How Do Games Help Us Learn?

In an early post of mine, you can read about a couple of games that I have used in my classes to get students moving, talking and thinking: a getting-to-know-you game, and a grammar relay race.  A few weeks ago, a reader (OnQuicken), left a comment on that old post, asking to hear about more classroom games.

There are many ongoing studies of video and computer games as learning tools.  Educational researchers are also investigating the general concept of play, and its role in learning.  I’d like to look into some of the research in this area, and write about it here in the near future.

For now, though, I’d like to hear about your games.

I expect that if you are a primary teacher, you incorporate games into your teaching.  Do you use any games that would be suitable for, or adaptable to, older students?  I’m especially interested in how teachers of high school, college, university and adult education use games in the classroom. What experiences have you had with playing games?  What are the pros and cons of using them?  What successful games have you used?

Students, can you think of learning games that you’ve found especially effective?

Most importantly, have you seen any evidence to suggest that the games you have played, in the classroom or otherwise, have helped you or your students learn?  What and how?

Image by Mark Daniel

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What Do Students Think Should Change About School?

This is a call out to students.  Whether you’re in primary, middle or high school, whether you’re a college undergrad or a postdoctoral fellow, I’d like to hear your opinion.  What do you think should change about school?

My friend Gen X has asked me to put this question out there.  She’s interested in students’ frustrations about all aspects of our society – school, workplace, social life, etc. – but to begin, I’m especially interested in what’s bugging you about school.  How could school be better?

You can leave your thoughts in the comments below.  If you’re shy, you can send them to me by email through the form on my contact page.  And if you’d like to really get your hands into it, write and email me a mini- (or maxi-!) essay of 200 words or more. I will feature the best essays as a future guest posts here on Classroom as Microcosm!

Parents, teachers and other non-students, please forward this question to the thoughtful and articulate students you know: if you were Supreme High Overlord or Overlady of the World, what would you change about school?

Image by Ivan Prole

The Incomparable Mr. G: Part 2

Before I began teaching CEGEP, I taught intensive summer English Immersion programs at a university in small-town Quebec. I’d already been teaching in various capacities for a while at that point, but one experience with these five-week programs made me think suddenly of Mr. G.

My class that summer was a joy, and I established a good rapport with all of the students. This program was designed for people 18 and over, which meant that parties, dances and events could be held at the university pub. Teachers often attended these events as well; I and some of the other younger teachers got to know our students outside the classroom in this way.

After the five weeks were over, a number of students stayed in the village on an extended immersion program, to work and continue practicing their English. I was still in town as well, teaching another session. My former students were mostly staying together in two adjoining houses, just around the corner from my house, and they had regular parties to which I and a couple of colleagues were usually invited. I spent a number of weekend evenings at one or the other of these houses, drinking too much and staying up all night and generally behaving as I would with friends my own age.

It started to dawn on me, however, that I was not with friends my own age. I had been teaching since I was very young, and was accustomed to my students seeing me almost as a peer. I had failed to notice that I was no longer a peer at all – most of these people were 18, 19 and 20 years old, and I had just turned 30. What was more, even though they were no longer technically my students (and some of them never had been, having been in other classes), they clearly still perceived me as a teacher. One night the colleagues and I went out dancing with them, and they seemed both amused and bemused by this. They also seemed slightly shocked to see us smoking marijuana and engaging with them in conversations about relationships and sex. At first they seemed delighted that their teachers were “cool,” but as time went on I started to get the feeling that they didn’t quite know what to do with us, or how they should be relating to us.

One late night as I sat on the porch with a few of them, the police showed up, not once but twice, because we were making too much noise. The second time they appeared, I thought I saw one of them look at me slightly askance. It was probably my imagination – I don’t think I looked older than anyone else – but I was all at once profoundly uncomfortable. In my own mind I was suddenly ridiculous, like those middle-aged male professors who used to hit on me and my friends when we were undergraduates, and whom we always found so laughable and sad.

I had a sudden vision of Mr. G. Granted, when I knew him, he was older than I was that night on the porch, but nevertheless, he would never have spent a night reveling with his students – it would have seemed unutterably beneath his dignity – and some of his students would have been the same age as the students I was spending my evenings with now.

I didn’t go back to any of their parties after that.

I started teaching CEGEP the following September, and I found that my view of my students and my relationship to them was very different than it had been in the years leading up to that. I started to understand the need of students, especially young students, to see their teacher as a teacher and not as a pal. Recently a colleague commented on how, when she was a CEGEP student, she liked it when her teachers were friendly, personable and even “cool,” but not when they tried to be her friend. I thought of Mr. G again, and something clicked for me. Until students get to a certain point – graduate school, perhaps? – seeing a teacher as a “peer” is an uncomfortable experience. Those boundaries need to be clear.

Making the transition away from being a friend to my students and toward being a real “teacher” to them has been one of the greatest challenges of my teaching life. I am trying to find a balance where I can show them that I see them as individual people with individual lives, and that I am concerned about and interested in those lives, but that I know where to draw the lines, that I know my place. Memories of Mr. G have provided me with a very helpful model – it is possible to know your young students, and play a role in their lives that goes beyond the classroom, but it is important that the boundaries be clear, in order for them to be secure in their relationship with you and maintain a sense of respect that is as much to their benefit as it is to yours.

The Incomparable Mr. G: Part 1

Mr. G. taught me literature and creative writing when I was in high school. He was in his late 50s at that time. During the two years I knew him, I never saw a discipline issue arise in his classroom. He encouraged students to bring snacks and lunches to class with them, and often said he wished we could sit in beanbag chairs instead of at desks; the tone of his lessons was always casual, conversational, often straying away from the material at hand to issues that seemed marginal (but usually turned out not to be); still, no one was ever unruly or off-task. I only once saw him lose his temper, at a crowd who were being extremely noisy outside his door while he was trying to conduct a lunch-hour activity, and it was a fearsome sight – the entire hallway full of students fell immediately stone silent, and not a squeak was heard until the bell rang for classes again. I’ve always wondered what it was about him that inspired that sort of respect.

Mr. G was the director of the school’s yearly musical productions, which were a big deal, involving a cast of almost a hundred each year and bringing in an array of students, not only drama nerds and musicians but also athletes and stoners and high academic achievers. After a friend and I did a special project in Mr. G’s class in which we performed a scene from “She Stoops to Conquer,” he asked me to try out for a lead in that year’s production of “The Pajama Game.” After my audition, he was straightforward about my limitations. My singing voice wasn’t very powerful. What was more, my boyfriend would undoubtedly be given the male lead, and Mr. G was uncomfortable casting us in such close proximity. He was therefore going to offer me the comic lead instead.

I was struck, not only by his honesty, but also by his acknowledgement of the real-life situation within which my academic and extra-curricular life was taking place. He seemed to understand that his students were real people. He knew who was friends with whom and who was dating whom, and had a general sense of the states of our relationships at any given moment. He also seemed to know about other activities we were involved in, and some rudimentary details about our family lives. You wouldn’t think this would be unusual in a small town, but none of my other teachers seemed to be aware of, or concerned about, the life I led outside their classrooms.

At the same time, Mr. G was never “chummy” or invasive; he maintained a respectful and respectable distance from us and from our lives. On the night of our last performance of “The Pajama Game,” he sat the whole cast down in the theatre before the show and instructed us to enjoy our post-production cast party, and “not to do anything stupid.” I’ve often wondered what he did that night, and if it was a lonely feeling for him, sending us off to celebrate without him. I might have felt lonely in his place. There was no question, however, of inviting him to join us; as much as we appreciated him and our relationship with him, the divide between us was absolutely clear, and even if we’d urged him to come to our party, I can’t imagine he would have accepted.

When I went to college – to a campus that was a five-minute walk up the hill from the high school – I asked Mr. G if I could come see him occasionally with some of the fiction and poetry I was writing, and get feedback from him. He said of course, and during the couple of years before I left my hometown, I visited him once every month or so, and we talked about the writing I was doing, and my experiences at college, but nothing more personal than that.

A few years later, after I’d moved away, I was home visiting my father, and I dropped by the high school to see Mr. G. He seemed delighted that I was there. I was studying education, and he tried to encourage me to come back and do my internship with him. This would have made no practical sense, as I was studying to teach English as a Second Language and he was a Literature teacher, but I was touched by his enthusiasm and obvious attachment to me.

That was the last time I saw him. My father moved to Montreal not long after that, and, having few ties left to my hometown, I haven’t returned there in almost eight years. Mr. G would be close to eighty now. I did a Google search a year or so ago and found a couple of local newspaper articles, several years old, about his struggle with cancer. At this point, I don’t even know whether he’s still alive. I should really find out, because if he is, there are some things I want to tell him about what he did for me.

Next post: What I learned about identity, integrity, and teaching from the incomparable Mr. G.

(This post was adapted from a personal response I wrote for an MEd course.)

Class Size: The Root of All Evil

My main beef with the educational system as it stands, from kindergarten up through university, is with class size. I believe that if every class in the country were reduced to a maximum of fifteen students, many, if not most, of our educational and social ills would be resolved. Children, young adults and adults would learn better and would be better, because they would be seen, in the classroom if nowhere else, and because teachers would have the resources to connect and interact with them in a meaningful way that would lead to real learning much more often than it does now.

In large classes, most students are not met in what Vygotsky calls their “zone of proximal development” – they are not given tasks that are within their grasp but enough outside their comfort zone to be an interesting challenge. Instead, they are often asked either to achieve things that are out of their reach, or to achieve at a level lower than their current ability, so there is no opportunity for learning. The teacher has no real way of knowing this, or time to deal with the problem, unless the student makes the effort to seek out individual help, and many students won’t.

Now, I can’t do anything about my class sizes. English post-intro classes topped out at 43 students last semester – preposterous, but unavoidable under current conditions, unless you behave like a maniac until the course delete deadline and thin the herd that way. (Sometimes I’m tempted.)

A couple of semesters ago, I was teetering on the edge of quitting my job, because I had once been madly in love with teaching but now felt no enthusiasm and, in fact, dreaded going to work most days. I couldn’t put my finger on the exact source of the problem, but sensed it had something to do with not connecting personally with my students. It was hard to feel invested in them or their achievements while staring at a sea of faces, not knowing what was really happening behind the blank, bored or even enthusiastic expressions. One thing that would help, I thought, would be to know that I was making a difference to them, that they were not just showing up to class and doing the work badly or adequately or well, but that they were getting what they needed to move forward in a significant way.

So I decided to experiment with ways to get more individual time with my students. I tried scheduling “personal appointments”: for the second and second-last classes of the semester, I asked students, instead of meeting in the classroom, to schedule a ten-minute interview sometime over a period of a few days, where we could discuss where they were coming from (at the beginning) and what they had learned (at the end). This was fine, and achieved the purpose in some ways – getting them into my office made them more comfortable about coming on their own volition, and I did get to know a bit about some of them – but many interviews felt rote and not very enlightening, and the concrete result of the exercise was not clear. Could meeting 110 students individually over the course of a week really help me know their strengths and weaknesses and how to address them? It didn’t seem so.

This past semester, therefore, I abandoned the “personal appointments” exercise, but stumbled upon another possibility.

Before each major assignment, I usually dedicate a class to essay preparation; I ask students to put together a rudimentary outline of their paper and show it to me before they leave the class. Even if I announce this the class before and ask them to think about it, many students arrive unprepared to do this exercise and therefore get nothing out of it and end up leaving as soon as they can.

I decided to ask them, instead of coming to class to prepare an outline, to come to my office within a four-hour window around class time, with a prepared outline that we could discuss together. That way, I could vet the outlines that seemed solid and well thought out, and could spend some time working with individuals who were struggling. It was up to students to come or not, but because the activity replaced a class, many of them were motivated to come; over half of the students showed up with, if not a full-fledged outline, at least some ideas and questions.

The process was exhausting, but entirely worth it. I got to see what exactly students were achieving and what they were having problems with. Many students who didn’t meet with me about the first assignment and didn’t do well made a point of coming to see me about the second and third assignments. I could track their improvements much more closely. I also, at the suggestion of a colleague, made it mandatory that they come and see me, on their own time, if they wanted to rewrite an assignment (they can rewrite each except the final for a portion of the assignment grade.) This drew out a number of students who hadn’t come for the original essay consultation, and gave me a chance to deal with them individually as well. At the end of each day of consultations, I could barely stand up out of my chair, but I felt profoundly satisfied – I knew without a doubt that some real learning had taken place.

When I got my student evaluations at the end of the semester, a recurring theme was that those students who had taken advantage of those appointments were very appreciative. Many said that they were helped by those individual consultations more than by anything else in the course. I could see it in the students’ results, as well – those who spent time with me before each of the assignments made real improvements, both immediately and over time.

There was a payoff in terms of personal connection – not only did I get to feel more investment in them and their processes, but I believe your feelings about your teacher and how much he/she cares about your success affect your learning. I think, however, the major benefit was that I got to observe where each student was, and what they needed in order to move forward. I could offer a question or suggestion and watch the reaction – was he connecting to what I was saying, or was there a piece missing that I had to provide?

There is not really any way to address 43 different “zones of proximal development” in a classroom, but ten minutes of consultation with an individual can accomplish more than fifteen weeks of material that passes just over his or her head. I think this realization just might keep me from throwing in the teaching towel.

(This post was adapted from a personal response I wrote for an MEd course.)