AP Literature Students Experience The Virtual World of Umuofia

Special thanks to Dr. Bissonette for co-writing, proofing and letting me experience his class. I also want to thank Dr. Alan Webb for his permission to publish this post. Dr. Webb recently published a book for teachers about the Literary Worlds project, Teaching Literature in Virtual Worlds

Not being a pusher of technology and its potential uses in the classroom is one of the hardest parts of my job. So, when a teacher approaches me and tells me of and upcoming project involving technology, I am immediately interested. I start asking questions like: How can I help? Can I come watch? Can I participate? Where did you get this idea?

Enter Allendale Columbia School English teacher, Dr. Vincent Bissonette. When he told me about his plan to immerse his AP Literature students in the Village of Umuofia, a multi-room virtual world based on Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” I was immediately interested in seeing how this was going to work. Achebe’s novel, published in 1959, is set in 19th century Nigeria, and it deals with tensions within the native community both before and after the arrival of Christian missionaries. The Village of Umuofia, developed by Dr. Allen Webb at Western Michigan University, uses multimedia (photographs and music clips) to help readers get a better sense of the African village. Anyone can visit as a guest and actually see the cloths and homes, the dances and music that are described in the novel. But the really exciting thing about this virtual world is how it provides a space for students to inhabit this setting as a particular characters. While reading the book, students were assigned a characters. Students needed to understand their characters within the context of the cultural matrix of the novel so that they could play them within the virtual world, reacting to events as they unfolded. As one student said, “It allowed me to place myself within the world of Umuofia.”

Here is a screen shot of what students saw as they navigated the Virutal World of Umuofia.

Vince, for his part, acted as the “Town Crier,” announcing happenings which the students then responded to. There is no winner. The point is simply to interact. Because the characters represent such a diversity of perspective (European and African, Christian and non-Christian, man and woman, young and old, outsider and insider) there are plenty of underlying tensions and overt hostilities. In a follow-up response, several students wrote about how the activity helped them to understand how individual voices can be drowned in a crowd. One wrote, “I felt that this representation of conflict showed how when many conversations can be going on at once, people can feel unheard, and misconceptions occur easily.” Many students resorted to shouting, using ALL CAPS TO GET THEIR POINT ACROSS, though this did little to keep the peace.

I know how they felt because I also read the book and participated. Being in character required identifying emotionally with that character, even though I didn’t agree with or like my character. Thus I could both judge and empathize with my character. In other words, I and the students came away with a better understanding of the texture of the culture and the rapid changes brought by the introduction of Christianity. The entire class was engaged and excited about interacting in this virtual book. My favorite quotation was, “Can we do this for every book?”


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