Last year, Lucas Gillispie started a World of Warcraft club at Cape Fear Middle School in Rocky Point, N.C.
After fourth period, students ran into the media center to play the massively multiplayer online videogame. With students from Suffern Middle School in New York, they formed a guild — or a play organization — called The Legacy.
At the end of a long day of sitting in class, Gillispie couldn't be overtly instructional without turning them off. So the instructional technology coordinator for Pender County Schools took a ninja-like approach.
“We would sneak the learning in through the game, which is actually very easy to do,” Gillispie said during a presentation at the Global Education Conference this week.
This year, the middle school took the club to the next level.
Principal Edie Skipper wanted to find out what impact the game would have on student learning. So she asked Gillispie and teacher Craig Lawson to design an elective language arts course around the game.
Gillispie and Lawson developed a curriculum that aligns to the Common Core Standards. And this year, 29 students from both Suffern and Cape Fear middle schools are exploring language arts through the World of Warcraft.
In World of Warcraft, players take on the role of heroes as they fight with enemies, forge alliances and foray throughout the world of Azeroth. They choose characters including orcs, dwarves and elves. And they fight on the side of the Alliance or the Horde.
The players advance to different levels by earning experience points. And they earn experience points by killing monsters, exploring new places and completing quests. Through guilds, they can join forces with other players and coordinate attacks.
In the WoWinSchool class, the game inspired a number of changes. Instead of earning grades, students earn experience points. Instead of doing assignments, they go on quests. Instead of using paper, they use Moodle.
“We really wanted to shake things up and do things completely different than how they would be done in a normal classroom,” Lawson said.
The students move at their own pace through the learning modules in Moodle. And an Excel document shows each student's experience points overall and by assignment.
“They’re really excited to see where they’re at and kind of compete with each other and share that with each other because it’s experience, not grades,” Lawson said.
The kids don't associate experience with intellect, which is a good thing, he said. And they're constantly figuring out how they can earn more experience points.
By playing the game, students practice communication, leadership and teamwork skills.
They read, make calculations and learn about economics. They think critically, solve problems and develop socially. They brainstorm guild mission statements, create their avatars and write stories about their characters.
The game gives them a learning environment that's relevant to them and allows them to live out the plot line of a story, Lawson said.
This week, the students started tweeting in character through the hashtag "wowinschool." They're tweeting about the events leading up to launch of a new major game expansion called Cataclysm on Dec. 7. In Cataclysm, a giant evil dragon will break through the earth's surface, causing major changes in Azeroth.
In the weeks before the dragon emerges, earthquakes and other activities occur in the world. And the students are telling the story of what's going on from a character's point of view.
In both the Cape Fear and Suffern classes, the instructors chose kids who were at risk behaviorally or academically. At Suffern Middle School, Media Specialist Peggy Sheehy teaches a class of 14 kids at a slower pace.
Her students don't make friends easily, don't read well and don't always try in school.
But they really like the WoWinSchool class.
"My kids are racing into the library," she said. "They’re running in, they’re eager to be there.”
In the course, they're reading The Hobbit, the quests from the game and entries in the forums. They can't succeed in the game if they're not constantly reading, she said.
In the game, students can try again if they fail. And that's what students want. One of them told Sheehy, "School should be more like games: when you get it wrong, you try again.”
Administrators shouldn't be afraid to try curriculum like this, said Skipper, the principal of Cape Fear Middle School.
“We’ve got to think differently about how to reach children because the way we’ve always done school is not going to continue to work for us," she said in a phone interview.
Games allow schools to reach a certain group of children that they may lose otherwise. And with this class, Skipper couldn't be more excited about seeing children engaged, working together, solving problems, developing mission statements and forming guilds.
Since the class started at Suffern Middle School, students who have social difficulties have improved their communication skills, Principal Brian Fox said. The students know that Fox plays World of Warcraft, so they talk to him about strategies and ask for advice.
Fox knew the game would engage the students when Sheehy proposed teaching the class. As an administrator, he also knew that the game wasn't a controlled environment. Some of the things in the game weren't necessarily appropriate for middle school kids either.
But most of his fears haven't panned out. The kids have learned their own lessons on how to make appropriate choices in the game, just like they learn those lessons in real life.
One student set Fox's mind at ease when he told him about the consequences of drinking too much at Brewfest, an in-world festivity. He said that if you drink too much at the festival, the game goes all fuzzy, you do stupid things and your character could die if you wander into the wrong place. The kid really taught himself a lesson on the bad choices characters could make if they drink too much alcohol, Fox said.
These students don't just run around in the game and in class. Sheehy guides them through lessons and quests that have a purpose. The curriculum is well developed, and every session has a goal, Fox said.
“You have to focus their experience; you can’t just let them wander around for two hours and do whatever they feel like," he said in a phone interview. "There has to be some overall educational goal.”
He's curious to see if some of the writing and reading they're doing in the class will help them in their growth assessments this year. In both Pender County and Ramapo Central school districts, the superintendents support the classes. That's made all the difference in the world as both schools have taken a risk to engage kids, Skipper said.
After next summer, Gillispie hopes to make the course available for others to use under a Creative Commons license. But for now, he's sharing what he's learned on the project wiki. And through Twitter, his students tell the story of the earth-shaking happenings in Azeroth.
Edurealms.com: Gillispie's gaming and education site.