I am not a normal teacher. That much is clear now to me, my colleagues and all my students. Among the other teachers I am the lovable oddball who’s “pretty good for a newbie.” To the students, I’m that one teacher who likes videogames and teaches math in a “different” way. To my principal, I’m a mysterious wunderkind. He can’t figure out how all of my kids are showing such improvement having been taught by a first-year teacher.
Once he even asked me what I did that was so different and I simply didn’t have an answer for him. Since then, I have given this matter substantial thought and the only answer I have come up with has surprised even me. And if you knew me, you’d know that I am about as hard to surprise as Ben Stein.
In actuality, I feel as though I owe much of my sudden success as a teacher to my love for videogames.
Someone once said to me, “If you can’t talk to someone about nothing, how can you ever expect to talk about something?” I always took that to heart and have come to realize that one of the most important things about teaching is being able to relate to kids. Just talking to them about nothing at all can be the difference between having a class full of curious, thoughtful young people or a wild and untamable Jumanji-esque room of crazy monkey children. And so – hoping to avoid the latter scenario – when the math is finished for the day my students and I talk about videogames, and the effects have stretch far beyond simply “getting to know you” time.
In actuality, I feel as though I owe much of my sudden success as a teacher to my love for videogames. When the kids and I talk gaming, I can put myself on a level plane with them which creates an environment of comfort. Believe it or not, this translates to the actual buckle-down classroom as well. When a student feels comfortable in the classroom, they are more open to answering questions and when they feel comfortable answering questions they’ll eventually enjoy success. Success breeds more success and when you have a classroom full of kids who are suddenly doing well in a subject which they never have before, you’re suddenly a favorite teacher. To many of my students, that’s what I am.
Much of that has come about because, when I was about four, I took up that grey rectangle and began to chip away at Super Mario Bros. Now, I am like the wise old medicine woman of some strange ragtag tribe. Students always want to hear tales of the “olden” days when games had only two dimensions and Mario wasn’t shrieking “Mamma Mia” or “It’sa me!” at every turn. They laugh as I rant and rave about the ancient cave-man era of Doom and Pitfall and Burger Time, and when they laugh, they are happy, and happy kids learn best.
The money shackled fat cats who work in the governor’s office wouldn’t like to hear any of this though. To them, any second not spent talking about exponents, logarithms or quadratics is wasted time, and time spent talking about Metal Gear Solid is just a joke. Of course, what none of our legislators and representatives seems to realize is that we no longer teach in the age of Aristotle and Euler. The children who come to school to listen to the teachings of mathematics are not doing so out of desire. They are being forced to sit in a room and discuss things in which they have little to no interest. So the challenge of making class even mildly interesting or enjoyable becomes daunting indeed. If making an academic subject interesting can be called a challenge, making math interesting (or even non-torturous for that matter) is practically Everest.
Blatantly and clumsily put, I trick them. I am not sure how guilty I feel about this or even if I should. It’s like fooling little kids into eating vegetables. Sure, it’s a minor breach of trust, but in the end it’s good for them.
When I talk, they listen. When I present a new idea, they look upon it more openly. Before class, after class, between classes and after school my room has become a safe place for kids to come and simply relax. Students who are not even assigned to one of my classes come and want to talk Skyrim alchemy recipes or debate the validity of the races. After the ice is broken, they come for help with their algebra. Once they make the first trip, they come back. They insist that the way I teach math is “different” than other teachers when, in reality it is very much the same. Nearly every one of my kids says that math is “just easier now.” When looked upon with even a mildly critical eye, the reason for this is simple. They understand because they’re suddenly listening. They listen because I talk to them about things other than trigonometric ratios from time to time.
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.