Thursday, September 10, 2009

Operation KTHMA: Day 4

The dice—one six-sided die for each class-team, borrowed from my kids' copy of Yahtzee—went out yesterday. I'd been going back and forth on whether the downside of distraction was worth the upside of engagement, and finally decided that the upside is potentially enormous (I have indelible memories of how I cherished my D&D dice and added to them over time), and the downside probably minimal. At any rate, with about ten minutes left in the class-session, Team 4 rolled a six, giving them the initiative in a conversation with a man with a heavy accent who had been muttering about how the Ionian storyteller—this man Herodotus, who the man knew had come from Halicarnassus—was telling lies about the Persians. Team 4 decided to ask how the heavy-accent man knew, and the man told them that they should go see a sailor named Iophon in the Piraeus; he knew they wouldn't take his own word for it, since he was a Persian, but Iophon was an Ionian, and had known Herodotus growing up. There the class-session ended.

Earlier in the session, I'd rated three operatives at Stage 1 for posts they'd made in the forums in the interim that were more or less in-character. One of them had won the piece of gear pictured above, for a particularly belligerent post. Then I'd introduced the Ancient/Modern Interweave Skill-Practice Exercise, which is a collaborate weekly multimedia project that each team must complete and post on most of the Mondays of the course. They'll then present their work to the rest of the KTHMA team in our Monday session. The idea is to use their class-skill in the modern world, and connect multimedia bits of modern culture with the ancient text. It's my fond hope that I'll be able to get their permission to post some of these here on Living Epic.

Then we'd turned to the mission-text, which was the second chapter of Book 1 of Herodotus, in which the writer tells of what the Persians say was the origin of the conflict between Persia and Greece. Either I'm fooling myself or even the non-Greeked students are becoming comfortable with having a big chunk of text in a foreign language with a foreign alphabet on the screen in front of them. My strong feeling is that the game-frame is absolutely crucial here; take away the high-stakes grade-related nature of complex classwork and suddenly everything comes naturally. I wish I had some kind of data to back this assertion up, but I've felt for several years that the biggest problem in my teaching was that I haven't had a way to present complex critical analysis without scaring the clear majority of my students into the disengaged torpor of "This is too hard to understand—I hope he'll just tell us what we need to know for the test." My previous solution, which was to say 1) there's no test and 2) OK, here's a list of precisely the stuff for which I'm actually holding you responsible, has always been unsatisfactory. Again, it's unsupported by data (yet!), but I think the game may be the answer.

As soon as I developed in the operatives a certain skepticism about whether Herodotus could be on the level about what the Persian λόγιοι (wordy-guys, story-tellers) say, the TSTT started to glow, the room faded away, and there they were in Athens again. They got a little lost on the way to the Agora, and ended up at the Acropolis, where the guards told them to get lost, but provided directions to where the Ionian storyteller was holding forth. When they arrived, they found that the crowd was already too big to get close, but they were able to listen to the bystanders, including the heavily-accented man.

I'm a bit surprised by how naturally the course/game has fallen into a turn-based system, and how cycling through the whole class to take the next turn simultaneously removes the vast majority of the pressure of being called on cold and preserves the tremendous benefit of that practice. It's been several years since the last time I tried cold-calling on my students in the traditional way, and I've regretted that because there's absolutely nothing like it for maintaining engagement. To make this turn-based class-participation even stronger, the next piece of the game-development is I think to come up with a handy chart of the possible actions for a turn, for example speech, movement, call to the Demiurge, attack, skill-use.

Tomorrow we'll be meeting the ghost of Homer head-on for the first time. Since I don't believe there was any such person, there unfortunately won't be any combat with the undead.