Dragonballz and Runaway Trains: The Engaging Classroom

A classroom irony: when it’s time for students to drill down and complete assignments, they want to chat, but when discussion time hits, they clam up. Often the silence is not for lack of doing the work, but kids, when asked an evocative question, find themselves fearful of getting the answer wrong, so rather than risk looking “stupid” in front of their peers, they say nothing.

In defense of language arts, English teachers do try to mix it up. We dutifully put desks in circles instead of rows to encourage kids to share ideas and insights, not just dispense “the right answer” to the teacher. In literature, there’s really no right answer, no sum of all the parts. My old thinking was that language is an interdisciplinary subject, taking into account history, architecture, politics, human experiences. But really, all subjects are this interdisciplinary. “A train track is 300 miles long. On one end of the track, Train A leaves the station at 4 p.m. On the opposite end of the track, Train B leaves leaves at 6 p.m.. If Train A travels 45 mph and Train B travels 60 mph, when will they meet?” I have absolutely no clue what the answer is, but it seems to me that math, science, finance… all of the subjects we teach, we teach under the guise of allowing kids to engage with each other, but somehow, they still aren’t engaged. So what are we doing wrong?

Every morning in my Book Club class, a group of boys would gather together in the back of the room around a tiny screen before I arrived. Once I began class, everyone would settle in, but I always wondered what they were up to. Finally one morning, I came in a bit early and asked.

“It’s this virtual world game,” one boy explained, “you set up a world and create characters and basically have control over this whole universe of stuff.”

“Yeah,” said another kid “it’s pretty awesome. I play about eight hours a day.”

I then collected their essays. The boys weren’t writing at grade level. They both were“calling it in” on creative assignments, where again, there’s no wrong answer, but the lack of imagination and use of vocabulary was obvious. How could boys—smart boys—have so much imagination as to spend their days creating universes on their computers, but couldn’t muster a fraction of that inspiration onto a piece of paper?

The next day I asked the two boys to write a short essay on why each of their game “worlds” was better than the others’. I also told the boys they could share their work with each other… sort of like writing partners. This was a bit of a competition for the two of them (they got loud), but more importantly, an exercise in writing the persuasive essay. I asked them to use the structures I had provided that week, but instead of writing about our curriculum topics, I wanted to see if they could work on their own terms. They did the assignment together. That night I went home, made some tea, and graded papers for the following morning.

The results were staggering. Sure, some spelling and grammar errors remained, and it was clear where they shared ideas, but the imagination and use of language blew my mind. I could experience these worlds and the dwellers within, the pineapple-rough skin of the dragon, the crunch of the sugar in the bubble gum pie… these kids were brilliant writers. Sitting in my living room I felt my eyes well up, not because I had succeeded with these kids, but because for so long, I really hadn’t.

If we don’t allow students to drive education, to tell us how to engage them in real ways to inspire their imaginations and growth, teachers will continue to pass out exams with foregone results, to a wary classroom, still afraid to speak up.


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