Game Design – The Amazing Maze Game

In this lesson series where we create a maze game in CS First for Google, what more appropriate warm up than to give students a traditional maze to work through. I began too easy, then the next day, a more difficult one, the last day, what I considered a difficult 3-D maze. Timed the students and watched them fly! This gave them an opportunity to explore the challenges and emotions of mazes before we explored their place in literature.

Then, in an ESLified version of unplugged to plugged, ELs are intentionally given opportunities to grow in the four language domains, listening, speaking, reading, and writing, to advance their English. I find poems to be extremely accessible for English learners. They’re succinct and gripping. Because much of academic, elevated language has cognates in Spanish, poems are more accessible than one might think. We began with “Joy” by the celebrated Harlem Renaissance author Clarissa Scott Delaney.

Reading Poem 1 – “Joy

Student sketchnotes the poem. We underline adjectives and point them to the nouns they describe. We define the literary device. And illustrate “bewildered” with symbol ??.

“Joy” is accessible on We began with a sticky note warmup and attached it to the image below. Using the sentence frame _______ bring me joy because ________. students thought and shared with the class their answer to the prompt: What brings you joy?

We read the poem in a choral read a few times over the course of the lesson series. We sketchnoted the phrases. We explored the literary devices. Then we separated the poem into two parts–the first 8 then then last 3 lines. We explored the flexibility of the last 3 lines and moved that emotion of being scared and lost to the front of the poem-a more chronological approach.

My students rewrote sections of the poem adding what brings them joy. Made their own comparisons. Explored synonyms for “bewildered” like “confused,” “unsure,” and “uncertain.”

Reading Poem 2 – “El Laberinto/ The Laberinth”

One of my deep desires for my students is that one day they will have access to a heritage Spanish class so they enjoy the beautiful authors of Latin America. And they all have the ability to interact with grade level (above grade level!) content with the appropriate supports. Watch this in action.

Jorge Luis Borges is a Argentinian author who had a degenerative eye disease which progressively left him blind giving his poem El laberinto (Spanish for maze) a different significance. I placed the translation side by side and we made bilingual connections about all the ways he refered to the maze. I told my students to hunt for and underline 6 phrases. They’d bring the poem back to me until they found them all. Then they wrote them in a list below.

Student notes on El Laberinto by Borges

Write to the End

Using elements from both poems, I created sentence stems for my students to complete. Students used the maze phrases from El laberinto to complete the sentences then selected their synonym of choice to replace “bewildered.” They wrote their final drafts on a maze they completed earlier and the joy of having written something so complete and inspired by such greats.

Student draft of their poem inspired by “Joy” and “El Laberinto.”

Now code your own maze!

With a firm exploration of mazes’ place in literature and culture, we opened up our last Game Design set of modules, “The Maze Game.”

At this point, we had completed both the character story and the racing game, so students had some base familiarity with coding. That is the beautiful thing about coding- when integrated with even some regularity, students build on the same skill and further their competency. Nearing the end of our school year, they were ready.

We made connections to ELA story elements and learned about equivalency across disciplines. In English language arts, a setting is where the story takes place and in computer science backdrop is where the story takes place. With this, we reviewed and discussed the utility of phrases like “in other words” and “that is” which can cue us in to an alternative explanation. This is a key comprehension strategy for ELs as they may understand one explanation over another because of cognates and vocabulary knowledge.

Students, with the support of the guide sheets when needed and video tutorials, created their own maze games. They customized them by selecting different add-ons. Then, to cap it off, with our final part of the project, we had a speed dating structured presentation where the students got to show off their games to their peers and try to pitch them to the game company. Knowing that they would present to their peers helped motivate some. After this speaking activity, I had a couple students tell me it was the best project we have done all year. Amazed.

Student proudly presenting her maze game to a classmate in our speed dating style presentations.

Try, Fail, Succeed, Repeat: Building Confidence in STEM at TESOL Int’l 2023

“Holly. Next year, we are co-presenting,” Katie Miller informed me at Pittsburgh TESOL 2022. Katie, or as I knew her, “Duda” is my friend and colleague from graduate school. We graduated together in 2007, 2 of a cohort of dedicated students of linguistics, self-named “the trenchers.” We were in the trenches of phonology, syntax, and sociolinguistics, the beast of the Applied Linguistics program second semester. We attacked it together- study marathons, pizza and $2 pint nights at Cogans, and nerdy language jokes binded us all.

I hadn’t seen her in person for about 15 years, but serendipity and purpose re-united us in Pittsburgh. I knew she had presented virtually at TESOL on an ESL pre-engineering class she taught the year and was also teaching a fundamentals math class. She is the E and M in #STEM and I’m the T.

So here we are, year 3 of her, me, then us at TESOL presenting on STEM education with English learners.

Duda loves these slides, and I have to agree. Look at these slides! They’re lit! Thank you @slidesmaniaSM!

Our presentation highlights one of the best outcomes of why we would teach coding and STEM to ELs: it promotes resilience, persistence, and a tolerance for problems–all of which are needed in learning a language. Learning a language is a long haul, not a semester class. It necessitates a learner’s mindset. How can we as EL teachers cultivate this mindset? STEM.

We organized our talk around 3 points: the problem of fear, opportunities to “fail” in STEM, and strategies to help our students “fail forward.” One of my favorite outcomes of preparing for this presentation was our discussion on how do we support our #EL students in our content? What kind of framework do we follow?

Scaffolding student learning experiences is key.

One, teach the language. For EL teachers, this is our strength! Tap into what you know. Teach the imperatives, the complex sentence structure, vocabulary development from general to specific to technical, multiple meaning words, problem solving language. Choose the language demand required of the lesson and go! Ways can include creating language guides with sentence stems, visuals/ gifs which explicitly explain and demonstrate vocabulary, conduct surveys, & pre-teach and play games with the vocabulary. Often to play games I’ll create sets in Quizlet and later export the Quizlet sets to Blooket. 7 minutes of a lesson used to practice, play, and apply. Check out an example set here, words like strength, weakness, puzzle, improve, develop, overcome, suggestion are cross-curricular and need-to-know in all disciplines.

Two, embed more opportunities to fail in the lesson sequence. In computer science, we introduce concepts with a real world activity first which later extends into a coding activity. Unplugged 🔌 to plugged💻. These are fun and build excitement, which carries over into project.

Three, leverage interactive support. In the WIDA world, interactive support is one of the 3 primary ways we can support ELs. In computer science, it’s known as peer programming. This can look different. One student can program and the other can offer guidance, input, and problem solve sitting by their side. Another way is one student can write code, another can read the code and predict what will happen, and then they test it together. Students work better together figuring out a puzzle. They help each other, learn to ask for help, and build relationships in the process. Both my loud and quiet students are all in when I assure them as I’m giving directions/model expectations, “You’ll get to talk soon, I promise, guys.”

Last, teach and embed social and emotional reflection. Teach them to move beyond, “I felt good” to “I felt accomplished.” Include sequence and extension, “At first, I felt _______. After its completion, I felt _____. Students can journal, participate in a poll, turn and talk, identify a feeling on a gradiency and then expand their choice with the why behind they feel. They try, fail, succeed, repeat–and know what they’re experiencing. Check out Duda’s emotions/ moods table below!