Every year the concept of gaming in the classroom gains more and more traction among educators, school boards, students, and parents. Using games, especially role-playing games, as teaching tools has proven incredibly successful.
Two high school teachers are making waves by implementing Dungeons & Dragons into their classrooms. Their new website, TeachingWithD&D, aims to be a one-stop resource for teachers and schools who want to get started using D&D and other role-playing games to promote reading comprehension and socio-emotional growth, and have fun doing it.
I spoke with Teaching With Dungeons & Dragons creators Sarah Roman and Kade Wells about their educational gaming experiences. Roman teaches 11th and 12th grade literature courses in New Jersey, while Wells teaches 9th graders in Houston, Texas.
Roman began experimenting with gamifying her classroom via ClassCraft. She ultimately found it too limiting, like a watered-down version of Dungeons & Dragons, and sought out the real thing.
“One of my friends from college put me in contact with Greg Tito [senior communications manager, Wizards of the Coast],” says Roman. “He was super kind and sent me a bunch of D&D books. After I began implementing them into my classroom and reaching out to other educators, he introduced me to Kade Wells, his go-to for classroom D&D. It was a match made in heaven.”
Wells entered education in his thirties and quickly saw the comparisons between classroom management and role-playing games. “It all sounded so familiar. I realized – I learned it all playing Dungeons & Dragons,” says Wells.
Wells presented his gamifying-in-the-classroom practices to the World Literary Conference in Austria in 2015, and also appeared on the official D&D podcast, hosted by Tito. “Dungeons & Dragons is the model by which all other games are built now,” says Wells. “When you look at how to deliver classroom instructions using these roleplaying theories, all the information is right there.”
Official support from Wizards of the Coast stems mainly from Tito. “Greg is a sweet guy and taken us on as a pet project, but it’s a lot of work for one person to do,” says Wells. “It’s frustrating.” Roman adds, “Wizards is supportive of what we’re doing. We’re essentially free agents promoting our own classroom system, but they’ve been super helpful.” Aside from providing some materials, Wizards has also given a quiet thumbs up to sharing the Player’s Handbook .PDF on Google Docs, so every student has access to the rules they need regardless of their economic background.
Teachers already have to purchase and create so many of their classroom supplies and materials. When gamifying the classroom, both Wells and Roman suggest getting creative and using the resources you have available. “I used an extra fire escape map of the school as a dungeon,” says Wells. “My students started at the entrance and had to get to my classroom, but there were zombies everywhere. Every time they encountered one, they had to answer a quiz question.”
Wells also turned 3D set-building into a cross-curricular activity. He gave cardboard packing pieces to the art teacher, who in turn had their students turn them into ruined buildings to use in Wells’ post-apocalyptic RPG. “Kids need visuals,” says Roman, who uses a combination of paper standees and old HeroScape tiles purchased from eBay. “They need to touch and hold things and see the maps. If there’s a dragon on the board, that dragon needs to tip over when it’s dead.”
Setting up big game board spaces also helps set the tone for the day, immediately putting the students in the right frame of mind when they walk in the door. “I have students who actively say to me that whether or not they like the game, they love to see the effort that I put in.”
More important than the right materials is the right attitude. Both educators stress that any hopeful teachers need to know their lesson plan before jumping in with a D&D-style campaign. ““If you don’t know what you’re trying to teach, this won’t work,” says Roman. “Fundamentally everything is still the same lesson plan, I just put a story around it. The story doesn’t magically create English class.”
The TeachingWithD&D website aims to give extensive examples of how to incorporate lesson plans and core curriculum into D&D campaigns designed for the classroom. For her British Lit class Roman has designed adventures based on Beowulf and the Canterbury Tales. “Teachers will be getting a lot of foundational things to start modeling,” says Roman. “We have been putting them out there as model text for educators who have been thinking about it but don’t where to start with lesson planning.”
Aside from reading and math skills, role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons also utilize teamwork and social skills. For his custom-built post-apocalyptic RPG, Wells has every student take a personality test to place them into one of four roles. “It helps them realize that they’re all really good at some things and bad at others. It’s the Ninja Turtles. You need a Michelangelo to break the tension, and you need a good Leonardo to manage the group.”
The results are students who see the strengths in one another and actively work with each other, even outside of the D&D sessions. “Since working together with teams in the game, they’re more inclined to help each other in standard school work,” says Roman. “The stuff you always hope for in collaborative groups, happens more organically.”
Playing D&D can also help bring kids out of their shells, allowing them to express themselves in new and unique ways within a comfortable, safe environment. Wells mentioned a particularly tricky student, a small, shy girl with a learning disability with whom English was not her first language. “She never spoke to anyone; I was lucky to get a ‘hello’ out of her.” Wells encouraged her to join his Dungeons & Dragons club. “She made a two-handed weapon fighter who wore full plate armor – the biggest, strongest character she could manufacture. Her character was a badass. All the other players would shout for her help, and you could see the pride in this child, watch the manifestation of her social evolution.”
Within a month another teacher came to Wells in awe, saying she had completely changed. Suddenly she was raising her hand, asking questions, and helping her group. Years later Wells continues to see the student around school, now a Junior, and his voice is full of pride. “It’s incredible to see what happens when you create an environment where they can be themselves, trust each other, and express their creative ideas. They become confident, and confidence is 90% of the battle in high school.”
With results like that, it’s easy to see how more schools and educators are embracing RPGs in the classroom. Dungeons & Dragons once had a nasty stigma attached to it, but those ignorance-as-fear days have largely evaporated for most parents and school boards, as many of them have now grown up playing D&D themselves. “I’ve had a couple parents from Parent Teacher Conferences who were excited,” says Roman. “One guy couldn’t even talk about his daughter’s progress because he was flipping through my D&D books!”
Regardless of how they may feel about RPGs and D&D, parents have been largely supportive. Their kids are coming home and talking excitedly about school for the first time. “I had one mom who told me she couldn’t get her son to shut up about what we were doing in class because of all the stuff with his character,” says Roman.
Their schools are also enjoying the positive results. “I teach kids with real problems – bad homes, serious issues,” says Wells. “The students come to my classroom and they’re happy to see me, happy to be there. I’ve minimized my referral rate down to almost zero. My students have the highest scores of any ninth graders in the district.”
Those kinds of results make a school stand up and take notice, though even mentioning D&D in more conservative areas could still prove an uphill battle. One of the goals of the website will be a source of reassuring, results-driven statistics and information that prospective teachers can show to their superintendents or administrators. “We’re building empathetic, social, literary goals that are intertwined,” says Roman. “I can’t say every school will be on board, but it’s been extremely positive.”
Game-based learning is the future of education, and Roman and Wells are part of the vanguard who are bridging the gaps. By pooling their knowledge and experience they hope to provide the necessary resources, and assurances, to everyone involved. To help support their work and become more involved, you can subscribe to the Teaching With D&D Patreon. “As an educator and someone who loves these things, I can’t stop thinking about how much value this will have when applied correctly,” says Roman.
“Everything revolves around a gaming environment,” says Wells. “If that’s something we can get into teacher’s classrooms all across America, kids are going to like going to school better, teachers are going to enjoy their job more and everyone would get smarter. If you can run your classroom properly using gaming strategies, it will change your life as a teacher.”