Mungo's Page

[Ed.] Mungo is, of course, Dr. Don Elwell, founder of the Grindlebone Theatre, the Grindlebone Arts Collective, Grindlebone Films, The Greylight Theatre of Illinois, the Southern Illinois Renaissance Festival, the Warren G. Harding Festival of the Subversive Arts, the Citrus College department of Technical Theatre, the Carroll College Department of Theatre, and a bloody pain in the ass of those of us trying to keep track of him in our address books.
Dr. Elwell is the author of the Coyote Trilogy of Plays (Coyote, Cyberpunk Opera, and Dub for Babylon), the Novels "In The Shade" and "The Ganymeade Protocol", the acting texts "The Actor Reflects" and "The Actor's Workbook," numerous screenplays, articles, short stories, poems, spoken word pieces, bits of grafitti, boxtops.....Mungo leaves us a bit breathless at times. [I.N.]

What World of Warcraft taught me about Education

This article was prompted by three significant experiences: ones that have really rewritten how I feel as an educator about what we're doing. The first, as he title suggests, was getting sucked into playing World of Warcraft online. Don't get me wrong, I'm an inveterate nerd, and did the Dungeons and Dragons thing in college, but I'd resisted getting involved in WOW mostly because I knew it to be a HUGE time sink. The second was acting as a camp director for Guard Up's Wizards and Warriors LARP (Live Action Role Play) camp in Massachusetts one summer. The camp is basically a live-action version of games like D&D and WOW, with the kids living and playing the fantasy against monsters and going on quests. More on this later. The third was becoming aware of and ultimately involved in the "Democratic Schools" movement in the US. Based loosely on A.S. Neill's Summerhill School model, the schools are run by the students, generally lack traditional classes or objectives outcomes testing, and stack up strangely well against traditional schooling models. How those knit together is the subject of this article, and of the change in my thinking.

If I were to summarize educational articles over the last five years it would run like this: "Why Isn't This Working?" Our answers have been to pour millions more into education, and to get punitive with it. We punish kids with our constant "this will go on your permanent record" testing, we punish failing teachers with termination, failing schools with budget cuts, failing parents with chastisement. It is as if we feel we will somehow punish our way to a perfect America, to a perfect educational model, and it just seems to get worse and worse. Teaching in traditional public schools, I look around me, and the place is utterly joyless. The students are bored and surly, and not a single student interaction I see is around anything they're learning. The administrators look angry. The teachers mostly look exhausted, their "teaching" having been reduced to getting students to spit back information on computer scored test sheets so that the district won't be penalized.

I think back to the LARP camp. I think back to a little girl, about 7 or 8, who was too shy to speak to anyone. By the third day she was in the vanguard hacking away with a foam battle axe at an actor in an eight foot tall ogre costume. I saw breakthroughs like that all the time at the camp; in the solving of puzzles, in participation with the other campers, in learning to lead. . . .What was happening there? What was going on that I most distinctly was NOT seeing in our public schools?

So here, dear reader, is what I've learned. Here are the things that gaming, LARPing, and non-coercive schooling have in common that DO work and that our schools do so badly. I'll leave it to you to sort out how they might be applied.

1) Neither gaming nor LARPing nor Democratic Schooling are punitive or coercive. When you "die" in World of Warcraft, you get resurrected. It's an inconvenience, nothing more. You are ALLOWED to fail, without any real penalty, and then to go back with what you learned by failing and complete the quest. Fail once, fail thirty times, its all the same. Punishments are incentives NOT to do something, the threat of penalty. Yet we have use punishments on our students, our teachers, our school districts as "incentives" to do better. It doesn't work. The great value of schools is the ability of students to fail, learn from it, and come back to succeed without dire consequences.

2) Gaming results in immediate rewards for success. In WOW you get gold and equipment and you get to "level up", increasing your abilities and strengths. In LARP you get the adulation of your peers, the pride of group success, and, at least at the camp in which I worked, gold tokens that could be spent on real items in the camp store. In Democratic schools, students set their own goals and achieve them, the completion of personal or group projects becomes the reward. Yet what is the reward in our schools? We tell our students: Do this and when you get out of college you'll get a good job. To a ten year old, "out of college" is over twice their lifetime away. It would be like someone telling me "replace the transmission in my Volvo and in 58 years I'll give you a new car." The disconnect is just too great, and too many things can happen in the interim to make the reward real.

3) Ask your kids (if they participate in online games): do you game for 40 minutes every day and then do other things? They'll laugh at you. Gamers game for three or four hours at a time (how many times did you have to tell them to turn off the computer and go to bed because it was 3AM and there's school tomorrow?) two or three days a week on average. They spend time with the game, working it, comprehending it, and then take time off to digest what they've learned. To our students, though, we don't seemingly CARE how much they're into solving the puzzles of geometry, or how interesting Poe's short stories might be. Ding! Bell has rung, you're studying Civics now. It's rude, it breaks the train of thought. Worse, it breaks the train of investigation and concentration.

4) Human beings find things to do, things that interest them. We are driven to it by boredom and by our inherently curious natures. If a student in a "free school" tires of a subject, they'll find another project to interest them. If a gamer tires of WOW they'll do something else. No one wants to "just sit around" unless that "just sitting around" is actually contemplation, digesting thoughts and experiences, which is something we almost never allow our children to do.

5) "To get a Good Job" is not the be all and end all of human existence. I'm now seeing moves to start what is effectively job placement training as early as age 6. To make the objective of all education the student's assumption of the yoke as a corporate drone is unlikely to excite a love a learning in our kids. The objective of our education system should not be jobs, test scores, or (as it was in my era) "beating the commies". Our objective, as loving parents, should be to enable our kids to have good and happy lives, whatever those lives might be. George Santayana once defined a "fanatic" as one who had doubled their effort after completely forgetting their purpose. So it is, I feel, with our education system.

6) Looking at the LARP camp, some of the campers were always in the forefront, hacking away. Some stood to the sidelines and observed, learning, biding their time before participating. A few didn't "get it" at all and spent most of their time back at the Inn chatting with the counselors and their friends. Kids have different learning styles and different learning rates. Similarly some of the counselors were always up front, theatrically urging on the campers (that would be me), others moved among them, working one on one, quietly advising, comforting, supporting....teachers have different styles as well. Yet we have evolved an industrial model of education. One Size Must Fit All, both for the students and the instructors. The horror is that a student would "fall behind" the goals we have arbitrarily set for their age. Yet what is the disaster if a student wishes to get ahead in History right now and to address mathematics later when they are ready and better able to apprehend the information? Is that "falling behind" and something for which the student, the instructor, and the school district must be punished? Or is it, rather, the student taking initiative and utilizing their own development and learning style to further their own knowledge in a way of their own choosing?

It is, after all, THEIR education, and their life we are discussing.

7) "Outcomes Testing" is really lousy at testing for things that really matter. Play any role based fantasy game and you'll be constantly faced with challenges of reason, problem solving, and memory. The situations, however fantastical, will mirror and inform situations in your real life, and your success within the game may give you deeper insights into your own problem solving process in the real world. One success mirrors the other. However:

Old Yeller was:
A) A dog.
B) A goat
C) The Chinese Gardener
D) A & C

Tells you nothing about the story, how it felt, what it meant to the readers, how it related to their lives.....yet this is increasingly all we demand from our students: simple tests of memory that we can wave at accountants to prove the success of our "teaching" to avoid the punitive reactions we have built into the system.

Our current factory model of education was invented by the Prussians after getting clobbered by Napoleon in the 19th century. They wanted to create a population to feed a new army, one obedient and capable of comprehending the things necessary for the practice of modern warfare. In the process, they abandoned the centuries-old practice of "classical education," of students studying directly with gifted teachers to pursue their own betterment as human beings, without time or grades or place constraints. Other nations in Europe, fearful of being militarily overwhelmed, adopted the same system, and thence to America. But unless your only educational objective is to produce scads of obedient cannon fodder, the system does not and has never worked particularly well. Nor does thinking of students as "products", "consumers" or anything other than fellow human beings.

I do not know how to fix education, and I despair of it. The system has become too entrenched and too powerful to amend easily. I know individuals who are and have been brilliant teachers who have bailed from the system out of frustration and anger at the piling on of meaningless requirements and the arrogance that only an entrenched bureaucracy can acquire. I can tell you what advice I would give you, the parent; what I would wish for my own children:

I would send my kids, if i didn't school them myself, to a democratic school where their love of learning wouldn't be ground under the wheel of the system and where they could learn problem solving, democratic process, and to think and speak for themselves. I would encourage them to game, because it challenges logic and memory, and would encourage them to read and experience other thoughts, other ideas, other ways of being. If at all possible, I would travel with them, far and frequently. Not just to sites like the Grand Canyon, but to other communities, other cultures, other ways of life. And finally, when the time came for them to strike off on their own, I would make it clear to them that failure was not a consideration, that their happiness was my joy, that learning was lifelong, and that their place at my table would always be set and that they would always be welcomed back home with open arms and an open heart.

I can wish nothing better for my kids, and for yours.

The Dream

The dream has always been this: A group of convivial, like minded individuals living and working together in a supportive community, existing in a kind of creative, caring frenzy. A place where everything is possible, where needs are met, where disasters are headed off through intelligent forsight, and where people can be happy.

I was first drawn to the theatre, I think, by this idea of community. In the theatre, a group of disparate (that was "disparate" not "desperate") individuals--actors, writers, technicians, scenic artists, businesspeople, audience members--all come together to create somthing meaningful, something remarkable. They do it in spite of differences in religion, age, race, gender, personal foibles, or income (and we sure as hell don't do it for the money), but it happens all the same. The things that need doing get done, get done low down on the totem pole before they're a problem, and we all get along. The Theatre is kind of the ultimate collective meritocracy. If the least of us fails, if one spear carrier drops their spear in the middle of a climactic scene or one of the leads drops a crucial line, we all fail. We're all in this together, and we know it.

But I look around me at the world and I go "why the hell isn't this happening anywhere else?" Why are the gutters full of trash, why is education in a shambles, why are people slicing each other's throats for minor fine points of religion when they could be laughing with each other and building things? Why? We all know the things that need doing. There's plenty of money washing around to make things happen. What's stopping us?
I don't pretend to know the answer to that. I just know what works. So here's the dream: to create a community of artists and scholors who will work together on project after project, plays, shows, installations, educational seminars, retreats, concerts. . . .all without anyone going "are you qualified" or "what are you getting paid for that". . .a place where children can make an orderly transition to adulthood, can make a real and visible contribution to the projects of the community (as opposed to being relegated to medium security "educational" prisons and told to sit down, shut up, and spit back information for the standardized tests). . .a place where the elderly (and I'm barreling in on that) can be honored for their knowledge and experience, the vital for their enthusiasm, and where the community acts to take care of its own basic needs, without the angst of modern consumer culture or anyone having to say "would you like fries with that" over and over and over just to eke out a living. In the 17th century, the sheer cruelty of life, particularly at sea, drove many men and some women to piracy to find a survivable life and a degree of autonomy. The result, among many other things, was our liberty as a nation. No, I'm not kidding. Pirate vessels were foundries for democracy and self governance. We have in mind something a bit less bloody, but just as profound.

Who ISN'T Grindlebone?

Grindlebone isn't a bunch of hippy flakes (though some of us WERE part of that movement in the 60's and 70's), nor is this a multilevel marketing scheme, a religion, a club, a bunch of bored college students, or a work of fiction. Some of those who have worked with or are working with the Grindlebone include the brilliant composer and physicist James Henriques, playwright and author Dr. Lance Tait, talented actors like Paul Meyd, groups like the Hamilton Arts Collective,. . . .I'm leaving out tons of people, there are so many who have made the Grindlebone happen, past and present, that I can't list you all. You know who you are.

My point is this: The arts community has a huge amount of strength, a massive cultural cache', and talents from programming to welding to public speaking that can serve a community well. As artists and educators, we are the voice of the body culture. It is up to us, then, to create those communities, using models that suit us and that we know will work, and then to go viral, to help other, like minded people to create their own dreams, one town, one field, one gallery, one stage, one sandlot at a time. . . .

We've made an heroic start. After a more than successful season of new works in Baltimore, we began in earnest. We acquired Wild Shore Press, a small arts house that had been around for decades, as a publishing showcase for Grindlebone and our talented friends. We took it onto the web. We have assembled an artistic family literally across the planet, a kind of cybercommune running from Paris to Los Angeles, with stops on Second Life, Myspace, YouTube, Tribe, LiveJournal and others. Now we are ready for the next big jump. Taking it real.

Who IS Grindlebone?

You are, at least if you want to be. Come and help us. Come help us find and acquire land, build a community, build theatres, shops, galleries, performance spaces, in our place and your place and on the web. More than that, come an help us take care of one another, our children, and the earth beneath our feet. Come help us make it all work, in both the real and virtual worlds. Then help us make it viral, help us assist other like-minded people in making their dreams--on the web and in the real world--a reality.

I am convinced, after many many years, trials, and tribulations, that the world can be changed. That life can be good, and kind, and productive, and free. We have only to make it so.


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