Posted in Favorite Teaching Moments, Tabletop Teacher

Adventures in the Role Play Classroom

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.

Student character sheet from Bell’s Academy

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.

pencil drawing is hard to see, but this is the third floor of the school.
Student A: Where are the bathrooms?
Student B: On the second floor.

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.

Posted in Favorite Teaching Moments

Favorite Teaching Moments: The Culmination of Teaching

 I often tell people that my job as an ESL teacher is to help students find their voices. February 6 was one of those moments that I truly felt like I had succeeded in this mission.

I started writing poetry in middle school, and I started performing in high school. It was something that has been a major part of my life for years, and I was lucky because there were adults in my life that encouraged me to do this and tried to cultivate my passion for writing. So when I moved to Arkansas and made friends with another poet who started hosting a local open mic, of course I attended. Several years later, I am now in the position of the adults who were around me when I was in high school. I have a student who loves to sing, and has a beautiful voice (even the choir teacher says so). He often sings in my class. And if we have five spare moments, he’ll pull out his guitar. It’s kind of soothing, actually, to be in the classroom with him playing and singing, and one day I thought, wait a minute, I know where this student can sing!

So I invited him to open mic. I told him he would have to drive himself, but he could follow me there, and he was welcome to invite anyone else to come. It’s a free event, two towns over, which is not a lot when you live in a rural area. The students were talking about it all week leading up to the event–he was going to sing, his friends were going to come watch. He even convinced another student to do a duet with him. We made an arrangement to meet at the school 30 minutes before the open mic. I pulled up about 15 minutes early and they were already there–four students, excited faces waving to me through the window. And I got out and did the adult thing. I checked that they had a licensed driver and gave them my phone number, so if anything happened on the way over, they could reach me. And I warned them that it might be tricky to find parking. It didn’t even feel like the responsible thing. It just felt like the normal everyday, looking after your friends sorta thing. Basically, I was pretty much treating them the same way I would treat adults. And, when you think about it, that’s what high school students want, more than anything.

We arrived at the venue. I introduced them to my friend who was hosting. Open mic was small because it had been raining, and like the Assimov short story “Rain, Rain, Go Away,” folks around here disappear when it rains. I read some fiction. My friend read a poem. Another guy read several short humorous poems, which my students seem to enjoy quite a bit. Another man read from his blog. And then my students sang. The two of them together. And the small crowd liked them enough that they asked for an encore. And my student sang another song, even though he was worried he didn’t know it very well. Then we ate pretzels and chatted, and went home. But watching my kids up there on stage, I thought, I am watching them use their voices. And I guess they enjoyed it because they told me I should have them sing at my wedding. And honestly? I would enjoy that.

It was nice to spend time with my students outside of school–for us to see each other as more than just teacher and students. I hope we get to do this again. And I hope that they continue to see that their voices are worth sharing with the world.

Posted in Favorite Teaching Moments

Favorite Moments in Teaching: I’m Bilingual Too

Apologies for the misleading title, I am not exactly bilingual. But throughout my life I’ve had a decent amount of exposure to other languages. I grew up in Gallup, New Mexico, where I was exposed to Spanish and Navajo (among other Native American languages), and I took 5 semesters of Spanish in high school and college. In college, I had multiple friends who spoke different languages, from Portuguese to Hindi to Yiddish. Perhaps my favorite language exposure to talk about is Lithuanian. My family hails (three generations back) from the small Baltic nation, and in 2009, I decided to go visit. I found a school to do a study abroad program, and spent the weeks leading up to the trip trying to learn Lithuanian. I tried a couple of different programs, but by far the most successful was a podcast called Lithuanian Out Loud. Unfortunately, I didn’t maintain my practice on a regular basis, and I’ve forgotten much of what I learned. My running joke to people is that I know enough Lithuanian to say “Atsiprašau, bet aš labai mažai suprantu lietuviškai,” or “I’m sorry, but I only understand a little bit of Lithuanian.”

I love Lithuania. And my deep connection to my cultural heritage is one way I bond with my students. I find that our immigrant and migrant students are often more interested in the world around them than their American peers. When I tell them I have relatives in Australia or a friend studying in China, they get excited and want to know more about it. So when I tell them about Lithuania, they ask questions. Where is it? What does it look like? How many people live there? For most of my students, this has definitely colored my personality.

But back to the fact that this title is misleading. I am not bilingual. I have limited conversational Spanish–about as good as my students’ English. And though I took Spanish in high school and college, most of my Spanish has developed out of a necessity to communicate with Spanish-speaking students who are new to the country and had little exposure to English at home. I recently joked to one of my students that I am good at talking about math in Spanish, but not much else. Except I was speaking in Spanish, so it probably sounded more like, “In Spanish… I know all the math words… but no others.” This is another part of my personality that my students have become familiar with. They know that I know some Spanish–enough that I can usually explain math–but for the most part, I will struggle to understand what they say. They sometimes try to use this to their advantage.

This is why, last year, when two of my students were having a conversation in Spanish at the beginning of class, one of them looked up at me and asked me a question in Spanish. He knew that I wouldn’t understand him, and he thought it would be funny to ask me a question that I couldn’t understand. So, without missing a beat, I smoothly responded, “Atsiprašau, bet aš labai mažai suprantu ispaniškai.” I am pretty sure my student gave me the face he was expecting to see from me.

“Miss Molly… what… what did you say? I don’t understand…”

This was, of course, met with raucous laughter from the other student in the conversation, who said, “that’s what you sound like to her!” And that was the end of the purposeful miscommunication.