In the latest installment of ‘Believing in Boys,’ Suzanne looks for new ways to engage her class. If only there were a standardized test for paper football.
“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”
—Sir Ken Robinson, Ph.D., internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation, and human resources
A semester has passed in the high school where I team-teach a class of at-risk boys with the principal and a counselor. It is time to reflect on what has worked and what hasn’t. We are pressed by fellow educators to define what we are doing. What is the curriculum we’re following? How are we measuring success?
Unfortunately, if what we’re teaching can’t be measured by test results, we’re clearly not on a “right” path. Our team is concerned with something else: our students’ aesthetic experience, and more importantly, their empathy.
As teachers, we are driven by a collective will to engage young minds in the power of collaborative learning, a style that involves fine-tuning listening skills and plugging into the heart of the matter. As we assess our first semester, it becomes clear that the most successful lessons have been those that veered from the original plan and evolved into inspired improvisations.
We meet with the class first period. Prior to the start of their day, students may use “cellular devices,” although calls aren’t allowed in the building. Most mornings when we walk into class before the first bell rings, we look around a silent room and see only bowed heads. This is not a gesture of reverence, but the posture of a generation checking messages or scrolling through playlists.
The sight of these head-tops makes the team aware of how important it is as humans to engage in more eye-to-eye communication. The kids need to do so with each other, and we need to do so with them.
There are many days when neither the counselor nor the principal is available, so I am the lead teacher. I once attempted to inspire a journal-writing exercise, but the lesson fell flat. The boys sat at their desks, heads cocked, looking at me with an expression I get from my dog time to time. The common sentiment: “I can’t think of anything to write.”
I had to switch gears to accomplish anything in the hour. I heard myself say on impulse, “Who knows how to make an origami football?”
Now we’ve got action. We scrambled for enough loose-leaf paper to pass around. I gave Thomas permission to use his iPhone to Google the game rules. The rest of us taught each other the nuances of folding a paper football. “First you make a hot-dog fold …”
When everyone tucked the last corner into their triangular missiles, we tested each one out and choose the best to use in play.
We cleared an area on a long folding table and established teams, setting the width of the index-to-thumb-aligned goalposts and agreeing on the acceptable type of flick for kicks.
Thomas, who found the Wikipedia instruction page, read the game plan aloud as we worked.
Forty minutes later we were stunned when the bell rang. We scurried to put the room back in order and get to our next classes on time. On the way out, a boy who rarely spoke at all turned to me and offered his assessment of the lesson: “I wish we could be in this class all day.”
To my knowledge, no one wrote a single word in a journal and absolutely nothing occurred that was in any of my plans. However, because I was willing to find another way to interact when my first plan failed, we had a collaborative learning experience with a successful outcome. I could make a long list of the types of learning that took place, but the conclusion is the same: it takes inspiration and perspiration to work well together.
Paper football will become a study-skills review for an upcoming assessment. A first down can only be earned when the player correctly identifies the definition of mitosis. A two-point conversion is earned when he can offer a correct example of a compound-complex sentence. Each team will write the other’s questions.
When I reviewed the activity later with the education team, we reminded ourselves that a student can spend eight hours every day sitting in a desk while being asked to engage with a talking head in a century-old mode of instruction. Today, information is everywhere, and YouTube has made the delivery far more interesting than Mr. Jones’ lectures on the Battle of the Bulge.
In the age of electronic imaging, show-and-tell is in HDMI and teachers have to redefine themselves to become a part of the picture. It’s exhausting to motivate kids to get out of their chairs and participate, especially when 32 new teenagers appear before a teacher every period. However, good teachers find a balance, and when in doubt, we improvise.
—Read Suzanne’s last installment, “I May Have Actually Heard That.”
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—Photo AliceNWondrlnd/via Flickr