Posts Tagged ‘ teaching ’

I Play a Video Game, and I am Better for It

I’ve been playing a video game lately called BioShock Infinite. Now, I know that by doing so, it makes me just like millions of other people in my demographic. But for me, it was a difficult thing to get into. I don’t like video games for several reasons. I have seen how overpoweringly addicting they can be. I have seen people who have put so many hours of their life into video games that their brick and mortar life has been left unattended and some hefty weeds have grown around it. My wife hates video games for these same reasons, and since the only time I have to play video games must be subtracted from the time I usually spend with her, it makes a lot of sense that she balks at the thought of me having or playing video games. Plus it was $40, which in our budget is a lot.

But BioShock Infinite is different.

First of all, BioShock Infinite is one of the most intricate, thought-provoking, enrapturing (some of you will get that) narratives that I have ever come across. I spent a few of my college years studying fiction writing, and I can appreciate the sheer size of the story this video game tells, and the importance of some of the social issues it addresses. Also, because this is first-person shooter game, I am, in a very real way, asked by the game to inhabit the body of the main character and make decisions for him, and am thus propelled into and caught up in the narrative of the game in ways that I could never be when reading a book.

Ken Levine, the creative director that drove the team that created all the BioShock games, has been compared to Shakespeare in his ability to craft deeply meaningful, mind-bogglingly detailed, and incredibly entertaining experiences, and I feel that the comparison isn’t at all hyperbolic. This video game is something special, and so I have a hard time feeling like I’m just zoning out with mindless escapism when I play it.

Second of all, due to the depth of the experience, I have decided to write a seminar paper this semester. I had read a lot about BioShock just because I admired the creation of something so vast and impressive. I watched a lot of YouTube videos of interviews with the creators and even watched a four-hour walk through video of the game so I see the story. So based on all of that, I decided I would be able to write the paper without playing the game. But I knew to really “get it,” I would have to play the game myself. So I got it, and my wife has been very gracious and understanding in giving me the time I need to play through it, even though she isn’t happy about it.

The paper I am writing this semester is about the ways that BioShock Infinite can educate its players about the complexities of how public monuments and memorial spaces shape public memory. What that means, is that the world created in BioShock can teach the people who play it that the monuments and public displays that our governments create are much more complicated than just lawn decorations in parks, but rather they can have lasting effects on how people remember and talk about the past.

There are several important plot points where BioShock Infinite teaches these lessons, but it is most obvious in BioShock when the two main characters, Booker and Elizabeth, are led through the Hall of Heroes, a display created by the monomaniacal Father Comstock, who created the world of Columbia where BioShock takes place. The Hall of Heroes is a public display reminiscent of what you might see at a major theme park but scarier; think Main Street USA at Disney World, but tinged with overt racism and kitschy but frightening war imagery. In this space we explore how Father Comstock has rewritten the history of two fictionalized versions of Civil war battles, Peking and Wounded Knee, to make himself look like he was the hero, when Booker knows that he was the one that was the hero. Later we encounter General Slate, the only person in Columbia who knows the truth of Father Comstock’s revisions of history, and we see how he has been exiled from Columbia to shut him up.

Moving through the world of BioShock infinite isn’t just about running around blowing the heads off of bad guys (although this does happen), it’s a psychological experience about how the spaces that surround us can shape our perceptions of history and current politics, and how, if given enough power, the wrong person can erase history and reshape it to serve their own purposes. After experiencing these storylines, the player can then begin to look at something like the statue of some war hero on horse in her town square and start to think, “I wonder if that person really did the things that the statue makes me think he did,” or maybe even think, “Christopher Columbus was a terrible person, maybe we shouldn’t have a holiday named after him.” Which is a good thing.

So when I sit down to play BioShock, I have a much better excuse than “I’m improving my hand-eye coordination,” (although I am doing that) I am experiencing a creation so thoughtfully complex that I’m actually learning about how the real world works, why some of the ugliness in it exists, and helps me start to critically analyze things that I had previously taken for granted as I move through it.

Plus, sometimes it’s freaking cathartic to blow up a zeppelin.

How Do I Teach My Students How to Figure Out What a Sentence Is Doing?

The little moments I hate about teaching happen when I am trying to get my students to understand what I think is a fundamental principle of writing, and then, in my efforts to illustrate it, or have them learn it themselves, I realize that I have not only missed the mark, but I have no idea what I am talking about. Case in point: today I was teaching them about connecting sentences and making transitions. I had them play the game in groups where one person writes a sentence and then passes the paper, the next person writes the next sentence and then folds the paper down so that only their sentence is visible, and then passes it to the next person and so on. My thinking was that they would be able to focus on reading the sentence, coming up with what they wanted to say, and then using the best kind of transition to phrase the next sentence that would not only add more information but show how the information is connected. We did the activity; it was fun. One group wrote a story about a bear who gave himself the Heimlich maneuver with a rock and then he stubbed his toe on the rock and a fox stole his honey. Pretty funny. But at the end, I started to ask them questions like, “How can we apply this to our writing?” All I got back was vague answers like “Flow,” and “Make transitions.” So then I started to push them to elaborate. Still more empty answers, and not even much to build on. So I took over and explained what I was thinking. In order to make transitions, you have to first determine what the two sentences are doing and how they build on each other in order to choose the most appropriate way to transition. For example, These two sentences. “I am writing this blog to figure something out. I figure stuff out better by writing.” I would have to see that the first sentence is justifying an action, and the second is another justification. So the best way to “transition” between these sentences I would be better off combining the sentence or using “because,” “I am writing this blog to figure something out because I figure stuff out better by writing.” But then I can see that it’s not additional information, it’s a cause and effect relationship, but I couldn’t see that until I tried a transition. Then I realized that I have no idea how to “figure out what a sentence is doing.”┬áThe worst part is, most of the time I kept telling them, this is something that feels natural and we do it without thinking. So there I was up there telling them to think through something that they do naturally without thinking. But I didn’t know that yet. I knew the lesson had gone poorly, and that they got very little out of it (I didn’t get anything out of it either. In fact, I left more confused as you can see.) I wrote on my hand the title of this entry.Image

I was miffed that the lesson had gone poorly. I hated that I didn’t know how to teach what I wanted them to do. I am starting to be very aware that it was a stupid conceit for a lesson anyway. Teaching transitions by themselves is like asking a guitar player to practice moving from an F chord to an A chord. It just doesn’t make sense outside of the context of when you actually do it.

Long story short, I gave them crappy advice. I taught crappily.

It doesn’t help that I spent much of yesterday reading Hillocks Teaching Writing As a Reflective Practice and reading about awesome teachers like the McCabe guy he describes in Chapter one that just has the students teach themselves. I still have a long way to go.

The answer to the question in the title is, you don’t. Either they teach themselves, or it isn’t necessary.