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The Play's The Thing

"The play's the thing
In which to catch the conscience of the King."
 - Hamlet
In a few short words Shakespeare captures the power of drama over mere words. Rather than confrontation with the man who murdered his father, Hamlet uses the symbols of drama to illustrate his emotions and conflicts.
The implications for classrooms today, including those that are designed to prepare teachers, is enormous. Those who promulgate "cooperative learning" as a successful strategy to produce learning forget that such learning should really become a form of "play" -- that it is this attribute which transforms learning beyond dull routine. If teachers really understood cooperative learning at its best, they would see the clear resemblance of children's responses within the group to the interaction of theatrical ensembles. The actions they create take the players beyond the dull routine of factual acquisition to a truly higher order of thinking and of sharing thought. They have at their heart the planned lesson of providing children with the opportunity to work things out, each in his or her own style, emotionally and cognitively.
Moreover, play is the best way to guide children to connecting their thoughts. At its best it is the acting out of formal and informal interpersonal games wherein each move creates new relationships critical to thinking about relationships in every discipline and field. "Acting out," when allowed to flourish, enables children to probe deeper meanings as another way of acquiring the skill of searching for understandings well below the surface of just mechanical problem solving.
Nothing is worse than seeing children sitting together without teachers creating within them the excitement of such groups working at the transformation of facts into ideas and ideas into tangible outcomes.
Play can bring to life the drama of learning about different historical periods. Play can create imaginative responses to mathematics, as in the kindergarten activity of guessing what shape or form is in a sealed box by the way it reacts to being held and shaken. Play can bridge the gap between cultures, societies, and languages as children explore with one another the many ways they react to different stimuli. Play can transform learning language beyond chalkboard word-recognition or repetition, or to merely the dull recitation of duller stories.
Perhaps most important, play can change behavior and is the only way to receive and initiate the new child into the social group called a class. Games and imaginative ways to engage the child with the rest of the class can do more to help set the stage not just for acceptance, but for learning, than any other strategy.
Play is the best way to free the imagination of the child and to keep that imagination alive while he or she progresses through the grades. In the latest education craze to focus (almost to the exclusion of everything else) on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, we have already been admonished by the great practitioners of these fields that "we don't need more engineers, we need those who can think." And we are at the mercy of those who have already forgotten the pointed and poignant words included in the national committee report on 9/11, which referred to that event as "a failure of imagination."
Need we be reminded that play as one of the most important ingredients in the classroom needs to be reinforced by play in children's theater, in moving to music, in physical education, and in dance as it spells out a story. As just one example, introduction to the song is best accomplished as children come to understand, through the lyrics -- the story -- what the music itself is all about. At the height of musical performance, professional artists, too, learn this in the Master Classes of Maria Callas, illustrating the aria, and Barbara Cook, the great songs of musical theater. Their message to students has been to forget the mere production of sound and work toward telling the story -- the great drama of the text. Their charge is to lead the audience to imagine the story, each in his or her own way. It is the same as teachers must sustain the interest and the imagination of children. Authentic play in the regular classroom achieves its ultimate outcome as children are enabled to enliven their learning within experiences in the free, but developmentally appropriate, learning environment achieved by structured ways to use play.
The complexity of play in too many of today's schools has moved teachers further and further away from understanding its utility, and school leaders further still from being able to articulate how the overall education of our children is genuinely affected by enabling our children to profit from freeing their minds to absorb new ideas in a manner authentic to children. Play is viewed as a diversion from real learning. When our educational leaders wake up to the fact that children are children and need to behave as children while learning, we will no longer need to worry about this nation's educational achievement among the other nations of the world. 

A lot is being said these days about assessing the competence of teachers, especially those just entering the teaching profession. The papers as well as our own professional journals are filled with ways in which the city, state, and federal government plan to go about it. In similar fashion, teacher education institutions, responding to the call for such assessment, are collecting evidence that their recent graduates, generally one to five years out, meet a high level of such competence. While this may sound right, the problem is that those creating the means by which teachers will be judged are generally much older and (hopefully, although not always the case) have acquired a set of skills and knowledge based on years of seasoning. Looking back over their shoulders at new teachers often causes them to lose sight of the years it takes to grow from a novice teacher to an expert professional.

They expect that all teachers will be able to manage classrooms, some as diverse as including children who speak anywhere from two to twenty-five different languages, and whose cultural background has not included exposure to American, or even Western, precepts.

They expect these teachers to know how to stem violence that sometimes erupts in their classrooms (this after two hours of preparation mandated by the state). They expect that teachers will possess a high level of understanding of subject matter content related to their own fields, not to mention a wide knowledge of the sciences, humanities, the arts, and the social sciences, in addition to pedagogy. They assume that teachers are aware of the latest literature pertaining to current issues in education, obtained through the media and the Internet, over and above traditional books and journals.

They assert that teachers should know the difference between "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top," and be aware, at the same time, that educational slogans change every five years or so. They assume that a teacher cannot be without knowledge of the politics both in their schools and their school systems and, in order that they can hope to improve working conditions, be immersed in collective negotiating procedures.

Increasingly, it is a mandate that teachers be familiar with the handling of data to follow the progress of their students and, hopefully, the renewal of their own teaching strategies. It is axiomatic that they also know both state and local standards in each of the disciplines they teach (at the elementary school level, as we know, they are numerous).

From the start they must be adept at working with parents and other stakeholders in their communities. They need to understand how these and other forces evaluate schools. They should understand the school report card, with all its implications not only for teaching but for the value of real estate in their neighborhoods. This is critical to their own survival, even as the report cards themselves have been subject to intense criticism by those who have knowledge of psychometrics and, might I add, also possess a fair amount of common sense.

All of this must precede, or at least be congruent with, knowledge of children (we finally arrive at thinking about the children they teach). Teachers must be expert practitioners dealing with children who have special needs, ranging from cognitive or emotional difficulties to those whose achievement is the product of giftedness or extraordinary talent. Let's not forget, as well, that teachers must navigate among children in classes numbering as high as 30 or more, must be skilled in methods of differentiated instruction (in plain English, must be able to teach children of vastly different abilities, levels of attention, and widely ranging physical needs, especially in middle schools). A deep knowledge of the developmental level of children at each grade level is also imperative, particularly if the children, including those who have just immigrated to this country, are to meet the requirements of the grade to which they have been assigned. It would be nice, as well, if teachers were able to evaluate research impinging on what and how they teach in order to inform their teaching and give them the tools by which they can evaluate, intelligently, both the curriculum and their students' progress.

Naturally, assessment of teachers, based on these criteria, is left to those with wiser and experienced heads (we hope). The problem is that the assessors forget how long it took them to acquire all of the above. Yet they expect that young heads have been able to assimilate all of these skills and competencies, if not more, within even a period as long as five years.

So we are feverishly trying to put old heads on young shoulders. That burden, in a profession which is as much an art as a science, is neither fair nor wise, neither just nor sensible. When I was a beginning teacher I enjoyed the company and the commiserations of those who were my age. I also marveled at the expertise of the older teachers who had continued to grow, but who were fortunate enough to have had the years of experience necessary to meet the challenges of our profession. I've never forgotten those days, those teachers, and those truths. Others have.

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