Just Play

Last weekend, our son-in-law described how he and his friends once created a hybrid version of lacrosse. It was a contact, competitive sport,  part baseball, part golf, part dodgeball, with plenty of roughhousing.  Perfect for 8th grade boys.  The rules were negotiated and evolved with the game requiring no adult intervention.

What? No adult intervention?  Heresy, you say.  Every kids’ game requires adult intervention.

Everyone knows that kids can’t just play. Who will demonstrate proper technique? Who will dispense the rules?  Who will mediate disputes? Of course kids can’t just play.

But indulge me for a moment and imagine a world in which kids could just play.  It could happen.

Kids might not hold the bat correctly.  They might double dribble.  Games might never be completed. There could be fights. It’s all true.

But think about what kids could learn from a little spontaneous, unstructured play.  They would learn to advocate for themselves and to compromise.   OK, to the adult ear, this haggling sounds a lot like fighting, but assertiveness and flexibility are skills essential to success in the grown up world.  When adults always provide the last word in kids’ play, children learn to rely on an outside authority rather than practicing negotiating themselves.

Mostly, they can’t  just play anymore.  Kids are on teams : local teams and travel teams and Olympic development teams. Kids have personal trainers, too.  They attend camps devoted to drills and skills.  There are rosters and schedules and coaches all of which have their place,but too much of which also can stunt children’s ability to just play.

So many factors figure into this super structure of kids’ play.  The world is a decidedly scary place in 2012 which means kids just cannot be as independent as they have been in the past.  Play is no longer as simple as showing up at the playground with a ball and a bat. I get that.

But much of kids’ play has become adult obsession. We feel this need to dabble in every aspect of our kids’ existences, including play.  Some of us were fine athletes…back in the day.  But memory plays tricks on us and our mediocre performances on the playing fields of yore might seem more magnificent when colored with nostalgia. Or maybe we were never the stars we would have liked to be and our kids give us a second shot at playground immortality.

My son-in-law is right, though.  Unstructured play is a great gift.  Instead of working so hard to micro-manage what kids do in what little spare time they have, perhaps we should step back and let our kids just play.

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How is teaching like playing golf?

I was watching Tiger and Phil and Bubba duffing it out at the US Open last night at Olympic and I got to thinking that teaching is lot like playing golf.  No, it really is.  You face the tee all alone, the crowd can turn on you at any time and sometimes what looks like a good shot can end up in the rough any way. Then you have to use all your skill and composure to get back on the fairway.

It’s true.  Yes, you do rely on the kindness of colleagues, but when that bell rings and you close the door, it’s show time. You face the daunting task of daily instruction on your own.  Like players on the PGA tour, you refine your game every day, adjusting the pacing, trying out a new stance.  Sometimes it’s all good and you can’t miss. It seems effortless.  Other times, though, it’s nothing but frustration.  No matter what you do, it’s a slice, a hook or a shank. The harder you try, the farther afield you end up.

That’s when you turn to the gadgets.   The accessories promise results.  In golf, if you get the “right” ball or that new titanium club the pros are all using, you really do believe your game might suddenly improve exponentially. The same is true with the bells and whistles in teaching.  Effective instruction has become all about the next new device that will instantly support student success, Smartboards and i Pads promising enticing results. You want to believe that these aids will help your pupils, you really do.  But when it’s “tee time”  (tee standing here for “testing”), it’s about skills not frills. Then it is back to basics: a comfortable grip, smooth swing, and strong follow through. That’s what you need to see your kids through the stress of standardized testing that has become the scorecard of instruction.

And then sometimes it’s about luck.  You get a good roll on an OK shot.  In teaching, sometimes a kid asks the question you needed someone to pose but forgot to embed in the lesson.  But even luck presupposes skills.

In golf, even on your worst day, though, there is always that one hole that keeps you coming back for more.  It’s that tee shot that you somehow land on the green and birdie.  It’s that seemingly impossible maneuver out of the sand trap. And it happens in teaching, too.  It’s the graphic organzier you dream up at the last minute.  It’s the writing assignment that gives every kid a chance to rock. It’s what keeps you rewriting curriculum, finding new hooks, grading papers.

So as I watch the pros in prime time tonight (you gotta love a west coast Open), I’ll be thinking about Monday.  It’s the last week of school and that means the first week of golf.  But I think when you’re a teacher, whatever you do comes back to the classroom in one way or another.

Thy Neighbor’s Talent

How well do you know the person who teaches in the classroom next to yours?

On Friday, our ESL teacher shared with our eighth graders her documentary about local individuals and the civil rights movement.   What she had called her “film” was really a professional work of art: an original idea, seamless transitions, perfect audio and above all, great interviews. That she produced this in her role as a member of the Board of Directors of the Westchester MLK Institute for Non Violence only adds to her stature.  Who knew?

I didn’t know.

I got to thinking: if this is one person with hidden talent, could there be other shy superstars out there as well?

We are a small staff and I was pretty sure I knew most of my colleagues well.

Yeah, maybe not so well.  Turns out that among my hard-working fellow educators are secret athletes, musicians, artists, professors, performers, photographers, poets, philanthropists, inventors.  Astounding that we should converge on the same building every day and that we should have such esteem for the work we do with students, and yet not know of talents  hidden behind those closed classroom doors.

Who knew that our seventh and eighth grade math teacher is an accomplished vocalist?  I know now.  Who knew that in addition to being two thirds of her way to a master’s degree in literacy a middle school TA is also a fine poet?  Who knew that our social studies teacher who runs half marathons for “fun,” helps her sister oversee an Autism Speaks event each fall?  Or that one of our special education teachers spends her summers as a professional development instructor? Who knew?  One of our middle school science teachers has skillfully checked the competition in an ice hockey league and another is an experienced diver who explores the wonders of sunken shipwrecks. Our reading specialist has been a respected professor at a nearby college.  The guidance counselor has used his baseball expertise to develop innovative equipment for catchers.  Our first grade teacher is a talented technology specialist with an artist’s eye for attractive design.

Who knew?

Among my colleagues are so many people with creativity, vision and committment.  I am so proud of being a member of this staff. So proud and at the same time, so humbled.

I am willing to bet that every school is harboring similar numbers of fugitives from fame.

So how well do you know the people you meet at the copy machine each morning?

Maybe you know they bring PBJ everyday for lunch.  Maybe you know they are compulsively neat or happily disorganized.  But do you know all the things—other than teaching—that they are really good at?

If we could tap into these diverse talents, we could bring collegiality to new heights, which is what happened on Friday afternoon: the ultimate in core curriculum instruction.   Maybe that should be the next big thing in education, bigger than more flawed student testing, bigger than new, improved teacher evaluations.