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Thursday, June 2, 2016

No More Quiet Game: Inviting Talk into the Elementary Classroom

What is the Quiet Game?

While there are various versions, the premise of the game is the same. A leader is selected from the class and sits (or stands) in the coveted position of authority. Fellow classmates sit criss-cross applesauce in an area rug or remain seated at their desk.

The student leader then chooses the quietest fellow student by pointing. Without a single word spoken, the chosen student becomes the new leader and sits in the position of power. 

The game has grown in popularity because it  is easy to play, cost efficient, safe, and can be played almost anywhere. Bathroom lines are also a popular place to play. Instead of students sitting in the classroom, they are lined along the hall wall leading to the bathroom. The leader stands a few feet away from the line and points to the quietest classmate signaling that they were chosen for being the quietest. The leader returns to his or her place in line.

Adaptations can easily be made in the case that students continuously choose their “best” friend. Cliques are easy to spot if you are on the lookout. In the event of boys choosing only boys and girls choosing only girls, you can immediately invoke the gender rule: boys must choose a girl and girls must choose a boy. This is most prevalent in the earlier grades when cooties pose an immediate, but imaginary threat.

Cootie (n.) An invisible germ that is typically passed to the opposite gender. Elementary playgrounds are nesting grounds for cooties. In case of infection, a friend can inject the infected friend with a cootie shot.

Criss-cross Applesauce (adj.) Describes a way kids sit when bottoms are on the floor and legs are bent at the knees. 

Why We Play the Quiet Game

Imagine spending upwards to six hours in room filled with as many as thirty small children five days out of the week. You are also expected to be chirpy and happy. Oh, and you would be “actively monitoring” every child’s move.

Your lunch consisted of a bag of microwave popcorn you grabbed from the teacher’s lounge and a four hour old coffee because you were up with a teething baby until two in the morning and didn’t make your lunch.

During your interactive read-aloud, you feel your bladder ready to explode. You curse under your breath. What will you do? How do you manage a room full of children while you go to the restroom? 

And so you do what is familiar. You do what is safe. You begin the Quiet Game. You remind yourself that it will only be for a few minutes. It is a game that your teacher played when you were in elementary school, and the teacher before your teacher, and back and back and back.

You return to class and breathe a sigh of relief that the room is still standing. You do not see blood. There are no broken bones. You take a moment to affirm your students and seamlessly return to the story.

By the end of the school year, the Quiet Game is second nature to you and your class. It’s convenient and easy to enforce. Most likely you have never given it a second thought until now.

While there is no hard evidence, I suspect the Quiet Game was invented by a parent on an arduous road trip. It was a ploy to get the kids to stop talking and so it was strategically titled a “game”. Of course, all children know in their heart that there is nothing fun about the Quiet Game. I have personally never heard any student or my own children beg, Can we play the Quiet Game? Please? Pretty please?

Every teacher has a breaking point. Maybe it’s the fifth chorus of “The Wheels on the Bus” or the song “Let it go!” sung over and over again. We are only human. And so we demand that the class play the Quiet Game knowing full well who will “win” and which children will “lose” because of an intentional fake fart, or fake cough that sends the class into a fit of giggles.

Why Talk Matters

Research conducted at the Marzano Research Center @MarzanoResearch found a significant gap between a disadvantaged child and a child born into a professional family. The gap begins at birth. By three years of age, an advantaged child has learned twice as many words as a child in poverty. They also found that children in poverty have fewer books, technology, and often live in single parent households.

The gap is perpetuated by other factors that go hand-in-hand with poverty. Poor health, hunger, lack of sleep and the inability to concentrate are just a few very real things children in poverty deal with every day. Think about how you feel when your stomach is growling or the feeling of exhaustion after sitting up with a sick child into the wee hours of the night. I don’t know about you, but I can barely concentrate if I haven’t slept or I feel hungry.

One thing we do know for sure, without intervention, the gap continues to grow. By the way, “time-out” or assigning detention to a student is not an intervention. It is a punishment.

Talking is important. Talk has the ability to change brain chemistry and build neural brain networks. Yes, the brain can be rewired with meaningful talk. Just as food can satisfy tummy cravings, talk that is child-centered and intentional can increase concentration and spark creativity. 

Several years ago I was able to attend a professional development session led by Eric Jensen, author of Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kid’s Brains and What Schools Can do about it. Isn’t that a great title for a book? I was like a sponge soaking up all that I could because he was describing the kids in my literacy classroom.

One of my hats as a literacy coach was to teach a reading intervention class to students who were reading two or more years below grade level. In fact, at the beginning of the school year I could predict my students just by glancing over student addresses. I knew that one set of apartments housed our poorest students and I also knew of the trailer park where the other students lived. Guess what? A large percentage were my students!

While listening to Eric Jensen, I took notes like crazy and couldn’t wait to get back to my classroom. I had to try out his ideas about how talking and movement improved learning. I also learned that memory games helped students be productive in their studies. Now I say “games” because they were stress-free. The brain functions best without stress. I also learned that snacks helped, as well. 

Eric also spoke on the importance of student-centered talk to create classroom community and build self-esteem. He taught us fun and effective memory games to support concentration.

And so I began to ask "what if" questions. What if...teachers created opportunities for unstructured talk and play during the school day? What if...we replaced a game that rewarded silence and celebrated talk? 

What if We Did This Instead?

Here are some super duper easy ways to celebrate talk:
  • Play soft music and instruct children to move about the classroom. When the music stops, find a partner. Each student shares with their partner the book they last read or are currently reading. Students keep sharing until the music starts. (If you need to keep the noise level down, interject, “tip toe, or move like a butterfly).
  •  Choose a leader and whisper a phrase into his/her ear such as "the goofy giraffe jumped rope with the playful platypus." The leader whispers the secret phrase into the ear of the next child. When you say the game is over, the last child who heard the secret message repeats it out loud. (Initial phrases may be adapted to match maturity level).
  • A category is chosen like “transportation.” A leader begins by naming something that fits the category, like train or bike. Students touch their nose and remain seated if they can add a new item to the category. The leader chooses someone who hasn’t been called on and they name a new item. If they get stuck, they can call on a friend to help. This is also good for bathroom lines.
·    Crumple a piece of Kleenex and set it under a document camera. Invite students to say what they see. (This is the same concept as looking for animal shapes in the clouds). There is no right or wrong answer.

I encourage you to challenge yourself to make ONE small change by replacing the Quiet Game with an activity that celebrates talk instead of rewarding silence.

Confession Reflection:
  • Why is talk important? How can talk nurture a classroom community and celebrate diversity?
  • What are some other ways teachers can invite talk into the classroom?
  • How can administration empower teachers to invite unstructured talk into the classroom without penalizing or interpreting as misbehavior?

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