Thursday, October 18, 2007

Making It All A Game

Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of the New York Times bestseller Freakonomics (and current NY Times blogger), recently marveled at the methods of his son's first grade teacher, who designed a unit in which students would systematically assess the merits of the Central Park playgrounds. It is the kind of experiential education that we tend to think of as the foundation of any effective lesson plan, especially in Peace Games.

It made me think about how I try to re-cast the less glamorous aspects of a Peace Games lesson, like yet another brainstorm, as a "game." Instead of asking my third grade students what feelings they know, I unveil a piece of posterboard with "FEELING WORDS" written in colorful marker at the center and lots of different colors at my disposal. I challenge them to see if they can think of twenty feeling words. It's a game, I tell them - or perhaps more accurately, a challenge.

Remarkably, they treat it as such. They all clamor to add another word to the list. The old standards are first - happy, mad, sad - but after awhile, even their teacher is amazed at how many words they know: tired, hungry, surprised, frustrated, furious, bored, thankful. Some students ask if they can add words in Spanish: enojado, in addition to the standard feliz or triste. We get to twenty words easily, and I challenge them to get to thirty. There is certainly no paucity. I try to prompt them with acting out some feelings, previewing an activity that they'll do in a future lesson.

We keep the list in the classroom for the entire semester, referring back to it often. I remind them, to the delight of the teacher, that using lots of "feeling words" (a less stilted and more direct way of referring to adjectives) is important not just for peacemaking but for good writing.

On the surface, playing a game and brainstorming feeling words have little to do with each other, but to me the common denominator of both is the level to which we are able to engage students in the activity. It's part creativity, part enthusiasm, and part semantics. Brainstorms are tiresome; games are exciting.

As we begin another year, remember to make those lesson plans come to life. And don't forget to share that wisdom with the rest of us.

No comments: