Since beginning the book “The Game of School,” the message has been like a nagging conscience on my shoulder while I teach. Nagging might be a harsh description. The premise behind the book is that teaching and school are a game. Early on, students learn that school is about work, behavior and pleasing the teacher. As the years go on, students are slowly losing their natural interest and knack for learning. They slowly become sorted into the “winners” and “losers” of this game. If you are good at sitting still and listening and are geeked to bring the teacher an apple, you win (according to the grades and sticker chart measures that we use). If you can’t sit still, are bored or are disinterested there is something innately wrong with you. You lose because you aren’t good at the game.
Every lesson I’ve been teaching this past month I have asked myself, how much of what I do is because of “the game” and how much is because I truly want these students to learn. I’ve retaught some lessons after reading about teachers who blame the kids after a lesson goes poorly. This occurred two weeks ago during a literacy lesson I taught to my 6th grade special education reading group. Maybe it’s because these students, for one reason or another, are not very good at this game called school. And as 6th graders, it takes a lot more preparation on the teacher’s part to create authentic learning because it’s not as easy to get them excited for reading. I admitted to the students that I knew the lesson had fallen apart and that I think it was because of me and a little because of them. The 6th graders were shocked because everything is usually their fault. Once they understood the purpose a little better, they were more willing to participate.
Lately I’ve felt like this new conscience has helped me be incredible at times, but at other times I feel completely frustrated. This is because it has revealed how very poor some of my lessons are. Or how they only meet one or two of the students needs at the time. Today I thought I was going to have the most amazing lesson. I chose random items around the room and placed them in a bag. Then I taught a lesson on describing the items. A student of mine who is in my ELL group but is at a higher proficiency level than the other students was sitting with sheer boredom on her face. I asked her what was wrong and she hesitated. I then asked again and she began to say something that most of the students would never dare say to a teacher. “This game is too easy for me.”
Many students have learned that you do what the teacher asks you and you don’t complain. The game truly was geared towards the other students. The other students whose language needs are much higher. Admittedly, my first reaction was that she was being rude. How could she have the audacity to tell me my lesson was boring? Then I thought more closely about this incident. I was reactive because I felt defensive of my lesson, defensive of my time (how can I possibly plan a lesson that meets ALL of their language needs) and defensive of my authority to have children just “do as I say.”
I began to look around and saw that only 3 of the five students were actually doing the game as I had instructed. Was it a bad game? I have begun to look at behavior not as a problem, but a litmus test of lesson quality. If kids truly have a natural inquisitive mind and intrigue with learning, where did my lesson fall short? Some of the kids that are “good at school” were doing what I asked. The others were playing with the items, not listening to each other and doing everything but the activity.
Were my directions not explicit enough? Did they not buy-in to the “fun” that my game had promised. Why did I even want them to describe items in a bag? My objective was that they would use the words to describe “mystery items” in a bag and to use them in a complete sentence. The goal was to eventually have them compare two items. What fell apart again? They were playing with the items…possible causes? Boredom? No responsibility to respond or agree? They were not saying the whole sentence…possible causes? Misunderstanding of expectations? Lack of monitoring?
© 2011 D. Willson