Action Figures in the Classroom

As I listen to the soundtrack for Hamilton, it’s easy to envision a set of action figures based on the historical musical. The eponymous Alexander Hamilton doll might come with a quill and a voice box with a seemingly endless variety of quips and quotes. To collect the whole set though you’d also need figures for the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington, Elizabeth Shuyler and her sister Angelica. Presumably an Aaron Burr figure would come with a quick draw dueling action.

In his new book, Play Like a Pirate, Quinn Rollins suggests asking students to conceptualize just such a set. Thinking through the physical design of each figurine, the short biographies, and the actions and accoutrement would elicit accurate detail and also encourage play and experimentation.

Book cover of Play Like a Pirate

Play Like a Pirate follows in the wake of Dave Burgess’s popular Teach Like a Pirate, and the quasi-sequels Learn Like a Pirate (Paul Solarz), and Explore Like a Pirate (Michael Matera). Each of the books encourage reintroducing play into the classroom through games and gamification.

As compared to the other books in the set, Rollins’s contribution focuses more narrowly on material/physical objects with chapters on various toys like action figures, LEGOs, playing cards, and comic books. In his chapter on Hot Wheels, Rollins suggests having students create a car track representing Raskolnikov’s story from Crime and Punishment to prompt discussion on “Where does his story start, where does it end, and where does he fly off the track?” (p. 37). Alternatively you could create a hot wheel representing a white blood and then track it’s progress through the circulatory system on it’s way to an immune response.

I found Rollins’s suggestions about integrating Transformers and Smurfs into the classroom a bit unlikely and dated—I know they’re both in recent movies, but those movies were terrible. Avengers and Angry Birds might have more cultural relevance and would provide Rollins’s desired archetypal frameworks for analyzing stories. The key to the exercise seems to be discussing the the roles of the characters in a story that your students know and then finding the parallels with the historical episode or novel or political event that they are studying.

Several of the chapters mirror projects that I’ve already done in my classes. The chapter on board games both demonstrates how board games can be integrated into a class and how you can develop games for or especially with your students. This chapter quickly summarizes the appeal of serious gaming in education and mirrors much of my work with Keegan Long-Wheeler on our GOBLIN faculty development project. Crucially, Rollins notes the utility of analog game design as a more approachable alternative (and prerequisite) for digital game design.

In the last section of the book, Rollins discusses the utility of comic books, graphic novels, and comic strips. I’ve used at least three of his recommendations (Maus, Trinity, and Watchmen) in my own history of science classes and read a fourth (Cleopatra in Space) with my daughter to introduce her to comic books. As with toys and games, I think that comics can serve as a welcome alternative to thick textbooks and dry lectures. I have used books like Trinity and Fallout as an alternative to Brotherhood of the Bomb or The Making of the Atomic Bomb, because I think that students relax with the shorter, illustrated texts but still encounter the same core information. And, as with toys and games, students can make their own comic strips, either by creating their own narratives and animations, or by using meme generators and other digital tools.

Rollins’s Play Like a Pirate is a quick read that, for me, serves best as a set of suggestions for active learning activities. Not all of the ideas will be applicable for every course, but Rollins love of toys and enthusiasm for play in education will spark some ideas for any reader. You may even find yourself doing a deep dive on eBay for LEGO kits to help you explain molecular structures or Roman architecture.

The Roman Colliseum Made out of Legos

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