Games & Challenges for Secondary English Classes

There is no doubt about it: students will learn more when they are intrinsically motivated, when they see a purpose beyond a test and a grade, or when they get a sense of enjoyment out of the activity. One thing that is sure to motivate your students is a sense of fun and play, something that we don't spend enough time on in the secondary classroom. We often see a game as an activity you do when the work is done, as a reward. However, what if we could use fun and games to support and enhance learning instead?

We can. In fact, using games and challenges in the secondary classroom will definitely enhance student learning. Here's why and how:

Challenges offer a low risk way to practice skills

Games and challenges should not just be "fillers;" instead, they should be used to zero in on an important skill you want your students to hone. In a sense, you "trick" them into learning. 

This works because when the students see the activity as "only a game" -- that it's about winning or losing a challenge rather than getting a grade -- they may be more apt to engage and take risks than they are when a grade is at stake. 

So how do you come up with a  challenge or game that does this? First, decide on a skill that your students need to learn or practice. For example, most English students need to work on the art of writing strong thesis statements--something that can be a little dry and boring to the average teenager. However, if you try something like Caitlin Tucker's Thesis Throwdown, complete with motivational music in the background, all of a sudden, creating a strong argument becomes a fun challenge -- and the thesis statements get better. They really do.

When I saw my students struggling with creating their own metaphors, I designed a metaphor challenge to get them to practice. The activity was so successful, we extended it to other forms of figurative language. The kids had lots of fun and became much better at understanding how authors use these devices. They also started using them more often in their own writing. 

2. Games build skills for collaboration & communication

Games and challenges are the perfect way to teach communication skills too. Speaking and listening is an important part of all language arts courses, as is critical thinking. 

There is nothing like giving groups a challenge to get them communicating with each other to solve a problem. Weaker students can also use these opportunities to learn strategies from stronger students, strategies they can use later when they need to do similar problems on their own.

You can turn anything that you want your students to work on into a group challenge. Do they need to practice certain writing skills? Get your students to work on them together with a short group writing competition. Do they need to improve their ability to choose effective quotations to back up their ideas? Challenge groups to find the most quotes to illustrate the development of a major character in a text they are studying. When they're done, you can have a class debate about which ones are most effective. 

You can also use a group challenge to have your students find examples of good writing in the texts they read. Have them use their class text or independent novels to find different types of sentences or an author's use of simile or metaphor. 

Regardless of the task, students will need to not only work on the skill but also discuss each person's choices and come to a consensus about which ones to use. (Try this yourself, by grabbing this Literary Challenge freebie).

3. Create a climate where learning is fun and engaging

The most rewarding part of using games and challenges in your classroom is that your students will begin to see learning as fun. They will be more likely to persist at the task and will feel great satisfaction when they are successful.

Take vocabulary building, for example. Learning new words and parroting back definitions in a traditional assignment isn't that exciting, but if you turn it into a gamethen learning those new words becomes far more interesting. You may even find that students can't wait to get to your class to see what they're going to learn next!

This word choice challenge was one of my favorites because not only did my students love it, I could use it pretty much any time in the school year when I wanted them to review the importance of choosing the best word for the job.

Can English class be all fun and games? Probably not. But, with a little creative thought, you can find ways to build more learning challenges into your lesson plans. Go ahead: I challenge you.

Check out my Games & Challenges Bundle

My friends at the coffee shop also have some creative ways to challenge students. Check them out here:

Presto Plans: Growth Mindset Classroom Challenge

Nouvelle ELA: Harlem Renaissance Escape Room

The SuperHERO Teacher: Board Game for Any Novel

The Daring English Teacher: Test Prep Vocabulary Escape Room


3 Subtle Ways to Engage Your Students

We are thrilled to have Tracee Orman join us as a guest blogger at the Secondary English Coffee Shop. Read on to see how she creates classes that students don't want to miss!

“Do your students look forward to your class? Are they excited to be there? How can you tell?”

I remember early in my career sitting in a professional development (PD) session one day when the guest speaker asked these questions to an auditorium filled with teachers. The elementary teachers in the room were shouting out and clapping, while most of the secondary crowd nodded or shrugged. Are my students excited to be in my class? Sure they are…I think. How can I tell? I mean, if my first hour seniors stay awake the entire time, that has to mean something, right? 

The speaker went on to show us all the dynamic ways we can make learning fun. His tips included a lot of singing, a lot of acting, and a lot of dancing. He kept telling us that teachers are performers and we must keep them engaged in order for learning to take place. For an introverted English teacher like myself, these were the most terrifying words spoken. I just don’t have the personality to be one of those educators who jumps around the room, acting out various concepts in elaborate ways. So now what? I thought. Was I doomed to be the boring English teacher every student dreads?

Let’s face it: being a teacher means having to entertain your students. Students will lose interest if they aren’t engaged. But who says the entertainment has to be performed by YOU?

You can still spark excitement in your students in subtle--even silent--ways. 


The first way you can captivate your students is to create mystery. I like to use props in my classroom when we are reading a story or novel. For example, before we read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee I have my students select random shoes and create a profile for the owner of the shoe as an exercise in stereotyping. I always have the shoes covered up with a sheet the day we begin that lesson so when students walk into my room, they are a little confused, but definitely intrigued. I’ve even arranged them before on a table that made them look like a body underneath the sheet (and had a student run out of the room and down the hallway yelling, “Hey Everyone! Mrs. Orman has a dead body in her room!” It definitely caught some teacher’s and even our principal’s attention).

I also cover up the following props before we use them in class (and it never gets old):

  • Two manual typewriters before we read the short story “The Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” by Jack Finney.
  • Various rocks before we read the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. (I promise I don’t use these with my third tip.)
  • Two “Indian head” pennies, a pocket watch with knife, a ball of twine, sticks of Double Mint gum, soap dolls, and a fishing pole while we are reading To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • Books that have been banned during Banned Books Week (toward the end of September each year).
If you really want to make them go bonkers, add a “DO NOT TOUCH!” sign.


Another way you can engage your students is by asking creative questions. A question like “What do you think Katniss has hidden underneath her bed?” while reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins can elicit a lively group discussion, especially when you tell your students it doesn’t have to be something tangible she’s hiding.

Other creative questions I’ve asked include:
  • “What would [Character’s Name]’s horoscope be today?”
  • “If [Character’s Name] were to break open a fortune cookie right now, what would be the funniest or most awkward or most ironic message they could receive?”
  • “If [Character’s Name] could go anywhere in the world, where would he/she go? Why? Who would he/she take with? Why?”
  • “You just inherited the Back to the Future time-travelling DeLorean that allows you to go back to the beginning of the story and change one of the events. Which event would you choose and why? How would it impact other events and characters in the story?”
Questions like these are basically asking students to provide evidence of character traits or analyze the plot structure in more appealing and unique ways.


A final way to generate excitement in your class is to allow your students to perform the material. Sometimes they just need to move around; give them the option to act out a scene from the story—preferably with props. Let them be the entertainers for the class while you and the introverted students sit back and enjoy the show.

Don’t let not having a script stop you from this activity. This is where student collaboration and writing combine beautifully: have students work in small groups to create the dialogue and actions themselves. It forces students to re-read the text for comprehension and analyze it for the author’s tone. (Don’t tell the students that’s what they’re doing. Just tell them that they need to figure out what kind of attitude the characters in the scene have. It sounds much better than asking them to analyze the author’s tone.)

If you already have a script, allow students to re-write it. After my students act out Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, they create satires of the play. This assignment is always a favorite. Small groups choose one (or more) of the scenes to rewrite. They have to interpret the text then create a parody based on it. After writing out their satires, they record their performances on video, then create short 4-10 minute movies. This activity combines writing/editing, collaborating, acting/speaking, cinematography, and video editing skills. (Not to mention time management skills.)

Just remember: you don’t have to be a performer to create enthusiasm in your class. Try out one of more of these ideas and see what happens.

If you need more inspiration, you can find over 90 creative ideas to use with any story, novel, or play (and even nonfiction) in my pack: Creative Activities for Any Book

Thank you to the all the members of the Secondary English Coffee Shop for allowing me to share my ideas on your site! You can check out their lessons for engaging secondary students here:

The Superhero Teacher: Literary Jenga
Presto Plans: Joke of the Week
The Daring English Teacher: To Kill a Mockingbird Bell Ringers

Tracee Orman
Mrs. Orman’s Classroom


5 Tips for Teaching Narrative Writing

I love to teach students how to write… I love to share ideas and stories with them… and I love to inspire them and give them the confidence to write their own stories. 

1. Story Time

Yes… it’s true! I love to tell a good story, and I would like to think that the students in my classroom like to share their stories with their friends.  Narrative writing is just turning the stories of their lives into a written format. 

Convincing students that they have a story to tell can be tough… I often hear them say “nothing exciting ever happens to me” or “I have nothing interesting to write about”.  I spend time sharing some story ideas with them… and I share my own personal experiences. I emphasize that their narrative story is best if it is focused on one specific event.  Rather than write about a vacation, write about a specific and memorable moment on the trip.  Some of my favorite life moments are small events, but they stuck with me because of the way those experiences made me feel. I will never forget getting my first piece of “grown-up jewelry” - a ring my mum gave me for Christmas when I was 12. Over 30 years later, I wear the ring every day and it’s a reminder of the first time I felt like I was growing up. Or the first time I drove a car all by myself the day I got my license. Wow… it was my first taste of true freedom. 

Sharing your own life moments with students shows your own vulnerability and may inspire them to do the same.  Writing their own story can be a powerful experience and I remind them it is their opportunity to share their experiences, their perspectives, and their take on the world.

2.  Picking A Topic

Too often we assign a piece of writing and assume that students can easily come up with a topic, however, this can be the most challenging aspect. Without a topic that motivates them, the rest of their writing will be a struggle. Ask students to think about a time when… they were challenged, felt grown-up, felt freedom, were scared, were proud, felt like they overcame something, experienced a life-changing event, were delirious with excitement, were profoundly sad… Not all students have had huge dramatic life moments, so I encourage them to think of something small and simple that they will remember forever. 

3.  Think Like A Story Teller

Writing a personal narrative is just like telling a story—there is an introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and a conclusion. If there is no problem to solve, no climax to their writing it is probably going to be a really boring narrative. A story about going camping is boring, but a story about getting lost in the woods, or coming face to face with a hungry bear is going to pique my interest. In order to help students with this aspect of their writing, I ask them to fill out a plot diagram before they begin writing. I want them to think of their writing as a story with a purpose. Grab a FREE copy HERE.  I've also included a FREE Writing Reference Sheet in the download.   Both pages are part of my full Narrative Writing Resource found HERE.

4.  Edit, Revise, Repeat...

Students love to think that they can sit down and write their narrative in one sitting.  Many believe that after a few checks of their spelling and grammar and they are "good to go".  I take as many opportunities as I can to work on editing and revising their work.  There is so much power in peer editing and in using mentor texts as examples.  If we don't show students examples of good narrative writing it can be challenging for them to understand where and how they need to improve.  

You can find many examples of narrative writing online, use examples from previous classes, write your own or ask other teachers at your school if they have examples.  Once we review the elements of a good narrative, it is easier to work on peer editing.  A key with peer editing is to only focus on one thing at a time.  For example, I will have students ONLY look for spelling errors, look for a climax, look for grammar errors, look for vivid verbs, look for varied sentence lengths...  This makes it easier for students to provide feedback, and it means that students get to read many different pieces of writing from their classmates.  

5. Give Students the Tools To Find Success

As you know some students can sit down and write an engaging narrative piece with very little help, but others require a lot more assistance.  I have learned over the years to provide all students with the pieces that they need to find success and that providing them with scaffolding for all of the writing steps allows all students to find success.  By guiding students step-by-step through the process from coming up with a topic, to planning, to reading mentor texts and editing, this resource will help your students start and finish a personal narrative.

My full NARRATIVE WRITING RESOURCE includes everything you need to lead students through the Narrative Writing process and it is something I use every year with my students.  It includes brainstorming worksheets, mentor texts, editing practice, rubrics, and more! Grab my FULL Narrative Writing Resource HERE!  Available in both PRINT and DIGITAL VERSIONS.

For more Narrative Writing Resources check out these activities from my amazing 
Secondary English Coffee Shop colleagues. 

Five Minute Fairytales - from The SuperHero Teacher
Snowball Writing Activity - from Presto Plans
Personal Narrative Assignment - from Teaching in Room 213
Narrative Essay (CCSS Aligned) - The Daring English Teacher
Memoir Unit - Secondary Sara

Building a Diverse Classroom Library in Middle & High School

Hello again-- The SuperHERO Teacher here to discuss the importance of DIVERSITY!!!
The quote, "books are companions, teachers, magicians, and bankers of the treasures of the mind.  Books are humanity in print" by Barbara Tuchman comes to mind when I think of building a diverse classroom library.  If books are humanity in print, then we, as teachers, need to represent EACH of out students from all walks of life! All of our students are experiencing something different, whether we know about it or not.  Whether it's sexual harassment, racism, bullying, abuse, suicidal thoughts, or a learning disability, everyone is experiencing their own grief, and building a diverse classroom library gives us the opportunity to help these students through challenging times with the art of literature.

Buying loads of books can be EXPENSIVE! It can be frustrating at times, because we want what's best for our students, but often times don't have the resources to get them.  Here are a few ideas for finding books for your library:

  1. THRIFT STORES are your best friend.  Seriously, hit up 5 or 6 in a day and you'll have to call your teacher friends to help you carry all of your books inside.  A lot of thrift stores even organize their books by age level, so you can head directly to the Young Adult Literature section and pick out all of the discounted books you need! 
  2. DISCOUNT BOOKS WEBSITES are your other best friend! Challenge: Go to and type in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  You can find new and used versions for as little as $3!!! 
  3. FRIENDS & FAMILY love to help.  Set up an Amazon Wish List or a DonorsChoose account and reach out to friends and family to help build your diverse classroom library.  Explain to them what you're trying to achieve and HOW it will help your students grow!  You'll be surprised how many people wish their teachers did the same for them and will generously donate toward the cause.  

Now that you have a few ways to fund your classroom library, it's time to start thinking about your students and how you can represent them through literature.  That can be tricky! I've already done the research, though, and I'm happy to share 60 young adult books that represent a variety of students!  Download the free poster to put in your library and the list of books here.  You'll find that each of these books focuses on a different topic that might have a direct impact on your students.  From The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime that features an incredible story about a mathematically gifted boy with Asperger's Syndrome to Luna, a story that follows the life of sixteen-year-old Regan as she keeps the secret of her older sister Luna's transgender identity-- this list of books is sure to include a taste of all different topics.  

Now that you have all of these incredible books to spoil your students with, independent reading is a must!  I'm a huge fan of independent reading and the positive impact it can have on students' love for literature.  I love using my "Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover" activity because it encourages students to look past the cover and truly see what's inside before judging-- just like we should encourage people to do when meeting others.  Simply wrap the books in paper, write a brief description on the outside of the paper about the overall concept of the book, and encourage students to select a book based on the description! My students LOVED it so much.  

Here are more diverse reading options for your students! 
I hope this blog post gives you a starting point for diversifying your classroom library more than you already have! All the best, The SuperHERO Teacher

Back to Top