An Exploration of D&D and TRPGs

Introduction

In February, I posted a blog entry in which I proposed using the Tabletop Role-Playing Game (TRPG) Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) as a text in English Language Arts classes. You can view the post in its entirety here, but for those who may not want to do that, I’ll briefly introduce the text before proceeding.

Dungeons & Dragons is the world’s first fantasy role-playing game, introduced in 1974 by creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (What Is D&D?, 2017). Players create and enact characters who will navigate the world of a story together. This world is narrated by a Dungeon Master (DM), who provides narrative cues, asks players what actions they will take (framed as the question “What do you do?”), and reveals the results of actions. When a player wants to initiate an action, he or she typically must make a dice roll to see whether that action was successful, adding an element of chance and unpredictability to the storyline. Characters may die throughout the narrative, but players may create new characters and therefore stay involved. Whether or not the party “succeeds” in their quest or mission, there are no losers, for a story is created and experienced regardless.

In this post, I will expand upon my exploration of the Tabletop Role Playing Game genre, turning to research that has been conducted about the genre or its players. I will be focusing primarily on Dungeons & Dragons, but my comments should be generally applicable to other Role Playing Games, such as video games, other Tabletop Role-Playing Games, and even murder mystery parties.

 

Scholarly Discussion

Although it may seem like a niche area, Tabletop Role-Playing Games have actually been the subject of academic study since the 1980s, and so a wide (and quickly expanding) body of research about the genre exists. D&D has been around for a fairly long time, but is still being talked about in new ways in academia and other mediums like podcasts, YouTube videos, and blogs. In June of 2016, I attended a talk at the University of Victoria’s Digital Humanities Summer Institute in which Anastasia Salter discussed D&D as a feminist space for gaming, as it allows for female characters that are agents and that transcend typical boundaries often placed on women in static texts. She also revealed that the game did not begin as this inclusive, showing the audience evidence of a “harlot” encounter that was written into the game early on. This lecture was one of the first things that really piqued my interest in Dungeons & Dragons as a topic for research and a potential teaching material. If one could bring gender studies into D&D, what else could be brought in? Below, I summarize some of the recent research on D&D and TRPGs that effectively outlines the chief affordances I believe such a game could have in an English Language Arts classroom.

Jennifer Grouling Cover (2010) explores the narrative and social structure of TRPGs, looking at the genre as a cross-disciplinary entity that engages with narrative, linguistic, cultural, and writing studies (p. 6-7). Grouling Cover (2010) emphasizes the interactivity of D&D, noting that “there are different endings depending on the actions of the players” and that the players can “add to the world and story that surrounds them” (p. 30). The open-ended nature of the question posed by the DM (“what do you do?”) allows the narrative to progress uninfluenced by the Dungeon Master, and even though players can make decisions, the outcomes of their choices are still determined by dice rolls (Grouling Cover, 2010, p. 31). Furthermore, the collaborative nature of Dungeons & Dragons allows players to explore multiple narrative directions, diverging from a single, linear storyline (Grouling Cover, 2010, p. 32). Grouling Cover (2010) proposes a model for TRPGs that outlines the different frames and levels of narrativity that players become engaged in throughout a session (p. 95). The highest level of narrative engagement is within the world of the “narrative frame” (i.e. the world of the story, including DM narration and character speech). Below that is the “game frame” (i.e. the aspects of gameplay, including dice rolls and suggested actions), and lastly, the “social frame” (i.e. the moments when players interact with each other, such as when they negotiate rules, comment on the game, or simply engage in conversation) (Grouling Cover, 2010, p. 94). For Grouling (2010), D&D is an innovative way for people to engage with story: “Spatial, temporal, and emotional immersion work together in the TRPG to give the player a narrative experience” (p. 107).

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While Grouling Cover primarily focuses on the narrative interactivity of D&D, Sarah Lynne Bowman (2010) focuses on the social interactivity of RPGs in general, arguing that RPGs give players the change to develop “personal, interpersonal, cultural, cognitive, and professional skills” (p. 179). Bowman (2010) brings up the social stigmas surrounding RPGs, noting that many players have self-identified as being societal “misfits” who have found friendship through fantasy gaming (p. 68). Bowman argues that RPGs aid in empathy training, as the games cause players to enact and interact with character-types with whom they may not normally relate; thus, players gain the opportunity to see through new perspectives and may begin to apply this skill to their lives (2010, p. 59). RPGs may also aid in developing skills for problem solving in social contexts, as each character must navigate conflicts and overcome obstacles collaboratively (Bowman, 2010, p. 104). If players can recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each party member, including themselves, they can work together to negotiate challenges more effectively (Bowman, 2010, p. 116). Bowman (2010) ends by discussing RPGs and their role in identity exploration, arguing that RPGs are a venue in which players can “‘try on different hats’ of selfhood” free of societal judgements (p. 127).

C. Wright, D. E. Weissglass, and V. Casey (2017) argue along with Bowman that Role-Playing Games like D&D may aid in social development. Wright, Weissglass, and Casey (2017) recently conducted a study which has suggested that imaginative role-play can promote the moral development of players when social and/or moral dilemmas are built into the gameplay (p. 1). Their study stands out due to their inclusion of two control groups who did not engage in gameplay and did not show any growth in moral development (in contrast with the players of RPGs, who demonstrated great growth in their moral development) (Wright, Weissglass, & Casey, 2017, p. 1).

The final bit of RPG discussion that I will include in this post considers RPGs as instructional tools for life. In a heartwarming colloquium lecture geared towards the parents of RPGers, Ulrich A. K. Betz (2011) highlights several “business and management principles” that RPGs can teach both children and adults (p. E117). These principles are as follows:

  1. To be successful you need a team – it is very difficult to succeed alone
  2. To be successful you need diversity – we do not need to be the same
  3. To be successful, you need to agree on the fundamentals – we need to share the same values and visions
  4. Work can be fun – as long as it is not an obsession
  5. Learn and grow – what is impossible today will be possible tomorrow
  6. Manage your downside risk – things will happen that nobody (or at least you) did not foresee
  7. You can make a difference; you can change the world

Like the other scholars I have discussed above, Betz (2011) focuses on the interpersonal and intrapersonal skills that players have the opportunity to develop while participating in fantasy role-play. The lessons he sees embedded in the gameplay are collaboration and communication, problem solving, self-regulation, and growth of self-efficacy. And, by pointing out that RPGs can help children as well as adults, Betz draws attention to the enduring nature of these skills and how they connect to lifelong learning.

 

Conclusion

Even a cursory glance into the body of research about TRPGs reveals a few key themes. In this post, I have picked out 3 studied benefits that D&D could have in an English Language Arts classroom. TRPGs could add value to an English classroom by encouraging the following in students:

  1. Rethinking narrative structures: divisions between authorship and readership are broken down and narrative becomes interactive. Players can have direct effects on storyline and therefore can become engaged in more meaningful ways, actively contributing rather than passively absorbing material. Because multiple players can pursue diverging plots, students/players can observe the creation of a complex, non-linear narrative.
  2. Practicing interpersonal skills: Students/players must collaborate with each other and communicate if they wish to be successful in gameplay. The multiplayer nature of D&D (and most TRPGs) encourages players to learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, taking advantage of characters’ assets and compensating for weaknesses. Because players enter different perspectives, TRPGs can be an effective way to teach empathy.
  3. Developing intrapersonal skills: By allowing students to “become” characters, TRPGs provide opportunities to explore different identities and “try out” different worldviews, ethics, beliefs, and so on in a non-judgmental context. In their attempts to work towards certain targets, players develop skills like goal-setting, self-reflection, and self-moderation.

What stands out to me the most about much of the research is that the benefits that researchers are finding apply in a cross-disciplinary way; skills are developed within the space of an RPG and carried forward into the players’ lives. The benefits also largely connect to BC’s new curriculum, hitting on all of the core competencies that BC Education wishes to foster in its students (i.e. communication, creative thinking, critical thinking, positive personal & cultural identity, personal awareness & responsibility, and social responsibility) (Core Competencies, 2016). This text form would work especially well in an English Language Arts class due to its affordances in narrative engagement; however, TRPGs could be used in any classroom that wishes to develop those core competencies in students.

Although a mere gameplay description cannot capture the many, many nuances and interactions of a session of D&D, I’d like to conclude my post by rooting the above themes within the game itself. D&D’s current story (Storm King’s Thunder, 2017) is described as follows on their website:

“Hill giants are stealing all the grain and livestock they can while stone giants have been scouring settlements that have been around forever. Fire giants are press-ganging the smallfolk into the desert, while frost giant longships have been pillaging along the Sword Coast. Even the elusive cloud giants have been witnessed, their wondrous floating cities appearing above Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate. Where is the storm giant King Hekaton, who is tasked with keeping order among the giants?

The humans, dwarves, elves, and other small folk of the Sword Coast will be crushed underfoot from the onslaught of these giant foes. The only chance at survival is for the small folk to work together to investigate this invasion and harness the power of rune magic, the giants’ weapon against their ancient enemy the dragons. The only way the people of Faerun can restore order is to use the giants’ own power against them.”

Even in this brief description, one can begin to see the themes that emerge in the research that has been done on TRPGs and D&D. The collaborative nature of the game is highlighted (the “small folk” must “work together”), along with critical thinking skills (“to investigate”), creative thinking skills (how can they begin to restore order?) and intrapersonal skills (what is my character’s place in this conflict? what can I do to help?). And, of course, it is an engaging narrative that the students can enter and help shape.

In this post, I have only covered a fraction of the discussions that have happened and are happening about D&D and TRPGs; however, it is clear that much research exists that argues for these games as learning tools. And I, for one, am very excited to bring D&D into my classroom one day.


References:

Betz, U. A. K. (2011). What fantasy role-playing games can teach your children (or even you). British Journal of Educational Technology 42(6).

Bowman, S. L. (2010). The functions of role-playing games: how participants create community, solve problems, and explore identity. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Devilla, J. (2008). The “Random Harlot Table” from the original Dungeon Master’s Guide. Global Nerdy. Retrieved from http://www.globalnerdy.com/2008/03/05/the-random-harlot-table-from-the-original-dungeon-masters-guide/

Grouling Cover, J. (2010). The creation of narrative in tabletop role-playing games. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Storm King’s Thunder. (2017). Dungeons & Dragons. Retrieved from http://dnd.wizards.com/dungeons-and-dragons/story/storm-kings-thunder

Wright. J. C., Weissglass, D. E., and Casey, V. (2017). Imaginative role-playing as a medium for moral development: Dungeons & Dragons provides moral training. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. 1-31.

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Selecting a Non-Standard Text for English Language Arts Classes

Introduction

The new English curriculum being implemented in British Columbia, in its broad approach to learning, allows teachers to become more experimental in their teaching methods and materials. Teachers can use whichever texts they desire in order to reach the prescribed learning standards for each grade level. Many English Language Arts classes have challenged the notion of “text” prior to this curriculum, already; even when I was in high school, I can recall my Language Arts teachers using videos, songs, and advertisements as well as the more standard novels, plays, and poetry. And, even though I am a huge fan of the “typical” texts that one might look at in an English class, I have always found it refreshing to depart from the norm. Why limit yourself to written text when there is a whole world out there to interpret and learn from? In this post, I will clarify what I mean by “text” and discuss the process of selecting a text for the new English Language Arts curriculum, looking at Learning Standards, Learning Domains, and different classroom contexts. Finally, I will justify my own text selection, Dungeons and Dragons, as having a place in English Language Arts classrooms.

 

What is a “text”?

If you were randomly asked to name a text, you would most likely name the title of a work that falls under the standard definition of the term, which is this:

“The wording of anything written or printed; the structure formed by the words in their order; the very words, phrases, and sentences as written.” (“text”, Oxford English Dictionary).

The Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.) simply identifies text as something that is written, and therefore encompasses the novels, plays, and poetry that are so common in English classrooms. What if we were to play with this definition, though? Suppose a text was understood on broader terms, such as “something that is read,” shifting the focus from what it is to how we interact with it. Rather than simply relating to writing, the verb “to read” is defined by the O.E.D. as “to consider, interpret, [or] discern.” Text, then, could be understood as “something that is considered, interpreted, or discerned.” When we use a definition like this, shifting focus from what a text looks like to how we interact with it, the options for textual study become endless. The new B.C. English Curriculum takes a similarly broad approach to text, defining it as “all forms of oral, written, visual, and digital communication.”

 

Selecting an Alternative Text: the Whats, Whys, and Hows

Firstly, I want to be clear: I find nothing inherently wrong with using standard forms of text in high school classrooms, and I plan to use several of them; however, I do see something wrong with refusing to use new forms of text simply to avoid stepping outside of what is comfortable. If we expect our students to move beyond their comfort zones as they are learning, we, as teachers, should be willing to do the same.

Educational Psychology shows us that students will be more likely to retain information that they experience, and the more “codes” the information is presented in (for example, combining a visual code with an auditory one, and so on), the higher that likelihood of retention becomes. Research also tells us that student engagement increases when teaching resources are varied. It would seem apt, then, to vary the kinds of text types we ask students to analyze in the English Language Arts classroom, departing from a 100% written text-based model. Further than this, I argue that by pushing the boundaries of what we consider as text, we can more effectively teach our students. Below, I will summarize a few textual and educational theories before talking about them in relation to the new English curriculum and briefly explaining how I have used these theories to identify an “alternative” text that I hope to use in my own classroom one day.

In Louise Rosenblatt’s 1988 transactional theory of reading and writing, Rosenblatt argues that reading is not merely a passive activity but that it involves a transaction between text and reader; when a reader becomes involved with a text, he or she “composes” an “interpreted meaning” (Rosenblatt 2): “Every reading act is an event, a transaction involving a particular reader and a particular configuration of marks on a page,[1] and occurring at a particular time in a particular context” (4). Readers bring their own experiences to a text and form meaning based on several factors that are external to the text itself. Therefore, shifting the context of reading will shift a reader’s interpretation of the text.

This notion of transaction between reader and text becomes even more salient when considering Linda Hutcheon’s work Theory of Adaptation, in which she argues that there are three different modes of engagement with text: Telling, Showing, and Interacting.[2] The first mode, Telling, involves reading the written word (e.g. novels, poems, etc.). The Showing mode involves a viewer who watches and hears a text (e.g. viewing a play, watching a film, etc.). Finally, the Interacting mode involves the actual physical participation of the reader; he or she must be involved in the text in a corporeal way (e.g. games, fieldtrips, etc.).[3] Related to the above is Bloom’s taxonomy, which divides learning into three separate domains: cognitive (i.e. content knowledge and intellect), affective (i.e. attitude and emotions), and psychomotor (i.e. physical movement and motor skills).[4]

If one considers these different types of engagement and different domains of learning, one can begin to see where a “typical” English classroom may have some gaps for its students. Specifically, English classes tend to miss the Interactive mode of engagement and the psychomotor domain of learning, too often asking students to read written texts while sitting in desks. More innovative teachers may arrange for students to attend a play, or even act one out as a class, allowing their students to engage with a text physically; however, these experiences seem to be in the minority.

One challenge that teachers may encounter in the next few years is that certain competencies in the new English Language Arts curriculum simply cannot be reached with traditional, written texts. For the purpose of this blog post, I will refer specifically at the English 12 documents; however, my comments here should be applicable to the 10-12 draft English curricula. Written texts cannot teach about oral storytelling and cannot teach about things like multimodal texts, two competencies that feature in the new curriculum. Furthermore, learning contexts are playing heavily into today’s classrooms, with personalized learning being a necessary strategy in order to accommodate diverse learners, learning exceptionalities, and students’ interests. Written texts may not be the best medium to engage with the highest amount of students.

 

My Chosen Text: Dungeons & Dragons

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Image from “Dungeons & Dragons” Wikipedia page

Based on these gaps in engagement levels and curricular standards, the text type I have chosen to explore this term is Dungeons and Dragons. An alternative text that addresses the psychomotor domain and interactive mode of engagement seems a necessary inclusion, and the benefits of bringing something like Dungeons and Dragons into an English classroom are numerous. Dungeons & Dragons is a tabletop roleplaying game in which players become characters and work together (or against each other) to accomplish particular missions in a fantasy world. Characters develop as the game goes on, and outcomes of their decisions are determined by rolling dice. Firstly, even the official D&D website acknowledges the story-based nature of the game, stating, “The core of D&D is storytelling. You and your friends tell a story together, guiding your heroes through quests for treasure, battles with deadly foes, daring rescues, courtly intrigue, and much more.” Every storyline is narrated by a Dungeon Master, and each is unique because of the spur-of-the-moment decisions and dice rolls.

Using Dungeons & Dragons (or games like it) as a text in English challenges students to reconsider what “text” is, directly supporting the competency “Recognize an increasing range of text structures and how they contribute to meaning.” Using an alternative text like this shows the multimodality of stories and gets students to think about how stories may exist in different contexts and for different audiences. Because the story evolves in real time and plot develops as a direct result of students’ decisions, the game can support competencies that have to do with personal connections to text. Interpersonal skills like communication, support, and understanding are put at the forefront of roleplaying games: students will be forced to develop oral language skills and be able to respectfully communicate with one another. They can physically enact characters and engage with plot in an interactive way, supporting experiential learning and understanding text from the inside (rather than as a passive observer). And, perhaps most obviously, using a text that incorporates gameplay encourages students to enjoy stories.

I have included three charts (Learning Domains, Text Features, and Course Content) to outline some of the many, many affordances that Dungeons & Dragons could have in an English Language Arts classroom.

 

LEARNING DOMAINS: AFFORDANCES OF DUNGEONS & DRAGONS:
COGNITIVE -construction of plot

-creation of characters

-integration of some math (numbers on dice)

-accessible to diverse learners (not all written)

-metacognitive process of seeing a story being created in real time

-problem solving

AFFECTIVE -personal investment in characters

-real feeling of risk, loss, thrill

-reacting to events

-can take on emotions & attitude of character (& experiment feeling emotions they may not normally feel)

PSYCHOMOTOR -rolling of dice (to simulate risk)

-speaking aloud

-students acting in character to their comfort level

-navigating challenges of the storyline

-seeing other students acting as characters

 

TEXT FEATURES: AFFORDANCES OF DUNGEONS & DRAGONS:
CONTENT -quest can be personalized to a particular topic

-character development

-plot development

-process of playing the game addresses several competencies (see “Course Content” chart below)

 

FORMAT -oral language

-character charts

-handbook

-different roles (Dungeon Master, player characters, non-player characters)

UTILITY -accessibility of format

-franchise has multiple means of engagement (game, novels, video games, podcasts, articles, videos)

-character charts (graphic organizer for character creation)

STYLE -engaging storylines

-level can be adjusted to the specific learners

-communication and cooperation between players

 

COURSE CONTENT: AFFORDANCES OF DUNGEONS & DRAGONS:
“BIG IDEAS” “The exploration of text and story deepens our understanding of diverse, complex ideas about identity, others, and the world”

-“People understand text differently depending on their worldviews and perspectives”

LEARNING STANDARDS/ CURRICULAR COMPETENCIES -“Read for enjoyment”

-“Recognize and appreciate … oral tradition”

-“Apply appropriate strategies in a variety of contexts to comprehend … texts”

-“Recognize and appreciate how various forms, structures, and features of texts reflect a variety of purposes, audiences, and messages”

-“Recognize how language constructs personal, social, and cultural identity”

-“Construct meaningful personal connections between self, text, and world”

-“Respond to text in personal, creative, and critical ways”

-“Recognize an increasing range of text structures and how they contribute to meaning”

-“Demonstrate speaking and listening skills”

-“Respectfully exchange ideas and viewpoints from diverse perspectives to build shared understanding and extend meaning”

-“Presentation techniques”; “Oral language strategies”

-“Elements of … texts”

CORE (CROSS-CURRICULAR) COMPETENCIES -Communication

-Creative Thinking

-Critical Thinking

-Positive Personal Identity

-Personal Awareness and Responsibility

 

Conclusion

Many of the goals of English Language Arts classes could arguably be reached without turning to a single piece of writing; however, the reverse cannot be true. We are living in a time where the curricular standards for English Language Arts have somewhat outgrown written texts. Because of learning standards that tie to things like oral storytelling and multimodal literacies, teachers must be ready to bring alternative text types into their classes. While I have focused on Dungeons and Dragons in this post, other interactive text types (such as Murder Mysteries, Choose Your Own Adventures, Video Games, etc.) may fulfill similar learning standards.

 

[1] Here, Rosenblatt speaks specifically about written forms of text.

[2] http://www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/house_text_museum/peeters.htm

[3] http://adaptations.wikia.com/wiki/Linda_Hutcheon,_A_Theory_of_Adaptation_(2006)

[4] http://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/assessment/domains.html

Learning through Gaming

This afternoon, a group of middle school students visited our Technology Innovation in Education class (EDCI336) to show us about Minecraft. For this group of students, Minecraft is a big part of their education — they play it in class and in a club, and have obviously formed tight connections with each other as a result.

Although I don’t know very much about the game itself (and was barely functional playing it today), the benefits of bringing something like this into a class were immediately obvious to me. The students’ teacher told us about some of the amazing things that the group has tried and accomplished in the past: navigating using x and y coordinates, starting up businesses, replicating the Saanich coast, trading resources, and creating new challenges for players to navigate. The students even initiated an election in their club in order to establish clear leaders and roles. And, perhaps even more impressively, they all came to a university to present their work to pre-service teachers… imagine being able to say that you’ve been a guest lecturer at a university by Grade 6!

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Screenshot from our group exploring Minecraft

The advice we were given today is this: in whatever school you end up teaching at, find the students who are already doing these types of things and get them to take on leadership roles. In this instance, the teacher knew very little about Minecraft before including it in her classes, but the endeavour was highly successful because of her students.

This term, I’ve been especially interested in using games as educational tools, so this lesson on Minecraft was a huge highlight for me.


Here are a couple other games I’ve discovered this term, which I hope to use in my English classes in the future:

The Great Gatsby for NES (which is actually a free computer game) allows you to navigate the world of The Great Gatsby Mario-style, avoiding obstacles, powering up with items, and accomplishing small tasks in each level (e.g. “Find Gatsby”).

Pride and Prejudice Game requires a free download, but allows you to explore Austen’s fictional world.

 

A Unit Plan for Teaching a Text with Varied Technology

Example text: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

NOTE: This example unit assumes that students have completed reading The Great Gatsby prior to Class 1. Technology-based activities are highlighted in bold font.

 

CLASS             ACTIVITIES & RESOURCES                     LEARNING OBJECTIVES

1 Discuss characters in TGG. Students create Facebook profile pages for character of choice: Nick, Jay, Daisy (or other). -“Think critically, creatively, and reflectively to explore ideas within, between, and beyond texts”

 

2 Discussion of 1920s economics: Old money vs. new money, effects of WWI, changes in technology & psychology, experimental writing. Where do we see these themes in the text? -“Recognize and identify the role of personal, social, and cultural contexts, values, and perspectives in texts”

-“forms, functions, and genres of texts”

3 Viewing of Luhrmann’s 2013 film. Give students handout with guiding questions. -“Recognize and appreciate how various forms, structures, and features of texts reflect a variety of purposes, audiences, and message”

-“elements of visual/ graphic texts”

4 Finish movie. Discussion: How is the film different from the text? How is it the same? What is the director’s thesis statement about TGG? -“Synthesize ideas from a variety of texts/sources”
5 Theme song activity. Hand out lyrics of Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” from film. Students consider how the meaning of the song differs from or is the same as the original text. Group Work Activity: what theme song would you choose for TGG? Why? -“Synthesize ideas from a variety of texts/sources”

-“forms, functions, and genres of texts”

 

6 In computer lab, students generate word clouds in Voyant. Teacher models with lyrics from song last day; students input TGG. Free time to experiment with Voyant functions. -“Apply appropriate strategies in a variety of contexts to comprehend written, oral, visual, and multimodal texts; guide inquiry; and extend thinking”

-“reading strategies”

7 In computer lab, students play The Great Gatsby Game for NES. Handout with guiding questions. What aspects of TGG does this game emphasize? If you made a game for TGG, what would it look like? -“Recognize an increasing range of text structures and how they contribute to meaning” -“Transform ideas and information to create original texts, using new or unfamiliar genres forms, structures, and styles”

-“elements of visual/ graphic texts”

 

8 Free time for working on projects (short paper on one of the activities from this unit). -“Express and support an opinion with credible evidence”

 

 

Diving Into Inquiry with Trevor MacKenzie

Field trips are great at any level of schooling. They let you take what you’ve been learning and see how it applies in a real-world setting. Our trip to Trevor MacKenzie’s English classroom in Oak Bay High School was no exception to this; we’ve been discussing inquiry-based learning in our Education classes for about a month and a half now, but (other than the flex classes I’ve observed) haven’t really seen the practice in action at the high school level.

Trevor’s class is designed around inquiry. He has graphics on the walls to make the inquiry process clear to his students, and even the room itself, which has a transparent garage door that is always open, reflects his open approach to learning. Spending the afternoon discussing inquiry-based learning and asking questions about the logistics of implementing it really helped me wrap my head around how I might begin to develop a class with inquiry as its focus. By recording details of my time there, I hope to illuminate the process of creating an inquiry-based classroom for others. Graphics in this blog post are from Trevor’s book, Dive Into Inquiry.

Trevor explained his path to free inquiry as a scaffolded approach where he does a gradual release of responsibility. In the first quarter of the year, he designs topics and inquiries, bringing in resources that will help the class form an answer together. This year, his first inquiry is “what are stories and why are they important?” In the second quarter, he will begin to release some responsibility to his students, allowing them to have some control in the inquiry process. They are given even more responsibility in the third quarter, choosing an inquiry topic off a list and creating their own assessment piece. Finally, in the final quarter of the year, Trevor allows students to choose their own inquiry topic and their own assessment piece.

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We were shown examples of student learning that evolved from his Free Inquiry unit, and they were impressive. At first glance, some of the projects didn’t seem to have much to do with English literature; however, once Trevor explained that students all wrote a personal narrative essay along with handing in a final project, it was clear that his students were still meeting the learning standards, and in many cases, exceeding them. He shared inspiring stories of seemingly unengaged students who stepped up to the plate when they were allowed to pursue topics that they were passionate or curious about, or (in the case of students who haven’t yet discovered a passion) who were allowed to work toward a specific goal or challenge.

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One thing that struck me about Trevor’s English class is how it so naturally became a cross-curricular environment. We know that not all students in English are going to become English majors, and that not all Science students will become Science majors, &c. Why, then, would we try to make our teaching subject “pure” in the sense that it doesn’t spill over to other subjects? Life is by its very nature cross-curricular. If a student wants to be a mechanic, shouldn’t we support that endeavour to some extent in every subject? By allowing students to pursue whatever they want in the Free Inquiry unit, they can tie English to other areas, thereby becoming more engaged with their assignment and producing work that is meaningful to them, often of a higher quality than an assigned piece.

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The graphic above is the project proposal that Trevor uses in the last quarter of the year. He goes over each proposal and discusses the assessment criteria with each student so they have a clear idea of what they are working towards. Near the end of the year, Trevor gives lots of free time for students to work on their project in class. If they are unable to complete work in class, he asks to see regular proof of learning (via video, blog, or another medium); as he pointed out to us, just because a student isn’t in class, doesn’t mean learning isn’t happening.

Students are engaging with a variety of literacies when they pursue their own topics: digital, inter- and intrapersonal, oral, physical, and more. Digital literacy in particular is something that Trevor takes time to discuss with his class, as it’s a huge part of today’s world. All of his students have blogs, and they discuss creating a professional online presence as well as networking and finding good sources (all of which are built into the above proposal graphic). The diversity of literacies is nicely on display in the final projects. To see examples of student work in his Free Inquiry model, visit Trevor’s blog.


Takeaways from Trevor MacKenzie’s Class:

(1) More freedom requires more support. Scaffold so that students aren’t thrown into the deep end of Inquiry. Model the approach as a class before gradually releasing responsibility, and always be there to help them.

(2) Develop relationships with your students. You can’t personalize learning if you don’t know your students as people. Figure out what they are interested in by assigning short writing assignments (e.g. “What are you passionate about?”), by conducting short interviews (e.g. “Where do you want to be in three years?” “What are your hobbies?”), or by bringing in resources that may spark curiosities. Then allow students to pursue those interests in their assessment pieces.

(3) Don’t limit your students to typical topics for your subject area. Allow them to ask questions about anything they are interested in, and if you are uncomfortable assessing a piece, involve professionals or other teachers in your school. Embrace the cross-curricular nature of student inquiry.

(4) Frontload the curricular learning objectives so students have time to pursue their own projects in Free Inquiry.

(5) Bring attention to the different skills and literacies that the students are engaging with at each step of the Inquiry process. Spend time discussing digital literacy and helping students navigate the internet in a professional way. Be willing to see certain skills manifest in unexpected ways (e.g. communication skills may be represented in video rather than an essay format).

EdCampVic

On October 15, 2016, I attended EdCampVic with many other preservice teachers. It was such a neat way to interact with a variety of experienced education professionals, from K-12 school teachers, to EAs, to university professors, and beyond. EdCamp is an “unconference,” set up in a democratic way so that attendees can suggest and vote for topics of discussion. There are no papers or presentations given in the sessions; instead, a facilitator simply introduces the topic and opens the floor up for discussion.

 

The only keynote was the fabulous Shelley Moore, who joined us first thing in the morning to talk about inclusion. The main takeaway from her talk was this: include supports in education that benefit all students, all the time. Don’t require students with learning exceptions to have to seek out those supports, or have to prove they need them, and definitely don’t make them feel bad for needing them. If you haven’t seen Shelley Moore talk before, please watch this video. She is a highly engaging speaker, and the audience was both captivated and inspired by her.

We then broke out into sessions for the remainder of the day. The session that I was impacted by the most was Re-envisioning Student-Centred Learning: Imaginative Education and Involvement. It’s a wonderful thing to see a packed room full of educators who all want the same thing: to engage their students. We talked about encouraging inquiry, about using students’ imagination to reach higher-level thinking, and about involving student reflection in a variety of ways. A couple points really stood out to me in this session. Unfortunately, I’m not sure who said the first one, which is that “if [students] aren’t engaged, then it’s not student-centred.” We need to be able to adapt our teaching methods to each of our students’ unique needs, abilities, and interests if we are truly going to provide student-centred teaching. The second point was by Trevor MacKenzie, a high school English teacher in Victoria, who asked us, “what are you doing in the first weeks of class to empower your students?” One thing I’m realizing is that it’s worth taking extra time at the beginning of a course to involve students in the development of the course. Students need to feel that they are valued by the teacher from Day 1. They need to be involved in discussions and feel that they can ask questions. They need to have some control over what their assessment pieces will look like. If students are empowered, they will participate and produce meaningful work.

I’m really glad I attended EdCampVic, and I look forward to attending the next ones (and maybe checking out EdCamps in other cities, too!). I left feeling hopeful about my future as an educator, and excited to try out new methods in the classroom.

 

Orange Shirt Day

Orange Shirt Day takes place on September 30th and is a day set aside to remember the Residential School System, the atrocities that happened there, and the consequences that are still in effect today. While the custom is to wear an orange shirt to show support and respect, two classes at Reynolds High School went even further. Social Justice 12 and Art 9 collaborated to create braided bracelets for every member of the school, both students and staff. Every bracelet was adorned with a single orange bead, each meant to represent a soul affected by the Residential School System. I had the fortune of watching these two classes pair up on their first day of bracelet-making, and it was a truly heartwarming experience. I’d like to briefly outline some of the things I observed about this collaboration.

orangeshirtday.JPG

Firstly, this partnership between the Social Justice and Art classes felt organic and positive. Grade 12s had the opportunity to mentor grade 9s, allowing for an interaction that wouldn’t be typical in high school. The Grade 12s began the class by each introducing themselves and stating (in a word or short phrase) what Orange Shirt Day means to them, demonstrating the significance of the activity in a way that allowed for individual interpretation while still addressing the objective of the project. The classes were then divided up in order to pair an even amount of Grade 12s with 9s. Grade 12s helped with braiding when necessary, and all were able to chat about the significance of the event together. By the end of just one session, the pile of bracelets was surprisingly large.

Secondly, the project engaged with and supported different types of literacies. The braided and beaded bracelets all hold meaning that cannot be “read” in the sense of reading a book, but can be understood in a cultural reading. Braids and beads carry extra significance in Indigenous societies, so the decision to create these bracelets for a reconciliation project was not unintentional.

Thirdly, the project was intended to benefit the entire school, not just the classes who were creating it. One of the First Nations Principles of Learning is that learning should not only support the self, but also the community, the family, the land, the spirits, and the ancestors. Social Justice 12 and Art 9 created a project that benefitted the entire school and paid respect to the living and dead members of residential schools and anyone else the schools affected. In wearing the bracelets, the message is also brought out into the greater community and opens up conversations about their meaning. Although I wasn’t at Reynolds on September 30th, on October 5th, the majority of people at the school (myself included) were still wearing their bracelets.

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Events like Orange Shirt Day seem to bring out the best in our school system. Students get to collaborate together doing work that really matters and that has immediate, visible effects. The interactions (and later, the outcomes) that I witnessed from this project made me hopeful about our future generations. I can’t wait to see more examples of projects like this one and witness more inclusions of Indigenous Learning Principles in our classrooms.


Takeaways:

(1) Consider collaborating with another classroom for a project. If you want your students to do an art project but don’t have the skills or resources, collaborate with an Art class. Talk to other teachers in your school to see who would be willing to collaborate, and work from there. Maybe a science and math class can collaborate to create bridges to measure strength. Maybe an English and Music class can collaborate to study lyrics as poetry. The options are endless.

(2) Create opportunities for Social Activism within your school. Research important days and ask your students for ideas about what to do to commemorate them. Follow through.

(3) When designing these projects, make sure students of all abilities can participate.

 

#EDCI336 Learning Goals

My relationship with technology is growing every day. This past June I attended the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria, which opened my eyes to the many, many ways we can use technology to both support or display our work in any field, including Education. I was able to take two courses that supported my teaching subject, English literature, but unfortunately missed out on a course that dealt with incorporating technology into pedagogical practices.

In EDCI336 (Technology Innovation in Education) this term, I am hoping to learn about programs and tech-based activities that can enrich my secondary school classroom. As students are becoming increasingly literate in digital skills and tools, I feel that it is essential to keep on top of these new methods and to continually revise personal teaching strategies according to changing times. Further to discussing these methods, I am hoping to learn the research behind them and see some case studies for examples of how they might manifest in a classroom. I will be attending EdCamp Vic on October 15th and can’t wait to hear about topics like these from a wide variety of people.

In my own teaching, I have tried to use multimedia to supplement the core texts I am covering: songs, images, powerpoints, and video clips are all resources I regularly make use of. I have allowed students to use their cellphones and computers to engage with the material, and I have been videotaped in order to self-assess my own teaching. I have lesson plans in my mind about integrating Voyant and TEI into my assignments, among other digital tools. There is a whole world of technology out there that I haven’t yet seen, though, and I can’t wait to explore it.

 

Parliamentary, My Dear Watson

“Sometimes we just have fun, and that’s okay.”

That was the response a teacher gave me as we travelled back from a fieldtrip to the Parliament building last Wednesday. A Flex class in the high school I’m observing at has formed a partnership with the parliament, and I was fortunate enough to attend their first visit with them.

My reasoning for tagging along with the class was simple: I wanted to observe how teachers organize fieldtrips and also see some out-of-classroom learning. I have fond memories of similar trips from back when I was in high school; however, I have never seen a partnership developed like this one, and it is exciting. Shortly, students will be forming groups and creating inquiry projects together based on this partnership and the topics they are exploring this year, which include Indigenous ways of knowing and food sustainability. It is expected that students will learn about provincial government throughout these visits and incorporate that knowledge into their inquiry projects, using the connections and resources at parliament to aid them in their inquiries. The teachers involved in this have been generating some ideas about potential projects (all with the aim of being cross-curricular, as is the nature of Flex), but they are staying mostly hands-off, opting instead to encourage students to pursue topics they are passionate about.

As this initial visit was the first time many students had entered the building, the majority of the afternoon was spent doing a tour. It was clear that students were engaged from the get-go — the first room they encountered was the same room that gets televised, so for any students who may have seen provincial politics on their televisions, the room had a sense of familiarity and exclusivity. Students seemed to get particularly excited when they were told they will be doing a mock debate in the legislative assembly one day; at this knowledge, questions about the assembly started rolling in, with students pointing to features of the assembly and inquiring about their purposes. They reacted with horror when they heard statistics about the (embarrassingly low) number of women in politics. They took pictures of the building with their cell phones. They eagerly crowded around the Shakespeare codex on display in the legislative library. A highlight for everyone (including a couple of lucky tourists who happened to be standing nearby) was when an MLA dropped by to chat with students about his role and answer their questions, humanizing politics for them.

Rather than concentrating on the “fieldtrip organization strategies” that I originally thought would be my focus, I instead found myself paying more attention to the students’ reactions as we entered the different rooms and approached different topics in discussion. While, content-wise, not a lot was covered in the course of the afternoon, the groundwork has been set for what is bound to be an amazing collaboration and some incredible inquiry projects.