Seriously?

Absolutely!

Why not? For years, I have been suggesting that people teach the traits conceptually. The traits, after all, are not about rubrics. And teaching them that way is very limiting. The traits are about big concepts–having an idea, organizing information, letting your inner self shine through in your writing, digging for words that communicate–and the rest. And one of the best ways to teach conceptually is through metaphor–fluency as a rolling river, for example.

Now, someone has taken the metaphoric approach to a whole new level, with a website that dazzles the eye and the imagination. His name is Larry Graykin, and he teaches seventh and eighth grade students at Barrington Middle School in Barrington, NH. Graykin wanted a way to enliven his curriculum–of which six traits are one part–and engage students at the same time. It’s no secret that gaming is second nature to most middle schoolers–and that anything interactive stimulates the mind well beyond what mere sharing of information can achieve. Graykins’s approach gets students about as involved with their own learning as possible; in his classroom, they must commit time, energy, will to succeed, and imagination–and yes, it’s easy to envision them having a ball doing so.

At the center of this curriculum is an online kingdom, Diddorol–from a Welsh word meaning “interesting.” The kingdom has six provinces, each with its own “flavor” and rule of order. Imagine, for example, a province in which light is the metaphoric key to destiny and success. Which trait might that province represent? Imagine another in which residents dig for linguistic “gems,” each with the power to convey ideas unambiguously. Any trait come to mind there? In a third province, ruled by graceful dolphins, flow and rhythm are essential. If you’re at all familiar with the traits, that’s an instant connection for you. Explore the kingdom for yourself by visiting Larry Graykin’s website: www.wix.com/lgraykin/diddorol 

When you do, you may feel challenged to create something similar on your own–online or otherwise. Though Graykin’s website is undoubtedly an inspiring model, he encourages others to think creatively: “I chose provinces because it fit the mythology of the game I was designing. But why not neighborhoods? Or cities, or planet, or rooms in a treehouse mansion? Or kinds of fruit, or certain songs? The lovely power of metaphor is that it can custom-fit anything to one’s interests, intewntions, or desires.”

Graykin’s own inspiration came partly from Lee Sheldon, author of The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game (2011, Course Technology). An author and commercial video game designer, Sheldon is a professor at Indiana University, where he teaches game design and screenwriting. To learn more about weaving gaming into curriculum, check out Sheldon’s book online, and also see gettingsmart.com/news/2011/09/review-the-multiplayer-classroom-by-lee-sheldon

Admittedly, an adventure like this takes time–and creative skill. And it’s important to note that Larry Graykin’s classroom has been transformed in ways that go far beyond the metaphoric traits in the imagined kingdom of Diddorol. Everything has changed–from the notebooks students use to the ways in which they accumulate points to earn a grade. As Graykin himself says, “In Diddorol, I’ve tried to do it all at once. There are advantages in this, to be sure, but one could do just the metaphor for the traits, or just the classroom setup, or just one aspect of the gaming toolkit.” For a closeup look at his classroom, visit

http://ela-bms.wikispaces.com/Info+for+parents+%28%+other+interested+parties%29

This site will lead you to other links that allow you to access an online interview with Larry (Brady Carlson, 9/1/11) as well as current podcasts in which you can hear Larry discussing his experience with the whole gaming approach.

The imaginative power behind combining gaming with the teaching of writing is impressive. And make no mistake–this is the teaching of writing using the traits, as opposed to merely teaching the traits (not the same thing at all). But what has struck me most during my short time pondering the magic of Diddorol is the behind-the-scenes commitment to involving students directly. As you’ll find when you visit Larry’s “Info for Parents” site, students don’t just finish assignments; they “adventure.” They don’t just master objectives; they conquer wild beasts. They also lay out their own plans for earning XP (experience points) and zeroing in on their personal objectives. In short, they determine their own fate–and even assist in the design of the program through which they achieve it. The current graphics on the Diddorol site, for example, are just placeholders.  “It’s my plan or intention,” says Graykin, “to have students draw their own pics of the provinces and replace those which are currently there.” Bravo.

How often have you imagined how wonderful it would be if students could just define the traits for themselves? They can. Larry Graykin’s ingenious approach has shown us the way. Now we can only hope he will follow up with a workshop that takes us further inside this enticing new world of writing.

My personal thanks  . . . to Larry Graykin for the generous amounts of time he took in explaining his approach to me, and offering me online guidance into Diddorol. Thanks also to my friend and colleague Fred Wolff for first alerting me to the whole approach. Fred is co-author (with Lynne Garber Kalna) of The Write Direction: A New Teacher’s Practical Guide to Teaching Writing and Its Application in the Workplace (2010, Pearson).

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Sneed Collard fans, stand by. One of America’s foremost authors of nonfiction books for young readers now turns his considerable talents toward what might be called transitional young adult (TYA) lit–that is, young adult for readers in grades 5 through 8. We’ll review his book Hangman’s Gold, a veritable treasure house of ideas for anyone who teaches trait-based writing.

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