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.
- Teach the class one or more language devices / structures
- 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 .
- 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.
- 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).
- 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 storywars.net.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Ask them to forget about the rules and devices when they write Chapter 3 and then reflect on how successful these writing pieces were.
- 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: https://www.storywars.net/stories/13259 (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.