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At Quest to Learn, large support staff fuels gaming curriculum

Before quizzing his middle school students on the features of the Neolithic Revolution, C. Ross Flatt had them play handmade board games about it. Acting as leaders of a budding civilization, the students managed a flash-card supply of food, settlements and other key resources, and built an army to protect their territory — marked on a laminated map — from invaders.

Then, rather than ask them what struggles they think Neolithic societies faced, Flatt had them describe the scenarios that tripped them up during the game.

“Did you ever get in trouble during the play of game and realize you didn’t have a stable food supply?” he asked. One student said he experienced a drought, while another said a cold snap not only depleted her resources but left her open to raids from other starving players.

For Flatt, one of a dozen teachers at Quest to Learn, a Chelsea middle school, these game-centered classroom exchanges are routine. But they are also the result of behind-the-scenes tinkering from a fleet of non-teaching, in-house curriculum specialists.

I visited Quest to Learn, which is in its third year of operation, after touring its sister school, ChicagoQuest, during a conference about digital learning earlier this fall. I wanted to see how the model developed by the Institute of Play, a nonprofit that works on game research and development, looked here in New York City.

What I saw was that Quest to Learn is flooded with specialists, whom the school calls learning strategists and game designers, at a time when one trend in school management is to devote as much funding as possible to teaching salaries, even if it means scaling back on support staff. The specialists are helping the school pioneer a multi-tiered curriculum development approach that tailors technology and hands-on, multi-player games to individual classroom teachers.

The approach has yielded mixed results so far. Last year, the school got a B on its first-ever city progress report. But it is also providing a rare alternative for middle school students who learn best when they are learning independently and doing hands-on projects, according to Arana Shapiro, the school’s co-director.

“We don’t think the test scores are the be all and end all of what’s happening at the school,” she said. “We measure things like systems thinking, digital media tool use, social and emotional learning, collaborative skills, teamwork.”

In place of traditional class subjects like pre-algebra or English, Quest to Learn classes have names like “Being, Space and Place,” and “Sports of the Mind.” Assignments are called “quests,” and they add up to a completed “mission” at the end of each 10-week-long trimester.

In Lencey Nuñez’s eighth-grade science class, “The Way Things Work,” on a recent morning, students were working in small teams to map the topography of various cities using the computer game SimCity.

Eliza Spang, a learning strategist, said the project is building off a trimester-long unit on geology that began early this fall, when students played a scavenger hunt game on 18th Street outside the school, and later another board game.

But planning for the unit began in the late summer, when Spang met with Nuñez and Shula Ponet, a game designer, to outline the fall trimester’s “mission”—in other words, the final project that the classrooms lessons and assignments would build up to. From there they worked backwards to imagine what lessons to teach and how to integrate gaming into them. They met weekly, first to design the games and then to play them with each other and with eighth-grade students.

“They give us feedback on what worked, what didn’t work, what we’d change,” she said. “We have teacher feedback and student voice to create a game that is engaging to students. Teachers are super creative, but game designers bring a different view of the world.”

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