In early 2012, Antero Garcia sat down and recorded a conversation with Anansi the spider.1 Over cups of tea, biscuits, and horseflies, Antero and Anansi discussed the alternate reality game called Ask Anansi, participatory professional development, the role of storytelling and gameplay within pedagogical development and teacher community building, and ways to sustain this work in public schools.
Antero: Who is Anansi?
Anansi: Me? Well, that’s a long story (and I do love stories, as you shall see). Although many tales have been spun about me, for now it may be useful to know that I am a West African folklore hero and that I often take the shape of a spider (as I do now). I encourage you to read of all of my trickster tales, but perhaps most relevant to our discussion today is the fact that I own all of the stories you can possibly imagine. Getting me to share them with you, however, is another story.
Antero: I heard that one way to get you to share your stories is through an in-school engagement model. What is Ask Anansi?
Anansi: Good question. Ask Anansi is a community-centered alternate reality game. In this game, students engage in inquiry-based problem solving by communicating with and helping to unravel the stories that I—the trickster spider god of Caribbean folklore—tell them.
As the story-wielding spider god, I have answers and solutions to any question students can imagine, and fortunately, these students have recently received a means of communicating with me. Through simple text messages, e-mails, voicemails, and even disruptions within classroom experiences, students engage in a sustained dialogue with me.
My responses, however, are not always clear. I like tricks, riddles, and befuddlement. As a result, students require critical literacy skills to unravel the web of my hints and instructions. Some clues are found outside the walls of the classroom and may appear as posters, barcodes, or phone calls. After a question is asked, it cannot be unasked, and I am known to grow impatient with small children who waste my time by not solving my puzzles. Who knows what might happen to their teacher or their classroom materials if they dawdle?
Each Anansi question will take a group effort to “answer.” However, be careful. I am never satisfied with simply finding the answers to the many questions students ask. I often require that students work toward solving the problems that they uncover. And although Ask Anansi operates within a fictitious narrative and the students (correctly) assumed that their teacher embodies the Anansi persona when communicating with them via text messages and e-mails, the gaming environment allows students to act, question, and engage in simultaneously critical and playful inquiry. The main product of this game is problem-posing critical thinking and civic participation, and the goal of the game is based in its fiction: students must satisfy the insatiable need of Anansi for a good story.
Antero: Wow, that was a lot to take in. I’m wondering what the role of this ARG stuff is in teacher professional development.
Anansi: Although alternate reality games (ARGs) tend to layer a fiction on top of a real-world setting, Ask Anansi moves toward participatory learning within classrooms while also guiding teachers toward a participatory pedagogical approach.
This model seeks to inform teacher professional development via direct interaction with students and student expertise. This participatory model draws on Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s definition of transformative social play: “Transformative social play forces us to reevaluate a formal understanding of rules as fixed, unambiguous, and omnipotently authoritative. In any kind of transformative play, game structures come into question and are re-shaped by player action. In transformative social play, the mechanisms and effects of these transformations occur on a social level.”2
The shift in focus that happens via transformative social play occurs for both student and teacher. Through teacher collaboration, discussion, and group provocation, teachers move from rote lectures to participatory development.
Instead of simply learning the rules of Ask Anansi and attempting to input them into their everyday practice, teachers come to their professional development space with a set of simple topics or guiding questions they would like to use as foundations for inquiry within their classes. Topics as broad as “How does the Pythagorean theorem affect my daily life?,” “How does conflict affect human decisions?,” and “What are ways that symbolism affects how I read Shakespeare?” are all suitable entry points for developing a transformative learning experience. The experience becomes less a space for consuming teaching content and much more a generative space: teachers build these questions into a series of areas of inquiry that are fleshed out through student expertise (more on this below).
Perhaps one thing that teachers should keep in mind while developing their lessons is the role that Anansi will play. How will students communicate with Anansi? How will Anansi, as an outside agent, help provoke, move content forward, and drive students toward understanding and content mastery? Although the products that students create and analyze speak to the transformative power of gaming, these activities function within this larger pedagogy of transformative social play. The social space of the classroom and of student experience beyond the walls of the school drive the learning environment. But then again, what do I know? I’m just a spider.
Antero: So that sounds really good, but what are the professional development design goals?
Anansi: Sorry, I don’t really know what you mean.
Antero: I guess I mean, this sounds like an enriching classroom activity, but how does it affect professional development?
Anansi: Why didn’t you just say that? For teachers, this is an opportunity to do a couple of things. First, it allows teachers to expand their practice beyond the walls of their classroom and to encourage student expertise to guide the work that occurs. To get to this kind of activity, teachers have to shift from roles as experts to roles as co-constructors of knowledge. Teachers need to create spaces for young people to have the space to ask questions in. To do that, teachers first need to be in a space to ask themselves questions within a peer network. The same way you and I are in dialogue with sustained focus on a given topic, teachers will need to explore their pedagogical goals and look at this as a journey that needs to be constructed pedagogically.
Antero: And how exactly do you get teachers to start allowing students to ask questions?
Anansi: Funny you should ask, since you seem to be doing a fine job asking questions here. From my experience as a storyteller and a community rabble-rouser, I’ve found that people start engaging when they have specific roles to play and spaces within which to ask questions. This question-and-answer conceit, for example, is bounded by superficial constraints that limit us to discussion about participatory professional development. If your role as the questioner were unbounded, we would be talking about favorite pizza toppings and Russian literature. However, by mutually agreeing that we will focus on the topic of participatory professional development and my role in an alternate reality game, we move toward ever more specific learning contexts.
By engaging teachers in an alternate reality gaming model of instruction, Ask Anansi seeks to move student and teacher interactions toward a model of mutual investigation. It is an iterative youth participatory action research (YPAR) engine. By asking students and teachers to collaborate in developing a research question and using the fiction of communicating with me (a story-telling spider), students are encouraged to explore and review their community while teachers engage students as co-researchers through a process of media production and play. This is also mirrored in the participatory professional development. Although teachers may not feel it necessary to communicate with me, this game essentially models the student experience: it is generative through question-driven inquiry.
Antero: Sorry, “youth participatory action research”?
Anansi: I glossed over that one, didn’t I? Youth participatory action research is an emerging research methodology. It builds on the principals of participatory action research (PAR) by involving young people in the process of knowledge development. For teachers, it can be a shift into thinking about co-constructing learning experiences. And this professional development model, in its dialogic form, compels educators to move from telling to asking.
In any participatory action research projects are guided by three dominant principles: “(1) the collective investigation of a problem, (2) the reliance on indigenous knowledge to better understand that problem, and (3) the desire to take individual and/or collective action to deal with the stated problem.”3
This method of instruction—involving students in designing and exploring meaningful learning experiences—“contributes to a way of thinking about people as researchers, as agents of change, as constructors of knowledge, actively involved in the dialectical process of action and reflection aimed at individual and collective change.”4
Antero: This is a lot of questions! Does this game ever end?
Anansi: I’m really glad you asked that. You see, Ask Anansi helps educators adapt and revise their game and storytelling experience over time. By iterating through various versions of this game (either with the same group of students or a new class), the teacher responds to student interests, specific content goals, and the changing world in which the game and school exist. In terms of assessment, Ask Anansi evaluates student learning through a model I call inform, perform, transform. The three phases of this performative evaluation model expand assessment to adhere to a liberatory model of inquiry-based youth research as follows.
In the inform stage, students gather, analyze, and collate information in order to produce their own, original work. In Ask Anansi, students furthered three types of knowledge during this phase—indigenous expertise of their communities; conceptual understanding of the function of game-play and problem-posing inquiry; and functional literacy skills (including creating and reading QR codes, writing challenging, engaging clues, and properly logging and reflecting on found items).
In the perform stage, students use the knowledge and information acquired through their informational inquiries to produce or perform new work that is tied to a larger critical, conceptual, or academic goal. Within the game, students develop scavenger hunt clues for their classmates, hide them in and around their school space, and—later—search for each other’s clues.
In the transform stage, students extend their performance toward publicly shared knowledge and action and focus on transforming their world. Students adapted the closed, class-only scavenger hunt into a publicly curated exhibit to affect the public’s reading and interpretation of the South Central community.
Ultimately, inform, perform, and transform expands assessment to include students as both those assessed and those assessing. In allowing students to develop their own body of knowledge, with the teacher acting as facilitator in this process and encouraging transformative performative action, this process is a way to make explicit to teachers the role of student experience within classroom instruction and assessment.
This model encourages continual exploration and ensures the experiences are tied to the community and classroom needs. The assessment embeds responsiveness to the world in which the game is played and focuses understanding on the context of learning.
Antero: So this seems like a very different kind of experience for teacher and student alike.
Anansi: Absolutely. One thing I should point out is that, just as teachers through this professional development shift their roles from distributors of knowledge to facilitators of student-constructed knowledge, students, too, shift identities. In particular, I recommend allowing students to take on various roles to help them ease into the process of inquiry that Ask Anansi creates. As you’ll see in this dialogue’s appendix, students choose various roles for each activity. The “Checkered Flag” for instance, ensures that students complete an assignment, and the class “Diplomat” helps maintain positive working conditions between peers. These names may seem silly or “weird” for students, but assigned role shifts (even temporarily) help move students toward tangible research results and build ownership on specific components of the work within the classroom.
Antero: I think I’m still not clear how all of this stuff happening in individual classrooms has anything to do with teacher professional development and building teacher communities.
Anansi: I guess that the web I’ve been weaving still has a few gaps in it, doesn’t it? Imagine for a second that the professional development that teachers have been encountering for eons (at least in spider years) no longer exists. Instead, teachers walk into a space that is collaboratively productive, and they take turns posing questions and engaging in dialogue with each other. For a multidisciplinary space, one can imagine that the questions will mimic student questions. The science teacher may not understand the principles that the art teacher is hoping to teach. What happens in this space is that teachers co-construct a series of question-based objectives for their individual classrooms. They do this through engagement and provocation from their peers. In this way, each teacher develops a model that meets the nuanced contexts of their classroom communities and builds a stronger relational component to their professional development experience. By yielding ownership over the space to teachers and participatory experiences, school administrators ensure that more attention is placed on student needs and a stronger network of knowledge production is formed among the teaching staff.
Antero: Okay, I think I’m getting this. But can you clarify how you ensure that Ask Anansi remains both relevant and flexible?
Anansi: Although Ask Anansi was piloted in a ninth-grade classroom, its premise extends beyond a single age group. In its most basic sense, Ask Anansi invites students to ask and explore questions of their own design. There is no reason Ask Anansi cannot be developed for students of all grades. The principles of storytelling and personal inquiry translate across ages.
As explained above, the participatory professional development that leads teachers to use Ask Anansi within a classroom starts with a basic question that is distilled into the specific needs of a classroom. By bringing student inquiry to bear on a topic through Ask Anansi, the classroom community of students will ensure relevancy.
Antero: Okay, I’m willing to try this with a group of teachers at my school, but how will we be able to sustain this project?
Anansi: The long-term sustainability of Ask Anansi relies on teacher and administrator collaboration. This game does not require a specific textbook, daily practice exam drills, or other components of a standardized-testing climate. Instead, authentic learning experiences are drawn from the community around students in ways that provoke standards-supporting English language arts instruction. This moves teacher professional development beyond the climate of high-stakes testing.
Antero: It would really help me if you could show me what the Ask Anansi goals look like in a hypothetical setting.
Anansi: Here goes: Ask Anansi’s goal is to guide students toward collective inquiry around a negotiated topic and civic engagement by addressing the underlying causes of these topics. For example, a class may investigate why the food at their school is unpopular. By researching nutrition, budgeting, and distribution of food and doing qualitative surveys and an ethnographic analysis of student perceptions of school food, students may determine that a lack of variety (due to budget and contracting constraints) and a social perception (that the food is “bad”) are detracting from students receiving adequate nutrition during the day. Next, students may determine that a course of action is to develop a coalition of concerned parents and students, speak at school board meetings, and even stage a cafeteria sit-in. Students will reflect on their efforts, discuss changes they have made, and record these steps in text messages, video, and mapping applications on mobile devices.
Although the main products of this game are problem posing, critical thinking, and civic participation, the goal of the game is based in the alternate reality game’s fiction: they must satisfy the insatiable need of Anansi for a good story. Asking Anansi a question seems innocuous. A comment is fed to the class’s spider to communicate to Anansi: “Why is the food at our school so bad?” A day later, a response is given cryptically—coordinates to the loading dock for the school’s food shipments and a riddle guiding students to photograph and blog about the nutritional information they can ascertain.
The game’s initial premise of asking a simple question has significant repercussions. Anansi will not simply provide an answer. He tricks, confounds, and teases students. Anansi’s messages are often shrouded as riddles, QR codes, and even latitude and longitude coordinates that need to be determined and visited. Like the media messages that students are challenged to assess critically, Anansi’s dialogue with students challenges concerns of power, dominance, and agency in a capitalist environment.
As students gain more information, Anansi’s responses become more demanding. Students will regularly dialogue and blog about their experiences. Anansi may hack or edit their information in an effort to further a good story.
After students have completed their initial research and analysis, Anansi tells students that they have the pieces of a great story but need to weave them into action. Students need to begin working toward a course of action around the information they have received. Collective action and models of engagement are examined by the class, and a strategic plan is developed and enacted.
Anansi confesses at the end of the game that he tricked students in places with his difficult clues. He suggests that the students should recruit others to continue the story they have weaved together. After all, Anansi reminds players, a story never really ends. We may continue to talk about what happens until the next series of adventures. An inquiry and effort to improve food quality at a school is an ongoing endeavor that students will continue to work on.
Antero: You are one smart spider!
Anansi: Thank you.
Antero: I was wondering something. Even though you are saying most of this work will be constructed by teachers within their professional development, do you have some worksheet models to help us get the ball rolling?
Anansi: I suppose I could allow you to take a look. On the count of three, I will disappear, and a worksheet will take my place. (I assure you this is a painless process for me.) One, two, THREE!
The following two worksheets illustrate specific examples of assessment production tools within an alternate reality game classroom experience. Although readers are welcome to duplicate these tools, they are reproduced here primarily as examples of ways to utilize alternate reality game experiences within academic settings.
1. Over the past week, you and your classmates have investigated the background and identity of Anansi. Please list three characteristics of Anansi that you have discovered, and describe how you know this information.
2. Today, as a class you are going to come up with a question to ask Anansi to answer for you. This question should relate to this community and your day-to-day experiences here at SCHS.
a. Please select classmates to perform the following roles:
Diplomat (helps facilitate work between group members)
Engineer (oversees construction of work)
Checkered Flag (keeps group working in a timely manner)
Tourist (looks at the work from the view of the “other”)
Portal (sends the question to Anansi at 323-xxx-xxxx)
b. Discuss with your classmates the two issues you have been thinking about, and as a group, choose one question. Write the question here:
c. After you are done, write your reflections on this process on the back of this paper. What did you think about how your group interacted? What was challenging? Why did the class think the question you chose was important? What do you think Anansi will say?
Ask Anansi Communication Log
Date and time message was sent:
What did I think Anansi would say?
Was a response received?
Date and time when a message was received:
What did Anansi actually say?
What do I think this means?
What questions do I have? What words or ideas are unclear?
Class next steps: