Joe Robertson | Games are focus of Quest schools

This is the future American school?


“You guys are killing me!” teacher Don Labonte shouts.

He’s laughing. He’s roaring back over the din of sixth-grade science students who are hurling arguments over the custom-made board game that is the curriculum for the hour.

But he might as well be speaking for all those open-minded educators who are trying to get up the courage to revolutionize classrooms as we know them.

Welcome to ChicagoQuest charter school.

It can be loud here.

And if you hope to embrace a vision of schooling that puts children in control of team projects immersed in the world of digital information, social networks and games, you’d better get used to it.

Even if it kills you.

ChicagoQuest director Michael Donhost knows about that initial jolt. He felt it when he first visited the original Quest to Learn school in New York City.

He watched classrooms where students seemed at times embroiled in their teamwork.

“I saw them upset,” he said. “I saw them even crying.”

What he saw there, however, helped convince him that he wanted to be part of this Chicago version, launched in August by the Chicago International charter school network.

“This is a part of game-like learning,” Donhost said, nodding at the rampant science lesson storming Labonte’s room.

“This is healthy interaction.”

Here’s how it’s supposed to work:

You start with new national Common Core Standards and plot out your students’ learning targets across the school’s grade span.

Then you take the imaginations of your teachers and team them twice-weekly with your game designers — both video games and board games — and tech wizards.

Together they shape a body of lessons into an ambitious “quest” with a series of “missions,” said the school’s curriculum specialist, Patrick Hoover.

On this particular day in November, one of the missions combined math and writing on individual computers as sixth-graders created story lines in helping a fictional world, “Digiton,” return to rationality in part by exterminating irrational numbers.

You’d have a hard time finding any Kansas City area schools that are all-in with such a complete transformation of their classrooms.

It’s a hard leap to make, Quest school founders acknowledge.

The pressure to maintain test scores doesn’t give a school a year or two to turn itself inside out. Nor has the digital revolution had time yet to amass any tangible evidence that it significantly improves scores.

But one thing is evident in several hours of watching and talking with the sixth- and seventh-graders here:

They like coming school.