Do Classroom Games Help Students Learn?

It’s been a long week, an endless winter. Students file into my classroom, looking weary.

“Can’t we just play a game today?” one of them asks.

In the last thirty years, many standard teaching methods have lost favor. We are discouraged from lecturing, drilling,  and other teacher-centric teaching methods because they do not ‘engage’ students. Group work, hands-on activities, layered curriculum, differentiated instruction are all the rage.

Games fit neatly into a child-centered classroom. But are they a valid way to teach? Do kids actually learn better by playing games than through other activities?

My answer: sometimes, but usually not.

In a foreign language classroom, we do many things: we read, we write, we listen, we talk. The goal is to form habits of memory and use.

There is a time limit for these activities: fifty minutes a day, five days a week, 180 days a year. Three years of instruction add up to 27,000 minutes (before subtracting announcements, assemblies, and other random interruptions.) As any language teacher (or learner) can tell you, this is barely enough to learn to communicate in another language. Many people think it would be nice to be able to speak another language, but have no idea of the time and effort demanded.

Where do games fit in? More

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Narrowing the Choices

I spend a minimum of an hour a day grading papers. Some days it adds up to as many as three hours. In a normal week, it works out to about ten hours of marking up papers, sifting through sentences and paragraphs, evaluating the evidence of learning.

One of the side effects of all this activity is the inability to let my mind off the leash. I tend to approach every part of my life with the left brain, viewing everything I read through critical eyes, including my own words. If a person needed a cure for writing and reading too much, having an English teacher grade everything would put an end to even the most fervent love of words.

Alas, I do not need to be cured. I need to write more, read more. But it’s pretty hard to sit down and read for enjoyment or work on my unfinished novel when I’ve been bleeding red ink all day.

Nor do my students need to be cured. At an age when their minds ought to be soaking up information, they have learned to hate reading because it always comes with a not-so-secret agenda. “Read the following passages and answer the questions by filling in the circle corresponding to the correct answer. Be sure to darken each circle completely, using only a number 2 pencil. If you change an answer, be sure to erase completely. Do not make any other marks on your answer sheet.”

If the only point to reading is to prove that you read something by bubbling in answers, or writing short answers and extended responses, or occasionally making a book report, why would they want to read? Reading isn’t fun, it’s a test.

Modern education revolves around testing and grades. More

Sorrows of the Liver (and other depressing information)

It has been proven that drinking too much alcohol can give you Sorrows of the Liver. I learned this from a research paper written by one of my students. I consider myself fortunate; while there have been a few mornings when my liver was a bit gloomy, most of the time it handles my bad habits without getting depressed.

This week most of my sorrows have been caused by bad grammar, incorrect word usage, and failure to properly cite sources. It’s been a long week.

Sunday: I read a letter to the editor in our local paper that makes me bang my head on the counter a few times. “Why are teachers paid so much? Our schools are terrible. If students don’t learn, their teachers should be fired.”

Don’t worry; this is not about to be a rant. I do point out, however, that no one is blaming doctors for the obesity epidemic.

Monday: When I arrive at school, the towering pile of research papers is waiting on my desk. What makes my liver sad is this: I have sixty students in my two English classes; thirty-one research papers were handed in. Thirty-one!

That number correlates closely with my failure rate for those classes: 58%. So far I haven’t been called into the principal’s office, but I expect that conversation to take place soon. One of my fellow English teachers has already been scolded for failing too many of his students, and his percentage is lower than mine. How do you pass a student who hands in no work? Perhaps we should stop making them read and write. More

A Worthy Exercise

When I wrote in college, I always hit a wall at about 2000 words. I could spend days doing research and organizing my ideas, but when I got out my yellow pad and began to write, eight pages was my limit. At that point, I’d said everything I wanted to say. This wasn’t a serious problem in college; I wrote well enough to get passing grades. When I started graduate school, though, I realized (duh) that eight pages wasn’t enough. I had to push myself to say more about the Roman Attitude Towards the Christians During the Fourth Century A.D. or The Significance of the Order of Horace’s Odes.

Being able to churn out lots of words is a skill my students struggle to master. Even after weeks of writing journal entries and stories, a few of my creative writing students can’t seem to put out more than two hundred words at a time. Part of the problem is that they don’t have a lot of experiences to supply them with material.  Another part is that they don’t trust their own imaginations enough to let go and write badly, which is the first step to writing well. Writers know this, but our students have been taught to keep their page clean until they are sure of the right answer.

This new year, I have begun an experiment: write less. My goal is to write one hundred words a day — exactly one hundred — about anything. More

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