Be Fancy: Literacy Learning Through Game Creation
A CONSTRUCTIONIST JOURNEY IN THE
CO-CREATION OF A NEW EDUCATIONAL GAME
Be Fancy is an educational game that I created with Sarah, a sassy second grade student who loves all things pink and purple. Sarah has struggled to progress in her literacy development and was recently diagnosed with Dyslexia. Although Sarah has previously resisted efforts focused on reading instruction, the creation of Be Fancy served to engage her in the learning process. The game emerged from an afternoon of tinkering with a bucket of beads and, together, we worked to design a game focused on syllables, an essential phonological awareness skill. While working to create this game, Sarah engaged with important literacy skills and gained new confidence in the learning process.
While my job as an educator includes teaching children to read and write, to understand quantity and patterns, to act as ethical members of a community, one of my primary responsibilities is to create
an environment in which children can feel confident to pursue their questions and investigate the world around them. As Kohn [1:193] describes, “from the beginning [children] are hungry to make sense of their world.” I believe that my job as an educator is to create an environment that nurtures children’s natural curiosity and fosters a lifelong love of learning.
Unfortunately, much can interfere with a child’s engagement in the learning process. When daily lessons do not effectively capture students’ attention or when persistent effort is met with repeated failure, too many students become disenchanted with school. Learning becomes a chore. One of the most rewarding of my many roles as an educator is helping struggling students to reengage in the learning process. The creation of Be Fancy was an attempt to do just that.
Be Fancy is an educational game that I created with Sarah, a sassy second grade student who loves all things pink and purple. It is a game for 2-4 players and, as Sarah explains, “is a great game for anyone”. I would add that it is a game for young girls, and perhaps many boys, who are learning to recognize syllables, an essential phonological awareness skill. The completed game includes 40 game cards, each with a picture of a one, two, three, or four syllable word on it, 4 game boards, and a pack of jewel stickers. The object of the game is to decorate your game board by tapping out the syllables within each word. Players take turns turning over a card, tapping out the syllables within the word, and adding that same number of jewels onto their game board. At the conclusion of the game, everyone’s game board should Be Fancy – the fancier the better.
While the game offers students the opportunity to practice working with syllables, it also incorporates opportunities for counting and fine motor development. More importantly, the creation of the game served as way to reengage Sarah in the learning process. Sarah has been struggling to master phonological awareness skills and has resisted explicit literacy lessons. She does not like to admit her vulnerabilities in the literacy arena and, when unsure, often shuts down rather than risk failure. At a young age, Sarah had identified herself as someone who was not good at reading. Sarah had fallen prey to what Papert [2:23] explained as a “model of learning in which you have either ‘got it’ or ‘got it wrong’”. Sarah had got it wrong and, at an age when she should just be beginning, had already given up. As she began second grade, Sarah watched as friends sailed through Ivy and Bean and Junie B. Bones. Meanwhile, she was struggling to consistently decode two syllable words, let alone a series of chapter books. She was terrified to admit she did not already know what her peers knew.
My goal in working with Sarah was not just to help her learn to read at grade level, but to try and reframe the reading process as something that she could debug. As Brennan [3:55] discusses, there is tremendous value in children “breaking down a problem and thinking through its challenges logically”. Throughout this creation process, I sought to serve as guide and facilitator in the problem solving process. In discussing the use of Scratch, Brennan [3:6] describes the important role of a teacher in “helping students pursue goals through metacognitive means: asking questions, providing useful resources, breaking down problems into smaller components, and suggesting ways to reframe problems” (p.6). I think that this description of the role of a teacher should be applied to teachers of all ages and all subjects. Learning is about investigating and making sense of the world around us. Kids do not learn when we solve their problems for them. It is through the process that they construct their understanding and arm themselves with the skills to tackle the challenges that lie ahead. Hopefully, through this process, Sarah has not only gained literacy skills, but has begun to view problems or setbacks from a new perspective and will be more empowered to approach the next set of challenges that she encounters.
A Continual Dance: Diving Step. Stepping Back. Leaping to the Side 
My journey with Sarah through the process of creating Be Fancy, and much that came before, has been a practice of the enchanting dance that Ackermann  describes as diving in, stepping back, and leaping to the side. When working with students, I think the greatest lesson has been that I cannot expect to approach one student in the same way in which I approach another. By getting to know each student, I am able to alter my approach. It is an exercise of constantly thinking in action and responding to that particular child in that particular context . This type of practice requires one to consider what contributes to “finding the groove” [5:54]. In my work with Sarah, there were days when it felt as though things had fallen into place, and there were other times when I left our sessions feeling drained and unsuccessful. There is tremendous value in digging deeper into both types of experiences. This continual process of reflection and analysis enabled me to alter my approach and to be better prepared to shift a day’s trajectory before it had come to an end. As educators, we often talk about the teachable moments. The more we reflect on what went well and what didn’t, why we feel this way, and what we would do if we had the chance to rewind to that moment, the better prepared we are for responding and acting in the moments to come. I realize that I am much more prone to digging into the days that seemed to go off track. By looking back through and reflecting upon this journey of creation, I have the opportunity to dig deeper into both the good and the bad. I have the opportunity to learn for the future.
An Initial Leap
After Sarah’s diagnosis of dyslexia, the recommended course of action was intense intervention through the Wilson Reading Program, a highly structured and strategy based approach to reading instruction. The hope was that diving into this new approach would help her – as it has so many children – understand that she can unlock the code to reading. The Wilson goal is to teach students that reading is not something that they can or cannot do. Reading is something they can learn – and there are strategies for mastering the code. Although Sarah had been making progress in her reading, I agreed that it was time to take a leap. Perhaps a new approach to Sarah’s instruction was exactly what she needed to help her to shift her attitude and outlook. Introducing Sarah to the Wilson Reading approach was certainly worth a try. I knew that what we had previously been doing, while beneficial, was somehow not enough. Given that we had established a relationship of trust, I hoped that we could take this leap together.
Armed with carefully constructed Wilson lessons, I dove into this new course of instruction, hoping that Sarah would respond in the same positive manner as so many other children had. Unfortunately, Sarah did not respond as the program proposed she would. I had such high hopes for this new course of action, yet I cannot say that I was surprised by her response. Her engagement with each piece of the program felt precarious and, so often, our time together devolved into a series of attempted negotiations or diversions. She was willing to trudge along with me into this course, but she was not engaging with the lessons and was certainly not embracing them. As I think back on these lessons, I am overwhelmed with a feeling of insecurity. Throughout these sessions, I felt as though, with one wrong step, I would lose her for the day. When I reached out to another Wilson Tutor for support, the experienced professional suggested I set aside the last ten minutes for a game of Sarah’s choosing – a carrot at the end of the path. I hesitated to follow this advice. Given Sarah’s history of sophisticated methods of control and manipulation, was I really to resort to rewards? Perhaps a reward would make some of our sessions a bit smoother, but would this approach benefit Sarah in the long run? I want Sarah, and the other students with whom I work, to embrace and excite in the learning process. I do not want them to get through it to get to a reward. By simply getting through it, will they really internalize the intended lessons or will they simply remember the carrot at the end of the path? More importantly, will I be inspiring their love for learning or cutting it off at the ankles? My goal was to help set Sarah on a new path, to change the way she viewed the reading and writing process. It was not to get an individual assignment done. Perhaps, as she saw it, the Wilson lessons were still just another obvious attempt to teach her something that she knew she wasn’t good at. Although there were plenty of reasons, and research, to justify continuing with the Wilson method, I decided it was time to step back. While this program may be right for many children, it wasn’t right for Sarah, at least not in this moment in her development.
When deciding on the approach for each child, one must consider the whole child. I needed to find a way to utilize the Wilson approach in a way that Sarah could engage without fear of failure. What if, rather than offering up the game as a reward, I incorporated the lessons into the games? While the lessons brought with them a sense of seriousness – a clear-cut right and wrong – games could provide a much-needed shift to safer ground. I turned our tutoring sessions into an opportunity to play – to play with language. I prepared for our tutoring sessions by integrating the Wilson Reading Lessons into favorite games – Word Box, Memory, and even Jenga. While Sarah seemed to be willing to play these games, I still worried that playing these games wasn’t enough. This lingering concern, a concern that I continued to analyze and ruminate over, was a key to the creation of Be Fancy.
A Bead Of Inspiration
We had been utilizing games in our sessions for several weeks when inspiration struck. When I arrived at Sarah’s home, she was excited to show me a new jewelry bead kit that she had gotten at the store. She began clicking together rings and bracelets. Sarah was excited by the materials available to her and was doing what Resnick and Rosenbaum  might describe as tinkering with materials in her space. In this moment, I had an important decision to make. Should I tell Sarah to put the beads away so that we could switch gears and start on the activities I had planned, or could we use these materials as a way to help us to engage in and make sense of literacy skills? I decided not to push the beads aside and it was this decision that ultimately led to the creation of our game. This game came from this afternoon of tinkering.
As we played with the beads that afternoon, quickly our conversation turned to syllables. Although I did not think about it at the time, I realize now that it was Sarah who first linked the beads to our syllable work. Rather than fighting the idea that I was there to help her with her literacy development – a fact that she struggled to admit – she quickly found a connection between the beads and our syllable work and brought this into our conversation. For perhaps the first time, she was leading us into the literacy work, rather than following along. “Look,” she said, “for each syllable in the words, I can add a bead. Here, take a bracelet and we can do it together.” From that invitation, we began to play. Before long, we had gone through our entire deck of Wilson words and were both adorned with rings, bracelets, and even an anklet or two.
That afternoon, Sarah had found a creative way to access our lessons on syllables and to express her developing understanding. She felt comfortable to share her alternative idea because of the relationship we had formed and the environment in which we worked. What if, instead, I had brushed her idea aside to move onto the activities I had prepared for that day? Perhaps, such a dismissal would have served to further separate her creative interests from the learning process. Instead, I chose to embrace the opportunity to integrate her interests into the literacy learning process. I decided to use this afternoon of play as inspiration for a new project of creation that would hopefully support her emerging shift in attitude.
Sarah is a child who has a new duct tape creation to show me each time I step into her home. She is an artist, a designer, and within that realm she feels more comfortable to take risks. Sarah is not alone in this, and to support such children we must strive to bring these creative and academic pursuits together – or back together as it may be. In many early childhood centers, the integration of curriculum is well established. Why is it that so many elementary schools artificially separate the creative and academic arenas? Sarah is an excellent example of why it is so important to integrate and approach the essential reading, writing, and math lessons in purposeful and creative ways. In Wilson training, writing consists of memorizing letter patterns and writing words or sentences in a journal. These lessons are removed from any meaningful context. While the Wilson approach may help a student like Sarah to learn syllables and spelling patterns and approaches to decoding, will it help her to reclaim joy in the learning process – that joy that she finds so easily in a roll of tape?
While the initial spark for Be Fancy came from Sarah’s tinkering with materials in her space, the subsequent introduction of Mermaid Beach served as inspiration to turn that one afternoon of fun into a project to pursue. Mermaid Beach, a successful game distributed by Gamewright, was created by an eight-year-old girl. This game served as a powerful form of peer inspiration for Sarah. As Bruckmann  describes, seeing the games that others kids have made makes a child feel as though he/she can do it as well. Suddenly, the possibility was real. When Sarah saw Mermaid Beach, she realized that making a game was something that she could do, too. Together, we explored the components of Mermaid Beach as a way to inform the construction our new game. We then continued tinkering with the beads as we embarked upon the journey of creating and writing the rules for Be Fancy.
Diving in Together
“Can we work on the game?” This seems like such a simple question, yet it carried with it so much weight. Months, even just weeks earlier, it had been a struggle to get Sarah to write 10 words on a given day. Now, she was eagerly awaiting my arrival, and immediately asking to get going on writing the directions for her game. This simple question was perhaps the most meaningful piece of this experience. Through the creation of this Be Fancy, Sarah was working on phonological awareness skills, spelling, sentence formation, and decoding; however, she had also managed to stumble upon the joy she had been missing in her learning process. While learning can be challenging, as it certainly is for this young girl, it can also be purposeful and engaging. It can be interesting. It can even be fun. Sarah was not asking, “Can we play?” She was asking, “Can we work? Can we create?” The work had become meaningful to her and, in her desire to create this game, she began to step into uncomfortable territory that she had previously made efforts to avoid.
As we worked on Be Fancy, I made efforts to design an environment that reduced the potential barriers to learning. Rather than writing by hand, I provided Sarah with a computer to use for writing the game directions. While writing by hand seems permanent, with mistakes glaring back at you through the eraser marks and crossed out words, typing on the computer lends itself to iteration. On the computer, with the spell check function strategically turned off, Sarah began to write and, the more she wrote, the more she began to ask for help – something that she had rarely done in our previous sessions. When she got stuck on challenging words, she didn’t insist that I “just tell her” or shut down in failure. Instead, she was willing to engage with me in the process of thinking out loud . Previously, she had shut down at my attempts to model this process of talking through my thinking, let alone articulate her own questions or still developing understanding. Now, she was beginning to voice her questions and talk through her strategies and stumbles. Challenging words became problems to solve in the course of constructing her game. She wanted, and needed, to confront the obstacles that stood in the way of her design goals. Writing in this context was no longer about learning the Wilson rules or patterns, it was about figuring out which of those lessons could help her to achieve her goal.
In the space of this game creation, Sarah seemed more secure to seek support for the literacy skills that she needed to apply to the process. She began to actively engage in the construction of her own knowledge, and, as the theory of constructivism explains, in doing so, “to gain a deeper understanding, more generalizable knowledge, and greater motivation” [8:11]. Sarah seemed willing to listen to the underlying rules of the English language because they served a real purpose in her project.
After a few weeks of working on the initial set of directions, I asked Sarah how she envisioned the game being packaged. An interesting conversation ensued about where we would get beads like her own and whether there was a different way to get fancy after figuring out the syllables within the words. I was worried that a change to the game might cause her to give up on the process – as though this question was a denouncement of her original idea. Instead, Sarah noticed the bin of jewel-like stickers poking out of her closet and her eyes lit up. Sarah turned to me and declared, “We’ll have to change the directions.” This next iteration of the game was again inspired by the materials in her space and was made possible by her ability to imagine new possibilities for familiar materials. In this phase of the design process, Sarah had confidently taken the lead and we dove back in together.
Looking Back and to The Future
At this heart of the creation of Be Fancy lies my belief – and agreement with Lev Nikolayevitch Tolstoy – that good teaching is “not a method but an art” [5:65]. Each student’s experience with learning is unique, and the wonderful challenge of teaching is continually connecting with, monitoring, and responding to each child in their moment of development in the context of their environment. Teaching – or facilitating the learning process – involves essential “on-the-spot reflection” [5:66] and the ability and willingness to shift from one method to another. So much of my work with Sarah has been a form of experimenting in action, of tinkering, of being willing to step back, reflect, and leap to the side . While this creation and learning process was a triumph for both Sarah and myself, it is not a magic fix for her struggles in school. It is, however, one important step in the process of reframing her mindset as a learner.
 A. Kohn, Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
 S. Papert, Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1980.
 K. Brennan, “Learning computing through creating and connecting,” in Computer, vol. 46, no. 9, pp. 52-59, 2013.
 E. Ackermann, “Perspective-taking and object construction: Two keys to learning,” in Constructionism in practice: Designing, thinking and learning in a digital world, Y. Kafai & M. Resnick (Eds.) New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996.
 D.A. Schön, The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1983.
 M. Resnick and E. Rosenbaum, “Designing for tinkerability,” in M. Honey & D.E. Kanter, Design, make, play: Growing the next generation of STEM innovators, pp. 163- 181, New York, NY: Routledge, 2013.
 A. Bruckman, “Learning in online communities,” in K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, pp. 461-472, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
 K. Sawyer, Explaining creativity: The science of human innovation Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.