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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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”

 

 

Public Speaking: A Guide

(1) Lecturing

Open with something that gets the audience’s attention and secures their engagement. This could be a question, a poll (“raise your hand if…”), or an anecdotal story. Try to avoid clichéd openers like quotes (“Winston Churchill famously said …”) or broad, sweeping statements (“Throughout history…”), which sound fairly mechanical.

Simplify your talk more than you think you have to, especially if you aren’t using visuals. Give a roadmap for what you will be talking about, and then introduce each individual topic as you reach it. Your audience will appreciate this signposting. If someone zones out midway, your obvious flagging of points will get them back on track. If you have a main point, announce that it is your main point before you say it so that people know to pay attention.

Start with content that is easier to understand and/or engage with, and then work up from there.

If you are using PowerPoint or something similar, remember that less is more. Do not put full paragraphs of text on the screen, and do not expect your audience to read while you are talking. Visuals should be used to highlight key points or to supplement your lecture with images, graphs, videos, etc. Remember to close any extra-curricular tabs you may have open on your device before projecting it to the room!

Move around if you feel comfortable, but if not, it’s okay to stay stationary or hold onto a podium.

Gesturing and varying your voice helps listeners stay engaged.

Project your voice. Remember that your voice must reach the people in the back row.

If you write on the board or project something on the screen, avoid talking with your back to the audience.

Speak slower than you think you have to. We have the tendency to talk quickly, especially when we are nervous, but this can make it difficult for listeners to follow your speech. Also, take pauses once in a while to drink water or simply breathe.

If you can see your audience, make eye contact! Try to hold eye contact with individuals for a few seconds each. This is harder than it sounds, but it will make a huge difference. You will appear more confident and will hold people’s attention for longer.

Practice your lecture enough to know how long it will take, but not so much that it will sound robotic.

Know your own strengths and weaknesses. If you are funny, using jokes will definitely increase engagement; however, if you aren’t typically a humorous person, attempting to be funny may not work out as well for you. If you are vivacious, your lecture may take on a performance-like quality, whereas if you are more serious and subdued, attempting to don a bubbly persona may feel too forced. It sounds cheesy, but be yourself!


(2) Leading Discussions  

Decide where you want to lead the discussion from. Will you stand at the front? Sit or lean at the front? Sit with your students? Each position results in a different environment and different sense of authority. Choose the one that best matches what you want to accomplish.

Will you be leading discussions for the same group of students regularly? If so, you need to make it clear from Day 1 that you expect them to contribute to discussion. If they sense that you will cave and answer your own questions, they will be less likely to contribute. This means that you are initially going to have to be comfortable waiting in silence for someone to answer a question.

So, be comfortable with silence. Often, students just need time to think about the question before they are ready to answer. If you are nervous, moments of silence can feel extremely uncomfortable. Count to twenty, take a drink of water, look around at your students, or walk to a different area of the room… occupy yourself with something to wait it out.

Try rephrasing the question, but only after waiting for someone to answer.

Be ready to play devil’s advocate. Ultimately, we want to develop critical thinkers, so you will want to challenge your students’ assumptions. Before asking a question, think about various ways that question could be answered.

If you initially used a group-work type discussion (see below), when you reach open discussion, refer to student points you overheard (e.g., “John had a great point when I went around…”).

Have an idea of points you would like to reach with the discussion, but be willing to go off in a different direction if your students take an alternate angle.

Different Types of Discussion:

a) Open Discussion: Teacher guides discussion by asking questions or providing comments.

b) Think-Pair-Share: Students first consider a point on their own. Then, they discuss the topic with a partner. After this discussion, the partners all report out to the class (or the topic becomes an open discussion).

c) Group Work: Students are arranged in groups to discuss a topic. The teacher should visit each group to make sure they are on track. Group discussions may evolve to an open discussion, or all groups may report out.

d) Jigsaw: Students are arranged in groups, and each group is given a different topic (thereby forming groups of “experts” in each topic). Group members are then all divided into new groups (each new group has at least one expert from each topic). Every student tells their new group about their initial topics.

e) Debate: Students are divided into teams to debate two sides of an issue. This usually involves an initial argument from each team and then a rebuttal from each. The teacher may assign students to sides or let them choose their own.

f) Threading the Question: The teacher begins by asking a low-stakes, opinion-based question. When a student answers (also saying why or why not), that student then names another student, who must agree or disagree with the first student and give a reason. Then that student names another student, and so on.

g) Fishbowl: The class is arranged in two circles facing inwards: one small one in the centre of the room, and a larger one around it. The students sitting in the middle circle all discuss a topic, and students on the outside silently listen. Students on the outer circle can “tap in” to the topic by tagging a student on the inner circle and replacing them. After this activity, the discussion can be opened up to the whole class.

 


General Tips:

  • Practice, practice, practice. Public speaking is a skill that only gets easier if you do it regularly. Try to put yourself in situations where you have the opportunity to speak in front of others.
  • Ask for feedback. You can ask for informal feedback from your audience (e.g., you could hand out a feedback sheet for them to complete) or formal feedback from an outside observer (e.g., ask your supervisor to attend a lecture and meet with him/her afterwards to discuss).
  • Ask someone to video record you speaking or teaching, and then watch it and self-evaluate.
  • visit the room you will be speaking in before you have to speak there.
  • test out any technology you will be using before people arrive. Have a gameplan if your technology fails to work.

 

Tips for Lecturing to ELL Students:

  • project or write questions on the board
  • avoid using jargon or unnecessarily complicated words. Articulate.
  • avoid speaking for extended periods of time. Break up lecture with activities, and visit these students to make sure they understood.
  • use mediums that pair text with pictures whenever possible (videos, graphic novels, etc.)
  • instead of requiring note-taking, use fill-in-the-blank style notes
  • ask for English-speaking students to volunteer to take notes that will be available for other students
  • make PowerPoint presentations available to your students
  • consider recording your lectures for ELL students to be able to take home and listen to again

 

Tips for Dealing With Stage Fright:

  • you might want to start with more of a script in the beginning (if it makes you more comfortable), and practice saying the words out loud. Work your way up to point-form notes.
  • over-prepare initially. Have extra material planned if you end up short, and know which material you can cut if you run out of time.
  • dress more professionally than you feel. Have a “teaching uniform” that makes you feel more confident; having a uniform can make you feel less like you’re putting your true self out there and more like you are performing.
  • bring a “safety blanket”: have something you can hold onto as a kind of totem or worry stone. (E.g., a coffee mug, a pen, etc.) Use it when you feel shaky or when there is silence.
  • If there is a podium or table, it’s okay to stand behind it or to hold onto it.
  • It is okay if you don’t know an answer to something. You can ask the class what they think or say you will look it up and report back. You don’t have to be the expert in everything.

 

A Note on Imposter Syndrome:

It’s very common to feel like you somehow slipped by and are living as a fraud, undeserving of your current position. It’s common to be afraid that you will be “found out.” As a teacher, this can be an especially scary feeling to deal with, and it’s not an easy feeling to get over.

Remember that you definitely know more than your students about your subject, but that it’s okay to not know some things. You can be honest about your limits. Also remember that many, many other people also feel like imposters, but we only see their outer worlds (not the inner worlds where self-doubt exists). If you find yourself with great amounts of anxiety, talk to a professional.

 

 

Making Group Work Work

Arranging your class into groups before having a larger discussion can be an effective way to increase participation and reach more in-depth conversations; however, group work also carries the risk of groups getting off track. Here are some tips & things to think about before going forward with group work discussions. 

 

Set-Up:

If you know your class dynamics well, consider prearranging your group members:

  •            do you want your strongest students evenly distributed?
  •             your most vocal students?
  •             your ELL students?
  •             students who keep up with the reading?

How many group members do you want per group? Too few members may not have enough opinions. Too many will allow some students to stay silent.

  •             4 members per group typically works well, but adjust according to activity.

Will you assign roles for each group member?

  •            E.g., One person must make an argument, one must ask a question, one must find textual evidence, one facilitates discussion, one takes notes…

Choosing Topics:

Aim for specific questions/topics rather than broad ones.

  •             -If groups are discussing a text, try to focus on a specific section of the text (so students aren’t scrambling to find passages)

Decide whether you will give different topics to each group, or whether each group will discuss the same topic .

Have your desired final class discussion in mind when choosing your topics.

 

Execution:

Visit each group as they are discussing your topics.

  •             Give them a few minutes to discuss on their own before visiting.

Spend a good amount of time with each group, and give input – you still need to guide discussion to a certain extent.

Come prepared with points, page numbers, etc. for each topic in case groups need extra guidance.

 

Concluding:

Go around the class and ask for each group to share their thoughts on the topic.

Respond to each contribution, prompting further discussion as you see fit.

If a group discussed a (good) point with you and didn’t tell it to the class, specifically ask them to speak about it.

If you want to hear every person’s voice in the discussion, make sure you tell them when you initially hand out topics (i.e., “I expect everyone to contribute to the discussion today, so make sure your group decides who will be saying what”).

 

 

Establishing Your Classroom Culture from Day 1

In my high school observations this semester, I unfortunately didn’t get the opportunity to see any first classes; however, I have been a student in many first classes and a teacher in a few. The first day of class is just one day, but it is arguably the most important day you will have with your students all year. It is the day that they are introduced to you, their peers, the course content, and the course expectations. And, as Evertson, Emmer, and Worsham argue, the first days of school are absolutely critical for establishing order in the classroom.

Before you write out your first lesson plan, consider what impression you want your students to leave with after the first class. Presumably, you want to create an environment wherein learning happens. You (hopefully) also want to create an environment that is respectful and welcoming to all students. If you are hoping to support an Inquiry-based classroom, you want to foster an environment that allows and encourages students to ask questions and experiment with their own learning. These things are all great in theory, but how do they look in practice on the first day? Below, I’ve highlighted some aspects of the first day of class that you may want to consider. Because of my background in English, my examples will primarily tie to Language Arts classrooms; however, they should be applicable or at least adaptable to all classrooms.

 

Classroom Set-Up

If you have control over the layout of your classroom, how will you arrange it? Will the desks be in standard rows, with the teacher at the front? Will students all face each other, in a more seminar-like format? Will there be different stations or pods? How will you decorate?

Whichever set-up you settle on is fine, so long as you have a reason for your decision. Consider the overall effect that each arrangement will have. Desks in rows are conducive to lecture-style teaching with teacher as authority, whereas desks in a circle are conducive to discussion with teacher as facilitator. Also consider whether you will use a seating plan, which may help you remember names but may also assert more control than you desire.

 

Introductions

A) To you, the teacher:

How will you introduce yourself to your students? No pressure, but this is the first impression you will be making on them. Many of the students I have talked to in high schools have told me that the teachers who are approachable and who connect with students on a personal level are their favourite teachers. Will you tell them a little about yourself? Also, this is a good opportunity to share a bit about why you enjoy the subject you will be teaching them and let them know what you are excited about.

B) To the other students:

If you want your class to be an interactive one where students feel comfortable talking to each other, it’s a good idea to get them to introduce themselves to you and to each other on the first day. Incorporating introductions in your first lesson also tells students that you care about who they are. Icebreakers take more time, but in my opinion, are well worth it. You might consider also getting them to complete “get to know you” questionnaires, where you can work in course-related questions (e.g., “what is your favourite book?”) and space to tell you important information.

 

Going Over the Course Outline

Students like to have an idea of where they are headed (and don’t we all, really?), so providing them with some kind of roadmap for the course is a considerate thing to do. If you have a syllabus, I recommend not going over every word, but instead highlighting key information.

 

Course Expectations

Be sure to have some sort of discussion about expectations you have for the class. You might consider creating a list of class rules in collaboration with your students. If students have input about the rules, they are more likely to follow them, as they are less likely to feel that the rules are arbitrary. If you decide to create the rules on your own, consider making expectations as a sort of contractual agreement with your students. You can have two sections: one for “students will…” and one for “teacher will…,” and you can even get students to sign the agreements. It might also be a good idea to have a large, readable copy of the expectations hanging somewhere in the room to refer back to from time to time.

 

Actual Content

The best way to show that the course values learning is to demonstrate it: get the students to engage in real material on the first day. This learning can be as surface or in-depth as you desire, and you might choose to tie it into one of the other “first day” aspects that I’ve outlined (for example, your icebreaker could somehow tie to your subject). At the very least, talk to your students a bit about why you are excited about the subject. If you are legitimately interested in and excited about the material you are teaching, students will be more engaged.

 

Case Study of a Student

B—[1] was introduced to me as “a really nice kid.” I looked at him and remarked, “No pressure though, right?,” to which he smiled and said, “Yeah, I’m not really nice at all.” We sat down together at a table so I could help him on his homework for Chemistry 10, the one science I did not take in high school. At the very least, I thought to myself, I could help him with the instructions. After getting settled at the table, he opened a bag of Sour Patch Kids and offered me some. He is a nice kid.

B— is failing Science. He is enrolled in Learning Strategies to have additional time and help completing his schoolwork this term, but it’s easy to get distracted, even in this class. To be fair, though, the Chemistry assignment he was working on was poorly formatted and some questions seemed like they were designed with the intention to trick students. He admitted to me that he cheated on all his Science assignments last year… he typed the textbook code into Google and was able to find the teacher copy (answers included) online. Halfway through this story, he said something along the lines of “I shouldn’t be telling a teacher this.” “A pre-service teacher,” I reminded him. We slowly worked through the chart he had to complete. B— was happy to explain the difference between covalent, multivalent, and polyatomic bonds, and as he taught me, he was better able to figure out the answers to his homework. He muttered quietly to himself as he worked, talking through the questions.[2] He laughed at the chemistry joke I shared with him, and then looked at his periodic table to debate whether the outcome of the joke was actually possible.[3] I encouraged him to share it with his Science teacher and ask him, but judging by B—’s attitude towards school, I doubt that he will.

This student’s interests are decidedly extracurricular. He dedicates his efforts to Phys. Ed., and specifically to rugby, as these are what he enjoys and wants to pursue. He is truly proud to be on the team that he is on, and he’s both excited and nervous for next year, when he will be old enough to move on to the next level of rugby. When he advances, he will be just 16 years old on a team of many 18- and 19-year-olds. He lamented that a team for 16- and 17-year-olds does not exist, but we talked about the merits of being among more experienced players and being able to learn quickly from them.

Social Studies, by his assessment, is the biggest waste of time and should be dropped from schools. At the same time, however, he was eager to discuss the current United States election with me. It isn’t that he intrinsically dislikes the subject, it’s that he dislikes the branding and the seeming irrelevance to his life. I told him about the similar distaste I had for Social Studies when I was in school, but added that when I began to tie historical events to my subject of interest—English Literature—I became interested in the events and could better remember them. He’s not a big fan of English, either, although in a battle of Socials to English, it seems that English would come out on top. He enjoyed a dystopian short story that his class read together, so I recommended he check out Orwell’s 1984.

We bonded over our music preferences, both preferring Classic Rock to modern bands. He likes Van Halen, ACDC, and Eric Clapton. He is definitely cooler than I was in high school. He smirked when I told him my fondness for Billy Joel and when I revealed that I was a band geek. After chatting for a while about life in general, he said, “I have a question for you… I ask everyone this question: do you think it’s more likely that a creator made the world, or that we are all here because of evolution?” B— is in the process of forming his own opinions about the world around him, and he is curious about what other people think about that world.

The new B.C. Curriculum, with its allowance for flexibility, seems like it will be advantageous to students like B—. When I asked him about what he would think if schools got rid of grades entirely, he was taken aback. Then, he was thoughtful. He concluded that he couldn’t think of anything bad about getting rid of grades, and that it would be nice to not be assessed in that way. I asked him what he would think about personalized learning, wherein students’ interests (in his case, rugby) could become a part of their assignments. He really liked that idea. He thinks that if students were able to write about what they are passionate about, it would make them care more about their schoolwork.

It seems to me that a student like this one would flourish in a school that strives to connect students’ curricular competencies to their actual lives. B— is intelligent, witty, and hard-working when he wants to be. He isn’t dedicated to the particular assignments he is being asked to do because he feels that they lack relevance in his day-to-day experiences. He avoids work, but not because it’s difficult. In fact, he seems to enjoy challenge and he actively seeks knowledge. He has a mind that would likely benefit from a Socratic style of teaching and activities designed to challenge him to see the complexity of the world. This is a student who wants to get at the big questions of life, and if he can’t see a connection between the little details of assignments and those big questions of the real world, he won’t put in the effort. B— does not want to waste his time in trivialities.

If I were to teach a student like B— in an English class, I would continually try to connect current events to class material. For example, I could use the 2016 Presidential Debates for a lesson on rhetoric, getting students to both listen to and read Clinton’s and Trump’s responses, discussing particular concepts they see in the speeches. As a class, we could follow this lesson up with a mock debate about a text we are studying. I would assign teams for this activity, choosing to put some students (like B—) on the side of the debate that they are less likely to agree with, thereby challenging those students to think beyond their own perspectives. B— would also benefit from freedom of choice in his assignments, so beginning classes with free writing, providing a list of broad topics to choose from, may be valuable.

[1] I have removed the student’s name to protect his privacy.

[2] “Private Speech,” as introduced by Vygotsky, is a method people use to regulate their thoughts and actions. It is primarily used by children; however, adults use private speech when under mental stress or when learning something new.

[3] The joke I told is as follows: A man walks into a bar and orders a glass of H2O. His friend says, I’ll have a glass of H2O, too. The second man died.

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).

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.

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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.

 

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.