Winner of the 2012 Edublog Lifetime Achievement Award, UK-based educator Tim Rylands uses gaming and other IT to inspire learning and creative writing. Rylands, who presents internationally at conferences and schools, blogs at www.timrylands.com. He spoke with SLJ about how his teaching techniques, his favorite apps, and why he’s more than just the “Myst man.”
How did you feel when you found out you had won Edublog’s Lifetime Achievement Award?
I had totally and utterly forgotten I had been nominated. At one o’clock in the morning someone tweeted “Well done!” And I have to admit, I asked, “What have I done?”
What do you do on your blog?
The blog is a record of all of our events and training days at schools and conferences. We also put up links to resources we’ve discovered. Most of them are free and, hopefully, useful. But it’s not about the resources, it’s how they can be used. That is the basis of my being: enabling children of all ages and abilities to take off and fly.
Can you tell us about your background?
I taught for 25 years, eight of which were spent in a school located in the third highest social deprivation area in the south of England. That’s where I learned the majority of my craft. I had to find ways to engage, motivate, and inspire those children; to change their perceptions of themselves into people who can be, and want to be, writers and learners. These were children who had possibly never seen what enjoying learning looked like. That is a crucial part of what we encourage teachers to do now: when doing our demo teaching sessions, in schools and around the world, we encourage colleagues to sit in among the children, mucking in, modeling the enjoyments of writing, and so much more.
In 2005 I was nominated for a BECTA (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) ICT in Practice Award. Increasingly, I was being asked to work with schools and educational authorities to find ways to use technology to raise teaching standards. For the last seven years, I’ve been traveling up and down the UK all around the world with my partner, Sarah Neild, presenting and looking at bringing the curriculum even more alive.
How did you come to start using games in your teaching?
About 12 years ago, I was diagnosed with I have Adrenomyeloneuropathy (AMN), which began attacking my central nervous system. It’s not stopping me yet! I now walk with a cane, which forms an interesting lesson starter, as children come up with inventive things to say about my stick, which I call “Mr. Walker.”
Around the time I was first diagnosed, I was given Riven, the second game in the Myst series. While my daughter, Ellie, sat on my lap, wandering through these worlds and talking about these beautiful landscapes in such an expressive way—even though she was only little—I realized that I could use them in school to encourage my children to pick up words, and juggle them, too.
Now you’re known as “the Myst man.” Why?
Yes. I find that slightly surreal, as we do a huge amount of other things too. The Myst games form a significant part—but only one part—of what we do. We work with schools on the games-based side of learning but also looking at lot of different online technologies, always with an essential permanent focus on the learning that springs from them.
How do you use gaming worlds to help children write?
We use games as a stimulus. When we are teaching writing, the idea is to get children talking about the game and to gain confidence, find words and play with them, and from that springs an amazing amount of inventive compositions.
Children are very plot centric-when they are writing. It tends to be “and then I, and then I, and then I.” What I do is try to help them develop, often without them even realizing, a sense of setting, character, and atmosphere as priorities to bring plot alive.
While teaching, we project one of these moving worlds up on a large screen, a remarkable living world, perhaps with leaves struggling to escape the bushes, and birds dancing with the wind. I think I then startle people by making no reference to it for a long time. We talk about everything else but the world behind me, such as guessing why Mr. Walker is full of holes.
We slip into the landscape almost without them knowing it. By then they’re desperate to talk about what’s on the screen. But now it is no longer a screen; it forms part of where we are. The key element is that we don’t move for a long time. We aren’t playing the game. Quite a while in, I might ask, “Shall we go for a walk? Before we go, how about we have a go at remembering where we are now? Do you know, one of the best ways to remember something is to write it down? Can you squeeze in a simile here or a metaphor there? Go for it! Write like the wind (only neater, because the wind has dodgy handwriting)!”
Without realizing it, even the most reluctant writers are writing. As they do so, I reassure them of one or two things. One: There is no right or wrong idea. Two: Don’t worry about your spelling. And I really do mean, “Don’t worry. Get it down. Go for it!” I don’t want them to fret and mess up a stunning description.
Can you share an example or two of how this works in the classroom?
We use many other things as a stimulus. I often take children into Epic Citadel, a free app on the iPad, to create an unpopulated setting, and then we populate that place with characters. I begin to tell a story while we’re doing that, and the children get involved in the storytelling. I use stories as boxes in which to put lots of tools and techniques. We might use iPad apps, such as Pottery HD Lite, to create objects that bring the story alive. We might explore a site like Snappywords to discover alternative vocabulary. The tools and the stories are constantly changing.
How has your work impacted kids on an individual basis?
I often work in special schools. We were at a school for children with profound learning difficulties, and I took children on a virtual trip to the beach using a projected computer game. We were in a land from the game Myst III: Exile and were experiencing a stunning beach setting. We also had buckets of water in the classroom, sand, and hair dryers for the wind.
There was a seven-year-old boy in the group who had never spoken a word in his life. He was making sand castles against the virtual backgrounds, making sounds like “Puttitin puttittitin.” He was so desperate to talk that his teaching assistant was kneeling down with him, crying. He was building a sand castle and “putting it in.” Then, with his sandy hands, he discovered the interactive whiteboard showing the beach. He found my laptop and discovered that if he pressed the up, down, left and right arrows he could navigate around this virtual world. He found the mouse and began exploring even more. He was so calm about it. The rest of the class was standing around him, talking about this place. He then figured out how to open a virtual door and exclaimed, “I did it!” He could control a virtual world. Those are small steps for a majority of our children, but this was enormous for him.
Another time we were at a school for children who had been excluded from other schools for behavioral reasons. There was a boy who’d displayed severe violent behavior elsewhere. I had created a scene using Myst IV: Revelation and we were standing in front of a quite ominous scene, with an upturned ship.
Within seven minutes, he was asking questions, and, by the end of the session, he was producing writing of such beauty it would melt you.
He said to me afterwards, “I just didn’t think I could write anything like that. This is first time I’ve ever done it. Hopefully I can knuckle down to it and remember how do to this in all of my other challenges.”
What tips do you have for other teachers who might adopt your method?
You have to be very careful about age-appropriateness with any game or online tool you use. But then, take your time. Don’t rush forward. An amazing amount of learning comes from even tiny movements in a digital sense.
What are some of your favorite worlds to work with?
Any apps you especially like right now?
Tag Galaxy, which builds wonderful collections of images, as the basis of non-linear discussion. Lino, which enables children to plan or record the results of research collaboratively. Tagxedo, which creates living, dancing word clouds. It’s like the marvelous Wordle, but with even more style. It isn’t all about the words, though: tools like Psykopaint and Tiltshiftmaker allow us to bring worlds alive in imaginative ways too.