Monday, June 10, 2013

Where The Action Is

Several years ago it was the word "dodo" that was the automatic laugh line. Any kid looking for attention or to enter into play with friends knew that all she or he had to do was say the magic word. Everyone within earshot would stop what they were doing to laugh, then you were part of the gang, almost like a password. One class decided that the way we were going to take turns on the swings was that after someone asked you three times for a turn, you had to give up your swing, but it only worked if the request was phrased exactly like this: "Would you please let me have a turn?" If you failed to put the words in exactly that order three times in a row, for instance putting the word "please" at the either end of the sentence rather than in the middle, you had to start all over again. This year, our 5's class, after debates about the propriety of talking about "butts," "bottoms," and "bums," finally settled on the term "slammer" as the socially acceptable way to reference the human derriere. If you made the mistake of saying "butt," someone would be sure to correct you, "You mean slammer."

One of the ways we practice our community building skills is by "playing stories." This usually starts with an invitation: "Let's play a story." Sometimes I say it, sometimes a kid will say it. 

Whenever people come together, a set of community ethics and values emerges, typically complete with short-cut jargon. If the group stays together long enough, some of these become codified as rules, but even if it's nothing as formal as that, every group, if it's going to serve the needs of its members, evolves at least a set of unspoken agreements about how to do things, how to treat one another, and what kinds of things we hold in common as being acceptable, important, and even funny. It's one of the main reasons it's often so challenging to be a new member of an established group. What's so funny about "dodo," what the hell's a "slammer," and why should it matter if I put my "please" in the wrong place? But it does matter, it's part of ethics and values of this community, and the people who are most successful in becoming part of a new group are the ones best able to figure it out, which is one of the most important things we work on in preschool.

We then gather up some loose parts and chose a place to play our story. Usually, I start things off with the convention of, "Once upon a time . . ." then begin telling a story using the loose parts as props and characters.

Of course, there's a dark side to insider-ness, the potential to use it to exclude others, to create a divisive them v. us mentality at the heart of a community. It's a fine and complicated line to negotiate. For instance, earlier this year a couple boys started creating playground games for themselves based upon a video game called "Minecraft Survivor." As a teacher, I was thrilled they had found a way to connect so deeply so early in the year, but of course, the other kids didn't know their "bedrock" from their "diamond pickaxe," which made them outsiders. The Minecraft Survivors played noisily, their games involving lots of action, which naturally made it attractive to outsiders. One or two kids figured it out fairly quickly, persuaded their parents to let them play the video game at home, and were soon Minecraft insiders, equipped with knowledge about zombies and portals and whatnot. 

I try to leave empty places in my narrative for kids to begin inserting their own ideas. In this case, some of the younger, less verbal kids started building the fairies' house as I worked with the older kids on the words. If you look closely, you'll see that our Shakespeare bust has become the king of our fairy land. I like that Shakespeare is playing our stories with us!

Others, however, either didn't understand that this was all based on a video game or had parents who were opposed to them playing it, yet the playground games held obvious appeal to them. It could have become a stark dividing line. I recall those situations as a boy, when the glamorous kids "knew" things I didn't know, wanting to be a part, but feeling inadequate. You don't want to ask stupid questions, you don't want to show up as uncool. The example that comes to mind from my own life was when the novel Jaws (later to put Steven Spielberg on the map in its movie form) was all the rage. I was new in my middle school and it seemed that's all the kids were talking about. So, I asked Mom to buy it for me, which she did with the precaution, "There are some things in this book with which our family disagrees," which I right away discovered as being casual, drunken sex on the beach, a sin for which you apparently paid by being severed in half by a giant shark. Reading about it, however, was no sin; in fact, it turned out to be the key to being admitted to the inside. Soon I could recreate all the grisly and sexy scenes with the best of them.

We frequently have to interrupt our story to come to agreements. In this case, we had to talk about whether or not we were going to have "crashing dinosaurs" in the story (no) and if we wanted a swimming pool (yes, but no dumping water on people). Usually, my goal is to say less and less, as the kids take over. As you can see here, they are moving forward without me.

I suppose my mom, based on our family ethics and values, could have simply attempted to ban the book, but come on; we all know that this would have made me even more eager to read it. It never works to force kids to play together or to attempt to forbid certain types of games. This just tends to push it all underground, making it cancerous. Mind you, no one was overtly excluding anyone in our Minecraft games, but there were definitely kids on the fringe who were feeling left out, so I figured I'd help them decide if they wanted to join the game by role modeling how to get a little sunlight on things. I began interjecting myself into the Minecraft games, often by asserting, "I'm a Minecraft Survivor," then co-opting some of their jargon as my own, boldly misusing it, compelling the insiders to divulge what they knew to all of us who had gathered around.

Just as in our Minecraft Survivor game, much of the dramatic play involves debate and discussion. What the kids begin to learn is that disagreement is only bad if it doesn't lead to agreement, so there is a strong incentive to find common ground, otherwise the story is over.

I would say something like, "I'm using my diamond axe to chop up a portal that I'm going to feed to the zombies."

"No, no, no, Teacher Tom, it's not an axe, it's a pickaxe, and you can't start with a diamond one, you have to earn it by collecting minerals . . ." Then I would start asking clarifying questions about pickaxes and minerals.

"You don't chop up portals, you go through them." Then I would start asking clarifying questions about portals and what you found on the other side.

"You don't feed the zombies, they're trying to eat you!" Then I would start asking clarifying questions about zombies and the other assorted bad guys.

My idea was to try to demonstrate how to get us all on the same page, at least about the playground version of the game, and to take the mystery out of it for the uninitiated, without stealing the authority from the glamorous kids who had invented the cool game that everyone wanted to play.

After several weeks of this, the Minecraft Survivor "team" had become an amoeba-like entity, retaining it's core group, but flexible enough to absorb anyone who was willing and able to say, "I'm a Minecraft Survivor." 

Sometimes I feel that this is my main job as a preschool teacher, helping children enter into play with others. These are important life skills, perhaps the most important. I often wonder how many of us missed our calling in life because we were intimidated by the insiders. I wonder how many geniuses the world has lost because their genius wasn't for working with others. I wonder how many potential best friends were never connected because they were separated by a fence of jargon.

The head of my daughter's school said during a commencement speech, "The hallmark of a great community is how quickly newcomers are brought into the center." I once shared this with another group with which I was involved, a group that was struggling with membership and participation. It shouldn't have surprised me when a longtime member answered, "No, you have to earn your way into the center." No wonder the group was struggling.

Since these were the kids who are moving on to kindergarten next year, I probably will never know the future of our playground Minecraft Survior games. I'm sure that some of them will attempt to recreate them on their new playgrounds. Perhaps they will be the glamorous kids who know how to draw others into the center. Others will be relieved to never have to play those particular games again. Whatever the case, there will be a new game, new ethics, new values, new jargon, because that is the material from which community is built, the specifics of which are largely unimportant. What is important, and what I hope our children carry off into the rest of their lives, is how to build and recognize communities that easily bring newcomers into the center because that's where the action is.

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