Jenga Sentences

Candice and me in China, fresh off the plane and ready to do some teacher training–a time when we jumped together!

If there is one thing every teacher absolutely needs, it is a teacher bestie. This is the person who will either talk or push you off the cliff, or, depending on the day, take your hand and jump with you. I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of amazing teachers over the years, but my teacher bestie is Candice. Candice and I met while working at Pontiac Middle School, and we are both a little crazy. How can you not bond with colleagues when you work for a school that goes by PMS? And the school colors are red and white? We won’t get into the details of the t-shirt debacle of 2016; I’ll just leave it at this, the school slogan for the year was “The time is now…a sense of urgency” and someone decided to add the school initials. With a friendship forged in such an environment, how can the two of us not be a little crazy?

Among the many duties of a teacher bestie is being a sounding board for new teaching ideas. Candice has always been great about listening to the somewhat less than organized random educational brainstorms that pop out of my head. She helps me refine them, think through potential problems, and even tells me flat out when one might be better off left in my head (who do you think helped me think through Collective Noun Spoons?). Since Candice is primarily an educational technology person (though she’s taught all subjects at one point or another), I’m usually the one coming up with new ways to use common household objects and recyclables in lessons, but last year Candice was voluntold into my former position as ESL teacher (and she rocked it!) and she came up with some creative ideas of her own. Today we’d like to share one of them with you: Jenga Sentences.

As you already know, lesson and activity ideas can be inspired by just about anything. This particular idea was inspired when Candice saw an advertisement for the game Jenga. She started thinking about how the game could be used to practice making sentences, texted me some random thoughts, and a short time later we had a plan. Unfortunately, Covid restrictions haven’t allowed us to test out the game yet, but we’re hoping to do so soon.

Preparing the game is relatively simple: buy a Jenga set and use a permanent marker to write words on the blocks. We were thinking of using 15 verbs (in base form, students can conjugate them as needed), 15 nouns/pronouns (could double up some pronouns by putting the masculine and feminine forms on the same block), 10 prepositions, and leaving 14 blocks blank (wild–students could use a dry erase marker to write words of their choice on them). The goal of the game would be for students to form sentences from the words they pulled from the tower. Any block they chose that had a word they didn’t need or want would be placed on the top of the tower, just as in regular play. If a student is able to form a complete sentence before the tower falls, he/she is the winner. If the tower falls before anyone forms a sentence, all students lose and must start over.

We discussed the possibility of giving students cards listing the parts of speech they would be required to use in their sentence, but weren’t sure about it. I have a commercial game, Cooking Up Sentences, that uses recipe cards to do this, and it is far more difficult than one would imagine. My students always preferred playing the game without the recipe cards and just forming their own, often very silly, sentences. If we were to do this, we thought it would be good to paint the ends of the blocks (blue for nouns, green for verbs, etc.) so students knew which part of speech they were extracting. By the end of the discussion we decided adding cards with prescribed parts of speech would be easy to do later and we’d prefer to try the game without them first.

The other possibility we discussed was having different levels of the game. We could incorporate more parts of speech (adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions…) and/or vocabulary from our lessons for more practice. This was also an idea we decided to put on hold for now because the only way we could envision it working would be to add blocks to the game (combine Jenga sets to form larger starting towers) or eliminate the wild blocks, neither of which we were prepared to do at this point (and both of which would be easy enough to do later).

As I said earlier, Covid prevented us from ever actually trying the game with students. Just after we were talking through the various aspects of the game, the Covid rules and restrictions changed again. Then this year Candice moved back to a technology position and the game hasn’t fit in with the courses I’m teaching. Next semester I’m teaching a level one grammar and writing course, so maybe I’ll get the opportunity to try the game with those students. In the meantime, if any of you have the opportunity to try out Candice’s idea, you can let us know how it goes! Happy teaching, everyone!