Dan Buday rolled the dice on a unique way of teaching English to Grade 10 students at Marion M. Graham Collegiate.
Inspired by the students in the school's Dungeons & Dragons club and his own love of role-playing games, Buday developed and piloted an English language arts course delivered through the use of D&D and other role-playing games. It was a hit with the initial group of students during the 2018-19 school year and the positive reviews and successful learning experience resulted in enrollment doubling for the current school year.
"Last year I piloted it with one course each semester and students told me afterward 'I can't believe how much work we did but it never felt like work.' For me, that felt like a real win. They told me how it pushed them out of their comfort zone. It was a challenge, but yet they did it and they were really proud of themselves. It was a real level of accomplishment," Buday said.
The course is an alternative approach to English 10 that places particular emphasis on collaboration, teamwork, reading, writing, and gaming. Through role-playing games students create stories, explore literary themes and collaborate to solve unique problems and face challenges in a unique way.
It has attracted a wide range of students. Some are involved in the D&D club or are fans of role-playing games, but there are many reasons why students choose the course.
"What I found is I had students who were some of the most gifted academic students but heard this was something different and they wanted a challenge. Then, I had students who felt jaded by school and wanted to try something different and the idea of gaming and English seemed fun," Buday said.
The style of the course and the premium it places on collaborative and group work created new approaches and opportunities for learning, no matter where students were on the spectrum of academic interests and achievement. For some higher academic students, the less-defined structure of the course work meant they were challenged to think more creatively. Meanwhile, students who may have struggled in previous English courses became more engaged in their learning thanks to the course's perspective and approach.
The idea for the course was sparked by a D&D club student who talked about the difficulty involved in leading a game when it came to maintaining the attention of players, learning when to be assertive and the importance of give-and-take when dealing with different personalities. Then, a news report about the skills sought by the world's top employees — critical thinking, complex problem solving, collaboration, creativity, and emotional intelligence — made Buday think, "Oh, they want gamers." That encouraged him to consider how a different approach to instruction could help students achieve curricular outcomes and actively engage them in learning.
"I thought I could marry the English 10A curriculum — the theme being mystery and challenge — with Dungeons & Dragons, that's a fit. I started doing more research and the things I found showed things like how D&D benefits people with autism, helps students get over social anxiety and helps foster a culture of reading," he said.
Tabletop role-playing games such as D&D are cross-fit for your brain, Buday said. During a game session a player will transition from reading a piece of written work, to consulting a chart, to talking to a group and then examining a game board to plot strategy.
With support from school and division administration Buday took the expected outcomes for English 10 and paired it with what is offered by D&D and other role-playing games. Members of the gaming community and other teachers outside of Canada who were teaching the in the same manner provided suggestions for resources and instruction.
As an example, D100 Dungeon is a single-player game used to introduce students to role-playing games and how the class will use them during the semester. It requires the player to create an adventurer who they steer through the game using charts and percentile dice — thereby meeting an outcome that students be able to glean information from charts and graphs.
"And because this is English, one of the outcomes is the student is able to write an eyewitness report. You have been through this dungeon, now it is time for you to write diary which is going to be your eyewitness report — it's the outcome of writing," Buday explained.
"There is a historical persona essay where you put yourself in the shoes of another individual and talk about their experience. Well, that's a character backstory. That's one thing we spend a lot of time doing in D&D, creating a character and their call to adventure. In this way students can hit the same ideas as they can in a historical persona essay, only they are the ones in charge of it."
Using the structure of D&D, each student will co-write an adventure, adjudicate an adventure written by someone else and then game play as adventurers. At every step of the way students review the process, provide feedback and receive peer evaluation.
"We do a big project around adventure writing," Buday said. "In the world of D&D someone will often write an adventure and then run that for their friends. In this course, you write an adventure but you're not running it. You're going to hand it to other people who are going to run it. Therefore, you have to be clear, you have to be concise, it has to be easy to follow and it also has to be engaging."
In addition to D&D, a variety of role-playing game are used to target specific skills or outcomes. Exit, a game described as an escape room in a box, helps students learn to collaborate, problem-solve, rely on each other and get used to the give-and-take of game play. Quill is a single-player game where the player's goal is to write a persuasive letter. "That way it teaches them to manipulate vocabulary and it teaches them how to write looking at a specific audience," he said.
Even the novel study required by the English 10 curriculum has a connection to gaming. Heart of Ice by Dave Morris is an interactive piece of fiction that Buday describes as a high school version of the choose your own adventure books. Students have to create their character before they read the novel and the choices they make as they read are often going to be based on the character they created. In that way the decisions made by the students allow them to construct their own story.
The success of the course during its initial year, the enthusiastic reaction from students and, most importantly, the way in which students were able to achieve the course outcomes was gratifying for Buday. The opportunity to share the experience with the wider community through a presentation during the recent Saskatchewan Entertainment Expo connected him with other educators interested in bringing D&D into the classroom.
"The best thing is that after 23 years you need something every so often to recharge the batteries," he said. "At times for me it was scary; I didn't know if they were going to pull it off and then when they did, when they made it happen, I was fired up. They were making it happen and it was awesome. I looked at the students blossom and be excited about their writing. It was like a bolt of electricity."