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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!

From Safe to Brave

 A couple of years ago, we started our year in grade 8 Humanities by having the students create a user manual. It was good, but it missed the mark in a couple of ways, namely, the students didn't use them beyond the assignment. In an effort to more purposefully set students up for the work they would do throughout the year in Room to Breathe, we hacked it, and came up with From Safe to Brave.

The purposes of this beginning of the year task are:

  • We all learn more about the people in the room.
  • We can start to build trust in order to take creative risks. We want to become brave so we can do outrageously awesome things this year.
  • Students can hone in on the things that fascinate them, and their learning preferences, so they can make good decisions about what they want to read, write, speak, view, listen to, and represent about in Room to Breathe.


Feel free to make a copy of the slidedeck and hack it at will so it serves your learners.