Gaming in the Classroom – an interview with Pete Figtree, teacher, gamer, innovator.

Pete Figtree is a teacher with a mission.  He is bringing gaming in to the classroom in a way that will positively influence his present and future students.  He is doing something real and important with real students.  I get a neat, shiny and warm feeling whenever I think of this.  Pete has designed coursework to encourage creative thinking, which moves beyond the boundaries of a typical class, particularly those that I was attending in High School.  Pete brings elements of gaming into his English classes, and he’s working overtime with his school’s gaming club.  What exactly is he doing? Check this out for a good frame of reference, and ponder why you couldn’t have taken this class in school.

Pete and his class are thoroughly enjoying their forays in to gaming.  If you are interested in learning more, please read on, as I had a chance to ask Pete a few questions.  If you’d like to help out, Pete and his classroom would love any donations of PDFs, hard copies and boxed games.

On to the interview!

Other than simply bringing gaming into the classroom (either during class time or after school as a gaming club) what are your goals?  In other words, could you describe what you’re hoping to accomplish and why you’ve chosen role playing games?

Well, implementing games effectively in the classroom is a lofty goal, so that’s a good enough goal in and of itself.  It is one thing for a gamer to play games in class; it is another to make the games being played a vital part of achieving state goals and objectives in the classroom.  So, being reflective and honest about the effectiveness of gaming the classroom is an ongoing process that will never end, particularly as it relates to Layered Curriculum, a style of running a classroom masterminded by a smart lady named Kathy Nunley.  Her work and ideas can be found at  Layered Curriculum fits perfectly with a desire to game the classroom, so I cannot speak highly enough of it.

But, in addition to this, I would love for the kids in the gaming club to get so good at running games that we could run a school mini-con.  This would be a fun way for the kids to show off the coolness of the games they play and to showcase their GM skills.  Once that is accomplished, I would love to use the same kids to run a TEACHERcon in which they run games for teachers in order to show them the educational value of games.  This is a project very dear to my heart and would be a good bridge for me to do professional development sessions with teachers about practical and convincing ways to implement gaming into their classrooms.  Yes, I love games like any other gamer does, but I also honestly know that they are powerful vehicles for educating people.  They just need to be used wisely.  I am working on mastering the practice.

As far as only choosing role playing games, I haven’t.  I have recently blogged about the use of the Back to the Future Card Game in the classroom and am planning to use two party games very soon, Say Anything with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Smash or Trash in my rhetoric course.  I am open to any type of games, but I have found role playing games easier to use with larger groups; all you need are rules and a character sheet, and you are ready to go.  And the new story games—forget about it—are simply tailor made for an English course.  And, of course, somewhere in the middle are the Engle Matrix Games from Hamster Press, which I find very useful and ready to go straight out of the box.  I love Engle Matrix Games enough to enjoy playing them outside of class for recreation by email.  Right now, I am in the middle of a PBEM Star Trek matrix game.

You’ve recently put out a request for help – asking for donations of role playing game PDFs, so the kids in your class can have actual gaming materials to play with.  How is that going?  How has the reaction of the gaming community in general been?

It has been overwhelmingly awesome.  The number of PDFs and hard copies I have received has blown the kids’ minds.  Board and party games have also been donated.  I am so thankful for the outpouring and have been putting together a little game library in my classroom that allows kids to check out games.  It is so rewarding and would not be possible without the generosity of those who donated.  I wish everyone could see the look on the face of a kid who realizes she has access to a fifty or sixty dollar book filled with sweetness.  The gaming community is a group of passionate and generous people always ready to teach and share.  I think the community aspect of gaming is one of the most attractive parts of it.  It’s as if we all know we have some great secret that needs to be shared and can’t wait to share it with others.  Everyone I have met in the gaming community has been nothing but kind to gaming insiders as well as to new players.  I cannot express how impressed I am with the spirit of gamers and gaming.  Gaming is a universe full of good, interesting, and smart folks.  I will be playing for the first time at a con soon and am very excited to meet some of the people I really admire face to face.

Do you find your students lean more towards the role playing aspects or the combat aspects in game?  How do you attempt to balance out pure dungeon delving with actual role play?

It’s a mix.  Some kids just don’t realize that there is anything outside of dungeon delving, but once they do, they are generally into whatever scenario you throw at them.  Of course, a little combat here and there and everywhere is usually welcomed by the kids, but they are by no means shallow in regard to new ideas and methods of role playing.  I watched a kid at my last school gaming meeting run Don’t Rest Your Head like a pro and   was so impressed with his knowledge of the rules and his storytelling chops.  Using the games in class naturally helps with the balance of role play and pure hack and slashing.  I have used PDQ and The Soap Game with success in a class that was acting out the lives of small town characters.  This was to enrich a reading of Spoon River Anthology, and I cannot remember any violence in the game, but there was plenty of drama.

What do you find draws kids to role playing?  What keeps them interested?

The same things that draw most of us to role playing are the same things that attract the kids.  They are immersive and fun.  We all love the escape and creativity that rpgs bring into our lives.  Kids are possibly even more into these elements, and they love the idea of developing a character over a period of time.  They love being an expert about a set of rules, and the community and friendship one builds over time with a gaming group is great for anyone, young or old or in-between.  There is nothing quite like role playing in regard to capturing the imagination and holding it in a place of awesomeness over a lengthy span of time.

How did you get into RPGs?

I remember sitting around with friends as a teen playing D and D fast and loose.  I have no idea if we were playing correctly, but I do know that I was carried away with it.  I remember the graph paper filled with dungeons and the weird dice that we got to roll.  That experience got its hooks into me and never left even though I didn’t game for years after that group of friends stopped playing.   Fortunately, though, before I took my extended hiatus, I had brief stints playing other genres of rpgs as well as D and D and realized early that role playing games do not always have to be fantasy games.  Then I was asked to sponsor my school’s Chess Club which organically morphed into a full-fledged gaming group.  While this was happening, I was reading and learning and downloading free stuff like a man possessed.  I was amazed and intrigued by the developments that had happened in the gaming world since I had last played role playing games.  Around this same time, I found a boxed set of the original Star Frontiers for one dollar at a yard sale and I was fully back into the hobby more than ever.

What knowledge do you consider vital to pass along to future GMs and Players?

I think it is important to know that there is probably a role playing game out there for everyone if it is presented well.  A person doesn’t turn on the radio, hear a lame song, and say, “I hate music.”  That person turns the dial or puts in a CD that he or she likes, but many people tend to react to games in this knee-jerk way.  It’s not on purpose, though.  Most people don’t know what is out there.  It does require a little bit of digging.  That is why I love some of the new games that are written for new people in mind.  I guess I would love people to see games as more enriching than passive activities like watching TV or movies.  I love these things as much as the next guy, but I know that the brain is firing on all cylinders when it is playing a game and making up stories.

Snacks are important to gaming.  Do you serve snacks?  If so, what?

Ouch!  I do not, but I should.  The gaming group is going from one day a week to four possible playing days, so I probably better get these kids some grub.  Perhaps, we will have to set up a snack rotation.  Teachers are not rich, you know, and kids are some hungry humans.  Another consideration is the school wellness goals.  School systems are tightening up on what teachers can provide in regard to food to kids, so I assume it should be something that passes as healthy.  We ran a tourney a couple years ago fueled by string cheese, pretzels, and juice.  I guess that’s not all that bad.

What do you think the kids hope to get out of this?

Curiosity, creativity, and a hunger for knowledge are all things that make up good students.  Ultimately, I want gaming in the classroom to be an effective way to engage students in my units and to help them master the objectives that I am supposed to teach.  Getting curious about the world and having a desire to learn can only aid in this process.  It’s also great to see the kids having.  Looking across a classroom full of chatting, laughing, and dice rolling kids is an experience that is priceless, especially if you know the kids are learning from it.  Showing the kids another type of gaming that they are not familiar with is also very rewarding, especially when there are so many wonderful, free games to which I can point them. In short, I hope my class will help my students embark on a life full of awesome.  That would make me happy.  Awesome kids with awesome brains living awesome lives full of awesome.

How many other teachers, that you know of, are bringing gaming in to the classroom? How successful have they been?

All teachers do the whole test review type of games, but I want to go deeper than that, so I don’t know any other teachers personally who are trying to do what I am trying to do.  However, a teacher came and observed my kids playing the Frankenstein Engle Matrix Game the other day and was sold on the idea.  It is not hard to recognize the level of thinking and concentration that games can evoke in students.  I know from belonging to Sam Chupp’s kids and rpgs yahoo group that rpgs are popular among parents that homeschool their children.  And, I know that a man named Dave Millians has been gaming his classroom long before the idea crossed my mind.  Millians and Chupp were definitely at the forefront of all of this talk about the value of gaming for kids.  Both of them have valuable info on the internet about these issues.  As far as success goes, when a lesson inspired by a game or game theory is in play, it seems to generate attention as much as any other method that I have used.  The teacher just has to realize that for the most part he is teaching non-gamers some new things.  Sometimes that is good, though.  The newbies do not have anything to unlearn.

Are you still accepting PDF donations?

Of course, I will accept donations on behalf of my present and future students and school gaming group members.  I want these kids to know all about games and the fun and learning they can produce.  I also want them to know that all of the stereotypes of gaming and gamers do not hold true across the board.  At the same time, I want my gaming group to have a sizable portion of Geek Pride, confident in the knowledge that they have found a very cool way to spend leisure time with smart, interesting people who share similar interests.

[tags]role playing games, rpg, pdf, classroom, interview[/tags]

8 thoughts on “Gaming in the Classroom – an interview with Pete Figtree, teacher, gamer, innovator.

Add yours

  1. Pete is a great guy, and everyone should check out his blog to keep up with his ongoing adventures in teaching. He’s completely approachable too, whether it be via e-mail or comments on his blog, there’s a good chance he’ll respond. Give him a shout out over on Ruthless Diastema! (An odd name for a blog, but ask him the story about that too, he’ll tell it.)


  2. I’ll echo what Nick said completely. I’ve talked to Pete a few times and expect to see him at GASP-Con next month. I’m looking forward to meeting him in person and doing some gaming with him.


  3. Lol, Tracy, I’ve never heard of GASP-Con, and I thought you were just trying to insert an emotive gasp into your comment there on first read through. Totally weirded me out.


  4. I was deeply moved by this project of Petes. My introduction to gaming was through a similar after-school games and puzzles club and the hobby has been very reqrding to me throughout life. Well done Pete!


  5. I only wish I had had a teacher as cool as Pete when I was in highs school! I think he is brilliant for doing this and creating this standard.
    I hope that other teachers in the future follow his example!


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