Another Mindset that Matters: Being Playful

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Play is in danger of disappearing from primary classrooms, and it shouldn’t be. But I’d like to raise an alarm bell that play is extinct in classrooms for every American child over the age of seven. Yes, there are a few exceptions to this, but not too many.

It seems that play is something policy makers think kids need because they’re kids, and they can still get a lot of it outside of school. They may claim that more “rigor” is necessary for college and career readiness. I argue that play has unique benefits to learning and life success, which cannot be found in strictly academic settings.

Imagine this: You’re an upper elementary or middle school teacher, and somehow you find yourself walking in the primary hallway or wing of a school.

You stop to peek into a kindergarten classroom during that magical event known as choice time. You know you’re supposed to go copy a very important practice sheet for the state test, or maybe you need to grade that giant stack of literary essays. But from inside the classroom a tiny face catches your eye.

“Are you hungry?” the little boy asks. He’s working with a few other impossibly small children in a play kitchen area.

“What do you have?” You ask. A girl comes over and hands you a paper labeled, “menu.” There are some pictures of food labeled with a few letters.

“Today we’re serving clams and oatmeal.”

“Wow! I’ll have some of each,” you say. She writes your order on a small pad and asks what you’ll have to drink. “Hot chocolate? Or orange juice?”

“That’s a tough one. They’re both so good with clams. I guess I’ll go for the hot chocolate, though.”

The kids work as a team to get plates and a cup, serve from the pots on the stove, and pour from a teakettle. They bring your order and you eat it with your hands. The boy gives you a cloth napkin, which you use to wipe the imaginary food from your hands and face.

“That was amazing! I’m going to go write a Yelp review of this place right now!” you say.

The kids look at you quizzically as you return the dishes and make your way back to your very important work.

You just played! Sure, it was fun and cute, but you also did something really important for your brain. You adopted a playful mindset. You just created space for possibilities you hadn’t imagined before. Clams and oatmeal on the same menu, a meal consisting of these paired with hot chocolate. Dining with no utensils, but, somehow, a cloth napkin. 15 minutes ago this combination of variables didn’t exist in your vision of how things tend to go, but now it does. Congratulations! This micro-expansion of your worldview happens every time your vision of what’s possible takes in something new. “Clams and hot chocolate. Of course!” You were willing to try something in your imagination that you not only wouldn’t have tried, but— and this is the crucial piece— it was something that wouldn’t even have occurred to you to try.

Experiences like these create pathways in the brain that enable us to consider more readily unusual, inventive, creative, resourceful ways of doing the things we need to do. These are also the pathways needed to solve problems that haven’t been solved before and to create things that didn’t exist before. These benefits combine and work together to feed a mindset that is flexible, creative and courageous.

 This is my claim: A playful mindset is not just helpful for college and career (and life, adulthood, relationship and happiness) readiness, it’s necessary. Necessary. I had to say that twice.

Reflecting on Student Engagement: What are some of the conditions that make it happen?

I got to spend a gorgeous three days of Fall with about 95 sixth graders at the Pocono Environmental Education Center. OK, I’m going to say up-front that I wanted a cocktail about seven times a day for the three days we were there. It was pretty exhausting.

It was also amazing to see my city-kid students engaging with nature and with each other in such playful ways.

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This is where we were.  Continue reading

Helping Kids and Parents Understand Writing Notebook Rubrics

I recently wrote about wanting to encourage a playful spirit in the writer’s notebook, but also about my expectation that my 6th graders write words. Lots of words. It can be hard to feel like I’m being clear about what I think should be happening in students’ notebooks in order for them to become stronger and more confident writers, and to have lots of raw material for making things outside of their notebooks.

With help from colleagues and a couple of parents, we created this rubric for our 6th graders: CopyofGr6WNBRubricV3 It’s still being revised a little at a time, but this is our current version.

The rubric itself is not that helpful unless we all agree on what certain terms mean, such as “thoughtful and/or reflective.” In order to make sure that our other 6th grade Humanities teacher and I were approaching this the same way, we looked at students’ notebooks together. When we were ready, we then made a slideshow for kids to walk them through what it looks like to meet or exceed expectations in some key areas of the rubric.

Gr6 Understanding the Writer’s Notebook Rubric

When students got their first rubrics of the year, they were all able to understand their feedback, and work with me to set personal goals for themselves as writers.

Can We Play in a Writer’s Notebook?

I’m back from a year off of posting. Long story.

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Why are some kids tortured by writers’ notebooks?

I got an email from a parent the other day, at her wits’ end because she said that getting her son to write entries in his notebook was like pulling teeth. It was miserable for them both. Now that’s not the feeling I want to encourage in young writers!

Later that day, I sat down with my own third grader to write an entry in his notebook, which had been assigned for the next day. It was the first entry of the year he’d be writing at home rather than in school. He’d been putting it off.

He whined a bit, and complained that he had nothing to say. He tried to bargain with me. Then he got angry. I thought about letting him just not write the entry and take the consequences at school. It was an important moment, though, and I wanted to have some input into how his attitude toward writing would be affected, negatively or positively, by this experience. So I held firm. I saw an entry he’d done in class, which was a page full of small drawings of memorable experiences he had had. His teachers had clearly taught the class that this was a tool they could use to generate ideas in times such as this, when they can’t think of anything to write. We looked at all the pictures, and he told me the stories contained in them. He chose one to write, and then wrote it. The tool worked. Continue reading

Reading Notebook Inquiry

A lot of kids have been asking about reading responses:

  • What makes a good post-it?
  • What should an entry look like?
  • How should I be using my notebook?
  • What if I don’t have a lot to say about what I read on a particular day?
  • What are other kids doing in their notebooks?
First, I want to clarify that we (601, 602, and I) agreed that students should write four entries each week. We didn’t think there should be a page, time, or days-per-week requirement.
Today students found entries in their notebooks that
  • helped push their thinking or showed a change in thinking
  • showed a new or interesting or new way of responding (to the writer)
  • helped them as a reader
  • were fun to make
  • they just liked
They spread the notebooks out and took a “gallery walk” to notice and comment on what other readers in the room were doing.
Here is a selection of the kinds of entries they shared:
There’s a lot of variety here, and I was so excited to hear them talking about what they noticed and admired in each other’s work!
But it wasn’t all self congratulatory- they also talked about what they hope to do more of in future entries. Many of them expressed a hope to show deeper and richer thinking in their notebooks.
This led us to the questions:
  • What are the purposes of our notebooks?
  • How can they help us to read more deeply?
  • If we are already reading more deeply, how can we use our notebooks to help us keep track of it?
We’ll be returning to these questions over the next few weeks.
This is the kind of day that makes me feel lucky to have my job!

Launching our Year, Part 1

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This year brings some firsts to me and my school:

  • First year with 6th grade (and everything that now having middle school means for our eventually K-8 school)
  • First year departmentalized, which means
  • First year for me teaching humanities and
  • First year for my partner, Melissa, teaching only math
  • First year for my students following their own individual schedules
  • First time I’ve had more than one class, and 66 students to know (I know this isn’t many in the grand scheme of things)
  • First time I’ve had an advisory group (11 students)

As part of this, Melissa and I, the two main core teachers for this grade, wanted to start our year in a completely new way, both for us and for the students. I’ll be writing here about our first couple of weeks, mostly copying what we’re sending to parents (sorry, I just don’t want to write these entries twice for two different audiences, but I wanted to have it here to get feedback from the larger world). Continue reading

A Conversation (or 4) About Play

We gathered as a group to talk about play and the effect it was having on our learning and thinking. The first conversation got pretty complicated, and our notetaker was having a hard time tracking our shifting ideas. We opened Popplet, an app to help in just such circumstances, and started a web. We revised the web each time we returned to the topic. This is the final version.
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I’m going to let it speak for itself for now. 

I’m on vacation!

XO