How I Started a Dungeons and Dragons Club for Elementary Level Students

My first D&D Club!

Introduction

On November 14th – 18th of 2018, I attended the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  This was my 4th time in a row attending these national conferences for gifted youth.  Since my elementary school is a GATE cluster school, I attend with the intention of bringing back the latest and greatest teaching techniques to share with my staff.  I enjoy the chance to get away from the classroom for a while, learn new teaching techniques, as well as the opportunity to network with some of the leaders in the Gifted and Talented Education community.

On this particular trip, my best friend Phillip went with me, and his sole purpose was for us to take a VIP tour of Prince’s incredible 65,000 sq. ft. studio, Paisley Park!  This is a whole separate story in and of itself, but the point is, we were together for a few days and able to talk quite a bit.  On the morning I was to begin my daily workshop attendance, Phil said to me, “You know Rob, the next step for you is to be a presenter at one of these national conferences.”  I thought to myself, “What do I know, that these hundreds of amazing teachers, professors, and leaders in the field of gifted children don’t know?”

So Phillip got on a plane that morning heading for home, and I began my workshops for the day, his statement floating around the back of my mind…

Somewhere around the middle of the day, as I was walking to lunch, it hit me.  Dungeons and Dragons!!  That’s what I know that these other folks don’t!  And I know how great of a game it is, not just for gifted children, but for all kids!  D&D encourages critical thinking, problem solving, cooperation, storytelling, and so much more!  I can give a presentation on the benefits of D&D for gifted children!!

For more information on how to play D&D, the game’s history, and how it benefits children, view my slideshow!

My experience with D&D

I haven’t played D&D all my life.  As a matter of fact, I’m pretty new to the game as it exists today.  As a kid growing up in the 80’s, I had a friend next door who was a year ahead of me in school.  In junior high, he joined a D&D Club at his school, and occasionally, he brought the game and his books over to my house to play.  I remember us hanging around upstairs in my room dabbling…not really knowing all the rules, but playing and enjoying it enough to keep our interest for a while.  Shortly after, I purchased a few of my own first edition books and had a blast pouring over the Monster Manual, reading about all the fantastical creatures, and looking at the art (which was pretty archaic compared to the art they use today).  As I got older, I’d play with a few buddies down the street every now and then, but I never played consistently enough to really get a good grasp of the game.  Despite never playing on a regular basis, it never took away from the fun we had playing.

Fast forward 20 + years to 2016, I had a group of friends, several of whom were really into board gaming, and every now and then we’d get together to play various kinds of board games such as Talisman, Zombies!!!, Star Wars:  X-Wing, and Descent.  While I did like these games, I never really got into them, but I did enjoy the social aspect of playing with guys.  One night, after a marathon of gaming and a few adult beverages, I barked, “We need to bust out some old school D&D one of these days!!”  Little did I know, that my friend of 12+ years, Josh, was waaaaay into D&D.  He kept it on the under, probably because he thought that would be too nerdy…even for us!  He replied that he would volunteer to DM (Dungeon Master) for us, if we were serious about it.  We were. 

So my buddy Josh took us through the 5th edition D&D Starter Set, which contains the adventure “Lost Mine of Phandelver” and immediately, I was hooked!  After about 5 – 10 sessions, we finished the adventure and I volunteered to run the next one, which we’re still in the middle of today.  It’s called Storm King’s Thunder.  This is when I got really immersed in the game of D&D.  I read the books, created lots of hands-on items, and studied fanatically in order to be the best Dungeon Master I could.  I learned a lot on the fly and made lots of mistakes, but we had a good time!  I think my teaching experience helped me a lot!  First, I always came prepared, I enjoyed creating hands-on artifacts for the game, and finally, I realized I’m a control freak, so being a DM was a perfect fit! 🙂  The bottom line is, being a player and taking a chance on being a DM was important in giving me the confidence to start my own club. And shortly after this experience, I did just that.

Running Storm King’s Thunder for my buddies.

Starting the Club

If I was going to give a presentation on D&D to academics, I was going to need some authentic evidence and experience.  I decided to start a D&D club at the elementary school where I worked. Not a problem, as I’ve created and led several different clubs at my school over the years, such as chess, robotics, and coding.  So I pitched the idea to my principal and asked, first, if she would support a club like this (I showed her the books and explained the benefits, etc.) and, second, if the school would be willing to pay me the going rate for running after school clubs, as it had in the past.  She said, “Yes!” to both!  Forty-four dollars an hour to play D&D?  Ahhhh, yes, please!  Truth is, I would have done it for free, but whenever I take on extra work outside regular school hours, I try to get compensated for it.  I feel teachers should be paid for extra work like this, and whenever possible, I’ll try and make a case for it.  The next hurtle I faced was that the books and materials are rather expensive.  How would I pay for everything?  I decided to try something new:  DonorsChoose.org.

DonorsChoose.org

I’d known about DonorsChoose.org for several years and have given several family and friends small donations, but I had never tried it myself.  Truth is, I hate asking for help, and I hate asking people for money even more.  But there was no way I was going to get the school to pay for a bunch of $50 D&D books.  However, I really enjoy playing, and I really wanted to start this club, so, reluctantly, I decided to give it a shot.

The website itself was pretty easy to navigate and the forms easy to fill out.  Within a few days I had the application filled out and was ready to go!  Click here to view my application and project details.  My writing might help you see what it takes to get your project funded.  I imagined I’d have two adults DM’ing (running games); myself and possibly one of my gaming buddies.  I figured with two DM’s I could have about 12 kids in my club.  With this in mind, I asked for the following items for my club (also available to view on my project page):

  • 12 Player’s Handbooks
  • 4 Monster Manuals
  • 3 Dungeon Master’s Guides
  • 2 Chessex RPG mats
  • 1 Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes
  • 1 Volo’s Guide to Monsters
  • 1 Xanathar’s Guide to Everything
  • 1 Dungeon Master’s Screen Reincarnated
  • 1 bag of 100+ random polyhedral dice

The cost of the materials ($581.75), including tax ($53.23), a 3rd party payment processing fee ($8.73), fulfillment labor and materials ($30), and a “suggested donation” ($118.89) to help DonorsChoose.org reach more classrooms, brought the grand total I was asking for to $792.60!  I have found through experience, at least for beginners at the elementary school level, that Tome of Foes, Volo’s Guide, and Xanathar’s Guide are not essential to the success of a club.

Within a day, an old fraternity buddy of mine gave me a nice $100 kick-off donation, telling me, “I just wish I hadn’t tossed my old books!  I had a ton of dungeons and dice!”  Then a few friends and family donated money that, in several instances, DonorsChoose matched, because all donations within the first 7 days are matched by the company…but only if the donors click a special button or box…which some did not.  It would have been nice if DonorsChoose just automatically doubled the donation, without a donor having to jump through this extra hoop.  If I did this over again, I would stress to people to make sure to click whatever they needed to in order to double that donation!

Things got off to a great start, but cooled off after a while.  Then a few days later, a teacher from Sellersville, PA, whom I’d never met, donated $125!  She said…

“I love D&D and wished I’d learned to play earlier than I did (I was a senior in high school).  This is a hobby/game that develops so many things!  Critical Thinking, math, creativity, story-telling, decision making, team building all revolving around a story.  I’m so happy you are using this in your class!”

Then later that day, an anonymous donor from California donated about $100 to fully fund my project!  I was extremely humbled and excited!

Creating the Club (Club Logistics)

Next, before the materials arrived, I needed to figure out the details of the club, that is, which students would have first opportunity to join?  I teach 4th grade, so my initial thoughts were to keep it within the intermediate grade levels (4th – 6th), starting with 4th grade and expanding out from there.  Obviously, at least for the time being, I would be the only DM, so the amount of kids I could serve at one time effectively would be about 6.  Incidentally, I did ask a gaming buddy if he could help me out for an hour a week, which would allow me to double the amount of kids in my club.  Unfortunately, his life was way too busy.

After pondering this question for a few days, I decided to ask my class of 4th graders if they would be interested in an after-school D&D club.  I figured I’d start in my class, then expand to the other 4th grade class, and then try 5th and then 6th.  Turns out A LOT of the kids in my class were not only interested, but returned their signed permission slips by the next day…12 in all!   Click here for a copy of the permission slip I created.  The logical next step, since I would be the only DM, was to break the 12 into 2 groups of 6.  Since I only had half of the year left, I needed to get started right away.

Christmas in February!!

The supplies were delivered to the school really quickly!  It was like Christmas in February opening these boxes full of D&D books and materials!  When I showed the kids the books, they got even more excited, because the artwork on those covers just pops!  I let the kids take home the Player’s Handbook and the Monster Manual just to whet their appetite, and they loved reading and looking at all the pictures contained inside them.  I also shared a link to the free, condensed digital version of the Player’s Handbook that Wizards of the Coast offers, so they always had a copy available at home.

For the adventure that I decided to run, I chose a really simple one, based entirely on Matt Colville’s adventure from his “Your First Adventure” YouTube video series. I knew I wouldn’t have much time with each group, so I needed something simple, quick, and easy.  Matt Colville’s run-through of all the basics for creating your own adventure made it so easy!  I changed several names and tinkered a bit with the plot and locations, but in no time, I had a ready-to-use adventure.  It’s the perfect introduction to the game for newbies, and I plan to use it that way in the future when I DM for new players.

First Club Meeting

I decided our D&D club would meet 1 hour per week after school, which really isn’t enough time, but with my busy schedule as a teacher and parent with 2 kids at home, I couldn’t do much more.  We made it work, though.  Beforehand, I gave the kids the choice of using pre-generated characters or creating their own.  They unanimously voted on creating their own.  So before our first meeting, I had them take home a Player’s Handbook and said, “I want you to read about the different races, classes, and backgrounds and come to our first meeting with a few choices of what kind of character you might want to play.” 

Because the kids chose to create their own characters, our first meeting was actually a “session zero” where I talked about some of the basics of the game and explained some of the particulars of the character sheet (i.e. what dexterity, constitution, etc. means).  We took turns rolling up each ability score, and the kids absolutely LOVED rolling the dice!  We didn’t get too far before our hour was over.  Honestly, they didn’t have much interest in getting too deep into their character sheet and wanted to start playing at our next meeting, so I took the sheets home and finished them up for the kids.  I think I could have skipped the personality traits, bonds, and flaws part of the character sheet, honestly, because they didn’t use them that often with role-playing.

Second Club Meeting

The following week we started the game.  I started the adventure by showing them a digital map of Faerûn (from The Forgotten Realms) on my overhead screen, and then zoomed in on the area where our adventure took place.  I chose an area west of Myth Drannor called The Spiderhaunt Woods.  I made up a small town called Willowdale just outside the forest, knowing that the characters would have to make their way through those woods at some point!  Then I showed them another digital map of a tavern I found online.  This was the place where they all “met” each other.  I also included a YouTube video that played old tavern sounds in the background.  I had several NPC’s (non-player characters) in the tavern ready to disseminate information to players, but found the kids very shy at first and reluctant to role play their characters.  Incidentally, you might notice some “minis” (miniatures) in some of the pictures here.  Minis are representations of heroes and/or monsters.  Some come fully painted and assembled, and others are plain white, so they can be painted.  They are helpful to represent where a character is on the battlefield, but not a necessary part of the game.  I brought some from my own collection at home for the kids to use.  They loved using them!

Once we started getting into the game, the kids really enjoyed themselves!  And, look, as a new-ish DM, I know I messed up a few rules, fudged a few dice rolls, and at times, just made up stuff on the fly, but it didn’t matter.  The kids had a blast!  They particularly enjoyed the battles with monsters and baddies and collecting loot and treasure.  They even began strategizing in interesting and creative ways!  As I write this, my last group for the year has completed their adventure.  When we finished, I showed them how to “level up” using the Player’s Handbook.  They were excited to see what new features and skills they received!  I also let them keep a set of the dice and their character sheet. You should have seen the look of excitement on their faces!  The kids enjoyed every meeting and looked forward to each consecutive week.  It was definitely a success!

Problems/Issues

Here is a short list of a few issues and hang-ups I had during the sessions, along with what I did to try and alleviate the problems.  Hopefully, this heads up will help you in your future endeavors as a DM in an elementary school.  Please comment below with ideas I may not have thought of!

  • Kids all trying to talk at once
    • I had the kids speak or act only in their initiative order.
    • In the future, I may create a poster of rules or “commandments” kids must follow in order to play.
  • Students goofing off at times
    • In the future I will be more selective in creating the groups.  For example, separate dominating personalities into different groups. 
  • Missing/lost book
    • A Player’s Handbook came up missing, and despite an appeal to all parents, it never turned up.  I have no proof it was even a kid that took it, I just know that I was a little lax in my monitoring of which students borrowed which books.  Next year, I’ll have a better check-in/check-out system.
  • At times, I felt a few of my kids weren’t engaged and looked/acted bored
    • This tends to happen as your groups get bigger.  Ideally, a group of 3-5 players is best, in my opinion.  This way, it doesn’t take as long in between turns. 
    • I gave the kids a task.  For example, I had one young lady be in charge of initiative order; another in charge of keeping track of the loot.
    • Have an NPC talk to them, or a monster attack them! 🙂

Takeaways/Results

Here is a list of some positive takeaways/observations from my first run at an elementary D&D club:

  • Letting the kids check out or take home the books ensured that they were engaging in high level texts!  My student teacher and principal observed us playing at various times and marveled at the level of vocabulary the kids were using during the game.
  • Letting the kids study the different races and classes beforehand gave the kids the opportunity to think critically about the type of character they chose to play and what its strengths and weaknesses would be.
  • One boy wanted to be a DM so bad, that he borrowed one of the Dungeon Master’s Guides and even began planning an adventure and bantering about it on a Reddit site!  His mother played with him and thought it was a really cool game, even though she had never heard of it before.  I may try utilizing him next year as a helper/extra DM! 
  • Lots of mental math!  Not super high-level computations, but math nevertheless.
  • One of my GATE girls translated her own riddles into Elvish and Dwarvish and gave it to me to solve! 
She took the idea of a riddle in the game to the next level!
  • One of my troubled boys discovered his step father used to play D&D, so they immediately connected over the game and had a blast looking over the books together.
  • The kids had to learn and practice patience, teamwork, and sharing.  One example was sharing healing potions with other teammates who didn’t have one, but needed it.  Or using their own spell slots to heal comrades.  They began to see the importance of the success of the “group” rather than themselves as an individual player.
  • The kids had to work as a team to divvy up the weapons, loot, and treasure that they found along their adventure…not an easy task for 10-year olds!  🙂
  • Got a really cool picture from one of them! 
This cool picture was left on my desk the morning after one of our sessions!

Final Reflections

So…do I still feel like Dungeons and Dragons is a wonderful educational game that benefits children in many ways?  The answer is an emphatic, “Yes!”  I feel that role playing games such as D&D engage children on so many levels, and they work well for kids in elementary school all the way up to high school and beyond!  Playing D&D promotes reading, writing, and math, collaboration and teamwork, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving, and fosters social benefits, such as empathy and tolerance.  I definitely recommend that one play the game a few times before embarking on this journey.  While it does take a lot of work and requires quite a bit of passion, there are a myriad of resources available on the internet.  The bottom line is, and DM’s will tell you this, if you want to be a DM, you have to just jump into it.  You’re going to make mistakes.  That’s O.K.!  You’ll get better and the kids you work with will be none the wiser.  They’re going to have lots of fun and great memories of the time you spent with them playing this fantastic game called Dungeons and Dragons!

Do you have any experience running a D&D club at a school? Any other advice or recommendations?  If so, please share ideas and comments section!

A close read of Charles Nahl’s Sunday Morning in the Mines!

Nahl_1872,_Sunday_Morning_in_the_Mines
From “http://commons.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nahl_1872,_Sunday_Morning_in_the_Mines.jpg

One of my favorite 4th grade Social Studies topics is The Gold Rush.  To get my GATE teaching certification, I created a differentiated unit of study on the topic, and one of my favorite lessons from that unit is a close read of the painting Sunday Morning in the Mines by Charles Nahl.  For those who aren’t familiar, close reading is a thoughtful, critical analysis of a text (or piece of art) in order to develop a deeper understanding of the text’s form, craft, or meaning.  It’s taking a critical eye and looking into a piece of writing, a poem, a painting, etc. and searching for deeper meanings and themes.  Click here for a link to more information about close reading.

I begin by asking the kids to take a look at the painting and ask them what they see, and what parts of it jump out at them.  I have them discuss what they see with their partner, and then jot down some ideas in their double-sided notebooks.  Next, I ask them to look for something they think is important, or something in the painting that they haven’t noticed yet.  Then, we reconvene as a class and on butcher paper, I write down things the students noticed.  If the kids are missing something important, I might ask guiding questions, such as, “What do you think the men in the background are doing?”

Next, I model an “I see…I wonder…I would argue” prompt. Mine might look something like this:

I see men in the background under a tent or some sort of covering.”

I wonder what they are doing?”

I would argue that they are fighting.  I say that because one man is either throwing a punch, or has the other man’s neck in his hand.  They seem to be moving around in an excited manner.”

It’s essential that the kids give examples and show evidence from the painting to support their argument.  I give them a chance to write one on their own in their DSNB and then we share out.

Next, I take a piece of butcher paper and divide it in half vertically, and label the left side “Left side” and the right side “Right side”, referring to the two sides of the painting.  I ask students to use descriptive adjectives to explain what they see on the left side and then on the right side.  At this point, the differences between the two sides start to become apparent.

Finally, I might say something like, “So as you know, like writers, artists often try to convey messages in their paintings.  Sometimes the paintings have a theme or represent an idea.  So what do you think the painter is trying to tell us?  Discuss with your partner.”  Then I would ask for volunteers to share out loud.

After a lengthy discussion, I would have them respond to the following prompt in their DSNB, “Charles Nahl’s purpose for painting ‘Sunday Morning in the Mines’ was ____________________.”  Make sure you support your claim with evidence!!”  Click here for a copy of my lesson notes.

I love opening the kids’ eyes to this painting!  The main theme of the painting is that there were two sides of The Gold Rush, both the good and the bad, and they are represented on the left and right side of the painting, respectively.  The redwood tree trunk in the middle of the painting provides a line of division between the two scenes.  On the left, you have the “wild” side and general lawlessness of the Gold Rush: wild riders tearing through the campground, fighting, drinking, smoking, gambling, and the drunk miner precariously clutching his gold dust, while nefarious individuals eye it covetously.  On the right side, you have Sunday as a day of rest: writing home to families, laundry, and reading from the bible.  Nahl had first-hand knowledge of the gold rush, as he was actually a miner in the early 1850’s, so his representations of the mining tools, camp luxuries, and insight into camp life lend authenticity to his painting.  The man inside the cabin writing a letter is said to be a self-portrait of Mr. Nahl.  I love the lizard posted up on the rock in the bottom right hand corner of the painting, just surveying the whole scene!

If you teach about the Gold Rush, consider using “Sunday Morning in the Mines” as a creative, engaging, multi-faceted approach to integrating several educational topics and ideas, including common core state standards for 4th grade (key ideas and details and integration of knowledge and ideas), close reading, theme, accountable talk, and art!