Text Quest: #Hashtag Hunt

Part two in an epic four part series on how to gamify *any* lesson plan!

In yesterday’s post, we talked about a super easy dice-rolling warm-up activity designed to add interest and build empathy to any lesson plan. Today, we’ll take our gaming efforts one step further and walk you through some possibilities of what to do once your classes have rolled their way into your daily Text Quest. Because after all — part of the joy of winning is in the inevitable reward that comes with it, right?

We’ll get back to our game in a second. But first — a bite-sized bit of background on human behavior and some quick, pop science behind motivational psychology.

Lately, I’ve been reading (read: listening on Audible to) a fantastic book by researcher, entrepreneur, and former Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Nir Eyal called Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products. And according to the author, the most effective of habit forming products all share the common bond that they make use of what he terms the three major types of variable rewards:

1. Rewards of the Self (mastery, autonomy)

2. Rewards of the Tribe (social status, interaction)

3. Rewards of the Hunt (discovery, surprise)

Think about a simple daily routine activity like checking your email. Rewards of the Self? Achieving that elusive and brag-worthy “Inbox Zero,” and the chance to feel — if only for a few fleeting minutes — a powerful sense of pride and accomplishment that you “really have your act together.” Rewards of the Tribe? A social connectedness that comes from opening messages with news from friends, loved ones, and colleagues. Not only are you on top of the latest information, you’re infinitely more connected to people who matter to you (and maybe even a few that don’t) as a result of your actions. That’s a win / win. And Rewards of the Hunt? Hidden amongst the dozens (if not hundreds) of junk messages that crowd your mailbox with each passing day, your brain can’t help but be flooded with an added rush of adrenaline each time you experience the joy of an exciting new discovery. Like finding just the right LEGO brick in a giant bucket: with excitement comes novelty and an increased sense of value, as you stumble upon those rare and intermittent diamonds in the rough hidden amid all those mindless hours of sifting and searching. Sure, it’s not every time that you check your email that something in there is actually worth reading — but the intermittent reward happens *just often enough* to keep you coming back for those glorious and predictably unpredictable blasts of dopamine. In fact, it’s really not all that different from pulling the lever on a slot machine.

So how does this relate to the classroom? And just what the heck is a #Hashtag Hunt?

Here we go.

To set up a super easy #Hashtag Hunt, you’ll want to snag the following items:

  • Clear plastic page protectors
  • Six sheets of individually labeled sheets of paper
  • A handful of random “wild cards” hidden on the reverse side of your six sheets of paper.

To set up your #Hashtag Hunt, label each blank sheet of paper with a different look-for item for each of the six available plastic sleeves. Each plastic sleeve now represents a different choice “station” with its own look-for item for the day. And you can use the reverse side of a few of those same plastic page protectors to stash a handful of strategically placed “wild cards” (which we’ll get to in just a second).

Here’s how to play:


Once all teams have concluded their Lucky Dice Warm-Up, the class will transition to the day’s #Hashtag Hunt, which gives teams the opportunity to review the previous night’s reading in search of specific annotations or examples of textual evidence from one of your six recurring thematic “look-for” items before the time limit for the activity expires. No fancy tech or Twitter required — we’re just using the familiar language of a “hashtag” here to help students understand the idea that a particular thematic concept will likely be showing up more than once as they read, and so they can sharpen their Spidey Senses and start to grow eyes for examples of it as they make their way through the novel. And regardless of the particular hashtag a group selects on a given day, the process is exactly the same: each team will simply mark their findings either on a single sheet of paper (one per group) or in an electronic document (shared with the teacher).

For my unit on the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I selected these six look-for items as follows:

#HuckLies– Examples where a character lies, deceives, or stretches the truth

#HuckLearns – Instances where Twain satirizes a character’s ignorance

#HuckFaith – Moments where characters face moral dilemmas or questions of faith

#HuckFree – Evidence where characters embrace or struggle with freedom

#HuckRace – Cases where race plays a role in a character’s behavior or attitude

#HuckNature – Items directly shaped by nature (i.e. wilderness) or human nature

Naturally, teachers can substitute in different thematic look-for stations based on the unique needs of their unit plan, but I like to offer six default look-for items, that way even the group that’s left with the final pick of the day still feels as if they’ve had a sense of “choice” and autonomy in their station select — albeit slightly more limited than the groups that selected before them — which really helps to increase a sense of buy in from the get-go. The only thing more powerful than ownership is authorship.
As a default, all groups select one station for their #Hashtag Hunt per day, and are challenged to find as many examples of their selected look-for item as they can before time expires. Nothing fancy here: just a simple timed race where groups compete to list as many quality annotations as they can before the timer runs out. But to add variety, chance, challenge, and complexity to the #Hashtag Hunt, certain stations can be “boobytrapped” with wild cards that affect the total number of items that will count towards that group’s score at a particular location. These wild cards can be hidden in select stations at the teacher’s discretion, which allows instructors The chance to scaffold the choices such that some #Hashtag Hunts will stack the odds for a particular station making it harder than others on a given day. This offers you the ability to tailor the relative difficulty of the daily look-for challenges according to your preferences, or to emphasize individual content items from the previous night’s reading.

Here’s why this easy to use pedagogy will get your students “hooked” on what might otherwise be a ho-hum annotation exercise:

img_9657In yesterday’s post, we talked about how students could use a basic set of RPG dice and a prompt inspired by the previous night’s reading to make choices informed by the source material. To use Eyal’s terms, rolling the highest score offers a “Reward of the Self” — because it always feels like there’s a sense of accomplishment when you strategize or luck your way into a high roll of the dice. The “Reward of the Tribe?” The team that rolls the highest gets first selection of their station activity for the day — thus to the victor goes the spoils. And since this activity feeds directly into the daily #Hashtag Hunt, we’ve nailed the third of our key variable habit-forming behaviors in a system that offers “Rewards of the Hunt.” Specifically? Certain stations come pre-loaded with wildcards that add or subtract a few points from your team’s score. If you happen upon a wildcard that deducts a point or two from your team’s total? You start your #Hashtag Hunt subconsciously armed with the knowledge that your group must have selected an easier look-for item than your rivals — offering you confidence and reassurance that there are dozens of other examples just waiting out there to be found as you explore the text more closely. And if your team flips their station over to reveal a few freebie bonus points have been awarded your way to help get you started off on the right foot? Your subconscious brain kicks in, saying “dang. This must be a harder station than the others! But we’re already off to a strong start.” And the second you and your teammates can find even your first few examples? Suddenly you start to feel like you’re on a hot streak — almost as if you’ve “gamed” the system into giving you a bonus advantage for what is quickly shaping up to feel like a super easy reward.

Either way, groups can’t help but find themselves working *that much harder*, and the house (or in this case, the teacher) always wins.

Once time has expired for the day’s #Hashtag Hunt, we’ll immediately collect one sheet of paper from each group and tally the results. The count totals will then be logged overnight in our unit-long score sheets, and we’re off to our Socratic Seminar Showdown.

More on that one tomorrow!

Author: John

John Meehan (@MeehanEDU) is an English teacher and school instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. He began his teaching career in 2010 as a career switcher through The New Teacher Project, after spending five years working in social media and event marketing. He is a 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader, and an alumnus of the 2016-2018 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council. In 2016, he was named one of Arlington, Virginia’s “40 Under 40” by the Leadership Center for Excellence. He is a past presenter and regular attendee at educational conferences throughout the United States, including the annual conference for National Catholic Education Association, ASCD Empower19, and the Play Like a Champion Today: Character Education Through Sports summer conference at the University of Notre Dame. He’s an avid runner who’s completed more than three dozen marathons, half marathons, long-distance road relays, mud runs, and obstacle course races. John lives in Silver Spring, Maryland with his wife, Laura, a high school music teacher and fellow graduate of The Catholic University of America, and a giant-sized Maine Coon cat named Jack.

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