Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Power of Words (With Friends)

If you haven't been swept up in the Words with Friends phenomenon over the past couple of years then I have one question for you: where have you been?

Words With Friends is a totally addictive, Scrabble-like game played back and forth between smart phones like the iPhone and the Droid. The game combines game play and social media for an app that must have sold a zillion units by now. Practically everyone I know with an iPhone plays Words With Friends with someone. If you don't have it, get it.

Last school year, I started playing Words with some of my current and former faculty. We had a great time going back and forth with the word game. Then something interesting happened. I started hearing about some kids at school who also played Words and wanted some tougher competition than their other friends. One by one, initially, they'd find me in the halls and ask for my Words With Friends screen name. Next thing I know, I have about fifteen games going at any one time with my students. This actually created a great opportunity to start some conversation with some of the students, some of whom I really didn't know all that well. It gave me a chance to say some positive and encouraging things to a few kids I barely knew both through the chat function on the app and in person in the halls.

While I have many I could share, the most amazing anecdotes I have for you involve a kid who otherwise had been a complete introvert for months and a kid who later in the year would suffer a tragedy.

The introvert: I could hardly get her to say "Hi" in the halls when we passed. Nevertheless, she got my screen name from one of her friends and she sent an invitation for a new game. I accepted and we proceeded to play about fifty consecutive games against one another over the next few months. Using the chat function, we started with simple exchanges of "good word" or "rematch!" or even "Merry Christmas." Then, the girl who wouldn't say a word in person in the halls before suddenly opened up and began to speak at school. "Nice game" or "crazy word yesterday" or "I'm gonna beat you next time" eventually turned into actual conversation. Amazing!

The tragedy: Another student I hardly knew sent me an invitation for a new game about the same time as the introvert. I accepted and we also got to know each other a little at a time, first via chat, then small talk in then halls, then actual conversations. Fast forward a few months and this delightful kid learned that her father had suddenly passed away. She received the news at school. In my office. Had we not forged a relationship over the previous few months, a relationship that began with a friendly game of Words With Friends, that unforgettable day would have been much worse, much more uncomfortable. As she will tell you now, the experience was awful but at least there was a friendly face in my office that day when she most needed one.

I understand completely that playing social media word games with students and faculty will appear in no handbook for administrators or teachers, except perhaps under the "don't do this" section. However, this simple game app has been a powerful tool for me at my school with my students. I'm not necessarily advocating this method for anyone else. I'm simply giving testimony about the power of a unique way I discovered to connect with Digital Natives in the 21st century.

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