My research is focused on how we can use interactive media to better communicate history. I’ve been fortunate to work with different organizations and people dedicated to improving K-12 history, but don’t spend a lot of time in schools. So when my son’s Grade 7 history teacher asked me to speak to his class about the War of 1812, and the interactive media I’ve developed, my initial response was “of course”. This is would be a chance to get out of the ivory tower, and let the rubber hit the road.
At the same time I was ambivalent – this was outside my comfort zone. When I step into a classroom, it’s to relate to 20-year-olds, not early adolescents. And if I felt unsure, my son Jacob was horrified. “You’re teaching Grade 7 history? My class?” He had everything to lose and nothing to gain. His Dad mixing it up his friends? Talking about history? His work? It could only go badly.
Naturally, I treated his anxiety with fatherly care…. I slouched around the house with my jeans pulled low, a baseball cap on sideways, rapping out Canadian history. At least I thought I was funny.
When I got down to work, and started to sketch out some possibilities for the class, things went from bad to worse for Jacob. And so I did what any wise father does in this kind of situation – I called in his mother. My wife Anne-Marie taught high school English for many years, and now runs Canadian Accredited Independent Schools. If anyone could help me assemble a killer lesson, it was her. And she (we?!) did.
The next day, I gave a brief introduction, then talked about the power of interactive media to persuade in ways different from text. I had the students play Gonzalo Frasca’s September 12, a simple but compelling online game that argues that the attacks of September 11, 2001, should not be answered with force. We then turned our attention to the War of 1812, and after reviewing what we knew, and what we wanted to know, I challenged them: could they make an app or computer game that made an argument about the War of 1812?
In groups of three, they dove into the activity. Each team had to come up with a title, brief description of their game or app, and several images on a storyboard.
I left it wide open, and what they produced was astonishing. A team of boys worked feverishly to the last possible moment to develop an intricate and effective user interface, and a concept that brought together strategy and puzzle-solving game elements. A group of girls came up with “Mothers of the war of 1812″ – take on the role of a mother who watches her husband join the militia, and must now feed her family, run the farm, and deal with life in a battle zone. Their game drilled down to everyday experience of early nineteenth-century women, expressed in game form. And these were 13-year-olds!
What did I learn from teaching Grade 7 history? Naturally, that young people want to play, for a while. But I also was reminded that what they ultimately want to do, and what helps them best express deep thinking about history, is making – in this case building an outline for a computer game or app.
They were immensely proud of their work. And I was delighted to be in their presence, privileged to be a part of an experience that got them excited. It will be a long time before I stop hearing the voices of the last team to leave the classroom: “we need to take this to a game development company. This could be huge.”
But I still held my breath when I came home that night. I didn’t want to ask Jacob directly, so went to Anne-Marie, our intermediary. How had it gone? To his considerable surprise, he’d said that “he was actually not bad”. Music to a Dad’s ears.