There is little about my work in schools that portrays anything resembling the routine of school “work.” When I am in a school around kids, I dial up the goofiness and turn on the loud, jokey, quirky, let’s-see-what-happens kind of attitude that would probably be better suited for the playground than the classroom. The kids think I’m fun. And, let me tell you, it’s just about the best compliment that you can get in the world.
So, I was floored recently when a number of kids in a school I visited became really anxious and stressed in a new writing workshop that I have been doing this year. It’s a fast, fun, spontaneous writing exercise that combines “list poetry” with a timed game. The workshop actually came from a very disastrous session I did a few years back– it was one of those things you come up with as the teacher when things aren’t going right and you have to think fast on your feet or lose the whole moment. It’s one of the few things I do that is actually and completely my own invention, and I have tweaked it into a hilarious and creative way to write a poem in about five minutes. It has amazed kids and grownups, myself included, and I love that it is a mistake turned into a success.
Now, I don’t know anything about a classroom or its teacher when I walk in the door. And, I can tell you that there is a certain amount of anxiety and stress that I experience each time I have to go in and get a class full of kids to get on board and produce a poem (and some art!) in about 45 minutes. When I think back to my days student teaching, I think it’s probably a good thing that we spent so much time watching the class before we ever had to get up in front of it. But my anxiety is nothing compared to what I am beginning to see now–in large part because I’ve started paying better attention–among these kids. It makes me think about the movie, Race To Nowhere, and I am concerned about how I am noticing this stress in such young children. It all came to a head in a second grade classroom during the writer’s workshop I’ve described.
Some kids get a little blocked with writing, and I understand that, but this method is really foolproof. You can’t get anything wrong. You could try to get it wrong and you still couldn’t. The way you come up with the words, the “bones” of the poem, is so random, so easy, even an adult can do it! I’ve watched kids smiling, laughing and, literally, hopping around their desks as they write with their partners. I’ve listened while their teacher told me quietly on the sidelines, “Some of these kids never write with this much enthusiasm!” But, on this day, in this second grade classroom, the seed of anxiety sprouted and it grew and grew until nearly every one of the twenty-two kids was frozen and one of them sat sobbing over her paper, crying, “I can’t do this!” while I stood there, trying to cheer them on as I held the stopwatch that usually takes their enthusiasm to a fever pitch. And, don’t tell me anything about stopwatches and how terrible competition is (it happens to be one of the dirtiest words in education right now and a topic for another post). This is a really fun writing workshop, for everyone. Usually.
So, I stopped the watch and stopped the class and this is what I said:
Do you know why your school had me come in? Do you? (A murmuring variety of “so you could teach us to write,” “teach us to draw” could be heard throughout the group.) Well, that’s not why. Your school had me come in–and don’t tell them this, because they probably don’t know–to do something else. Just between you and me, I’m here to PLAY with you. And, do you know what? Nothing we do together is going to get a grade (smiles begin, along with little gasp here and there), nothing we do together is going to be on a test (more smiles, and a few “yeahs!”), and when we’re done, everything we make together… you can take it with you and show it to someone at home (cheering and fist pumps). So, what we’re doing here right now? We’re playing–it’s a lot like playing on the playground, really, just with words and art. And, seriously, out of all the things in the world you could stress or cry over, this is totally not one of them.
This group wrote great poems. The girl who was crying immediately stopped and jumped into a wonderful poem without another sniffle. I, however, had one of those lightning bolt moments that changed how I will enter every single writing session I do with kids and grownups alike. But, here’s my question… what is happening with our children when they can’t recognize fun? When they can’t tell that something is a game? When they can’t PLAY without being told that’s what they’re doing?
TRY THIS WEEK: Play.