Why Were Your Kids Playing Games?

"We need to talk," the principal tells me.

"Mind if I shut the door?" I ask.

"I do. I have an open door policy to keep up."

"Oh." We sit down at a table and I pull out a hoarhound from his candy dish.

"I see you were playing games today instead of teaching."

"It was an advanced simulation."

"It was a game."

"But not like Tic-Tac-Toe or Dots. This one involved a mock factory, where they were making their pictures and . . ."

"So they were drawing?"

"They were reading as well. They had to read various scenarios and describe their solutions in a text. It was real interactive and the kids were engaged and . . ."

"Do you remember what I said after the Hang Man Fiasco of 1895?"

"No games, period."

He raises an eyebrow at me. I gulp hard and almost swallow my hoarhound.

"Yes, but this wasn't violent. How could a parent possibly complain?"

"It's about learning, Tom. I know you're trying to connect it to learning, but frankly it's a stretch," the principal tells me.

"Well, soldiers play games. Surgeons do simulations. It's part of their education."

"Yes, but this isn't war and this isn't a hospital. If we want students to pass the rote memorization test, we need to focus on rote memorization skills. Were you sleeping during our professional development lead by the Drill and Skill Consulting Group?"

"I was paying attention," I lie. The truth is that I was paying attention, but only to the words. I wasn't about to let Mr. Brown win another week of Buzzword Bingo.

"If you want to abandon slate-based learning, at least try the Jonestown Intervention worksheets. Or maybe fill out the packets of algorithms."

My solution: we'll create an algorithm factory and integrate it into our Conflict-Oriented Reading and Writing Project (a.k.a. The Factory Game).

10 Points on Pencils

Dear Superintendent:

I want to address a few of your concerns that you had about my classroom and a list seems like an organized way of doing it:

  1. No, we don't have an Acceptable Use policy for pencils. I refuse to do this, because I don't have a policy for slates, for compasses (for more dangerous, in my opinion) or for chalk. If you want it to be an issue of compliance, I'll comply - but only through paperwork. I don't believe in it.
  2. Pencil predators are real, but most abuse happens in-person via close social relationships. I suggest an open dialogue with parents about monitoring pen pal letters. 
  3. Pencils aren't making kids narcissistic. They're in junior high which means they are naturally self-centered. The good news is that pencils provide a platform for self-awareness.
  4. I see your concern about Pencil Citizenship and it's being addressed, but I'd like to push back a little and suggest that ethics and social justice might be a better approach. And not just with pencils, but with life. 
  5. Banning pocket paper devices (i.e. tablets) is a really bad idea. Yes, they pass notes, but they're also learning to use these tools well. Let's allow students to learn how to use these tools for learning.
  6. Please quit banning Bullying is a real issue, but the most common method is still verbal and the most common site is still the cafeteria. Are we going to ban food next?
  7. Students aren't addicted to paper. Really, they're not. They're addicted to social interaction in the same way they are addicted to water and to oxygen. 
  8. I see your concern with violent games, but I played Hang Man and I'm not violent. It's really not as big a deal as you think.
  9. Teachers are motivated to use pencils. The real issue is self-efficacy. Many of them want to use the tools, but they're scared. Slate-based testing is a major component to this. There is a fear that learning can't transfer from one medium to the next. 
  10. The real issue is pedagogy. The power in the pencil is the nuance, the paradox, the gray area. It's in the idea of portability and permanence. It's about empowering each student to learn in a personalized way. It's a chance to erase and thereby move away from summative and toward formative assessment. 
Tom Johnson