Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Syllabus Structure

I've been doing some research in preparation for the VaHomeschoolers 2011 Conference and Resource Fair. Along the way I've learned about a variety of ways that role playing games are being used in the classroom. What I find interesting is the varying degrees to which teachers structure the use of RPGs and integrate them into their syllabi.

Some teachers take what I would call a highly structured approach, planning out a set of lessons in advance and using elements of the RPG in a calculated way to deliver those lessons. I imagine that in most non-homeschool settings, a highly structured approach would be a necessity. Teaching professionals typically have to submit lesson plans and syllabi for approval, explaining what they're going to teach and how they're going to teach it. How they plan to utilize RPGs will be covered in detail in those plans, so the RPG ends up being tightly interwoven with the syllabus from the start. Some teachers like this one even go so far as to use the trappings of RPGs to create the syllabus itself. This last approach is an intriguing idea and one I bet the kids latch onto, but it definitely requires foresight and skillful planning to execute. At least it looks that way to me, someone for whom organization does not come easily.

Other teachers may use no structure at all: unschoolers, for example, may simply hand a few rulebooks to their kids and let the magic happen all by itself (I read one example where a child taught himself to read from the D&D Monster Manual). There is something to say for this: just learning and playing RPGs involves a whole slew of useful skills without any need for parental involvement. Game rulebooks demand a level of reading comprehension that children will rise to meet. The rules themselves can be fairly complicated to say the least, and game mechanics often rely on frequent use of math and on understanding of concepts such as probability. Games typically involve creative problem solving, and teamwork is almost always rewarded. All these things your kids can learn without you, just by playing RPGs.

I admit I have no facts to back this up, but I suspect that most homeschool teachers who use RPGs in their curricula are somewhere in the middle. I've been struggling with what level of structure to bring to my own RPG homeschooling effort, and since this year marks the first time I've tried such a thing, I haven't quite settled into a comfort zone yet. I'm still trying things out to see what works for me and my kids. I would love to take the highly structured approach, but as I've already said, I'm not by nature a well-organized person. I'd be hard-pressed to create an RPG syllabus, let alone stick to one over an extended period. At the same time, I'm not willing to just completely let go and allow games to do all the teaching for me. There are opportunities to add to what the RPGs teach by themselves that I would be loath to pass up. I'm still deciding the best way to do it, even though RPGs have already become part of our homeschool curriculum.

The direction I'm going in right now uses the RPG as a supplement to the core curriculum. My goal is to use games as a way to reinforce and give context to the core material. For example, my wife gives the kids a set of vocabulary words each week. The kids do all the standard things with the words, learning their spellings and meanings, writing sentences with them, and taking quizzes and tests. Meanwhile my wife will be sharing the list with me, and I'll try to bake it into our game sessions, preferably the same week (are you reading this, hon? Need that list!). This is an easy way to use the RPG as a learning reinforcement tool. This same approach can be used for other subjects. Since my wife is teaching my oldest daughter geometry this year, for example, I'll be creating timely traps and puzzles based on what she's learned to give her a chance to use her new knowledge to shine. I've already experimented with this idea during one adventure that had a heptagon theme: the whole adventure took place in a seven-sided ziggurat, and featured a final puzzle that hinged on the heptagonal shape of the room and the imaginary heptagram formed from the trajectories of weapons flying at right angles from magic gates in the walls.

That's one of the ways we're using RPGs in our curriculum, and it requires just a little bit of planning, and a little bit of coordination with my wife, week by week. Basically I just look ahead one or two weeks and see how I can fit the things she's teaching them with what I'm planning at the game level. By "game level," I mean the adventures themselves. I believe that a key to success in our household is fun; if the kids aren't having fun, this tool loses much of its power. Therefore my biggest focus when preparing is in making the adventures themselves fun. So rather than thinking in terms of the lessons and trying to build adventures around them (an approach I will take with history), I instead start by creating entertaining adventures and then integrate the lessons into them. This is just my own personal approach and I'm sure it could be done just as well the other way by the right person.

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