It’s amazing how hard students will work to stay alive.
It seems that the threat of death does wonders for honing one’s creative writing skills, as Bianca Hewes discovered over the course of a two-week project based on The Hunger Games.
It was third term, and Bianca was to be seconded out of the classroom for two weeks. Rather than simply hand over responsibility for her Year 10 extension English class to a substitute, she used digital technology to allow her to continue engaging with the class, remotely and outside of school hours. Inspired by conversations with several colleagues, she created an intensive two-week creative writing project around that year’s hot ‘young adult’ cultural property – The Hunger Games.
Over the time that Bianca was away, she and her students brought the world of the Hunger Games to life, creating an immersive ‘alternative reality’ through narrative writing. The results were amazing – not only was the class motivated at a deeper and more profound level, it also resulted in technically better and far more creatively powerful writing than the students had previously produced. Beyond these immediate benefits, it encouraged the class to discuss a range of complex concepts in a meaningful context – from power and identity to online privacy and civic governance.
After a week of ‘teaser’ announcements on the class digital forum (Edmodo), Bianca kicked off the project with ‘the reaping’. Drawing on the narrative of the Hunger Games novels, she randomly assigned students as ‘tributes’ of various ‘districts’ and explained that over the next two weeks they would be participants in their own Hunger Games. One of the students was chosen to be the ‘gamekeeper’ to assist in running the games, and Bianca herself took the role of ‘Queen Snow’ in the game world.
Each of the students began by crafting their identity – choosing a name and writing backstory to their tribute. They made creative use of online tools like fashion shopping platform Polyvore to create their character’s visual identity. Students became so engrossed that they would only address each other ‘in character’ during the class. Each student had a blog (using WordPress, Tumblr, or Blogger) that became his or her own personal storyline. Inspired by plot twists introduced by the Gamekeeper and Queen Snow, and by reading about the actions of their fellow classmates, they each wrote an evolving narrative, putting into practice the creative writing skills they had been working on earlier in the year. There was very little formal feedback during the games – students improved through the act of writing, and through the close observation of the work of their peers.
The deaths began quickly and were a crucial part of the experience. They provided much of the engagement and motivation. When a student was ‘killed’, their character ceased to play a role in the game arena, the student assumed the role of a ‘journalist’ in the Capitol. For the remainder of the project each journalist maintained a blog covering the events in the arena, working on their ‘informative writing’ skills.
The first deaths were selected at random. Later, power was given to the group to decide democratically who would die. This resulted in Byzantine negotiation and politicking within the class – all in character, adding and deepening the personal narratives of each tribute. Toward the end, survival became contingent on writing the best, most creative and engaging narrative – giving students the most powerful of all possible motivations to take their writing to new levels.
As the project progressed, students looked for increasingly more creative ways to bring their characters to life. Several of them decided to create ‘in character’ twitter profiles – leading to rich discussion about the ethics of identity and social media. An audience outside of the class began to take an interest: teachers, parents, and other Hunger Games fans. Using the #hg2212 hashtag, this new audience engaged with the game – in some cases sending virtual ‘gifts’ for tributes to use in the game arena.
At the conclusion of the two weeks, Bianca returned to the classroom, the winning tribute was named (yes, there were tears) and class moved on. But both for teacher and students it was a moment that stood out as a transformative experience. As Bianca puts is very simply, “it meant so much to them.”
There is a lot of conversation about Project Based Learning, but examples like this show just how powerful and profound it can be. Discussing her learnings from the experience, Bianca had three pieces of advice for teachers wanting to bring this level of experiential and immersive learning into their classroom.
TAKE INSPIRATION FROM YOUR STUDENTS’ WORLDS
To engage the class, material needs to be contextually relevant and ‘culturally of the moment’. Bianca chose The Hunger Games because of the power it already had as a media property with this age group – power that could be easily translated into motivation and commitment. “I’m always frustrated with teachers who talk about Project Based Learning and roll out the same projects, set in stone, year after year,” she explains. “We need to be in tune with what students are into, and flexible enough to use that.”
KNOW YOUR CLASS AND YOUR SCHOOL
Bianca is the first to admit that she wouldn’t have attempted the project in other situations. “To take students on this kind of journey you need excellent rapport. This was the second unit of work I’d done with the class – we’d already tackled The Catcher in the Rye, and used digital technology in other activities. They were a mature group, very open and willing to take risks together. Importantly, they appreciated that this would still be a learning experience, the expectation was that playing the game would develop their writing skills.”
She had also been at the school long enough to have a good handle on parental attitudes, and any concerns that senior leadership might have. “You need to understand the school context – how comfortable people are to push boundaries, who you need to talk to about what you are doing.”
BRING YOUR OPENNESS AND PASSION
While there are significant demands on students with this kind of activity, it is the teacher who is often taken most out of their comfort zone. Unlike typical classroom activities the scope for teachable moments is incredibly broad. “The kids knew that Twitter was public,” explains Bianca, referring to the use of tweets as part of the narrative created by some students. “We discussed the ethical implications of opening fake twitter accounts, and creating content to be viewed publically. In the end, only some students were comfortable doing it – and that was a real learning experience for the whole class.”
Bianca’s absence from class during the day contributed to the way the project spread beyond the classroom and into the lives of students. She recalls students describing a party during the two weeks where instead of the usual teenage antics, most of the partygoers sat around on their mobile phones posting updates about their tributes. While technically only required to participate in class time, the game became all-consuming for some participants – as the improving quality of their writing testified.
Just reading about a project like Bianca’s Hunger Games can be daunting. The depth of preparation required; the personal rapport with individual students; the need to be immersed in their cultural world; the shared willingness to take risks; the acceptance of how ‘real’ the experience becomes for students. Perhaps it’s not what a lot of teachers signed up for. But for some, it’s the only way they can be true to how they want to teach. “Teaching isn’t just a job,” as Bianca puts it. “I’m always looking for the next project, something new that I can do with my class. I can’t stop thinking about the learning opportunities I want to create.”
Let the Games begin!