Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Reading, Writing, and... Dungeons & Dragons? An Interview with Play 15's Resident Dungeon Master, Phil Zoshak

We caught up with Phil Zoshak, Program Coordinator at Orlando's Page 15 and the Urban Think! Foundation, to talk about the way his org is using table-top RPGs (role playing games, for the newbs out there) to teach language arts skills to the children they serve in Parramore.

You started Play 15 this past February.  Since then, what's been the overall reaction from your kids?

When we started Play 15, we had no idea how the kids were going to react. We had done a small test group last year, and the kids liked it a lot, but now this was big boy D&D, so admittedly, I was nervous. The reaction and response from the kids has been overwhelmingly positive. The kids LOVE IT, and I love that they love it. I think the coolest thing I get to hear all day is, “Mr. Phil when are we gonna play Dungeons and Dragons again?” Then, of course, we get them writing about the game, and I get to see their educational skills sharpen, all through play.

How did the idea come about of using table-top RPGs to get kids to write?

The idea actually came from my own childhood. When I was a kid I hated reading and writing (I am embarrassed to admit this, you know, as I work for a children’s literacy nonprofit). I was constantly put in remedial Language Arts classes, and my confidence in reading and writing suffered greatly.

Flash forward to 9th grade, I just received an “F” in English in my first nine weeks, and feeling rather dejected, I picked up a video game, because that would certainly help with my grades… well actually, it did. The game was called Everquest, and it started me on the path of Nerdom. So, in Everquest there were a lot of spells, locations, and monsters that had strange names, and I started becoming curious as to what the words meant. So over the next few months I learned words like Alacrity, Bastion, Feign, Malaise, Sunder, and Amalgamation (still my favorite word). I was learning vocabulary without really thinking about it. This helped me build confidence in my English class, and it also gave me an interest in the language arts for the first time in my life.

Jump ahead two years, and now I am getting on the right track. I’m in 11th grade and my good friend, Jessica (who now volunteers for Play 15), invites me to play Dungeons & Dragons with her group, and the game amazed me! I could be whoever I wanted, could essentially do whatever I could think up, and it allowed me to be creative it a totally different way. I was hooked.

Better yet, D&D got me into writing and reading. I would go home after our game, and write about what my character did that day from his perspective, and while my writing was admittedly poor (I wouldn’t win any Nebula awards for it) it made me confident as a writer. When people ask me how I know Play 15 will work, I like to respond with, "Well, it worked for me!"

What's the craziest thing that's happened in a Play 15 session so far?

When the kids reached the climax of our story I had the main evil guy fall out a window, to pretend he was defeated, only to come back as a dragon and have the “real fight” begin. Well, I didn’t plan on all of my kids jumping out the window to make sure he died. I had to think of a quick way to rescue them from what should have (and more Evil DMs would have) ended them.

Thinking on my feet, I have the evil guy transform into the dragon, and now I have my kids’ characters falling onto the dragon, and going up for a ride. So, what originally was going to be a battle in the midst of a ruined castle, has now become my kids’characters battling a dragon in a stormy sky. It’s stuff like this that you can’t get anywhere else but Play 15! Also, it really made their writing easy and fun afterwards, because they wanted to describe what they did!

What's your take on "nerd culture" becoming mainstream and trends like "geek chic"?

See, the social definition of a nerd, as I understand it, is someone who is immensely passionate about something. So we can be nerds for anything. There can be sports nerds, game nerds, fashion nerds, or literacy nerds. If you are passionate for it, to fanatical levels, you’re a nerd! I think, really, nerd culture has always been mainstream, it just is now getting to the realm that I call home: Fantasy/Sci-Fi nerds.

And sure, are there people who are dressing up and trying to be nerdy? Absolutely. But they are missing the point of being a nerd: it’s not style, it’s the attitude. I’m all about nerds entering the limelight. I think it’s awesome and it allows us to show what our thriving culture is capable of.

In addition to Play15, what other "out-there" ideas has your team considered for teaching reading and writing?

One word: Catapults. I'm kidding! But we do have our 6th annual Young Writers Camp coming up in just a few weeks that I am very excited about. There are five week-long camps that range from little 2nd and 3rd graders all the way up to high schoolers, so we will be teaching kids of all ages the joy of reading and writing. Our camps are always “out there” as everyone who works for Page 15 is a little crazy in their own right -- in a good way. I think the summer camp is easily one of the best programs that we put on throughout the year.  Eventually it would be really cool to do some Play 15 summer camps (I’ll beg my boss later about that).

What's your favorite place in Orlando that people might not know about?

Orlando has a thriving nerd culture. There are a ton of great game/comic book shops in the area, but my favorite one by far and away is A Comic Shop, on 436 and University. If you are interested in comics, but have been either too overwhelmed or intimidated to start, this is the perfect place to go to. The staff there are super knowledgeable and friendly, and are always ready for some nerd talk.

Another little secret about A Comic Shop is their bar, called The Geek Easy. It’s a nerd-themed bar, that sells good beer, and the perfect nerd snacks ($1 Grilled Cheese anyone?). If you're interested in nerd culture, and want a good place to start, A Comic Shop and the Geek Easy are perfect!

Geek out at the Geek Easy at A Comic Shop!


  1. DnD boils down to creative problem solving or working with your resources to achieve a goal. It's very cool to see it used to challenge and teach kids.