Edu-Larp: Amanda Siepiola
by Brandy Anderson
The world of education is in a state of constant flux, where countless ideas are being tried and tested. One such movement which is rapidly gaining momentum is critical pedagogy. There are innumerable ways for an educator to implement critical pedagogy into the classroom, and some of these involve performances from the students. American public elementary school teacher Amanda Siepiola implements her own brand of critical pedagogy through student-centered roleplaying, or Edu-Larp (Educational Live-Action Role Play).
An educator who utilizes Edu-Larp sets up a scenario, and then students each receive a role, either assigned by the teacher or, in some cases, they may choose their own roles. This technique can be used with any subject, including math. In a math larp, Siepiola (2016) has her students pretend to be employees in an office that produces stuffed animals, with a thousand stuffed animals per day quota (RAPC #86). There are multiple purposes behind this scenario: it helps students learn double-digit numbers while it also promotes team work, and a simulation for real-life situations the students may experience later in life. Furthermore, the “kids wear laminated neckties to determine which office they are a part of, [which] company. And they have to process the orders, which means they’re adding double-digit numbers. Kids who can add three-digit numbers are maybe supervisors or managers” (Siepiola, 2016, RAPC #86).
This type of co-creative content allows students to engage with the material more, it allows them to become co-producers, and the common idea is that this heightened level of engagement will encourage them to become more actively involved in their own learning. Educade, an organization that provides free lesson plans and other educational tools to educators, applauds Edu-Larp as a “spontaneous, co-creative, active learning” experience that is “embedded within conceptual narratives that inspire students to enjoy and retain their lessons” (2017, “Edu-Larp”). Siepiola (2016) says Edu-Larp provides a platform where “kids are allowed to be kids, in some of these unstructured times, they continue to be curious and [to] engage, and [they] are interested in content” (“Preconditions”). Siepiola says the current state of education is broken, and that it does not encourage students to be active participants, but instead, it trains teachers to “continue to make kids be little robots” instead of allowing creativity (Siepiola, 2016, “Preconditions”).
Some of Siepiola’s colleagues are also incorporating Edu-Larp into their pedagogies. Horace Mann’s first-grade students, along with their teachers, have designed three games, with Siepiola acting as facilitator. All of these Edu-Larp games are “campaigns”, meaning they are continuous games that are played over a lengthy period of time, and they continue throughout different units across the curricula (Siepiola, 2016, “Preconditions”). One of these scenarios is played-out during literature modules, and students role-play scenarios where some of them own bookstores, and some of them are customers, and this works in a cross-disciplinary manner because it also includes the students practising math skills as well. A different larp run by Siepiola involves students immersing themselves within various literary stories, where each student embodies a different character, and has to explore character motivation and dynamics. While these types of Edu-Larp scenarios may be highly effective in terms of student engagement and building confidence, they do not necessarily fit into a multi-example of critical pedagogy beyond the way that these aforementioned scenarios empower students to be decision makers and content producers.
However, Siepiola does in fact run a number of other Edu-Larp programs which do fit more obviously into the category of critical pedagogy. One such larp involves teaching students about climate change through the lens of Native Americans, and this social justice scenario would provide opportunities for discussion points and the tools to go on to make a difference by using transformative action (Siepiola, 2016, “Preconditions”). Another way Edu-Larp is an example of transformative action is the way it helps students to find their voice, build their confidence, and become comfortable with themselves (Siepiola, 2016, “Preconditions”).
A further example of how Siepiola uses critical pedagogy is seen in one of her government study larps. The students form a town, where some students are given certain rights and other students are not. After a time, the roles are switched, and the privileged students suddenly lose their rights. Then, the students learn what they, as citizens, can do to fight government oppression (Siepiola, 2016, RAPC #86). Clear elements of critical pedagogy can be seen in this particular Edu-Larp: it teaches students to be aware of oppression, it teaches students to recognize privilege, and it teaches students how to empower themselves and how to enact transformative action in order to change uneven power dynamics.
When asked about general transferability of Siepiola’s experience with Edu-Larp, Siepiola (2016) says yes, it can be done in other public school settings, but while admitting she has no hard data to cite, she does have “inspiration” from previous students, as well as feedback from parents (“Preconditions”). To support this claim, Siepiola (2016) conducted focus groups with her students two years after they were in her class, as well as with the parents of those students, in addition to detailed surveys she distributed to her colleagues (“Preconditions”). The surveys asked teachers if they incorporate larping into their pedagogy, and if so, how and why do they utilize Edu-larp. Unfortunately,further details regarding Siepiola’s findings from these focus studies could not be found, so it is difficult to assess how these findings could translate into an indication of these Edu-Larps being transferable to other public schools.
In terms of transferability, Siepiola (2016) admits that a criticism which she must acknowledge is that her public D.C. school is rather privileged, and as evidence she points to student scores on PARC standardized tests: the students at her school have 80% proficiency where the rest of Washington, D.C. public schools have a general level of only 25% proficiency (“Preconditions”). Additionally, Siepiola (2016) observes that these high test scores mean that she and her colleagues are afforded more freedom than educators at other lower preforming schools may experience (“Preconditions”). Siepiola (2016) says she would need to try her format of Edu-Larp in other, less privileged schools before she could begin to form more tangible conclusions (“Preconditions”). Another obstacle that Siepiola (2016) acknowledges is the reluctance of many teachers to try Edu-Larp (“Preconditions”).
Rather than trying Edu-Larp at other schools, Siepiola has decided to remain at her school, with a focus on turning Horace Mann into an Edu-Larp school, with larp being integrated throughout the grades, rather than being confined to the first and second grades. After teaching Edu-Larp in her second-grade classes, Siepiola has since moved on to teaching fifth-grade in hopes of chronicling how Edu-Larp may be used in upper elementary school classes. Siepiola also holds professional development sessions to teach Edu-Larp to her colleagues, and she collaborates with her colleagues during various meetings throughout the school year. In addition to spreading Edu-Larp within Horace Mann, Siepiola (2016) states that she is working on initiatives to collaborate with educators at other schools (“Preconditions, symptoms, and mindsets”). Some of these projects outside of D.C. schools include collaborating with schools in New Orleans, New York City, and in Finland (Pandemicrg, 2016, “Comparative public education (US vs Scandinavia)”.
While Edu-Larp is thriving at Horace Mann, thanks to Siepiola’s drive and enthusiasm, it is not necessarily a program that could be easily transferable to other schools. Even if teachers were interested and eager to implement Edu-Larp into their pedagogies, there are a number of factors that could dissuade them from doing so. One factor that needs to be taken into consideration is administrative support. Siepiola (2016) says that part of her success is attributed to the interest and freedom given to her and her colleagues by her school’s principle and vice principle (“Preconditions”). For instance, Siepiola (2016) and her colleagues do not have to submit lesson plans to the administration because “they trust [them] completely” (“Preconditions”).
Another issue educators face when running Edu-Larps is a level of unpredictability and chaos that is associated with role-playing. Siepiola (2016) observes that “sometimes it doesn’t work in our favour, and that it seems like everybody is running their own ship” (“Preconditions”). This disorganization may not appeal to some educators, and this limits this type of critical pedagogy for teachers who do not embrace this level of flexibility and improvisation. However, Siepiola (2016) says flexible educators will be able to maintain what they want their students to learn as long as they focus on a “culture of knowing, culture of caring, and a culture of thinking”.
Furthermore, teachers who wish to implement Edu-Larp critical pedagogy will need to take parent and student reaction into account. While Siepiola (2016) says that her school has very close relationships with parents, not all schools and teachers may experience the same relationships (“Preconditions”). An important factor in the success of Edu-Larp critical pedagogy, as well as any other form of critical pedagogy, is student participation. If students are not willing to engage, a teacher will not be able to successfully implement Edu-Larp. While Siepiola does not mention this issue directly, it is likely that most elementary school students will be open to this engagement, whereas a high school teacher will likely face more reluctance from students in terms of Edu-Larp participation.
Educade (2017), “Educational live action role play”. Retrieved from http://educade.org/teaching_tools/educational-live-action-role-play-edu-larp
Pandemicrg (2016, July 11). Comparative public education (U.S. vs Scandinavia). Pandemic RG: Catch the Fun! Retrieved from https://pandemicrg.wordpress.com/2016/07/11/comparative-public-education-us-vs-scandinavia/
Raasted, C. (2016). “RAPC #86: Amanda Siepiola: Edu-Larp in a public elementary school”. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4p757G7kDM
Siepiola, A. (2016). “Preconditions, systems, and mindsets for Edu-Larp in an elementary school”. Living Games Conference YouTube Channel. Retrieve from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x00cxRe73cY
Siepiola, A. (2013), Image, “Lessons from Larpwriter Summer School”. Retrieved from https://constructivistteacher.wordpress.com/