In this series of articles, we check in with teachers from TeacherQuest—a unique professional development program focused on games and game design.

Through this 11-month program, which includes a summer intensive followed by a series of online design challenges, teachers learn to design and use games to develop 21st century skills.

Board games are back in style, and it’s more than just nostalgia fueling the renaissance. The games we played as children were teaching us English, social studies, critical thinking, and other essential lifelong skills.

At Avonworth Middle School in Pittsburgh, two 8th grade teachers are taking classic family night board games and turning them into collaborative learning experiences that the whole school can enjoy.

How Avonworth Incubates Innovative Thinking

When Mike Hall, principal at Avonworth Middle School, found out about the inaugural TeacherQuest program in Pittsburgh, he alerted Emily Hickman and Samantha Abate to the opportunity. They had already been a dynamic duo when it came to developing fresh new ways to engage the students, and they seemed like the perfect fit for the program.

Both teachers had already successfully incorporated game-based learning into their respective subjects. They are also practiced collaborators: Emily, an English teacher, and Samantha, learning support teacher, clicked from the moment they met, and were working together on everything from lesson plans to teaching methods.

Emily and Sam are supported by an administration that highly values collaboration among school staff. Each day at the school, an entire period is dedicated to interaction, where teachers from each grade level meet to discuss challenges, successes, strategies, techniques, individual students, new initiatives, and just about anything else relevant to the classroom.

“Teacher partnership is so important,” says Emily, about her professional relationship with Samantha and daily meetings she has with the other teachers in her unit. “We can be very honest with each other and offer constructive criticism to the group. It’s great to see how our classes intersect and how we can support other teacher’s learning objectives. We can build off of what each of us are teaching and use the same activities to teach different subjects.”

Playing, Modding, Exploding…Oh my!

As learning support coordinator, Sam works with every teacher on the 8th grade team almost every day. She serves as a partner for educators as they plan lessons, align with district curriculum, and implement new learning techniques.

Even before enrolling in the TeacherQuest program, Emily and Sam saw the benefit of playing games with students. They tried some old classics like Clue, UpWords, Scrabble, and Boggle, with the idea of strengthening English, spelling, and critical thinking skills, as well as learning how to follow instructions and work together.

Since TeacherQuest, Emily and Sam’s experiments with games and learning have taken on a new rigor.

On any given Friday, Emily can be found playtesting and modding games with students in her “exploratory” period where she can try new games and get student feedback. Since the beginning of the school year, the class has explored many different games, both classic and new. During one particular session, she and her students were creating new variations on Tic Tac Toe to make the game more challenging. They talked about decisions and strategy, as well as actions and rules. The most popular mod was increasing the grid size. The students were using math without even realizing it.

Sam and Emily have done their share of creating their own games too. Following the TeacherQuest Summer Intensive, Emily created a spin on the party game Scattergories that she called Scatterwordies, to help students in her English class learn about prefixes, suffixes, and root words.

Perhaps the most in-depth game Emily developed was a version of The Game of Life for a civics teacher at her school. Every year, Emily’s students work on an advertising project in their English class, for which they earn a salary. Then, in civics class, the students spend their salary by making certain life choices, with the help of a packet of worksheets. This year, Emily and the civics teacher wanted to shake things up and make the project more game-like. Starting with sticky notes on a wall, the pair designed a mod of the popular board game LIFE, and took their game through numerous playtests with fellow teachers and the Friday “exploratory” game design group to get feedback and make iterations. In the end, the project was very successful and the students said they enjoyed the game much more than the packet.

TeacherQuest Supports Future Initiatives at Avonworth

While the student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive at Avonworth, that isn’t the only measure of success. “Using games in the classroom is only going to be successful if it helps accomplish your learning goal,” said Emily. “You have to lead with your objective and work backward, and find games that support what you’re teaching.” Emily was able to see growth in three major areas as a result of games in class: engagement, interaction, and leadership.

Principal Hall sees growth in these same areas for Avonworth’s teachers. “Our educators want to try new things, they want to think differently, and they are encouraged to take risks,” he explained. “The group is really open to incorporating gaming into their lessons, and they are intrigued to hear what Emily and Sam are learning in the TeacherQuest program. We have a great team and they accomplish a lot together.”

What makes a game successful? “Keep it simple and accessible,” Emily says. Well, the same is true for professional development. As Emily explained, TeacherQuest was the most helpful PD program that she’s ever taken part in because it closely modeled the kinds of experiences she wants to create for her students. “We didn’t just sit there and learn passively by having information thrown at us,” she said. “We actually learned in the way we would teach our students. I like how active it was. It was really intense but I learned so much.” She also said she would definitely recommend this program to other teachers who are interested in gaming.

Recently, Emily was shifted from the English department to the school’s resource center, as the new 21st Century Research and Media Specialist. Her new position also acts as a librarian. She’s excited to spread her ideas about gaming to Avonworth’s middle and high school teachers. Along with Sam, Emily continues to create more games – including a mod of Monopoly and something brand new based on the Pittsburgh Marathon.