Below is Part 1 of our interview with teacher and Classcraft ambassador Laura Trauth, who teaches at the college level both in the classroom and fully online with students.
Laura Trauth has been a total geek since childhood, from seeing The Empire Strikes Back 10 times in theaters to playing Dungeons & Dragons during lunch in high school. She has a PhD in modern European history and Master’s degrees in humanities and geospatial information sciences. In her spare time she reads comic books, hikes, gardens, and plans out more ways to gamify her classes.
Thanks for talking with us today, Laura! To start, tell us a little about yourself as an educator and what classes and grade levels you teach.
I’ve been teaching a long time. I actually started back in the late 1980s as a teaching assistant for biology classes. Since then, I’ve taught, TA’d, or tutored everything from biology to chemistry to math and history. Mostly, I’ve taught college freshmen and sophomores, although I’ve also taught SAT prep classes for a few years. Of course, that was high school and even some middle school students.
I started teaching full-time at the Community College of Baltimore County in 1998, and I’ve been there ever since. I teach U.S. history classes, Western Civilization survey classes, and the occasional sophomore-level history class as well, like Diseases in History. I’m currently working on a History of Crime and Punishment.
Right now, I use Classcraft with everything. So this semester and summer, that’s five history classes, some online and some face-to-face.
Why did you choose to use Classcraft with your college courses? What about it appealed to you?
First of all, I’m a total geek. I started playing Dungeons & Dragons when I was a high school freshman, and in college I discovered other RPGs, like Champions and Call of Cthulhu. Even before I found Classcraft, I’d started integrating the theme of heroes in my Western Civ I classes. I got this idea that if we focused on Greek and Norse legends in our primary source readings, my students would find that an accessible way to get into the hopes and fears and beliefs of people in the past.
To be honest, I was also pretty darn burned out. I’ve been teaching the same three or four courses for over 15 years. I’ve taught History 101 over 75 times. You just get bored, and I needed a way to reinvigorate my course and a way to engage my students.
I was searching online, and I found Classcraft, and it seemed like a perfect fit, both with my personality and with the themes I had already started integrating with my class.
It sounds like the theme of heroes works really well with the avatars.
It does. It really ties in. I’ve started doing more things beyond reading and talking about the myths. I’ve also had students read a little bit about Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and then one of the assignments they do is they write up their own hero’s journey and the obstacles they’ve faced and overcome in triumphing. I want them to see themselves as epic — as someone who can achieve anything they set their minds to.
All of our students are not just in their first year of college; they’re the first person in their family to ever go to college. They’re coming from backgrounds where their parents really struggled bringing them up. As a result, they’ve never been exposed to college culture, and they’re very intimidated. They don’t know how to ask questions, they don’t know how to come to office hours, and they have this idea that it’s going to be just like high school. When they find out it’s not and that they need to be a lot more responsible for their own thinking, scheduling, and learning, they can get overwhelmed and give up. And I’m trying to get them across that gap, to where they know they can do it.
What customizations did you make so it would be appropriate to the adult age level?
Lots! Fortunately, the way Classcraft is set up, it’s very easy to do. First of all, we don’t have guidelines and regulations that our students need to follow, like getting a hall pass or asking permission to open a window, or having an assigned seat. So I had to adjust those sorts of powers.
Students also felt like the distribution of powers was a little unfair. Originally there was only one character class that had the power to use their notes on a test. Well that’s a really big deal at the college level, and a lot of my students have test anxiety. They said partway through the first semester, “We think every class ought to have, at the highest level, the ability to use their notes on the exam.” So I listened to them. I thought, that makes sense.
Then I thought, what do they request or need all the time? They frequently want extensions. So by making extensions on writing papers a Classcraft power, they now have ownership of that. They have control of it. They don’t have to come and see me. I tell them, if you earn the power, you can use the power. You’re in charge.
Our students show up in the morning, take a few classes, and then rush off to work. So it’s hard to create collaboration, especially in the online classes where they never meet each other personally and physically. So one of the things that I do is I give them the power to revise a test or a paper, but they have to work collaboratively with at least one other student. So that encourages them to get to know their teammates.
And if they can’t meet physically because of their schedules, there are neat sites online like PrimaryPad, which is an online shared text editor where they can chat. Some of them have actually built on this and gone off on their own and set up PrimaryPads where they share their notes and go over their notes and clarify things for each other, so they didn’t just stop at revising the occasional paper. Some of them have actually formed study teams, and they work together on a regular basis.
How else do you encourage them to learn how to be responsible for their own learning?
I have some issues with sentences, too, with adult students [when students fall in battle]. I can’t keep my students after class to clean up. I can’t send them to detention. Most of my students are working adults, and because some of them are struggling financially, I wanted to avoid anything that required them to bring in a treat for their classmates.
I also don’t have the [luxury] of being able to talk to their parents if they’re not serving their sentences. So I was thinking, how am I going to make these adult students, who can just walk out at the end of the day, motivated to complete their sentences if they fall in battle? And my solution there was simply to let them set them. We talk about it in the first week of class, and they for the most part decide what the sentences should be. I tell them to focus on things that they feel will help them get back on track if they start having a little trouble in the class.
They’re very creative. They’ve created sentences like writing up notes to share with the class on Blackboard, creating a timeline online and sharing that, giving a short presentation. And then I always add to that an option for coming to my physical or online office hours to ask questions, because I know that someone who’s having a lot of trouble may be a little nervous about doing that. So if I’m telling them to, hopefully they’ll use that as an opening to come on in.
I never want to put them at a greater disadvantage, so if they fail a test, I’m not going to give them fewer minutes on the next test. They need every minute they can get on my test. They’re writing until the last minute and I have to pull the test out of their hands.
Those are good skills for them to have when they graduate, too.
Absolutely. Or even when they leave school for the day and go to their jobs. Those are skills they need in their daily lives. They need to collaborate and be meta-cognitive and think, “How did I get to where I am right now and how do I get to where I want to be?”
So if I can take some small steps in getting them to move in that direction with Classcraft, then I consider that a major victory.