General Bank Street News

Teaching Tools: Experience Black History Month, Virtually

Posted by Claire Daniel on February 14, 2012

SFC's Stan Brimberg developed the curriculum behind Mission US: "Flight to Freedom," the second in a series of innovative role-playing games developed to transform the way middle school students learn U.S. history.

Students, teachers, history buffs: prepare yourself for an immersive journey into the antebellum world of plantation slavery, complete with hushed abolitionist meetings, and night-time treks through forests thick with slave catchers, safe houses, and more.

In this educational video game, you enter the world of Lucy King, a slave who faces difficult choices in the harsh conditions leading up to the Civil War. Along the way, Lucy—you, the player—is not only given those choices to make, but the context that would realistically have influenced them in 1848 Kentucky. So when students play “Flight to Freedom,” not only do they build knowledge of the history of slavery and the abolitionist movement, but their understanding and critical perception of the history—and the people who made it—deepens.  

How so? We spoke with School for Children’s Stan Brimberg, who helped develop the game and its complementary curriculum, to find out more.

Changing perceptions, from developers to students 

The game begins on a large plantation in Kentucky. "When most kids learn about slavery, that's what they learn about, picking crops in the hot sun," says Brimberg. But slavery looked different in New York, different again in Maryland, and even plantation life in Virginia was different from what it was like in Louisiana, he explained. "So part of my work was to help teachers help kids look beyond plantation life, and also to pick at the generalizations implied in the game."

But Brimberg's instruction wasn't only saved for the students who would be playing the game, it was also shared with the developers:

In one planning meeting with the game makers and the historians, they told us all that  Lucy was going to run away.  I said, ‘Okay, but are we saying that if you didn’t want to run away from the plantation, it meant you were accepting your status as a slave, that you were sort of complicit in the system? Are we saying that everyone who lived out his or her life in slavery was a coward? That the only people worth discussing are the ones who ran?'

Subsequently, the developers came up with the idea that different responses would earn different values badges. 

For example, in response to cruel treatment at the plantation, if the player decided to respond by running away, Lucy would get a badge for courage. If she didn’t, and instead sabotaged their work, or did not complete her tasks as quickly as she could, badges would be earned for “rebelliousness,” or “resistance.” Or, if they decided to work their escape a different way, they may get a badge for “persuasion,” “playing it safe,” or “planning”. Other badges could be earned for “literacy”, “family” or “kindness”.

By allowing for different choices, and awarding different badges accordingly, “you are recognizing that people were different.”

Unlike educational computer games of the past, learning is embedded in the game. Players encounter characters, artifacts and events that add historical texture to the game.

There’s no right way to play the game, either. No particular route or role that is championed above the other. Rather, ‘Flight to Freedom’ allows for choices that can lead Lucy to become an abolitionist, a free woman in Canada, or one of many integral people along the tracks of the Underground Railroad.

It’s a game that allows the players to explore the full possibilities of life then, as it was, and to understand the choices made by allowing students to virtually walk a mile in another’s shoes.

Developed for Students AND Teachers

A teacher himself, Brimberg brought a teacher’s point of view into the development of the game. For example, "sometimes teachers feel crowded by packaged curriculum", so he suggested a design in which the teacher can choose. Here, teachers can use as many or few of the activities to extend and support the learning about the period as they like. "We're assuming teachers know what they're doing and we're not asking them to step aside and let us take over," he explained.

As such, “Flight to Freedom” can be played in place of part of the American history curriculum, or it can supplement it—inside or outside of the classroom. Brimberg has provided teachers the possibility of “going deep” into the topic with the optional complementary curriculum he and the other historians developed: document-based questions (DBQs), a rich collection of primary sources, activities for individual, small group, and whole class implementation, vocabulary builders, standards alignment, writing prompts, and visual aids.

"There are a lot of Bank Street-y ideas in this project,"

...says Brimberg. How so?

"Both in the game and in the other activities, kids are active as interpreters, strategists and decision makers. We ask them to figure things out, to make connections about what they learn, to think about its relevance to their own lives.

"Also, while Lucy Mitchell probably had more real and three-dimensional materials in mind when she observed that play was the work of children, it's true even in virtual play that kids work hard and are terrifically engaged. I love being part of this team. It's teacher play for me to collaborate on the creation of such good stuff, and every summer, it kind of puts me back in my teacher mindset again."

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Visit Mission US: "Flight to Freedom to play the game and for curriculum material.