Gamifying Latin

This is the first in an ongoing series of entries about my experiments in gamifying the Latin classroom. In doing so, I am relying heavily on Classcraft, a web-based classroom-management system that facilitates my multiplayer classroom. Future posts will be grouped under the category ‘Gamifying Latin.’

In preparing to re-enter the fray of Intro Latin this Fall, I was fortunate enough to benefit from two years of watching my colleague Lisl Walsh teach the intro sequence at the same college. She had encountered several problems across both years, which more often than not could be traced back to students’ motivation and an ensuing dearth of responsibility, ownership, and collaboration among them. Some of these problems are institutional: Latin is generally taught three days a week at our college, which means one less hour of contact-time compared to my experience as a Latin teacher in grad school; one semester of a language at our college will fulfill an all-college requirement for students, but there is no language requirement to make them invested in continuing; and languages seem to have grown a reputation as GPA-killers, which can foster a defeatist attitude among students if and when they begin to struggle. Some of these problems are also endemic to the study of Latin (and, I think, of other languages), since the intro sequence involves a heavy emphasis on rote-learning, something that is as unavoidable as it can be uninspiring.

In the first year of Intro Latin, Lisl was inspired by Kristina Meinking, a colleague of ours at another institution, to try what I have seen called a “gated” approach to teaching the language: the class was structured such that students could not advance to studying and being assessed on the next unit of material until they had demonstrated mastery of the current unit.

In theory this is a promising approach: students are freed somewhat to work at their own pace, and can support each other more appropriately as they separate out along a continuum of progress (Lisl referred to these naturally-developing groups as “pods”). Kristina had reported great success with this formula, with students who finished the semester’s material early staying on with her class to help their classmates understand material they had now mastered. I saw the immediate appeal, since it would result in a much more transparent picture of where students were at the end of the first semester of Latin: instead of letter grades, the instructor would know (and, critically, could communicate to another instructor) exactly which units (in this case, chapters of Wheelock’s Latin) a given student had mastered.

In practice, however, this format did not work out so well for Lisl. While some self-motivated students progressed rapidly through the material, others ended up treading water in early units. Mastery was to be demonstrated by achieving a 90% or higher on unit-quizzes, and students often resorted to a form of war dialing these quizzes (just asking to take them repeatedly), rather than trying to learn from their initial mistakes and re-approach after more careful study. This meant a lot of extra quizzes needed to be generated and graded. There was also a lot of late- and post-semester bargaining as students desperately tried to pass later units in short order and eke out a higher grade for the course. If the goal had been to make sure students were actually mastering Latin, their attempts to take three units worth of quizzes in one day were not exactly encouraging.

The following year, Lisl returned to a more traditional format: moving through Wheelock on a set schedule, and letting students advance through the material without needing to demonstrate mastery of any section (this is basically standard in most typical language classrooms, as I understand it). This, of course, led to the traditional problems: a rapidly diverging set of competencies in the classroom, with different students having difficulties with different areas of the language. As any language instructor well knows, addressing all of these difficulties in the time allotted is difficult, especially when you have as many as 20 students in your class. Lisl is an extremely able teacher, but inevitably ran into walls with those students who showed little to no interest in meeting with her outside of class, meeting with a TA outside of class, meeting with each other outside of class, or—in some cases—even trying to learn things on their own outside of class.

Lisl’s experiences made it clear to me that my turn teaching Intro Latin was likely to be a challenge, so I began searching for ways to change the way I do it in the hope of heading off many of the difficulties she had encountered. I was prepared to change the class quite drastically—as she had done so courageously—but I didn’t want to try the gated format again after her experience. It was while I was in this head-space that I encountered this article about a new classroom-management software called Classcraft. The article not only made a good advocacy for gamification in education, it promised a technology that would make it easy to implement in a programmatic way.

I had been experimenting with gamification in minor ways in most of my classes, ever since Mike Lippman told me about the way he teaches his class on ancient Sparta. I ran a couple of classes in my course on the Roman emperor (Fall 2012) as games, including one where I asked my students to help me develop a game that simulated the working of the imperial senate. In my Spring 2013 course on Ancient Warfare, I followed Mike’s Sparta model more closely and divided students into groups they stayed in for half a semester; in the first half each group was named for a culture we were studying (Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Persia, Macedon) and in the second half for one of the Roman legions (complete with legionary nickname). This was intended both to make the classroom easier to manage and to help them experience a little esprit-de-corps in a class about such things. In the Spring 2014 repeat of this course, inspired somewhat by Philip Sabin’s Simulating War, I played a large war-game with the students as a means to studying the Second Punic War, and had several classroom activities that tasked them with developing games that would educate players about an aspect of a topic under study (e.g. Homeric warfare or Greek naval warfare). I had similarly used a war-game based on the Battle of Pharsalus in my Fall 2013 class on Julius Caesar.

These experiments were quite limited, however, and I had yet to try designing an entire course around the concept of gamification. Classcraft looked like a cool way to do it, and I was sure it would go over quite well with our particular student body (who are famed for their love of roleplaying and games). I was sure that Classcraft would add an air of fun to the classroom and provide welcome breaks from verb and noun drills. But I was also aware that Classcraft had mainly be proven in K–12 classrooms, and was wary about it becoming simple window-dressing in the college environment. While their website had many helpful suggestions for implementing the software (and a lively forum, as well), my ideas were still somewhat sketchy at this stage.

Fortunately, someone on the Classcraft forum recommended a book by Lee Sheldon, called The Multiplayer Classroom. Sheldon has been developing a model he called “the multiplayer classroom” for several years in a college environment. Like Classcraft, it took the basic model of the Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) and used it as a way to structure and incentivize learning. Sheldon’s book—which envisions the multiplayer classroom running without the need for supporting software—helped answer a lot of questions I had regarding gamified course design, and I could now imagine a model that I thought would work well for college Latin. My plan was to combine his proven ideas with the new and engaging class-management software offered by Classcraft, with the aim of producing an Intro Latin course that would inspire and reward students for taking ownership of their own learning and for helping their classmates.

In the next post, I will discuss some of the design decisions I made and highlight some of the specific advantages I see to both the multiplayer classroom and Classcraft.

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