Image Slider

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Redesigned Bocca al Lupo: A Game to Learn about the European Renaissance

As a part of our regular practice, my teaching partner Tara and I systematically reflect on our practice. This reflection practice holds us accountable: to our students, to best practices in task design and assessment, and to ourselves.

We designed Bocca al Lupo in 2019 (click here to view a previous post about this game). Bocca al Lupo is a card game that we co-design with our students. It was initially designed as a card game that was a kind of mashup between Pokemon and War. We thought what we designed was pretty good. In essence, the students participated in "levels" where they chose a Sosantivo (Italian for "noun" - so a person, place, thing, or idea) of several possibilities and then created a card highlighting this Sosantivo's strengths and weaknesses. The students learned so much about the different ideas that emerged from the European Renaissance. They were also super engaged in the process. In our reflection practice, though, we realized that though they learned a lot, what was lacking was the big picture view of the changes that emerged during the Renaissance, and were missing the connections to broader ideas and trends that are so significant to our modern Western worldview. 

With social studies, we always want our students to come away with a bigger picture idea. Why do we learn about history? Learning about historical significance helps us understand why some ideas become so important to a culture's worldview while other ideas don't. In thinking critically about historical significance, we can look at our society now and understand why we behave in the way we do, and trace these roots to ideas that shaped our past. The study of the Renaissance is really about looking at the origins of a Western worldview - a worldview we can recognize here in North America today. 

So, we redesigned the game. Because we wanted this to be about making connections between ideas, we swapped the Pokemon/War game mechanic for another one: dominoes. The game of dominoes is all about making connections. This is a perfect example of why game-like learning fits in teaching and learning. We can use analogous concepts from games to help us reach our educational goals. For Tara and I, game-like learning isn't about gamifying - associating extrinsic rewards like points or avatars to traditional learning tasks. It's about borrowing concepts from games to design tasks around, leading to learning experiences that are intrinsically motivating and fun

The redesign is centred around the concept of "Powers." These are big ideas that emerged from the Renaissance or were a significant idea during the Renaissance that endure in some way today. The Powers we decided to centre on this year were: Competition, Democracy, Ethnocentrism, Feudalism, Hierarchy, Humanism, Imperialism/Colonialism, Monarchy, Monotheism, Oligarchy, Rationalism, Republic, Secularism, and Urbanization. We don't think we've quite hit on the perfect combination of Powers yet. Some worked better than others, which is kind of the point in that it makes the game more challenging as some concepts are more difficult to connect to. But others are hovering close to an idea that would be more appropriate, we think. 

As they complete each level of the project in preparation for gameplay, the students create a card with a different Sosantivo. On the card, they draw a sketch of the Sosantivo, identify strengths, and make connections to Powers to which the Sosantivo relates. They complete seven levels, each one focused on a different aspect of the Renaissance: Arts & Culture, Math & Science, Religion, Trade & Travel, Politics, Technology & Innovations, and Philosophy. The student works through some research to learn about the Sosantivo, its role during the Renaissance, and use inferential and critical thinking to connect it to the Powers.

After the seventh level, the group has a full deck of cards and they're ready to play! Gameplay begins with the random drawing of a Power card, which is placed in the middle of the table. Then, each team randomly draws five cards from their full deck. To play the game, the team must play their cards, making connections to the Power Card or to other cards that have already been played. If they cannot play, they must draw another card from their deck. The object of the game is to be the first team to play all their cards. 

Students will be more successful in the game if they have a good understanding of the connections between Powers and Sosantivo. Because each student focuses on completing a singular card during each level, collaboration is essential for success in the game. The more the students on the team collaborate with one another to learn about each Sosantivo and deeply understand the connections between then, the better they will do in the game.

One of the key principles we kept front and centre during the design of this game was that students should have multiple opportunities to demonstrate a skill, and feedback should help them move their learning forward. Assessment takes place in a group discussion, where we talk about the Sosantivos, their connections, and the big picture ideas they are noticing during the level. An iteration we made this year was to give each student a feedback tracking sheet, which they kept in front of them during these assessment conversations and gave them a place to record feedback. We were very explicit in these conversations about what specific changes they could make in the next level to improve their progression towards our standards. We noticed that this feedback tracking sheet really helped students know what they needed to do to improve. Most students were hitting all the standards by the end of the seven levels.

There are more iterations we'll make next time. One thing we've talked about is how we can make the creation process of building the cards feel more game-like. We discussed playing mini rounds of the game as an assessment process after each level. Playing the game at the culmination of each level would not only be an excellent formative performance assessment, but would also be great practice for final gameplay and would feel more fun for the students.

We're happy to share our resources with you. Use them as-is, or hack them. If you do, we'd love to hear how it goes! E-mail us to let us know: and

Here are links to Google Drive files with all the necessary files. If you'd rather just go to the whole folder, here's the link.

  • A slidedeck to guide the game creation process
  • An instruction manual to play the game
  • A flowchart that shows the process of a level
  • Player One Ready, the notecatcher students complete during research, as well as a modified version for students who need more structure/guidance
  • Levelling Up, a notecatcher for the students as they prepare for their end-of-level conference
  • Powers Sheet, to help students keep track of each of the Powers and their definitions
  • Assessment Classlist, for the teacher to use during assessment of each level
  • Feedback Tracking Sheet, for students to use to collect and track feedback to move their learning forward
  • Links to folders with all the cards in Photoshop file format: 
    • Student Cards, which are the cards to play the game
    • Power Cards, which are used to begin the game
    • Boost Cards, which are awarded to the group at the end of each level based on their collective ability to make strong connections
    • Judgment Day Cards, which are awarded when a player challenges another player during the game, where students can object to a weak connection. A mini debate is then had, which the Questmaster (teacher) judges and awards a card based on the strength of the argument
    • Quest Cards: If a student completes their research before other member of their team are ready, they can complete a Quest - a short challenge that extends and deepens their understanding. The reward is a Quest Card, which is a valuable card that can be used in gameplay.
Please reach out if you have any questions or to share your ideas with us! The whole point of this post is to explore how reflection helps us iterate to be better, so we welcome your ideas to help us do that!

Connect with us on Twitter: Erin & Tara

Monday, December 21, 2020

Nihon no Okami: A Game to Teach about Japanese History and Worldviews

I have previously posted about a game we found to teach about Japanese history called Warlords of Japan. In grade 8 social studies in Alberta, our curriculum focuses on worldviews and the things that shape them and change them. We do a case study about Japan, focusing on the Edo and Meiji periods to learn about a period of government-imposed isolation and then the subsequent adaptation and modernization sparked by the Americans' forceful demand to Japan's leaders to open their borders to trade.

Warlords was fun, but it was created in the 1990s and its pedagogies aren't current. It also misses big parts of our curricular outcomes, only focusing on the feudal period before isolation. My teaching partner Tara and I decided that we needed to design something more rooted in current best practices in teaching and learning and game-based learning specifically, and more aligned with our curriculum.

We created a game called Nihon no Okami, or Okami for short, which translates to 'Wolves of Japan' (our school's team name is the Grey Wolves, and we often name our games in accordance with that). The game is very loosely based on Warlords of Japan, and shares the area of control Risk-like gameplay elements and the idea of the map with that game. Mostly everything else has been redesigned.

In Okami, students work in groups called goningumi, each of which is assigned a home shiro (castle). The goal of the game is to gain the most territory, develop the best local economy, with the happiest people. This works out to gaining territory in the game, as well as making economic and social improvements to their home shiro. The whole game (which was the entirety of our case study about Japan as it addresses all outcomes in the Program of Studies) takes eight weeks to play. The game changes as the weeks progress, representing the different periods in history: pre-isolation, isolation, civil war, adaptation, and modernization.

The gameboard for Nihon no Okami

Tara and I are open source teachers and want to share this game with anyone who can use it. We have developed a teachers' guide, which will give you the information you need to recreate this game in your classroom, along with links to all resources and handouts. We want you to hack it and make it work in your setting. Our request is simply that you share back what you do so we can learn from you, too. You can find our e-mails in the teachers' guide, or you can comment on this post to share back.

Jars of Koku (a unit of measurement of rice, the currency of Edo Japan) and the currency in Okami

We use principles of game-based learning borrowed from the now-defunct Institute of Play to design all our Social Studies projects:

  1. Everyone is a participant
  2. Failure is reframed as an iteration
  3. Everything is interconnected
  4. Learning happens by doing
  5. Feedback is immediate and ongoing
  6. Challenge is constant
  7. Learning feels like play
When using game-based learning in the classroom, two outcomes are important. Firstly, it's important that the game is fun and the students feel invested in the game and in their learning. Secondly, and more importantly, it's important that they learn. We know from research about effective teaching that students must find the work they do intellectually engaging, and "fun activities" don't really cut it. We believe we have created a careful balance here to position the learning in this game as knowledge they need for gameplay, and by connecting this with games, we have deeply connected the learning of history to something that's important in the worlds in which our students live.

In terms of these outcomes, we believe our design has been successful. Our students loved playing this game, and were visibly and audibly engaged in both the game and the learning required by it. We also believe our students have learned a lot. We outline assessment practices in the teachers' guide, and most of our students were demonstrating high levels of achievement through the iterative assessment practices this game involves. 

Two students strategizing

A final note about the competencies games develop. When we play games, we learn skills that are important in school and in life. We learn collaboration, cooperation, sportsmanship, patience, strategy, long-term thinking, if-then thinking, among others. We get opportunities to coach our students on character, citizenship, and personal development. We see our students' humanity shine through. And that's got to be worth something.
Sunday, September 13, 2020

Studio Art Process

 I teach an art option class in addition to my Humanities teaching load. I love teaching art. It's such a relaxing pause in the day, when I just get to help kids create.

This year, Covid has thrown a bit of wrench into option scheduling. Typically, students rank their option choices and get placed in courses they're interested in. Because we need to keep kids in their homeroom cohorts, we've moved to a wheel approach - the students stay in their homerooms and cycle through every option, spending about eight weeks in each one.

This made me reconsider how I taught art. Typically, I'd teach it in a project-based way, so everyone would work on drawing or pottery or printmaking at the same time, though they'd have choice in what the drew or made or printed. But now I would have students in my class who don't consider themselves artists, and very likely, some who are actually very anxious about making art.

I'd been considering the Teaching Artistic Behaviour (TAB) approach for a while, and this was just the push I needed to jump in. I read Engaging Learners Through Artmaking: Choice-Based Art Education in the Classroom (TAB) by Katherine M. Douglas and Diane B. Jaquith (Alberta teachers, hot tip! I borrowed this book from the ATA library!), and once I learned more about the practicalities of this approach, I was ready. I knew this approach would help everyone find an artform that felt good to them, regardless of their past artmaking experiences, and would meet them where they're at.

The TAB approach can be summarized in three sentences:

  1. What do artists do?
  2. The child is the artist.
  3. The art room is the child's studio.

Being a teacher who lives every day and thrives in student choice, I'm starting at the far end of the choice spectrum. I am planning on having each student create at least one 2D and one 3D project over the course of the eight weeks, knowing many students will do more than this. Allowing them so much choice, I knew I needed to scaffold them through the idea-getting phase, experimentation and learning of the medium, creation, and reflection phases of a project. So I created a graphic that will guide them through the process, which is a morphing of studio art practice, creativity, and design thinking theories.

My plan is to have students conference quickly with me before they move to the next phase of the project, giving me an opportunity to guide their practice, and give feedback.

I know my students will need help with the inspiration phase, as well as learning new techniques and skills. In my Google classroom, I have assembled some resources they can use for Drawing, Pastels, Watercolour Painting, Acrylic Painting, Printmaking, Calligraphy, and Collage & Mixed Media. I'll work on doing the same for 3D artforms as well over the next couple of weeks.

Students are not restricted to these media. If a student has a digital tablet and wants to get better at digital art, sure! If a student wants to make comics, go for it! However, I want every artist to improve regardless of where they're starting from, and to do this, we'll be learning the Studio Habits of Mind vocabulary and what it means. This will play centre stage in assessment, as well.

Every day, I'll do a minilesson to teach a skill or technique. I'm thinking that 

My biggest worry is that many students will need me at the same time, and with Covid precautions, we're avoiding movement as much as possible. So I'm making each kid a set of three cards, which I'll laminate. They'll leave the "Happily working" one on their desk unless they need me, in which they'll replace it with the "I need a conference" or "I need help." I've created a little form called "I need something," too, which they can fill out to let me know what they need.

As with anything, I'm sure this process will become refined in the hands of my students, so we'll see what happens!