Playing the Game of School

This week I had the privilege of getting caught up in a tweet fest with some members of my PLN on Twitter. It started when @jerridkruse posted the tweet “Food for thought: Are your students learning the “game of school” or how to think deeply? How do you know?” Having been an intervention teacher for many years now, my first reaction was that if they don’t know how to “play the game of school” then they are often denied the opportunity to think deeply.

I harken back to my reading of Ruby Payne’s book A Framework for Understanding Poverty. What struck me most in her book was the idea of “hidden rules” and how not “knowing” the rules can impact kids’ school experience. It made me think about the students who were sent to my intervention class. Was it just a lack of reading/writing skills that held them back? Was there something more here? I began to look at the school records of my students. The pattern that emerged was that of a kid who continually makes poor choices, gets sent out of class, misses class, days of school, falls behind in skills, repeat. So, would remediating their reading and writing skills alone solve the problem? Probably not I realized. In order to benefit from remediation, students would need to see value in these skills. If these students already saw the value in these skills, or even in education in general, then they would not be in the repeating pattern they were in. If they understood how to play the game to win (ie-learn) they would.

So, where did the disconnect lay for these students? As I reflected on this, I harkened back to Jeanne Gibbs’ book Tribes: A New Way of Learning Together and the training I received with my reading of the book .One of the keys to the Tribes process is sharing the mutual agreements: attentive listening, appreciations/no put-downs, right to pass and mutual respect. Through working with students over the years, I realized that it is that last one, mutual respect, that is the key to the interactions in our classroom and in the school as a whole

Reading Ruby Payne’s work helped me realize that while I may be guiding my students to accept and practice the agreements, for students like those in my intervention class, much of the disconnect comes when the definitions of respect don’t align. What I view as respectful, appropriate behavior may not be the same as my students. So, if we could create a common working definition of respect, would that help?

That is now how I begin each year. Students do a quick write on respect, what it is, what it isn’t and how it looks in an environment like the classroom and school. I read over students’ writing and the next day we create a Respect T-Chart for our class. Our goal is to define how our classroom will be a positive, respectful learning environment. On the left we define what the classroom will look like/ what will people see when they walk in that will define us as a positive learning place. On the right we define what it will sound like/ what people will hear that will define our positive learning environment. Everyone has a chance to help shape the guidelines for how we will interact.

This document then hangs in our classroom. We all sign it as our agreement with one another that we will abide by these guidelines. It is not a static document. If situations arise that we feel aren’t addressed, we revisit and add guidelines as needed. We also look at how these guidelines should shape our choices in other classes, before school, after school, in the lunch room and the hallways.

When I sit down to play a board game with my 6 year old, sometimes he likes to change the rules. This drives his older brothers crazy! Often times the rule changes make it easier for him to play and to understand the game. In the long run, it doesn’t hurt anyone, but his brothers feel it is an affront to all that is “right”. This is much like those students who find it difficult to play the game of school. They want to rewrite the rules and many times, as teachers, we are incensed by this affront. If we all stop and clarify the “hidden” rules up front, then we are less likely to encounter disagreements when we are in the midst of “playing the game of school”. When we understand what a respectful learning environment looks like to each of us, then we start to understand better the rules that are guiding each of us in our role- student and teacher. I truly believe that defining respect and creating a common definition is at the heart of a successful classroom. If we clarify the “rules” up front, then we are able to focus our attention on learning. When our focus is on learning, then we can think deeply about that learning. And, hopefully, in the end, we all win.

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6 thoughts on “Playing the Game of School

  1. Your heart and intelligence are on vivid display here, Teresa. Inspirational stuff.

    For a good book with first-person student descriptions of playing the game, take a look at “Doing School” by Denise Clarke Pope.

  2. Thank you for your kind words, Gary.
    I’ll be adding that book to my list of “must reads” right now. Thank you for sharing the title. I’ll let you know what I think of it!

  3. I love that you do this with your students. I know, too, that you make this a living document, a part of every class. So many teachers go through the exercise of collaborating with students on class operating procedures then don’t do more than hang the chart on the wall. It takes heart and courage to put yourself on the line for your kids each day. You inspire me!

  4. Thanks for your kind words, Karen! I think we often lose sight of some of the greatest collaborators we have- our students. When we make their voices heard, we will change education.

  5. One of the most debilitating things is to spend time espousing and articulating values that are then pinned to a wall (or sent home to parents in glossy brochures), but otherwise ignored. It would be nice to be in your class where the talk is so obviously walked.

  6. Due to budget cuts, I can no longer afford glossy brochures:)
    Because I have worked so many years with kids who feel disempowered by school, I’ve learned that part of their struggle is that they hear a lot, but don’t see results, either for themselves or in the live of those around them. If they want to “talk the talk” and “walk the walk”, we have to show them that it can be done.

    Thanks, Steve!

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