Students starting in sixth grade at Epic charter school in Oakland, California will begin their first step on a hero’s journey. Over the course of three years, students will tackle complex quests, earn points, level up to more difficult tasks up until the time they graduate eighth grade.
The school opens August 25 in the Fruitvale neighborhood, a tough part of town known for its high crime rate. It's part of the Education For Change charter management organization, which has seven other schools in the neighborhood. But Epic is different from its sister schools -- the whole school is one big game.
“You're always in the game at Epic,” said Michael Hatcher, the school’s principal. “There's never a point where the game is not being played. And that's what we love.”
The broad outline looks something like this: students are working to create their own definition of what it means to be a hero over three years of middle school. Those years are broken down into nine* trimesters, each with a different theme, and projects to complete related to those themes. The first trimester of every year will involve students examining man’s relationship to man. The second trimester will involve a challenge connected to man’s relationship to technology and the third trimester will be man’s relationship to nature.
For example, in the first trimester a student’s heroic journey might involve trying to help Winston Smith, a character from George Orwell’s famous novel 1984, stop media manipulation and people’s perceptions of reality. The second semester might involve saving history from the impacts of a time travel machine that has just been invented. And the third trimester could find students facing a world where nature runs unchecked by man or technology and kids must learn to survive.
In all of these narratives, students are the protagonists, working their way through tasks, challenges and projects to build standards-based skills. They’re working together to solve this big, complex problem, and at the same time they're learning the content and skill mandated by the state of California.
Epic isn't exactly the first school of its kind. Game-based schools are popping up all over the country, including Quest to Learn in New York and Chicago, and the Playmaker School in Los Angeles. And the idea of using games as the platform and structure for learning has been catching on in classrooms across the country (read more in MindShift's Guide to Games and Learning.) What makes Epic singular is that entering the school immediately puts students inside one big holistic game, a thread that follows them until they graduate, and it revolves around a crucial social and emotional element.
Hatcher created this particular construct for the school -- the hero's journey -- for a lot of reasons, but mostly as a means to get the kids from the neighborhood to see themselves differently.
“Students in adolescence start telling the story of themselves; who am I, what do I do, and there's this narrative out there that people tell them about who they are,” Hatcher said. In Oakland, often the expectation is that African American and Latino students won’t succeed. Epic educators are challenging that narrative by giving students the chance to become the superheroes of their community. Hatcher wants his students to feel they can control their lives despite the random violence happening in the neighborhoods where they live.
In sixth grade and in its first year, school life at Epic will look fairly traditional as students get used to a new system. Educators at the school are hoping to help kids build the skills they need to eventually direct their own learning as they progress through the school. They call it, “norming the space” -- helping students understand the new kind of school they’ve entered. As they demonstrate responsibility and emotional maturity, students will get badges. Teachers can create competitions for badges on the fly, to help correct behavior they think is going off course. For example, if there are interpersonal issues, a teacher might ask all the students to compete for a compassion badge. When they can prove they're ready for more independence, students will be “released” into a more flexible model in which no traditional classes exist.
In flex time, teachers create digital playlists of basic content that students can access any time to show that they're developing certain skills. Teachers will also create projects that ask students to connect what they've learned with cognitive skills like synthesizing, analysis and evaluation. Throughout this time teachers can pull small groups and students will be able to ask questions. In the vision put forward by Epic educators, a fully realized student will set and achieve goals she’s defined, move at her own pace and and be responsible for staying on task.
The students of Epic Charter School in Oakland:
“I know that sounds really idealistic,” said Epic teacher Reina Cabezas. “But that's where I want my kids to go. That's the vision I have as a teacher, that we're collaborators and that I don't have to pull you up to a group because you're growing into that self-directed person that is going to tell me, ‘I need help.’”
To create the sense of belonging that the Epic team feels is so crucial to a strong learning culture, students are grouped into “houses,” like in Harry Potter. Each student is on his or her own individual hero’s journey to finish middle school, but houses are integral to many of the games that are part of everything at the school. For example, houses might compete at lunch time over who can produce the least waste. Or, members of different houses might have to solve challenges focused on building their social and emotional skills, a core part of the curriculum.
A DAY AT EPIC
A typical day in sixth grade includes three blocks of time, 100 minutes in each block, dedicated to humanities, math/science, and engineering/design. The different houses rotate through those three blocks each day. During those chunks of time, some students could be working on computers to hone skills using programs like ST Math and Reading Plus, others might be immersed in a project to demonstrate their knowledge. The teacher will constantly be working with students in small groups or individually. During each block of time all students will have an opportunity to use technology to practice their skills, work independently and be either challenged or supported by their teacher.
“I think teachers are better at intervening with kids than tech,” Hatcher said. “So if the kid really needs help, the teacher's the person you want with him. If a kid really wants to be challenged, the teacher's the one to do it.” On the flip side, software programs can make practicing basic skills more convenient and efficient. Hatcher says the technology’s role is to plug knowledge gaps so students can spend time with teachers talking about big ideas.
As students work their way through projects in the different subject areas they’ll be earning points and badges to mark their learning. The assessment system at Epic is entirely based on the gaming concept of “leveling up,” or moving on to a more difficult task once the student is ready. Students don’t receive grades, they just move on to a more challenging concept when they’ve mastered something.
Throughout this process teachers are present to measure what students are learning against a rubric and help recognize if a child needs more support staying on task. Performance on individual skills will be transparent to students, teachers and parents alike, so a student’s progress shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone by the end of the year. And, instead of a report card, students will be asked to sit down with a teacher and a parent and explain what they’ve learned, where they excel and what needs more work.
BUILDING INTRINSIC MOTIVATION
One goal of Epic is to help students become self-directed, motivated learners. Most incoming students will be coming from traditional schools where they were told what to do and when. Epic’s teaching staff is expecting that it may be tough at the outset to help build up students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. They hope that through the continuous game play and competition, students will soon value their personal growth over any extrinsic motivator like badges or points.
“Children at this age often times don't really know what they want and what they like,” said Francis Abbatantuono, the school’s director of personalized learning. “At first they're going for this badge, they're going for their house to gain points, but eventually it becomes, ‘Oh, I really like reading.’” He compared it to his own experience as a young boy participating in library reading challenges. He was drawn to the challenge because he could win a prize for reading a set number of books, but at the end of the competition he’d learned he loved to read.
“It becomes part of who they are and then it doesn't really matter,” Abbatantuono said. “And they'll get the badge but they're not doing it for the badge anymore.” Hatcher sees this method of building motivation as an act of faith in students and their ability to be independent problem-solvers. “If we are very diligent about knowing who they are as people, and put challenges in front of them that they can solve autonomously, then it becomes intrinsic,” Hatcher said.
GUIDES ALONG THE WAY
A core part of the Epic model includes young teaching assistant figures called “guides” in the Epic nomenclature. Most of them come from the same neighborhoods as the kids and are paying special attention to students’ social and emotional growth, helping them stay on track academically and taking note of what’s going on at home. These staffers are almost like older siblings, supportive figures students that follow a group of students all they way from sixth grade through graduation.
“You have to make a goal,” Hatcher said. “You have to have somebody helping you keep track of your goal.” Guides will visit students’ homes, check in with families, bring teachers into the community, and generally look out for the well-being of the child. To help students set their own goals, Epic teachers have translated the Common Core standards into student friendly language and laid them out on a gameboard. From the outset students know exactly what they are responsible for mastering and can play their “game” the way they want.
“Why not tell them everything they're going to learn at the beginning of the year and as they learn it, they can check it off,” Hatcher said. “And then they can say, 'Later on we're going to be learning this.'” In his view there’s no reason to keep students in the dark about what’s on the horizon, and being transparent is a great way to give them ownership.
THE PERVASIVE GAME
One of the most interesting features about Epic, and the thing that really gets Hatcher and his colleagues excited, is the game they’ve baked into the school itself. “There is a game that is built into the school that you can choose to, or choose not to engage in,” Hatcher said. “It has to do with puzzles hidden in different places on campus.”
This game doesn’t serve an educational purpose, the Epic team just thinks it's really cool and they’re hoping it will get kids excited to come to school everyday. Students will start to discover that something doesn’t quite add up about Epic and will need to solve puzzles, investigate gaps in logic and maybe even build some tools in engineering class to help solve the mystery. Participation isn’t required, but kids who figure out the puzzle could graduate as “superheroes.”
The school building is cavernous, with lots of open space to facilitate exploration and collaboration within grades. Although Epic is trying to do away with the idea of grade levels, following more of a student-directed competency model, the building is divided into three hubs that roughly correlate to sixth, seventh and eighth grade. Each has its own maker space that students will use as part of their engineering and design classes, but also to create independent work, complete 3D printers and laser cutters.
The different class “houses” will even have their own Etsy stores where they can sell the products they’ve designed and made in the maker spaces. Houses can win points through games to spend at one another’s stores.
All of the novel elements about the school are built in to help students identify as designers, builders, creators -- not just consumers. Hatcher and his team have visited many other schools as they gathered ideas, and found that at affluent private schools, students didn’t just have better access to cutting edge technologies and progressive teaching tactics -- they were also given autonomy and respect.
"You go to other schools, the kids get to wander, do what they want, hang out, kick it, play, talk,” Hatcher said. “You come to a public school, and they're like, you need to sit in this quadrant of this sector for five minutes and if you don't you get in trouble.”
He wants Epic to be a place where students know they are trusted to make decisions about things big and small, partners in the learning experience.
*An original version of this story stated Epic has 12 trimesters. There are only nine. We regret the error.
-- With reporting by Tina Barseghian; images by Amanda Lucier for MindShift.
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