11 March 2013

Playing School: 6 Easy Ways to "Play" in Your Secondary Classroom

I know my 3 year old daughter has a bit of a misconception of what I do at school...

We're part of a great Parents as Teachers program that comes to our home once a month to work with the kids and "assess" them every few months according to developmental norms for their age. From Lucy's perspective, Ms. Chris comes over to play with her and Landon. She doesn't know she's learning, and she certainly isn't aware that sometimes she's being tested. Its just fun.

She knows that Daddy goes to work and is a teacher, so when I told her that Ms. Chris is her teacher, she made this connection:
"My daddy's going to work to play with boys and girls."
I'm not suggesting that your entire curriculum needs to be game-ified (although MangaHigh is my favorite) or that we need to change teaching styles (if you're generally a curmudgeon, you'll feel and seem fake if you try to do what someone else thinks if "fun"), but that everyone in the room will be more productive when a little bit of play is introduced.

And honestly, I think its good for all of us. Some days, I feel like this:

My wife, who stays home with our two little ones, is a great blessing to me because she saves me from most of those days. She has her own struggles as our children's first teacher, which she blogged about yesterday and has me reflecting more on today. (Being a good mama on a bad day)

Do you ever get so caught up in learning objectives, your curriculum and or mastery of content that everything else going on in your classroom gets lost? I did this to my daughter yesterday morning at the breakfast table. Good. grief.

Per the morning tradition, I was reading to Lucy out of the Jesus Storybook Bible during breakfast while she ate her cereal. Beth reports that the kids usually really enjoy this time and always ask, "More Bible, please! And cereal." This is where my "teacher" training totally got in the way of Lucy totally enjoying the morning's reading of The Prodigal Son - instead of just reading the story, showing some excitement, doing my very best character voices, and letting the narrative do its work, I kept checking for understanding and comprehension. With my 3 year old. Sure, she was able to answer my questions and was "engaged," but she certainly didn't really seem to enjoy the story. She asked for more, but kind of in a "this wasn't as great an experience as usual" kind of way. LOL

After some gentle(?) encouragement from Beth (who always supports my character talents) to just read the story, I'd say Lucy and I both had a much better time, and she was asking the questions the second time around.

Kids expect to have fun, enjoyable, memorable experiences at school because that's how they begin their educations. Somewhere in the system, we (I) kill a lot of those expectations because there are tests to prepare for, kids that don't "deserve" to be rewarded with a fun lesson, and content that doesn't readily lend itself to games.

1. Listen to music (and I don't mean classical).
I believe the research that classical music helps students learn, or raises tests scores, and have a Mozart playlist on Spotify for my "everyday" music, but sometimes its good to indulge yourself, or your students and play something you and/or they really like.

If you're afraid of the lyric factor, allow yourself to have a lyric-check policy. You don't want to play anything offensive, so go ahead and check those lyrics with any of these 5 tools. You can also search on Spotify, Playlist.com (or even YouTube) for "clean" or "edited" versions.

2. Laugh at yourself.
I shared this image with a few of my classes last week. I used it as an example of how I always try NOT to stand, and then the kids told me the ways I DO stand. At least they're watching. :) (Apparently I have this arms crossed, shoulders hunched thing)

3. Give high fives, elbows, fist bumps.
This is my number one ice breaker when I have a crummy attitude toward a student or they have one with me for the day. Its also a day-maker for a lot of kids. Henry Wong advises in The First Days of School that you give out hugs as students enter the classroom. That's obviously inappropriate (and often times undesired) to do with secondary students, but free high fives in the hallway? Just make sure to pump the hand sanitizer.

4. Use color.
Students don't suddenly lose their taste for colorful, welcoming, designed classrooms just because they're older. Sure, you probably didn't have that bulletin board class in your secondary ed courses that all the elementary teachers rave about, but that doesn't give you an excuse for boring, blank walls.

And don't stop the color there - let your students color. Your interactive whiteboard, tablets, and even regular whiteboard have dozens of colors of available to them. Don't YOU get bored writing only in one color? (Bonus points for having your students color code their notes. For example, each step of a  solution in a math class is color coded to show process, or in a Lit class, character notes one color, themes in another, and foreshadowing in another).

5. Have kids create.
Lucy's teacher recently just told her to draw a picture. Lucy was just doing something she loved, but Ms. Chris was assessing all kinds of spatial, kinesthetic, and imaginative benchmarks from just a few marks. With proper pedagogy of learning expectations and scoring guides, I think its possible to do the same with secondary students.

Giant rolls of butcher paper, video tutorials, stop-motion lego, ebooks, regular books, songs, websites, images, etc. Here are some iPad specific examples. They can even create mobile games for assessment, review, or constructive activities. (Free game designing tools)

6. Play boardgames as a class or in small groups, but make requirements for moving correct responses to questions.
I like this for:
  • Differentiation - you can ask different groups different questions
  • Immediate feedback
  • Collaboration
  • Quick gratification
Implementation tips: 
I see my kids collaborate more willingly and effectively in their game teams when I stick big whiteboards in front of them.  There's magic in those insanely expensive pens.
Project a physical gameboard with the pieces using a document camera, create your own simple version in your interactive whiteboard software (I did this fairly easily with squares and rectangles for Monopoly, and was able to make 3-way Connect Four), or find your favorite web-based version.

What's most important? 
Making the effort, and trying play that feels natural to you. Just like different instructional strategies have higher yields in different settings, what play works in the classroom next door may well flop for you. Don't give up, and don't punish yourself. 

Have fun.