The kids are building a fort.

Three days into Spring Break, unplugged by Mom and Dad, they’re in the back yard deciding how to put up the ceiling and how many blankets they can smuggle out of the house before I tell them to stop.

photo 4 (5)Right now they’re working together, the best of sibling play, but I’m not so naive as to think that I won’t see tears and fisticuffs before we bring in those blankets and call it a night.

I’m a principal now, as well as a dad, out of the classroom for eight years, and as I watch my own kids excited for it to get dark enough for them to grab a flashlight and make “puppet hands” on the wall of their fort, I’m reminded that my best days as a teacher saw students engaged in learning in ways a lot like my six and ten year old are right now.

It’s that sense of adventure, of unmapped possibilities. It’s cobbling together materials to create something of our own design, of pushing and pulling our ideas and the ideas of others as we work together, and at the end having something so great we want to crawl inside.

As an English teacher I got to see this kind of engagement when I taught one act plays. An intrepid student of mine had once written a grant so the classroom we shared could have a stage in it (this in itself another post at another time), and each year students would plan out how they’d bring one acts from Tennessee Williams’ collection 27 Wagons Full of Cotton to the stage. Their discussions of costumes and props, of sets and interpretation, and their ability to get lost in the process, looked a lot like my own kids and tonight’s fort.

photo 1 (11)I see this connection in classrooms at Diegueño. Just last week in a physical science class I watched as students built catapults out of cardboard and sent Skittles flying. Sure, they were learning about mechanics and engineering principles, but they were in the flow of creating, and if you asked any one of them to describe the rigorous learning they were engaged in, I think they would have agreed on one word for it: fun.

I know that if I were in the classroom again as a teacher my students would build more forts.

Earlier today I finished a book called Play by Stuart Brown, and late in the book he quotes novelist James Michener, who said:

The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he’s always doing both.”

I love seeing this purposeful play in classrooms and in back yards, as an educator and as a dad. Students learn best when they’re doing, building, and creating. My job as a parent, and as a principal, is to encourage them, celebrate learning, and cheer when they build forts.

2 thoughts on “Forts

  1. Love your post! And as a 6th grade teacher, I can relate.

    I support the idea of students “playing” whenever possible. I’m a real believer in finding that “sweet spot” where students don’t really know that they’re learning. Or getting into the “flow” as Csikszentmihalyi described the experiences of intrinsically motivated people, those who were engaged in an activity chosen for its own sake.

    Too often, out of a very real concern for meeting curriculum objectives, or maybe to prop up CAASPP performance, we steer our daily program this way and that. And our students allow us. They are all too understanding, taking our word for changes in subject, specially formatted responses, or material that’s not really relevant or connected to what we did last week… or even yesterday.

    Of course, the problem with the teacher “driving” the curriculum all the time is that it leads the students to think they’re just along for the ride. They forget to look where we’re going. Heck, they even don’t even know where we’re going!

    So having a Day to play– to allow students to identify a problem to solve, to engage in building solutions, to collaborate and learn together, to show off a novel creation– I know that’s gonna light my students on fire!

    After 30 years of teaching I’m still looking for the magic formula: A way to satisfy my master(s) and still make learning Fun for my students. I think, wouldn’t it be great to conduct the curriculum in such a manner that the students just thought they were “playing”?! Someday I will have the perfect formula. For now, I’ll just keep tinkering. Something like…

    (Curriculum Standards / Relevant, Real World Problems) X (Student Choice & Problem Selection + Collaboration & Teamwork) = Student Engagement + 21st Century Outcomes

    • Thanks for your comment, Rob. I love your driving analogy, and agree that the perfect classroom blend of play and learning is a magic formula, not always easy to create, but certainly worth the effort!

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