Starting a new Role Playing Game Club

Today was the inaugural meeting of the Superior Heights Role Playing Game club. Over the past two weeks I’ve asked interested students to create first-level characters that they would be interested in playing. I recommended orcpub2.com using the Point Buy system for stats to help ensure a “legal” character for each of them. To my surprise, fifteen students want to play.

That’s a lot.

Like, three games’ worth.

I’m the only GM available, it appears, so I don’t know what I’m going to do about that. I’m committing to spending two hours with them every Friday night after school, plus all the prep work between sessions. I’m considering rotating groups through, running two or three games on a cycle.

This afternoon there were “only” six players. Several students had other commitments or couldn’t get rides home after the game. Six was manageable, but only just.

Rules

Apart from the official game rules, I set out some rules for the club at school. Here’s a paraphrasing of them.

  • Everyone is responsible for ensuring the group is having fun.
  • You are not your character. In-game stuff (especially conflicts) need to stay in the game.
  • No foul language. You might be okay with it, but I’m not and the person beside you might not be.
  • No sex of any kind.
  • No violence towards children.

The students also added a rule to my list:

  • No player-versus-player (PvP) combat.

The Start

This was even more challenging than I expected. All six players were new to the game, but they had all spent time developing characters already.

My plan was to help them to build connections between characters by requiring them to answer questions about their pasts. “Sally, what serious event did your character and Mark’s character both witness?” “Jim, what is it about Jordan’s character that irritates your character?” That sort of thing.

There was a frustrating trend that began here and continued throughout the session. A player would suggest something (here it was an event in the backstory), and then another player would suggest a different and mutually exclusive idea, and then both players would be at a standstill. Both were invested in their idea, and neither wanted to work with the other’s suggestions. I didn’t know how to help them work this out, but I did the best I could. This problem slowed the game significantly.

I did my best to roll with (ha ha) the backstories the players had developed to set the initial scene. Players didn’t really know what to do, and I wished that I had forced them to develop a party before starting (instead I asked them to work at coming together in the first session).

Some characters took actions that helped the party come together, but other characters took actions that drove the party apart. Making decisions among six people was onerous.

When the session was wrapping up I recapped the major events so far to make sure we were in sync. I also talked with the players about how to play together instead of just making sure their characters did cool stuff for themselves. I guess we’ll see next time if my post-session pep talk was helpful.

Even though the game was super-challenging for me and not as successful (progressive?) as I’d hoped, it was clear that most of the players had fun. They left the classroom and stood in the hall, talking about what happened and speculating about what could happen next. They were intrigued, and some talked about tweaking their characters to make them more “playable” with the rest of the group.

Fingers crossed that I’m a bit better at this next week.

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Learning at Home: How to be a YouTuber

My son is 8, and he wants to be a famous YouTuber like DanTDM. Although I realize this aspiration may be short-lived, I’m open to the possibility. I also know that he probably won’t find this learning in the Ontario Curriculum.

So I decided I’d better figure out how this stuff works so that I can help him understand (and possibly realize) his dream.

I have a YouTube channel already. I post math and computer science videos, mostly, and a few more personal things. I don’t monetize the teaching videos since I direct my students to view them and that would be inappropriate. It was time to start a new channel.

I wanted a channel with a focus, but that was broad enough to allow for lots of content. The kids and I enjoy watching videos of booster box openings (Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon), and I watch more MTG videos. This is something I know a fair bit about, and I can produce content easily (if not always cheaply).

So Grasley Games was born. These aren’t games I’ve designed (that’s coming, though). Instead, “games” is a verb here.

Logo bold

I started by opening a box of Aether Revolt, the newest set of Magic: The Gathering available at the time. I practised for a while first, figuring out camera setup, microphone, lighting, and how to hold the cards effectively. I’ve done some video production work before, but I was still surprised at how challenging this initial planning was.

I also wanted to try some “actual plays”, recordings of playing games. I’ve recorded about 10 games, but only a few have been worth posting. Lots of camera problems with this stuff.

The channel is monetized, which means that some ad revenue accumulates over time. So far there’s $1.86 waiting for me. Another couple of lifetimes and I’ll pay for that box…

Now for the kids

This wasn’t just for me, remember? Both my kids want to participate too. Now that I’ve learned the basics of setting everything up, they’re starting to make videos for me to post. There are three so far on the channel:

What’s next

They keep asking to make more videos (I got enough stuff for them to make 6 videos each on these topics without any additional investment), so that’s pretty cool. I do want them to see how difficult it is to get eyes on your content when you’re in a fairly niche area, and that consistency is really important (they’re counting on me for this).

I’ve also made other spaces on the web for Grasley Games – we’ll see how these platforms pan out:

Grasley Games on WordPress

Grasley Games on Facebook

Grasley Games on Patreon

Grasley Games on Twitter

What do you choose to learn about when you’re not at school?

I had an interesting talk with the student today about a variety of topics related to schooling and education. I asked her one question which has been staying with me throughout the evening so far. 

“What do you learn about when you’re not at school? What do you learn about because you want to, not because you have to? What are you curious about?”

I think each person’s answers can give some insight into what their passions are. Curiosity is an incredibly valuable commodity, and nurturing it is some of the most important work we do. Let’s help foster the inquiring mindset while being careful not to steal the passion by imposing our structures. 

“Jigsaw” activities don’t work

Maybe there is a way to make them work, but I haven’t seen it yet. 

A jigsaw activity as I have experienced it involves a group of people all needing to learn the same thing. The new learning is divided by the facilitators into some number of discrete pieces.

Suppose there are four different components to a concept or skill that participants want to learn about. Each of those components becomes a station in the room. The learners are then divided into groups of at least four, and each person within the group is assigned one of the four stations to become an “expert” at that component. 

The participants scatter to their stations, and they engage in dialogue to become experts at their concepts or skills. They then return to their home group to share their learning with their peers.

The trouble comes here. The experts have had a lot of time to think and reflect upon a concept or skill, while the remaining members of the home group have to simply accept and absorb each experts’ final learning. 

The deep learning comes when working through a concept, not by simply observing or hearing it. Instead of a jigsaw, the participants might as well simply read an article with the “answer.” It would be more efficient if acceptance was the goal. 

But the learning is in the work, not in the receipt of knowledge, so each person needs to be part of each expert group. 

If this is true, jigsawing is counterproductive. 

Am I missing something? Are we just doing it wrong?

Improving the evaluation of learning in a project-based class

I’ve been struggling for a few years with providing rich, authentic tasks for my computer science students and then having to evaluate their work.

My students learn a lot of skills quickly when solving problems they’re interested in solving. That’s wonderful.

I can’t conceive of a problem they will all be interested in solving. That’s frustrating.

In the past, I have assigned a specific task to my entire CS class. I tried to design a problem that I felt would be compelling, and that my students would readily engage with and overcome. The point has always been to develop broadly-applicable skills, good code hygiene, and deep conceptual understanding of software design. The point is not to write the next great 2D platformer nor the most complete scatterplot-generating utility.

Unfortunately, I could never quite get it right. It’s not because my tasks were inherently weak; rather it’s that my students were inherently different from one another. They don’t all like the same things.

I believe that students sometimes need to do things that are good for them but that they don’t like to do. They sometimes need the Brussels sprouts of learning until they acquire the taste for it. But if they can get the same value from the kohlrabi of learning and enjoy it, why wouldn’t we allow for that instead?

So I’ve tried giving a pretty broad guideline and asking students to decide what they want to write. They choose and they complete a lot of great learning along the way. Their code for some methods is surprisingly intricate, which is wonderful to see. They encounter problems while pursuing a goal that captures them, and they overcome those problems by learning.

Sounds good, eh?

Of course, they don’t perform independently: they learn from each other, from experts on the Internet, and from me. They get all kinds of help to accomplish their goals, as you would expect of anyone learning a new skill. And then I evaluate their learning on a 101-point scale based on a product that is an amalgam of resources, support, and learning.

Seems a bit unfair and inaccurate.

I asked for suggestions from some other teachers about how to make this work better:

  • ask students to help design the evaluation protocols
  • use learning goals and success criteria to develop levels instead of percentage grades
  • determine the goals for the task and then have students explain how they have demonstrated each expectation
  • determine the goals for the task and then have students design the task based on the expectations
  • find out each student’s personal goals for learning and then determine the criteria for the task individually based on each student’s goals

I’m not sure what to do moving forward, and I’d like some more feedback from the community.

Thanks, everyone!

Some advice I give my students

I teach high school. I say these things to almost every class. 

“Don’t trick yourself into thinking you understand something you don’t.”

“Write it down.”

“Be gentle with each other.”

“You won’t look back in ten years and wish you had been meaner in high school. No matter how nice you think you are now, when you’re older you’ll see it differently. So be kinder than you think you should be now.”

“Let people like what they like. If they’re not hurting anyone it’s fine. I don’t need you to like the music I listen to, but I do need you to let me like it.”

“Everything is fascinating if you’re curious.”

Too honest for EQAO

I administered the Grade 9 EQAO Assessment of Mathematics this semester. It’s a provincial, standardized test that students write for two hours across two days, an hour per day. Part of the test is multiple choice, and part is open response (longer, written solutions).

In the weeks before the test I practised with my kids, gave advice, and tried to make them comfortable while encouraging them to do their best. I told them to try every question, saying things like “You can’t get marks for work you don’t show!”, “You never know what you might get marks for!”, and “If you don’t know a multiple choice answer you should guess.”

One of my students left three multiple choice questions blank. 

The EQAO Administration Guide expressly forbids drawing a student’s attention to an unanswered question. So I collected her work. 

Afterward I asked her about it. “Why didn’t you answer those questions? You could have guessed; you might have gotten some right.”

She looked steadily at me. “I didn’t know the answers.”

I felt (and feel) terrible about it. 

Not that I didn’t prepare her well for the assessment. I feel terrible because I realized that I asked my students to lie

I asked them to guess “if necessary”, to hide their lack of knowledge, to pretend that they knew things they did not. Because I want them to get good marks, and I want our school to do well. 

That is a terrible thing to ask, and for a meaningless reason. 

My student didn’t just guess. She didn’t play this ridiculous game. She showed integrity. 

And I’m really proud of her for that.