Adventures at the Linden School: Learning about Get Water! from a grade six perspective

Article and image by Renee Jackson.

I recently had the great fortune to return to an incredible school in Toronto, where I taught visual art seven years ago, this time as a researcher for Decode Global! I spent three weeks at The Linden School, a small, all girls school, spanning grades one through twelve, with a feminist mandate. Here, the teachers go by their first names, and the girls learn from a young age that their voice and ideas are important. The school produces a culture that is particular to it. Manifestations of this culture or attitude are often referred to as being “so Linden” or as “the Linden way”.

Though I already knew about this from the three years I taught at the school, the evidence that it remains true looked me right in the face from the first day. As I sat in the small library beside the office of Mary Ladky, the principal, I overheard a group of high school girls very seriously discussing the ways in which Miley Cyrus’s version of feminism makes them uncomfortable. They recognized the inherent contradiction between the bravery it takes to be who you are despite societal pressures, and the illusion that Cyrus’s explicitly sexual antics are acts of bravery. They spent a lot of time discussing the complexity of the issue, and voiced several times the anger they felt towards the fact that she was behaving like a “sexual object”. This is so Linden, and I found it so refreshing to hear such conversations in a high school context!

Later the same day, I was fortunate enough to join the school for a visit with Yann Martel, the author of The Life of Pi. What stood out most about this event, besides Martel’s calm, soft spoken demeanor, and his ability to pull the audience right into his thoughts without requiring any showmanship, was certainly the number of thoughtful questions from the audience, coming from girls of all ages… Was it difficult to separate yourself from the book enough for it to become a screen play in the hands of someone else? I know from reading your notes that you really went to India. How influential was this trip over the writing of the book? Were there parts of the book you would have liked to have seen in the movie?… and on it went…

Besides being as impressed as ever with The Linden School girls, I was also very happy to be reunited with the incredible friends and colleagues still working at the school since the time I was there. The heart of the school continues to beat strong as a result of these highly committed teachers, who understand the Linden way on such a deep level that they have become Linden, in human form, and are able to nourish a school ecosystem able to produce the types of conversations and questions I was repeatedly privy to. I also very much enjoyed conversations with the newer teachers who bring a diversity of perspectives, and with whom I had incredibly engaging and enthusiastic conversations. The art teacher Eric and I in fact so much enjoyed talking about visual arts and video games that we couldn’t stop, our postures slowly shriveling from a standing position, to slow-sliding down the wall to the ground where we basically set up camp for an hour or so of conversation.

But anyway, moving on to the most interesting stuff, and to the REAL reason why I was at The Linden School… to learn from the grade 6 class about their take on the video game Get Water!, and to hear their thoughts about games for social change, and more generally about their relationship with technology. As you know, Maya is around the same age as these girls, so who better to turn to for some thoughts about Maya’s life and world. There are eleven girls in the grade six class. The small class sizes at Linden makes it possible to really get to know them.

What struck me immediately about this group was their quirky collective character, and their intellectual sharpness. What also struck me is that, contrary to what I have read about girls and certain stereotypes, this group of girls did not shy away from talking about gross things, like sticking pins in the dead skin of a callous to freak people out, nor do they shy away from the darker, slightly morose side of things, for example involving death and destruction in some of the computer programs they were designing in computers class…all of this in good fun mind you! Their teacher, Beth, consistently brings a playful edge to learning as well, enabling such a space where girls can feel comfortable exploring and expressing aspects of themselves that do not fit into gender stereotypes.

For example, she provided a math problem about fractions involving cats in a bird eating contest! The entire class participated in the finer details of the crafting of the problem by naming the cats, including my favourite name choice, Frank Zappa, whom one of the students said was the name her father gave their cat. Beth wasn’t surprised, knowing the father. I was happy to know that The Linden School community is such that a teacher can know parents well enough to not be surprised by a cat named Frank Zappa!

I spent some time with the group discussing the importance of anonymity in research. In order to accomplish this they came up with interesting aliases (any text in bold italics represents an alias), and they have also created crazy-paperdoll-avatar-collage-portraits, or what we refer to as PaperAvatars for short, to stand in as representations of themselves in the absence of photographs.

Before moving on to a snapshot of the many things I have learned from the girls, I would like to introduce them. Below you will see a portrait of them all together in their classroom. Their names are floating close to their heads to help distinguish them from the crowd! They have also shared some bits of information about their interests, which may make them identifiable to the people they know well, though they are anonymous in terms of not being identified directly by name or image.

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Introducing the grade six class at The Linden School:

Hi, my name is SheDragonRage. I like Minecraft and playing violin. My avatar is purple because I love the colour purple, it’s a mix of the most common favourite colours, red and blue.

Hi, my name is Little_Planto. I like running and plants and reading novels. The flowers on my avatar and the moss represent my love of plants. The pasta bowl represents my love of food too.

Hi, my name is Sarcasmfries. I am sarcastic and I like eating French fries. My favourite sports are basketball and handball. I used a tiger head because tigers are mean and I must admit that I’m one of the meanest people I know. I used our galaxy (in my collage) because I love learning about space.

Hi, my name is 1313wishes. I like science and love to eat mangoes. I like to write stories and draw.

Hi, my name is Sparklingmangoes and I like to do a lot of sports. My two favourite sports are soccer and hand-ball. I also like dance. I do dance for two hours every week. My sweater (on my avatar) is sparkly because I do really like sparkles… That’s why I made my name Sparklingmangoes. Anyway, byeeeee ♥

Hi, my name is Vicious Peacock. I like to paint and draw. I really want to play the harp and hopefully will get to in the fall. My favourite animal is a peacock (hence the name). The pattern (I used on my avatar) is flowers. I am always growing with knowledge just like a blossoming flower.

My name is HumbleHobert. In my spare time I like improv and baking. I am a very energetic person. I like talking and moving really fast. I chose the colourful hat (for my avatar) because it’s pretty and interesting. I chose the short skirt because that is what I wear a lot. I suppose you want to hear about my iPad also – I mostly go on instagram, youtube, and netflix. So yeah.

Hi, my name is Chakram_0o0. I enjoy playing Minecraft and Terraria I chose to make my alias like a minecraft character because there was nothing else that inspired me.

Hi, my name is Evil Carl-Charlie the Zombie Unicorn-Lama. I like playing violin and I like sleeping in and procrastinating. I picked the turtle because I am slow. I picked the dog because I have two dogs named Teddy and Gryffin.

Hi, my name is Food&Fun, and I love food! I put the camera on my avatar because I love to take pictures. I put the baseball glove because I play baseball. I play on two teams and I am number 12. I play 2nd base, and sometimes pitcher. I also love the Toronto Blue Jays, my favourite player is number 26, Adam Lind. So that’s me! Bye!

Hi, my name is Flipped283. I like gymnastics, skiing and climbing. I put a cheetah tail (on my avatar) because I love speed.

The first day that Beth introduced me, I explained that we would be playing a video game, but that I wouldn’t be telling them anything about the game prior to them playing it. I asked them why this would be, and one response that came quickly was that this could cause bias! I was very impressed with the use of the word bias. They understood right away that I didn’t want to influence their perception of the game. On this first day Beth also invited them talk a bit about what kinds of games they liked to play. One of the students, 1313Wishes, responded that it depended on who she was playing with. When she is with her older cousins she plays games like Duke Nukem, but with her friends she played games geared more towards her age group. I thought it was super interesting and thoughtful that she considered the context in relation to her game play!

When it came time to play-test the game, the grade six students joined me one at a time to try it out for 15 minutes. Following this they were invited to openly respond to the game on paper, in any way they chose – drawings, questions, comments, criticisms, poetry, point form etc… The last step for this round, was to fill out a more detailed questionnaire about themselves and the game. One of the first things I noticed was that each student seemed to really take her time to provide thoughtful answers. Most of The Linden School grade six girls seemed to really enjoy playing the game, though almost all of them were worried about what Viscious Peacock would think because she loves peacocks, and within the game Maya wards off peacocks with her boomerang! All of the students recognized that the game was about water shortage, but not everybody seemed to definitively make the connection that girls miss out on education because of the need to spend many hours daily getting water for the family. Most of the girls recognized and liked the fact that the game was a mixture of reality and fantasy, and were impressed that the main character was a girl, and not only a girl, but a girl with brown skin. In addition to consistently learning about global water shortage, four out of eleven of the girls quoted back some of the facts about water embedded in the game, without being directly asked to do this. One student pointed out that they had already learned about the topic of the game by watching the film Girl Rising, which I didn’t know about and plan to watch. Thank you for the recommendation!

It was also great to see, and I know that Decode Global really welcomes, criticism and insight about the game, especially from young people. One out of eleven of the girls, though she recognized that Maya had to go and get water because the family had run out, didn’t really see the point of the game and didn’t really think it was worth talking about. She also thought that there were not enough options within game-play. The girls also had great suggestions for making the game more interesting, for example, having the opportunity to change characters. On my last day at The Linden School, we wrapped up the research with a group discussion. At this time another great idea was suggested for an entire series of games about the water situation in various parts of the world, including Canada. From all of the research I have read about water, there are plenty of stories to tell. Even within the United States, people face water crises, and there are many troublesome side-effects related to the redirection of water, and to large scale dams (Shiva, 2002; Barlow, 2002). I thought this was a great premise for expansion of the game, but I also know too much about how difficult it would be for a small start-up company to roll out an entire series of games. I have hope for the future that this idea could be brought to fruition though!

It is important for people to understand how expensive and time consuming it is to create a game. A BIG problem that is faced by a very small (and new) game making company is that many people don’t want to spend money to download games. I heard this resistance from some of the grade sixes too. For Decode Global, and other small companies, it is challenging to figure out how to make money so that they can continue to create high quality, meaningful games. To accomplish this goal, you need skilled artists, writers, game-designers, and programmers. The creative process itself takes a lot of time, as does the actual building of the game. In our world, people are more used to receiving things quickly and cheaply, and have forgotten that care takes time. Many people have an auto-rejection-response to the idea of paying for apps (just like music), without thinking on a deeper level about what this attitude implies for the lives of the passionate creators who want to make a difference in the world. I am a researcher who admits that I a fan of Decode Global, but as an outsider to the company, I watch them struggle, and I worry about the future of the small, high quality game companies, just as I worry about small bookstores and handmade products and the struggle against mass production and big-box stores.

Getting back to the research, Decode Global is very interested in knowing about the social impact of the game. By this, they are wondering about what people do after they play the game, in relation to the topic of water shortage and the effect on girls’ education. The hope is that the game increases awareness that the problem even exists (which it seems to do overall, keeping in mind that this is just a small study), and that it acts as a sort of catalyst for conversation, and perhaps even action. What we learned from this small study is that six out of eleven of the girls reported that they did not discuss the game outside of the time we spent together playing it. Five out of eleven of the girls mentioned it to parents, siblings or friends, but the game on its own didn’t seem to spark a deeper interest in the topic in the sense that students are moved to look into the issue, discuss it in depth, or to recognize the need to take care of water, and of our own good fortune when it comes to water access. My feeling is that this group of girls, because of the degree of awareness and critical thinking taking place within their class and the school context in general, and because they are particularly recognized for their thoughtfulness, would be the kind of population most likely to have a curiosity about the topic of the game, beyond and outside of the game. Given that this didn’t happen, at least not in an immediately obvious or powerful way, it seems clear that this type of a game, meant to introduce an issue, requires also more than just the game. As it is commonly reported in the academic literature, the role of teachers (and parents) is a very important part of the ecosystem of games for learning, especially when games are not blatantly educational (Squire and Jenkins, 2003; Brown, 2008; Young et al.. 2012). Decode Global doesn’t have any pretenses about this, and have a desire to work with teachers to really deepen the potential of the role games can play in relation to social issues and learning.

Because I have just returned to Montréal from Toronto, I have yet to really fully digest my experience there, and to look deeply at the qualitative data I have collected with the grade sixes. What I have reported above, I have merely gleaned from my first perusal of the questionnaires completed by the girls, and from my fieldnotes. I am going to continue to work my way through the analysis of the data, and will have more to share next month. For now I want to just say thank you to The Linden School for making me feel so welcome, and thank you especially to the grade sixes and to Beth, not only for openly welcoming me into their classroom, but also for making me laugh every single day I was there!

Read more about The Linden School: http://lindenschool.ca/

Bibliography:
Barlow, M. (2002). Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water. New York: New Press.

Brown, H.J. (2008). Videogames and Education. New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Shiva, V. (2002). Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Squire, K. & Jenkins, H. (2003). Harnessing the Power of Games in Education. Insight, 3, 5 – 33.

Young, M.F., Slota, S., Cutter, A.B., Jalette, G., Mullin, G., Lai, B., Simeoni, Z., Tran, M., & Yukhymenko, M. (2012). Our Princess is in Another Castle: A Review of Trends in Serious Gaming for Education. Review of Educational Research. 82(1), 61 – 89.