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This Month’s Learning Innovation: Gaming at Propel Braddock Hills

The ninth graders in Matt Fuchs’ English class at Propel Braddock Hills High School are furiously hunched over their computers. In the front of the class, an image is projected on a large screen. At closer view, it looks like they’re playing video games. Yes, that’s exactly what they are doing – and on class time. What’s going on here?

“They are using Minecraft (a video game) to study the abuse of power as well as a narrative writing unit,” Matt, their teacher, explains. “We set up this little community on Minecraft EDU, and we put a hierarchy in place. Some kids are politicians who were elected by the class, so it’s half a social experiment to see how they handle that power and that will become a reflective piece for them later on. That’s our Civics’ link up.

“For the English portion, the kids are journaling as their characters, and every day they owe me a daily journal based on what they did in the game. They are writing based on the game’s character’s perspective. It gives them a basis for their narrative work,” Matt continues. “They are these characters, and they write as these characters. But because it’s set in a fictional world they can expand – they can become creative.”

More and more educators are using games in their classes. Matt, for example, hooks up with the Civics teacher to look at issues like social justice – based on the Minecraft game. “The basic principle,” he says, “comes back to student engagement. That’s one of the core beliefs that I have as an educator. And I mean, let’s face it, kids love games. They’ll play them whether you want them to or not, so it’s a matter of harnessing that power and that draw and using that for my English purposes, as devious as they are.”

At Propel Braddock Hills High School School of Innovation and Design, games play a big part in the curriculum. There are courses in video game design. Students in the Shop class just produced a mini-golf course as a class project – with help and input from the Geometry and Engineering classes. Art and Shop students design arcade cabinets and decorate them. There are classic video games in the school loft where students can come and “chill out” between classes. And students participated in a national game conference held at Propel this past October.

Co-Principal Justin Aglio believes that all forms of gaming have great merit educationally. “Games are important because number one, it’s problem solving. But we also like games because they give students an opportunity to fail, keep retrying, and retrying over and over again. It’s an important life skill, to be able to fail at something and then go ahead and continue it and be successful at it.”

Justin is proud of the breadth of “gaming” offered at Propel. “This past fall, for example, we held a national game conference here, with over 100 educators from eight states attending, talking about how educators can use games to help students in the classroom. We also had something called JamTek, where students were able to participate in a one day session to learn how to make a video game in one day. Then they got the chance to showcase that game at the end of the day.”

Teachers use the Pennsylvania Common Core standards in all of these classes, and they teach according to the state requirements. But they are getting very creative in how to bring skills – like writing, math, art, and engineering – to students in a non-traditional way.

“Our teachers plan with our game design teacher to create a lesson that’s meaningful for the students. Everything we do, we focus on our students,” Justin says. “Gaming is going to help our students in the future because it helps them learn to use strategy. They learn critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, and they have the option to just have fun with it and continue to grow.”

“Our students get their hands on something and get to play with it; they’re learning concepts but having fun with it. And most importantly, they’re learning critical skills for the 21st Century,” Justin adds.

They also develop pride in their work. Student Josh proudly shows off the video arcade game in the school’s entrance hallway that he helped design. “We started out with just a big sheet of plywood,” Josh explains. “I cut it down, made all the shapes and then I pretty much pieced it together piece by piece and customized it from that. I wired it up all by myself,” he says. “I see a lot of kids using my game, and I’m surprised they like it so much,” he adds with a big smile on his face.

Back in Matt Fuchs’ English class, the students are still fully engaged, working away on their computers. “From watching the students work in their ‘communities,’ I see them developing skills like cooperation, digital citizenship, time planning skills – all these things they’re going to need throughout their lives. But they get to learn it playing it out in this little digital world.”


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