Setting Sail For Social Studies Riches

It’s been a rough couple months for Aidan K. ’26 since he and his shipmates traded their safe, European home for high seas adventure and the boundless promise of the New World.

“I have de-century,” Aidan explained to the class. Teacher Stacey Kubis gently corrected his pronunciation. “Dysentery,” she said. Aidan soldiered on and described the symptoms. “I suffer from stomach cramps and diarrhea,” he said, eliciting peals of laughter from his fellow third-grade explorers.

Aidan shrugged. “I drank some bad water,” he said.

This is just one example of the sharp vicissitudes students have to overcome as Dungeons & Dragons meets social studies, and Kubis brings the Age of Exploration to life as a role playing game. The class is divided into two groups of five students and one group of four. Together they make up the crew of a ship, while individually each child represents a unique character whose strengths and weaknesses are determined by a role of the die.

For example, the Navigator is responsible for keeping the ship on course and adept at reading maps and using an astrolabe, while the Helmsman follows the Navigator’s course, ably steering the ship through foul weather and treacherous seas. These characters will have the highest scores in the Seamanship trait, and among the lowest scores in Negotiation. As situations arise that demand certain skills, the player best suited to dealing with the problem rolls the die that decides the fate of the crew.

Kubis played the role of Buccaneer Dungeon Master and set off loud and impassioned debates when she announced that, after making landfall in the soon-to-be Americas, the explorers beheld a large group of natives eying them from the woods.

“Do you choose to ignore them or engage them?” Kubis asked.

Three tables elected to talk to the natives, while Anna F.’s crew opted to play it cool and ignore them.

“They might be mean,” Anna said. “They might want to kill us!” Sienna C. added. “Yeah, they might be really mean,” Anna clarified.

As of presstime, the third grade’s adventures in the New World continue to unfold, and while we don’t know how this first meeting of Europeans and indigenous peoples will play out, we do know that Aidan is still suffering from dysentery.

“This is a fun way to extend the unit,” Kubis said. “If we didn’t find a way to liven it up, the material tends to come across a little dry. A lot of names and dates and places that don’t necessarily mean much on their own.

“But when we do this,” she continued, “it becomes something real to students.”