ChicagoQuest: Teaching with games in Chicago's Cabrini-Green

A middle school where board games, card games, Minecraft and Portal all make space for students to learn

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here are three different noise levels inside the average American middle school classroom. Working students ages of 12 to 14 can generate pin-drop quiet for only short periods of time. More frequently they're alive with animated conversation. Sometimes they're closer to freight-train-hitting-a-cowbell-factory loud.

In Luke Carman's classroom, late on a Tuesday a mere 26 days from the end of the school year, the 20-odd pupils have crossed the line between busy buzz and catastrophic freight derailment.

"Clap once, softly, if you can hear me," Carman whispers at the whiteboard. Six students clap.

"Clap twice, softly, if you can hear me," he whispers. Twelve students clap.

"Clap three times if you can hear me." The entire class claps. Focused. Ready to move on.

It's like watching a snake charmer, or a lion tamer. Carman has mastery over his audience.

But that's just best practice for this age group. That's doing your job, if you're a capable teacher. What's deeply fascinating about this algebra class is what brought his students to that threshold of noise in the first place.

It was the sound of students learning by playing a game.

Not a sophisticated game, mind you, just a simple game of war using playing cards to create random, negative numbers. But for 15 minutes, they got more repetitions solving arithmetic in their heads than some students will get in an entire week. And they liked it. Keeping score, competing against each other in small groups around the room. They really liked it; that's why they were so loud.

This is a day in the life of the students and teachers at Chicago International Charter Schools' ChicagoQuest, a games-based junior high school on Chicago's Near North Side.

This is what it's like to learn through play.

Human Angle: Making School a Game

Code Worlds

On the third floor, in the corner of the squat, square building that houses ChicagoQuest, is room 300. It looks traditional. There is a rigid metal teacher's desk tucked into a corner, surrounded by bookcases. The students face the whiteboard at the front of the room, a pair of chairs to each wide table.

Two things stand out. First, a cabinet filled with several dozen iPads at the back of the room, uncommon for an inner-city Chicago school. Second, a collage of small slips of construction paper taped high up on a wall near the door.

"Our Hopes And Dreams" says the slip at the top.

"My dream is to be a better writer," one says, scrawled in perfectly spaced capitals. Smiley face. "To be a good tennis player," says another. "I hope that I get better in math because I am not good in math." Winking face.

On the right side, though, is a yellow piece that reads, "I hope that each of my students feels/is excellent in at least one aspect of [class] this year." It's signed "Mr. Carman."

Near the front of the room, Carman ruffles a worn pile of playing cards. "The stack of cards has evolved over the course of the year," he says. They look like old tarot cards, darkened at the edges from handling. It's a curved, lumpy, dog-eared pile that leans a bit when he places it flat on his desk. "I probably had eight decks of cards that were sorted and organized. And it just so happened that I had two different activities ... today that both employed the use of the cards."


Luke Carman

ChicagoQuest is based on a curriculum model called "backward design." Teachers start with their goal in mind; students will learn how to add and subtract negative integers. They then work backward to define objectives for their students; students will learn how to use a number line, a graphical representation of positive and negative integers. Finally, they design activities to reach each objective; students will engage with negative integers by playing a competitive card game.

"The cards are incredibly useful because they're random number generators. ... We were generating integer expressions that kids had to solve using subtraction, and they were getting different sets of numbers every time."

But they were also keeping score, correcting each other while competing with each other. They didn't just solve their own equations; they solved their partners' equations as well. By playing the game, they were teaching each other.

"I kind of modified a couple of different versions that I saw in other curricula and online to the version that we created today," says Carman. "I riffed on other versions of the game that I'd seen. It is the first time that we've played war in class, but it was the right game for the learning that needed to happen today.

"I'm constantly drawing from every source that I can draw from."

Carman is 25 and slim. He has an intense gaze, and you can see he is careful to pick his words. It stands to reason, because he isn't just an algebra teacher. He's also an English teacher. His class, called Code Worlds, is a blend of mathematics and grammar. The goal is to develop students that are comfortable with systems and syntax. Ultimately, students will be taught another language entirely in the ChicagoQuest high school: programming language.

"I was not interested in taking a job out of college where I was only gonna be surrounded by people that looked like me. I wanted to be challenged on all facets."

Carman grew up in Rochester, N.Y. attending public schools. "I was sort of used to being in the minority as a white kid. That was very ... central to my identity as a child." His parents are Protestant ministers, very focused, he says, on social justice, politically involved and engaged with communities that are in need. Carman is similarly inclined, but his focus is much more secular. In college he studied sociology, and afterwards he realized that his mission was to teach.

"I was not interested in taking a job out of college ... where I was only gonna be surrounded by people that looked like me, and had had the same experiences that I had.

"Teaching was literally the most challenging job I could find out of college. So, I wanted to do something that was intellectually stimulating, socially stimulating, emotionally stimulating and hard. ... I wanted to be challenged on all facets.

"I was effectively sold on the idea that teaching was that kind of job. ... And beyond that, classrooms are really intellectual, sort of sociological sort of environments. ... How are kids interacting with each other? ... That's fascinating."

Earlier in the day, Carman used a card game for a sociological goal as well. In his Home Base class (a kind of home room-cum-study hall), he has had the same group of students for the past two years. They are a kind of family, a community within the larger community of the school. With so few days left in the year, he's assigned each day a letter. Today is the letter "B," and the Home Base class was playing a card game together: Bullshit, modified here to BS or "Baloney Sandwich."

That close to summer, it was hard for kids to focus. The weather was perfect outside, but they were trapped inside a small, dim room with bad circulation. Three of his students sat aloof in the corner, sad-faced and glum. But Carman dealt them in anyway.

Slowly over the course of the class period, as their peers began to laugh and have more and more fun, Carman played these three students' hands for them. The students began to creep closer and closer to the happy circle at the front of the room. They were engaged by the atmosphere of play. They were welcomed back into their little family, allowed space to rest, to emotionally refocus.

When the bell rang they were smiling.

The Projects

There are plenty of reasons for inner-city students to come to school out-of-sorts, not quite ready to spend the mental energy required to do the hard work of learning. What makes the scenario even harder at ChicagoQuest is that it's not a neighborhood school. Sure, many children that attend simply roll out of bed and walk down the street to class. Others commute for hours.


Nancy Nassr

Chicago has long been called a city of neighborhoods, a melting pot where each component part of the stew has retained its unique flavor and helped to make the overall culture of the city stronger. But that diversity plays out differently on the streets. There is no American city more segregated, no city more infamous for gang violence.

But the staff at ChicagoQuest thinks of the diversity of its student body as its greatest strength. This charter school draws in pupils from more than 50 of Chicago's 70-plus neighborhoods. And the teachers here work hard to make their building an oasis.

"Trying to engage kids," says faculty member Nancy Nassr, "and get them to see the benefit of being here can be very challenging if, when you go home, there isn't a parent, or the parent that is there is ... not being a parent.

"I've lost students in my years of teaching to gang violence," she says. There is a barely perceptible tremble to her voice. "It's hard. ... You have to wear so many hats as an educator. You have to be a social worker. You have to be a parent. You have to be an educator. And it doesn't boil down to just trying to get kids to learn the certain skills, but really truly about building relationships and trust with those kids so they can receive the information and really start to create."

Her class, called Being Space And Place, is a blend of social studies and English language arts. Her room feels warmer than others in the building; the ancient linoleum tiling is blanketed with brightly colored handprints. It is a safe place, where her students are allowed to take ownership of everything they can touch. The elegant red headscarf she wears matches the red in the Rage Against The Machine flag that hangs in her window, visible from the front of the school for the whole neighborhood to see.

Out past that window, just down Clybourn about three blocks, you can see an Apple Store, the anchor in a massive commercial development. There's a Whole Foods, a Land of Nod, two Starbucks and a Home Depot. All of these stores and restaurants are new, built up over the last decade or less.

"For a lot of people," Nassr says, "it's called the Near North, but to me as I've kind of understood the city, this is Cabrini-Green. And a lot of my students came from Cabrini-Green, and their families were raised there."


Chicago's Near North Side

In the late '90s and early 2000s, the city of Chicago decided to tear down the three high-rise housing projects that made up part of Cabrini-Green. Fifteen thousand residents were displaced, scattered throughout the city and the suburbs. After Cabrini-Green spent decades earning the infamous reputation as one of the most violent public housing projects in the U.S., the city wiped the slate clean and brought in commercial development and more mixed-income housing. There are still row houses here, where those in poverty live, it's just that the density has changed.

But Cabrini-Green was a neighborhood, like any other. It was a community, just like the smaller community of ChicagoQuest, an experimental charter school that came to this site only two years ago.

"When you talk to the residents there's a totally different experience," says Nassr. "I mean, they can acknowledge the drug use and they can acknowledge a lot of those things, but as with any community there was family ... there are friends and there's history. And to hear some of my students who watched as their buildings were torn down and who are sitting in this classroom.

"There are stories there. And I'm a really big believer that if you don't ... speak on your history that it can be forgotten.

"You can really be written out."

"Trying to engage kids and get them to see the benefit of being here can be very challenging. I've lost students in my years of teaching to gang violence,"

Each trimester at ChicagoQuest is divided up into what are called "missions." They have stages, or "quests," within them. A mission can last a few months, and each quest can last a week or two. Nassr's learning objective was to teach her students about unintended consequences, and, working through the backward design model, she sought to build a quest that would accomplish that goal.

"I'm not a gamer," Nassr says. "So, drawing upon the strengths of my co-workers and what they know about [games] ... I can bring them into my classroom."

That's when Nassr called upon the staff in the Mission Lab to help craft a class project. She made a game to model the Cabrini-Green housing projects, to teach her students about the unintended consequences of building them and then tearing them down.

Mission Lab

Grant Tumen and John Murphy sit facing each other. Their narrow room has large round tables at either end, a massive plotter (a poster-size printer) along one side and a shelf with neatly organized bins filled with plastic tokens on the other. One wall in the room is scrawled with dry erase notations, subdivided by color and category. The other is a bank of foggy windows.

There is no glass on the outside of the ChicagoQuest building, to protect it from vandalism. Just the silhouette of the Chicago skyline is visible through the murky, gray plastic panels. It is the suggestion of beauty, the details of which are withheld from everyone inside.

Their workspace is in the middle of the room. It's a clutter of audio cables, water bottles, Wacom tablets, Razor mice and mismatched bits from board games. Murphy is shuffling through a deck from a collectible card game, lost in music and concentration. Tumen is scratching out shapes on scraps of white paper, piling up stacks of red, blue and yellow chits within them.

Tumen and Murphy are academically trained game designers. In their spare time they tinker with the odd personal game project. After his workday is over, Murphy even spends as much as 40 extra hours a week building Octodad: Dadliest Catch. They are experts in programming, game theory and user interface. This is their domain: Mission Lab, the engine behind all of the unique game experiences that ChicagoQuest students will encounter in the school.


John Murphy

Supporting Tumen and Murphy is Billy Basso, an intern from a graduate program at DePaul University. He's got an iPad attached to his MacBook, punching code on the latter and testing results on the former. Also present is Lisa Armstrong, a part-time graphic designer, who is dropping images into a hex-based grid, adjusting the colors to match their neighbors.

Mission Lab is where Nancy Nassr came to build her game about unintended consequences, to build a game about Cabrini-Green.

Public housing, Nassr says, started out as a great idea, "but kind of resulted in all of these really catastrophic outcomes. Gang violence and [institutionalized] poverty and — and the list goes on, right? Mr. Tumen, who is the game designer who was working with me on that unit — we had kind of talked about developing this game. And it went through a gazillion iterations."

Much of what the designers in Mission Lab do is steal from other games and other systems. There's a card game about the Revolutionary War that's essentially a modified version of the card game Dominion; a game about epigenetics is little more than a zombie-themed version of the board game Pandemic and an iPad game about algebra borrows liberally from the match-three genre so popular in Apple's App Store. But the game that was made for Nassr's classes is wholly original, and everyone in Mission Lab is proud of it.

When Tumen lays the game out it looks simple, very abstract. Three 11-by-14 pages are taped together to form a long strip of paper. The short end says "SLIDE" and arrows point to a line of blocks. They run the length of the board in sets of 12, colored red, blue and green.

Each set of 12 colored blocks represents a high-rise building that used to stand in Cabrini-Green. One player on each side of a set can only control that set of blocks, representing the residents of each high-rise competing with each other for resources and attention from the Chicago Housing Authority and the federal government.


Tumen's board game about the unintended consequences of public housing

"It's a team of three versus a team of three," Tumen explains. "It's a six-player game, but each person on the team can only modify the line that's in front of them." On their turn, students can slide blocks down the line of the board. Those that fall off the board wrap around, Pac-Man-style, to re-enter the board on the other end. Or students can splice sections of their line with sections of their neighbor's lines.

This mixes the blues with the greens and the reds, which represents the mixture of services and funding that the residents of Cabrini-Green were able to wrestle from the city and from the feds. A cynical player might say it could also represent the gangs fighting for control of their turf, or the flow of the drug trafficking between the buildings. Nothing is made explicit for the player, however. They're just blocks.

"He re-skinned [the game] several times," Nassr says. "But when [students] finally got to play the game it was really cool to see. ... We didn't outright tell them that they were in teams. And so, it was really cool to see kids who kind of begin to strategize, either for themselves or for their team, or even kind of supporting the group in front of them."

Each player has a stack of cards, and each card has a sequence of colors on it. You score any time your section of the board has a set of blocks that matches your card. You can score at any moment, which keeps players engaged the entire time. When you've run out of cards, or "cycled your deck," as they say in board gaming, you've gotten everything you want from the abstract blocks on the board. You "win."

Perhaps the next iteration of the game will have plastic buildings as tokens. Perhaps Armstrong will design a fancier game board, or Basso will help to port the game over to iOS. Tumen and Murphy will file this prototype away in the library they're creating, and perhaps pull it out for another class, another topic. They will steal from themselves.

"We didn't outright tell the kids they were in teams. It was really cool to see them begin to strategize, either for themselves or for their team, or even supporting the group in front of them."

"It was hard, though," says Murphy, who collaborated with Tumen during both design and playtesting. "Trying to teach too much content through the game, because a game isn't really great at teaching content like facts. Games aren't great at ... putting facts into brains. ... Games are better at this ... deeper understanding of things."

Games pave a trail through young minds for a systemic understanding of the world. That understanding crystalizes deep inside the students. It sets the table for Nassr, and other teachers at ChicagoQuest, to build inferences, to paint knowledge onto a game's blank surfaces. Tumen and Murphy aren't teachers, but they enable learning in spaces that teachers can't reach.


Justin is not behaving in class.

"Justin, get on the ground," Don Labonte barks into the din of his blended science and math class, called The Way Things Work. "Get on the ground now. Right now."

Justin is floating perhaps 50 feet over Labonte, his legs flailing about in a mockery of more traditional modes of transportation. The entire class is busy working in a special educational version of Minecraft. The students have subdivided their "Superflat" world of endless smooth, green grass into 50 square by 50 square areas. Each of the six groups of students has a worksite, bounded by a low wall of colored blocks. But they're all in the same digital world, and Labonte is trying to keep them all on task.

The team inside the pale blue blocks is the furthest ahead of all the other students on the day's project, while Justin's team in the orange square is lagging behind.

What's remarkable is Labonte's presence, both in the meat-space of his classroom and the virtual space behind his computer screen. He is everywhere at once, barely raising his eyes from his own monitor to call a student by name and respond.


Don Labonte

Not 30 seconds go by during the 85-minute period that a student is not calling his name. "Mr. Labonte!" "Mr. Labonte!" Hands shoot up, linger, tire and eventually start to slump. Each question, wilting on the outstretched arm of a student, is an opportunity to teach, but also an opportunity to lose that student's attention, to allow them to drift away from the project at hand.

"It's a little exhausting," Labonte later relates. "Because in that space right there, we had about 40 kids, 45 kids, maybe?"

There was actually a whole other class, just down the hall, that was on the game's server as well. It's a lot of polygonal pupils to keep track of.

Labonte stops the class so that the pale blue group can show off their work, a model of the digestive system, on the projection at the front of the room. There are hollow legs that they've begun to fill in, a long empty torso and the outline of a head that's slightly too small for the scale of the model. That's easily fixed, though, and the more important work is being done by a student named Kane Aguilar, the pale blue team's "red stone" specialist. Using the in-game resource, he's wired a set of pistons up to chew food at the flip of a switch, food that will go into the mouth and down the throat thanks to a stream of virtual water dropped onto the tongue.

It's odd to hear a seventh-grader so casually use the term "epiglottis." But that's the next piece of the system he's building, now with pink blocks as he works down the throat.

"Old schools have drilled academia into them. What we're trying to do here is create spaces where kids can have fun, and kids can be curious, and kids can make mistakes."

"Not everyone is comfortable in that Minecraft space" says Labonte. "It's something that I've been using for the past two years, and these are students that I've had for the past two years, so they've been getting a little bit more used to the rules needed to exist in Minecraft peacefully." Apparently, "griefing," the practice of damaging another student's work, can be a problem.

"When they came in as sixth graders, this [learning] model was new," Labonte says. "The school was new, and just being able to see them progress through the model and progress through kind of the core values that we hold true here — it's been really neat. ... This seventh-grade class, I feel like, are the leaders of this school."

ChicagoQuest's sister school is in New York, and that school is a year ahead of Chicago. There are eighth-graders out East that have been learning with games, with technology like this, for just one extra year. They were the first to participate in a grand experiment, called Quest to Learn, and their stumbles have contributed to the smooth operation of ChicagoQuest.


Students in Labonte's 7th grade homeroom.

Behind ChicagoQuest there is a construction site where workers are putting up a new, larger building. Eventually, that site will become a high school and there will be two buildings here, carrying students from sixth grade all the way to 12th. Labonte and his fellow teachers are building the curriculum, and the culture, as they go.

"We're trying to get these kids to think outside of the box, be critical thinkers and these big idea thinkers. But, they're coming from ... old schools that have drilled this academia into them, almost taken the fun and curiosity out of learning. And what we're trying to do here is really put that back in and create spaces where kids can have fun, and kids can be curious, and kids can make mistakes."

Games don't necessarily always level the playing field. There is a skill set that students have to acquire before they feel comfortable in Minecraft, or Portal, or LittleBigPlanet or the other games that they will come into contact with at ChicagoQuest. But for a class with such a varied degree of reading ability, and mathematical ability, games can be a great equalizer.

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Games act as an entry point to high-level thinking, even for students who have trouble reading. And through the momentum gained by staying with their peers, by staying with the stories being told in the missions throughout the year, kids pick up the needed skills along the way, almost as if by osmosis.

There's no typing class here, nor is there one planned in the high school. It's just a skill these students will gain by being immersed in technology.

There are more important things to do in class than grinding away at keyboard skills. They're busy learning.

Planning period

It's the end of Luke Carman's day. He's seated in his empty classroom at his desk in a quiet corner of the building during what is called his planning period. It's time blocked off in his work schedule to prepare for his next day's classes.

The shades are drawn, the LCD projector is off and all the iPads are tucked away, filling themselves with electrons to power the next day's learning.

Three minutes ago he was deep in a curriculum meeting, seated at one of the round tables in Mission Lab with game designers Tumen and Murphy, a learning strategist (more traditionally, a special education teacher) and Patrick Hoover, the boss of Mission Lab and the liaison between the game designers and the faculty.

Hoover was digging into Carman's backward design, trying to put his finger on precisely what learning objectives the teacher was leading his class toward. Tumen and Murphy, meanwhile, were demoing a prototype they are nearly ready to playtest with volunteer students, a sort of Pokémon-flavored card game where teams would be hiring a staff for a pretend summer camp.

For Carman's students, the card game would be the culmination of their final mission of the year, and it needed to draw upon all the skills they had learned in his sixth-grade algebra/English class. It was an intense discussion, but everyone left the table feeling confident about the plan.

Now it is simply up to Carman to teach the game. To perform it.

"I'd be more interested in thinking about myself as a maker of a canvas for students to do work on."

"Teacher-as-artist is something that is communicated often," he says. "I think ... as a teacher, generally, I am a performer at all times. I am a writer at all times. I am constantly writing. I am thinking about my delivery. I'm reflecting on ... how my audience viewed my work.

"When thinking of myself as an artist, though, I'm not thinking about myself as producing something to be consumed by students.

"I'd be more interested in thinking about myself as a maker of a canvas for students to do work on."

It's a common theme among all the staff at ChicagoQuest that their greatest passion is making room for learning to happen.

For Don Labonte, there's a more immediate analogy to be found on his iPhone. "I have a game, probably like three or four games on my phone right now, that I just can't get past the level and I've stopped playing. I don't want kids to stop playing in my classroom. I want them to continue and be able to push through those bits of uncomfortableness, be able to strive through."

To Nancy Nassr, the medium is not necessarily the message, though. "I don't just want to use a game for the sake of a game. I don't want to use an iPad for the sake of an iPad. I want to use tools where they're appropriate and games are really great tools for teaching kids things if you're very intentional about what you want them to take out of it."

Some could look at ChicagoQuest and see it as frivolous, a waste of MacArthur Foundation grant money and a sinkhole for the sparse funds allocated by Chicago property tax dollars to the Chicago Public Schools system. Others see this model, this experiment, as the only way forward for modern learning.


Carman's room on the third floor of ChicagoQuest

For Carman, ChicagoQuest isn't the final answer to his personal mission.

"It's complicated for me, politically, I would say. ... Charter schools are not the be-all-end-all for me. I am very much a believer in public education, and what [traditional] public schools ... should be designed to do."

Chicago public schools are being shut down. Recently 50 were closed. More often than not, the district cites poor performance on standardized tests. Other times it's a simple matter of low attendance, with not enough students in the building to warrant its upkeep.

Teachers say it's an effort to decrease the power of their union in the city. Some parent organizations claim it's an excuse to force out poor families, that where public housing could not be torn down, the infrastructure that makes them livable is being repurposed.

Simultaneously, the number of privately run charter schools is on the rise in Chicago. Students and parents are caught in the middle. When a neighborhood school closes, they'll have to send their child a little further down the street to the next one, or perhaps make the hard choice to opt for a charter school across town. During our visit teachers expressed concern that ChicagoQuest would become a "receiving school."

The change this influx of new students could have on ChicagoQuest is hard to pin down. While nervous, the faculty believes that its model, its culture of play, will hold the school together. It believes that culture is a catalyst for change.

"We're trying to do something that nobody else is doing, and if that works it could take off and be applied in other places."

"I've done a lot of thinking about this," says Carman. "Because it was not an easy decision to apply and work at a charter school. I think what I've come down on is that, as I understand them, charter schools were originally designed to be places of experimentation. ... A place where you are innovating and testing things out. That, when they work, can be rolled out to a wide variety of public schools.

"Quest is one of the only charter schools I really know that's really trying to do that. We're trying to do something that nobody else is doing, and if that works it could take off and be applied in other places."

Games have changed the way that Carman teaches. They've changed the way his students learn. Right now ChicagoQuest is an island. The sea around it is filled with poverty, with gangs, with failing schools. Perhaps one day, thanks to Carman's work, and the work of Nassr, Labonte and the rest of the ChicagoQuest staff, more students will be asked to learn through games. But this middle school is one of many experiments being run at a new crop of charter schools throughout the city. Time will tell which wins out, and how Chicago schools are affected in the end. Babykayak

Video: Jimmy Shelton, Tom Connors
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone

Design / Layout: Matthew Sullivan, Warren Schultheis
Music: Robot Science