I find my job as an English teacher to be a highly rewarding experience. I enjoy the material I teach, the students and their personalities, and the atmosphere of my classroom. Outside of school, I am a major board gamer.
There are roughly 100 board games stacked on my shelves at home. I love the feeling of sitting down to a game with a group of friends and family and seeing what the best way to achieve the goals presented by the game. At my new job, I wanted to share that feeling with more people. I wanted students to feel the sense of accomplishment when one successfully completes a game (even if you lose, it’s still a success to me!). I decided to establish a board game club. Through generous community donations, as well as crowdfunding, we managed to get a club going with a collection of about 20 different games, and 30 student members! I learned that not only was this club going to be fun, but it was going to be an educationally rewarding experience. Yes, the students gained these benefits, but I also learned a thing or two about the advantages of having board games in my classroom.
Creating a Community
The students in our board game club are diverse: dancers, athletes, scholars, and loners alike are excited to see an upcoming meeting on the activities calendar. The thing is, though, although these students participate in other activities, those activities did not divide them at Tabletop night. The games create a whole new community of students, promoting interaction between kids who would never even talk to one another normally. Some students are working together to cure diseases at one table, while another group is working on teams to determine who’s the spy. The girly, all-pink dancer is collaborating with the miniature-painting history fanatic, and they are excited to be working together to solve a problem! These kids are learning teamwork and collaboration through tabletop gaming, and they’re not insistent on just working with certain people. They’re all working together.
Not only did we start seeing the board game club members become a community, but we saw other students who never had a “group” finally find their niche. I received a parent email one evening, mentioning that their son was always SO excited for board game club, and he’s “never been excited for any clubs before. We’re so glad he’s a part of something.” Board games (literally) bring something to the table for all kids, promoting the socialization that is vital for post-secondary success.
Critical Thinking in the 21st Century
Bloom’s Taxonomy is a way of measuring high-order thinking skills when assessing students. Some buzzwords that one may be familiar with are “differentiate,” “critique,” “design,” and “investigate.” There are other targets with Bloom’s that are less rigorous, and these create the foundation for higher-order thinking, such as “define,” “classify,” “demonstrate,” and “recognize.” So far, in the words that I’ve listed (which certainly isn’t everything on Bloom’s Taxonomy), I haven’t seen a single thing that isn’t promoted through board games. I see kids regularly identify problems, solve problems, premeditate actions, define new vocabulary, assist other players, and teach new rules all within a single two-hour game night.
In my classroom (outside of board game club), I wanted to make sure I hit the top skills of the pyramid in creative, fun, and interesting ways for the students. What better way to do so than through board games? I want to promote logic and critical thinking skills, so I designed a unit that ended with board game creation, measuring the students knowledge of a particular story while also creating a way for them to test others through playing their newly created games.
Specifically, after reading The Great Gatsby the students were expected to create a board game inspired by the events of the novel. What resulted was a class full of games that hit so many different notes. We had a group create a game inspired by Clue, using the books’ characters as the players, assorted notable symbols as the murder weapons, and a map with East Egg, West Egg, and the Valley of Ashes as the game board! Another game was a simple trivia game with a twist: roll to move, pick up a card and answer a question about the novel. Get the question right, you gain a benefit of one of the characters (Gain Gatsby’s wealth, add two to your next dice roll); get a question wrong, you get a punishment from the novel (Get in a fight with Tom, move back two spaces). Every game measured student knowledge on several levels, while also promoting creativity and collaboration.
Get a Hobby, Kid!
As an English teacher, there are several roadblocks when trying to promote writing. One thing I run into frequently: Kids often don’t know what to write about. It breaks my heart when I suggest writing about their hobbies and interests and the following conversation arises:
Student: I’m boring. I don’t do anything.
Me: Well, what do you do outside of school? What do you do for fun when you get home?
Student: I don’t know… watch YouTube videos?
Me: What kind of videos do you watch?
Student: I don’t know. Just random videos. Vines.
Me: Do you have any hobbies? Do you paint or sew? Do you create anything?
Student: No. I just go home and sit in my room.
This may sound like a very specific, isolated incident, but I assure you, it’s not. I’m a part of conversations like this regularly. Students need to have interests and hobbies to stimulate their growth, so I decided to incorporate board games into my room as a catalyst to spark new interests. A game about King Arthur’s knights may invite a student to read more medieval stories. A game about drawing cartoons may be the defining moment for an ameteur animator to shine.
Now these kids have interests that can be pursued, goals that can be achieved, and a sense of purpose to their education and their futures; All of this being inspired and promoted through board games.
About Caitlin Holley: "Small-town Pennsylvania treated me right while I was growing up. I graduated with a class of forty-eight students from a school that is right next to a soybean field. I want to continue to help students of small-town America like me. They deserve every opportunity possible and at the time I didn't realize it, but without dedicated teachers, students are not exposed to those opportunities.
I make an effort to teach myself something new all the time. I’ve taught myself how to sew, studied several different painting techniques, became a Google Certified Educator, and I am currently pursuing Spanish fluency.
In the near future, I see myself being established as a well-respected educator in a district that I truly care about. I genuinely love this profession. I want to help public education work towards collaborative classrooms while also creating productive members of society. I want my thirst for knowledge and learning to be contagious, so I’m looking to create a fun, productive, and engaging classroom environment through work and play!"