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Learning is fun and games at Hebrew Academy

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Hebrew Academy grade two students reimagine Côte-St-Luc’s Trudeau Park with English teacher Renee Pervin.

It’s 11:30 a.m. and the kids are glued to the screen, waiting to see the results of the Final Quest on the leaderboard. Cheers erupt from a corner of the room as the Superstars are declared the winners with a final score of 19 out of 20.

Sounds like a typical Sunday morning with teens gathered around a game console. Except it is Monday, the children are Grade 2 students at Hebrew Academy in Côte-St-Luc, Que., and they’re glued to a spreadsheet on the Smart Board.

Final Quest is actually a class assignment and the Superstars are one of five student-named teams that regularly compete against one another in friendly challenges that are created by their English teachers, Renee Pervin and Elyse Haber.

It’s all part of the trend of “gamification” in education and it’s taking Hebrew Academy by storm.

“Gamification uses game-like elements in the classroom, which can be applied to any subject,” explained Pervin, who has been implementing this new type of learning at the school for the last three years.

“Gamification is an extension of what we’re already learning. I think some might wonder, ‘when do you get through the curriculum if you’re playing games and having fun?’ But it is the curriculum.”

She first learned about gamification at an online workshop and was inspired by its potential to engage and motivate students.

She followed up by reading a book and watching videos on the approach, then introduced it in her Grade 4 class with a coach from Better Lesson, an organization that mentors some Hebrew Academy teachers through a grant from the Avi Chai Foundation.

“Gamification allows students to collaborate and is great for student engagement and critical thinking,” she said. “It motivates students to become more involved and encourages them to be active participants in the classroom.

“Someone really quiet in class who doesn’t participate can shine in this kind of setting. Maybe they are very creative or artistic or perhaps they feel more comfortable showing off their skills in a smaller group.”

In addition to promoting student engagement, another benefit of gamification, she said, is that it facilitates “differentiation,” an educational philosophy that recognizes that effective instruction cannot be one-size-fits-all.

“With gamification, students choose which activity interests them and which they feel comfortable doing,” said Pervin. “The activities vary in level: some are tough, some are a bit less challenging. Everyone has something to choose from.

“I know it works when students who find everything easy look stumped. It’s the best feeling, because those are the kids who are hard to excite at times. I want learning to be fun for everyone.”

Before starting a unit, Pervin and Haber divide the class into teams.

As they progress through the lessons, the teachers introduce “super quests,” curriculum-based activities that students can tackle when they complete their class work.

Once a week, the teachers lead a “Friday challenge,” a special activity that reinforces learning and offers another way to earn team points.

Each Friday challenge is different. Students may have to answer Jeopardy questions, or compete in a task card race or scavenger hunt, for example. After four or five Friday challenges, teams are presented with the most exciting task: the Final Quest, a project that incorporates all of the concepts taught during the term.

“Elyse and I create a project that we think is meaningful to the kids, with a real-world element in a bigger setting that emphasizes the skills they acquired. The teams were recently challenged to a construction project. There was a lot of anticipation around it,” said Pervin.

For Grade 2’s Final Quest in early November, teams were presented with a letter “composed” by Côte-St-Luc Mayor Mitchell Brownstein, asking them to help design a new playground surrounding trees in Trudeau Park.

The mayor presented a list of requisite elements the teams had to include in their model parks, and specified which materials to use in their arts and crafts construction projects.

“We’re reading Lisa Campbell Ernst books in class and we just read Squirrel Park, which has a similar theme,” said Pervin. “Elyse and I jumped off from there and used math concepts that we had worked on, such as repeating and growing patterns, and estimation.”

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