Our story begins in an ordinary suburban middle school with a group of unsuspecting students, and one smart-alecky question to the teacher: “Mr. Hunter, did you hear about the zombie that attacked some guy the other day?”
Of course, the other students dismiss it, all except for one. He’s intrigued enough to dig a little deeper.
The student and Mr. Hunter begin plotting reported attacks on a map, and trying to discern a pattern in the outbreak’s spread.
“They’re getting closer to us,” the student concludes.
“Get home,” warns Mr. Hunter. “If the power comes back on, watch the news. If it doesn’t come back on, I suggest you stay home.”
It may be too late. The zombie apocalypse is upon them, and only one thing can save them: geography.
A standards-based curriculum, with zombies
This story is the brainchild of the real Mr. Hunter — David Hunter, a mild-mannered humanities teacher at Bellevue Big Picture School.
Students at this alternative public middle school read the story not in a textbook, but a comic book (here's the free preview version).
It forms the backdrop for an exploration of geography that Hunter hopes goes deeper than the stereotype of simply memorizing state capitals.
“Professional geographers are not just people who tell you what the state capitals are,” Hunter says. “They're people who are analyzing the spatial relationship and how the Earth affects humans or how humans affect the Earth.”
The whole curriculum is based on more than 70 learning standards adopted by the state and by academic societies. The lesson plans fill a thick teacher’s guide and include worksheets, discussion questions and 10 full student projects. Students must consider how to duck the undead invasion, secure their supplies and, eventually, rebuild society.
“Students have to create a project that outlines where they would choose to settle based on the physical characteristics, like the landforms and the climate,” Hunter says.
Hunter got the idea when he heard another teacher lament about students who, instead of focusing on the lesson, only wanted to talk about zombies. He decided to try and create a curriculum that integrates zombies into the core concepts of geography.
He launched a campaign on the fundraising website Kickstarter, hoping to raise $5,000 to develop the materials. He wound up with nearly $12,000.
A hit with students
Zombies are all the rage these days, especially among seventh graders. Isabella Burckhardt and Jackson Hale were among Hunter’s guinea pigs. Burckhardt says prior to zombie-based learning, she had no interest in geography.
“It just didn’t sound fun. And memorizing stuff didn’t sound interesting, and I thought I wouldn’t even need to know that stuff. But ZBL, it’s like, oh, it sounds so much more fun now,” she says.
For their part, the students don’t think the non-traditional approach sacrifices any rigor. They talk about the experience of plotting zombie attack data on maps, defining different regions and planning ways to get resources — all bread-and-butter geography skills.
“I’ve always thought when you’re doing something you enjoy, you’ll remember it a lot better,” says Hale.
‘Quite the character’
The students say the unconventional curriculum is in keeping with their teacher's personality.
“He is definitely quite the character,” says Hale.
“He’s a really fun, creative guy. He’s into all different sorts of things like ballet and then parkour, and zombies and tattoos and school,” says Burckhardt.
That last one was not always an interest of Hunter’s. His memories of high school aren’t pleasant ones, like when he had to choose a project in 11th grade:
“There was a list of topics, and each student was assigned one randomly. And I got something I didn’t care about. And I saw a topic that I really cared about, and we couldn’t switch.
“I got so mad that I didn’t do the project, and failed the entire year. And I dropped out of high school.”
Hunter went on to wash dishes and join the merchant marines before finding his way back to school. At Evergreen State College he rediscovered a love for learning, and a passion for motivating students.
“Teachers are often teachers because they liked school, and it kind of perpetuates. So I do feel like I get to bring in the perspective of [some students]. I remember what it was like to not like school,” he says.
Creative elbow room
Hunter says he’s lucky to have landed at Bellevue Big Picture School where principal Bethany Spinler gave him a long leash, though she did take some convincing.
“I didn’t really laugh; I was just skeptical,” she tells Hunter, laughing. “And you’re brilliant, and it looks like I’m going to eat my words.”
To Spinler, the real attraction is showing teachers how to take standards and materials that seem dry, and build something appealing to the students.
“Because it’s not about the zombies and the geography as much as it is a tool for teachers,” she says to Hunter. “That’s the power, and that’s why there are bigger things ahead of you than staying here, tucked away in a classroom. Seriously, David, to be able to change the face of teaching from inside the profession!”
Hunter’s own goals are only slightly less ambitious.
“My ultimate dream would be that teachers might say, ‘We’re all going to learn this concept. How do you want to learn it?’ And there’s a menu of ways to choose: I want to learn it in zombies, I want to learn it in skateboarding, I want to learn it in fashion design. I mean, that’s kind of what the real world is like. Everyone’s doing something but in different ways.”
Zombie-based learning is a down payment on that dream, and it’s already in dozens of classrooms around the world. Hunter is also in talks with a major textbook publisher.
And with zombies now in classrooms, skateboard- and fashion design-based learning can't be far behind.