Our “Incidentally” column shares English Teaching Resources & opinions about the state of education, from a teacher who has worked the systems for almost 25 years.
L.L. Barkat is K-12 permanently certified, holds a Masters in English & American Literature from New York University and a Master of Science for Teachers from Pace University, and has taught at every level of education preceding graduate school.
From college teaching of business and group dynamics to elementary teaching at a troubled urban district, from high school teaching at a private Hebrew day school to high school teaching at a leading U.S. public school, then on to K-8 of home educating two daughters (who are now enrolled in accredited distance learning schools for 9-12), Barkat has managed to form a few strong opinions about education along the way—and a whole lot of love for learning that she now pours into the business of Tweetspeak Poetry.
Ivan was on the floor. Again. And this time there was blood. Mikey’s blood. The fight had happened in a split second, in an urban classroom where I taught thirty-two second graders (three with obvious learning disabilities and one with what seemed to be psychosis)—without a classroom aide.
I was eight months pregnant, experiencing premature contractions that were threatening bed rest, and I could not (I thought) afford to quit the job.
I also couldn’t afford to contract a serious disease from blood on the floor, or suffer another blow to my abdomen (mad boys and mad boys’ mothers who tip entire conference tables onto you during a crisis meeting are potentially bad for your unborn baby’s health).
I was desperate. Yes, the district needed huge changes. The teachers needed materials and training and support. But in that moment, with Ivan (and blood) on the floor, I needed only to get this simple slice of time in order.
I tickled Ivan. It was an instinct thing that could have earned me a punch from another boy. But Ivan had a playful side, and he could not resist a tickle, a smile, and a sing-song.
So I tickled him. I smiled. And I sing-songed his name with silly rhymes. His anger dissolved into giggles, and he picked himself up off the floor and agreed to go sit at his desk. I went home, later, to study the power of laughter.
That was Spring. I did end up quitting the job in the Fall, because my newborn began hunger striking in my absence during working hours. Desperation is a good teacher (and a good financial planner). Or it can be.
I never returned to the public school classroom, but I went on to eventually home educate two children right up through high school.
I never forgot Ivan. And laughter became something I organized my own kids’ lives by. I became a different kind of teacher altogether: one who taught mostly through the power of play, one who never issued a single assignment, nor conducted a single test. (My kids did take a once a year standardized test for the fun of it. That’s how they saw it. I never “taught to the test” and just reported the scores to my local school district. I never graded the kids on their regular “school” either. You don’t grade play.) As far as my kids are concerned, the results are now in, and they are garnering mail from ivy league schools.
But let’s go back to Ivan. In too many classrooms today, “Ivan” is still on the floor. And sometimes there is blood to pay.
The problem is surely complex, but it is time for education to lasso the power of play. It is not an option, to my mind, if we know this (and we do now), from play researchers like Dr. Stuart Brown:
I studied murderers in Texas prisons and found that the absence of play in their childhood was as important as any other single factor in predicting their crimes. On the other end, I also documented abused kids at risk for antisocial behavior whose predilection for violence was diminished through play. (p.26, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul)
I can only hope my little Ivan found a way to play as he moved on in life. I can only hope that you’ll take seriously my final statement on the matter: Incidentally, that Play-Doh could prevent a homicide.
Related at The Telegraph: Want Your Child to Be a Success? Quit Scheduling and Let Them Play Freely
Teaching Tool: Playing with Play-Doh to Play With Words
2. Class-generated vocabulary (can be kept in a special Word Curious Bucket. Kids can add words to the bucket when they encounter unknown words during silent reading or read alouds.) Or SAT words list.
How to Play
1. Choose a word at random from the Word Curious Bucket or your SAT words list. Define the word, but don’t make anyone write it down (you don’t write the word either; you’re working on getting kids to play with words in their heads and hands).
2. Say the word.
3. Ask kids to say the word with you, straight up. Now ask them to say it with you a few different ways: slowly, whispery, loudly, sadly, quickly, whatever.
4. Take a vote. Based on the word’s meaning, what was the best way to say it, that seemed to really express the word? (Or should another way still be tried?)
5. Ask kids to “say” the word with Play-Doh. This can range from a depiction of the word to how the word sounds to them or how it makes them feel. Let the kids decide the nature of their response.
6. Art show time. Invite kids to share their creations and explain why they sculpted what they did.
7. Now write the word on the board. And write it on a slip of paper that you put into your Word Play Bucket (this is a bucket of words that have been introduced and will be the source of future play activities throughout the year. You never need to test kids on these words. Promise yourself you will not! Testing kills the play and, more often than not, the love.)