SURVIVOR Citation Island: How to Host an MLA Game Show


Easing into March, we’re rounding the corner on research time (at least in my department). While research has become the most enjoyable part of my curriculum since launching the passion project, most of my colleagues seem to dread the research portion of their curriculum, finding it downright painful and cumbersome, with one of the more tedious components being citations.

For years, I struggled with how to effectively teach students how to correctly compile a works cited page and properly format in-text citations. I used to do worksheets and quizzes—the age-old drill-and-kill method—hoping at least some of it would stick, resigning myself to the fact that there are some parts of curriculum you just can’t make fun or interesting or engaging. In a word, it was pretty much awful.

Then one day I thought, why can’t it be fun? HOW can it be fun?? What if it was a game?!

I know this is probably pretty hokey, but I grew up watching the game show Survivor—I loved it. I loved the division of “tribes” and the puzzle challenges and the mix of group and independent competition. So I decided I would create a game to practice MLA citation, and I would model it off of Survivor.

Let me set the scene a little.

The board is decorated in enormous colorful letters, spelling out, “SURVIVOR: Citation Island.” The deep rhythmic drum of tribal music fills the room as the Survivor theme song blares from the speakers. Desks are arranged in groups of four or five, ready for tribe members to take their places. Students walk in with a mix of confused/curious/amused/weirded-out looks on their faces. And I, their Jeff Probst stand-in, await their arrival.

I ask the castaways (I go all out with the terminology and even try to dress like Probst) to gather at the front of the classroom. I explain that they have found themselves contestants on the new game show “SURVIVOR: Citation Island” and will be divided into tribes to compete for a grand prize. Before explaining the competition, I split them into tribes. One by one, they come up and draw their buffs (different colored hairbands in a paper bag) and join their tribes. After each student has been sorted into a tribe, I give them about five minutes to come up with a tribe name—some get pretty creative and some stick with the color of their hairbands. I write the names of each tribe on the board for the purposes of keeping score and begin to explain the first challenge.

Challenge One: The Works Cited Entry

The first challenge has three rounds (though you could do as many as you’d like). Each round focuses on a different type of source; I typically do the three most common ones my students use: a novel, a scholarly article, and a website. For each round, tribes receive a plastic baggy with a works cited citation cut up into slips of paper (i.e. “Title: The Hobbit” or “Place of Publication: Chicago”). I label each piece of information, but I do not include the punctuation or even italicize titles or use quotation marks—part of the challenge is being able to do all that correctly on their own. No one is allowed to open the baggy until all tribes have received one and the game show host shouts, “GO!” Using a quick guide cheat sheet, the first thing the tribe must do is look at the pieces and determine what kind of source they are working with, then they have to write out the works cited entry ABSOLUTELY CORRECT. One person in each tribe is responsible for this task, and once a tribe believes they have it written out correctly, they throw up their hands and the host goes to check their answers. I always stress to the other tribes to keep working, as this tribe may not have it written correctly. I check the tribe’s attempt against my answer sheet and if even one punctuation mark is incorrect, I’ll tell them they don’t have it and to try again. The renewed fury and speed with which every student in the classroom bends over those strips of paper is both amusing and intoxicating—they are all caught up in the rush of competition. Each attempt has to be a newly written entry, as it’s too difficult to read around all the scribbles and poor attempts at erasing mistakes. The first tribe to have a completely correct citation gets the point for the round, the pieces are collected, and round two is distributed. Typically, I start off with the easiest source and progress to the more complex.

Once we make it through the three rounds of the first challenge, we move to the second (and final) challenge.

Challenge Two: The Parenthetical Citation

For the second component of the game, each tribe must select one tribe member to come up to the front of the room to complete a challenge. I have arranged a row of desks at the front of the classroom and on each desk is a sealed envelope. Once the elected member of each tribe takes their seat, they are instructed to open the envelope and reveal the challenge. Out falls a small pile of puzzle pieces (I find these at Hobby Lobby and typically get circles to complicate the challenge a bit more). On each puzzle is written the same excerpt from an essay, utilizing a quote, but the parenthetical citation is empty. Below the excerpt is the necessary works cited entry. The tribe member must work entirely alone to assemble the jigsaw puzzle; his/her team can cheer them on, but they cannot help them in any way (to do so means immediate disqualification). Once the tribe member has the puzzle together (and you will laugh until your cheeks hurt at the hilarity of how difficult a 24 piece jigsaw puzzle apparently becomes when under pressure) his/her tibe-mates can race up to join them and solve the empty parenthetical citation. The first team to accomplish this correctly is awarded the points for the puzzle round.

For prizes, I give out candy—because who doesn’t love that?! The winning tribe members each get a little baggy with several pieces in it, but everyone gets two pieces for playing along and having fun.

I teach ninety-minute blocks, and it usually takes up my entire class period doing three rounds of the first challenge, followed by the puzzle round. This is ALWAYS, without fail, a tremendous hit in my classes, and it definitely goes a long way toward altering their attitudes about MLA citation. I hope you try it out and have a little fun–let me know how it goes!

WVCTE is wondering what new twists you put on an “old trick” to get your students engaged! Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Sarah Krause teaches Honors Sophomore English and Dual-Credit Senior English at Hurricane High School. Beginning her career as a full-time instructor for Marshall University, Sarah is entering her fifth year in public education. If she is not in the classroom, grading papers, or conducting research, Sarah enjoys working on developing her professional website and blog at You can also follow her on Twitter @teachtwdchange.