On Doors, Opportunity, Risk, and Initiative

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by Jonathan Truitt

When I start my classes each semester I tell my students that they need to “own” their education. I go on to explain, that this has nothing to do with their purchase of courses, but rather their own active engagement in the material. Without their engagement, they are simply passive receptors who will fail to retain much of what is told to them. I explain that to really own your education is to seize on opportunities that appear in their classes, both unspoken and spoken. It will require them to take risks, to step through unknown doors, and take the initiative when others won’t. To be fair I let them know that I will follow my own recommendations. I will take risks and try new pedagogical techniques. Many of them will work, but others will fall short. Regardless of their success we will examine them to improve them for the next go round, or to dump them. This post then, is the story of one of my pedagogical journeys. It started as an idea that I tried on an unsuspecting class, it failed horribly and was set aside. Emily Lint, a student at the time and now a high school teacher, looked at the idea, picked it up brushed it off and improved it. Emily’s initiative made my idea better and it is why I spent Dallas, TX earlier this semester instead of Michigan.

Four-ish years ago (I don’t actually remember) I kicked off a new course for the history department on designing games for the classroom. The title of the course is “Mind Games.” The idea behind the class is to introduce students to game mechanics that can work in their future classrooms. As a hobby board gamer I get a lot of ideas from around my kitchen table when playing games with friends and family. Before this class started I decided that I wanted to introduce the students to a cooperative game mechanic. This was an element of some of my favorite board games, such as “Pandemic.” I wanted the students to have to work together as a team rather than competitively. I started thinking about the mechanic in the spring with my fall semester course in mind. This idea formed the basis for a game later dubbed “Disease Strain” and now titled “Plague, Poxes, and Pustules: A Game about Communities, Epidemics, and Survival.” When first conceived the idea was that the students would spend about five minutes at the beginning of each class trying to figure out the solution to the game. The game failed. One turn each class period provided too much time between turns and the class quickly lost interest and the pedagogical aim failed alongside it. We spoke about it as a class and set it aside. Emily was in that class, and I do not know when the fix to the game came to her, but it was Emily who fixed the game.

After the game’s failure I kicked it around trying to figure out the problem, but soon set it aside due to other time commitments. A semester later Emily asked if she could use the game in a high school class she was visiting. I thought it strange that she would want to use a game that was so broken. However, she had figured out the fix. The game needed to run in 20 minutes with two minute crises intervals to help propel the game. That fix revived the game and took it to new heights. A year later we were both attending the “Reacting to the Past” Game Development Conference in Athens, GA where she was presenting on her Honors research. We pitched the Disease game as well to see if there would be interest in seeing how a short game could function in a classroom setting. Both presentations were a big success. The disease game went on to be used in a variety of interdisciplinary settings in high schools and universities across the U.S. Fast forward a year and a half and a colleague who had been using the game presented on research surrounding the game’s success in her own classroom setting at another conference, Gen Con Trade Day. At the conference was an Agile Trainer for Walmart, he played the game and adopted it for training employees in Bentonville, AR. Jump forward another six months and the game was used as part of the pitch to start a new game-based learning series with the University of New Mexico Press (initial releases due out in Spring of 2019). This brings us to the present where in the past six months I have presented the game at Brigham Young University and the University of Texas at Dallas. This game has taken a trajectory I never would have predicted. I give full credit to Emily for making it possible, she is (and has been since her critical idea) an author on the game. I applaud her for stepping through the door and taking the risk to tell a professor he was wrong. I thank her for providing us both with opportunities to further support good pedagogy. I don’t know if her students know what they are in for when they walk into her classroom, but I am hoping that one of them opens the kinds of doors for her that she opened for me.

It’s a TA Life for Me: Living in Greenwich Village

Art Work and Items for game points.

Art Work and Items for game points.

By Gillian Macdonald

“To start with I thought it was terrible, then we got to the game, and oh my god, I had no idea that I knew that much about American history just immersing myself in one person.”

This is the statement that makes being a Teaching Assistant worth it. TA’s are forever talking about teaching assignments and class work –  it’s all part of the experience – and what you tend to find is that either the funny or the heartwarming stories stick out. There are so many great stories when using the game-based learning pedagogy, Reacting to the Past or RTTP. It may seem strange to use game based learning in a history class, but when the documents alone can’t quite get the idea across or grab students attention, it’s a fabulous way to learn. In a wide-ranging survey course designed to teach students American history from Reconstruction to present, “experiencing” a moment often is the best way to explain historical events and help students deepen their understanding of their very unique heritage.

Reacting to the Past: Greenwich Village 1913 is one of those moments. Don’t be fooled by the game aspect –  it is a lot of work; students must take on a historical role and remain in that character for 4 or 5 weeks while trying to achieve their game objectives. Because it is a game, they mostly focus on the winning, but in the end, they have a much better understanding of how historical forces actually work in real life. To play the game, there is a period of set up. However, this is the point where you can lose students. Prepping for the game is work, but once the game gets going it feels much smoother and pretty much runs itself. However, this type of leg work is often something students are not accustomed to and complaints are to be expected. Those who stay end up really enjoying it, especially if they win ;-).

The hardest part for the TA is deciding on the cast. Greenwich Village has the luxury of so many great characters like Emma Goldman, John “Jack” Reed, and Margaret Sanger, to name just a few. Students must know their character inside out. Taking on the role of a historical person requires a multitude of skills – skills they often didn’t know that they had. In order to make their character believable the student must know: who was this person? How did their life experiences shape them? How did the events of the day influence their political views? What did they want and why? The TA on the other hand, has to know all of the characters—everything about them—including how they would react in a multitude of situations. It’s crazy, although now I could tell you all about “Big Bill” Haywood’s trial for murder and how students used this in the game, and more importantly, how and why it was used to make arguments for and against him and the labor faction’s objectives....

This year, the class did unbelievably well. Students went above and beyond – in costume every day, created buttons, posters, paintings – and it showed. The fun part, at least for me, was watching them learn, react, and evolve. For instance, there are a number of surprises in the game (which I won’t spoil) and seeing their faces and how they felt afterward was just fantastic. Students grow confident, learn how to speak out, and express historical opinions in meaningful ways, all while they gain transferable skills. Their journals and reflection papers, which help to try and ground the experience, are where the lightbulb moments happen, and that makes them so fun to read. Students often make connections between what they have learned playing the game and the lecture material. That reflection often creates a deeper understanding of historical forces at work.

This is where RTTP can do things that reading a document just doesn’t do. Students are reading and researching without even really thinking about it because they are immersing themselves in a situation because they want to win! It’s a game after all, experience matters. One faculty member, Dr. Kathleen Donohue told me that students feel RTTP has a lasting impact, particularly when they have played a person who was fundamentally different from themselves. It can be a powerful experience. One student expressed afterwards that it was an eye-opening experience and reinforced his opinions on gender-equality.

Overall, RTTP is definitely a worthwhile experience, but it’s not for the faint-hearted ;-).