Month: May 2014

The Subtle Censorship of Boys’ Writing Machine guns, Poop, and Minecraft

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I was watching Ali Carr-Chellman’s fascinating TED Talk on how to re-engage boys in schools. My ears naturally perked up when she brought up the topic of writing.

She brings up an issue which I continually deal with when I teach writing to students– topics of interest to students and how willing we are as teachers to accept this as part of their writing.

I’ve often found that one of the most effective ways to get hesitant boy writers going is to ask them to write something which is a take-off on a video game they play. Sure, it’s not high literature, but at least they are putting words to paper and actually writing a narrative.

MOST IMPORTANTLY, they are engaged with their writing. They’re actually excited about developing a storyline using familiar characters and settings. Like all good writers, they are “writing what they know.”

Another point she makes is how teachers often force a genre of writing which is of little interest to many boys, such as personal writing or poetry.

I disagree with her about the poetry part. I’m lucky to work with an amazing teacher of poetry ( who inspires students to write poetry on a wide variety of topics important to them. Some of the poems are considered “edgy” for elementary school students, yet the students are passionate about their writing.

I’ve definitely found Carr-Chellman’s comments about personal writing to be true, however. When I’ve assigned this type of writing, there’s just something missing– fire in the eyes of many writers. My sense is that this genre of writing holds greater appeal to older writers.

Which brings me to the point of the subtle censorship of writing in schools. When I react to students’ writing, I always dance along a fine line between:

a. what the young writer really wants to write about and

b. what is generally considered acceptable by a teacher’s or school’s standards.

This pertains particularly to violence.

This is a very tricky issue, and I think there’s no simple answer here. But I do think we, as teachers, have to be mindful of that delicate balance between what we censor as teachers and what our students find passionate to write about.

When I look down at a piece of writing a student is madly scribbling (which involves repeated explosions, references to Minecraft, appearance of droves of zombies, and impending world annihilation) I take a breath and weigh the pros and cons of how I’m going to react to this. Before a knee-jerk reaction, I try to gain some perspective, and begin that delicate walk along the tightrope of compromise.

This is yet another example of what makes teaching so demanding and, at the same time, fascinating.

Here’s the TED Talk …

Inspiring Reluctant and Not-so-reluctant Writers to Write COW: The Gamification of Creative Writing

Creative Online Writing (COW)

COW is an online web app designed for students of all abilities in grades 3-8. The goal of COW is to improve writing fluency– the ease with which ideas are generated and put into words. This is accomplished by giving students a gamified writing experience to encourage repeated practice and develop creative thinking.

COW also provides teachers and parents with a valuable tool to examine student writing through the use of advanced text analysis algorithms.

How COW Inspires Student Writers

  1. Blasting Off with Prompts
    There’s nothing like a good prompt to ignite the spark of creativity. When a student begins a new writing session, they are given the opportunity to draw from a bank of highly motivating prompts to get their creativity flowing. They also have the opportunity to forego the use of a prompt and just get writing.
  2. Stretching Creativity with Bonus WordsEvery 40-60 words the student writes, a bonus word will appear on the side of the writing page that the student can choose to incorporate into their writing. By using a bonus word within their writing, students will earn Alieo Dollars. Attempting to incorporate these bonus words into their narrative greatly enhances a writer’s creative agility.
  3. The Incentive of Earning Alieo DollarsAs students write, they will be earning Alieo Dollars. These are awarded for:
    • a. every Bonus Word used.
    • b. every word over six letters used in their writing.
    • c. using a descriptive word from each of the five senses of taste, touch, smell, hearing, and seeing.

    We are currently working on an avatar system in which the student can use their Alieo Dollars to purchase items to customize their avatars.

  4. Writing up through the Levels: From Micro-Fiction to Epic SagaThe number of words the student writes for each story will be added to their accumulated word total. COW has a level system such that as students write more words, they’ll progress from the Microfiction level (1,000 words), to Short Story (7,000 words), to Novelette (20k words), and so on until they’ve written enough words to reach the highest level of Epic/Saga (200k words).
  5. Sharing With an AudienceStudents’ stories are saved on their own personal Bookshelf. Young authors using COW will also have an opportunity to share their stories with an audience of peers on the Class Bookshelf.

COW: The Teacher Perspective

When educators log on, they see a dashboard where they can set up accounts for their students all at once. Each time a student finishes a writing session, the teacher can view the text the student has generated, as well as text analysis which includes:

  • the number of words the student wrote
  • the number of words over 6 letters long
  • the number of sensory words used (e.g. sound, sight, smell, touch, taste)
  • the number of adjectives, adverbs, nouns, prepositions, and verbs used
  • what tense the student wrote in, that is, how many verbs were past, present, or future tense
  • average length of sentence

Such text analysis can prove to be extremely valuable in directing instruction for individuals and classes.

Educators can also set a classroom word count goal. As each student writes, they contribute towards this collective writing goal.

A Class Bookshelf (with all stories approved by the teacher) is a place where students, colleagues and parents can view the students’ writing.

How to get involved in the initial prototype test of COW

If you are interested in running a user test in your classroom, please contact with the subject heading ‘[COW tester]’ and we’ll send you a username and password so that you can see for yourself what COW is all about.

We are in a very early stage of development where only the bare bone features described above are available. Our goal is to tack down what your biggest challenges are for improving language literacy and writing fluency in your students. Even if you do not have the bandwidth to test out COW in your classroom, please don’t hesitate to email us and talk to us about your experiences with evaluating student writing and what you do to get kids to write more.

Technical requirements to test

Each student needs a computer with the following requirements:

  • An internet connection
  • Chrome, IE 9+, or Firefox

About Us

Alieo Games ( is an educational games company. It was founded by:

Chris McMahen, a teacher and children’s book author from British Columbia
Kit Chen, Neesha Desai and Nathaniel Rossol, three Ph.D. candidates from the Department of Computing Science at the University of Alberta

The Importance of Creative Agility in the Writing Process

Think of the creative process. Maybe a gigantic blank canvas comes to mind. Maybe a blank piece of writing paper. Or an empty stage.

The artist without limits.

The proverbial blank canvas is rarely a reality in the creative process. Think of the architect dealing with the many requirements of a project. Or the screenwriter adapting a novel. Think of the graphic designer developing a logo for a client’s business. Each act of creativity is performed within the framework of limitations.

But in a strangely paradoxical way, the proverbial blank canvas may not be the best place to start in a creative process, anyway. Creativity is often enhanced by limitations.

One extreme example is the poetic form of haiku. Writing haiku in its purest form means adhering to a specific syllabic structure as well as including a seasonal reference drawn from a defined list of words.

One might think these limitations would completely handcuff the imagination.

Quiet the contrary.

The demands of haiku serve to actually ignite creativity.

Here’s a much simpler example.

I give you a blank piece of paper and tell you to start writing a story. If you’re like most people, you’ll take a while to think things over and may or may not come up with an idea to write about. The blank page screams, “Writer’s Block!”

Instead, how about I give you the same blank piece of paper, but this time, I tell you that the word “penguin” must appear in the first sentence. The word triggers the imagination by associations one may have with the word. By giving a second word, “fly,” it serves to further ignite the imagination to create that first sentence and start to write.

Let’s call the ability to produce original works within the bounds of these “limitations,” Creative Agility. Developing the ability to come up with creative ideas within the bounds of restrictions requires a form of mental agility or nimbleness.

So, when the flow of creative ideas dries up to a trickle, ignite the imagination by throwing in some sort of limitation. Pick a random word. Splash on a random colour. Squiggle a random line. Then, use that randomness to ignite your creativity.

In designing the writing game COW (Creative Online Writing) (see, a critical element to the creative experience is the introduction of the Bonus Words. While a writer composes their story from a prompt, they are suddenly given a bonus word (it could even be “penguin”). They are challenged to incorporate this bonus word into their narrative. Although this may, at first, seem like a restriction, players of the game have actually described the bonus words as “sparking my imagination.”

The bonus words provided throughout the game enable the writer to develop their creative agility. This nimbleness of the imagination is a key element to the primary goal of COW– to develop writing fluency.

© 2017 AlieoGames

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