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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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.

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