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 Uncategorized

Why Teenagers Struggle with Metaphors

So, I saw this poster on similes and metaphors:

It has four sections: definition, purpose, quick memory tip, and examples. But here are the three examples for metaphor:

According to the poster’s own definition, a metaphor is “a comparison between two things that are nor alike and replaces the word with another word.”

Some examples I used when teaching my students are Shakespeare’s “Juliet is the sun.” Looking for something more familiar? Try Katy Perry’s “baby, you’re a firework.” And sure, while “the toast jumped out of the toaster” is an implied metaphor comparing toast to something that jumps–a frog, or a person, it’s not a good example for learning metaphor. And as for the others, what two different things are possibly being compared in “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” or “I told you a million times to clean your room”? Nothing. Because they’re not metaphors. They’re hyperbole, which is totally different.

Today’s lesson? Students struggle with metaphor because people who are supposed to be teaching it don’t even know what it is. Oh, and Your Dictionary is a terrible resource. Don’t use it.

Posted in Good Ideas, Tabletop Teacher

Feeling the End of the Year

Making mondays manageable

It’s May. Which means that I have been frantically locating graduation cards and gifts for my handful of seniors, and that I have such a bad post-testing burnout that I am actually putting more energy into plans for next year than in finishing out this one. It also means that I am spending most of my prep hour watching TED talks on education. One of my favorites so far:

What really stood out to be about this was “the default answer is yes.” I thought about how this would apply in my classroom. My first thought was that my students would say, “can we just play on our phones today?” And this, of course, makes me cringe. Of course, who knows? Maybe that would actually work out. My second thought was that my students have learned just how much I like games. So many a day, they say, “Can we play a game today?” And often, I do say yes. What if I always said yes? Actually, that sounds like a great class. And it sounds like a class that both myself and my students would enjoy. And speaking of games… here’s another TED Talk.

What’s interesting about this guy is that his voice is the reverse of his educational journey. He sounds bored with himself until about halfway through.

So my goal for the end of the year? I’m going to be play testing a what I am calling an RPC–Role Playing Classroom, which I am running through a powerpoint slideshow.

From RPC 1.1
I playtested version 1.0 with a class a couple of weeks ago, and what I learned is that the story doesn’t have to be that different. They’re still students at a school. Only now they have superpowers. And there are ghosts.

I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes.

Posted in Poetry, Tabletop Poetry (and Other Artforms)

30 in 30 Day 14: Things They Don’t Tell You in Teacher Training

Things They Don’t Tell You in Teacher Training

for Ian, Jeremiah, and Ezequiel

They don’t tell you
that playground altercations
will include such topics as
whether boys can shout
“no girls allowed”
on the bouncy car,
pushing too hard
on the swing set
and who gets to be
a cheetah lizard.
(and for that matter,
they do not tell you
what cheetah lizards are.)

They do not tell you
that seven year olds
can act as mature
as seventeen year olds
especially when you bribe them
with bubble gum.

Or that seventeen year olds
can act as mature
as seven year olds
especially when
you ask them
to put away their phones.

They don’t tell you
that high school students
can’t read clocks either.
Or write in cursive.
Though they do know how
to tie their shoes.

They don’t tell you
that kindergartners
also swear.
Or that they use swear words
in proper context.

They don’t tell you
that ninth graders
like band-aids just as much
as first graders
but they are less responsible
about where they put stickers.

They don’t tell you
how to teach consent.
They don’t warn you
about the boys who will try
to touch female students
even after the girls have said no.
They don’t prepare you
for the crying kindergartner
who just had a boy
pinch her bottom.

They don’t tell you
where to draw the line
on student-teacher confidentiality.
They don’t tell you
whether you should report
remarks from students
of teachers’ favoritism
on the basis of gender
or race.

They don’t recommend
that you open up
about your own problems
with depression.
They don’t tell you
how your students
may find inspiration
in the fact that you are alive.

They don’t tell you
to buy a black dress
or to learn how to say
“I’m sorry for your loss”
in Spanish.
Because you never know
when you might need these things.

They don’t remind you
that trouble comes in threes
and each time it will hurt more
than the last.

They don’t warn you
that guns can hurt
a student body
even when they are not fired
on school property.

They don’t tell you
just how complicated
diabetes can get,

They don’t tell you
that you can feel
the full weight
of a car crash
from another town.

They don’t tell you
that if it’s your student
you may find out
via text message.

They don’t describe
the way the air grows heavy
the next day
as soon as the bell rings.
Or just how empty
his chair will look.

They don’t tell you
that you are also
allowed to cry.

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.