Wanna get to know your kids? Ask them to be someone else.

Twice so far this school year I have asked my students to undertake a bit of roleplaying.

At the beginning of the school year, when I introduced the story that holds our gamified class together, I asked them to create the avatars that they’d use all year (see our “character creation screen” here) and to develop a backstory for those characters.  They went to town with this assignment, and the resulting narratives that they produced added new map points, family trees, and depth I’d not imagined to the world I sketched out for them.

This week I asked students once again to choose a character for themselves.  In the seventh grade classes, we are beginning our reading of The Hobbit, and the premise of our study (fitting into the overall frame story of our class game) is that a portal has opened to Middle Earth.  We must enter the world and track Bilbo and Co. on their journey, and to do this we must disguise ourselves and blend in.  So the kids were asked to make both race and class selections and to build well-balanced groups that could handle all the challenges this adventure might throw at them.  The quests they complete during this process reward them with their selected disguises as well as race- and class-specific provisions – consumables that will aid them on their way.

What I found most interesting as I moved from group to group and listened in on the students’ conversations is how much of themselves they put into those character choices.  Snippets of discussion (with student names changed) went a little something like this:

CHRISTINA: I want to use animals on the trip.  My character is a hunter! I’m gonna be a vet.  

RACHEL: Becca leads everything. She’s good at talking to people and making decisions. She should be the captain.

MARCUS: I like magic and stuff, and we speak three languages at my house.  I’m probably the group nerd. I’m gonna be the rune-keeper.

ANNE:  Mrs. Hammonds, which combo do you think is most like the Doctor? 

As I listened to them make their decisions, I considered my own gameplay and character selection experiences and how connected they are to my real-world self.  By and large, I am a mage.  I keep almost everyone at arm’s length, I am studious, and if you mess with my friends or family I will melt your face.  I’m also fairly comfortable working as a healer.  Keep me in the back, and let me take care of people – I’m doing my job well if I’m more or less invisible.

For the past nine years worth of first-days-of-school, I’ve done some variation of a student questionnaire, asking my students relatively un-thoughtful questions and  getting equally superficial responses in return.  Never have I learned so much so quickly about my students’ views of themselves, their anxieties, preferences for social interaction, coping mechanisms, goals for the future, and roles among their peers as I did on those days when I asked them to be someone else.