Facebook
Edutopia on Facebook
Twitter
Edutopia on Twitter
Google+
Edutopia on Google+
Pinterest
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Teach At-Risk Students in Leadership and Language Arts with. . . World of Warcraft?

World of Warcraft, Mists of Pandaria

I recently talked with Lucas Gillispie, an instructional technology coordinator at Pender County Schools in Burgaw, North Carolina. Like Alex Pettyfer, Gillispie sports a beard befitting a Teutonic infantryman at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae or an avatar-warrior in World of Warcraft's (WoW) Dragonblight graveyard. Gillispie seems bemused by the acclaim he has received by incorporating Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplay Games (MMORPG) into the public school curriculum. To his credit, when I talked to him about three of his projects -- WoWinSchool (WoW used with middle school children), Minecraft (used with elementary students), and SAGA (Story and Game Academy) -- Gillispie repeatedly deflected credit from himself to his professional peers and administration. For conciseness, I edited some parts of the interview below.

Let's really step out here and do something interesting.

Edutopia: How did you begin to incorporate WoW into the public school curriculum?

Gillispie: We've been using games in the classroom for approximately four years now. We actually started as an after-school program. That’s one of my recommendations to anybody: start at a place where it's really safe to fail. After-school clubs and programs are a good place to build acceptance.

Edutopia: And then . . . ?

Gillispie: We moved the program into an elective language arts enrichment course.

Edutopia: I'm assuming that there was some resistance from administrators or parents because video games are sometimes stigmatized.

Gillispie: Surprisingly no. It has been very remarkable in that regard. As part of an instructional technology team, I had some carry-over funding. So I thought, "OK, let's really step out here and do something interesting." I used bullet points in Google Docs to write down, "If I could use WoW to teach, what would I do?" and used our network to get ideas.

We really don't understand all this stuff that you are talking about, but we know it's a good idea.

Gillispie: At one of our instructional team meetings, I said, "I have an idea. This is what I want to do. I want to target at-risk students at the middle school level, focus on leadership, language arts, digital citizenship and lots of other things that tend to get less emphasis in our everyday classroom. And I want to use this game, WoW." At the conclusion of my spiel, they said, "We really don't understand all this stuff that you are talking about, but we know it's a good idea. Go for it." The principal said, "Yes, please come do this at my school." It so happened that Craig Lawson, who I met via online games, moved to our district and was teaching at Cape Fear Middle School. Lawson was so on board that he gave up his planning period.

Edutopia: During a presentation, I think you said that social media helped regenerate your interest in teaching. Is that right?

Gillispie: A funny thing, I stopped playing WoW when I started graduate school. I thought I wouldn't have time. But I needed some outlet to balance the load of working fulltime and grad school. I restarted [playing video games] and noticed what it is that WoW has to teach you as a new player and how they do it. Then I started looking at some of Kurt Squire's [game-based learning] work that he was doing with Civilization. That definitely reenergized me and got me thinking more about pedagogy.

We had kids who would run from recess into the building.

Edutopia: What resulted when you used games with at-risk students?

Gillispie: Kids who were chronically absent started coming more often to school. We had kids who would run from recess into the building, almost beating down the door to get started.

Edutopia: What might be an example of a language arts thing that kids would do in WoW?

Gillispie: We call our lessons quests. Students study riddle poetry and look at how that style of poem works and what it looks like. All their writing takes place on a message board on a guild website. There is a lot of peer review and response. Somebody posts, somebody responds, and back and forth. We ask them first to draft a riddle poem based upon the mythology and setting of Azeroth, the space where WoW takes place, using characters from this fictional land. Next, their peers edit and review the drafts. From there, students go on follow-up quests and put these into a macro -- a script that you fire off and that WoW subsequently broadcasts. Then they go to the capital city of Stormwind and adopt the role of a computer-controlled character during a WoW event. They tweet from their character's point of view and interact with each other via Twitter.

Edutopia: Is this connected to the monomyth?

Gillispie: Very loosely. Students are the heroes. We tell them, "You're starting out on your journey. You're small, weak, and you have this mission where you're moving towards an end goal." At the same time, they’re reading The Hobbit by Tolkien. Many writing assignments ask them to make parallels between Bilbo's journey and their own. How are they a hero in the real world? Because teenagers are never at a loss to talk about themselves, they enjoy that.

Edutopia: Just like adults.

Gillispie: (Laughs) Yes. Exactly.

It has opened up a lot of doors.

Gillispie: The successes we've had in this project garnered a lot of positive press for our district because [game-based learning] is still fairly cutting edge compared to the status quo; also it has opened up a lot of doors for other game-based curriculum initiatives -- like the district-wide Minecraft project. We have seven or eight schools that are playing Minecraft, with about 300 accounts.

I am confident when I’m a warrior in WoW.

Edutopia: What's next?

Gillispie: My current project is called SAGA (Story and Game Academy). So we have students doing the same kinds of things I've described, but with games on Xbox, PlayStation, PC and the iPad. Basically any platform.

Edutopia: Integrating curriculum with kids' social agendas and identities, and then creating an environment that provides constant feedback must be motivating and meaningful to your students.

Gillispie: There is no shortage of space where we are exploring this idea of identity, identity as self and identity as avatar, and comparing and contrasting these roles. I hear students say or imply things like, "I don't have a lot of confidence, but I am confident when I'm a warrior in WoW." It's really fascinating to watch positive interactions spill over into the real world and affect students' self-efficacy.

Comments (3)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

I can't fault Finley for trying, but game based learning to me smacks of an extreme application of the Premack Principle plus the soft bigotry of lowered expectations.

I am aware of the attitude among many Edutopians that motivating students through what they deem as "bribes," whether it be snacks, extra privileges, etc., robs them of their chance to develop intrinsic motivation.

I consider the use of video games of the type described in Finley's blog entry as a form of bribery to get students interested in literature. Too much emphasis is placed on student preferences, which from where I sit, leave a lot to be desired. Presumably, that's part of the reason why they are in school, so they can "up their game" (pardon the pun) and abandon the trappings of juvenilia, that is ... heralding art forms that are reflective of unsophisticated and unschooled tastes. Try to convince a middle school female that One Direction's music is palatable fluff and little more compared to earlier forms of pop music written by Cole Porter or the Beatles. Eventually, you have to compartmentalize those youthful preoccupations and embrace more intellectually advanced and mature forms. Imagine making that giant developmental leap from Please Please Me to Strawberry Fields Forever. That's essential to proper cognitive development.

I've observed WoW in use and was once invited to participate. I am 52 years old, not 12, so I consider this type of entertainment as beneath me. I see video games purely as entertainment for kids with limits attached, of course. You wouldn't let your kid eat ice cream for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, would you?

The fact that too many adults are rabid gamers is yet another aspect of our culture that makes me shudder. I have yet to understand this fascination with clinging to one's youth. Despite its troubles, adulthood is at least liberating as you acquire far more control over your destiny. Your array of choices are almost infinite. You can't say that when you are a kid.

The fact that these adult gamers are also teachers bringing this stuff into the classroom stretches my ability to be tolerant. I have no problem with message boards or websites like Funbrain that feature educational games. But WoW was not created for use in a classroom. It's popular among kids and therefore, in my estimation, seems like a means to bribe kids into participating in a classroom activity.

I wonder how many of the gaming advocates actually think about the lives of these students after they graduate and move into a real adult existence. These proto-adults been conditioned to expect reality to operate like a video game. I know that people have confused TV "reality" with real life (I saw The Cable Guy, too). I laugh at people who contend with all sincerity that "reality TV" is unscripted warts-and-all reality. The failure to sharply discern between fantasy and reality is a huge problem that I note in my interactions with kids. They've formed these massive mental gray areas that have no boundaries or limits. The reason for this is that segments of society have moved away from absolutism because it can be judgmental or prejudicial. To then expect boundaries and limits to be imposed on the typical 18-25 brain could provoke a complete meltdown because they believe that it is THEIR world and the rest of us serve as supporting players.

Introducing a videogame like WoW is not an example of setting high expectations in the classroom. It seems to me as little more than an expression of desperation on the part of a kind of teacher whose "bag of tricks" has become unfortunately depleted.

However, I am willing to be persuaded to believe otherwise if a state standard could be cited that supports the introduction of consumer-grade video games as instructional enhancement.

Tammy Poulsen's picture

Actually I think a lot about my students and how they will live as adults. It's very obvious that you have never participated in the gaming community nor have you truly played an online game or you would know which knowledge skills apply to these games. However, arguing with a closed mind will not get me nor anyone else anywhere.

Let me tell you what is good about these games from personal experience. I work in a Special Education classroom with severe and profound students. I also work work with a student with Asbergers Syndrome who became attached to me over the summer at a school summer introduction program. Every morning, he comes in to my room and I assess how he is doing so I can let his case manager know if she needs to pull him from class or if he is going to have a successful day. He has trouble making friends and has severe social deficits. Over this past school year, I started a Lunch Bunch with my students, him and group of general education students during our lunch break. In our group, this student made a friend with another young man who also happened to like the same video game MineCraft. Over time, they asked to come in my room before school to use my student computers to play this game together. I have noticed this young man reminding my student of correct social behaviors and he doesn't argue. When the young man is absent, my student has a bad day in his classes. I listen to them have conversations on how to build a community, what rules are going to apply to their world, how they are going to play the game, where they are going to explore and all the other skills we try to teach our students when teaching them basic social skills. These two students then turn around and teach my low functioning students those same skills by interesting them in the games on my iPad and on the computer when they come in for Lunch Bunch. I have seen a rise in my students ability to communicate and socialize appropriately.

You may say, ok, this is social skills, that is just a limited use for games. I have also seen an increase in my students' reading skills as most of these games require a basic modicum of reading ability. However, because they are interested in playing these games, they have a desire to learn the basic reading and math skills to succeed. They need to be able to count, identify numbers, add, subtract, divide and multiply for most of the games they play and they do it in a natural setting that give meaning to the basic skills they learn in class.

Going back to WoW. WoW takes all this and advances it beyond what my students are capable of doing. The Auction House provides real world experience in a safe setting to practice real economics. Players have to understand the concept of supply and demand in order to make enough money to get what they need to succeed in the game and get the high power equipment necessary to win. Crafting skills in the game teach students the concepts of real world cottage industry. You make items from basic materials you gather in the game. You have to compete with other people to get what you need as there is a limited supply in any one area at any given time. You then have to spend time to advance your skills in order to be successful in your profession. You have to market your skills in order to make money or create items through trade. Then you have the adventure part of the game. You follow a set of clues that never give you enough information so you have to use deductive reasoning skills in order to succeed. Also you can join Guilds where you have to practice social skills and democracy in order to advance in guild politics. All together, it's not just the reading skills you see in these large scale MMO's. They teach our students a variety of Life Skills in a safe environment as long as it is monitored by adult supervision.

I invite you to actually go in and play sometime and give it a chance. If you don't like fantasy, there are other real to life MMOs that do the same thing. However, please do not denigrate a genre you have not experienced simply because you do not like it. You call science fiction and fantasy "fluff" yet you haven't read it. It is hard to understand how you came by that idea when you have not truly experienced the genre. I suggest you go read Heinlein who was sent to jail during WWII for espionage because he accidently placed the plans for the atom bomb in one of his books. You can not compare "Catcher in the Rhye" with the "Hobbit" they are two different genres and two different types of writing. Both are classics in their own rights.

You can call me a (wo)manchild if you like. You can say I never grew up. However, your kind of growing up I never want to do. I want to be able to understand my students. I want to know how they think and what they are interested in. I want to be able to hold a conversation with them on subjects that matter to them. By catching their interest, they then listen to me when I speak about what matters to me. I can talk about Shakespeare and Dickens. I can explain geometry and division. We can talk about world geography and people in history. I can capture their attention as I teach because they know I understand their interests and I understand them. If I like what they like, then maybe they can see something in what I like too.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

[quote]Actually I think a lot about my students and how they will live as adults. It's very obvious that you have never participated in the gaming community nor have you truly played an online game or you would know which knowledge skills apply to these games. However, arguing with a closed mind [/quote]

There's a body of research that supports my "closed mindedness" and concludes via evidence that overexposure to videogames at a young age has a negative effect on brain development. You can google the topic. While you are at it, google the topic of overexposure to electromagnetic fields and their effect on the brain. Why I mention this is that chronic gaming goes hand in hand with chronic gadget use. I have yet to know of a gamer who wasn't wedded to their iFad device.

I actually think about my students and how they will live as adults as well. My concern centers on whether or not they'll suffer a form of cognitive inertia that will keep them 18 in the mind when chronologically they are in their 30s and 40s.

All kidding aside, just the issue of EM fields is enough to give one pause. Yet, an overwhelming number of teachers, the alleged stewards of our precious youth class, have no problem letting kids use their iFads in the classroom.

The idea that kids will generalize alleged "skills" gleaned from videogames to REALITY is a preposterous belief. Reality is not like a videogame. Videogames are like little cocoons that insulate from many stark, and at times, painful realities that are just as important to experience on the way into adulthood.

[quote] I work in a Special Education classroom with severe and profound students. I also work work with a student with Asbergers (sic) Syndrome [/quote]

Tammy, it doesn't look good for a special ed teacher to publicly misspell the name of the physician chiefly associated with one of the more prevalent disabilities known to the profession.

[quote] I have seen a rise in my students ability to communicate and socialize appropriately [/quote].

In my experience, I have observed far more social awkwardness in the classroom environment because having to peer into an impersonal screen to communicate is far easier than actually having real vis-a-vis connections with people (and not random, impersonal characters on a screen).

Besides, this entire post-mod obsession with "socialization" is so overblown and over-hyped because it's never really about people, but marketing overpriced goods and services via a dumbed down lowest common denominator pop culture.

[quote]They teach our students a variety of Life Skills in a safe environment as long as it is monitored by adult supervision. [/quote]

This is part of the problem. Many of them are "adults" in name only.

[quote]You call science fiction and fantasy "fluff" yet you haven't read it. It is hard to understand how you came by that idea when you have not truly experienced the genre. I suggest you go read [/quote]

Before making suggestions for me, try reading up on what I've written on this topic previously..

"Light fantasy fluff is less taxing to teach, like a project based learning assignment. If lit teachers want to teach REAL fantasy with substance, they should look no further than the works of Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, or the greatest of them all, Isaac Asimov."

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.