Undercover Teachers or Imaginary Friends?

How a research team at the University of Michigan uses online role-playing to educate and engage the minds of Midwestern schoolchildren

Nicholas was curious about my identity and the question I had posed to him. He clearly thought the notion of writing to me, a computer, was bizarre—yet he spoke to me with the easy irreverence of a boy addressing an imaginary friend. It was as if I was an echo in the abyss, and the 11-year-old Nicholas was perhaps beginning to wonder if the conversation he was having was in fact with himself.

the Evolution of Animals posted by Nicholas 5 on February 05 2015 at 08:40 AM

Dear Question-writer[a.k.a. the Computer]
I think that Michigan is trying to say that different kinds of animals live on top of her, and the different species of animals evolve into different animals, and become even more different as those evolve too.
That is also how apes evolved into what is now the human race.


Re: the Evolution of Animals posted by Achak on February 05 2015 at 05:56 PM

Hi Nicholas!

Thanks so much for sharing! Michigan definitely has lots of different animals. It's so cool to think about the fact that Michigan gives a home to so many different species! Have you ever wondered how Michigan is able to feed so many different types of animals? I think about that all the time. I look forward to hearing from you soon!


For the record, my name is not Achak, and I don’t spend my days thinking about how Michigan feeds so many animals. I do, however, spend significant portions of time playing fictional characters like Achak and answering the questions of elementary-school children like Nicholas across the Midwest. In this case, Achak is a sensitive 11-year-old from 18th-century Ottawa who has five siblings, a pregnant mother, and an absent father.

Achak leads an intangible life in an online learning unit titled, "Wolves and the Land." His story is part of a supplementary program for teachers called ImagineNation Matters, the product of a collaboration between professors and researchers at the University of Michigan’s education and information schools. The series of short stories in which Achak stars is aimed at teaching kids about the native peoples and wolves of the Great Lakes region; he emerges at the end of each story to answer student questions in a password-protected forum.

His story is one of 11 distinct lessons that teachers have to choose from, with subjects ranging from the Underground Railroad to life as a modern Arab American. But instead of a teacher moderating the discussion, graduate students in Michigan’s School of Education assume the given character’s persona and engage students in conversation. In practice, it likens to the way many conversations are conducted on the Internet: two people engaging in virtual dialogue with at least one lying uncontrollably. Only in this case, the objective isn’t to hook up with a stranger or lure someone into a relationship by means of a fictional persona—it’s to engage students in active learning using lessons that resonate with their imagination.

Once or twice a week, public- and charter-school teachers across Michigan and Ohio set their kids up on the interface to engage in an ImagineNation unit, sometimes rolling squawking carts full of laptops into their elementary classrooms or taking their troops into the campus computer lab. The objective is to have the kids read a one-page story written from the perspective of the main character and then respond to a discussion question at the story’s end. These teachers have volunteered to participate in the program, which doesn't serve as a comprehensive subject, but rather a supplement to social studies or language-arts classes.

The student makeup at these schools varies greatly, from classes comprised largely of first-generation Americans or "at-risk" rural students to those serving suburban Detroit kids who bring their own MacBooks to school. The teachers adapt the program to meet their needs, monitoring their kids’ reading comprehension and comments as needed. Some educators choose to embrace the fictional mystery of the characters, while others slightly bend the truth, telling their students that they are corresponding with role-playing peers at other schools. Others tell it straight; there’s a Scrooge in every bunch.

The notion of Achak as the virtual incarnation of me, a 22-year-old graduate student, is indeed weird—perhaps the epitome of what are often paranoid, existential anxieties about modernity. Add that to the stigmas against web-based learning and its ostensible inhumanity, and you are ushered into the hollow halls of space-age education reserved for Big Brother’s apostates. Yet, to me, the apparent strangeness of this pedagogy is also what makes ImagineNation Matters so compelling.

The question of what this virtual medium affords—other than its convenience of access—is easy to ignore. But that would be a mistake. ImagineNation Matters attempts to shift the paradigm of online learning, but not through revolutionizing the technology. (In fact, the program’s website resembles that of the movie Space Jam’s from 1996, complete with pixelated stock images and noises that hide around the page like an alarm clock you can’t find.) Instead, it was designed to focus on reinventing the potential of a student-teacher exchange via a digital interface.

The relationship between a teacher and student is inherently complex. Ideally, the two respectfully defer to each other in the classroom, with students silently raising their hands and teachers acknowledging them with grand sweeps of the arm. Smiles and pleasantries abound. Everybody "waits their turn." Everybody wins. The walls of many elementary classrooms are a living testament to this ideal, covered with posters of grinning kids giving macho injunctions to their peers to "Do the Right Thing" and "Respect Others." And teachers act (or are, at least, supposed to act) accordingly.

Recent years, however, have seen an almost-frantic obsession in the education world with efforts to move teachers away from the industrial classroom—i.e., a group of passive kids and one freakishly active adult. Perhaps counterintuitively, online classrooms seem largely to emulate this model. The instructor is typically the conduit of information, and while students usually complete their work independent of an authoritative adult watching over, the basic structure remains the same: There is only one provider of knowledge, and the receivers often regurgitate that knowledge just as it was delivered.

But when teachers assume the guise of Achak (or Violet or Lucy) this dynamic changes. Maurita Holland, the School of Information professor and researcher who helped develop the program nearly a decade ago, told me that while traditional online classes emphasize the teaching of skills and facts, her research team "was looking at how we could blur the curriculum." "Our point," she said, "was to work through the story, to think about how the medium could be used for a kind of drama."

A new study from the Center for Childhood Creativity that explores "the critical components of creativity in children." In the report, the author Helen Hadani, a developmental psychologist, highlights the importance of activities such as role-playing in cultivating creativity—a trait that business leaders and policymakers today agree is critical to "successfully navigating an increasingly complex world." President Obama in his 2011 State of the Union address echoed this belief: "The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation," he said. "What we can do … is spark the creativity and imagination for our people." In the report, Hadani underlines the "strong relationship between pretend play in early childhood and the creation of imaginary playmates and make-believe world with later creativity." "Research with highly creative creative individuals, such as MacArthur Fellows and Nobel Prize winners," she writes, "demonstrates a bridge between children who invent imaginary worlds and adult innovation."

Within the dramas of ImagineNation Matters, classroom teachers drift from standing in front of their students to walking beside them, extending the narratives and the characters’ lives beyond the screen through lively conversation. Meanwhile, it turns out that Achak is drastically more interesting than my real-life persona: Mr. Andrew. Like the students, Achak has a favorite color, an annoying brother, and an opinion on whether or not kids should stay up past nine.

More importantly, Achak is vulnerable and empty of pretense, a kid telling secrets to his friends. ImagineNation Matters mirrors everything that is beneficial about conversing on the Internet, providing a democratic space for communication between parties that would otherwise be unequal, their relationship forced. Buried not so deeply within this is a valuable lesson for teachers, too: They’re often most effective when they create a forum that allows them to listen to their kids.

Instructors blend into the class as they mentor students. As Laura Roop, of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education described it, "ImagineNation Matters tends to reposition everybody [involved]." Roop works as a regional director of the National Writing Project, a network devoted to professional development, and approached ImagineNation Matters as a resource to help teachers rethink how they teach writing. "Graduate students become curriculum creators, mentors, and facilitators. Students become actors and creators—they take information they discover, then make it live. Teachers move into facilitating and coaching roles."

In developing the program, researchers wanted to assure students that "their lived experience has a place in school, that it’s not something to put in their locker during classes that doesn’t come out," said Jeff Stanzler, who leads the Interactive Communications & Simulations group at the University of Michigan’s School of Education and has helped develop ImagineNation Matters since its conception in 2005. "We are dealing generationally with a group of students that are much more comfortable and conversant with talking about the emotional dimension [online], the affective dimension."

"At [their] best," Stanzler continued, the "stories allow students to bring these other skills or affects into the classroom where they are valued and can be explored along with their content knowledge."

* * *

Over the course of my semester playing Achak and other characters, it was as if the faces of first-generation Americans, lonely children, and aspiring ninjas came into focus, all responding to the same invitation to speak and be heard.

Conversations between the students and characters usually begin by closely following the unit’s narrative, the kids also testing the hidden graduate student for signs of humor and life. Discussions about traits like favorite foods and family resemblance lay the foundation for a developing friendship. In the conversation pictured below, Kyle was advising Achak about the potential dangers of pursuing a career as the Wabano, or Wise Man, of his community. This prompted an earnest conversation about certain health hazards associated with the job—namely, walking on hot coals. Yet Kyle withholds judgement, choosing instead to allow Achak to explain his reasoning.

BECOMING A WABANO posted by Kyle5 on February 26 2015 at 08:40 AM

Achak, To be honest becoming an Wabono
seems like a lot of work. Especially when you need to do other things first. How do you become a "Wabano''
Like you mentioned in the story you need to become a WiseMan and you seemed pretty firm about it so you occur to me as some one who is serious about there choice of lifestyle. And how do you walk on hot coals and do all that it seems hard, and painful in certain ways. I have a question how did you choose to pick you're lifestyle? Is it hard to live like you do? I have many more questions its probably best if I only ask a few more. I'll ask 4 more questions then I will take off as I will.
1. Who do you most get you're resemblance from?
2. Who were you're parents?
3. Are strict about the people you talk to?
4. Last but not least , When were you born?
I hope you decide to answer my Questions.. Bye

Re: BECOMING A WABANO posted by Achak on February 26 2015 at 05:10 PM

Hi Kyle!

Thanks for all the great questions! I'm happy to answer them. I think that being a Wabano is all about having control over your feelings and emotions. When you are able to do that, you are able to see the truth even in a really difficult or painful situation. At this point, I'm not sure what my position in the village will be, but I hope that my vision quest reveals it to me. As for my resemblance, everyone tells me that I look like my father. He is a trapper that spends most of his time trapping animals and selling the furs in order to make a living for our family. My mother raised me and my five other siblings. She is a strong woman and I have a lot of respect for her. My parents always encouraged me to be kind to everyone that I meet, even if I don't know them. They said that I should always have conversations with everyone, because we share the same earth. Finally, I was born on September 6th. Talk to you soon!


Kyle was concerned about Achak. The grace and willing naiveté of their communication is unlike anything I’ve seen in a brick-and-mortar classroom. Here, the medium offers students a degree of comfort and security that is rare—what Jon D’Angelo, a lecturer of communication science at the University of Wisconsin, would call an "affordance." "Students can be anywhere from completely anonymous, to having a reduced presence by just presenting text with their name," said D’Angelo, who studies online educational simulations and leads graduate classes on technology integration in the classroom. "With this, students don't have to worry about the loss of face or embarrassment that may come with any comments."

Granted, the notion that the Internet can shield small children from the perils of human interaction may drum up all the insecurities among tech skeptics who fear "what this world is coming to." Yet, when a fifth-grader like Nicholas who does not speak in class participates in classroom discussion for the first time, this approach becomes worthy of consideration.

Nicholas attends Washtenaw International Middle Academy, located in a district where an extremely high percentage of students are considered "at-risk."  Still, the school offers children a rich curriculum; it focuses on providing kids with a global education, incorporating foreign languages and cultural studies in accordance with the rigorous International Baccalaureate standards. Tammy Church teaches Nicholas’s "World Issues" class and chose to meld her curriculum with ImagineNation Matters to engage their imagination by communicating with, and building sympathies for, someone removed in space and time.

"Nicholas takes this very seriously," she explained. "He doesn’t really ask questions or add to discussion because he’s busy journaling. He’s very shy. He also has a speech impediment, but online his words flow quickly. He knows his voice is heard." Holland, the professor who helped develop the program, describes this moment as one in which the mentor is calling out as a friend and saying to the student, "I hear you."

The nature of students’ digital exchanges reveals that they’re embracing the characters, inviting Achak and company to take human form. Eleven- and 12-year-olds guide the discussions, telling stories of "the little tears in my eyes on the first day of school" and anxieties over the "bully on the playground that is really mean." For Stanzler, this is what is distinctive about this interface, a space where "students are invested in the character and cared about by the character." Little room is left for anything but the deeply humane.

ImagineNation Matters

Yanell, another fifth-grader, was responding to a question about how she was similar to the main character in a unit’s story—an 11-year-old girl named Lucy who was enslaved on a cotton plantation in rural Kentucky and recently separated from her older brother. Up until this point, our conversation had lilted comfortably along, with Yanell sharing the rudimentary facts of her life: that she was an ESL student from Mexico who liked to play pirates with her brother and watch World Wrestling Entertainment. My responses had matched hers in simplicity and informality. When she told me of her upcoming trip the White House, I replied, "That is so cool! I can’t believe you are going to the White House! I’ve never been there before!" We were kids, albeit separated by a couple hundred years, just shooting the breeze. But our conversation started to evolve once she was prompted to compare herself to my character: She became a girl that missed her dad, sympathizing with Lucy about the pain of loss.

Ms. P, Yanell’s fifth-grade teacher who asked to remain anonymous in accordance with school policy, explained that many of her students are first-generation Americans or immigrants. "[The students have] translated various documents for their family," she said. "Some have even taught adults in their family to read and speak English. They’ve experienced or heard anecdotal stories of their family traveling great distances to reunite with family members." Lucy, too, teaches her parents how to read—in this case a pamphlet about the Underground Railroad traversed by fleeing slaves—and prepares to lead them north. "These fifth-graders know the realities and difficulties of immigration today," Ms. P continued, explaining that her students made connections between Lucy using the "Drinking Gourd" to guide her north and acquaintances in real life who used Coyotes to do the same. "Regardless of their backgrounds and personal journeys, all of my students have come to an understanding of journeys to freedom."

This is how 9-, 10-, and 11-year-olds guide the class from behind computer screens, expanding the scope of their interactions with educators by applying their lives to the stories. They speak as peers, the fictional narratives uniting ESL students at a low-income school and a graduate student hammering away at a MacBook. Yanell and her classmates’ stories of self have a meaningful space for expression, and so, as children do, they begin to offer everything they have.

Suddenly the teacher’s posture becomes one of receiving—and the child’s, perhaps more importantly, becomes one of giving. A Netbook and a flickering wireless connection gives a kid an audience, a relationship, and a voice. And while ImagineNation Matters and the Internet make this possible, Nicholas, Kyle, and Yanell give it life.