Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Are There Lessons From a Controversial High School Tradition?

On Tuesdays, Ruth and Stacey host Slice of Life on their blog at twowritingteachers.wordpress.com. Feel free to write, link, and/or comment!

Assassin has come to our house.

For those of you unfamiliar to the game, this is the high school tradition where they pair up, pay $20 to play, and are given teams to try to shoot with water guns before the teams who are after them can douse them first. The winners get the money which is a substantial sum--I believe that the purse is over $800 this year.

I would support banning this game for many reasons. Mostly, I worry about the safety of these teenagers because they will go to great lengths to get each other. While they are not allowed to chase anyone in a car, they are allowed to stalk, restrain, lure, and lie in order to move on in the tournament. I could continue to make my case against Assassin because of the distraction that it provides at the end of the marking period during a year when grades matter a lot. I could also bring up the fact that Obama was in Connecticut, fifteen minutes from my house, to talk about gun laws and my peace-loving daughter is making sure that her water gun is within reach whenever she goes out. I could also mention that our high school principal sent an email to parents reminding us to talk to our children about the rules and the common sense that must accompany playing in the game.

However, I will try to find the lessons that I can about teaching. You should see how motivated these teenagers are and the skill sets that they are using to strategize and try to win. I don't think that this is really about the money because the chance of winning is so small; the motivation comes from the competition. Listening to the conversations that all of her friends are having (and they are ALL talking about this) they are collaborating, communicating, and thinking creatively. Yes, I wish that their conversations had a different focus, but they are forming alliances with people they don't normally work with, trying to think of other perspectives, paying attention to details, and studying patterns. Hmmm. These skills sound familiar. And important.

I was talking to my husband about how schools could incorporate some of these Assassin strategies into learning. What if:
  • A teacher gave a lesson about symbols in literature and said that the students' job was to find a certain number of symbols in books. Use each other, the library, the internet...whatever they need, but come back able to explain ten symbols in literature. Perhaps early finishers could get extra points.
  • A teacher gave a lesson on a concept or strategy and then assigned a problem set. You can use any resources to figure it out and if you do it in a certain amount of time, then you get a certain grade. 
  • Write an informational report that meets the Common Core State Standards on a given subject. The report can be on any subject and students are allowed to help each other, but every student must be able to explain the annotations that should accompany the report and clearly demonstrate the Standards.
I think that I could continue a list, and I could tailor it to specific grade levels. The TedTalk, Build a School in the Cloud by Sugata Mitra supports inquiry-based learning and the concept that if we give students complex problems and ways to figure them out, they will learn much more than we would have thought. I also think about Tony Wagner's claim in his book Creating Innovators that engagement and high learning rates happen when people have passion, purpose, and play. Assassin presents teenagers with a complex problem and passion, purpose and play. How can we transfer this high level of motivation and engagement into classrooms?


  1. Wow. I've never heard of anything like this. It's not a one-time event, but kids can "get" each other at any time? Trying to be positive, but I'm having a hard time.

    1. There are all sorts of complicated rules and restrictions that the kids learn fast and follow. You can actually read about it on Wikipedia. It is controversial and schools don't sanction it--the kids organize and run it.

  2. I read about this game in Calkins' book, but I didn't know it was still an active activity. Wow, you are living it! I love your suggestions, there is such satisfaction from completing a challenging task.

  3. I have heard of this game before, but I'm really surprised that a school in Connecticut would allow this to happen this year. It seems like there must be some other way to accomplish the goals of the game without "shooting" each other. On the other hand, I like your thoughts about incorporating similar strategies into other learning activities. Increasing engagement is always a challenge!

    1. I agree about guns of any kind in CT right now, but to be clear, this game is not sanctioned by the school at all. It's run by the kids and I would venture to say that school officials really don't like it at all.

  4. Interesting, & sounds like fun. I assume that no one gets hurt, just wet? What you're talking about Melanie is what our school does, although it takes a great leap of faith to believe that we really do let students have so much choice in what they study & how they learn, etc. They are exceptionally motivated to do well, & we teachers teach as appropriate strategies, skills, approaches, questioning, etc. I agree with you ideas, except that the resulting "reward" is just grades. I hope we can find another motivator, like being challenged because it is an authentic challenge. In your game, isn't the game & fun to 'escape', or is it to "get" someone else. Could be both. I remember a time when my son was so motivated in school. He was the student chosen to be in charge of the book fair. He worked with an adult, organized it, helped get volunteers, etc. I had rarely seen him work so hard inside school. Great post!