How games saved my classroom

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[Gwailo shows us how he’s used his love of gaming to help engage the youth of Houston’s East End. By helping the youth in his school focus, he’s given them a chance they normally don’t have. Want to see your own stuff on the front page? Join the community and try making a blog! -Striderhoang]

In the many years that I’ve been involved in gaming, I haven’t ever really immersed myself in the community. I’ve lurked, I’ve commented a few times, and I’ve been to physical meetups and conventions, but I think that cyber-shyness has prevented me from really stepping out. That’s dumb and counter productive, so it’s time to dive right in and get the ball rolling.

My gaming odyssey began when I was a very small child. My parents had an Atari 2600 that they would play religiously. My dad was a cop and worked midnights when I was little, so in the mornings when he got home and in the evening before work, he’d play games like Chopper Command and River Raid. I’d sit in his lap and watch for hours. My oldest memories are of that airplane in River Raid flying along, blasting boats and avoiding canyon walls.

My mom was really more into Space Invaders (in fact, at 60 she’s still playing on the 2600 and can kick my ass bad at the classics) and she’d play while my dad was working. When I was six years old, I inherited the 2600 and my first game was Pitfall! I still count it as one of my top five favorites. I’d play that, Adventure and Moon Patrol for hours in my room and at the time I was absolutely blown away.

We didn’t have a lot of money, so I was always at least a generation or two behind in gaming. But when I got a Game Boy at a pawn shop when I was 12, I was totally hooked. Link’s Awakening and Super Mario Land 2 changed my world. From that point on, I haven’t really missed a day without some type of gaming. At 30, I’d say I’m officially about that life.

Now I’m a teacher in a low-income area in Houston’s East End and I can recall the effect that games can have on kids who don’t have a lot of control over the reality that they live in. I started teaching several years ago the traditional way, the way I’d been taught. This is an accurate depiction of my students at the time:

When I was a kid, school was ok and I didn’t hate it. But I realized one day that my biggest rub was the fact that I didn’t have a lot of fun and that I was bored most of the time. Generally, I was drawing Mario levels or reading Star Wars books, not paying attention to what I was doing in class. And that’s a problem. Most of the kids I teach don’t really have a shot at making it out of their current economic situation unless they get a quality education but if they aren’t invested, they won’t learn. I had to make changes.

I have always had a game club at the schools I’ve taught at, and I was always overcapacity in my classroom. For a lot of kids, that club is what kept them coming to school and doing work. It dawned on me (later then I would have liked) that if I brought gaming into my regular class, that I could reach out and meet the kids with something that they craved. Two years ago, I started the year off with a gamified classroom and that has made all the difference. Now it’s more like this (without the chickens and pigs, generally).

It’s paper and pencil now (Dungeon & Dragons style), but it’s fun as hell and the kids are engaged the entire time. Games have made kids love coming to school and in my case, made them love science and engineering. Without bringing gamification into the mix, I’d still be teaching in the classroom of the ’90s (might as well break out the Laser Discs) and my kids would be coming to school only to avoid truancy and to get into trouble. Because they understand gaming and have gotten into games like D&D and other RPGs (instead of obsessing exclusively about Call of Duty), I have two kids who were on probation last year for aggravated assault playing Magic: The Gathering with the nerds. They’re really good, and plan on going to some tournaments later this year with me.

Right now, I’m working hard to take this gamification thing to the next level. I’m lucky enough to teach with my best friend and together we’re developing a system that incorporates elements of a traditional RPG with real-time student data collection and aggregation to math and science curriculum that’s relevant and highly engaging, all online. It’s an extremely ambitious goal but it’s a necessary technology and I’m excited to make it a reality. Kids that are gamers today are gamers to the core, and more and more of them play games daily. We have a responsibility to meet students where they are and to realize that we can teach today the way we would have liked to learn, not the way we were forced to.


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