I tried to write a post all about VSTE, and well, it just made me want to write about what I presented at VSTE (The Virginia Society of Technology in Education). So, two birds, one stone.
Let me tell you about this game I started playing last year.
My school runs on the modular schedule which means our academic year is broken up into 5 week units. I teach mostly juniors- so junior year of English looks a bit like this: each junior must take the required Slavery to Civil Rights module (junior year is American Literature) and the research paper module (I don’t want to discuss how this works for AP History students in this post). For the remainder of the year, they select three of four options. In the modernism module, I teach Hemingway’s In Our Time and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in five weeks.
Take that in for a minute. Five weeks.
As you can imagine, that’s a small amount of time to condense a lot of context, both literary and historical. When I first start with this venture last year, I spent the first four modules trying to bet on the right horse- how much is enough to read Hemingway? To read Gatsby? To teach about the Lost Generation? Where do I put poetry? Interwar period? THE WAR(s)? At the same time, I was starting to really entrench (sorry, I wrote Hemingway and then he was in my head) myself in game-based learning. (Now, what I do isn’t true to the current definition. I’ve come to learn that I’m more of a “playbased learning.” I’ll talk about that perhaps in a different post.) To me, the module schedule timing felt right for that kind of environment- five weeks. But I would have to create the elements first. And, because Hemingway was already complicated enough for an all girls audience, I choose to start with Gatsby.
The first play of this game was relatively easy, but in many ways not quite a success. I created stock figures, stereotypes of the 1920s: the mob boss, the mobster, the dectective, the police, the socialite, the press, the bank. Each figure had a particular perk- the mob could steal, the press could publish, the socialites could curry favor, and the bank did what banks do. Each character also had a security deposit box where they could keep evidence, pass messages, keep money. The objective was simple: convince the public that Gatsby was either guilty or innocent (depending on your character) by collecting or fabricating evidence from the story. We played for a week; the students even built alliances, something I hadn’t considered. They robbed with delight and I recieved everything from the hotel receipt from Myrtle and Tom’s affair, a faux newspaper that connect them mob boss to Gatsby bank accounts, a printout of Gatsby’s bank accounts, a string of pearls, a crime scene report…they were true to the text while being creative. It was incredible.
And yet, I still felt that the game was amiss. My students spent a lot of time trying to create evidence (sometimes just to create it) rather than thinking about the objective. Moreover, while they were alive in the world of Gatsby, I didn’t feel they were connected to the time period, let alone connecting Hemingway and Fitzgerald to a movement. And, to top it off, I’m a tech teacher. I pride myself on integrating technology. This game operated mostly with brown envelopes and paper money.
In the middle of all this, I took the game on the road with my work partner. We present at VAIS (Virginia Association of Independent Schools). I kind of turned my talk into a “how to play a game in class” to “it’s not quite ready, what would you do” session. The session was really invigorating- it was nice to see that other English teachers wanted to do the same thing- create worlds (whether virtual or digital) for their students to understand context. However, we didn’t really come up with a good way to modify the game.
So. I finished last year learning OneNote, going completely paperless, and trying to figure out how to make Modernism different with a game that was going well for my students, but not for me. Summer needed to be about work. I’m going to flash forward a bit here- just imagine me at my desk, fast forward mode, bending furiously like a puppet on absurd amounts of caffeine, a furrowed brow while I pretend that I didn’t just cram everything for this year into the last week of summer. You get the idea.
This year, the game has changed and I am loving it. It started with Lauren (my work wife/partner):
“Well, if you don’t want them to create their own artifacts, you’ll have to reconsider your objective.”
(Cue my groaning) “That would require taking the emphasis off Gatsby.”
“Yea. Perhaps. Or what if Gatsby was just an access point. What if, Fitzgerald, and not Gatsby was the point?”
And from there, the new edition was born. The characters are chosen a bit the same- each student picks a historical figure to play as and they create a facebook page for that character. This is still done in secrecy; we hold a Gatsby tea party to introduce the players to each other. (I’m told I make a very good barkeep.) They come in costume, and ask questions (with some help on what kinds of questions to ask- no questions that can be answered with yes or no statements). And then…then they get the rules.
There are five ways to win, depending on the alliance you’ve created/chosen. Each alliance has certain pieces of evidence and a certain amount of money they must collect to win. In this version, I have already created the evidence and I have already printed the money.
What’s the difference, you might say.
In this version, you win evidence, skill cards, and money through challenges. Now, these can be as Gatsby-related as I want or they can be time period related. I even threw in a few writing challenges. And, I DID IT ALL IN ONENOTE.
It. Was. Amazing.
I have everything from the Charleston set to modern day music, a written piece on why Lucious Lyon in Empire is a modern day Gatsby, a recreated Depression era advertisement and even an MLA citation for every Fitzgerald book our library owned. This version allowed my students to get really entrenched in Modernism. What’s more, we played for FOUR WEEKS. Alliances shifted, challenges became harder, and the competition was fierce. Every single student was engaged.
The game still needs some tweeking- I’ve learned that evidence should move into circulation quickly (the last time we played, I was sure the mod would end before a winner declared) and that challenges were a great way to scaffold learning when applied correctly. I am also considering taking the money bit out- it seems to complicate the game more than move the players. I did love using OneNote, but the cards were challenging to keep up with; while my students didn’t know that they could easily copy cards into their notebook and I would be none-the-wiser, I should have a better system. I experimented a bit with a twitter board in the collaboration space of OneNote with some degree of success, but I’d like to move away from having a tupperware container of “security deposit boxes” (aka brown mailing envelopes).
I took this to VSTE (Virginia Society of Technology in Education) in December. Despite my nerves, I managed to explain this to a group of educators (I won’t claim I did it well). Point is, I’m learning that there are other teachers craving the same immersed environment. They keep me alive. (Shameless plug: go to VSTE. If you are a technology oriented teacher, GO TO VSTE. You will find your people. I did.) I connected with one teacher who plans to do something similar with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and another who might take this to his history class. Please do- take and adopt. Maybe we can be friends, and I’ll tell you all about the Edgar Allan Poe/Forensics mashup I built with a fellow science teacher (next post spoiler alert). I posted the pdf of the rules (thank you Lauren for being much more skilled in InDesign than me). By all means, email or comment below, and let’s start having fun in the classroom!
PS: I have consent and permission to share student content on this post.