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Harnessing The Allure Of Video Games In The Classroom

Joel Bonasera uses video games to help teach his 7th graders math and science. Photo: Lisa Miller.

Kids spend a lot of time playing video games. They spend hours fighting zombies, building underground worlds, waging war, and shooting pigs. Video games can be addictive and an escape. They're just the thing that some teachers are trying to bring to the classroom.

Joel Bonasera is a 7th grade math and science teacher at Albemarle Road Middle School. He knew his students played video games, but he didn't realize the full extent until he overheard a sweet, friendly girl in his class.

"She was talking about how she had just annihilated this other boy online on Call of Duty and was like headshotting him and all these other things," Bonasera recounts. "And I said, 'Really, you?' And she said, 'Oh, yeah, of course. We all, we all play.'"

Bonasera was amused, but it also got him thinking: If all my students are playing video games, maybe I should use that to suck them into math and science. Now, we're not talking about games like Call of Duty, where there are lots of headshots, but Minecraft, a game many of his students already play. You can create whole cities out of blocks, and, if you want fight zombies, or populate them with villagers.

"I put Minecraft in front of a kid. They look at it and go, 'Hey, that's a game. I want to play that," says Bonasera.

And then he builds a lesson around the game.

"While you're doing it, just write your thoughts down over here about what you're doing. Okay, next week let's plan out what you're going to do and show the mathematical reason behind that. Okay, the week after that, let's make a full blown blueprint."

Bonasera plans to try this out this year. Last week, he attended a CMS Tech conference to get some ideas.

Trish Cloud is leading it. She's a technology teacher at Torrence Creek Elementary and uses video games in her classroom. Only a few CMS teachers do.

She advises them to set up a classroom like a video game. Students start off the year with 0 points and work to get to 100. That's an A. Along the way, they have to fulfill a bunch of learning quests, some of them on the computer, some of them not.

"You're the game master. You control the strings. You control the quests," Cloud tells the other teachers. "You can decide when mastery is achieved and you unlock the next quest for the student."

Across the country, a lot of people are talking about using video games in the classroom. They include neuroscientists, educators, and grantmakers. There's even a public school in New York City geared around gaming. The idea is not to just set kids in front of a video game, but make that game work for what you want them to learn.

There are critics who worry teachers will rely on video games too much and kids won't learn what they need.

Lucas Gillispie is a technology coordinator at Pender County Schools in the eastern part of the state. He says bringing video games into the classroom takes planning.

"What we need to do is integrate the learning and weave it into the game play. And we can do that. It's possible. We've done it and it works wonderfully," says Gillispie.

He runs two Minecraft servers for the district and even designed an elective around World of Warcraft. Players create an avatar and fight monsters and complete quests.

"At the same time they're playing the game, they're also reading Tolkien's The Hobbit and so they're drawing parallels between their experiences as a hero in World of Warcraft and Bilbo's experiences as he goes along his hero's journey in Tolkien's The Hobbit."

There's a lot of writing that accompanies the lessons. They learn about poetry, argumentative writing and can even incorporate that into the game. Gillispie says the students are engaged and learning.

Bonasera, the CMS 7th grade teacher, is optimistic about the year ahead. He's a gamer himself and he knows how hours can just slip by learning a new game like Plants vs. Zombies.

"I never felt stressed, I never felt like I was under the gun. There were exciting moments where I was like this is intense. But I felt prepared," says Bonasera.

That's how he wants his students to feel when they learn math and science. If it takes a video game, then so be it.