September plays out for me in predictable ways. The energy from the beginning of the year fades some, I fall behind on grading, the kids start testing boundaries and I start questioning my own abilities and sanity. There are some new challenges this year. I have three -ish new classes I’m teaching, and the planning I did over the summer hasn’t taken me this far into the school year. I’m teaching some concepts I don’t know well myself, and some lessons are flopping. I have three classes of mostly boys who have chosen to sign up for computing classes, so the culture is way different than a mixed math class.
There are some familiar challenges too. Classroom management is always a roller coaster for me. It always is. August and early September are wonderful, with the kids eagerly learning and happily abiding by my posted expectations. Then in late September, I get tested, and I’m slow to respond. I really do have a philosophy that behind every behavior is a motivation, and so I challenge myself to not simply correct a rule infraction but to understand what’s driving it. I have a rule that you can play computer games after your task is completed. If kids are playing games sooner, I ask myself: Was the task too hard? Too easy? Not engaging enough? Not at a high enough level of cognitive demand? Does the student lack the self-advocacy to troubleshoot with another person? Is the student distracted? Sleepy? Sad? Is the game educational? What does a student gain from playing this game? I spend time trying to fix underlying problems and building relationships with the kids instead of just telling a student “I said no gaming.” This means I usually spend early October trying to do damage control on classrooms that have slipped into some pretty bad habits. It happens every year. I understand my kids pretty well, but perhaps at the expense of a well-disciplined class.
This year, the students each have a full size computer and monitor in front of them for the full 90 minute class period, so the temptation to find a computer game to play is too much for many kids, plus I can see their game choices in full color glory. We have pretty aggressive web filtering, but still the students find ways to access forbidden games. Some of the games are violent. They range from stick-figure-comic to downright horrifying. Their favorites are:
* Stick War, a strategy game with little red blood spatters coming from stick figures
* Happy Wheels, a physics game with horribly gory endings for figures in wheelchairs and on Segways. I was informed you can “turn off the blood”.
* A Torture game in which you can stab and dismember a dummy with red blood spatters
And there are your usual shooter games – some are the first-person variety and some are 2D, and the amount of gore varies from none to OMG.
Many boys love these games. I hate them. I feel emotional and sick when I see them. I always have. Here’s the thing, for about a week now I’ve been way gentler than I should have, trying to diagnose root causes of the problem and such. Asking myself what really is the harm in a little comic blood, especially if they really are done with their work for the day? So I’m squeamish, but some of the games really are in a gray area of cartoonish violence. Some of the best, smartest, nicest students in the class like violent video games and some of them really are done with their work and are causing no other problems.
Then other students (especially the girls) started pulling me aside and complaining to me when their classmates played the games. I couldn’t just be reactionary anymore, not that my mild reactions did much good. It just has to stop.
So I prepared our class’s big re-norming talk about appropriate gaming. I wanted the kids’ buy-in. I thought and thought about how to get that buy-in, and as much as I wanted to have a serious evidence-based talk about the American Academy of Pediatrics‘ stance on media violence, or appeal to their better nature to prevent me from having a sick tummy, I settled on two main points: our district’s Code of Conduct, which explicitly prohibits “advocating violence” using district technology, and the rights of other students to NOT see it.
I started my spiel by asking the students to think about a time when they saw a bunch of people doing something they felt was morally wrong but they were uncomfortable speaking up.
I apologized to all the students who were depending on me to make the classroom safe for them, physically and also emotionally. I admitted I hadn’t done a good job at respecting their emotions by allowing their friends to play games that were violent and not stopping it sooner. I have an important job to keep the classroom safe and respectful. I would not allow the violent gaming to continue.
I had the students read the bullet points from the Code of Conduct about use of technology and violence, and I summarized those points as school policies: No guns. No weapons at all. No violence. Not even cartoonish.
I told the kids that students had complained to me. They had complained about first-person shooters, and about the torture app and Happy Wheels, and even about the Stick Wars game with the stickmen with blood spatters. These kids have the right to not see those things. I have a responsibility to them. If someone has an issue with your gaming and they find it offensive, I said, they don’t need thicker skin and they don’t need to suck it up and they don’t need to quit being so sensitive. They’re allowed to have those feelings. You have to remove the game from your screen and I never expect to see it again.
I told them when you are a worker, and someday when you’re an employer, you’ll have to deal with these same issues in the workplace. I hope you have the grace to make your workplace respectful and safe to everyone, and play the violent games at home but never, ever at work. Ever.
They had tons of questions and some kids were predictably offended and/or silly. The boys asked about specific games and they asked if it was OK to wear a Tom and Jerry shirt to school or was that cartoon violence too intense. I know they don’t really get it. I finished by letting them know I do not judge any of them if they like or don’t like violent games – that some of the most wonderful, generous, beautiful people I know play Grand Theft Auto and think it’s great – but it’s never allowed in school because the school has to be welcoming and safe for every single person.
There is a part of me that wonders if that gaming culture isn’t a big factor in keeping more women out of computing. I don’t know for sure, but if you’re one of a few trailblazing girls in a classroom and the boys are huddled around their screens cheering about a video game that makes you sick to your stomach, why would you stay in that area of study when you have other options?
I wonder what other teachers see when it comes to gaming in the CS classroom. What’s it like for you and your students? What are your written and unwritten rules for gaming? How do you encourage collaboration instead of that solitary huddling? What do you teach students about that itchy gaming finger that so badly wants to flip to a mindless game when a task gets difficult? And – how do you work with students about violence in games and what that does to a classroom?