Earlier this summer, Outschool put the word out to teachers that one of the most sought-after class topics, based on search frequency, was Zelda. They were also requesting summer camp-style courses for their upcoming advertisement push. For me, it was a golden opportunity. Maybe it could be for you, too–now they’re looking for semester-long course offerings!
For a long time, looking up to people like Corey Olsen, the Tolkien Professor, I was interested in trying to teach online classes about video games. The work he and others are doing with fantasy literature, philology, and classics at Signum University led me to get involved with their programming for kids. Over the past few summers, we’ve offered the model of live, interactive discussions of fantasy literature to a wider audience of all ages through Signum Academy.
Connecting people wherever they are around shared interests like hobbits and wizards and writing has been delightful and rewarding, since my day job substitute teaching tends to involve considerably less interesting topics. The pace of events since everything shut down (except for Animal Crossing and Twitter, it seems) only rendered that leap from in-person to online education more urgent. Now we meet on Twitch every other week to talk about storytelling.
The Signum motto, learn what you love, has a slightly different meaning in that context. For adults, it means learning more about what we love already and sharing that with others; for kids, it’s more about learning what it is that they love, in company with others.
The idea of discussing video games the way we do fantasy books, with a certain amount of rigor but also playfully, by suggesting fun activities to engage with the story, doesn’t entirely fit within the Signum Academy mission, which is primarily about promoting reading–reading books. Plenty of games do involve reading and interpreting text, but others, though well worth discussing, really don’t. Perhaps it’s a matter of broadening our understanding of reading to include the kind of imaginative participation that playing video games entails. There may be room for that in your local school, library, church, or non-profit. At all events, there are plenty of platforms to try it out on your own. Podcasts, Twitch, and YouTube are all ways to release content relating to video game discussions. They’re relatively low-barrier to entry. Plenty of people around Signum and The Well-Red Mage have good advice about how to get started. Patreon and Kickstarter can help monetize your project and provide that extra source of motivation.
For a more structured academic experience with more freedom to teach classes about video games, I’ve found Outschool to be a great balance. On Outschool, I started out teaching Tolkien under the Signum banner, since they initially reached out to Corey for content within our wheelhouse, but soon I found that I could branch out and pursue my other interests, too. Now, along with literature classes I also teach Spanish conversation and, as of this past summer, courses on classic video games.
In the three-week Camp Zelda course I came up with in response to the search-query-attested demand, groups of up to nine students at a time explored with me the history and development of the series from the NES original up to the present. I spent the summer learning just enough about Shigeru Miyamoto and programming to be able to talk at least a little about cultural and technological aspects of the games. Of course, simply tracing changes in the gameplay and story from one game to the next provided more than enough material for our three hour-long sessions.
I also had an excuse to get around to playing Breath of the Wild, since I figured it would be a good idea to devote a whole class period to the most recent and popular game with the kids. The prior two classes, on the original Zelda and then highlights (and low points) from intervening sequels, showed them some ways to approach the games and set a tone for the discussions. Then in the final class, the students were encouraged to take the floor and teach me about the gameplay, the open world, the recipes and outfits and tricks they’d discovered in their hours within the world of BotW.
Applying to teach, creating your courses and getting them approved, scheduling class sections–all these steps precede actually teaching the live sessions. Once you jump through those hoops, you can approach the class however you like. Some people just get together and play games. For my discussion-based classes, I use screenshot images and thematic questions to guide the conversation. I like to start with a warm-up question, just to get everyone talking: have you played the original Zelda? What did you think? Then I scale things up with comparisons–how do elements from the first Zelda recur in BotW?–and steer us into analysis: how do the memories help connect gameplay and story?
Even having set some ground rules for the conversation up front–raise hands please, listen to one another–it’s still occasionally necessary to mute a student if they’re interrupting or talking over people, or going on and on about Lynels… I always let them know they can use the chat to raise other topics among themselves, but monitoring that is still a good idea.
As far as the platform goes, Outschool has a policy about secular, age-appropriate, objective content. There’s no grading required, no disciplining–basically, you get all the good parts of teaching, and none of the headaches. Generally, classes tend to be about enrichment, not replacing core curricula, though there are still plenty of math and English classes. The platform has begun partnering with local districts and offering financial assistance to appeal to more families. They take a 30% cut of teacher earnings, but with the recommended $10/hr/student rate, proceeds from a few full class sections a day compare favorably to a real job (with no benefits, of course).
Overall, it’s been a great summer job, and I’m planning to keep teaching with them if my schedule permits. The next course I’m offering is an ongoing format, where students sign up week to week if they’re interested in the topic. We’ll be starting out with a three-week module on Undertale and EarthBound, two of my favorite games. But I expect the enrollment will really take off once Breath of the Wild 2 comes out.