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A principal’s perspective on World of Warcraft in school

Stephanie CarmichaelFebruary 17, 2017

Sometimes, convincing an administrator to let you use video games in school is downright easy.

That’s what it was like with World of Warcraft at Suffern Middle School in New York. Principal Brian Fox has served as a principal there for nine years, an assistant principal for four years, and before that, he taught social studies. This is his 28th year in education.

We spoke to Fox about how they ended up using WoW at his school—and how game-based learning has made a difference for their students.

When did you get into World of Warcraft?

Brian Fox: Oh boy, I think I’m one of the people who claims to be around since vanilla WoW [Warcraft before the expansions], and that was … is it 10 years old now? It’s one of the oldest running MMOs out there. I was in the international guard here in the military, in the air force. I’m since retired from that. I had some buddies who were playing. I connected with them. I played on and off for a while, and then really it was great when years later, I was able to connect with people like Kae Novak, people who were using this for educational purposes. That kind of sparked me. I thought, “Wow, this isn’t just a game that I’m staying home alone playing. Other educators are thinking about how to use this in the classroom, too.”

World of Warcraft

So yeah, I’m kind of a WoW player. I have my separate WoW life with the guild and those guys, and when I come here, I’m able to speak to the kids in [teacher Peggy Sheehy’s] classroom with a firsthand perspective, and they get a kick out of the fact that their old principal might be playing the same game as they are.

Were you always a gamer, or was WoW the first game you got into?

Fox: It was definitely not the first. I think I’m probably in that first generation of video gamers. I had the Atari 2600 growing up. I had an Atari 800 that I was able to program games in BASIC in, so I always enjoyed doing that. I would hang out at the video arcade with my friends back then, when you actually had to go pay to play video games on a per game basis. Whether it was Asteroids or Pac-Man or Galaga or something like that.

I think I got in that on the ground floor, and I always felt that video games are very engaging, and they’ve always been very engaging for me.

Do you keep up with all the games the kids at your school are playing with?

Fox: I do. I also have two sons, they’re 10 years apart. One’s 19 and one’s 9, so I have a pretty good spread of experience there. I definitely depend on my oldest son to keep me up-to-date on what the college set is into these days. Kids here know I like games, so they’ll come talk to me about them once in a while, and I’ll be able to talk to them.

I’m not into console games as much, like the first-person shooters. But like I said, I have two sons, so they can give me an idea of what they’re like. My youngest is into Minecraft. He loves playing Minecraft, whether it’s on his iPad or the Xbox.

Does that help with making you approachable as a principal to the students?

Fox: I think for some kids, it’s really helped. For example, we have a class here that’s a therapeutic support class for kids. I have one or two students that are very much into Minecraft, Marvel movies, or other things, like mobile games. They’ll come in here, talk to me. One comes in wearing an emoji shirt constantly. Another wears the Minecraft block shirt.

World of Warcraft education

I think it gives you a little more relatability. I’m pretty honest with them. If they’re talking to me about a game I don’t know anything about, that’s when I start asking questions. Tell me about it, what’s it like. There’s so many of them, particularly mobile games. I don’t think the school has really leveraged mobile games. Warcraft is wonderful, but kids every day are involved in so many different kinds of apps and games on their phones. That’s a next level for us in some way, but there’s so many it’s hard to get a grasp on, too.

What do you like about WoW, and do you know any students at your school or teachers who also play it?

Fox: Obviously, I know Peggy Sheehy. She’s the guru of it here. A few years ago, she went from being our instructional technology facilitator back to the classroom as a humanities teacher. In 6th grade, we have a humanities approach where they teach social studies and English in the same block class. She came to me with the idea of utilizing World of Warcraft. In the past, she had used Second Life as a platform for kids.

We had a lot of conversations about it. She didn’t know at first that I played World of Warcraft and came to me about it several times. Back then, a Level 60 character was the highest character. It’s a little more now, but I said, “Look, I know exactly what you’re talking about. You don’t have to sell me on it.” But she was really in the elementary realm, being in 6th grade. We have a 6-8 grade school. So I couldn’t have her teaching the older kids here since she was certified to teach the younger kids. We had to figure out a way to approach it with the kids so that parents would be comfortable with it, too. Sometimes that can also be a challenge.

She has a WoW club that she runs after school, or I’ll pop up to her class and talk to the kids about it. They’re always fascinated that I can look at a quest that they’re doing and say, “Oh, you’re in this part, you’re in Kalimdor in this zone, and this is the quest that you’re doing. Oh, I did that like 10 years ago.” [Laughs]

I think it draws natural connections, but she’s done a phenomenal job of adapting the NY state curriculum and the Common Core curriculum to World of Warcraft. She uses a quest-based approach in 3D Game Lab to push out quests to the students that they have to accomplish.

How does she integrate curriculum with it?

Fox: She took quite some time to develop a unit called “The Hero’s Journey.” When New York state redid the ELA units here in the state, they hired a company to do them. They’re all on Engage NY. One of the units struck a chord with Peggy because it was called The Hero’s Journey, which works really well with World of Warcraft.

Some of the reading in that unit for example is The Lightning Thief, so there was a lot of mythology built in. A lot of kids exhibiting leadership going on quests. She took great pains to cross-walk that curriculum with things that she could do in World of Warcraft and still complete the curriculum on course, to increase her kids’ literacy skills and have them do all the reading they needed to do.

We both love the fact that WoW has reading naturally built in. You have to be able to read a quest to accomplish a quest. She enhances that by what she asks the kids to do and how she asks them to progress through the game.

… It’s been challenging in some places. There are some parents that I don’t think really get it. I think some of them are still in the realm of, video games are really bad and I have to filter for my child. We try to be sensitive to that. But she’s highly successful with 99 percent of the kids that come to her in terms of getting the kids to stay in her class.

How have you dealt with those challenges?

Fox: What you try to do is you try to engage them. We meet with me and Peggy to hear their concerns. I think most of the time when they come out of that meeting, they’re extremely comfortable with the setting.

It’s also good that you can impart to a parent that this isn’t an isolated setting where your kids can use video games where they’re killing lots of people and engaging with all sorts of strange things online. This is a guided environment with which the teacher can guide the kid to it through a certain extent and do it in relative safety.

Have you seen WoW have an effect on students’ interest in reading in general?

Fox: It’s hard to gauge. But I would certainly say that our school for some reason has an excellent reputation in math and not as much in literacy. … We have some other computer-based programs that really aren’t game-based programs, whether it’s Achieve3000 or things that are meant to build kids’ literacy skills specifically. So I think kids in general here are definitely more into reading than they have been.

She also takes The Hobbit, and in 6th grade … that’s pretty amazing. I think I probably read it when I was in high school. She does that, and she does a good job of chunking it, or breaking it down for the kids and making it understandable for them and also allowing them to press forward on their own.

Do you use other types of game-based learning?

Fox: Peggy’s used some other [role-playing games] like Civilization. When I think about game-based learning here, World of Warcraft hasn’t caught on with the faculty. When you have somebody like Peggy, she’s really great at doing that, but other people don’t have a comfort level with it. For me, it’s been more of trying to promote problem-based learning in a lot of ways.

World of Warcraft education

For example, my 7th grade English teachers went to an escape room recently. It provides a critical problem that you have to solve, but it’s time-based as well. They’ve run breakout rooms and things like that there, and we have a STEAM expo [through the Reach Foundation] coming up on March 4 with our district, so they’re going to demonstrate that just in terms of what it does for student engagement, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking skills.

We also have a Gateway to Technology program through Project Lead the Way. It’s pre-engineering, so our kids are involved in the design process, and they use a lot of different types of software AutoCAD or West Point Bridge or other things like that. But it’s really open-ended. The teachers will provide them, hey, you need to build a bridge for this price, go do it. And they work in teams. While it’s not really video game-based, there’s a lot of that type of [project-based learning] going on here.

What other types of changes have you seen from WoW or other programs you’re using?

Fox: It’s easy to get teachers to look at it in terms of student engagement. If they’re coming out of a class like Peggy’s class, students don’t expect to be sitting in chairs for 40 or 50 minutes. I see teachers more willing to engage students in different types of activities that might be motivational or quest-based type activities.

It’s interesting, the people who really started a breakout movement here were our literacy specialists, and I have one in each grade level. They saw value in kids decoding. Kids need work in decoding language, so they saw value in them decoding a problem and using those same types of skills.

Do you have any advice schools thinking about bringing in more game-based learning?

Fox: I think number one, you need to have either a group of teachers or one or two teachers that are really willing to engage in it and willing to be transparent about it with the faculty, as well. You’re going to run into some skeptics that say, “I still teach it this way, and I’m a very engaging teacher, why should I do it your way?” You need to be ready for that kind of a conversation as to how it could enhance the instruction—how the kids are really digital natives these days, and this is an environment that you can leverage for their success. It’s important to do that.

From my perspective, I don’t know the culture of everybody else’s building. I know here, starting small and with small groups, things tend to spread a little slowly, but they tend to spread that way. I don’t think this is something you can force down a department of teachers if they’re not willing to do it. That would be bad. [Laughs]