One of the most consistently difficult issues facing classroom teachers today is the task of pushing our most advanced learners to higher levels and engaging our students with disabilities. Because these two very different groups of students seemingly exist on opposite ends of the exceptionality spectrum, many times they are not given the attention they truly need in the classroom. Catering to the students in the middle who typically exist within the “proficient” bubble tends to steer the decision making process and tends to sway resources and dollars away from these two very important groups. Those tides are changing, though. Improved Advanced Placement course options and complex and unique curriculum offerings that allow talented teachers opportunities to fully participate in project based learning are giant steps toward reaching higher levels of instruction with our most advanced students. Through inclusion classes, well-structured IEPs and 504 plans, and/or modified curricula, teachers and administrators have also worked tirelessly to provide learning situations where all students, regardless of the disability, can grow emotionally and reach higher academic levels. Most of the time that preparation and implementation is successful and our students with the most needs feel empowered and experience tremendous growth as students. In most of those cases the students feel engaged in the lessons and activities presented in the classroom, but unfortunately many students, regardless of ability level, never truly feel engaged in learning.
Accelerated and Advanced Students
As a former English teacher working with advanced level students, a common statement I heard as I shared the weekly agenda was “Is this going to be graded?” While my blood boiled most times a student asked this question, what I eventually came to understand was that these students were only questioning the relevance of the work I was asking them to complete. In some cases the work really was routine and certainly not the kind of work to push them to their creative potential. On most occasions, though, the work was worthwhile. However when I began teaching with video games I truly saw the potential that games presented as a tool to push my students to the next level.
Examining elements of storytelling and character development are not unfamiliar to English teachers in any school and are most likely touched upon throughout a school year with regularity. Iconic characters like Atticus Finch or Huckleberry Finn and expertly crafted stories like Of Mice and Men or “A Rose for Emily” are commonly read in high school classrooms, but where teachers may fall short is assuming that only print texts are usable in the classroom. This generation of students will accept this, for a little while, until they begin to demand something more. And while the fundamentals of understanding literature are extremely important and dependent on a full understanding of any text, imagining video games as interactive texts is a truly innovative way to teach about storytelling and character development.
Heavy Rain, a complex and suspenseful story of four different characters and their connection to the mysterious Origami Killer immediately insists on an understanding of non-linear story structure and the ability to evaluate the lives of several different characters to determine how they fit into the story structure as a whole. Bioshock, while more linear, uses audio recordings or cryptic messages scribbled onto water-stained walls to tell an intriguing story but also develops character relationships that force the player to evaluate how his or her choices within the game affect those relationships.
While there are certainly more games, The Last of Us, Journey, and Uncharted to name a few, that have memorable characters and even deeper stories, if teachers do not view games as relevant interactive texts then they will be forgotten. Prensky reminds us, “…in my view, the single biggest problem facing education today is that Digital Immigrant parents and teachers, who came from the pre-digital age, are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language” (29). Games may not be a silver bullet to push advanced learners to higher levels, but they certainly are worthy of investigation because the students are already playing them!
Students With Disabilities
What many people may not understand is that students with disabilities may approach video games through deeply personal lenses. While students may play games because they are entertaining or allow them to participate in age appropriate social norms, students with disabilities may also play games because they permit a focus on something other than the disability; playing video games may provide an opportunity to escape the anxiety of a disability and become a different person who is successful. When the focus in ordinary life is constantly diverted to managing the disability, escaping into a game world may provide a brief respite from the anxiety managing a disability may create.
Later in my career as a teacher, I befriended a student for whom autism was a daily struggle. Understanding the complex emotions of fellow students and providing empathy for peers was a constant frustration. Oftentimes the biggest struggle for this student was in understanding how to interact with the other students in the class in specific situations. However, playing the game Persona 4 allowed this student to finally step into the shoes of another person and through gameplay interactions, it became easier to identify and respond to the real emotions of fellow classmates. A common characteristic of autism is the inability to recognize and react sensitively to emotions, but Persona 4 engaged this student on a different level and provided an opportunity to truly experience and understand the feelings of others.
Using Games to Engage Students With Diverse Needs
Games can be used in any classroom and with any student, trusting there is passion behind their use. What there is no shortage of is people who share their passion for video games through Internet outlets like YouTube or who write about games on websites like Gamindex. This “system” has taken years to create but is all user-created. Students, as they play games, “will no doubt come to some tough parts and have some questions. At that point, if they want help, they will go into the Internet…where they can access a vast array of resources—hints, tips, codes, and more” (Prensky 96). It is this system that will ultimately push our advanced learners to higher levels and our students with the most need to grow both emotionally and academically.
And the best part is that our students are at the heart of it all.
Prensky, Mark. "Don't Bother Me Mom I'm Learning". Paragon House, 2006.