Saturday, February 26, 2011

Teaching the Fun Stuff With Fantasy

I've been a geek all my life. Nothing I can do about it; it's the way I'm wired. This means that, as a child, I must admit to the most shamefully geekish activity of them all: playing Dungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons & Dragons, to those of you who know little about it, is a game. In it, you create a character like a fighter or wizard and send this character off into merry adventures created by a person known as the dungeon master. This game was played with graph paper, dice, pens and a whole bunch of game manuals.

For me, one of the best parts of those game manuals was the endless lists of medieval equipment, especially the weapons. I learned about every type of sword, pole arm, and other weapons a medieval knight or soldier might use. So when it came time to actually equip my character (I preferred thieves), I knew exactly what I needed.

(Just as an aside, Dungeons & Dragons got an unsavory reputation in the 1980s for reasons I don't care to go into. Speaking as a person who played the game quiet a bit, what we did was far less violent and much more creative than the typical first-person shooter game enjoyed by a large percentage of teenagers. The focus was always on character, storytelling, and problem-solving, not so much the fighting. Battles were done with dice, not realistic weapons like the computer games, and too much of it got boring. More of this in another post.)

This extensive preview has to do with teaching, trust me! Now let's fast forward in time to the first time I taught the King Arthur stories as a part of the sixth grade curriculum. We were working off of a textbook, which was an edited version of Howard Pyle's King Arthur stories. The story began with a tournament, and the students were very curious about how they worked.

So, using my D&D enhanced knowledge of medieval warfare, combined with some hands-on knowledge of medieval combat courtesy of some medieval reenactments, I told them how tournaments worked. We went through the various weapons, swords, maces, lances, flails, and demonstrated how they were used. The students were spellbound.

Now was this pushing the edge of teaching? Probably. I was talking about weaponry, but from a historic point of view. This talk made medieval combat much more real than any movie or computer game. The kids saw how dangerous these tournaments were, and were glad they only had to face the perils of the lacrosse field. A teacher needs, of course, to be careful with this subject. Knights and armor are fascinating, but we cannot and should not glorify violence. I believe that teaching this also lets kids know how brutal these times were. Sure we view the middle ages with a nostalgic eye, but nobody with common sense would like to live in them. I prefer my life without serfdom, plague, and getting pillaged, thank you very much.

The best teaching moment was when I discussed how effective a flail could be, because the ball-on-chain could wrap around a defender's shield and still hit someone. When a students asked me how I knew that, I answered, “Personal experience.” The kids don't need to know everything!

Who knew my geekish romps into medieval reenactment could be a useful teaching tool? The bigger point is that kids are interested in the nuts and bolts of fantasy and how it works. If the arms and armor thing doesn't interest you, how about medieval food, or clothing, or guilds? Give kids the nitty-gritty details to make these flights of fantasy real. Food is an especially good subject to teach, because kids can make meals themselves. Perhaps you could even hold a medieval feast as the climax of a fantasy unit. We do this at my school, then afterwards the students are “knighted” in a fake ceremony. It's a a lot of fun.

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