Operation LAPIS: An Introduction
Roger Travis has already introduced the readers here to the concept of practomime in a previous post. As Roger wrote, I’m the instructor for the pilot of the first fully practomimetic introductory language class, Operation LAPIS, which is in progress at Norwich Free Academy, where I’m on the classics faculty. In Operation LAPIS, students (in teams of 4-5, each controlling a different character) are given the mission of discovering and subsequently translating the Lapis Saeculōrum (The Stone of the Ages) by a shadowy figure known only as the Demiurge. In accomplishing their “top secret” mission, the students will save western civilization as we know it. They’re told in eyes-only communiques that they will achieve this quest through a device known as the texto-spatio-temporal-transmitter, or the TSTT for short. The TSTT initially immerses the student controlled characters into Pompeii during the summer of 79CE, right before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. In order to discover the secret of the Lapis, the students will not only have to learn how to read Latin, but will also have to learn how to think and act like Romans.
This doesn’t sound like your grandparent’s Latin class–or even like your own–, does it? In this post, I’ll introduce you to the key mechanics of the operation; I plan to post in more detail about how my students are reacting and performing over the next few months.
Much of the action takes place in the “TSTT-interface”–a sophisticated simulation cleverly disguised as an internet forum. Each night, the students receive, in a forum post that pretends to be a “TSTT immersion session,” a new piece of the narrative and a prompt to which their team’s Roman must respond. Their task is to read through the narrative (which includes both Latin and English), to do relevant background research (via information in what we call the culturalia section of a codex that looks very much like the codex in your standard issue RPG), and then to collaborate with their teammates to decide what actions their character will take inside of the immersion space–which, again, is represented by a garden-variety internet forum.
In discussing their response, each team member must carefully cite the source of their information, consider the specific and unique world-view of the team’s Roman, and try as hard as he or she can to include as much Latin in the team’s response as possible. By doing all those things, the student earns Latinity Points (the equivalent of experience points in an RPG) which serve as a indicator of their attunement level within the course and as a way to graph their progress on to the traditional A, B, C, D, and F scale. In traditional graded assessments, students start at full credit and lose points as they get items wrong; Latinity Points work in the opposite direction. As in most RPGs, the better a student does a particular task, the more LPs he or she receives. This subtle twist results in a remarkably different outlook on how to achieve progress throughout the course and, in the end, shifts the focus from the result (a grade) to the collaborative process.
Ultimately, through this ownership of the narrative progression, students engage in a more personal experience with their learning. Operation LAPIS, that is, in addition to being engaging in in its use of a narrative, is also radically student-centered in its game-based structure. The students, as operatives, are in control of the actions that their characters take within the story and, as a result, they become far more invested in the content of the course, because extensive knowledge of the content will allow them more freedom and flexibility within the immersion prompts. Since they are working as static teams, there’s healthy competition between the characters both in the immersions and in the physical classroom space. Also, as a result of this desire to have the characters perform better, there’s a heightened sense of community within the teams in order to ensure that all members can aid in contributions. Without making a call to the Demiurge, teammates will routinely assist each other in clarifying questions, furthering their research, or helping out with Latin composition. I’ve seen these students’ self-sufficiency grow to levels beyond what I’ve been able to achieve in a traditional classroom setting.
When we return from the holiday break, I plan to spend more time here on Play the Past discussing individual mechanics of the course and the way each piece fits into the larger puzzle. To anticipate a bit: we’ve drawn heavily from familiar (to gamers, anyway) game-mechanics as course activities. These activities reinforce the acquisition of skills not only to succeed in the course but also to succeed in playing the game. The basic premise of practomimetic learning, that learning objectives and play objectives can correlate 1:1, makes even the most apparently worthless mechanics–think grinding–into educational magic.