December 6, 2021

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Native American board game becomes national teaching tool

Class project shared on PBSLearningMedia.org

While a student at Binghamton University, Alisha Merrill '19 developed While a student at Binghamton University, Alisha Merrill '19 developed
While a student at Binghamton University, Alisha Merrill '19 developed "Journey Home," a board game that can teach students about Native American history and culture. Image Credit: Jackie Stapleton-Durham.

Alisha Merrill ’19 never imagined that her class project would become a nationwide teaching tool.

“I put together this board game, Journey Home, touching on the five major regions of Native Americans,” said Merrill, who majored in childhood and early childhood education at Binghamton University. “I brought a little bit of my culture in and tried to connect it to standards and bring it to classrooms.”

The board game was a product of an elementary education curriculum development assignment. Jenny Gordon, the course instructor, asked her class to create a lesson plan that would engage students.

“One thing [Gordon] said was, ‘I want to be able to see you through your game,’” Merrill said.

Now a teacher in the Johnson City School District in Johnson City, N.Y., Merrill said she was inspired to create the game by her family history.

“My mom’s full-blooded Native American,” Merrill said. “My mother and her siblings were separated when they were younger. They were taken from their home and they were adopted out to different families. My mom spent the rest of her young adult life trying to look for them [her separated siblings] and finding her way back home.”

The characters in Journey Home are children separated from their tribes. The game focuses on the regions of the Northeast, Northwest, Southwest, Midwest and Southeast. To progress, the player has to answer a series of questions about Native American culture. Whoever gets to their respective tribe first, wins.

Merrill hopes that her game will encourage teachers to bring diversity into their classrooms.

“I created my board game to not only bring awareness of [Native American] traditional cultures of the past and contemporary culture of today, but to break the stereotypes that children and adults may have about [them],” Merrill said.

Gordon said that the game is unique because it is more than just an assessment tool.

“You do not have to know everything beforehand,” Gordon said. “You can even use this at the beginning of a unit… and ask: ‘What do you think people in this situation would have to do?

“‘Go home and write about that and when you come in tomorrow, keep playing.’ It’s not necessarily a game that would be played from start to finish in one sitting.”

Aside from the academic benefits of learning about indigenous history, Gordon said the game can help dismantle erroneous beliefs about Native Americans.

“Kids have many stereotypes about Native Americans,” Gordon said. “Seeing the richness and the diversity of Native American cultures can be fascinating. I don’t think that’s something that’s taught at all.”

In May 2018, Gordon led a community event at a Binghamton elementary school to exhibit her students’ projects.

Jackie Stapleton-Durham, director of education at the local NPR/PBS affiliate, WSKG, was there. “They had elementary students sitting with the graduate students playing the games, which was super cool for everybody,” she said. “This one, in particular, stood out.”

In spring 2018, PBS announced that the series Native America would air later that year and encouraged member stations to apply for mini-grants that would support local engagement efforts around the program.

“[Merrill] was open to being part of WSKG’s grant application,” Stapleton-Durham said. “If PBS selected the WSKG project, she would ultimately share the game with other teachers across the country on PBSLearningMedia.org.”

PBS LearningMedia, a free platform used by one in three teachers in the U.S., contains content from PBS, including documentaries, lesson plans and media galleries. Ultimately, PBS accepted Merrill’s application and Journey Home was made available on the platform.

“They were so moved by [Merrill’s] story and the quality of work,” Stapleton-Durham said. “PBS gave feedback on [Merrill’s] proposal and said that one of the things that made it stand out was the fact that they would be helping to support an up-and-coming teacher.”

Merrill anticipates that her board game will instill curiosity in children about Native Americans.

“Introducing the fact that there is this culture and scratching the surface of what happened to Native American people — it is just the start and I’m hoping that they grasp and want to keep learning about it,” Merrill said. “Hopefully, teachers, as their students get older, can keep introducing what happened in history.”

Posted in: Arts & Culture, CCPA