The students in my geopolitics classes were bored. No matter what I tried, I struggled to keep them engaged for long periods of time. Their behaviour reflected larger problems in the school system: efficiency is so often prized above curiosity, making it very easy for children to become disengaged.
At the same time, I was learning a lot outside school through fantasy American football. When I first started playing it, I thought it was a dumb idea, but the more I played, the more I learned about the National Football League here in the US. I was doing research and using that knowledge to adjust my line-up and beat my friends. I found this so motivating that I came up with the idea of creating a Fantasy Geopolitics game for my 9th grade students (aged 14-15).
I teamed up with two software developers to make the idea a reality. Using money from sources including crowdfunding website Kickstarter, we set up our own website using the Times Developer Network API, a databank from The New York Times that allows us to synchronise the paper's data into the game.
Here's how it works. Students "draft" a team of three countries and get points whenever they are mentioned in The New York Times. Just as in fantasy football, an automated online league demonstrates the performance of the players. Students compete to be top of the league.
The game itself is very simple, but it can lead to all sorts of interesting discussions on world politics and current affairs. It is also a great launch pad for discovering how the US media works and asking why countries such as the Central African Republic, where terrible things are happening, are so rarely covered in the press.
The game is also proving useful in my other classes. For example, in my civics class, where we study the US government, I've developed an activity called the White House Brief. Students have to examine what is happening in their team of countries and then write a message to the president, advising him on what action he should take.
The key to the appeal of the game is something researchers have called "competitive fandom". It's the idea that if, say, you are driving a red car, you automatically become more aware of other red cars. In a competitive atmosphere, once students draft a team of countries they immediately become more aware of what is happening in those countries because they are rooting for them.
The result has been fantastic to witness. My students are reading much more; they are using apps that we have recommended to engage with the news.
It is just a game, but it's one that empowers children to become teachers and better learners. Students wander into my classroom all the time to ask if I have heard of this or that development in one of their chosen countries. I have become a facilitator and a mentor, rather than just a lecturer who supposedly knows it all.
Thanks to the Kickstarter publicity, more than 500 other teachers in the US and Canada are trying out Fantasy Geopolitics, as well as some in Germany and France. It is fantastic that people all around the world are using the resource. And it is exciting that I can offer something to other teachers for free that is working so well in my own class.
Eric Nelson was talking to Edmond Wax. Nelson teaches social studies at North Lakes Academy Charter School in Minnesota, US. Fantasy Geopolitics is available at www.fantasygeopolitics.com
Top 10 geopolitics resources
1 League positions
Use this podcast as a starting point for a debate on the formation and evolution of the League of Nations.
2 Going global
Get your students up to speed on politics with this informative lesson on global governance.
3 Nations united?
Do your students know what the United Nations does and why? Teach them the basics and encourage discussion and analysis of the role the organisation plays.
4 States of politics
This fun, fast-paced video explains the origins of the US political system, which can often leave people from other countries perplexed.
5 Seeing red
This presentation explores the history between China and Russia, and asks what factors may impact on the relationship between the two countries in the future.
6 Power struggles
Who calls the shots in Britain: the prime minister, the Queen or the people? Use these cut-out cards to explain the order of power in UK politics.
7 Useful counsel
This video shows how a school council system can educate students about global politics in a hands-on way.
8 Conflict conversation
Spark a debate about the role of conflict and the battle for peace with these flash-card starters.
9 Utilising the UN
The activities in this resource pack will encourage students to thoroughly investigate the role of the United Nations.
10 Party parameters
This PowerPoint provides an overview of the UK political parties and explores different political systems, before challenging students to create their own opinion poll.