Did you play today?

Creativity requires taking and switching between different perspectives, and play facilitates exploring different perspectives, creating alternate worlds, assuming different roles, enacting different identities, and also taking all these, and the players themselves, out of the cognitive contexts in which they normally operate.                                                                   — Mainemelis and Ronson, 2010

image cc by Wootang01 on flickr

If you are like me at this time of year, you are more than ready for the winter break.  With less than two weeks to go, I am mindful of feeling emotionally and intellectually drained.  I am also amazed at how, despite feeling caput, I am energized when I step into the classroom and immerse myself in a fun lesson or activity with students.

Engaging through play

In the Spring, 2010 issue of the Rotman Magazine, Charalampos Mainemelis and Sarah Ronson discuss notions of play, creativity and engagement in their article, “Ideas are Born in Fields of Play:  Creativity & Play in Organizations”.  They suggest that play manifests itself in our busy work environments in two ways:

1.  Play as diversion.  This is when employees check out periodically to engage in diversionary activities such as catching up on Facebook.  Rather than being a waste of time, the authors argue that this type of play is beneficial:

Such play provides mental breaks, which are important for incubation — the stage of the creative process that involves unconscious processing and the free recombination of ideas….  In addition, a moment of fun with colleagues helps team members break down hierarchical boundaries and relate to one another in a personal way.

When we step outside our traditional work roles and engage in interactions not typical of our work, we engage in play.  The challenge is to maintain the benefit of these playful, diversionary moments after they are finished and we are back to our ‘real work’.  This holds true for education.  We can use play to engage both students and colleagues, but what can we do to maintain the atmosphere of trust engendered by instances of playfulness?

2.  Play as engagement.  This is the type of play that is part of the everyday work you do.  For instance, musicians play when they work together to write music — they mix sounds and experiment with combinations, using imagination and creativity.

Within the context of education, where are there opportunities for harnessing diversionary play and introducing more play as engagement, in our classrooms and our learning experiences?

Playing with Creativity

Mainemelis and Ronson explore the cognitive processes that engender creativity through playful experiences  Four of the processes they discuss relate directly to learning and education:

  • Problem Framing: Reframing problems to allow for multiple possible solutions is a basis for creative activity.  In play, as in improvisation in musical composition or dramatic performance, problems are reframed in many unique ways, allowing for the proliferation of creative responses.
  • Divergent Thinking: Through play space is created for shifts in perspective, another condition for creativity.
  • Mental Transformations: When the way we think is flexible and open to change, we open a door to creativity.  In play, we take risks and open ourselves to imagining new possibilities.
  • Experimentation: When risk is lowered through play, the ideal conditions for experimentation and improvisation come into existence.

Think about the types of learning experiences we offer our students.  How many of them include these elements?  Below are a few examples of activities through which students (and teaching staff) might unleash their creative capacities:

  • providing legos or other building materials for students to explore and construct models of things, events or processes, such as a model of the economic process (raw materials to your dinner plate, for instance)  Here is a link to a student interviewed by Wes Fryer regarding Lego and Creativity
  • providing truly open-ended questions in math class (For instance, “how much candy gets distributed at Halloween?”) and allowing students to struggle with determining which variables are important and relevant.
  • encouraging students to assume the role of detective or when approaching a problem in science (or any other) class (“What happened here?”)
  • making time in the computer lab for students to pursue creative interests (blogging, animation, recording music, etc…)

What other activities have you tried or seen that would qualify as playful and therefore open to creative approaches?

Mentorship – A Community-School Partnership

This past weekend I attended a parent engagement workshop (see my reflections here), and since then I have been thinking about an example that I provided where our Intermediate Student Success Teacher (ISST) is reaching out to local businesses to establish a program aimed at keeping our most at risk students engaged and committed to school.  Shelley Neill, our ISST, has spent the last several months researching and developing a program that will run in cycles throughout the year, targeting students who are at risk for a variety of reasons, including their own or family members’ mental health and/or substance abuse issues, learning disabilities and lack of success in school, behavioural concerns and a variety of other factors that mix and mingle to make school a more difficult place for these students to spend time.  The bottom line is that these kiddos are the ones that are most likely to consider dropping out prior to completing high school.  In a recent blog post on truancy, I blogged about the importance of a caring adult who will hold tight to our at risk students, through thick and thin, to keep them in school.  For many of our at risk students, Shelley is that person at our school.

The connections that she is establishing with local business owners, while a project in its early days, is one that I think will serve at least 2 purposes and one that I think holds the promise of many unexpected benefits.  To begin with, local businesses will have a connection to our school and will know more of our students as individuals.  My hope is that this will create an atmosphere of greater trust between the school and the businesses, some of which are less than 100 metres from our front door.  When our students are out and about beyond school hours, they may be seen in a more positive light.

The second positive of the project, and the one that is more immediately a benefit to our at risk students, is that the partnerships will provide opportunity for mentorship.  If Shelley is successful in matching students to businesses, there will be a human connection made, and imagine the impact of having a member of the community, previously a stranger, becoming another caring adult to advocate and support the students.  As students meet with and work with the business owners and community members, they will be learning the skills that they will need to undertake similar endeavours after their schooling.  It may be that for some of our at risk students, these mentoring relationships will give them the fuel they need to continue on with their schooling.

Ultimately, I believe that many of our at risk students feel that they are powerless to change their lives.  Shelley’s program will marry the business/community partnerships with an in school program aimed to encourage students to see themselves as agents of change within their own lives.  Her program, the result of several years of working with at risk students as well as research into current trends and practices, is rigorous and frank in its approach.  She tells students that she is going to “stick to you like a wet kleenex” to ensure that they are successful in the program.

While students will miss some in class time — a few hours per week — while working with Shelley, the benefit of their participation will spill over into their studies as they become more committed and engaged to making change for the better in their lives.  Also, with Shelley playing an integral role within our intermediate team, all staff members learn from her in her approach and dedication to our most vulnerable students.  I feel very hopeful and optimistic about the potential for real change as students work with community and business partners through this incredible program.  I’ll keep you posted ;o)

image  –  Steel Bridges cc by ilkerender
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Note:  I used the image of a sherpa carrying a heavy load because I think that as caring adults this is sometimes our role when working with students – carry the load so that the journey can continue.

“I got this one”

What are the variables that play into student truancy?  I’m thinking about this because a colleague on twitter recently posted the following question:

Our classes need to be engaging but can School Admin support teachers with a program designed to encourage attendance? yes / no ..examples ?

via @sadone

I was confused at first and asked for clarification.

@sadone do u mean can admin design the program or support the teacher who designs the program?

via @shannoninottawa

And the response that got me thinking about the causes of truancy:

@shannoninottawa admin design a program to support student attendance

via @sadone

So, why do kids skip school?  I suppose that it depends on a number of things and the causes could be myriad, including the following:

  • Kids skip school when they have mental health and/or substance abuse issues that prevent them from functioning in a typical way.
  • Kids skip school when they are dealing with heavy issues at home, such as parents with substance abuse and/or mental health issues.
  • Kids skip school when they encounter bullying there.
  • Kids skip school when they don’t experience success.
  • Kids skip school when they don’t see how it is relevant to their lives – both current and future.
  • Kids skip school when they don’t connect with an adult in the building who cares whether or not they are there.

I am sure that a quick scan of the research would provide several more causes for student truancy, but my point is that there are a number of possible reasons, each with its’ own logical antidote, but with one bottom line.  No incentive, no amount of coercion and no individual “program” will address the causes of truancy.  Appropriate academic and student success programming and partnerships with outside agencies can address mental health and substance abuse issues, bullying, lack of success and lack of engagement.  And all of those pieces must be put into place by a team, which definitely includes the administration.  However, the absolute bottom line, as far as I am concerned, is the connection with an adult in the building who is going to pledge to be “in the kid’s corner” regardless of how bumpy the road becomes.  No one individual in the school can design a discrete program to remedy truancy.  The causes are unique in their combination, manifestation and effect.  Before anything can happen to fix the situation though, one caring adult needs to say, “I got this one”.  I guess the question becomes:  Who will that be?  Who is in the best position to get to know the kid — to find out why he or she isn’t attending and to dig deep to make it better?  Regardless of who it is, this much I know:  It is as unique and individual a solution as the kiddo who isn’t walking through the door.

image “I wanna hold your hand” cc by franeau

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