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It’s a Blast to Blend In

Steve Przymus, Assistant Professor of Bilingual/ESL at TCU

By Julie Engebretson for TCU Endeavors Magazine

Steve Przymus spent 20 years teaching English to immigrant and refugee students in U.S. public schools. During this time, he witnessed the powerful relationship between academic performance and identity — or the way students are perceived by peers.

“Identity is probably the single greatest predictor of educational success,” said Przymus, assistant professor of bilingual education. “I saw it when comparing learning in a classroom setting to learning in a community of practice, like an interest- based club, where students can control their identity a little bit more. So they’re seen as a really good chess player or soccer player or dancer rather than as someone who doesn’t speak the dominant language as well.”

These communities of practice coupled with school activities, or “blended affinity spaces,” help students feel more accepted, engaged and valued at school, Przymus said, “which translates into higher academic achievement.”

Of late, Przymus has applied a type of gaming theory to the educational experience of transnational students attending public schools in Mexico. His recent paper, under review at The Journal of Language, Identity & Education, seeks to advance the use of today’s most popular video games, such as Dark Souls, Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, at schools as educational tools and identity- building activities. These games belong to a genre known as massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), in which hundreds or even thousands of players at a time are navigating a complex virtual world.

“Many of these transnational students were born in Mexico, then moved to the U.S. at a very early age, where they attended school for some years,” Przymus said. “Even more of them were born in the U.S. and that’s all they’ve ever known, but for a variety of reasons, their families move back to Mexico.”

Since they lived and attended school in the United States, these students often speak fluent English. But in Mexico, peers and educators criticize their Spanish. They are often teased and referred to as pocho, a derogatory word referring to an “Americanized Mexican.”

“Many do speak Spanish in their homes and even among their new peers in Mexico,” Przymus said. “But they’re judged for sounding different.

Drawing on the success of blended affinity spaces in U.S. schools, Przymus imagined activities that might achieve two ends: helping transnational students in Mexico improve their Spanish and allowing them to use their English so that it’s viewed as an asset rather than something negative.

“English is a skill that almost all of these million or so transnational students have from their time in the United States,” Przymus said. “I was thinking about this with one of my college students, and he told me he was a gamer— that he played multiplayer online video games— and that in the gaming world, English is the lingua franca.

If a gamer speaks and reads English, that student can log into any international server and understand what other players are saying and read communication between active players. Gamers who understand English can also get tips and tricks from gaming blogs and websites.

Przymus’ paper, “From DACA to Dark Souls: MMORPGs as Sanctuary and Site of Bilingual Language/Identity Development for Los Otros Dreamers in Mexican Schools,” proposes creating blended affinity spaces centered on multiplayer video games in schools.

“So [transnational students in Mexico] would be valued within the context of a video game because of their English, while much of the discussion outside the game among their peers is happening in Spanish,” Przymus said. “It’s where real learning takes place. These transnational students would be using their whole linguistic repertoire, talking to and trying to understand their peers in Spanish and translating what’s happening on the screen, which is in English.”

For the study, Przymus collected data from anonymous online surveys as well as in-person interviews for which survey- takers could volunteer.

“What participants reported was that they not only improved their Spanish through playing games with friends from their new school, but these new friendships may have been the only, or at least the greatest, reason for their continued schooling,” Przymus said. “Without them, they likely would have dropped out of school.”

Mary Martin Patton, dean of the College of Education, said Przymus’ work with transnational youth stands to impact classrooms around the world.

“Immigrant youth face many challenges as they transition to new countries and cultures,” she said. “Przymus’ work on computer-assisted identity development contributes to best practices for students whose school pathways have been disrupted.”

Bringing multiplayer video games into a public school could take the shape of   a faculty-sponsored club or, as Przymus suggests, gaming could be a pedagogical tool just like showing a video, inviting a guest speaker or spending class time in a language lab. There are hurdles, however. Many games contain graphic content; there are concerns about sexism and bullying in gaming; and much of the developing world is hampered by unreliable internet connections.

“Still, if educators could somehow mitigate these challenges … I think it would be worth the effort,” Przymus said. “In my research, many students were desperate for sanctuary, social and academic support, and a way to position themselves with the identities they desired. Gamers told me that video games were what saved them, keeping them in communication with friends in the U.S. and providing a network of peers that helped with social and academic support in Mexico.”