Schools these days have a lot of trouble deciding what is acceptable for students to access online, and teachers often plan lessons only to find they are thwarted by technological blocks–like when I decided to make videos explaining parts of speech to students only to find out video streaming is not allowed in our school. But the one that bothers me more than anything else is “the category of games has been blocked.”
Now I get it, I do. I locked up my chrome book cart for a week because I was sick of my students getting on video games while I was leading class discussion. But I think we’re going about this all wrong. Because this message says games and school do not mix. Games are for home. When you come to school, you put the games away. But what we’re really saying is: school is supposed to be boring. Think about it. Games are fun. Games are so much fun that we play them for hours. We play them in the checkout line. We play them at the DMV. We play them in the car. We lose sleep telling ourselves, just one more level. Just one more level. Just one more level. Now imagine if you could make school like that. From day one of being a teacher, this has been my greatest goal in the classroom–make my class into a game. The proper term for this is “gamification.”
My most recent foray into this process lead me to create a classroom RPG. In case you don’t know, RPG means Role Playing Game. Think Dungeons and Dragons. It’s basically a method of co-operative storytelling, using dice to determine positive and negative outcomes. There are lots of different RPGs out there, but I made one up, trying to keep things simple for my students. I invented a fictional world (Bell’s Academy for Superheroes), wrote some scenarios, made some character sheets, and gave it a whirl with my students.
Now, I thought the game was pretty clever. In most RPGs, the characters have stats–numerical values that represent how good they are at something. Stats are usually broad categories, like charisma, strength, and wisdom. These make different things easier or harder for your character to do, or give you bonuses. You generally role dice to determine your stats. In my game, my students had stats in six broad areas–pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, and speaking–and rather than rolling dice, they ranked themselves in each area on a scale of 0-3. Then, instead of rolling dice to determine how successful characters are at what they do, we used flashcards and assignments to determine success. The stats became attack bonuses–providing extra damage when fighting monsters. Oh, and I laminated the character sheets so we could use dry erase markers on them. I thought this was a particular stroke of genius.
So I handed out the character sheets, and began a role playing game with a group of students who not only have never heard of Dungeons and Dragons, they don’t know what either of those words mean. I test drove it for a week with two different classes and had some fascinating results…
In one class, students began to self-regulate, telling each other to put their phones away because they wanted to play the game.
I also learned that I didn’t need much of a story line. One day, my students’ characters did nothing but go to class. And they still had fun.
And then there were the characters.
One student decided to play Queen Elsa, from Frozen, but she had a secret pet dragon. Another decided shIt also gets students reflecting on their personal values. For example, I presented my students with this scenario: you overhear some teachers talking in the hall about a student who got attacked in the library. Do you follow them and find out more, or do you go to class? Every single one of my students decided to go to class. Every single one of them. I never would have done that. I absolutely would have followed the teachers. And what does that tell you about me versus my students, about who actually thinks school is important?
e had the power of evaporation. A third chose the power of translation. And because she actually helps translate for new students, she didn’t bother to imagine herself with a new superpower–she recognized the one she already had. Other students reflected on their actual lives entertaining, if less poignant, ways, like the students who decided their weaknesses were food.
The game also had students reflecting on their personal values. For example, I presented my students with this scenario: you overhear some teachers talking in the hall about a student who got attacked in the library. Do you follow them and find out more, or do you go to class? Every single one of my students decided to go to class. Had I been playing rather than running the game, I absolutely would have followed the teachers. And what does that tell you about me versus my students, and who actually thinks school is important?
Now, this is not to say there were not problems. For example, what do you do when one of your students writes invicible for their superpower?
Or when you give your players a map of their location only for them to tell you there’s no bathroom.
Or if, in the middle of a battle, instead of fighting the monster, your student offers it tacos? I like to imagine this as a real-life scenario. You’re in class. A monster materializes out of nowhere, throws a book at a student. Half the class goes running in terror, the other half tries to kill the monster, and then this girl walks right up to it and says, “would you like some tacos? I’ve got some salsa too.” And the best part is? This is the student that the monster threw the book at.
We talk a lot about autonomy and creativity, and the RPC is a great mechanism for these. The open-ended question of “a monster attacks you, what do you do?” means that students can come up with literally any solution. And sure, if it’s too open-ended, you can always say, “do you want to fight it or run away?” Now when I set about creating this storyline, I drew on gothic literature, and I wanted to incorporate this theme of not letting your emotions control you–because that’s an important life skill. But my student beat me at my own game! She decided that when faced with a conflict, rather than respond with aggression or fear, she would respond with generosity. And she didn’t get there by sitting in a desk and taking notes. She got there by playing a game.