This story published in the Miami Herald’s Business section Monday May 19, 2014. You can also read online. Photo by Carl Juste / Miami Herald
Miami Edison Senior High students are working to improve language and literacy with Word Avenger, a mobile app game that takes players on an intergalactic mission to shoot vocabulary words with matching definitions.
The students won the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge’s High School Track with their idea that stems from a struggle all-too-familiar to English language learners.
Gerlannda Asse moved from Haiti in 2010 when she was only 13, after the earthquake shook her hometown. She remembers feeling shy, lost and embarrassed in an unfamiliar place where not even her parents spoke the language.
“I would pray and pray that the teacher wouldn’t ask me a question, because I would have no idea what she was saying,” Asse said. “The dictionary didn’t give me definitions the way I wanted them.”
That discomfort motivated Asse, now 17 and a junior at Miami Edison, to create Word Avenger as a vocabulary practice tool that would be entertaining and easy to understand.
In October 2013, she developed the business plan as part of the school’s National Academy Foundation’s Academy of Finance and Entrepreneurship magnet’s partnership with the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship South Florida, which works with entrepreneurship programs in low-income communities.
“I doubted my idea like I doubt my English,” Asse said. “But I know if I’m struggling, my peers need help too.”
Asse, Word Avenger’s CEO, recruited three peers — who share stories similar to her own — to build the app.
Vice President Franceline Pierre-Louis, 17, said when she moved from Haiti in 2009, she learned most of her English from SpongeBob SquarePants. She wishes there had been a game like Word Avenger when she was a kid, she says, and wants to find a fun, interactive way for her younger siblings and cousins to learn vocabulary.
Pierre-Louis and her teammates continue to struggle with English on standardized tests.
“We’re good in math but we struggle with reading and vocabulary,” she said. “That’s the only reason we’re not an ‘A’ school.”
Assistant Principal Nadine Smith noted the difficulty in language and literacy among the predominantly English language-learning population at Miami Edison. In 2013, only 17 percent of ninth-grade students and 24 percent of 10th-grade students were rated proficient in reading based on the FCAT, while 53 percent of ninth graders were rated proficient in algebra and 53 percent of 10th graders were rated proficient in geometry.
Word Avenger’s president, Evanson Telisme, 18 and a senior at Miami Edison, said the team is using its strengths in math, science and business to solve problems in reading, writing and vocabulary.
“In Haiti, I was selling candy out of my backpack in middle school,” Telisme said. “We’re smart. We’re business people. But we struggle with English and vocabulary.”
Frantz Senat, 17 and a junior who is the CFO and team’s programmer, created the first version of Word Avenger in 2-D with English PSAT words using Construct 2, a free games editor for Windows that he taught himself to use.
Plans include different downloadable versions in 3-D and multiple languages for all school levels and standardized tests.
Players guide a spaceship through a meteor shower of words. When a definition is displayed, the player has 30 seconds to “destroy” the matching word. Words become more difficult with each level, and players have incentives like increased fire power and extra spaceships.
Business Plan Challenge judges called the game Candy Crush for words.
Yolette Mezadieu, the team’s advisor, said the game was actually modeled after her own experience playing Battlestar Galactica.
“I wanted to guide the students into STEM instead of traditional mom-and-pop ideas,” Mezadieu said. “I didn’t want them to be intimidated by computer science just like they shouldn’t be intimidated by vocabulary.”
Word Avenger will be available in both Google Play and Apple stores for 99 cents in September. The team’s goal: 156,000 global downloads in its first year of operation.
The team plans to reach high schools and students through Miami Edison’s partnership with NFTE, which awarded Word Avenger in its national World Series of Innovation competition this year with both the People’s Choice and Adjudicator’s Choice awards in the Literacy Game or App category.
Telisme will start college at the University of Kentucky in the fall, with plans to double major in business and mechanical engineering. Senat wants to study computer programming and Pierre-Louis is interested in business and entrepreneurship.
As for Asse, she has a long list of aspirations, including interests in fashion design, business and medical school.
“Ultimately, I want to help people,” Asse said.