Of all the things that I have done in the classroom over the past 20 years, this has been the greatest success. I can say this confidently because I have play tested the mythology RPG with students taking Latin I in grades 7-12 for the past ten years with several different textbooks. During the time that I've done this activity, students have made their beleaguered parents reschedule doctor and orthodontist visits rather than miss the mythology RPG. They have wept when told that they could not play until their homework was completed. (Yes, that was awkward - not to be desired.) They often groan when the bell rings, then beg to stay through lunch. Recently, during an unannounced administrative walk-through, the students showed up early, put their groups together, distributed the material and began the RPG without me. I had learning targets, success criteria, and a "bell-ringer" activity ready to go but it seemed pointless when the class was engaged and on target before I had even entered the room.
I know it sounds ridiculous, hardly like school at all. But really, after ten years of play-testing, I can say confidently, this is not a fluke. It engages, it instructs and it really works that well.
What is an RPG?
There are many types of role playing games. The kind that I use to teach mythology is called a "table-top" role-playing game. It is called that because it doesn't use a computer or costumes or any sort of live action. The players sit around a table. They each play a character and a sheet that details the characteristics and skills of that character. However, the majority of the action happens in students' respective imaginations. The game master, or as I like to call the leader - the muse, tells a group of 4-6 players a story. As the muse reads the story, he or she pauses frequently to ask the characters what they are doing in this situation. The characters, argue, discuss and then tell the muse their plan. Based upon what the characters say, the muse tells the characters what happens next. The story can change dramatically depending upon the choices that the players make.
Dice are rolled to determine the result of chance encounters or combat. Both the characters and the muse roll dice at different times to determine certain outcomes.
An RPG is a bit like one of those old fashioned "Choose your Own Adventure" books where you read until the author gives you three choices and depending upon the choice you make, you turn to a different page in the book and the story continues until you make another choice. This way you can read the story three times and have three different outcomes.
Here's the thing though - I never liked those books very much. The adventure always seemed to fall flat. They never succeeded to make me feel like I was part of the story. An RPG pulls the players into the story, binds them together and sucks away time. If you have played a table-top role playing game as a teenager, Dungeons and Dragons or any of its many derivatives, then you know what I am talking about. If you haven't, you are probably hesitant. It sounds complicated and corny. I understand. However, this is where you need to take a great leap of faith. Read on. It will work.
Okay, but how do you grade this project?
That's an easy question. You don't. You don't grade any of it. Students will eagerly participate in the RPG despite the fact that it does not contribute to their overall average for class. In fact you can use their participation in the RPG to get them to do more graded work or do the graded work you demand with more care. I don't even give extra credit to the student who is the "Muse" and must read the adventure packet ahead of time for the group. I used to, but honestly, the honor of being the muse was a far greater gift than any extra credit I was offering. There is one graded assignment in the Google Drive. It is a prayer to the Gods that I ask each group to write in Latin in between the third and fourth RPG adventure. For following the guidelines of the prayer, the teacher gives credit. For writing a comprehensible and flattering prayer, the gods give a reward. Students are always far more interested in what gifts the "gods" may give than the credit.
So it's fun but what are they actually learning?
Good question. They will practice the following:
They will gain:
No doubt you can find these terms in your standards or frameworks, phrased in more appropriate educational jargon. Beyond these skills, the greatest thing you will garner from your students is MOTIVATION to do the other tasks you ask them to do. In order to play the RPG, in my class, students need to have completed the homework the night before. Any student who didn't complete the homework to my satisfaction works in an adjoining room or at the back table until it is done. My homework completion average on game day hovers between 90-100%.
Sometimes I award bonus points of wind motion, magic swords, or life points to homework that is done well or to any group where everyone has done the homework. Once, struck down mid-day with a fever and too exhausted to teach, I photocopied a translation, handed it out to the class and told them that any group that finished it would receive 20 additional skill points. I then collapsed at my desk and braced myself for the din I expected to ensue since I didn't have the energy to properly monitor the lesson. Miraculously, there was complete silence except for urgent whispering and scribbling. I looked up. Everyone was working furiously. Homework credit? Test review? Not important to all ninth graders as I am constantly shocked to discover. But skill points for their hero - that mattered.
Another bonus is the fact that these rewards have no monetary cost. Candy is strictly verboten in all schools. Pencils and stickers with Latin mottoes are great but they are expensive and no district that I have worked for has been interested in reimbursing me for student reward trinkets. Also, as one administrator asked partly in jest, "What am I going to say to a parent that calls and complains that you didn't give their child a magic sword?"
"Nothing." I told him. "You will say nothing because no parent is going to call and complain that their child's imaginary hero didn't get an imaginary reward for an activity that doesn't factor in their grade."
I have curriculum to cover. How much time does this take?
The entire project from start to finish takes about 8-10 hours. If you can set aside 8-10 hours over the period of a year, you have time to do this. For more about exactly how long each segment takes, see project time-line and dice. In addition, it will save you time because it will motivate students to do things on their own that would have taken up class time.
Will this work with MY students?
Good question. Here are some questions to help you decide. If you can answer affirmatively to all of these four questions, then I am confident that mythology role-playing will work in your classroom as well.
1) Do you teach teenagers - ages 12-18 taking a Latin I class?
2) Do the majority of your students enjoy stories about mythology, heroes, quests or magic?
3) Can you find one student for every 5 that you have in class who can read aloud fluently, confidently and can be relied upon to read about 10-15 pages on his or her own over a course of 3 days?
4) Can your students work in small groups without bullying each other? Now by this I mean, without seriously making each other miserable, not causing some frustration or disagreements within the group. The latter is the more normal consequence of teenagers working together while the first requires adult intervention.
If the answer to these questions is "yes," then this will be successful with your students.
It is NOT necessary that you use a certain textbook or method of instruction to do this activity. It is NOT necessary that your students be familiar with RPG's or that they have played any role playing games before. However, I'll also be willing to bet that you have at least 2 or more students who are very familiar with this gaming format. When you tell them that they are going to be doing an RPG, their eyes will widen and your coolness factor will increase tenfold.