Apparently snow days provide me the inspiration and the time to write. So here I sit, in the same spot, in the same coffee shop, on another snow day, replaying events from the past few days and searching for the words to communicate my excitement about them.
At the start of class last week Monday, my classroom phone rang unexpectedly. It was our principal, drawing our immediate attention to a video sent via email. I stopped everything, turned out the lights, and told my students to look to the screen. The video announced zombie sightings located in and around Chicago, IL. It mentioned that the district had been in communication with the FAA and that each student had been promised one free flight to anywhere in the world to secure their safety. I turned the lights back on, told my students to find their flight gates based on the flight boards posted around the room, and so began our fourth-quarter Zombie Apocalypse Unit.
I’m not sure I have ever witnessed such immediate engagement before. It didn’t matter who landed in their groups, they were ready to choose their location and get started! They didn’t even know what “getting started” meant yet. They are perfecting their map skills, budgeting their finances, exploring weather patterns and plate tectonics, and journaling daily.
In just four short days, I have watched some really powerful critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration take place. With each new zombie outbreak or natural disaster, groups need to determine whether or not it is in their best interest to change locations. Aside from a safe location, they need to make sure each of their group members is kept healthy and well-nourished each day, consuming the required daily food and water intake. Supplies are in high-demand, so there is a lot of bartering occurring between groups. Inventories and budgets need to be tracked daily. And all the while, groups are ultimately working to crack clues to locate the zombie home base along with ingredients to the zombie antidote to reverse this impending apocalypse before it’s too late!
We are a program that focuses heavily on Project-Based Learning, but truly, we are just continuously searching for ways to easily engage our students. This is not a project-based approach but more closely related to a new teaching and learning strategy called “Gamification.” I already hear students comparing this unit to various video games they are playing at home, and I can personally relate it to the old-school “Oregon Trail” game I played on my desktop computer when I was a kid. There are rules to follow. All of your actions have consequences, positive and negative, and you’re continually faced with unexpected scenarios that force you to think on your feet. It’s fun. It’s frustrating. And in our case, it’s educational.
What surprises me most is the creativity my students bring to the table. Andy and I spent months preparing this unit. We’ve been exploring ideas, creating situation cards, and designing challenges to ensure an organized layout. During the very first week of implementation, though, already the kids have asked questions and created scenarios I never foresaw.
“Can we move to the same location with other groups to pool our resources and work together?”
“Can we trade in some supplies to you for money to purchase other items?”
My response? – “Uh, why not!?” Even when you think you have it all figured out, their minds create scenarios that make it so much better than you imagined it would be.
The final thing I want to say about this is that we did NOT create this unit from scratch. The idea came from a colleague who used a zombie apocalypse unit for two weeks last year to review some geography concepts with her 6th grade students. We loved it so much, we expanded it to a full-quarter unit that integrates math, science, social studies, and ELA. Project-Based Learning, Gamification, Design-Thinking, Personalization – it can sound so intimidating and overwhelming, but no one is being asked to reinvent the wheel. There are so many teachers doing amazing things in their classrooms already and so many resources existing with project ideas to adapt to your own need and comfort-level. That’s what education is and should be – sharing ideas and learning and growing together.