I started a unit on the Mongol Empire this week, and I wanted to help the students to understand the challenges of the environment in which the Mongols lived. Their empire spanned all of Asia. To begin this, I was using a variety of resources from National Geographic. I started with photographs to show the land and the people.
Then I printed out the tabletop maps from their MapMaker kits, nine sheets of paper that create a map of the continent. At the beginning of the year, I used the wall maps as an introduction to the class, making huge maps of the continents. It was a great lesson in geography and collaboration. For the Mongol activity, the students worked in pairs. They first were supposed to use their atlases to find a list of the major geographic features of the continent: mountains, plateaus, steppe, rivers, bays, etc. After that, they colored and taped the sheets together. It was a challenging task that required some perseverance and commitment. They wanted to skip the step of looking in the atlas, but soon discovered that it was much easier to find the places on a colored atlas than on black and white sheets.
When they finished, I had them go to the jigsaw puzzles on the National Geographic site.
“Cool! We get to play games!”
There are 27 puzzles of the continents and oceans. One of them is of the physical map of Asia, so I sent them there first. The challenge was to move the puzzle pieces around to create the continent. It was fascinating watching them. Some of my weaker students, when it comes to reading and writing skills, were amazingly adept at recreating the continent from the pieces, clearly with strong visual skills. Others were completely lost and needed significant help. For some of the ones who struggled, it was clear that they had no experience with doing a jigsaw puzzle; it simply wasn’t in their background and they had to have it explained to them. Then there was one student for whom the task itself was beyond her. She didn’t see the straight edges and make the association with a border. I learned a lot about her thinking from watching her move pieces randomly around the board.
The game has a timer, so after they completed the puzzle, they then went back and tried to beat their time. No matter how much time it took them the first time through, they were determined to beat that time on the next round.
Towards the end of class, I stopped them and asked what history skills they had been practicing while playing the game. At first, they laughed, as if they didn’t really think they had been doing the “work” of the class. It was the day before Spring Break, and they were pretty sure that I was just “filling” time.
Then a student raised her hand and said, “Geography. We were thinking about geography. We had to pay attention to what we had colored on the maps.”
Another said, “Determination. We had to stick to it to figure it out.”
“Connections. You are always telling us to look for connections, and we had to find connections. We had to figure out what was important and pay attention to it.”
When they thought about it, the game moved beyond simply something to play and they were able to see that they were also learning. An important piece!
And I would add to their list, resiliency! Even the students who struggled kept at it. They wanted to win, to complete the task. They didn’t give up, something they often do when given an academic challenge, because the system has already convinced them they can’t win. A game is neutral; it is not personal. It is a challenge to be tackled by one and all. They know that to become a good game player, they just have to keep at it. And they do! That is why games can be so effective in the classroom. The challenge is real, and the possibility of success is there for everyone, if you just keep at it!
I am always looking for games that will engage the students in their learning. The best games that I have found by far are the ones on the iCivics website that was developed by Sandra Day O’Connor to teach students about government. There are dozens of games there that teach about citizenship and how the American government works. If you teach US history or civics, be sure to check these ones. If you have any games to recommend, please let me know!