Tag Archives: teaching

Dungeon Fantasy in the Classroom, Take 2

After the success of our venture with the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game last spring, my colleague and I decided to offer the activity again this fall. We had enough student interest to justify buying two more boxed sets. The photo below shows all the material organized and laid out before students arrived.

DFRPG sets labeled and ready to go (plus sample characters and lots of colorful dice).

My Dubiously Relevant Subject

Every year I begin my eighth grade social studies class by asking students to answer this question on an index card:

Why is social studies the most important class you will take this year?

It’s an outrageous question, of course, and I learn a lot by seeing how each student tackles it. Most simply write out some reasons why social studies is important. Others add that other classes are equally important. A few argue that another subject trumps social studies altogether. Occasionally someone identifies it as a leading question and castigates me for pedagogic incompetence.

This year, however, I received an answer that had me laughing aloud at my desk after school:

I don’t know yet. Convince me.

Challenge accepted!

Review: The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education

The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic EducationThe Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education by Diana E. Hess
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a refreshing and valuable addition to current educational research—a must-read for 6-12 social studies and history teachers. The authors tackle important questions that all competent social studies teachers consider regularly: How do you select issues to open up for student discussion? Are some issues too “hot” or too divisive to be fruitfully discussed by students? How should a teacher balance the need to maintain a safe space for all students with the educational goal of fostering authentic political conversations about relevant controversies? Should a teacher ever share their own beliefs, or is that tantamount to proselytizing?

To answer these questions, the authors conducted years of empirical research at a wide range of schools around the country. Along the way they describe three case studies in detail, each of which is a fascinating look at how different teachers and departments grapple with these issues. The case studies alone are worth the price of the book, but the real gems here are in the final chapters where the authors analyze the data and attempt to answer the questions posed above. These chapters stand as a perfect example of how to use relevant theory and research to guide classroom practice.

Make no mistake: this is not a book aimed at a popular audience. It is written primarily for education schools rather than regular classroom teachers. With that said, however, I found plenty here of immediate, practical value. (I primarily teach 8th grade social studies.) The research cited in the book focuses on grades 9-12, but the issues raised are certainly relevant in middle school and possibly even in the younger grades.

View all my reviews

Ignoring the Speed Limit

My students are making movies. It’s one of my favorite projects of the year: inspired by StoryCorps, students record interviews with someone from an older generation, often grandparents or friends of their families, and then create short documentary videos based on material from the interview. Students narrate the video and include clips from the interview along with visual material to support their narrative. It’s challenging for students because it pushes them way outside of their comfort zones. Asking 8th graders to conduct extended, >30 minute, interviews with adults is a stretch to begin with. Then they have to identify a theme to focus on, write a script for the narration, find visuals (scanning photographs, finding internet materials, etc.), and master the technical tools to put it all together. Finally they share their movies with the class, often an excruciating moment for the neophyte auteurs.

All this exposition to provide context for the following conversation in class yesterday:

Mr. Roy: One of the roles of your introduction is to establish the mood and tone of your movie. Generally you want to be consistent, so if you’re telling a dark story, you don’t want to have a light, bubbly intro with goofy music.

<A student, let’s call him Joe, raises his hand, with a thoughtful expression.>

Mr. Roy: Yes, Joe?

Joe: What if you want to have contrast?

Mr. Roy: Say more about that.

Joe: I was thinking of trying to juxtapose my grandfather’s carefree childhood with the losses he faced later.

Mr. Roy: <silent> <mouth hanging open> Ummm, yes, that sounds … freaking awesome. If you can use “juxtapose” in a sentence, you can and should ignore everything I’m saying.

Keep in mind that Joe is a 13-year-old boy. I’m looking forward to his movie!

Student Reflections

Below is a collection of quotes from student reflections in my eighth grade social studies classes. There’s no real rhyme or reason to them; some are deep, others funny, others absurd. I added line breaks and corrected a few typos.

That’s what makes history so interesting,
the emotions that intertwine with the facts.

I am naturally good at
understanding stuff.

I love it when in group conversations there is a debate but the person with the best facts can show the other person how they are right, even if I was the one that was wrong.

Just like in science,
you can’t say something
without data.

I absolutely hate margin noting
more than I hate Activision
for making the same game
every year and brainwashing
people to buy that game.

In class, we learn about the history of our country, but notice, the class itself is not called “history,” but instead called social studies. This is because we are also learning about current and relevant events that affect us today. I can take the things we learn and connect them with things I see every day.

I have lots of opinions
and they are all
grounded in evidence.

I really want to work on speaking up more in class, and not being afraid of judgement when stating my opinion. I chose this skill because being able to talk in front of peers/people is very important, and one day I want to be a really good speaker. This class is the perfect opportunity to practice.

I know all the historical facts.

I am proud of how immersed
I am in the materials we study.

I have always been a crazy reader.

Remember that time where I corrected you on the start date of the revolutionary war? (No offense.) When I saw the incorrect date I thought back to my times in Assassin’s Creed III and remembered the date of the attack on Lexington and Concord (4/19/1775, my birthday) and my ego lightbulb went off and I thought “Aha!!! My video games have brought me a point of extra credit!!!”

Sometimes I am not the most thorough person.

I memorize facts by trying to use them
in outside-of-class situations instead
of just memorizing them for a test.

I am pretty good with speaking up in class,
though sometimes I do ask pretty dumb questions.

I think the trimester went pretty well,
though in the middle I kind of got lazy.

Sometimes I have trouble
paying attention to what
others are saying.

It is still a developing skill for me to take other perspectives, since I usually stay grounded in my own strong opinion and it is hard to get out.

It was really fun,
because when you know the facts,
you can ask a lot more question,
and you are able to debate the truth.

I think it’s hard to have an opinion without evidence, and that’s why I have a lot of screenshots of conversations in my phone.

One last thing.
I recently realized
how amazing my
NASA poster is.
I mean
just look at it.

Every November, as our first trimester draws to a close, I ask my students to write reflections on how the trimester went for them. I have some broad prompts like, “Describe your strengths in social studies,” and “Describe at least one specific skill you want to work on next trimester,” followed by a section where students rate themselves on various skills (reading, discussion, writing, using evidence, etc.). Finally, they give themselves a letter grade and explain why they think they’ve earned it. It’s the culminating assignment of the trimester, and I depend heavily on it while writing narrative reports and making decisions about borderline grades.

I love reading these reflections because most students take them very seriously and I learn a lot about them, their goals, and their perceptions of their strengths and weaknesses. This, in turn, provides me with a lens to consider how well I have communicated the goals and skills required for the class. I am most successful when my students’ self-evaluations are congruent with my own perceptions.

Franconia Field Trip

It began with my August update about our summer family pilgrimage to the Franconia Sculpture Park. A friend and teaching colleague, Carrie Clark, saw the post and left this comment:

“Andrew, can’t we take the eighth grade there?”

I put Franconia on the agenda at one of our planning meetings in August and the 8th grade team was excited about the concept. Large scale sculptures provide an awesome array of interdisciplinary connections, fusing the social commentary and communication skills of  social studies and English with the engineering of math and science. (Indeed, right after the trip I sent an email to the entire grade resolving a lively debate at the park about the density of cement and thus how much a sculpture weighed). Moreover, the park ties into our newly hatched 8th grade design thinking program, with each sculpture representing the latest of a series of prototypes that the artists experimented with along the way. The playful and interactive nature of the park dovetails with our design focus on recreational spaces with our cardboard arcade and playground design projects.

Fitting the trip into our packed fall calendar was no mean feat, and our first try fell apart in September. Fortunately, however, we were able to get out  there on November 4, a beautiful, blustery fall day. (An arctic blast of snow and freezing wind arrived less than a week later, so we were lucky!)

The trip was a hit with both teachers and students. The artist-guides were engaging and knowledgeable.  There was a good mix of time spent on the official tour and free time to explore and climb and think. We didn’t bog things down with faux academic worksheets or other artificial baloney. (Despite this, multiple students, independently and unprompted, asked me for paper and a pencil so that they could jot down some design ideas for their work at school.) It felt, to me, exactly like what a field trip should be: students and teachers sharing an authentic experience of the world.

See below for a few pictures of the trip, taken by either me or my colleagues (some on phones, some on better cameras). Click on any image to see a larger slideshow.

Nine Years Down

It’s been another great year in the classroom, and I feel as engaged and motivated as I ever have. I’m definitely looking forward to the time off in the coming summer weeks, but I no longer fear the arrival of September, as I did when I first jumped into this new career.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a decade since I left my IT career. I would write “no regrets” but that sounds too pensive, like I really do have regrets but I’m trying to convince myself that I don’t. In this case it’s the opposite of regret—I am profoundly fortunate that I found a career that gives back more than I put into it. For those of you who know some of my background interests, consider that in addition to teaching a fantastic social studies course all year, I did the following in my classroom:

    • taught students how to design 3D models to print on a 3D printer
    • had a bocce ball tournament (well, we went outside for this)
    • blasted music during our weekly advisory musical chairs deathmatch
    • played dungeons and dragons (!)

It’s a very good fit.

My awesome advisory, 2013-2014
My awesome advisory, 2013-2014