not seen as proper work and in turn don’t see a social-value as their students are directly reporting to a narrow audience.

Yet – 95% of students do this a hundreds times a week to a global audience though a multitude of technologies, from almost any location.

Does anyone see a problem here? Anything that remotely represents social composition in pixels is banned, dismissed or ignored. The ‘virtual world’ or ‘online world’ is not cyberspace or the opposite of ‘real life’ – it is just life, composed in pixels. I guess the issue now is – how long can leaders insist of pressing the <deny> option – and claim that the small percentage of Outliers, who use technology well – are examples of their culture without adding 2-5% of our culture?

Tweeps vs Bloggers

I was asked this week if I thought blogging had been replaced in relevance by Twitter. I don’t. Here are few examples of why I think blogs under-pin much of what flicks too and fro in  micro-conversation — especially the disputants that want education to change.

At some point, someone somewhere decided that being good at using computers was important. Office automation changed the way we organised the office. A secretarial pool provided services for those not important enough to have an exclusive. The mechanical and electonic typewriter gave way to the personal computer.

Within a few years these machines were connected to each other (as long as the token ring held)  saving us the bother of even walking from desk to desk. Only the very very important retained a real secretary. Most of us now have a semi-autonomous bot called email. Which often burys us in busy-work. How many emails do we all receive with half-thought out ideas, incomplete documents or questions that seemingly have already been answered. At least the typing pool meant THINKING before sending.

The internet, or rather email — wiped out an entire human office network. I wonder how the bored despondency on Revolutionary Road would have been changed if April Wheeler was on Facebook, or her husband was a tele-commuter [insert new project idea].

The physical shared reality of work-home-life today has been forever changed by connected communication. Our peers and friends are milliseconds away and some of them are warlocks – and critical to the development of schools and students.

Meg Hourihan in 2002, blogged about ‘what we are doing when we blog’. The post includes some foundational information – outlining the framework and mechanisms that differentiates an essay or journal from a blog.

She explains

we’ve embraced a medium free of the physical limitations of pages, intrusions of editors, and delays of tedious publishing systems”.

Rebecca Blood’s hammer and nail’ post from 2004 is an excellent essay on blog development and culture. She talks about Robert Wisdom putting the term weblog into our vocabulary, going on to talk about distinct differences between a blog, ezine and journal. I love the way she talks about blogs “amplified one another’s voices” and “dependable sources of links to reliably interesting material”.

Read Karl Fisch’s  jack-boot post entitled “Is it okay to be a technologically illiterate teacher?” from 2007. The statements and comments from that single post at the time hit the edublogger community like a concussion shell — but three years after, Twitter is reliving the highlights. Today Karl is wearing the big-pants, writing for the tech section of the Huffington Post.

He makes the comment

“Whenever I post to The Huffington Post I’m going to cross-post here, and I’m going to both ask and count on all of you to get involved in the conversation there as well as here”.

There are plenty of references and RTs about “Shift Happens” and “Did you know”; but what Karl recognises is the power of conversation. All of that flows into Version 4 of the video — [use with care as you’ll scare the sheep].

I see many edu-comments about digitally illiterate teachers, whom often seem to take pride in their lethargy — in Twitter, but Karl nails it — in his blog.

Seth Godin wrote recently

“helping them see your idea through their lens, not yours”

Godin thinks our biggest challenge in trying to attract people to our idea of what is ‘the right’ solution. Social and personal learning networks as concepts are as magical as Tinkerbell — if your audiences’ lens is digitally-myopic. A solid argument or thoughtful reflection on a blog is far more tangible to newcomers.

In Twitter we move between networks of people — in a blog,  interest comes from comparatively small intersection of my Tweet-pool. I would miss blogs for more than tweets.

Finally, and much more recently – Elizabeth Helfant wrote in her blog, Helcat Rants and Ramblings: Defining Emerging Literacies

“Literacy has changed, whether we want to recognize that or not.”

She outlines various notions and factors that are critical in under-pinning and attempt to shift pedagogy and ideology out of its Edwardian robes. That one post is more powerful than a week of hash-tagging and system-slagging.

We cannot forget however that whole school development is important. Schools are not teachers vs admin vs executive — they are chain — and we need to take a holistic approach. It is likely that our future writing-work will not be committed to Microsoft Word or passed to the secretarial pool – but to chains of conversation connected.

Frustratingly, the insane decision to focus on ‘the desktop’ fails to understand the internet is the platform, not the enemy in schools. We will have to wait years until the madness subsides however.  In the mean time, the internet is alive with hacks and work-arounds, so strong is the desire to be connected to others.

The internet is not a collection of ‘tools’ and ‘websites’. Anything outside MS Office is not scary or emerging — to be viewed with suspicion.  If we wanted to be really spiky in staff-development – we’d be talking about 3G mobile, augmented reality, serious games and de-schooling. Yet here we are — a decade later – fighting to get blogs in the classroom and Word off the desktop. If you want to quit smoking, don’t buy cigarettes. If you want to change pedagogy – don’t build typing-pools, embrace the conversation by reading, commenting and creating yummy blogs.