In 2015, teacher-librarian Tasha Squires of O’Neill Middle School in Downers Grove, Illinois, entered the Follett Challenge, an annual contest from Follett School Solutions that showcases schools with innovative methods for learning 21st-century skills. O’Neill Middle School won the grand prize—$60,000—and has used the funding to enhance its reading and writing program. Here, Squires explains how it all came about.
Every day, educators look for ways to engage students and help them develop 21st-century skills necessary to function in our world.
At O’Neill Middle School, participation in our voluntary library reading program was 17%, and we wanted to increase that level. So we sought an innovative approach to motivate our students through collaboration, creativity, and communication. Because students had started using Google apps and other social tools, we wanted to increase and build on those skills. Gamification provided the platform to engage and excite students. Gamification takes a process or learning target and sets it in a gaming format. The idea of introducing a game, creating teams, and making it apply across different media had never been tried at our school.
We called our game Conquest of the Realm, or as the students dubbed it, CotR. Students were given challenges worth a set number of points via their student email accounts. Challenges required critical thinking, collaborating to solve puzzles, interacting with teachers outside their normal purview, and creating original work such as book trailers and creative writing pieces.
Each student was assigned a house (or team), and the house with the most points would win. Students quickly began identifying themselves by their house and worked collaboratively for the common good. Strategy cards could be earned to impact the game. Critical thinking determined when and against whom a card should be played. Because each house had about 120 students, they had to strategize both online and in person. Students formed partnerships beyond classrooms to complete their challenges and to help make vital decisions for the good of their house.
Allowing students to direct and select what they participated in was a new idea. No longer were they limited to a step-by-step, library-directed program. Students could pick and choose which challenges interested them and which ones would be beneficial to their team. Students had to initiate interaction with one another, teachers, and the whole staff. CotR stressed working collaboratively, compelled communication, required creation of original work, and necessitated critical thinking while packaged in a game format our students really loved.
Although students didn’t have to participate, the majority of them did, mainly because of positive peer encouragement and a sense of excitement. In fact, our involvement rate jumped to an astounding 80%. The energy surrounding the game was palpable. Long after the four-week game culminated, students were discussing books and writing reviews. Perhaps most important, the relationships created between students and teachers extended beyond the game.
The challenge helped highlight our commitment to literacy and helping students enjoy reading and writing. We look forward to seeing 2016’s innovative programs.