Monday, March 19, 2007

That Time of Year

A few years ago, I stood in my regular spot to say good morning - at the top of the first flight of stairs, prime real estate for watching students come up from breakfast - and made sure to wish a good luck to the fourth and fifth graders on the first day of MCAS. As he walked by, Brendon, a fourth grader, said, "We're gonna need it!" Then, pulling a prayer card out of his pocket, he added, "That's why I got my Jesus!"

It's Testing Season, again.

During Testing Season, the air inside a school gets noticeably thicker and the anticipation gradually builds. Personally, I am not all that opposed to the idea of setting high standards, but I find that sometimes hard to reconcile with the anxiety - real or vicarious - that some students are saddled with.

It can be easy to think that games or "extras" have no place during Testing Season, but I disagree. I think that a well-placed cooperative game can do a lot to ease anxiety, build community, and strengthen the peacemaking skills of our students. Tests can help us assess students' strengths and areas for growth and may even help teachers improve their teaching, but they also measure students against one another, elevating some at the expense of others, which can be toxic to a classroom community. It is critical, therefore, to make space for community (re-)building.


After having Peace Games pre-empted by MCAS one week, a fourth grade teacher and I are eager to get back to it. We spend time on our Peacemaker Project, but as always leave time for a game at the end. "After all," the teacher reminds me. "It's Peace Games. We have to have a game every week."

This week, we choose Count Up. There are 22 students, and I challenge them to count from one to twenty-two. Everyone must count exactly once, and they must keep their eyes closed. If two of them call out the same number at the same time, then the entire group must start again. To make it easier, I randomly assign Byron to be number one. They go through several failed attempts, enduring some aggressive finger-pointing and blaming and occasionally helpful suggestions drowned out by a half-dozen voices all competing for dominance. The teacher and I are wathcing, with a mix of amusement and concern, when he says to me with mock-seriousness, "You know, I really don't think they can do it."

I play along. "I don't know. They're having a hard time, but I think they can."

"Well," he says. "I'm willing to bet extra recess that they can't." This is unexpected. The students immediately refocus, understanding exactly what this means: if they succeed, extra recess. It is a clear challenge, but the urgency (and aggressiveness) increase. This could unify them or tear them apart, and I am unsure of which will prevail.

Acutely tuned into the in-fighting all around him, Byron is steadfast. Each time two people call out the same number, he no longer waits for me to say, "Start over." Instead, with his eyes shut tightly and his usually soft-spoken voice taking on a powerfully confident cadence, he yells out, "One!" After which, as if falling in line, Keon says "two." And Brendon, "three." And with less than a minute left until dismissal, it clicks. By the time Leona says eighteen, both Brendon and William are clenching their teeth and fists, as if willing the class to finish. And when Maia squeaks out, "Twenty-two," the class erupts. They leap from the rug, screaming and hugging each other and chanting, over and over and over, "We did it! We did it! We did it!" Several push their way through the crowd to wag their fingers in the teacher's face.

And through the chaos, he and I look at each other with enormous smiles. I am quite certain that the noise is disturbing the fifth graders next door and the third graders downstairs, but neither the teacher nor I stop the celebration. When we finally have a chance to talk about it at dismissal, we are ecstatic. "That was pure joy," we agree.

And the perfect antidote to Testing Season.

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