Over the years, I have participated in a wide variety of sports. I recall hours spent in the gym at the Boys Club for basketball, summer days on the ball field for baseball, spring and fall nights on the soccer field, and fall evenings on the football field. I also remember the ups and downs of hours of practice for each of those sports. But the best part of playing a sport was always the game. It made sweaty July days on the ball field, or two-a-days in August that much more worth it because we saw that our practice paid off in terms of performance when we were playing against the opposing team.
Recently, I’ve been reading the book The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. While I’m not finished with the book yet, the main idea that I’m getting so far is that our most memorable positive moments are all made up out of the same elements – elevation, insight, pride, and connection. If we are intentional in what we do and how we design experiences, we can create more of those powerful moments for ourselves and others. This seems to have some pretty obvious translation to the classroom setting.
One of the chapters is titled Build Peaks, and is all about creating experiences that rise above others. Several of the stories that are shared focus on classroom experiences that build peaks for students. In one high school, the teachers wanted to create a peak experience for their seniors, and created what’s called “Senior Exhibition,” which asked students to do what many of us might call a passion project or genius hour activity. Students were able to pick anything they wanted, it did not have to tie directly to curriculum. On the day of the exhibition, students gave an oral defense of their project, which many parents attended. In a normal school setting, parents are not able to see the outcome of student learning in person. Typically, the only outcome of learning that parents see is grades in the gradebook, or maybe an assignment that has been returned with feedback. This experience was different. Jeff Gilbert, one of the creators of the senior exhibition, and now a high school principal, shared:
All this talk about practice has me thinking about one of my all time favorite press conference rants by an athlete.
Now, I’m going to be really honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of Allen Iverson. As an Indiana kid, my heart was with Reggie Miller and the Pacers. But I still use phrases from this clip in everyday conversation. And in this clip, Iverson shares his passion for the game of basketball. In case you need a reminder, that passion isn’t about the practice. It’s about the game.
Going back to the quote above from The Power of Moments, when I read that passage, I had to put the book down for a moment. How do we go about making the experiences in our classrooms feel less like practices, and more like a game?
Let’s pause here for a moment. Grab a piece of scrap paper, or a post-it note, or go to the notes app on your phone. Make a quick list of the peak moments you remember from your schooling experiences? I’m going to focus on elementary since that’s the grade level that I’m working with. Go ahead, stop reading for a moment, jot some notes, and I’ll be here when you come back.
Here are a few of the moments that I recall: In third grade our class made bread – some of the moms came in and as groups we made the dough. Then they took it home, baked it, and brought it back in the afternoon. I can still remember the feeling of getting to take a bite of that warm, soft bread that I had helped to make. In fifth grade, we did an invention convention. Each student was asked to create a new invention. I built a desk that you could remove the back panel from and put on the other side so that it could work for either a right-handed or left-handed person. As a lefty, I was tired of my arm hanging off the side of my desk anytime that I was trying to write. The day of the convention, we presented to classmates and students in the other fifth grade class. That night we came back to school and got to present to parents who came to learn about our various inventions. I had one parent tell me he was a lefty and would buy a desk like that. Many more that were right-handed said they never would have noticed the problem. In sixth grade we researched a foreign country. I worked with a partner to learn as much as I could about Belgium. We took some of our combined kitchen skills and made snacks from Belgium to share with our visitors. We also had a presentation board with pictures and interesting facts. During the day, students from all over the school came to visit our presentations in the gym, and that night we came back and presented to our parents. I was able to share all that I had learned, and found out that the family of one of my good friends had ancestral roots in Belgium. It was an instant connection and conversation piece that night.
What do all of those memories have in common? They weren’t practice. They were the game. If we want students fired up about school and about learning, we’ve got to be intentional about finding opportunities to create more games for students. Could you invite parents to come in so students can share their learning? Could you do a video chat with an expert in the field you’ve been studying? Could you try to connect with the author of the book you’ve been reading in class?
Take a moment to reflect on what some of the favorite things you’ve done with your students. What were the elements that made them a peak moment for your kids? Possibly, one of the indicators is that there were some elements that took the learning beyond the practice phase, and into a realm where it felt more like a game or performance.
What are your thoughts? Do you have any activities that you’ve done in the past that you could make a bit more game like? Or do you have an idea of a way to make learning less like practice and more like a game that I haven’t shared already? Share your thoughts in the comments below!