Of G.I. Joes and D&D

At the school where I work, students are required to end each quarter with a speech that reflects on their learning that quarter. But during a recent School Congress, the students proposed and passed a new law stating that one staff member had to give a speech reflecting on the quarter as well. And I drew the short straw. So, here is the speech I made a few nights ago in front of my students, their parent(s)/guardian(s), and some of the other staff members. I hope you enjoy it.

When I was a kid, I played a lot of G.I. Joes. For those of you who might not know, G.I. Joes were 3-inch tall action figures made from die-cast metal. Each figure had a name, a personality (detailed on the back of each box), and some kind of weapon or accessory. The conceit was that the G.I. Joes were a special service in the American military, kind of like Navy SEALs or Army Rangers, but these guys were the elite of the elite. Their task was to defend the world against COBRA, a terrorist organization whose goal was to wrap around the entire world like a giant cobra.

Unlike most action figures at the time, which could (at most) move their arms at the shoulders and their legs at the waist, G.I. Joe action figures had joints in their necks, shoulders, elbows, wrists, waist, knees, and ankles, which meant you could pose them in almost any position you wanted. Not only were these elite soldiers, but they were also elite action figures!

Now, the way I used to “play” G.I. Joes was with a couple of my friends, Eric Goodwin (who I lost touch with back in middle school) and Adam Champion (who is still my best friend today). We’d usually spend at least an hour “setting up” the game, which meant figuring out exactly what the scenario was that day (maybe there was a kidnapping, maybe there was going to be an assasination attempt on a G.I. leader, maybe there was a raid on COBRA’s headquarters, whatever). We’d then take each of the action figures (which probably numbered close to 50) and themir assorted vehicles (which probably numbered more than a dozen) and place them around my bedroom or backyard, all in prepartion for the scenario.

This was the best part of the process, because we’d spend so much time trying to figure out where each character was, what they were doing, why there were doing it, and what they’d do once the action began.

Then, once everything was set up, we’d put the scenario into action. And about five or six minutes later, we were done. One hour of “set up.” Five minutes of “action.”

And that was how we played G.I. Joes.

Fast forward about a dozen or so years, and see me sitting in my boxer shorts at my computer in my tiny little home office, a window fan blowing on me, music playing from my little speakers, sweat pouring down my face and back. My wife is asleep upstairs. It’s about three in the morning in the middle of August, and there’s no relief, not from the heat, nor from the deadline for my creative thesis for graduate school.

And what am I typing away at so furiously? An anti-novel, a 360-page “set up” for a novel, but not a novel itself. I’m developing characters, giving them motivations, placing them in intriguing, highly-detailed settings, and surrounding them with a larger story having to do with the secession of Vermont from the United States.

But what am I not doing? I’m not writing the actual story of the secession. I’m hinting at it, imagining repercussions from its various stages, and predicting outcomes, but I’m not giving the reader any of that stuff. Instead, I’m spending hundreds of hours — HUNDREDS of hours — “setting up” a story, without giving any time to making the story “play out” for the reader. This is what I mean by an anti-novel: it’s all book, no story.

Fast forward again, to April of this year, when several students needed a staff member to play Dungeons & Dragons with them, and try to feel my excitement at the prospect of finally taking the time to play this really dorky game that I’d heard so much about but never had the wherewithal to actually play.

Now, for those of you who don’t know, Dungeons & Dragons is this kind of weird game where each player creates his or her own character by choosing a race (such as elves, gnomes, humans, halflings, etc.), and then giving it a class (such as wizard, fighter, bard, cleric, etc.). That character then becomes an “adventurer,” and gathered together with the other players, you all set out on some kind of quest.

The quest is run by the Dungeon Master, also known as the DM. The DM acts as the narrator for the quest. The DM also plays the roles of all the non-player characters in the story: from the innkeeper in the out-of-the way traveler’s lodge who can point the adventurers in the right direction or the evil wizard who is trying to open the magical gate that will set some hellish monster free.

So, this quarter, I got to play this game, Dungeons & Dragons, with Brandon, Damian, Dan, and Codi. We found a bunch of quests online that we could play, we printed them up, and then we got down to it. I was the Dungeon Master for our first quest, and I loved it. I was able to flex my fiction writing muscles a little bit as the students moved through the quest, making up descriptions and sound effects for all the various stages of the adventure. Unfortunately, all the characters got killed before they could finish the quest.

For our next quest, Dan took over as DM, and I created a character to join the others, a little gnomic bard named Wrenn Timbers. Over the next six weeks or so, our little band of adventurers completed two different quests, and with each success, our powers and abilities got stronger and stronger.

But now we’re at the end of the quarter, and our twice-weekly D&D game is going away (at least for a little while), and that makes me feel a little down. But our experiences this quarter have inspired me to try to build my own quest from scratch, and hopefully sometime this summer, our little band of adventurers will gather together once more to venture out into the wild to try to conquer the forces of evil.

What I love about Dungeons & Dragons is that, just like my G.I. Joes and just like the anti-novel I loved writing for graduate school, the process is all about setting up the scenario. It’s up to the DM to develop the world, create a series of potential plots, and put the various encounters in place, but then the DM takes step back and the characters take over.

The reason I’m talking about this though is because what I learned this quarter — or rather, what I was reminded of — is how important it is for me — how vital it is for me — to use my imagination in an active and creative way each day.

I mean, yes, I am an advisor here at LiHigh School, and I absolutely love my job, but in my heart, the thing I like to do most, the thing that makes me me, is to create wild and imaginative scenarios and then see how they play out. That might mean writing a fiction story, or designing a quest for D&D, or creating some kind of wild, school-based scenario where students can participate in a democratic system that gives them complete control of their own education — but whatever it is, it’s what I love to do, it’s what makes me me. And I want to thank Brandon, Codi, Damian, and Dan for helping me to remember that.

Thank you.

Don’t Be Scared of Bernie

In an email exchange with a few of my friends today about Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign to become our next president, one of my friends asked, “Am I crazy in being worried that his presence opens the door for one of these crazy ass Republicans to become president?…Sanders is extreme enough to rally the conservative base and actually push one of these losers to the forefront.”

Another of my friends chimed in, “I’m with you…I could see some fringe Republican wacko beating Sanders. It would be the battle of the extremists and Sanders could lose…I guess the only question is if Sanders can become a mainstream candidate, but that seems unlikely.”

I suspect there are many Democrat-leaning individuals in the electorate who feel the same way as my friends, so as a hard-core liberal living in the great state of Vermont, I’ll do my best to explain why those of you who agree with Bernie on most (if not all) of the issues don’t need to be afraid that his victory in the Democratic primaries might only result in a Republican wacko winning the White House in the general election.

First, as Juan Cole wrote recently for Informed Comment, “Sanders’s positions are quite mainstream from the point of view of the stances of the American public in general.” Cole backs that up with some recent Gallup polling data that shows 63% of Americans say that the distribution of money and wealth in the U.S. is unfair and 52% favor heavy taxes on the rich as a fix for that. Since this will be Bernie’s primary issue in the election, it’s safe to say his stance is mainstream.

Cole continues to go down the list, showing how Bernie’s positions on campaign-finance reform, the student-debt crisis, and climate change line up with the vast majority of Americans.

But we all know that it’s not what a candidate stands for that gets him or her elected. What gets candidates elected is money. And if Bernie is going to take on the millionaires and billionaires with such fervor, then all of that money is going to flow to whomever it is that opposes him.

Thankfully, Bernie has some experience with this. In 2006, Congressman Sanders decided he wanted to become Senator Sanders, and he ran for the open seat. His Republican opponent was a man named Richard Tarrant. Along with being a former fourth-round draft pick of my beloved Boston Celtics (he was cut before the first game of the 1965 season), Tarrant cofounded IDX Systems, a healthcare technology company in South Burlington, Vermont, that he would later sell to GE for $1.2 billion. Though he announced his candidacy a few months before the sale, Tarrant was already one of the wealthiest individuals in the state, contributing $7 million to his own campaign.

The 2006 election would become the most expensive in Vermont history, with the candidates spending over $13 million to become the next Senator to represent our tiny state. In a report that NBC News put together after the election that calculated the cost per vote each candidate received across the country, Tarrant spent, nationally, the most money per vote of any candidate, a whopping $85 per vote; Bernie, on the other hand, spent $34 per vote. And the result? Bernie defeated him by 33 percentage points.

Now, $13 million is nothing compared to the $889 million the Koch Brothers have already budgeted for the 2016 election, so let’s not kid ourselves in thinking that Bernie has any real experience with combatting such a well-funded machine. But it’s important to note the success against Tarrant, and his original success at winning the position of Burlington’s mayor, because what those victories show is Bernie’s fortitude, his unflinching commitment to fighting hard for what he thinks is right.

You also have to realize just how angry people are right now. They’re angry in Kansas. They’re angry in Texas. And they’re angry in Iowa and New Hampshire.

And who are they angry at? They’re angry at the establishment. They’re angry at Congress. They’re angry at Obama (and for those who aren’t angry at him, they’re at least disappointed in him). They’re angry at Wall Street. They’re angry at CNN, FOX, and NBC. They’re angry at Time Warner and Comcast. Angry at AT&T and Verizon. Angry at Chase Bank and Wells Fargo. At Monsanto and Starbucks. At Hollywood and New York. At the Texas State School Board and ExxonMobile. People are friggin’ angry.

You know who else is angry? Sen. Bernie Sanders. And he’s not afraid to express it. Just listen to him tell some anti-Israeli hecklers at a town hall meeting in Vermont last summer to shut up. The guy simply doesn’t care about the spit and polish and general showmanship that everyone expects in their politicians. And that anger and that authenticity are going to resonate with a wide swath of the electorate, Democrat and Republican.

So, to sum up: he’s got mainstream stances, knows how to beat better funded candidates, and has the character and attitude to attract votes from both sides of the aisle. Which means that unless your name is Hillary or you’re one of the 32,000 Republican Wackos running for president next year, there’s simply no reason for you to be scared of Bernie.

Meet Wrenn Timbers

This quarter at the school where I teach, I’m participating in a Dungeons & Dragons “class,” where the students and I are creating adventurers and embarking on quests using the Dungeons & Dragons rule-set (5th edition).

If you don’t know Dungeons & Dragons, it is a role-playing game where the players use their imagination to succeed in encounters with various creatures, some friendly and some not. It involves a lot of dice-rolling to determine the success of certain actions, but it also involves a lot of conversation about what to do next, since the game doesn’t necessarily tell you what you should do at any given moment. The educational goals of the class are for the students to develop their communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills, as well as practice their writing and storytelling skills.

It’s that latter goal I’d like to discuss now. One of the ways the students are supposed to be working on their writing skills is by putting together an introduction to the adventurers they’ve created. Thus far, I’ve been less than successful in getting them to actually do that, and so I thought I’d write one for the character I  created to provide them with a model of what I’m looking for.

And so, without further adieu, I’d like to introduce you to Wrenn Timbers.

Standing three feet, ten inches tall, weighing in at thirty-six pounds, and having dark, wispy hair and neatly kept beard, Wrenn Timbers is a rock gnome who grew up in a small community on the coast of the Shining Sea. As a young gnome, Wrenn had a natural talent for acrobatics and performance, charming friends and family during community festivals and fairs.

When Wrenn was in his adolescent years, an elvish entertainer, the famous Peren the Bard, visited Wrenn’s village during a tour of the seacoast. Peren put on a wonderful performance, playing songs on his lute, telling tales of greater Faerûn, and demonstrating his mastery of the Weave through magical tunes and inspiring songs. Young Wrenn was captivated, and that evening, after a serious discussion with Wrenn’s father, the elf agreed to take on Wrenn as an apprentice, and the next day, the young gnome left his family and community behind to discover the magic hidden in the music of the bards.

Years have passed, and Wrenn has risen from an apprentice to a first-level bard. He is a gifted storyteller, instrumentalist, and singer, and his songs inspire his allies to dig deep within themselves to discover their strength when they need it most.

Peren has taught him the beginning elements of arcane magic, which allows Wrenn to pluck directly at the strands of the Weave to create magical effects. For example, Wrenn has memorized the simple spell, True Strike, to gain insight into his target’s defenses and then use that insight to gain advantage on his next attack. He has also memorized Vicious Mockery, which plays on his gift of words to unleash a string of insults laced with subtle enchantments and deal acute psychic damage to his opponents.

But more than a simple conjurer, Wrenn has also learned a few slightly more complex spells, giving him the ability to Cure Wounds for his allies, Detect Magic whenever it’s present, and sing a discordant barrage of Dissonant Whispers that wrack his opponents with terrible pain and send them running. Wrenn can also evoke a Thunderwave that sweeps out from him in a 15-foot cube, emitting a thunderous boom and slamming everything in its range.

Of course, as a rock gnome, he has the special cunning that is unique to his race, which helps him defend against any magical spells that attempt to attack his intelligence, wisdom, or charisma. He also has the special knowledge that every rock gnome learns as a child, giving him twice as much proficiency as anyone else when it comes to the history of magical items, alchemical objects, and technical devices. And as a rock gnome, he is a master tinker, capable of using his artisan’s tools to construct tiny clockwork devices that can serve as distractions in battle, expendable explorers of mysterious places, or miniature flamethrowers capable of lighting a candle, torch, or campfire.

When it comes to a more traditional style of fighting, Wrenn has a master’s finesse with his rapier, his dagger, and his throwing darts. He might be a little fighter, but when he cuts, he cuts deep and quick.

As an individual, the thing that most stands out about Wrenn is that he always gives credit when it is due. He is not shy about letting his compatriots know that he believes in them, and he is always supportive and complimentary of their efforts. He feels that the best thing he can possibly do in any situation is to use his magic and skills to aid and inspire his allies. Unfortunately, he is also charmed by bright and shiny stones, and he sometimes struggles to make the right decision when gems are involved.

Wrenn Timbers is still a young gnome and he’s just getting started on his way to mastering the way of the bard. His immediate goal is to become a jack-of-all-trades, which means he becomes slightly proficient in every skill in the game. He’s also learning a special Song of Rest, a soothing song that has the magical ability to revitalize any wounded allies during a short rest.

In the long-term, he’s beginning to think about participating in one of the Bard Colleges, which is a loose association of bards who gather periodically to share their learning and preserve their traditions. There is the College of Lore, whose alumni know something about most things and whose loyalty lies in the pursuit of beauty and truth, power and authority be damned. His other option is the College of Valor, whose alumni gather in mead halls to sing the songs of the mighty and inspire others, as well as themselves, to reach the same heights.

Regardless of his path, Wrenn stands, lute in hand and rapier by his side, ready for adventure.

A Heckuva Way To Spend Your Days

Sometime in October, I read an article entitled, “How Students Lead the Learning Experience at Democratic Schools,” which introduced me to the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts. At first glance, the Sudbury Valley School sounded similar to the independent school where I work, meaning we each have no tests, no grades, and a deep belief in the idea that if a person isn’t intrinsically interested in something, then that person won’t be able to learn it in any meaningful way. But that’s where the similarities stopped.

Because while my school doesn’t have tests or grades, we do have assigned homework, compulsory classes, grade level expectations, required exhibitions, and narrative evaluations. Sudbury Valley, on the other hand, doesn’t have any of that. Instead, they have…well…democracy.

(A quick caveat: I have yet to visit the Sudbury Valley School. I have, however, read several books and essays about the school, and so while I don’t have any personal experience to draw from, I do have plenty of book lernin. Fair nuff? Good.)

It all starts with the School Meeting. Every student (and at Sudbury, students range from four years old to nineteen years old) has a vote in the School Meeting, as does every staff member (who are far outnumbered by the students). This means that, when it comes to the School Meeting, a four-year-old child has just as much power to decide as a staff member.

And everything is decided at the School Meeting. It creates all the rules for the school, manages the budget (including the hiring and firing of staff members), negotiates contracts with outside vendors, and more.

But here’s the kicker: except for those things explicitly discussed, voted on, and enshrined in the school handbook, there are no other rules at the Sudbury Valley School. And if you peruse the handbook, you won’t find anything about having to take math, science, English, social studies, or anything else. In fact, you won’t find anything about academics whatsoever.

Which means at the Sudbury Valley School, if you want to go to school and just play video games, you are completely free to do so; if you want to focus all of your time on playing music, you are free to do so; if you want to build an entire metropolis out of LEGOS, or go out and explore nature, or bake cookies, or read science fiction until your eyes bleed, or sit on a couch with your friends talking about whatever, or build a tree fort, or play basketball, or hike through town to the pizza shop, or go fishing…well, you are completely free to do so.

And of course, if you want to learn math, science, English, or social studies, you are also completely free to do so.

Because at Sudbury Valley, school is not something you do; it’s the place where you are. It’s the idea of the school as a village, where young people come to practice and participate in real life.

In the adult world, our time is our own. It might not feel that way, with bills, relationships, families, and work (not to mention jury duty), but (excluding the cogent arguments of Marxism and the three waves of Feminism) we choose to live the lives we lead, and hence, we choose to take on the obligations required to support that life. In the adult world, if our time is not our own, it is because we have given it away.

The same goes for life at Sudbury Valley. When the students come to school each morning, they know that their time is their own, and it’s up to them to choose what to do with it (excluding jury duty, which exists at Sudbury Valley in the form of their Judicial Committee, a student-run group tasked with enforcing all of the school’s rules).

Both Sudbury Valley and my school believe that learning is a function of interest: if a person isn’t interested in a given topic or skill, then they probably won’t learn that topic or skill, no matter how hard or how often you drill it into them. The difference between our schools (at the moment) is that Sudbury Valley then builds their entire model without compromising that belief to the needs and desires of the outside world (including the students’ parents), which is a pretty radical decision.

My school, on the other hand, tries to negotiate a middle ground that will express our core belief while also satisfying the requirements for Vermont’s independent schools, the desires of the local supervisory union, the requests of parents, and what the staff members perceive as the academic needs of the specific students currently enrolled in our school.

But over the past few months, it’s become clear to me and my colleagues that we have strayed too far away from our core belief and that we are in danger of becoming a slightly more relaxed version of a traditional public school.

Thankfully, I work with some incredible and brave educators who have a real desire to constantly evaluate and improve the internal workings of our school, and over the last several weeks, we’ve been engaged in a serious (and sometimes contentious) debate about how to proceed.

Even more thankfully, while I’ve been greatly inspired by what I found at Sudbury Valley (not to mention my experiences with the progressive programs at Green Mountain College and Goddard College), my colleagues have come to the table with vast knowledge and experiences of their own, discussing models and educators who have inspired and excited them.

All of this conversation has led us to start making some important changes at the school. For example, we’ll no longer have compulsory classes (excluding Vermont History, Math, and Health, because those are required by the State), and students will now be given even more  freedom to choose how they spend their time. We’ll still retain learning plan meetings with parents, grade level expectations, public exhibitions, and narrative evaluations (i.e., our various modes of assessment), but it will be up to the students to decide how they want to satisfy those requirements.

Second, we’ve empowered the students to take real control of the school through a School Congress and Judicial Committee. This change has already been instituted and the students are currently in the process of developing the first set of rules for their handbook (the first proposal laid on the table was “No dying”). Personally, this is where I think the majority of their education is going to happen, and I’m incredibly excited to participate in and be witness to it.

I suspect there are other changes on the horizon as well, but if we do our jobs correctly, most of those changes will not be coming from me or my colleagues, but from the students.

That’s what’s so inspiring about the idea of a democratic school. It empowers the students to take real control of their lives, and in the process, gives them real practice as they strive to become successful individuals. It will be scary at times, especially for us adults, but it will be incredibly powerful for these kids.

All of which is to say…man, do I love my job.