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How mainstream video games are being used as teaching tools
What about parents, who might feel clueless and confused? Cloud and Gillispie say the answer is simple: Play the games with your kids.
“Just pay attention and be willing to set aside those tired stereotypes,” says Gillispie, now an instructional technology coordinator for Pender County Schools. “We’ve come a long way since ‘Pac-Man.’”
Learning in Azeroth
Gillispie, 37, grew up playing computer games. He enjoys talking with his high school students about gaming, and it was a student who introduced him to online role-playing games such as “World of Warcraft,” often known as “WoW.”
“WoW” players create an avatar who completes quests in the fantasy realm of Azeroth. They choose a profession, join guilds, and ally themselves with one of two warring factions—the Alliance or the Horde—then face creatures such as dwarves, orcs, and trolls. Players interact with others around the world.
Gillispie’s love of gaming led him from the classroom to the district technology job, where he created a “WoW” club for at-risk middle-school students in 2009. He teamed up with a New York teacher launching a similar club, and the two schools created a guild.
That experience evolved into the “WoW” curriculum, which is designed to meet the standards set in the new Common Core curriculum. For instance, one “quest” requires students to study riddle poetry and share their notes within the guild. They write their own riddle poems based on Azeroth, edit and critique each other, then take their riddles into the wider game world to challenge outsiders.
The free-form nature of gaming creates unexpected lessons, Gillispie says. Once, he says, a group of his students figured out how to cheat another player out of gold coins. The kids were triumphant until Gillispie confronted them about their ethics. They agreed to return the money and write an apology—and they were delighted when the other player commended their honesty.
“It was a moment for us to teach some morality in the virtual world,” he said.
While “WoW” isn’t graphically violent, it does involve battles, which might make it inappropriate for younger students.
Enter “Minecraft,” a game that pops players into various environments and requires them to construct shelter from roving “creepers,” spiders, and zombies. There’s also a creative mode that lets players build without attacks.
“It is an infinite sandbox made up of Lego-like blocks,” says Cloud, who learned about the game from her students and her own children, ages 10 and 13.
Cloud, a self-professed “Star Wars” geek, started playing “WoW” a couple of years ago—at age 50—and grew to love it. A teacher’s assistant, she was assigned to run one of Torrence Creek’s two computer labs. When the PTA bought 60 iPads, Cloud says, “It was love at first sight.”
When she announced the “Minecraft” club at the start of this school year, the 60 slots were filled in two days—with almost 40 more students on the waiting list. It’s an after-school club, but Cloud is talking to classroom teachers about ways to use the game in lessons. For instance, she has her older students research North Carolina landmarks and build them to scale in “Minecraft.” Sam Gilbert, a fourth-grader, has built a model of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse.
On a recent afternoon, second-grader Ross Dorfman was tunneling deep into his world, while third-grader Maddie Kester built a house of diamonds. Maddie said when she’s waiting for dinner at home, she asks to use her parents’ iPad to play “Minecraft.”
“It makes time go by fast,” she said.
Cloud calls that “flow,” a total absorption that characterizes people playing challenging computer games.
“If we can turn this in a way to take it and make it our own, there’s no limit to what they can do,” she says.
(Next page: Using ‘Angry Birds’ to teach algebra)