Confessions of an ex-pilgrim

OK, so I’ll come clear straight off. No actual confessions here.

There, that feels better. Glad I got that off my chest.

This is the time of year when I recall with great fondness my days as a “colonial interpreter” at the living history museum of Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, MA. It’s a wonderful museum where Native Americans interpret the history and culture of the Wampanoag people (from a modern perspective, known in the business as “third person interpretation”) and other people dress as pilgrims and hang around in reproductions of early 17th century hovels pretending to be pilgrims living in 1627 Plymouth Colony (a method known as “first person interpretation,” though most people think of it as acting). During my time as a pilgrim, I hewed logs, planted corn, cared for cattle and chickens, spun tales from the 17th century to schoolchildren and tourists, sailed on the Mayflower II, and even got to meet a few celebrities (I’m sure Alan Alda, Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, and Ron Howard all remember every detail of my interactions with them). Some of my strongest friendships were forged there, and my wife and I met while working in the pilgrim village.

It was the fall of 1992. I had earned my MA in History, but had not managed to land a teaching job. Demoralized and dead broke, I landed back home with my parents and resigned myself to the reality that I needed to find a job, any job, to start earning some dough. I opened up the help wanted ads (what a concept these days!) and saw an eye-grabbing one. The ad said “Time Travelers Wanted.” How could a nerd like me not answer it? I was offered a job as an apprentice interpreter. It paid a little more than minimum wage and would end less than three months after I took it, when the museum closed for the season. I thought it would be a three-month gig and then I would resume my search for a teaching job. Eight years later, I finally bid adieu to my dear friends from “the plant” and moved to Maine with my lovely wife to start a new life.

I am convinced that my time as a pilgrim made me the teacher I am today.

It was there that I learned true patience, interrupting a physical task over and over to answer the same question. I often found myself interpreting to a group of people composed of a mix of families on vacation, massive groups of excited schoolchildren, foreign tourists who could speak little or no English, and elderly leaf peepers exhausted by the long walk from the visitor center. Talk about differentiation!

Another aspect of interpreting in the village that prepared me well for teaching was the amount of preparation that went into a character portrayal. Some years I played single men who left little mark on the historical record, building a credible character out of a mix of representative information and primary sources on Plymouth Colony. Other years I played some of the founding fathers of the colony, such as Edward Winslow and Governor William Bradford; these roles required memorizing lengthy passages from primary sources to voice a man whose words and thoughts are recorded in detail.

First person portrayal of historical figures also requires a delicate balancing act, especially when it comes to icons of American history who, as 17th century men, held some distinctly unpalatable views on topics such as the role of women, Native Americans, Catholics, and child-rearing practices. I had to be true to the world view the 17th century religious dissidents while also not offending visitors or condoning those beliefs. Teaching social studies often involves treading on thin ice as well, as teachers need to encourage questioning sources without giving the appearance of inciting students to blindly assault and tear down the values that parents and others have tried to instill in them.

A final lesson that my pilgrim days taught me was genuine humility. I watched amazing artisans make products out of rough clay, cloth, and wood, and knew that I could never hope to emulate them. I studied the lives of people who lived centuries ago and, despite their obvious imperfections, grew to admire their willingness to risk everything in a harrowing ocean crossing. I worked with women who roasted meat by smoking embers on a broiling summer day, while wearing several layers of wool, the whole time smiling and chatting with visitors who little comprehended the heroic endurance these women exhibited. And I learned that people thought I had something to say, something worth paying good money and traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles to hear. I think I actually got pretty good at public speaking, and this helped me recommit to the idea of teaching, of trying to make a difference in kids’ lives.

I was finally ready to begin my own pilgrimage.

Here’s an image of me (on the right) and a fellow interpreter named Bil getting paid to eat, drink, and chat with people. We were living the dream!

Anti-intellectualism and the “game of school”

Last week I attended the induction ceremony for the latest members to be welcomed into my high school’s chapter of the National Honor Society. I watched with pride as many of my students took the stage, candles in hand, the students’ pictures and short biographies flashing up on the screen behind them. I was reminded quite powerfully of why it is such a joy to be a part of these young people’s’ lives.

I couldn’t help thinking, though, that these are the exact kids that some people talk about when they say that some kids are “good at the game of school.” I know that I have used this phrase before, as have many people whom I respect. At its best, the phrase is intended to convey the critique that schools are not “real life” and that learning in schools is not entirely genuine. At its worst, however, this term implies that the students themselves are somehow inauthentic, or even “grade grubbers” whose achievements are hollow and whose trophies are cheap things made of tin and plated with fools-gold.

Well, for one thing, I find it odd that adults set up this “game,” and then mock the students who are bright enough to perceive the rules, motivated enough to play by those rules, and skilled enough to master those rules. Doesn’t our society lionize people who are good at playing games? Football players, titans of finance and industry, and successful actors and musicians are all celebrated. Heck, we even assume that people who are good at one of these games must be good at all other games as well; why else would we allow those at the top of the tech industry to tell us how to organize our schools? Everything they touch must turn to gold, right? But that’s a post for another day…

More importantly, however, is the question of whether school really is an empty game. I know that school doesn’t work well for all kids. There are times when I think that maybe it only works well for a minority of kids. But there are some students who work very hard to achieve the honors and accolades that we set forth as prizes. As I looked at the students on the stage last week, I saw some of the nicest, hardest working, and most talented students in our community. They have shown me they are thoughtful, analytical, and independent-minded individuals. And these aren’t simply students who get high grades; they are the students who participate in the class fundraisers, who volunteer as big brothers and big sisters, and serve as class officers. I know for a fact that some of these kids have significant disabilities or have faced major disruptions or even tragedies in their lives, and presume that at least several of the students whom I do not know well have also overcome challenges. These kids have earned the praise that was heaped upon them that evening, and more.

There are things we need to change about our schools. But to dismiss these kids as “playing the game of school” is nothing more than anti-intellectualism masquerading as high-minded criticism. It’s a phrase I vow to use no longer.

Image: Bromann, Fabian. Playing Game of Life. 2007. Flickr. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. <;.

Simulations of Misery

I like games. Board games, simulations, video games, role playing games–as a kid, I spent countless hours in my parents’ basement playing them with friends, thinking about them, and designing them. The sound of rolling dice is music to my ears. Many of the games I’ve played are simulations of wars or battles. Fortunately, my understanding of history has grown beyond an adolescent boy’s love of playing “little wars,” but I feel like much of my interest in history stems from my days moving cardboard chits across a map of ancient Gaul or the Russian steppes. So naturally, I am drawn to the idea of using games to spark a similar interest in my students.

I’m not the most plugged in guy, but it seems to me that the buzz around the idea of gamification in the classroom is growing. The idea is that games engage students, provide opportunities to explore open-ended questions, and allow students to create solutions to problems rather than simply receiving and digesting information. Granted, this is not a new concept; many of us have fond memories of the old “Oregon Trail” game, which dates back to the 1970’s. But in education, of course, everything old is new again. In any case, with my love of games, this is an idea I can embrace without someone needing to back it up with data.

I’ve tried to integrate games, er, um, simulations into my lessons since I first set foot in my classroom. In my experience, some of the most successful games are low tech and relatively low preparation ones, such as having students assume the roles of historical figures and challenging them to interact is if they were those people. I have also designed a few card games and some that involve dice and boards. There are also some wonderful free online simulations out there that do a great job pulling in the kids (please let me know about any that work for you–I am always on the lookout for a new game or simulation to include in my social studies classes). Judging by the noise level in my room when I use simulations, the students seem to enjoy them.

Of course, there are pitfalls to avoid with games, just as with any teaching technique. It is very easy for kids to get really into the game without sparing any thought of actually trying to learn anything from it. I guess that’s where the teacher comes in, to make sure the students connect the game to the material they have just been exposed to or that the teacher will try to help them learn through the game or following the game. But this is true for any lesson that engages the kids to a high degree; we need to make sure that the students see the point in it all and don’t just see it as a day off from the drudgery of, you know, learning.

The real issue that trouble me, though, is an ethical one. I remember hearing a fellow student in one of my education classes (back in my college days in the famously liberal “happy valley” region of western Massachusetts) intoning solemnly that “war is not a game” and that any simulation related to warfare was disrespectful. I still have to struggle, a quarter century later, not to roll my eyes at the recollection of that pronouncement. But I will grudgingly admit that she had a point. Some historical events shouldn’t be “fun” to study. There are some red lines that I won’t cross. I can’t imagine running a simulation related to the Holocaust, for example, or of slavery or the Trail of Tears. But I am OK with running games to simulate World War One or the dark days of the early Industrial Revolution. I dunno, maybe this makes me a rank hypocrite. What qualifies as acceptable,and what trivializes human suffering?

I guess there are a few guidelines I have in mind when I think about using a game. Extreme caution should be used with a simulation that relates to a tragic event that may still persist in living memory, or that connects strongly to the experiences of a specific racial, ethnic, religious, or other minority group. So, no Rwandan Genocide game, no 9/11 simulation, no Iraq War simulation. Another unwritten rule would be that the game should not mock a specific individual or provide an easy opportunity for the class clown to find a way to mock an individual. Even poor Louis XVI doesn’t deserve some 16 year old Mainer parading around with a balloon with the unfortunate monarch’s face drawn on it representing his severed head. Finally, students needs to know that whatever they are doing, their experience in no way replicates the experience of actual human beings who lived through the events they are simulating. This is why I will never do a World War One simulation where students tip over their desks and throw wads of paper at each other. They can simulate the decision making process of the leaders who dragged the world into that maelstrom, but not the horror that the doughboys and tommies witnessed in the mud of Flanders.

We can’t, however, tiptoe around everything that could potentially offend. Heck, even chess is a simulation of warfare, and some would argue that many sports are ritualized warfare. Let’s face it, we read stories about human misery in part because we enjoy them; we are fascinated by the dark and macabre, and there are times when immersing ourselves in that can be instructive. Simulations and games hold too much potential to engage students, present opportunities for them to recognize connections, and provide springboards to deep and meaningful learning to dismiss them out of hand. Done carefully and thoughtfully, they can be used not only to teach the specific details of a given event, but also to help students make a sympathetic connection to those strangers who lived, and sometimes suffered, so long ago.

For those who may be interested, here are some free online simulations that I have found useful. If you have others to pass along, please do so in a comment!

Wall Street Journal’s Stock Market Simulation: Students set up a virtual portfolio that ties into real-time stock prices and compete to see who can make the most money in a set period. Be careful not to create little day trader fiends with this one!

Third World Farmer: This can be a powerful one that teaches students about the obstacles faced by farmers in the developing world. Some care must be taken that students do not use this game to mock the plight of those whose role they are assuming–students can “name” the people on their farm, and sometimes come up with inappropriate names. They also have the choice of schooling the character’s children, providing medicine (or not), or marrying them off. There’s a lot of potential for abuse here.

Against All Odds: A simulation in which students make choices as a refugee fleeing oppression and conflict. This one is very respectful of the plight of refugees.

World War One Simulation: This simple simulation of trench warfare from the BBC teaches students about the failure of technology and tactics to break the stalemate, and does a nice job remaining sensitive to the human suffering involved.

Battle of Waterloo Simulation: This is a very basic simulation that allows students a simple choice A/choice B series of decisions. It’s value is limited, in my experience, but it can be an opening activity to get students discussing the futility of Napoleon’s 100 days campaign and why Frenchmen still flocked to his banner.

Who Wants to be a Cotton Millionaire?: Another from the BBC. This one has students make a series of decisions as a factory owner at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
Muck and Brass”: A follow-up to the cotton millionaire game. This time, students are the town elders in a Victorian city deciding what, if anything, to do about social and environmental challenges.

Image: “Senet.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Oct. 2014. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.

What exactly am I doing here, again?

Some colleagues recently posted and emailed links to some thought-provoking blogs that tap into some concerns and qualms about my role as a teacher in a traditional high school. There was this one by a veteran teacher posted by Grant Wiggins as well as his follow-up post here. I also spent some time pondering this provocatively-titled article in Salon, not to mention Time Magazine’s recent cover story on teacher tenure. These are not the kinds of articles and blogs that make me feel all warm and fuzzy about what I do for a living.

As a teacher and as a parent, I see all too that, although traditional education works really well for many kids, it completely fails far too many others. When I teach the industrial revolution to my students, I point out how students are in a kind of factory where they are not the workers, but rather the product. They roll along the assembly line, and I bolt on some social studies along the way, with students finally emerging from the factory as a gleaming new product, complete with an “inspected by” sticker (their diploma), ready to be purchased by some college or employer. The kids are often bemused by this, but it is by no means a revelation to some of the more astute pupils in the room.

So, if I believe this to be true, what exactly am I doing here? Am I just another cog in the machine, grinding down individuality in order to produce a standardized product that will meet the specifications of the buyer? Of course I don’t believe that to be true, or I couldn’t do this job. But there are moments when I wish we could really break the mold of traditional high school.  When I was teaching about slavery and compromise in the years leading up to the Civil War this week, we discussed the idea of how some individuals and some states may have widely varying views of what is moral and what should be legal. We started talking about the issues you’d expect–gay marriage, gun rights, the death penalty–but suddenly spun into a discussion of Ebola, and whether people who may have been exposed should be quarantined or even held against their will for a time. One student even said we should go so far as to euthanize people who are infected to prevent the disease from spreading. Now, this is in a class where several students have announce loudly and often that they like neither school in general nor history in particular. And yet we had a lively, vigorous debate about issues around individual liberty, balancing individual rights versus communal rights, the power of the government, and abuse of power. It was exciting! And it was “off topic.” The kids left class, grinning, convinced they had pulled one over on me by getting us away from the lesson plan.

In the ideal world, I would have been able to take that topic and let the kids run with it for as long as they wished, until they had satisfied their desire to explore these issues. We could have looked at Japanese-American internment, Typhoid Mary, and the eugenics movement. It would have represented a true learning experience that would possibly have remained with those students for some time. These are kids that will be of voting age next year. Shouldn’t I be encouraging them to delve into these ideas in order to become engaged citizens, informed individuals, and reflective human beings? But there I was next class, tugging them back to the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the debate about whether the war with Mexico was a war to extend slavery.

I read about places like the Sudbury Valley school, and I am downright jealous–why can’t I replicate some of what they do in my classroom? Am I limited by my own conceptions about what I should be doing, by the standards I am required to help my students meet, by the limitations of not having the luxury of working with a self-selected group of students who are motivated and have motivated and involved parents, or by my own lack of creative lesson planning?

I guess what it boils down to is that I feel restricted by multiple layers of accountability, or, depending on your view, bureaucratic red tape. So, am I helping my kids, or am I part of a machine that is systematically tearing down love of learning and replacing it with a grotesque mockery of learning? Ultimately, I think I am doing good, and genuinely helping my kids. But I can do better. We can do better.