This past week was the final meeting of the Tabletop Game Club for another year. This year concludes the fifth year since a couple of students approached me about sponsoring a club where kids who specifically enjoyed playing Dungeons & Dragons could meet on a weekly basis to storm the castle and plunder its dungeons underneath. As one who enjoys such adventures and the teacher at the forefront of the game design concentration, I simply couldn't refuse. And, that became the focus of the group: playing a variety of role playing games. There were so many kids playing at one point that the club organizers had to run two different campaigns simultaneously to accommodate every member. But, there are a lot of other kinds of tabletop games and this past year, we have seen an influx of them.
The shift all started when a small group of students wanted to play games other than role playing. The only rule we have as a group is that games cannot be electronic...they must be tabletop. Games like Ticket to Ride, One Night, King of Tokyo and Takamatsu were introduced to the club. The small group of 3-4 students and myself playing board games suddenly became 6-8. Students were slowly being siphoned off from the role-playing group. After three or four meetings, there were too few students to run two campaigns and the group playing board games was quickly growing too large to manage. So, one of the gamemasters suggested we add a group playing Magic the Gathering, a popular collectible card game. I haven't played Magic in years and it is by definition a tabletop game, so of course I said let's play and see what happens. Same thing...players of Magic grew fast and it attracted more students to join the club. Before we knew it, we have 10-12 students sitting around a 4' square table drawing cards and summoning creatures! Now, we routinely had one role-playing campaign, one board game and a couple of card games running simultaneously. All of the students at club are letting off daily steam, joking around, considering the effects of gameplay decisions and having a good time. And, I was as well.
But, let me tell you why I bring our club focus into this week's blog post as something that I consider to be a very important lesson for students, and fellow educators, to reflect upon. What many people see when they walk into our club meetings is a room full of very loud (organized) chaos. Kids are in passionate debates with one another about the game in front of them. Many are joking around and yes, occasionally they go outside of what might be deemed "school appropriate." There are definite reasons why our club is open to grades 8-12 and not younger kids. But what I see is productive student development in a way that cannot be reproduced in a classroom setting. All day, students are told to sit still, be quiet and bask in the knowledge teachers impart on them. But, despite what politicians want us to believe, good students are much more than receptacles of information. They do more than spit back names, dates and terminology. Good students understand the implications of the information they receive in the classroom and how to use that knowledge in a productive manner to solve problems and better society. These are the skills students learn by participating in clubs, regardless of the club's focus or intention.
Students who participate in a club or on a sports team take the lessons they learn in our classrooms and use that knowledge to solve real-world problems. While these problems differ from club to club, students actively use critical thinking skills and classroom information to develop solutions. The issues addressed can be anything such as how to move a soccer ball down the field to score a goal (trigonometry comes into play here) to why we should be upset with the state government passing HB2 into law (think about implications from classes such as history, business and law). Regardless of the issue being addressed, it is easy to connect the group's focus to our lessons if one takes the time to think about it.
Another key feature of club participation is learning how to interact socially in a safe environment. Students who may never meet outside of the club learn to work with one another to accomplish some goal. In tabletop, this goal can be anything from how to get information out of a guard or slay a monster (in a role playing game) to stopping an opponent from making a move (in board/card games). Working together towards a goal is something teachers often try to accomplish with group projects but this technique typically fails miserably. We all know that some students will refuse to accept a low grade and tend to do all the work, while others simply sit back, do little to nothing on the project and take the easy grade that others earn for them. Because of these problems, nobody really likes group projects. And such projects make minimal progress in helping students understand the importance of working together on a team or improving social skills. Clubs allow students to explore social interactions without any extrinsic motivation. They choose their own interest and learn how to interact with the members of the group in a productive manner.
This is how the world outside of academics operates. People of all different ages coming together, using their social and intellectual skills, to find solve the problems they encounter. Accomplishing such tasks, not repeating what year a bill was signed into law, solving for x or identifying the correct term/definition on a multiple choice test, should be the focus of what we aim to teach our students as educators. And this should be the reason for participating in school clubs and sports, not simply padding your college application like so many people think is the purpose of participating in such activities.
So the next time a student tells you they have a club meeting after school, don't look at it as kids wasting time on campus with their friends, an added burden at the end of an already long day in your classroom or an inconvenience for parents in arranging transportation. Consider how the students are taking their daily lessons out of the classroom and into the real-world to solve a problem, whatever that problem might be, and gaining valuable social skills at the same time.
"Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it
Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."
The above quote is often attributed to Siddhārtha Gautama, also known as the Buddha. Although he is not speaking about learning in a high school environment, this quote does a wonderful job of summing up the importance of self reliance through research and reflection on any topic one is interested in learning more about as opposed to simply accepting the status quo as the definitive truth.
So, you might be wondering, how does this relate to my students? One of the things that has always perplexed me when kids come into my class is how many simply rely on me to be their sole resource for information. In our childhood, we are naturally curious creatures who want to learn about and understand everything we come in contact with. As we begin school, that natural curiosity with trial-and-error exploration is often squelched and we learn that compliance and acceptance of the information we are provided will give us everything we need to succeed. Sit still, listen to the teacher, accept what they tell you as truth and you will do well in school. While such behavior is useful and necessary in some sense, I do not believe this serves the student's best interest in the long run. Often, by the time a student reaches high school after getting this message of compliance for the previous nine years of schooling, they have grown dependent on the teacher to serve them their daily dose of truth regarding each particular subject area without often understanding the implications or uses of that material.
Some of my personal goals for students are for them to gain a sense of independence and curiosity about my curriculum and the world around them. I want them to trust themselves to ask good, informed questions that extend their knowledge deeper than the curriculum requires, to explore new tools/techniques without being dependent on me to hold their hand every step of the way, and to use what they learn and experience to deepen their understanding of visual design techniques and game design. Doing so will help them grow into creative, independent individuals who think of innovative ways to use the tools/techniques that they are provided access to in my classroom. This requires constant reflection on what they have learned, whether it is information I provide them or information they find through their own curiosity and research, as well as using this new knowledge to create their own, unique and original pieces of artwork.
In order to do this successfully, students also have to realize that I may not always have the answer to their question, so they need to do their own research (even if they start by me pointing them in the direction to go) and then apply what they learn from it. It may not always work out as they hope it will, but they will always learn something useful from the experience. And, the ability to solve their own problems without relying on someone else is a skill that will transcend my class and help them well beyond their years in high school alone.
My favorite student interactions usually go something like this:
Student - "Mr. B, how do I do x?"
Me - "Why would you want to be able to do that?"
Student - "Well, if I can do x, then I can use it in my art/game/writing to make a better product."
Me - "Interesting idea...how can you figure out how to do x because that is something I have never considered and I am not sure how to do it."
Student - option a: "Well...I know student-y has worked with this software before. I could ask them."; option b: "I could Google it."; option c: "I could check the company's website/wiki/blog/Twitter to see if someone else has done x."; option d: "I could look through a magazine/book on the topic."; etc.
Me - "Good idea(s), let me know what you learn as others might want to know this information as well."
Often, they come back to me having found the answer on their own with a sense of pride and accomplishment in their ability to do so. They also tend to be full of interest and energy to extend their knowledge of the subject or tool even deeper. And, have used this acquired knowledge in an interesting and creative manner. They have now taken the first steps of self reliance, curiosity, and are becoming lifelong learners. I deem this a success!
I am a high school Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher located in Durham, NC with a focus on game art and design. This blog provides a place for reflection on relevant classroom practices.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer or anyone else associated with Durham Public Schools.