Things I Know 81 of 365: Teachers need to play too

Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.

– Joseph Chilton Pearce

We’ve arrived at that part of the school year where The Man can get you down. Usually, The Man is time – time together, time between breaks, time in the house during the bleaker months. This year, The Man has incarnations in the form of budget cuts, layoffs, the neutering of organized labor, and, yes, time.

Between sections of standardized testing today, I sent Chris a message.

“Can Pia lead us in a game at the staff meeting today?”

“Dunno,” was his reply.

I didn’t think about it again until I walked into the library a few minutes before the meeting.

There stood Pia, our health and P.E. teacher and one of my dearest friends, blowing up a beach ball.

“You’ve never looked sexier,” I said as the limp orb hung from her mouth.

We both cracked up.

Chris started the meeting.

There we sat, 30 professionals battling to get kids into college, through testing, to counseling, beyond adolescence. Somewhere in there, we teach and learn. If we have the time and energy after, we cobble together lives with friends and family.

“Before we get started,” Chris said, “Pia has a game for us.”

She broke the library in half with a clear dividing line.

“We’re playing chair volleyball,” she said. “This is the line. If it hits the floor after you touch it, the opposing team gets a point. Beyond the pole is out of bounds. You have to stay in your chair to hit the ball. All body parts are fair game.”

A couple teachers straggled in.

Both sides of the room erupted, “You’re on our team! You’re on our team!”

In our shirts and ties and our skirts and heels, we were 12.

Pia sent the new arrivals to my team.

After the other side protested, she said, “I cheat how I wanna cheat.”

I walked to her and palmed her a dollar.

“Okay, so it’s 1—0 to start,” she said indicating my team was up a point.

And then it began. It was tremendous.

The ball bounced off of people and bookshelves and the ceiling and tables and chairs. We were screaming and yelling and laughing.

Somehow, Pia’s scoring bounced around as often as the ball, and I got the definite feeling, no matter who scored the most points, the game was headed for a tie.

After about 10 minutes, Pia called the game and we clapped and laughed and sounded our barbaric yawps.

Sometimes, in the middle of a class just after lunch, when heads are bobbing and eyes are heavy, I’ll have my class stand and compete to see who can stand on their tiptoes or one foot the longest.

That’s what we did as a faculty today. March is the class after lunch of the school year. Later in the meeting, we talked about differentiation, multiculturalism and school partnerships – the business of school.

For 10 minutes, we took time to play and be people together.

Try it.

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Things I Know 80 of 365: Building online courses is scary

In my experience, it takes about twice as long — prep time, putting materials together — to actually deliver the online course than it does to deliver the on-campus course.

– Denise Keele, professor of environmental policy, quoted on npr.com

For about an hour this afternoon, I felt as though I’d written myself into a corner. I’m doing some work with a school district’s professional development office to build a course on inquiry and project-based learning in the literacy classroom.

The thing should be a piece of cake.

I’ve spent the better part of a year in an online grad program that gets it wrong in so many ways that I am acutely aware of the pitfalls and pratfalls of online learning.

Building the course is about more than distilling the core beliefs and approaches of how I think about teaching and passing on those ideals.

It is also about building a space where the discussion board isn’t a place where discussions go to die and feedback consists of copying and pasting from a rubric.

After eight months of knowing what it feels like when done wrong, I sat scheming today, dedicated to constructing an online learning space and process that felt real.

The worry we have about K-12 teachers ignoring the needs of their students and teaching in mentally tortuous ways because their education is compulsory, is too often exacerbated in adult learning spaces.

Sometimes, I let my mind wander and imagine what the planning sessions must be like.

“Okay, we want our faculty to be trained in how to take an inquiry-based approach in the classroom. Let’s sit them all in a cafegymnatorium and tell them about inquiry.”

“That’s a great idea. I’ll build a PowerPoint with all the information from the book we’ll buy them and see how many words I can fit on each slide.”

“Great! While you two are doing that, I’ll build the online follow-up that will vacillate between assignments giving them directions to follow that are so specific that the implementation can’t possibly fit their students’ needs and assignments so vague they’ll never be certain they completed them correctly until they receive the final e-mail.”

You can see what I was working against this afternoon.

I don’t want to build what I hate.

Turned out the answer was the same as it ever was. I need to do what I say I believe. I started drafting questions to help focus on the ends toward which participants will work. I imagined how a participant would ideally shape his classroom upon completion and worked backward to design modules that help participants raise relevant questions and work toward their answers through inquiry, implementation and reflection.

The course is still in its most nascent stages, but I’m building somewhere I’d like to learn. That can’t be all bad.

It turned out the best way to avoid becoming the practitioners I resent wasn’t to work against becoming them, but to work to be more myself.

I wonder how many times I’m going to have to learn that lesson.