Periodic Daydreaming

The Occasional Thoughtful Ramblings of a Creative and Caffeinated Science Teacher

Play On… (Periodic Daydream #4)

I never would have eaten cow tongue if I had known what it was, but my grandmother never gave me a choice. She fried it up and I ate it. The texture was tough but spongy on the surface. Catsup definitely helped this delicacy. During most of my childhood my grandmother cooked, and I was expected to eat whatever she made. My grandmother also continuously body-blocked me from watching more than 30 minutes of television after school. My sisters and I would be just finishing up an episode of MacGyver, and my grandmother would often insist that we’d had enough.

I’m seeing the opposite occur with many children today. While they are still limited in their options for meals, children are often given a choice for what they would like to eat. Additionally, given the popularity of tablets, children can easily access their favorite shows during short trips in the car, and even while eating meals. (I’m not saying these are  options offered to all children today or that providing children with choice is bad. I’m just noting a change.) It might seem that children and young people today have unlimited choices in the consumption aspects of life.

However, the question I have is: Do students today know how to make a choice, when given an open opportunity? Their lives today are overscheduled and while they are given options about what instrument to master, and sport to play, etc.– Are these really choices?  Where is the unstructured time for exploration and discovery throughout a lifetime? We talk about how something is lost when comparing a kindergartener to a senior in high school. Is this really surprising?

Many schools do an excellent job at the younger levels promoting play, but this is often a missing component at the upper levels of our educational system. An article from 2015 in TIME summarizes nicely the advantages of incorporating more “play” into the teenage classroom, giving hope to many teachers who strive to incorporate more student voice and choice:

“Giving students occasions to learn through play not only fosters creative thinking, problem solving, independence, and perseverance, but also addresses teenagers’ developmental needs for greater independence and ownership in their learning, opportunities for physical activity and creative expression, and the ability to demonstrate competence.”

Reading something like this definitely is philosophically inspiring, but often times I struggle to see this happen in my own classroom, when I give students time to explore or investigate a topic of their choice that relates to the course.  Students often ask me, “What do you think I should do?” or “Just tell me what you want me to do.”  When I ask them to use their creativity a few will produce some amazing products using art, video, creative writing, but many just want to create a google slides presentation. I’m not saying I haven’t seen some amazingly engaging google presentations, but this is their comfort zone.

What is going on? I have a few ideas:

1.The students have not learned how to make a choice or be creative in the school/classroom setting.  They have went through their lives learning to work the system, so they fall back to their places of comfort–Do what the teacher wants, earn a good grade, be successful.  Most of my students are juniors and seniors, and while they make progress throughout the year, and produce some amazing products,  they still struggle internally with these opportunities initially.

They definitely do not lack this ability, because once outside the classroom,   it’s easy so see them easily accessing vast amounts of creativity and passion. Whether it’s playing guitar in a band, or beginning a plastic pollution coalition within the local community. We as teachers, see these examples and immediately understand how these could be connected to our classrooms, but our students may not be aware of this possibility, based on their prior experiences.

2. The students have no energy left for choice or creativity. When students are involved in so much outside of the school day, extra-curriculars, a job, service-learning requirements, students have very little energy left in school to invest in tasks that require higher order thinking and application.

Earlier this year, I was invited by a student to the teacher appreciation night for hockey. I had a wonderful time and enjoyed seeing my student do something he truly enjoyed. It was one of the highlights of my year. The game however, did not finish until 10pm, and while the players for our school could make it home at a semi-decent time, the traveling team still had a two hour journey home. This seems like a very long day, and I am amazed at the commitment and discipline of the many student athletes I know.

3.The culture in my classroom and others  is not yet one of comfort to take the risk. While I do my best to create a welcoming environment where students are encouraged to pursue their interests, I still have to attach a grade to their work. This is a huge roadblock for a student who sees this choice and creativity as a potential risk to their transcript and eventual college acceptance.  What are some strategies for making the grade less powerful? (This will probably be a future blog post, but if you have any suggestions, I’m open to hearing from you.) I’ve been reading the recent posts by Arthur Chiaravalli, about teachers “going gradeless”, which has definitely sparked my internal examination of grades and grading in my classroom.

When I have to make a  choice in life, I often think of my grandmother and consider, “What would Bernadine do?”  She was the strongest no-nonsense person I have known to date, and while it may have first seemed she was controlling my childhood, by turning off the television and implementing a “no fuss” meal policy, she was actually providing me with more unstructured time to play and explore with my sisters and friends. We would ride bikes in the summer, sled in the winter,  roll down hills  and eat ground cherries at her farm, or just quietly read for pleasure. She didn’t plan activities for us or make suggestions. She just told us to “Go play!” My grandmother was wise, and I am hopeful we can begin to focus on play again at all ages of life.

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