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A Different Kind of Teacher

Cari Scholtens | 19 Apr 2013 18:00
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I talk with them about the potency of open-world games versus linear games. We talk about moral choice systems and their effectiveness in certain titles and ineffectiveness in others. We talk about the history of gaming and the future of gaming. There are so many topics to choose from and I feel as though I am standing at an intellectual buffet. For many of my kids, it's the first time someone has spoken to them intelligently, as if they were an adult. They hear me say big words and want desperately to know what they mean. For many of them, it's the first time they have been genuinely curious about academic subject matter, and feeding that hunger even once creates an addiction.

For many of them, it's the first time they have been genuinely curious about academic subject matter, and feeding that hunger even once creates an addiction.

And the games of this generation are as unique as each of my students, so we have plenty to talk about. The girls often want to talk about Let's Dance and, as a teacher, I really try to take an interest in their interests, even if it occasionally leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Once they're talking, they're hooked. With the boys (who hold an overwhelming majority in my room) I can talk about games that are more my cup of tea, such as L.A. Noire, Skyrim, Fallout, Uncharted and others. Even in the larger groups of kids, there are subgroups that are rich with thought provoking ideas. Some of my proudest moments as a teacher come when I am talking about the storylines of a game like L.A. Noire and a student compares Cole Phelps to Brutus in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar which they are reading in another class.

"They're so much alike. They're both ambitious, they're both generally morally good characters and they both have a flaw that ends up getting them killed. I wonder if Phelps was kind of based on Brutus." The boy pondered. I could only sit back and smile as I realized that I was really just talking comparative literature with a group of 8th grade boys.

Through all this, they learn to argue intelligently rather than just shouting over one another like most of their peers (and even their elders). They learn to express a point of view in a respectful and intelligent manner and cross examine someone else's. As a former Debate Team Captain (insert Master Debater joke here), I may be slightly biased, but I can stand by these lessons and without ego call them truly valuable. But where does math factor into all this?

Since I teach a class for remedial students, for many of them, talking about gaming is the first chance they have ever had to sound smart about something and, in fact, to be smart about something. When they know they can be smart about something - anything - it's suddenly not such a leap to think they could be smart about other things. Their general confidence is bolstered by the thought, the very idea that they could excel, and a snowball is created. All of a sudden, they feel smart enough to answer questions. When they know this they keep answering questions, even if one or two end up being wrong. This breeds determination in them in all things, math included, and when they are determined, they succeed. It's really that simple.

The other math teacher across the hall from me came into my room the other day.

"Scholtens! What's this 'new' way you're teaching these kids about fixed perimeters?" he asked, having heard it from his students. I politely stood up at the board and showed him how I teach to which he responded that he does it about the same way. I shrugged and played dumb.

"I don't know what the difference could be then." I said, as nonchalantly as I could manage. The truth was that I did know the difference. The teacher across the hall doesn't play videogames and if he does, not a soul knows about it.

For me, gaming has been the bridge. There is oftentimes such a disconnect between teachers and their students that no one can even hope to achieve success because the student can't or won't hear what the teacher has to say. They are as two factions standing on opposite sides of a river, unable to form any sort of alliance even if they wanted to. When there is a bridge, any bridge, achievement and success come in droves.

So, for now at least, I am the lovable oddball who's "pretty good for a newbie." I'm that one teacher who plays videogames and teaches math in a "different" way, and if this way is considered "different," I couldn't be happier.

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