School Librarian Ups Game: Uses Gaming to Increase Readership

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Demco’s Angie Shoeneck presenting Jason McCoy his award.

It was my pleasure to present the 2015 Illinois School Library Media Association (ISLMA) and Upstart Award to Jason McCoy, currently the District Librarian at Deer Creek-Mackinaw High School in Mackinaw, IL (Any day where I get to give recognition where recognition is due to hardworking librarians is a good day in my opinion.)

This award recognizes one “school library media center’s achievement in planning and implementing an innovative or creative service, which has a measurable impact on users.” Jason was honored for his “Gaming in the Library” program at Ridgeview Community Unit School in Colfax, IL. Once a month, he hosted an afterschool educational gaming program to:

  1. Promote the school’s media center.
  2. Endorse new media and enjoyment in the library.
  3. Expose students to historical elements and use gaming as the “hook” to create interest in nonfiction topics.
  4. Create a positive afterschool activity for students.

What I found especially heartwarming about Jason’s efforts is that he created a positive social outlet for teens, deepened their connections with teachers and each other, and enhanced their overall learning experience.

He also recognized his students were at risk for “getting into trouble” in their rural town unless they had a more compelling and constructive alternative. Growing up in small town in central Wisconsin, I can certainly relate to there not always being a lot to do!

I caught up with Jason recently to ask him more about how he legitimized gaming as a learning tool, exposed students to historical topics they wouldn’t have otherwise pursued and boosted circulation with his creative programming.

Read more of our conversation to see how he did it:

What led you to start this program?

When you’re in a small town a lot of times that is your whole world. I think that by doing gaming and giving yourself some more experiences, you get out of the coal factory, you open up the possibilities — ‘Hey, I could get out of here.’

Our free and reduced lunches were in the mid 40s, close to 50% when I left. Students would walk around town and the citizens of the community would be looking out, wondering, ‘What are these kids doing in my yard?’ It could turn into something bad. In my last two years at the school, we had a few bouts of vandalism and theft at our school. Some kid broke in our bus barn and stole all of the keys out of there. I wanted to give kids something fairly constructive and show them that we did more than read at the library, especially since many of those kids are not avid readers.

What games did you use?

We installed Civilization IV, Age of Empires, Age of Mythology  and Rome: Total War™  on the media center computers.

How did you decide to go with a historical approach?

For one, it’s an interest of mine. I’m a big fan of history, English and liberal arts.

We didn’t have an AP history class, and I wanted to find a way to make history more fun for the kids. Plus, since I coached Scholastic Bowl, I liked interacting with the topics, especially mythology and history, to make them more personal so that they would stick in the kids’ heads. I thought it was a fun way to show our program off and the things we could do at the library.

What did it take to make this happen? How did you get your administration on board?

It wasn’t actually too bad. We used school media center resources and leveraged existing knowledge, so the time planning and researching was low. We did not have to upgrade the computers, which also saved time, and there was very little training and instruction involved. I did purchase the games out-of-pocket, but the titles were somewhat older, so the cost was minimal.

I had my scholastic bowl students help me install the games on all the computers. We had the network administrator’s support so we just went and installed it all.

How did you get students interested in participating in the program?

Students playing computer games after finishing their homework.
Students playing computer games after finishing their homework.

We advertised the programs over daily school announcements, as well as using flyers in the hall. I bought pizza and snacks for them myself, but before I knew it I needed to ask them to put up $2-3 a piece because so many students were coming.

What kind of turnouts did you have?

The program was a great success! We typically averaged 15-20 students per event (our high school had 200 total students). We usually held it from 5-7 p.m. once or twice a month.

How did attendance change over time, in terms of group composition?

I had 7 kids to start from scholastic bowl. Then, word spread. I had so many kids asking to join us so we started doing a gaming night.

If there was a Friday night home football game, our football players would come and play with us until 5:30 or 6 or until they had to get ready for their game. It kept them from walking around town. It gave them something to do for 2-3 hours that they had time to kill.

What surprised you?

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One of Jason’s students playing QWOP, an athletics game.

I was surprised by the number of girls who ended up joining us and loving it. It was also cool how they were taking an interest in gaming. They helped keep the boys from being too boy-like — kept them in check, rather than it getting overly competitive. The boys were surprised also by how many girls were playing and were surprised girls enjoyed that stuff. It made them feel like what they were doing was cool. It wasn’t just a boy thing. ‘Hey, look at this, girls like what I’m doing. I’m fine with that. It makes me feel better about myself.’

It blew up their social construct I think because they would think in their monologue or their inner self, ‘Oh, I’m a nerd.’ But, then having a good amount of girls there made them think, ‘Maybe I’m not a nerd.’

The students who were not always considered ‘academic’ would interact with our honor students to ask about specific events in history. Some students who were not involved in a particular social group now had others to identify with, and we even increased circulation!

How did it change dynamics and relationships with the teachers?

Dee-Mack High School Media Center
Dee-Mack High School Media Center

The way the school is situated, the ground level is junior high, the basement is the high school. For the teachers to get down to the high school, they would have to walk through the library. They see all the kids playing games and say, ‘Oh, that’s really cool. I used to play that when I was a kid.’ The kids would all be like, ‘Come join us, come join us.’ It was a lot of fun getting the teachers laughing and giving them a different way to have fun with school too.

A lot of times, teachers may not view whoever the librarian is as someone who knows how to teach. I was lucky being in a small school because I saw the teachers. Everybody knew everybody there. I would send out emails and presentations about the cool things we were doing in the library and they’d be like, ‘Wow.’ I would suggest, ‘Hey if you are teaching this unit, you could do this. You could use this game as a way to help the content stick with the kids and make them engage.’ I know that one of the teachers would give them extra credit by having them journal what they were doing in their mythology unit when we’d be playing Age of Mythology. They’d have to journal about what their army did or what they did during that gaming session. You can only go so deep into a subject during the class period.

One of my ideas with the math teachers was to do Age of Empire games to help get strategy across.

Did students become more engaged in reading?

Yes, they started to like nonfiction. After each event, nonfiction circulation correlating to the games increased tremendously. For example, when playing Age of Mythology, our mythology circulation went up, especially in non-Greek mythology. After playing Civilization, students were requesting titles about the wonders of the world and specific historical events.

We’d be playing Civilization and they’d run across Adam Smith’s Trading Company and they’d be like, ‘Who’s this Adam Smith guy?’ Then they’d open up a Wikipedia page or start Googling things from the game. In Age of Mythology, they would want to know all about the different gods.

At the time, Percy Jackson was big. Our sophomores read the Percy Jackson series as a classroom novel and the gaming reinforced knowledge they were already getting in the classroom, or gave freshmen prior background explanation before starting it. Gaming helped create an education-is-fun type of atmosphere.

During election times, we played an election game where they had to create a candidate and try win over all the states to become president. That was a lot of fun too. The games also increased their vocabulary and search abilities.

What were your lessons learned that you’d like to pass along to others?

  1. I would make sure that you know the software and the network before you start because there is always going to be troubleshooting along the way. What I mean to say is you’re setting up a game and you run into issues, ‘Oh, man, I can’t get in. It’s not connecting,’ then you need to know what to do.
  2. Set parameters. Be firm on your start and end times, otherwise, those guys could go all night. They really can. I announced 15 minutes before the end time that we would be shutting down.
  3. Bring food. We would do a potluck every now and then. I’d usually bring the entrée.
  4. Let everyone participate. A lot of time the boys would bring their girlfriends and it would make them feel more involved.
  5. Stress everyone is there to have fun. I can’t think of any time where it got too bad, but I always tell them we’re not doing any cheat codes (if using computers). Otherwise you get the guy who thinks he’s cool by showing off and turning everyone into goats. Some kids would like to dominate because they know how to give themselves unlimited resources.

As long as you have somebody with enthusiasm, gaming in the library can work whether or not you know a lot about gaming. The kids can kind of take it. You can think outside the box and not just use the curriculum for teaching. You can use gaming for lots of things. If you have a positive administration and a positive attitude, then a whole bunch more can be accomplished.

What are your plans going forward?

At my new school, we bought 50 Minecraft [https://minecraft.net/] licenses as a means to add to the curriculum. In the future, updated computers and gaming titles would also be good, as well as some competitive events. What’s really cool is involving the students from our Life Skills program — they are wizzes at it. One kid who is a big time computer kid here and he’s also had trouble with the dean for being mean to other students. But when he was in here with the Life Skills kids, he was open to helping them out and when he was playing he wasn’t picking on them at all. It was really cool to see a sensitive side.

For Super Bowl week, we will do a Madden NFL Games tournament with brackets and the proceeds will benefit our school’s positive behavior intervention efforts.

I am also interested in gaming battles such as class competitions (freshmen vs. seniors, etc.), boys vs. girls, basketball vs. football teams and individual tournaments. This should all have a fantastic positive effect in the climate of our school … and be lots of fun as well!

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Author

Angie Schoeneck

Angie Schoeneck

Growth Strategy Manager at Demco, Inc.
Angie is the Growth Strategy Manager at Demco. She focuses on the evolving needs and trends in education and library environments, their patrons and communities, and translating these into relevant products and services. She has an extensive background in new product development, product management and business process improvement.