Gaming in the classroom: What you didn't know about GenCon

Amanda Fletcher, high school Spanish teacher in NYC public schools (WTHR photo)
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When you think of GenCon, I'm willing to bet one of the first things that comes to your mind is the costumes. But before gamers descend on the city, educators dominate the convention.

At GenCon's Trade Day, teachers, librarians, retailers and even faith leaders come out to share ideas on how to take gaming off the table and into the classroom, or even business conference room.

One idea that was repeated across multiple sessions was using role playing games (RPGs) to help students not just learn about an historical time period by reading a textbook, but to inhabit it by playing the character of someone from that period.

"I like the idea of how much role playing can get kids to explore the actual content and take ownership of it," said Amanda Fletcher, a high school Spanish teacher in the New York City public school system.

She also thought giving students the opportunity to branch out of themselves would help get them more involved.

"Creating another character or pretending to be something else or just working within these simple rules, it kind of gives them the ability to come out more. I have classes that I don't get enough participation in, and it sounds like this is going to be a really good way to do that."

John Scott Brewer teaches junior and senior level English in Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky - the 28th largest district in the nation with 155 schools and nearly 6,200 teachers. Brewer works at an alternative school called the Phoenix School of Discovery, which specializes in at-risk students.

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"Teachers talk a lot about 'buy-in,' and a lot of our students have 'bought out' of school," he said. "They've been pushed out by traditional programs. They're very strong individuals and most of our students are lower socioeconomic."

In fact, every student at Phoenix qualifies for free or reduced lunches.

Brewer has used gaming in his classroom for the last three-and-a-half years, and was a presenter Wednesday.

"We saw how little our kids enjoyed being at school, and we're nerds so we liked school," Brewer said of why he and his colleagues first started looking at "gamifying" their classrooms. "It was totally alien. So, we needed to find a way to get them to do that."

It appears to have worked, too. The year before they started incorporating gaming into classrooms, 261 students were suspended from school. The very first year they tried it out, that number dropped to 50. They have also increased their number of students who are "college or career ready" under Common Core from 6 percent to 31 percent.

Brewer believes one of the biggest reasons for that is students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are regularly told they have limited options, which begins to make them feel like they have no chance for success regardless of how hard they work. Incorporating gaming into portions of their curriculum (he estimates it only makes up about a third of his class time while the other two-thirds are still traditional instruction), they begin feeling a sense of ownership.

"I just see that most of my students really respond well to that extra agency that having options provides," he explained. "Having some control, having control in your daily classroom interaction rather than just being dictated to."

At Phoenix, "gamification" isn't necessarily playing a game, it's about a process of getting students to buy into the content teachers are giving them. One presenter compared it to Starbucks' gold card reward program - it likely won't make anyone shop at Starbucks if they weren't already, but it helps increase loyalty among the base they have.

For classroom gamification, some teachers allow students to choose between different options for an assignment; others reward them with points in the ongoing game for answering correctly to an in-class question. Many also use leaderboards to track how well students are doing in the "game" throughout the year and show those leaderboards every day as students walk in (students create their own gaming name so those who aren't doing as well keep their privacy).

A student from Phoenix came with the teachers Wednesday and said he enjoys the real-life applications that come from gamification. He compared "leveling up" to getting a promotion, earning reward cards to being given a bonus, and watching his progress on the leaderboard to an employee review showing him areas where he does well and where he can improve.

Another Phoenix teacher, Jeffrey Harden, said that in the end, gamification of the classroom is not about "geeking out," but giving students a tangible, positive way of tracking their progress, and leads to students becoming more invested in their education.