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Spice up your literacy with Story Wars

Spice up your literacy with Story Wars






It’s hard to get thirteen-year-old boys excited about alliteration or subordinate clauses. Of course the best way to teach grammar is the best way to teach anything:  you have to get them to follow or break the rules in “real life” and then to reflect on the impact. For us English teachers, real life is sometimes hard to find.

Story Wars comes close.

I’m excited about Story Wars because

  • It’s social (and competitive)
  • It’s light and flexible
  • It’s set up to make writing intrinsically rewarding


Story Wars is an online community of (mostly) young writers. The idea is that someone writes the first part of a story and then other members submit the next part. Other members vote on which version of “Chapter 2” is the best. The member with the most votes “wins” and the whole process is repeated with “Chapter 3”. You are awarded “gems” for your activity on the site.

At first, the gem thing seemed a bit lame – I’ll write about why extrinsic rewards get my goat in a future post – but the good thing about these gems is that they are actually the currency you need to continue engaging with the site. For example, it costs twenty gems to post your own story.

Story Wars allows writers to conduct quick and easy experiments.

Be warned: the stories on the site occasionally use adult language; for example, “As sweat poured down his forehead, Sergeant Jizzbucket reached for his radio.”

Let me give you one way to use it in class.


  1. Teach the class one or more language devices / structures
  2. Show them a list of writing prompts. Get them to write a paragraph from a prompt using one or more of the devices. There are several good writing prompt apps out there like Writing Exercises and Writing iDeas .
  3. Split them into groups of five and get them to share the paragraph, feeding back on effectiveness and use of devices, then voting on the best one.
  4. Give each group sixty seconds to decide what could happen next in this story. (This is to allow them to focus on form rather than content later on).
  5. Get the class into a computer room (or set this as a homework with the winner of the vote sharing a link to their story with the rest of the group) and have them set up a personal account on
  6. Ask the winner of the vote in each group to start a new story (the green pencil icon at the top) with their paragraph, while the other group members explore/vote for stories on the site.
  7. Get the other group members to find the story by searching for the title. Have them write their own “Chapter 2” without talking about it or looking at what others are writing (you might not need to do this since they are competing against each-other). Remind them to try out some of the devices or structures they looked at earlier on.
  8. Write down each group’s story names on the board and have the class vote on all of them. Wait at least a day and check which version of the chapter got won. Look at the various winning entries with the class and get them to identify why they were successful.
  9. Ask them to forget about the rules and devices when they write Chapter 3 and then reflect on how successful these writing pieces were.
  10. Set it as an ongoing homework for the class to finish the story.

It’s quite liberating to write for an audience of strangers and not to worry about whether your piece “goes anywhere”. Here’s my attempt: (vote for it!)

It’s easy to shift the focus from devices to whole-text structure. You can choose how many parts the story has. Then think about the plot progression from one part to the next, modelling a chapter on the board. For instance you could limit the story to five parts and look at Shakespeare’s Act structure or Booker’s five stages to a basic plot or Freytag’s pyramid.


There’s probably a better way to use this that I haven’t thought of. Let us know.


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Automatically send quotes to your essay plan from Chrome

Automatically send quotes to your essay plan from Chrome

Evernote is great but it’s pretty bulky. If you’ve read my post on essay planning, here’s how you can send quotes straight to your Trello quote board with Evernote Web Clipper on Google Chrome.


  1. Create an account on Trello, Evernote and IFTTT.
  2. Add the Evernote Web Clipper extension to your Chrome browser.
    You can save your quotes to the default “notebook” (folder) on Evernote or create a new one called “Quotes”. Sign in on then find the notebook icon in the left-hand column and add a new notebook by clicking the icon at the top right of the box that has just opened.ice_screenshot_20160828-192040ice_screenshot_20160828-192249

  3. Create a new IFTTT  recipe to use Evernote as a trigger and Trello as an action.


Want to make it even quicker? Here’s how you can add quotes by just clicking \ and Enter.

Done? You can click on a quote to remind yourself of its source.

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Cut the stress of essay planning with Trello

Cut the stress of essay planning with Trello





Trello is an app that quickly creates cue cards / index cards on a virtual cork board. We can use Trello to organize any project, including an essay.

Of course if you prefer, you can use real index  cards for this instead.


  1. Once you’ve set up a Trello account, create a new board and name it with your essay question.
  2. Click “Add a list…” and title this column “Quotes”.
  3. Now dump every single quote you can think of under this heading, adding a new card for each quote. You are trying to find any quote you think might link to the question: anything that’s going to be useful later. Just copy the quote down; you don’t need to say anything about it yet. If you have a relevant point that you can’t find a quote for or you have something relevant to say e.g. about the historical context, you can stick this in as well – as long as it’s only a brief note.

If you spend quality time doing this now, you won’t have to break the flow of your essay later to flick through books/articles/Wikipedia.

You can add quotes whilst you read by downloading the Trello app on your phone and putting an “add card” widget on your home screen.

4. Once you have one long column of quotes you should be able to start shaping your essay. There are two ways you can do this

Method a) Click “Add a list…” again to add four extra columns; just call them “1”,”2″,”3″,”4″. Now try to split your quotes, putting them into these four groups. To move a quote, simply click and drag it. You don’t need to spell out what the quotes in each group have in common yet. You might find that five or three different groups emerge and that’s fine, just adjust the number of columns. If you still have some quotes it your quote column, just leave them there rather than trying to force them into a group. Once you’ve created your groups, change the column headings to something that describes what the quotes have in common using one sentence. What do all the quotes show? This doesn’t have to be the main thing they show.

Method b) Give a one sentence answer to the question. Click “Add a list…” and type in your sentence. Give three more one-sentence answers, creating four columns in total.

Q:    Is Curley’s wife presented as a villain in Of Mice and Men?

A:    1. She is presented as a naïve child.

2. She is presented as a manipulative bully

3. She is the only sign of life on the ranch and therefore good.

4. She is just projecting the hidden desires and anxieties of the other characters.

Q:    To what extent do biological approaches adequately explain the causes of Schizophrenia?

A:    1. Twin studies suggest significant heritability.

2. Many researchers focus on environmental stressors rather than genes.

3. Viruses and conditions in the womb may play an important role.

4. Some researchers suggest parenting and experiences in childhood are important.

Now click and drag your quotes into the column under the heading they relate to. Leave behind quotes that don’t belong under a heading, you might be able to mention them in the flow of your essay.

It’s fine if your one-sentence answers / column headings are similar: essays typically just have one central argument and sometimes a counter-argument.

5. A traditional essay typically has three parts:

The Thesis: Your main theory / argument.

This is the very first thing people are going to read so you need to have some hustle. Say something that can be proven wrong: not “There are many reasons to believe  that Curley’s wife may or may not be a villain” but “Curley’s wife is cruel, calculating and manipulative: a villain worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy.”

The Antithesis: The argument or arguments you know of that go against your thesis.

What would you say if you were arguing against yourself? In a scientific paper you might talk about the limitations of your study here or external factors that could undermine your findings.

The Synthesis: Why your thesis is still right, even given the antithesis.

You will need to rephrase your thesis with a few howevers to make this work.

You can split your columns into thesis and antithesis by clicking on the heading and dragging the whole column. Put your two or three thesis columns on the left. Start with the column that either

a) You believe is the “right answer”

b) You can argue for most passionately or convincingly (if it’s appropriate for the kind of essay you’re writing)


c) It is the biggest idea and can be said to include some of the ideas expressed by the other columns

6. Print off your board. To do this you can click on the right hand menu under “Show Menu”, click “More” then choose “Print and Export” and “Print”. “Print to .pdf” Will save your board as a PDF file on your computer that you can print off and have by your side when you’re writing your essay.

7. Turn off the internet at the wall and put your books out of sight.

8. Use your quote and point cards to start thinking about your paragraphs. You could write one paragraph per column or split the piece into shorter paragraphs. Use quotes or points that could belong under two different headings to move from one paragraph to the next. You can start a paragraph by talking about the same quote but making a different point about it.

9. Use your headings to help structure a synthesis / conclusion. You’re not using any quotes now. You’re explaining your key points. You’re explaining your thesis and how it might have changed or expanded in the process of dealing with the antithesis / experiments / wider reading. It often helps to make it sound like you’ve made a discovery.

You’ll probably re-write this when your essay is finished but it’s useful to know where you’re heading before you start.

10. You can go online or browse through your reading materials again at a different time, but not now! Now it’s time to write. Plug some music in (if it doesn’t have words) and write until you run out of steam, consulting your plan whenever you get stuck.

You can share your board with others to collaborate on an essay. You could focus on a column each.

Share your board with us below!

Want to automatically send quotes to your essay plan as you browse? Read this next.

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