I haven't posted much lately, because frankly, this quarter has been one of the most difficult quarters I've run. I had three consecutive sessions go poorly, where it felt like the group was just out of control, kids were getting escalated, and I had to implement a lot of behavioral tools to keep kids focused on things as simple as taking turns. For kids who had been there for a while and were experienced roleplayers, this was awful, as having to go around in a circle was reminiscent of other, blander social skills groups, something that they would rather not be reminded of. I was told as much directly.
So what was the problem? I had 8 kids in the group. That's already a large group, although I've dealt with groups of 12. However, this time around there were a lot of significant needs that weren't being met. Sometimes these needs not being met would cause a cascading effect, which would completely derail the scene. The end result was sullen kids, overstimulated kids, despondent kids.
One of the kids that was struggling the most left, and that's what stabilized the group. I hate seeing kids leave- my ideal is to have kids 'graduate' when they are either aging out of the group and going off to college, or feeling confident enough that they no longer need the group (and are already running their own groups). However, the reality is that sometimes, these groups aren't good fits for kids, and they might have better luck in another group.
However, determining where kids struggle in a group became a fixation of mine. Once the group stabilized out (and I was able to sleep again), I began thinking of why some kids succeed in groups. Then I began asking, What does Success Look Like?
That's when I created the following critera:
-A successful student should be engaged. They should be playing at the table and engaged with the game in a meaningful way.
-A successful student should be a part of the table community and able to work with others as a team without being disruptive (unless it's specifically part of their character's motivation, i/e if the party is trying to arrest the PC's mother.)
-A successful student should understand role playing, and understand how to play their character as someone separate from themselves.
-A successful student should be able to understand the perspective of other players and NPCs, and able to factor that into their character's actions.
Here's a link to an assessment I built using it.
Looking at these skills, you'll note that in a lot of ways they increase in complexity. That's intentional- to get a kid working on teamwork, you want to get them first engaged in the game. To get them role playing, they should be able to interact well with others at the table. To get them to build empathy, they should have a handle on roleplaying.
This tool gives the DM a lot of visibility into where they should be putting their effort. To build basic engagement (often times at the beginning of a quarter), they should focus on dramatic, flashy, funny sequences that act as a plot hook. To build individual engagement, giving the player something character specific to focus on can help that. If you're having issues with teamwork across the board, combat encounters can work great for that. If you're seeing kids not role playing well, give them all a courtroom sequence.
But it can also highlight areas of difficulty. Earlier this quarter, I was struggling as the group had kids who were all over the map. Some were really figuring out role playing. Some were jumping into teamwork, and wanting to engage on that front. Some were incredibly advanced role players, wanting to focus on building a complex character's persona and role in the world. Then some were just having a hard time engaging with the game without prompting.
The benefit of this assessment is it allows you to highlight strengths and areas to focus on, but it doesn't allot the extra resources to achieve those goals, if more focus is needed. I've worked in a lot of classrooms where there's multiple kids that the district has determined needs paraeducators, but due to a staff shortage, they aren't getting them, so despite there being a lot of assessment, the resources simply aren't there.
And this happens. With a group of 8, it's a lot to manage. I think in the future I might ask to reduce the max group size to 6, but I need to think about that, as very often there's a few kids who are absent anyway due to sickness, etc. Even so, I think this quarter was a weird one, as I've had really diverse groups before, but this one was just really struggling.
I want to close this on a personal note. This quarter was probably the hardest time I've ever had with a group. I've been doing this for about five years, and I consider this my life's focus. This is the work that gives me the most energy, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how to use these applied RPG skills to create better and more effective groups and tools that can be used across all manner of groups. To be struggling and running sessions that weren't fun was incredibly hard on me, personally. I lost a lot of sleep. I was despondent. I had to hype myself up before game.
But I kept on telling myself, "You'll get through this. This is going to be a learning opportunity. This is how you grow."
And I ended up building a pretty cool assessment out of it, and gaining a lot of understanding about table dynamic.
I'm going to be slowly working on making more tools like this, but if you're finding the assessment helpful, hit me up on @rollforkindness on twitter, I'm always down to talk.