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Tricia Hyun, Colleagues Find Gamification a Winner

A group of Hyun’s students work together to figure out how to unlock the final box.

2018 Innovator, Fullerton Elementary Teachers Association

It’s high excitement. It’s mildly controlled chaos. It’s problem-solving, teamwork and critical thinking all rolled into one, happening at a very loud level. Needless to say, students are having a blast.

Welcome to Parks Junior High School in Fullerton, where teams of students in the media center race against the clock — and each other — to win the ultimate contest. But first, they have to figure out clues and solve puzzles and rely on the individual strengths of their teammates.

“We are having a Celebrate Success party to reward good behavior,” says English teacher Tricia Hyun, as she watches the spectacle unfold with a huge smile, dashing from table to table.

The clues, of course, revolve around English Language Arts (ELA), with students needing to identify various elements such as plot; opening and exposition; conflict; and the climax of a story. The number of clues in each category becomes the combination to a locked box. Inside the box is a water bottle with a secret compartment that holds a key to unlock another box. And so it goes. Eventually students will unlock a box that contains candy and cheer even louder.


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The gamification of ELA happens in a unique program called Passion Required iPersonalize Secret Missions (PRiSM), which received a 2017-18 grant from CTA’s Institute for Teaching. Events such as these happen monthly.

Hyun, the lead grant writer, collaborated with fellow ELA teachers and Fullerton Elementary Teachers Association members Paul Clemente, also at Parks; Mary Smith, Fisler Elementary; and Carlos Donnelly, Ladera Vista Junior High, to create PRiSM. There was strong support from Fullerton Elementary School District administrators for this teacher-driven program that enhances learning and fosters a culture of success. Parents help as volunteers.

The boxes were purchased from Breakout EDU, an “immersive learning games platform.” FETA members also partnered with thrively.com, a company that helps students discover and explore their individual talents, strengths, interests and aspirations. Thrively coaches worked with teachers and leadership teams of students. Students were divided into teams based on a “strengths assessment.”

The reasoning is that every student can contribute, based on their capacity for such things as analysis, observation, memory, problem-solving, spatial learning, logic, flexibility, empathy, collaboration, communication and leadership. Having students rely on each other for different strengths fosters teamwork and mutual respect.

“Every student’s input and voice matters, and students understand that there can be more than one way to solve a problem.”

“The part that shines for me is that every child feels included, because they brought their individual strengths to the table,” says Hyun, a teacher for 15 years. “Every student’s input and voice matters. And students understand that there can be more than one way to solve a problem.”

PRiSM also has the goal of fostering a growth mindset in students that Hyun believes prepares them for the workplace.

“If we can teach children how to find their talent and move it from good to better to best, we are preparing them for the future. I believe that’s what future employers will want to see.”

Naturally the students are not thinking about fancy terms such as strength-based learning or growth mindset because they are keeping their eyes on the prize and learning things in a way that is fun and engaging.

Muhammud Khan is the first member on the winning team to guess the clue that unlocks the box that opens the candy.

“OMG this class is fun,” he says. “English class can be so boring, and this is great because we have teamwork and deductive reasoning.”

“It’s definitely a fun way to learn because students are happier, and there’s an energetic vibe in the room,” says Joya Blaho, an eighth-grader who went through the program last year and is now a student coach. “Instead of just taking notes, we use our brains in interesting ways that help us learn.”

The strength-based approach of PRiSM has transformed the way Hyun looks at students. “It’s an instructional shift. It’s a way of seeing the whole child versus seeing them as a test score.”

It has also rejuvenated FETA teaching styles and strategies.

“Sometimes you have teachers reach a state of monotony because they stick to the status quo,” Hyun says. “PRiSM has been a creative way for teachers to exit that and think outside the box.”

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