Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Boca al Lupo: A Game to Learn Historical Significance and the Renaissance

Boca al Lupo
Italian, "from the mouth of the wolf"
An expression, often used in theatre, to wish someone good luck.

When it came time for us to begin our first major case study about worldviews, a look at how ideas spread during the Italian Renaissance, and how a Western worldview emerged, we were totally stuck. We looked at things other people had created, and projects we'd done in the past. One huge problem with this interesting, yet very history-focused curriculum, is that many teachers tend to focus on content (what happened) rather than phenomena and significance (why it matters).

We knew we wanted to focus on the latter. We had a couple of frustrating planning meetings with our Humanities team, which consisted of my incredible team partner Tara, and my student teacher Adrienne. Finally, a conversation that took the form of plussing happened - where we took an attitude of "yes, and" and added on to another person's idea. We were talking about games and principles of game-like learning, and the seed of Boca al Lupo was born. Boca al Lupo is essentially a smashup of Pokemon cards and War.

Here's the premise of Boca al Lupo:

  • Students are organized into teams of 5-6 people, called Guilds. The students give the guild a name, a motto, and a coat of arms (after a little minilesson on European heraldry).
  • There are seven Levels in the game creation. Each Guild works on one level at a time, in whichever order they want. The levels are: Arts/Culture, Math/Science/Health, Philosophy, Political Systems, Religion, Technology, and Trade/Commerce/Competition. We created a package for each level, in which we found grade-level information about topics and people of significance in that area during the Italian Renaissance. For example, in Arts/Culture, we featured Christine de Pizan, Humanism, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buanarotti, The House of Medici Patronage, and William Shakepeare.
  • The students worked through each level with their Guild. Each member of the Guild was responsible for creating one card for their deck of Boca al Lupo cards. They each chose one of the people or topics from the level to research and create a card for. They used a graphic organizer called Player One Ready to organize their research. We had a complex version and one that was a bit simplified for our students who needed it. We also had a sheet called Leveling Up! which I'll talk about in a minute. We borrowed many of the concepts on the Ready Player One sheets from the Historical Thinking Project. Here's the sheets:

  • After each student was finished their Ready Player One sheet, the group would get together to complete the Levelling Up sheet together. They would share what they learned about their own person or topic with the group, and then assess the level of historical significance together, creating a kind of ranking of the topics or people in terms of how historically significant they were. The group would have 200 Health Points (HP) and Damage Points (DP) to divvy up when they got to their hard creation, and this ranking would help them do this. It also ensured that people in the group were familiar with all the topics in the level. We wouldn't want someone, for example, not knowing what humanism was all about because they'd researched William Shakespeare.
  • After this point, the group would call their Questmaster (which is what the teachers were called during the game. I wore a cape. It was amazing) over for an interview. We used an assessment sheet to keep track of how each student was doing during the level.

I want to break here to talk about assessment for a moment. One of the principles of game-like learning is "Feedback is immediate and ongoing." Feedback is one of the reasons why playing games is fun. You get instant and continuous feedback about how you're doing. We wanted to make sure this was part of the way this project worked, so we developed the interview. This made sure that groups were getting feedback before they went to create their cards. It gave us time to check for understanding from each student. We talked to the group about what they'd learned about, and made sure they knew the historical significance. It gave us a feedback loop in case the students had missed something pretty important. If they thought humanism wasn't particularly historically significant, we could give them some feedback about what else they needed to read or research to get a more complete understanding of the topic. We did one interview per group per level.

This meant seven opportunities to check in on the learning for each student. This meant seven chances for a kid to show their progress on each stem (we use our report card stems in a very similar way to how you'd see standards or objectives used in standard-based grading and objective-based assessment). The content would be different for each attempt, but the skills are the same. We were looking for growth for each student over time, and kept a master record of each student for each level as we did the interview. I used Checkmark, Checkmark Minus, and Checkmark Plus symbols to note which students had strong understanding and more tenuous understanding for each skill. If a student did not meet the objective at a basic level, he/she was given feedback and asked to continue working on their research and then we'd have a follow up interview to check for understanding again. As a result, no students were working below grade level on this project.
  • When the interview was complete, and all students had at least a basic understanding of the objectives, students were given two things: a boost card (worth 2x, 3x, or 4x the Health Points) based on how well the whole group understood their topics, and blank card templates.
This is where the 200 HP and DP come in again. The group had 200 to distribute amongst the group's cards. They could decide as a group how to do that, but they had to be able to justify their allocation. They gave each person or topic two strengths and a weakness. For example, a strength of the Black Death might be "Kills 2/3s of all human cards" or "Kills nobility and peasants equally. Roll a dice. If you roll less than 3, your card is automatically killed." A weakness could be "Demolishes the feudal system. All lower class cards increase their HP by 30." They combine their knowledge of the historical event or person, and bring in elements of gameplay to have the card influence the play. In the box at the top, they'd also draw a picture.

  • At any point in the level, if they finished their job earlier than the rest of their guild members, they had an opportunity to do a side quest. Side quests were an extra task for them to do, adding an element of enrichment for those who needed it. Quests would be things like, "Learn the meaning and context of 5 Shakespearean insults and then write one of your own, to be used during game play" or "Research one-point linear perspective then use it to create a drawing of a hallway or room in the school." Quests would give the group a bonus card that would benefit them during gameplay. The quest cards were made by Tara using a website called MTG Cardsmith!

  • Once all the cards were created, then the group could move on to the next level, and start the process all over again.

Once all groups had progressed through all seven levels, then they had a deck of cards that they would play the game with. Gameplay looked like this: We created a double elimination tournament bracket so each group would play at least twice. They would put five cards down on the table as their "bench," which is how Pokemon works. Then they'd turn the cards over in that order. Whatever was written as the strengths and weaknesses was applied. If neither card was eliminated, it went down to HP and DP to determine the winner. The winning team kept both cards, and could use them in future gameplay. Sometimes, there were disputes about a card having an unreasonable amount of power for its historical significance. At that point, they called a Questmaster over to hear the arguments and make a decision. This turned out to be a great chance for students to use persuasive skills and logic to present an argument. 

The final game came down to these two cards: Humanism vs. the Printing Press. We had to call it a tie.

As always, we have some changes we'd make next time. Most importantly, we need to figure out a better way to differentiate for students who have unique learning needs. Though we did create modified versions of the graphic organizers, students who needed modified work struggled with this task more than they should. All students should have pathways to excellence, and if a student didn't do a great job on their card, the card wouldn't be very useful to the group. We need to create a pathway to excellence for all students in this game. We don't yet have an idea for how to do this, but it's a definite redesign next time.

We'd also do a trial game early into the process, maybe after two levels, so the students can see how the gameplay works, which will give them feedback about how to improve their cards. We were kind of figuring this out as we were going through it so we didn't do this, but this would be an easy thing to incorporate next time.

Overall, we were happy to know that each student understood factors that shaped the Renaissance and the emergence of a Western worldview and were successfully able to employ historical thinking to determine historical significance.

The two Questmasters, debating a challenge

Resources Shared:

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