Play Like a Pirate: Fun That Doubles Student Engagement

Part of several recent conversations that I’ve had with educators have focused on different levels of student engagement. We started each conversation by discussing the following matrix:


The different quadrants of the matrix ask students to think about how challenging a class is and whether they love or hate it. We use this to get usable data from middle and high school students by asking them to select one quadrant that best describes each of their classes. Our conversations with teachers centered on how they could use this collected data to help design high quality teaching and learning.

We chatted about what the word “challenging” actually looks like and how grit and rigor might figure into the matrix. One particularly intriguing question focused on how a mix of learning and the Uber business model might impact how kids complete the matrix. As in, “what would schools look like if kids were the Uber customers and schools were the Uber drivers?”

The scary thing that I realized after these conversations?

I think a ton of kids sit in classes that could easily fit in the Grind quadrant.

Part of the solution?

Get Quinn Rollins’ new book Play Like a Pirate: Engage Students with Toys, Games, and Comics. For although teaching and learning are not a simple processes, by using Quinn’s book the processes are made just a little bit easier. The book’s Amazon blurb might have been written specifically for our matrix conversation:

For some, school feels like a chore: boring, monotonous, necessary. But what if school were fun—for you and your students? What would life be like if you felt excited about your lessons? Better yet, what if your students actually looked forward to your class every day?


I had the chance to meet Quinn at a recent National Council for the Social Studies conference and have been using his ideas for integrating graphic novel ideas ever since. He knows what the brain research is telling us—when kids are both challenged and engaged, powerful learning results.

In Play Like a Pirate, Quinn walks you through a wide variety of ways to plan for student engagement as part of a teacher’s instructional design. He shares why toys such as Hot Wheels, Play-Doh and Barbies or action figures belong in the classroom; how to use board and video games and why graphic novels and comic strips aren’t just for fun. He talks about how to bring passion to the classroom and why it works, even if it isn’t related to your subject.

Play Like a Pirate includes practical strategies and QR codes that link to even more resources and templates that make it easy to integrate brain-based fun into student learning. It doesn’t matter what grade you teach, Quinn provides a variety of ideas and resources for different ages and grade levels.

Quinn starts off with five guiding principles:

  1. Make sure the fun applies to your content
  2. Don’t kill the fun
  3. Make the activities versatile
  4. Try out everything first
  5. Use toys you grew up with

I especially like that last one. There is nothing wrong with current toys, games and culture, but don’t think that your favorites won’t have an impact. When we share our favs and “gush about them,” Quinn says that “your enthusiasm will be contagious.”

The bottom line?

Teachers are going to put this book down and walk away smarter. They will have permission to use fun and engaging strategies that will also make their students smarter.

Be sure to bookmark Quinn’s website. Play Like a Pirate is part of the Teach Like a Pirate network of books and websites so he’s got even more goodies over there. Spoiler alert! One of his latest post focuses on how to use Little Green Army Men as part of learning—who doesn’t love Little Green Army Men? 

Using the ideas and suggestions found in Play Like a Pirate will help move our students from Bored to Engaged.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr, holgerblank.

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