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4. Ask Anansi: Informing, Performing, Transforming

Published onApr 10, 2020
4. Ask Anansi: Informing, Performing, Transforming

As I handed out the papers that described the location of the first clue, students took the sheets with their standard nonchalance for schoolwork. I tried to make the class interesting, but for students, this was just another activity in another class—another worksheet that stood between them and lunch. I watched as they quickly scanned the paper in front of them:

This badge is tucked away in the corner of one of Mr. Garcia’s favorite things: a book! There are many here, so which one is it?

To successfully find this badge you need to find a book someone wrote about his own life, just like you have. He had many names: Homeboy, Satan, Minister, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz. This badge can be yours if you look on page 165.

As soon as Dante realized that he was looking for something in the classroom and that this was a game, he stood up and started pacing, looking for things that might be askew on the untidy bookcases. Many students looked uncertainly back and forth from their paper to me for further instructions, but Dante roused Solomon and Jay, and all three soon congregated around the bookcase.

As Dante and his friends looked through my shelves of books, Tess focused on the final sentence of the clue description. She pulled out her iPod, placed the device in the middle of her table to collaborate with Holden, and typed “el hajj malik el shabazz” into her Wikipedia mobile application. The result redirected users to the page for Malcolm X. While more students congregated around the bookshelves, Tess sat and took stock of our room. To her left, nearly half of the class was scouring the bookshelf. Scattered in front of her, the rest of the class, including myself, was looking at the scavenger hunt clue or at the mass by the bookshelves and the walls cluttered with student work.

And then she saw it.

Perched high above the white board, strikingly out of place once it was noticed, a single black paperback leaned against the wall. She nodded to Holden, and they slowly rose from their desks attracting nobody else’s attention. She dragged her chair to the shelf, and Holden stood on it, retrieved the black book, and handed it down to Tess. Flipping to page 165, she saw a QR code paper clipped above an underlined passage and looked at Holden, who yelled, “We found it!” Surprised “You did?” comments (and disappointed grumbling from Dante) came from across the room.

Tess explained how she and Holden found the clue and read the underlined passage aloud for the class:

The devil white man cut these black people off from all knowledge of their own kind, and cut them off from any knowledge of their own language, religion, and past culture, until the black man in America was the earth’s only race of people who had absolutely no knowledge of his true identity.

I was prepared to dive into an engaging conversation about Malcolm’s words, but the class had other plans. Before anyone else could speak or reflect, Minerva quickly said, “That’s a nice quote. Okay, what’s the next clue?” The rest of the class looked to me expectantly.

Although Dante seemed disappointed that he didn’t find the book, the class as a whole was interested in the process of looking for and eventually finding a tangible object. This class experience was different from what students were used to. For several weeks, my students ran around the SCHS campus (yes, often literally running), hiding clues, snapping pictures, and clandestinely placing notecards on various parts of the campus space. They also had in-depth conversations with a mythological figure, Anansi—a West African trickster spider—and tried to determine who was the “winner” in our class at any given time. This kind of English class wasn’t what school usually was like.

In this chapter, we look at how games helped my classroom become a transformative space that was guided by student inquiry and sometimes facilitated by digital tools. It was fun, and moments of powerful learning resulted from the classwide game. As I note in chapter 3, I made plenty of mistakes as I rolled out this game, and I am going to share more of those, too. Just as a vocal group of supporters praises the life-changing potential of technology in schools, another group of enthusiastic pundits promotes game-based learning. In sharing what was done in this study, I might be able to temper some unrealistic expectations. But in order for me to explain the value of having students in my ninth-grade English class run around and talk with fictitious characters, I first need to discuss the roles played by games in schools and the ways I tried to blur reality and fiction in my own classroom.

Why Games?

There is a long history of educational games that try to improve student learning. In particular, the value of digital games in helping kids to learn has long been publicly debated. Playing digital games—getting lost on the Oregon Trail, chasing after Carmen San Diego, collaborating in online virtual worlds like Minecraft and World of Warcraft—is a significant part of how new technologies can be harnessed in schools.

Recent research highlights the academic, civic, and creative potentials of video games,1 but I have been interested in how the concept of play more broadly allows for students to learn in new ways. When we unplug play from digital contexts, we can imagine classrooms where students take on playful identities, create, explore, and challenge one another in ways of engagement that are significantly different from what schools have historically offered. Nearly a century ago, for instance, educational philosopher John Dewey wrote that, “From a very early age … there is no distinction of exclusive periods of play activity and work activity, but only one of emphasis.”2 Dewey also describes games and play as “relief from the tedium and strain of ‘regular’ school work.”

What differentiates work and play? Play and games? How is energy dispersed and focused, and how does a person’s agency guide and make decisions within work and play? Traditional models of schooling emphasize work and mental exertion in contrast to play, but games offer opportunities for students to escape from such stifling environments. Games reconstruct the possibilities of learning and the ways learning is felt by the students who are immersed in it.

Going a bit further, there are many different definitions of games and subdivisions of what happens within games.3 For the purposes of this chapter, I rely on Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s definition—“A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome”4—because it highlights the transformative potential of many games. They point out that games can act as a portal toward social change. Specifically, transformative social play can shape learning opportunities that incite students to wonder and can expand student learning to include engaging with the larger world. Salen and Zimmerman note that such a model of 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 reshaped by player action. In transformative social play, the mechanisms and effects of these transformations occur on a social level.5

The other fundamental concept around gaming that is important to consider for schools is the idea of a “magic circle.” Illustrated decades ago by philosopher Johan Huizinga, long before electronic gaming and electronic mobile media existed, the “magic circle” reminds us that when we play a game, we are “stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity.”6 For instance, when people play charades, they accept the silliness of acting out silent clues and having other players guess and yell out words frantically because such behavior is within the “magic circle” of a game. Behavior that is not considered socially acceptable is allowed within a magic circle because participants and viewers know that this is a temporary space outside of social boundaries. In the “magic circle” of game play, role playing, acting, and behavior can ignore social norms, and students can pose, flex, and experiment safely. A “magic circle” gives players a safe space in which to learn and be vulnerable.

The general notion of the magic circle is largely in opposition to general assumptions about the purpose and operation of schools. Schools provide spaces that model “real” life, and some behaviors—including conforming to society’s power norms, adhering to bells that dictate a factory-like schedule, and acting politely—are parts of the “hidden curriculum” of what kids learn in schools. In contrast, the magic circle allows wild experimentation and behavior because gameplay is a safe space to be someone that society says you are not. To me, the revolutionary potential of gaming within classrooms is not the fancy technology or structure of a game but the radical possibilities for trying on new ways of being and for encouraging youth to imagine identities that are unconstrained by local norms. Games can create vastly alternate realities.

An Alternate Reality

As hinted above, one contemporary genre of gaming that I’ve found to be a powerful model in my classroom is something called an alternate reality game (ARG).7 An alternate reality game blurs the notion of the magic circle by having a fictitious narrative take place in the real world. This popular genre has mixed how participants interact with media and their everyday world by sending players to find ringing payphones in public,8 conduct protests over “fake” topics,9 and even sneak into car dealerships to locate a stolen vehicle.10 Most players know that the game is built around a fiction but regularly pretend that “this is not a game” (a popular trope of ARGs).11 Blurring what is real with what is a game is largely about immersion and, to a degree, challenges the notion of a magic circle. Based on player reactions to ARGs, it seems that pretending that “this is not a game” makes the experience of playing them feel more fun.12

In her research on the ARG I Love Bees, game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal notes how thousands of individual players worked together like a “hive” to unravel a series of complex puzzles.13 Building off of a theory of “collective intelligence,” players developed a social network of expertise and puzzle solving.14 Thinking about the capacity of such robust learning in ARGs, I am reminded of McGonigal’s comments in her 2010 TED talk, where she notes that “gamers … are a human resource that we can use to do real-world work … that games are a powerful platform for change.”15

Taking McGonigal’s call about the possibility of games seriously, years before the study described in this book, I collaborated in designing an ARG for my classroom focused on ecoliteracies and youth civic engagement.16 Briefly, the Black Cloud ARG imagined that the pollution in Los Angeles was so bad that a cloud had developed consciousness and was communicating with my students via Twitter. Utilizing sensors that measured the air quality in hyperlocal spaces, students assessed the air quality in and around their school community, critically examined this data, and developed environmental recommendations that were presented publicly. In postgame interviews and reflections, student data identified specific ways that this game affected student literacies and environmental awareness. After acting out the roles of “citizen scientists,” students informed their families and friends of air pollutants around them and advocated for school environmental improvements.17

The experience of developing and executing the Black Cloud ARG illustrated to me that play, the blurring of fiction and reality, and the ability for students to take ownership over parts of their community were salient factors in student motivation. This experience ultimately led me to Ask Anansi.

Ask Anansi

Building off of my previous experiences utilizing games and ARGs in the classroom, I designed a game called Ask Anansi as an experience that wove together participatory culture, technology use, and classroom socialization. Rather than being a game played on mobile media devices, the game was designed so that it was facilitated by technology and largely driven by a narrative.

Briefly, a West African folklore character called Anansi serves as a “trickster” figure in Caribbean tales.18 Taking the guise of a spider, Anansi often deceives others, and his cunning illustrates crucial cultural perspectives. In one telling of an Anansi story, the spider ends up the keeper of all stories. From this auspicious beginning—a trickster spider that hordes the truths of the world—Ask Anansi was created.

In ARGs, players are part of and come to understand a larger story. They experience it and shape it. Below, I share the story that I designed for students to experience and the branches of game play that affected student learning. These narrative and pedagogical decisions were developed for an ideal world, but how Ask Anansi actually unfolded comprises the remainder of this chapter. As a game focused on the needs and experiences of the ninth graders in my classroom and my own knowledge of our classroom community, I did not design Ask Anansi as a replicable experience. However, I offer guidelines for teacher-driven game design and the original concept document for Ask Anansi in appendix B.

The Anansi Story

Shortly after my ninth-grade English students received their iPods for this study, they were contacted by “Anansi,” who sent them cryptic e-mails and text messages. Although students did not know who Anansi was, they did in-class research into the mythical figure and had questions about what his trickster motives might be.

After a classwide rapport was developed between Anansi and students, he offered to take requests for stories about South Central that students would be interested in hearing. However, as a trickster, he did not provide an immediate and fulfilling story to students and instead elicited information from the students. He asked them for pictures, interviews, primary document evidence, and their own opinions about the things they wanted to know. In essence, he tricked students into conducting their own inquiry projects.

While students were working alongside this trickster, Anansi also started leaving physical clues on campus about his current whereabouts. After receiving clues, students searched the campus for Anansi’s notes. Passing his tests, the students were recruited to help Anansi further rename and retell stories about the school and community. Working side by side, students and an imaginary spider spun webs of new perspectives on the world around them.

The Gaming Sequence

Three key sequences of play unfolded in the Ask Anansi alternate reality game. First, students used mobile media to communicate with and learn about Anansi’s motives. Second, after students were in dialogue with Anansi and thinking about the local stories of their school and community, Ask Anansi invited students to imagine a question they would like to answer and then to create critical narratives of their own around these questions. As students shared their findings with the class and with Anansi, he asked for refinements to questions and answers, requested additional data, and posed additional challenges. In effect, Ask Anansi functioned like an inquiry engine. Students conducted research in iterative cycles that began with big questions—“Where do stereotypes come from in South Central?” and “Why is there an absence of love in South Central?”—and delved into more specific and personal questions. Additional topics for research included graffiti, violence, and poor-quality food at SCHS. I intentionally portrayed Anansi as an annoying character who always kept the truth out of the grasp of students. The conceit of mischievous trickery was a sometimes silly one, but students took the opportunity to seek truths about their lived experiences seriously.

The final phase of the game was a multiweek scavenger hunt conducted on campus. Anansi modeled the mechanics of how to search for and participate in the hunt (as portrayed in the opening of this chapter). After students investigated the campus through these clues, they were recruited by the spider to be “Agents of Anansi” and took ownership of their own stories and the spaces they inhabited. Anansi guided students through the mechanics of finding hidden badges throughout the school, making their own clues, and ultimately, using these skills to tell their own powerful stories. A weekend-long extended hunt for dozens of clues was a thematic climax for the game. However, the students’ work was far from done. Students used the scavenger hunt game model as a mechanism for sharing their inquiry research with classmates. In fact, during the final phase of Ask Anansi, students wrote museum-like placards for the locations that were previously “hidden” as scavenger hunt locations. These cards publicly shared the student counternarratives with anybody who encountered them in their daily interactions at SCHS.

With the first ARG I codeveloped for my students, the Black Cloud, some students felt deceived by my statements that “This is not a game.” So Ask Anansi was framed as a game, and many students quickly assumed (correctly) that I was the one who was e-mailing and texting them, pretending to be Anansi. With this conceit unspoken but largely acknowledged by the class, this kind of pretending was accepted within the class, and students responded to and communicated with Anansi.

Different Games for Different People

Ask Anansi folded together game play, research, and narrative-driven information. Students participated in a scavenger hunt to share their research data and to appease an increasingly frustrating and elusive spider. Like my experiences with the Black Cloud, students took different aspects of the game more seriously than others. For some students like Dante (profiled later in this chapter), the competitive nature of a game was a significant motivator for participation and learning. For some students, the story of this spider interjecting himself into the class was intriguing, and the narrative of the game was a highlight. Some students appreciated the opportunity to drive the research topics and to gather and share the difficult questions they asked.

Ask Anansi functioned differently for different students. Because there are no magic bullets in education, we can’t assume that one game is going to be the cure-all for engaging every student. Instead, I designed this ARG to have multiple points of interest for my students.

Students were in dialogue with an imaginary spider and well on their way to interviewing, documenting, and researching their research questions. The remainder of this chapter focuses on the scavenger hunt sequence of this game. Stripping away much of the ARG narrative, I look at moments of play and decision making by students. Extending the Ask Anansi fiction into the realm of teacher professional development, I have included in appendix C an in-depth interview with Anansi about the role that teachers play in educational game design.

Inform, Perform, Transform

Throughout much of the rest of this chapter, I tell the story of what happened when students used an alternate reality game to play and tell stories at SCHS. The game Ask Anansi certainly got my students out of their seats and playing in school, and they experienced academic and civic learning when playing this game. In particular, I want to discuss how students used this game to write counternarratives about their community and its existing dominant stereotypes.

After back-and-forth dialogues with Anansi and after individualized research on their own inquiry questions, students had gathered enough information and data to be able to join a larger public discourse. Rather than simply accept the stories and assumptions that outsiders frequently made about South Central, students participating in the process were empowered to tell their own stories and define what SCHS and the South Central neighborhood meant to them. All of this was done within the conceit of a game and its narrative. As the game designer, I wanted to support students’ problem-posing critical thinking and civic participation, but the narrative goal of this ARG was for students to satisfy the insatiable need of Anansi for a good story. After students critiqued the existing dominant stories related to the topics they chose—trash, violence, graffiti, pollution, stereotypes, love—they retold their own version of the story that they were offering to Anansi. A retelling of violence in South Central, for example, was informed by students’ own knowledge, interviews with family and community members, a historical analysis of the geographical and social space, and an analysis of dominant media portrayals. After this written work, students moved from analyzing and writing to proposing ways to shift these local narratives in the future. At this stage, the class embarked on a multiday scavenger hunt sequence that illustrates how students can positively hack and recontextualize their physical surroundings.

Building off my previous experiences with the Black Cloud game, I call the sequence of learning that the rest of this chapter describes “inform, perform, transform.” As its name suggests, there are three thematic components to this approach within my classroom, and these themes had distinct activities tied to them:

  • Inform: Students gather, analyze, and collate information in order to produce their own, original work.

  • Perform: Students use the knowledge and information acquired through their informational inquiries to produce and perform new work that is tied to a larger critical and academic goal.

  • Transform: Students extend their performance toward publicly shared knowledge and action and focus on directly transforming their world.

Using this model, students construct their own body of knowledge, and the teacher acts as a facilitator in this process. These three phases of play and learning took place as part of Ask Anansi, but I also believe that the model offers a clear way to sequence learning and inquiry to help shift classrooms toward a more transformative and socially engaged hub for learning. Again, relationships are foundational to the sequence. No one game (or digital device) can revolutionize classrooms, but gaming and digital contexts can propel the pedagogy already in place.

Informing: Fostering Youth Knowledge and Critical Literacies

The first phase of this sequence—informing—relies the most on traditional models of classroom instruction. In order for students to construct powerful and interactive experiences for their peers and community, they first needed to understand the rules for play and the ways they could use the tools provided to create their own work. I modeled an engaging learning process for students, asked them to share their own knowledge about a topic, and then guided them through individualized application of this larger concept. This demonstration involved producing and hiding scavenger hunt clues rather than diving into a textbook or class novel. The class collectively analyzed clues that led them to QR code badges hidden around South Central High School. As can be seen in the opening of this chapter, the first clue was easy and inside the classroom. In that anecdote, the game moved students from tepid participation to out-of-the-seat ownership of the class curriculum. Various strategies were employed by the students. The grammar of play was learned and developed during this first, easy clue. The final clue I provided was more difficult. Several elements—the vocabulary used to describe the location, the spatial thinking required, and the fact that the clue was located in a place many students had not explored before—led to a more challenging and collaborative problem-solving process.

As a game, the scavenger hunt increased student participation for the day. A student like Dante usually was not willing to join class activities. But as a result of full student participation in the game, we all were later able to participate in a conversation about Malcolm X, school facilities, and school-based authority. We reviewed the clues’ language, our processes of discovery, and the materials we encountered in our search. Some students, like Minerva in the chapter’s opening, were unwilling to reflect during the game, but after all of the badges were found, students debriefed about their processes of finding and the content they encountered through this search. In question-driven dialogue, students asked why they were sent to explore specific locations and what kinds of ideas these spaces reflected about the social world of SCHS. Within our class, I facilitated these conversations with questions for understanding the sociopolitical nature of schooling at SCHS. Students relied on photographs that they took with their iPods in order to share evidence and explore the questions I asked. For example, after the entire search was finished, I tried to help students see meaningful connections between the various clues they encountered by asking questions at focused on equity, like “Why do you think the principal’s desk looks the way it does? Look at your pictures if you need to”; “Can you compare the principal’s desk to Mr. Winter’s Armadillo?”; and “What is the purpose behind the wheels of Mr. Raskol’s desk?” Playing games was tied to building trust and relationships. As much as this game was designed to support student learning, it was also about strengthening the social ties of the classroom community.

To connect thematically to the idea that Anansi was hiding these clues, the remaining badges (and the ones that students subsequently created and hid) were wrapped scroll-like inside the ring portion of black plastic spider rings—the kind typically given out to children at Halloween.

Figure 4.1 Examples of plastic spiders and QR codes that were key ingredients for the Ask Anansi scavenger hunt

The second clue that the class was given eventually led students to examine the portable desk that Mr. Winter used when he traveled from room to room. I asked the students why they thought I hid a clue in the bright red desk that Mr. Winter affectionately called “the armadillo.” Before handing out the third clue, the class spent a few minutes discussing my intentions as the game designer for the clue:

Elizabeth, the student who successfully located the badge in a paper tray, said, “I think you wanted us to think about the fact that Mr. Winter doesn’t have his own classroom.”

“Maybe you wanted us to look at the big-ass desk that Winter has to move every period,” Solomon added.

“This school can’t even afford to give its teachers their own rooms, and it will still probably fire Winter at the end of the year,” Jay said, highlighting how the district’s near-annual Reduction In Force process meant that Mr. Winter was regularly laid off for several months before being reemployed several weeks into the academic calendar each year.

After discovering each clue, students were required to document their findings by filling out an entry in their “Finding Log.” The log prompted students to write down factual information about the clue—what it was called, who authored it, and when and where it was found. The log also asked students, “What do I think this space’s story is? How does it help tell a story about the community?” For each clue in my demonstration activity, I wanted students to think about the game I had designed for them: why were we looking at the areas I sent them to?

After a second clue led students to discover a spider hidden on the principal’s desk, the class was given a final clue to the “Hidden Vestibule.” In an abandoned classroom space in an upstairs alcove of one of the school’s buildings, students were signaled that they were in the right location by a solitary spider dangling from a string in the doorway of the unused room.

Marjane quickly grabbed the plastic spider and posed to highlight her win. Other students shuffled into the cluttered space. Katherine let out a sigh of dismay: “It’s so dirty up here. Oh, my god.” She said this while holding her iPod up to eye level and snapping pictures of the disarray. Holden and Elizabeth also walked into the room and began snapping photos. Dante brooded in the back of the pack, dismayed that he’d discovered only one of the four badges for the day.

Figure 4.2 A student showing off the plastic spider that revealed a clue’s location

Figure 4.3 Students exploring an unused classroom in an otherwise overcrowded school

Katherine and our other coresearchers internalized the process of documentation in a fluid way. After nearly a month of being asked to photograph, document, or text qualitative data about their community for Anansi, doing these activities was now a natural performative element of how the students understood their role when engaging in academic work.

Although students later pointed to the scavenger hunt—both the model described above and the version outlined later in this chapter—as a “fun” component of the class, it was designed as an intentional step forward in how students socialize as part of their learning process and interact with their larger school community. Over time, the competitiveness of hiding and finding class clues became secondary to having the language of the clues challenge traditional, dominant narratives about school spaces. Developing counternarratives was a key component to the gameplay sequence.

After practicing how to scan and create QR codes (discussed in the previous chapter), my students used a QR app to create, publish, and distribute counternarratives throughout the school. The production of these codes could have been framed as rote and procedural, but instead, the technical literacies were couched within the explicit purpose. By developing these QR codes as part of the class gameplay of Ask Anansi, students used applications and components common on mobile media devices as tools for authentic and critical learning. Other than some online research, using QR codes was one of the few aspects of the scavenger hunt that required digital media tools. Further, although the QR code wasn’t a crucial element of the scavenger hunt (all of the elements of hiding and of seeking would still have been in place regardless of whether QR codes were used), using technology to access and engage with the codes made the gameplay feel more clandestine than if the game had been played without this digitally produced piece.

Performing: Producing Clues and Tangling with Webs

By the time the class finished the sample scavenger hunt that I prepared for them, students were excited about creating their own scavenger hunt clues and hiding badges. Minerva and Dede formed a team and began plotting locations to hide clues. Likewise, Dante appeared thrilled about the competitive prospect of potentially finding clues before others. Instead of taking his usual seat in the back of the room, Dante moved his seat closer to the front to show me the progress he was making and to ask questions about his writing. As I looked at the class, I could see students connected to their work and to their peers, regardless of which aspects of the game they were interested in.

Students had opportunities to write clues and hide scavenger hunt badges in pairs before producing them independently. Over a one-day mini-search, students collaboratively wrote clues about areas located within the classroom as practice for writing individual clues. This activity led to an influx of clues written about the colorful closet in our classroom. Tess labeled her clue for this space “The Reckless Closet”:

Notice how a chair has to hold up the two doors for this closet. Also how there’s tagging all over it and it just looks like garbage now. This area relates to the reputation of the community because our community has tagging anywhere & everywhere. Also because no one tries to take care of our community and it’s like if we basically are dependent on other people to take care of it for us. Wouldn’t you say the same thing?

Figure 4.4 “The Reckless Closet”

Students were now selecting and writing their own clues, and the game Ask Anansi allowed the class to become a hub for purpose-driven production and feedback. Although I asked each student to hide a minimum of four badges and turn in four clues, nearly half of the class turned in more than four clues.

In a clue titled “Captain Green!,” Dede drew her classmates’ attention to the lack of plants and other vegetation on campus:

We all know where we study but we don’t seem to take a look at this Green friend of ours. After school some of us walk right next to it its real close. Notice how you see this everyday when you come in. Why is Captain Green all alone?

Figure 4.5 Dede attaching a clue to “Captain Green!” on one of the few plants on the South Central High School campus

Dede’s clue is similar to many of those written by her peers—simultaneously playful and provoking. This clue shows critical thought while it also allows students to enjoy the scavenger hunt as a game. As with the demonstration, I asked students to structure their clues so that players would look at and question the spaces they found themselves in. Students also were encouraged to write clues that provoked questions about issues of equity and the class research questions. In addition to being a part of a strategic game, the clues were the beginning of a dialogue. Ideally, when players searched, they were forced to look at and read the locations where each clue sent them. For example, Minerva’s clue, leading to a spider taped under the building’s water fountain, helped her classmates look at how the poor conditions of her school environment had been normalized. In the middle of her clue, she wrote: “We use it or have used it before but still we think it comes out nasty. Its where we walk by everyday and sometimes we don’t even look at it.”

With three days to write and hide their clues, students in class spent much of the week busily creating and revising the language for the hints they wrote. Precision was important. Meanwhile, the class service worker, Bruce, was helping with the preparation of the clues. Because SCHS does not have enough elective courses to offer juniors and seniors, those students may choose to act as classroom aids. Bruce usually asked for permission to focus on his own schoolwork, but for this exercise, he was also in the classroom helping students understand assignments, answering questions, and preparing to disseminate dozens of clues to the students. Bruce acted as the collator of clues: as students revised clues, Bruce made copies of each clue and collated them for impending distribution.

On Friday, each student received a workbook of more than eighty original clues. The first person to solve a classmate’s clue and find their classmate’s QR code could claim victory over that space. With a class period and a weekend to search on their own, students hunched over clues and copies of campus maps. During the class period, students were encouraged to develop strategies to find as many clues as possible, and they scanned their maps, plotting how to retrieve clues based on where they speculated they were hidden and how to do so efficiently. Two students—Elizabeth and Marjane—grouped clues by proximity to each other to find badges that were closest to each other and built a mapped journey of searching across the campus. Elizabeth started by searching for several badges that were in our building before venturing to the outside quad, the neighboring building, the main lunch area, and an area near the school’s auditorium.

As the narrative of the Ask Anansi game prepared students to hide and search for each other’s badges, it also moved toward increased action. This narrative culminated in a sharing of the storytelling duties in and about their community. In doing so, Anansi revealed that members of the class were recruited as “Agents of Anansi.” Students were given name tags that allowed them to move around the campus on specified dates and times in order to look for appropriate hiding places and to place their badges in the correct locations. Getting these name tags for students was not an easy task. After requesting and discussing the name tags with school administrators, I also needed to contact all of the campus security officers to notify them that my students would be out of class for a day and would not be wearing the appropriate hall passes (there were still minor complaints, and one student was sent back to class). These passes allowed students to do more than just bypass security, though. By wearing identification as “Agents of Anansi,” students found that their identity shifted once again. No longer were they simply doing “English work” or playing a game. Students could interpret their actions as embodied role playing, a specific identity practice.

As students shifted their roles from hiding clues to seeking them, they used different gaming strategies and approaches to dealing with the bulk of data that was presented to them. With such a large stack of clues to work through, students approached their assignment in very different ways. For example, Dante, donning his “Agent of Anansi” badge, took his clues and immediately left the room. Unaccompanied, Dante ended up finding more clues than any other class member. In contrast, Elizabeth slowly riffled through the clues, sorting them by location but also by what she felt was level of difficulty. She also looked at the gaming strategies of others, saving for later clues “that [Dante’s] probably already gone found by the time I went out there.”

Dantes Mobile-Mediated Journey

Before looking at the final phase of this learning sequence, I want to pause and look at the kind of student participation and growth in writing and critical dialogue that I observed emerging from my students as they played the Ask Anansi alternative reality game. This was not about appropriating youth interests or tricking students into learning. Rather, the foundations of powerful game-driven learning experiences were tied to student identities. For example, I want to share how Dante’s competitive nature emerged during the Ask Anansi game.

Reading over my notes from the week when students first received their iPods, I found the following reflection:

Dante, in three days, has gone from not participating at all to explaining assignments, leading, and arriving early to do different kinds of work. I need to figure out how this can be translated into grade improvement since he failed last quarter and what in the class is causing this radical reinvention.

Throughout the remainder of the class, Dante’s work was staunchly independent and focused. Choosing to sit away from the rest of his classmates, near the back of the classroom, Dante often hollered responses to discussion prompts and became our class’s natural heckler and champion. Similarly, the alternate reality game play allowed Dante to be highly competitive. In the scavenger hunt sequence of the game, he was driven to find the most hidden badges.

Dante enthusiastically participated in this project’s scavenger hunt and curation activities, but here I focus on a specific interaction within the class that displayed Dante’s growth as a leader and shows how schooling can be affected by participatory culture and how games and mobile devices can aid in this transformation.

But first, here is a little bit about Dante’s academic journey in this class. Because Dante joined the class halfway through the year, we had known each other for two months before this study began. He did not have the same amount of time as my other students did to participate in shaping the class community. At the end of our first week of class together in January, I talked briefly with Dante as he was putting on his backpack. My intention was to check in with him, as I did with any new student in the class, to see what concerns he might have, how he was feeling, and what could be done to help him transition into the community. Typical questions for assessing how students were feeling included “How has your first week at SCHS gone? Is there anything I can do to make you feel more comfortable in this class?” Typical responses in these interactions are shrugged shoulders and monosyllabic responses, and they are one of many points at which trust was built between my students and myself. Dante, however, told me very clearly that his week went fine and that I shouldn’t bother checking in on him.

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Look, I probably ain’t gonna do any work.” He then paused for a moment before adding, “Besides, at my old school, I made my teacher cry, so you should leave me alone. The only reason I come to school is because my moms makes me.” And with that, Dante headed to the door and walked out.

When planning for my class, I spent time thinking about this interaction with Dante. It did not feel like a threat from Dante or a challenge. His matter-of-fact demeanor in sharing his previous experience felt, to me, like a statement of his expected laissez-faire time spent within my classroom space. Between his initial statement that he would not do work and his warning that he made a teacher cry, Dante punctuated his response to me with a deliberate pause, adding gravity and ensuring that I understood his power as a student.

We now fast-forward to the scavenger hunt activities described earlier. In addition to other assignments, students were writing their own scavenger hunt clues and hiding the badges (and spiders) throughout the school and surrounding neighborhood.

Dante gets to class early. I’m erasing notes from the period 2 discussion and selecting music to play. Dante runs in, pulls the door shut behind him, and scans the room to ensure that all of his classmates are outside. He tells me he has to hide his badge and spider and asks me to leave. Even though I won’t be participating in the scavenger hunt, I oblige, walking out and offering greetings to students as they walk by.

Dante emerges a moment later smiling.

Twenty minutes later, after silent reading, I give students their “Daily Journey Gauge,” a worksheet that allows students to self-assess their understanding or progress on a specific topic. On the board, I write the topic: “Knowing how to write clues and hide badges.”

As I walk around looking at student responses, Dante races through the writing on the paper. Within two minutes, he hands his worksheet to me.

In one section of the paper, students are asked to write when they know they are successful at their task. For this section, Dante writes, “I hide clues that no one finds.”

I put my finger on Dante’s paper below this line and say, “Dante, when I hid clues for the class on Wednesday, do you think I intended for you to never find them?”

“No,” he says while typing on his iPod.

“What do you think I wanted?” I ask him. “What was my goal?”

“You wanted us to look for the clues and figure them out on our own.”

“Yes,” I concede. “And why?”

“So we’d figure it out,” Dante sounds irritated by the incessant questioning. “Whatchu mean?”

“I mean, why did I put the clues where I put them?”

“You wanted us to see those places and think about them?”

“Yes, exactly. So what is the goal if you are writing clues?”

“For people to struggle before finding them right away, but to find them at some point.”

“Cool. So would you mind revising your response on your worksheet?”

Dante scratches out his answer, draws an arrow indicating that readers should flip his paper to the other side of the page, and writes, “I write clues about places that I think about that people struggle with but eventually get there.”

Moving on to look at other students’ work, I notice that Jay has a similar statement: “Write clues so no one finds it.” I tell him I would like him to revise it.

Jay says, “It’s alright, I got it.”

“I’m concerned that you’ve written that it will be successful if people don’t find your badges,” I say. “Ask Dante why this concerns me.”

Jay looks to Dante and nods, “What’s this about?”

Dante, looking up from the iPod he has returned to tapping on, gets out of his seat, and stands above Jay’s desk. He looks at what Jay has written, and as I walk over to help other students, Dante grabs a chair and sits next to Jay. When I return a few minutes later, Jay has not crossed out and rewritten his response, as Dante did, but instead has added a caveat to his original statement: “Write clues so no one finds it in ten minutes.”

Dante has returned to his seat, his earbud playing rap music and his fingers dancing above the glowing screen.

My conversation with Dante was the type of interaction that helps guide principles of game design. Players like a challenge, but if the solution to a puzzle is not clear, the puzzle offers little reward. Rather than show this to Dante, I helped him to develop this understanding through dialogic reflection on our past experiences in the class. And despite his earlier warning to me about his probable lack of participation in my class, Dante relied on independent engagement to move forward in the class. Allowing him to hide his clue while I stepped out of the room was a sign of respect and trust. When he initially resisted my suggestion that he revise his writing and his behavior at the beginning of the class, Dante showed that although he enjoyed aspects of the class curriculum (like hiding and finding clues), he often felt disconnected from the classroom community.

Perhaps most relevant about the changes in Dante’s engagement in class are the ways that the context for learning shifted. Because the Ask Anansi game expected Dante to communicate with fictional and real individuals through informal channels of communication like text messages and because the work Dante was asked to create—from QR codes to digital productions—looked different from traditional work, he was able to interact within my classroom in ways that didn’t feel like school to him. In fact, by mirroring the public sphere, the learning environment that we were sustaining was a markedly different space than what typically was found within the walls of SCHS.

Despite his transformation, Dante did not do this work in traditional ways. If other people were to visit the class, they probably would have seen Dante’s behavior as defiantly resistant. In notes taken during this study, I observed that Dante

  • spent most of his class time on his iPod and listening to music.

  • scribbled his work quickly when he finally did it so that—as he explained to me–“you’d stop pressing me.”

  • Acted resistant to criticism when I challenged him about work that I felt missed the mark. Typical comments included “Naw, it’s good” and “It’s done, isn’t it?”

  • Played music from his headphones loudly enough that it interfered with other students during silent reading in class. At one point, Elizabeth sighed as she looked from Dante to me and asked me if I was “going to do anything.” Although Dante turned down his headphones in this situation, saying “My bad,” he turned up the volume again later in the same period.

During the first months of my engagement with Dante, his lack of work and his aggressive response to my attempts to bring him into the class community often left me feeling defeated and ineffective as an educator. What is striking to me about the changes that he underwent in class are not that they are due to the implementation of technology as a tool for learning in class but that these changes were revealed when technology was implemented as a tool for learning in class. Long before he received a school-issued iPod, Dante was recreationally engaging with his phone in my class. However, any academic merit that might have come from this work was not something I could see. For instance, prior to handing out the iPods, I found Dante tapping at a dizzying pace on his phone during the class’s silent reading time. When I asked him what he was doing (and assuming he was playing a game), Dante said he was writing down rhymes. Expressing interest in his extracurricular writing, Dante offered to text me some of his rhymes, which he continued to do throughout the year. Students like Dante frequently and without coercion engaged in the literacy practices that English teachers promote, but the traditional classroom typically renders Dante’s efforts invisible. As my own initial assumptions reveal, their efforts often are not only invisible but also seen as hostile to the learning environment.

To reiterate an earlier point, from a traditional perspective, Dante’s academic work did not shift significantly. His formal writing of texts using Standard English remained rushed and inconsistently completed. However, as much as Dante deliberately signaled that he was not a strong academic student,19 he emerged as a leader within the class. Because Dante took ownership over the gamelike elements of Ask Anansi, he was able to apply his own interests to how he guided his peers. Additionally, instances of his engagement that were previously invisible in the traditional classroom space—when he played games or texted his rhymes to me—allowed me to see Dante’s role in the classroom differently. When the class discussed texts, QR codes, and game strategy, Dante appeared more comfortable having his work critiqued and challenged by both peers and myself than he did when we discussed traditional topics. The exchange in the above vignette, where I challenged Dante’s writing about the definition of success within the scavenger hunt activity, would not have been possible without the shifts in engagement he experienced in the previous weeks. The exchange that followed, in which Dante aided his classmate in understanding, also probably would not have occurred. It is not that technology made Dante a better student. He didn’t transform as a student the moment the Apple logo appeared as the iPod was booting up. Instead, the device and the shifts in my curriculum around it allowed Dante’s already existing learning strategies and expertise to emerge and for Dante to contribute positively in the classroom.

In reflecting on Dante’s engagement in my class over the course of the year (at least the part of the year he was enrolled), I am reminded of the comfort that digital devices provide in society today. In any public space today—a mall, a restaurant, the student union of a university—you will see young people and adults enraptured by their mobile devices. I distinctly remember the moment of cognitive dissonance I had when walking through a mall in Los Angeles in the years just prior to mobile phone ubiquity and seeing a couple strolling along, holding hands, and both talking on their phones, presumably to two different people. At the time, I experienced a feeling of cold alienation in response to their behavior, and yet today this is a common sight, and I myself am often guilty of this kind of disengagement from the physical world when enchanted by my phone.20 Waiting for an appointment, killing time on a plane, or sitting in a bar waiting for a friend, we are never uncomfortably alone when a mobile device is at hand. A few swipes through a social network, a brief check-in with a friend, and a casual attempt at a high score on the latest freemium game: we are never alone when we have our phones. I am not saying this is a good thing, but it is how many individuals have shifted their participation in public life.

Despite having some concerns throughout the study, I found that my students felt comfortable using the digital tools (such as audiobooks and text messages) that I provided in the classroom. Many students elected to squint at an e-book of Little Brother rather than simply read a traditional paper version of the book. By building on the comfort that young have with their devices, I was able to ensure that the learning practices tied to these devices were no longer rendered invisible within my classroom. Considering the ways that Dante emerged as a leader because of the visibility of his learning emphasizes how wireless tools can help reinforce trust between students and teachers. Although not a panacea, within the context of my classroom these digital tools mediated critical conversations that yielded leadership, agency, and academic engagement.

Dante’s engagement via a game reinvigorated the ways that traditional leadership can be identified and illustrates how his youth expertise reshaped classroom interactions. This transformation would not have emerged within traditional classroom pedagogy. Unlike Minerva’s empowering learning driven by trust, Dante’s engagement was furthered by technology, games, and competition—attributes of my classroom that would not have been present without Ask Anansi. Dante taught me that all too frequently students in our schools are disengaged because we remain too entrenched in practices of the past. Like my students in the final phase of this study, it is time to take a hard look at the schools we are sending students to today and consider what aspects must be transformed.

Transforming: Fair Play and Webs of Critical Action

Students were frustrated with the pacing that I initially envisioned for the class. Whereas I had hoped to have meaningful dialogue at the sites of each scavenger hunt location, many students were antsy to find the next clue. Rather than force this issue, I adjusted. Instead of debriefing after each clue, we collectively returned to the classroom and reflected on all of the locations. After students completed the scavenger hunt, we discussed what students encountered on their journey, who the class considered “the winner” of the hunt, and what our next steps would be. Because most—but not all—games are competitive,21 students were intent on comparing the results of their search and determining a winner. I wasn’t prepared for this.

Looking back, it seems inevitable that of course students would want to identify a winner of a competitive game. I simply hadn’t anticipated this. It was another shortsighted aspect of the design and one that I attempted to—albeit inelegantly—address. Because I did not anticipate having to select a “winner,” I attempted to shift the class discussion to focus on how the game could be taught to others. We engaged in a discussion of what fairness means. No students ever raised concerns that the game was unfair. I used this framework to encourage students to think about what each student “won” through the experience and what the value of that achievement was. Moving discussions of victory from the typical zero-sum models of board or video games helped elevate the classroom community discussions further. Additionally, in a poststudy interview, students described fair play in the game by saying that students independently searched for badges and relied on no other individuals while searching. I pointed out parallels between gameplay and school structures—that fair gameplay and equitable gameplay essentially establish similar patterns of equality.

For students, fair also meant making a “reliable” clue. As Jay explained, “Some clues were just like finding a piece of grass on the lawn. It was impossible.” Some clues were so narrow that following them was more tedious than stimulating. Even clues that were too detailed still offered nuanced critiques of the spaces they directed students. As Holden said when discussing the single blade of glass example, “I wasn’t going to search every piece of grass on the field, and I could see the point of the clue—the field is dirty and looks all dangerous.”

As we continued to discuss the game, Elizabeth opened up a discussion of what made playing successful. For her, winning this game was about both designing and playing. She felt engaged when writing challenging and enlightening clues and searching “with all your energy” for the clues that could be found.

Looking over the critiques that students created of their school space (including several nearby off-campus locations like a fast-food chain next to the school), the final step was for students to invert the game. Taking ownership over the spaces and narratives the students created, the class became a space of museum-like curation. Selecting two of their locations, I asked students to write very short descriptions of what they encountered, along with an informative or intriguing title. The assignment also asked students to conclude their descriptions by posing a question to the individuals who might read them. After these cards were written and revised, students posted them prominently in the spaces where they originally hid clues. The hidden badges of the previous part of the game morphed into prominent public displays of knowledge and dialogue. Minerva’s clue originally was hidden under the dusty water fountain outside our classroom, for instance, and she later wrote it on a placard, which she taped onto the water fountain, unavoidably within the line of sight of anyone using the fountain.

Figure 4.6 Student-written placard curating a school space and highlighting school inequities

Student thinking and voices were now on display publicly throughout the school. As educators and policymakers explore ways to weave participatory and mobile media practices into classroom practice, this activity suggests the value of mobile media to empower not only the individual learner but the community at large through easily replicable models of instruction. Incorporating mobile devices and participatory learning here did not require fancy gadgetry. They facilitated learning throughout, but the shifts in classroom experiences did not rely on technology. Although students produced nondigital products like the note cards in this sequence, they were empowered to do so through a wireless pedagogy. Connecting to their community and documenting this process moved learning beyond writing on paper.

Further, the transition from making this a “closed” game that was available only to the students in my class to making it an open dialogue with the community is—to me—the most important element of this curricular endeavor. Like graffiti or billboard advertisements, curating the space and reconfiguring how people see their environment is invasive. The note cards that students wrote could be removed—nothing permanent was added to the school’s spaces. They confronted the public with counternarratives about how each space was used, valued, and interpreted. This was an extension of the entertainment that students felt while playing the game. In an interview after the game’s conclusion, Solomon said, “The hiding and the finding and the writing those little cards, that was dope.” Hearing Solomon’s affirmation, Katherine added, “It wasn’t just that it was cool though to write the cards, it felt like, I don’t know, like the way to explain this work to our friends.”

In writing placards and physically curating their experiences of their space, students did not simply “read the word and the world,” as Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo have described sociocultural literacy practices.22 This process also was one of writing the world. The students’ peers encountered this work, and Katherine’s statement reflects an understanding of the role that peer networks play in building critical thought. Katherine highlights how the curation phase of Ask Anansi can lead to an ongoing integration of students as they share and engage with their community.

Even with all of the tangible production of work, students also engaged with the digital world. As part of their class assignments, they edited the official Wikipedia page for South Central High School using the conventions of the website. Wikipedia has played a somewhat controversial role in schools. Teachers have frequently challenged the validity of its sources and content, and students have often been critiqued for using the site for its presumably shoddy content. However, Wikipedia’s base of contributors has grown significantly since its inception in 2001, and its value to the educational community as a place for both consumption and production of knowledge is significant. danah boyd’s analysis of the role of Wikipedia in schools and research for teens has pointed to this shift.23 Further, the openness of Wikipedia and the robust dialogue that happens in the comments and history pages for many entries emphasize the nonobjective nature of how knowledge is shared and produced.

When I demonstrated how Wikipedia works and how edits are almost always automatically undone if they are anonymous and lack properly formatted citations, the class explored the content about their school on its Wikipedia page and the writing and formatting conventions of the site. Students captured qualitative data regarding student opinions about the food, emphasized the school’s dropout rate, and noted the small custodial staff for the large school:

As of 2010, the dropout rate at [South Central High School] was 68%.[9]

With more than 90% of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch provided by the Los Angeles Unified School District,[10] some students have noted that sometimes meals are not heated properly.

Students included details on the Wikipedia page that were just as factually sound as the existing information about the school’s history and alumni but that allowed them to voice what they felt was necessary, important, and relevant to the people who might access the page. Footnotes 9 and 10 in the excerpt above pointed readers to the 2010 UCLA Educational Opportunity Report.24 Holden and Jay, the students who felt it was necessary to add the school’s dropout rate as additional information to the page, struggled with the website’s platform. Each time they clicked “Save page” on the SCHS screen after making changes, their changes were removed seemingly instantaneously. Not until the students copied the formatting code for previous citations and replaced the text with their own linked source did the Wikipedia platform accept their edits. More than a year after the students made their changes, those additions to the Wikipedia page were still intact.

Conclusion: Toward an Ethos of Classroom Hacking

The Ask Anansi game is largely about taking pieces of academic and civic learning and reimagining them as points on which to connect play, imagination, and a healthy dose of story. It is a hack of traditional pedagogy. Classrooms can be hacked by playing games and embedding a narrative arc into the activities that students complete. Although the word hacking originally was used to describe harmless tinkering with technological devices, it now often is used to describe a malicious act. The mainstream media publicize hacking scandals, and the general sense is that hacking is done to individuals by strangers. These connotations of the word make it seem like a dangerous learning practice that that we should warn youth away from. At the same time, ethnographic accounts and research analysis of the efforts of hackers demonstrate that only small portions of this community act maliciously.25 In these studies, hacking is the productive and collaborative effort of programmers as they respond to the needs of users. For instance, in looking at the history of open-source software development that has led to popular software such as Mozilla’s Web browser, Firefox, Eric Raymond describes the hacker communities as operating as a “bazaar”—where people trade ideas, code, and innovations to help the general populace.26 In contrast, Raymond delineates traditional nonhacker production (such as companies like Microsoft) as operating more as a “cathedral”—where teams of designers spend a digital eternity creating a product that could be outdated as soon as it is completed. In this cathedral and bazaar model, hackers promote productivity and spur innovation. The model illustrates much potential for possibilities within an academic context.

A hacker ethos points to how literacies are expanding. When students hack online spaces, they copy, remix, and recontextualize information.27 The “inform, perform, transform” model is one of reappropriating and hacking the spaces and possibilities of schools. By its nature, hacking requires a synthesis of an original author’s content, intentions, and form. Students need to be able to understand the nuanced genre within which they are performing, producing, and hacking. Hacking is almost always productive: something is made through one’s hacking efforts. Like a five-paragraph essay, a research report, or a video composition, a hacked site is a newly created production that depends on the works and contributions of prior authors.

Hacking engenders an individual within a community of practice.28 Studies of hacking communities of both adults and young people demonstrate how individuals in such hacker communities freely share the expertise of all of the participants;29 myriad voices are valued in such an “affinity space.”30 As noted previously, the hacker bazaar becomes a space for exchange.

As they hacked existing dominant narratives about their communities and reappropriated space through their curation as part of the scavenger hunt, students playing Ask Anansi shifted how learning occurred in schools, where it occurred, and for what purpose. At the same time, this process was not one of purely hacking old forms of learning. Traditional aspects of academic engagement can be seen, too. The academic process of “properly” editing the school’s Wikipedia page represents how traditional learning can be harnessed for critical outcomes.

Although students used mobile devices to support the hacking ethos of the classroom, I also wanted this exercise to show that twenty-first-century “wireless” learning can take place without an overreliance on complicated digital tools. In fact, as I reflect on the role that gameplay can play in fostering points of participation in a class, I think that the digital aspects of games often get in the way. Reflecting on the role played by the kitchen or dining room table as a place for families to engage, noted farm-to-table chef Alice Waters said that

The table is a civilizing place. It’s where a group comes and they hear points of view, they learn about courtesy and kindness, they learn about what it is to live in a community—live in a family first, but live in a bigger community. That’s where it comes from, don’t you think?31

Waters reminds educators that what brings people together are the spaces and cultural rituals that tie us together. Although play is an innate part of human development, digital tools have largely divorced it from its social roots. Technology augmented student talk in the Ask Anansi game by staying out of the way. Students regularly engaged with mobile media throughout this project—documenting evidence, looking up Wikipedia-related research, and writing discursive notes as both game designers and game players—but technology was never the spotlight of the scavenger hunt sequence of Ask Anansi. Rather, it was a game about dialogue and collaboration.

Getting students to move more freely beyond the walls of traditional classrooms required recognizing the types of practices that students engage in when they are learning at home, with friends, and in extracurricular spaces. It required adapting the interests and activities of my students for formal, critical engagement. Similarly, even when the pedagogical design of this game-based activity meant students were not using their iPods during many parts of this work, the project was designed to replicate online participatory media shifts. The tools of critical digital practice are insignificant. Students need in-school practices that expose them to the ways that engagement with media and with society have shifted.

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