Tag Archives: student role-playing

Decoder Ring Theatre – Your Home for Adventure, Golden Age of Radio-style

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Decoder Ring Theatre is a new obsession of mine.  I found it by accident–one of those websites a friend liked and thus caught my attention, but it took me a while to actually explore it.  I was thrilled with it when I finally did so.

Even when I was a kid, I had a fondness for old timey radio programs.  Maybe it was because I wasn’t allowed to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings and so watched old school westerns.  Maybe it was because I used to watch the old Batman TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.  Maybe it was my interest in the Green Hornet, which I followed in comic books.  Hard to say, really.  Hard to know what led to the other, too.

The programming available on Decoder Ring Theatre is the style of the old noir detective shows and superhero programs from the Golden Age of Radio.  I heart Black Jack Justice and his fellow-P.I. Trixie Dixon, girl detective.  I most enjoy those shows, but the real superhero is the Red Panda and his sidekick Flying Squirrel who keep the streets of Toronto safe from mad villains in the 1930s.  Each pair has their own show that can be downloaded as a podcast or played on your computer and smart devices.

The style of the shows are in the classic style of radio dramas, before TVs largely replaced the medium.  (And yet, coming full circle, perhaps, so many of us seek out the book-on-tape option to sneak texts into our busy lives.)  Certain aspects, common in this early style of story-types, whether in comic book, pulp fiction, dime novels, or radio programs, have been modernized.  The women are not uniformly helpless–in fact, Trixie Dixon, while still a knockout worthy of centerfold, is a pretty darn tough gun-toting sleuth, and the Flying Squirrel can rumble with any back-alley thug–and have key roles to play in the crime fighting and detecting.

This factor makes them rather more palatable than some of the classics they otherwise emulate.   While the programming is genuinely entertaining, the era is also recreated in an accessible manner.  For this reason, I think they have real potential in education.  Not only do they reproduce the era in their sordid tales of crime and justice, they also reproduce one of the major cultural experiences of the era: radio programming entertainment and news.  So, you could create a playlist that the students can access using one of Franklin Roosevelt’s Fire Side Chats and one of the shows from Decoder Ring Theatre.

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I wholeheartedly approve of teaching about other eras through experiences.  Reproducing the later years of the Depression through role-playing in built-in class scenarios is an excellent way to bring home the difficulties of the age.  For example, you could easily set aside a couple of classes and recreate the 1930s life within a scenario such as a town hall meeting or recreate a social gathering.  You could also recreate a fictional town and assign each student a character with a particular goal, for example:

  1. a few characters with different backgrounds can each search for a job from other classmates who own businesses
  2. several standard business-owners: bank, grocery, newspaper, etc.
  3. pick a blue-collar industry that supports the town and have the various roles filled: owner, foreman, workers
  4. standard town services: police, postman, doctor, etc.
  5. CCC/WPA project workers

In this way, the Decoder Ring Theatre could actually be assigned as homework along with a handful of other leisure activities that fit the bill–marbles and other games, baseball or football games on the radio, newspapers and comics, etc.  Other activities could be done in the class, such as canning–yes, I’m serious, just find a parent with a hot plate and a pressure-canner–sewing old clothes into new sizes (like letting a pair of pants out for someone who is growing or shortening them for a younger sibling), watch a news reel and movie from the era, hold a pot luck and have everyone bring in Depression-era recipes, etc.

Experiences are a great way to bring things home to students.  When a student takes on the role of a character, the real-life troubles of the character become much more real to him or her.  Assign primary sources to help the characters come alive.  And, leverage student interests–one of the real values of this approach to teaching.  If Suzy plays the trumpet she can take a look at the music of the era and be a musician as with other types of artists, many of who were specifically sought out by various federal programs.  If Carl is into cars, then make him a Packard dealer or a mechanic and let him study the historic forerunners of today’s automobiles.  Etcetera, etcetera.  Help them learn and get excited about it.  It’s ok if they have fun!  *wink*

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Filed under art, Drama/Theater/Cinema, Experiences, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Fiction, Historian's Journal

Gaming the Past: How to Teach History with Video Games

Video games create role-playing opportunities for learning

I was first introduced to the concept of using games to teach history when I read Larry Ferlazzo’s post about teaching with “Choose Your Own Adventure Stories” (CYOAS).  (See, “The Best Places to Read and Write ‘Choose Your Own Adventure Stories,’” “‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Additions,” which inspired my own post: “Student-written ‘Choose Your Own Adventure Stories’ for learning history,” and a related post, “Writing Fiction as an Exercise in History Education.”)  Using the provided links from Ferlazzo’s recommended sites (such as the Microsoft site with a PowerPoint tutorial and these clowns who actually explain a YouTube adventure quite well despite failing at humor), I created my own PowerPoint CYOAS: “Lord Nivelo and the First Crusade.”

The main character was based on a real historical knight who left a charter about his decision to give up his life of robber-baron crime and repent by accepting the call to the First Crusade.  Links to online biographies, online primary sources, and an in-document glossary, provided the means for the students to build content-knowledge.  The links that moved the story provided students with the opportunity to role-play and engage in decisions that would have been relevant to a late-11th century knight.  Some decisions were purely moral and resulted in the same outcome, but the decision would have required careful consideration by a knight of the era who was opting to be moral or not.  The story progressed based on the events of history and historical persons.  In the below sample, for example, the knights in Emico’s entourage attacked the Jews of Mainz, sought to enter the Kingdom of Hungary, were repulsed, and then fell to bandits in the woods during their  retreat.  This is a dead-end scenario.  If the student selects the option of Nivelo refusing Emico’s offer, the story continues.

To recap: the students, by participating the story, do all of the following:

  1. Read related secondary and primary sources (online in this case)
  2. Build relevant vocabulary for the unit (plus, in my glossary of, “Words you may not know,” I included, “Places You May Not Know” with links)
  3. Engage the thought-processes, problems, and decision-making challenges of the historical era
  4. Engage these within a realistic fiction of actual historical events and persons, based on primary document evidence

This is a pretty useful way for students to engage the familiar and the strange in a the foreign culture they are studying.  (It is also a useful exercise for the educator who creates the CYOAS–assuming, of course, that it’s done right.)

It was thanks to Glenn Wiebe’s post, “Gaming the Past: How to Teach with Video Games,” that I was introduced to an entirely new and productive approach to teaching history with video games.  (A fact that was strongly recalled to mind when I visited, “The Art of Video Games,” exhibit and learned about the incredible potential of modern video games.)  Upon visiting Glenn’s site with the above link, you will be provided with links to Teachinghistory.com’s posts by Jeremiah McCall on using and creating simulation games in the classroom and the blog, Gaming the Past.  These tools will give you another opportunity to provide an authentic role-playing experience that helps students learn about historical eras, events, or persons.

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A twist…

Students will benefit from playing these games–their knowledge and understanding will increase.  These games are exercises in historical experiences.  That’s useful for learning.  There is another way to approach this, however.  As you will learn from the links, above, software exists to create simulations.  This means you can make games for your students to play, but it also means that the students can make the games!

I have already advocated for this learning experience in previous posts: “Creating Educational Games,” and, “Some advice and tips on creating educational games.”  The same logic can be used in providing students with the necessary tools to create digital simulations and games.  The same knowledge that was required in making my CYOAS, “Lord Nivelo and the First Crusade,” would be the researched portion of the project for the students in developing their games.  The same ideas I suggested for board or card games in the above posts could be used to create digital simulations with the software available, today.

In this way, students are not only engaging in role-play learning for eras, but they are doing the necessary research to create a simulated historical era, and learning enough about the habits and ways of a historical period to create problem-solving scenarios in line with the era.  This is an incredibly useful learning experience, a good way to engage the current generation, and valuable experience in traditional history research.

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Fiction, Games

War memorials and mock congress Close Up

The Lincoln Memorial heading up the end of the National Mall with America's war memorials.

Tuesday was a busy day!  We started out the morning with an exploration of Capitol Hill (so students would know their way around for Hill Day).  We took a group picture in front of the Capitol before workshops 1-6 headed to a seminar with a speaker from AIPAC–the strongest Israel lobby in the U.S.  (He shared the importance of Israel as an ally, but did not mention the P-word, until a student asked point-blank about Israel’s relations with Palestine.)

A group of students meets to discuss the presentations made by the war memorials. The World War II Memorial is in the distance at the end of the empty reflecting pool.

Then, after lunch, we hit up the War memorials to discuss the theory of just war and the representation of American wars on the Mall.  Students debated the timing of our entry into World War II and reviewed just war theory in the cases of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.  (At the Vietnam, one student got a rubbing of his family member’s name who died in that conflict.)

Students explore the iconic and controversial Vietnam War Memorial. Students explore with questions about the artwork and the concepts of just war in their heads.

Then we returned to the hotel for dinner and a student-run mock Congress in further preparation for their Hill Day. Students took on the roles of chairpersons, lobbyists and reps in the House. While the group on the whole is rather conservative, there was a lot of good debate on current issues and bills under consideration, today.

Students are grouped in their mock committee meetings discussing the issues, pros and cons of bills that relevant in today's congressional debates.

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