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Games As Entry Events

Sorry for the delay. It has been a long and busy summer and I wasn't able to keep up with my blogging. But I'm back!

As a social studies teacher and proud instructor of what my students like to remind me is “one of the boring subjects”, student engagement is an essential aspect of every lesson and project that I design. I am constantly looking for new approaches, attention-grabbers, and activities that allow me to hook my students but also adhere to state standards and learning goals.

It is this last part that is most important to keep in mind. The opener for your lessons, sometimes referred to as lesson launchers or entry events, can’t be just anything. They should always meet the following criteria;

  1. Does it capture student interest in an authentic manner? How?

  2. Is this something that all students can engage with? How?

  3. Will it provide fertile material for reflecting and standards-based inquiry during the project or unit? How?

In considering these criteria, I find games to be of particular benefit. When you tell an average student “time to learn about the Constitutional Convention” many are already checked-out before you even begin, but start the lesson with, “we’re going to play a game” and you won’t lose them quite so quickly. There is something less threatening about “let’s play a game” that many students, especially those who traditionally struggle, find comforting.

Variety, as it is often said, is the spice of life, so here are a few different game-based methods of snagging interest early so you can retain it and build off it;

1. Using Ready-Made Games - Internet

Starting off a unit with a game, whether it is an off-the-shelf box game or an online web game can create great opportunities to include project-based learning elements like reflection later. You just have to be willing to look around a little and do some scaffolding. One example I love is a flash-based game called The Jamestown Online Adventure from History Globe. In this game, students take on the role of colonial magistrate and must make choices about the Jamestown colony that are then rated against those made by the actual settlers.

The game was clearly designed for a much younger audience than my middle schoolers, but this makes it accessible to almost all my students, even those with special learning needs. It doesn't take long for older students to get through it, leaving plenty of time for them to reflect on their experience and how their choices compared to those of the actual settlers or how what they learned about Jamestown after the game would have changed their original decisions. I use a written reflection and discussion after the activity to help them think more deeply about the challenges that awaited England's first settlers in the New World. This reflection is something that can be revised and expanded as students learn more about European Settlement from the different activities and lessons that we do in class.

If you’re looking for ready-made online games, playinghistory.org is one of the best sites you can look for.

2) Using Ready-Made Games – Board/Card

Like their electronic counterpart, card and board games can be used to teach content, expand on historic concepts discussed in class, and help students practice using content-specific academic vocabulary.

Board and card games can be utilized in many ways. Turn based games (where players take multiple turns during play) can be played for just a few minutes a day over a long period of time which preserves class time and helps keep students engaged throughout a unit. You can also keep more powerful pieces or cards out of the game and use them as incentives for class management. A game I love is Honor of the Samurai in which students take on the role of Ronin serving different masters in feudal Japan. The players use cards that represent armies, artifacts, or special tactics to gain points, but I keep the most powerful army cards out of the deck and offer them as incentives in class for on-task work, excellent responses, and thoughtful comments made during discussions. This practice once resulted in a black market trade in cards which my principal was a little nonplussed by, but made me feel a little proud.

There are many historically-themed games produced by a multitude of companies. Some of my favorite include; San Juan, a colonial economics game, Founding Fathers, a constitutional convention game, A Few Acres of Snow, a strategy game about the French and Indian War, and Pirateer, a math-driven strategy game. This last one I combine with study questions as a formative assessment where if students don’t answer their questions right they can’t take a turn, so it becomes duel-purposed.

Searching sites like Board Game Geek can reveal great games with themes and mechanics that help reinforce or teach history content, but make sure to balance these with the time it will take to learn the rules and the cost you’ll incur. I find video tutorials assigned for homework to be very valuable in saving class time.

3) Simulations

Simulations can be great fodder for thought and great hooks for otherwise uninterested students as they demand a more focused amount of attention then a traditional game. They also tend to be competitive in nature, and therefore become naturally engaging because they connect with students on an emotional level. They also require a level of planning and strategic thinking that you don't generally see with any other classroom activities because students have to think critically about their actions and the possible consequences or effects those decisions will cause.

When teaching the Civil War, I play a simulation I designed that helps my students learn about warfare in the 1860’s and how theaters worked in warfare. I have my students divide up into several groups, with each group controlling one theater of the conflict for their side. Although individual groups make decisions together, they must coordinate their efforts in the game with those of their allies in order to maximize their efforts. The game helps them stay engaged, but periodically we use a collaboration rubric to help them assess and grow their teamwork abilities. By the end of the game, win or lose, they can not only work with their small groups, but can coordinate their decisions between groups. Combine a simulation game with a rubric, and you have a ready-made, engaging way to assess and teach 21st-century competencies.

If you are not a game designer, don’t fret! There are many online vendors who sell pre-made simulations as well as many curriculum companies. There are also some great ones on TPT like Add-On History that provide great quality simulations on the cheap.

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