Motivating Struggling Students Through Games – Part 1

Nikki Navta (Zulama), Todd Keruskin (Elizabeth Forward School District), Dustin Stiver (Sprout Fund), and Michelle Riconscente (GlassLab) discuss the best methods for motivating struggling students through games.

Part 1 of 2

Motivating Struggling Students Through Games – Part 2

Nikki Navta (Zulama), Todd Keruskin (Elizabeth Forward School District), Dustin Stiver (Sprout Fund), and Michelle Riconscente (GlassLab) discuss the best methods for motivating struggling students through games.

Part 2 of 2

Game Jams – Engaging Families

Game Jams – Engaging Families

By Beverly Vaillancourt


Photos by Norton Gusky / South Fayette Township Intermediate School Game Jam
February 20, 2014

A game jam is a game-building event where individuals come together to design and produce a game.

It starts with an idea – a spark of creativity.

It evolves into a stream of ideas – imagination.

It molds itself into reality on a computer screen or in a physical space – a something. Rules are added – parameters.

Practice is imposed – playtesting.

The end result? – a game.

But not just any game.  THE game. A game that kids “own.” A game that says, “We made this!” Game jams help kids experience the joy of creatively working with others. Game jams can happen in any community space and can be used to engage parents as partners in education.

The Michigan Department of Education has compiled a comprehensive, research-based fact sheet about the importance of parent involvement in education. A few highlights:

  • With parental involvement, grades, test scores, attendance, graduation rates increase while teen drug and alcohol use decrease;
  • Family participation is a far better predictor of student academic success than socioeconomic status;
  • Most students desire parental participation at some level;
  • Having parents at school reinforces the home-school connection in the minds of students;
  • School activities that promote parental involvement in schools drop significantly in the transition to middle school;
  • School-home partnerships “help all youngsters succeed in school and in later life.” (Joyce Epstein of Johns Hopkins University)

Research compiled by Child Trends shows some interesting trends in parental involvement in schools. A high percentage of parents attend school general school meetings. Significantly, parental attendance at school events peaks at the upper elementary level. Parental involvement takes a sharp nosedive when it comes to volunteering at the school or serving on a committee. In 2012, only 42% of parents directly participated in their child’s school as a volunteer or committee member.



Things we know: Kids love game jams! Parental involvement in school is essential. Game jams can strengthen the connection between what kids are doing at school and the involvement of parents in their child’s education, especially as kids move into middle school and the upper grades.

Here’s why:

According to the Entertainment Software Association

  • 58% of Americans play video games
  • 59% of parents feel games encourage family time
  • 16% of gamers play video games with their parents
  • 32% of gamers play with other members of their family

Board games are growing in popularity, especially German family games like Settlers of Catan, Carcassone, and the ever-popular Ticket to Ride. Though many traditional board games are available online, tabletop games continue to be a favorite activity for many families.

In game jams, kids lead the learning. Their creativity is unleashed. Parents don’t just observe, but they actively take part in communicating, sharing ideas, and developing a product. Parents become involved, not as observers but as participants.

Photos by Norton Gusky / South Fayette Township Intermediate School Game Jam February 20, 2014

Photos by Norton Gusky / South Fayette Township Intermediate School Game Jam
February 20, 2014

It works and it’s fun. Importantly, it helps to educate parents that school is not just a compilation of fact memorization, but far more. Education includes critical thinking, consideration of ideas, flexibility, adaptability, collaboration, technology, and literacy at several levels—all leading to innovation and invention.

If we want parents and other stakeholders to think beyond the face of standards-based education and help them dive into the realm of deeper learning and 21st century skills, we need to provide vehicles for that understanding. Game jams do that and more. Let’s encourage game design and game play as a family affair. Let’s engage parents in organizing and participating in a game jam. Let’s help parents step back and act as guides and cheerleaders of creativity and productivity. Let’s change the definition of homework.

Game jams can serve as an exciting vehicle for parents to see the light bulbs of creativity illuminate a room.  Learning should be fun, for students and their parents. Putting the “fun” in learning just may be the secret to greater parental involvement in education, especially as kids move into the upper grades.

Give game jams a try.

Student Testimonial: Mark Obeldobel

Mark, a student of Zulama’s Games Through the Ages course, wrote a letter to us describing his experience with our program. We think this student testimonial speaks for itself! You can read more below.

By Mark Obeldobel

Student Mark Obeldobel with the board game Ur

Since I was only three years old, I have always loved mathematics.  I knew that school was a high priority to my parents and I realized that mathematics would be of utmost importance, but I had almost lost sight of my hobbies.  When you’re young, you tend to forget the skills with which people are gifted: musicians, artists, athletes, dancers, singers, and simply uncanny abilities, in favor of a more academic agenda.  It took me until high school to realize that the goal of academics is to recognize the potentials you possess with those gifts.

I have always loved games, and it seemed blatantly obvious that everybody else did as well.  The fact is that it was not obvious.  As a child, you see the world in the eyes of a child: game playing is a daily event.  When you’re young, you fail to recognize the way that adults think.  You live in your world and your world only.  You know that your parents take care of you and that they know what is best, even if you have to wait to recognize what they wish to tell you.

I feel very lucky to have grown up in the computer age.  My parents would always tell me about their “when I was young” stories, and of the almost primitive capabilities of the past.  When you’re young, you tend to overlook the exceptional capabilities that technology allows.  You learn how the objects function from a development level, and as such it becomes second-nature.  I quickly noticed that children were more proficient in computer use than most adults.

When you’re young, everything is different.  Games Through the Ages has taught me that everything, just as everybody, has a history.

When I first entered Game Through the Ages (GTTA), I was not exactly sure what to expect; I had never taken an online class nor had I known if it would overwhelm my schedule with school.  The curriculum suggested that students put forth five hours of work per week for the GTTA class.  From the start of the class, I was immediately willing to put forth five hours a day.  In all honesty, I probably worked at least an average of three hours per day.  I absolutely loved it.  It interested me in history, and even enriched my interest in mathematics.  The class is designed to focus mostly on cultures, but is so open-ended as to allow for discussion of almost any field that you can put into the words of that subject.  My particular interest was math.  Yours may be literature or engineering.

Games Through the Ages is a five-month online course which provides information and offers discussion related to the culture, history, and background of various games, from the Babylonian game of Ur to the very short period of computer and video games we play today.  Many of the optional games in the suggested materials were very helpful, especially if you own them.  Many of the older, less common games were able to be found online through the class sources.

The sources were one of the strongest aspects of the course.  Every section has a short required reading as well as an entire library of information that a wandering brain will want to see.  My love for games has coaxed me to read almost all of the sources.  These sources are also exclusive to members of the current class, which is a personalized touch.

The assignments are all created with an exciting twist.  For example, you are to construct your own Ur board in the manner and materials of your choosing, create a time capsule of games and corresponding cultural events, and create a timeline which describes events that center around a particular game, all while discussing personal thoughts of each game.  The beginning of the class introduces the scoring method for each assignment, which entitled discussion, projects, assignments, and a few tests.  They all sounded exciting, and nothing seemed burdensome to me, so I was not concerned about the weights for scoring.  I figured since the class was extra-curricular I would make it just that: fun.

The sections themselves include (just to name a few) Babylonian Ur, Egyptian Senet, Chinese Go, Viking Hnefatafl, Roman Chess, English Nine Man’s Morris, German Dominion, American Risk, and American Starcraft.  Some of these games I had known prior to the class but most were completely new.  Since I would like to be a board game designer, it surprised me how little I knew about the history of games, even when I had already taken the one or two steps back to American and German board games.  I had never heard of and was thrilled to learn about Ur, Senet, Go, Hnefatafl, and Nine Man’s Morris, all of which are played in the class.

Following the Spring 2012 class was a week-long summer on-site event in which a Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center graduate mentored students through a game design process and worked with the students to create their own team board game.  I was proud of my first game, a game I created with Alec Medice: Born N’ Raised.  It was a game themed upon western farming and resource development.  That November, we (the entire class) presented our games at the Three Rivers Educational Technology Center during a teachers’ convention, in which we assisted Zulama with introducing games in an educational environment to attending teachers.

Now, a year-and-a-half later, I am still being offered wonderful opportunities from Zulama to extend the experience.  I was glad to meet a wide variety of amazing people.  I would like to thank all the students; the president of Zulama, Mrs. Navta; my class teacher, Mrs. Vaillancourt; my summer mentor, Mr. Faulkner; Mrs. Decheck from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit for organizing our summer week; and everybody at Zulama for the incredible class.  Keep up the great work!  I really enjoyed this experience, and I encourage other students to take the Games Through the Ages class!