Archive for games

Learning not to bust

By Bryan A game that's been making the rounds at school for the past week is Chinese Poker. I play a lot of card games with students at school, but I came to this one a little bit late. Gregory was the first student to teach me. Each player is dealt thirteen cards, all face-up (five cards to start with, then eight more one at a time) with which to make three poker hands (two of five cards

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Hide & Seek

By Bryan As I was leaving campus early one afternoon, I passed by a six-year-old student standing still, facing away from the school, eyes closed, counting aloud to a hundred. The unmistakeable sign of a game of hide-&-seek. Clearwater is an excellent campus for hide-&-seek, with more likely hiding-spots than you can possibly use in a day. The game combines so much: it's a back-and-forth between

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Clearwater Profiles – Mara

This is the first in a series of profiles of Clearwater students. Clearwater students range in age from three to eighteen, and include kids who've attended since they were three and others who've enrolled later in their schooling. by Shawna Lee, Clearwater staff member Mara and I arranged to meet at 1:00 PM and talk about her life at Clearwater. When I tracked her down she was deep in a game

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Trivia Quiz on the Clearwater Bus

by Shawna Lee, Clearwater staff member We regular riders of the Clearwater bus look forward to Trivia Thursdays on the bus ride back to Seattle. Thad comes up with the vast majority of the trivia questions, though Kallisti, driver and staff member Matt Garrity and a couple of other student riders have also contributed some stumpers. Thad is highly knowledgeable about many topics. One of his

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Tales of Warcraft, Chapter 2

Last month the first chapter of Meghan's original story set in the Warcraft world appeared on this blog. She has written five chapters so far. If you'd like to re-read the first chapter, click on the link above, then enjoy Chapter 2, below. The story is told from the point of view of Salith, a female half-elf, half-troll rogue.

Tales of Warcraft
Chapter 2
A Terrible Reunion

Salith’s consciousness returned only when she was shoved roughly up against a stone wall and was surprised to find her hood intact and upon her head. “And so we meet again, my slippery little friend!” said a cold voice from above her. Salith opened her eyes. Before her were the shin-high boots of a human she had met only once before and she did not plan on repeating the encounter, though she felt this would be entirely different.

Salith discovered there were at least two more armored humans behind her; one of them took hold of her tattered hood and ripped it off her cloak entirely, revealing red-orange dreadlocks that fell just past her shoulders and a face much less like what the human’s thought she was. Her face was bluish with a tint of lavender and her eyes were glowing orbs, a ghostly ivory.

The human before her reached out a gloved hand and took hold of her dreadlocks. Not wishing to have her hair pulled out, Salith was forced to look up into the face of the human she had dreaded ever meeting again.
“Where be dah true king!?” she demanded, and the man tightened his grip on her dreadlocks.
“I am the king, Half-breed!”
Salith bared her yellowish teeth. “You are no king!”

Before she knew what was happening, the man had let go of her dreadlocks and waved his hand to the man to her left, who took hold of her arm and wrenched. Salith screamed and fell to the floor; she lay face down, her arm sticking out at a weird angle. She bit her lip so hard to keep from whimpering it bled.

The man who claimed to be king knelt down and took hold of her dreadlocks once more, pulling her head up so that she had to look him in the face. “I am the rightful king. Question my rule again and the pain will be much, much worse” he whispered. His voice was cold as ice and his eyes burned with blue flame. Salith bared her teeth, but didn’t have the strength to retaliate, nor did she want more pain; she was almost overwhelmed by it already. “Remember Cerader*,” was the last thing Salith heard.

Thump thump thump. What was that sound? She didn’t care. Why was the ground swaying? She didn’t know. Salith opened her eyes to find a metal roof above her head and bars all around and discovered the sound was her heartbeat. Sitting up slowly she looked around. She was in a hanging cage attached to the side of the main castle of the city of Dunatar. Below was a large courtyard filled with bustling villagers. A fountain sat in the middle of the busy courtyard, the water sparkling with coins that had been tossed in.

A group of young villagers stood beneath her cage, glaring up at her and occasionally throwing small rocks up at her.
“Demonspawn!” one of them called, a tall man clad in leather garments.
“Half-breed!” called another, a shorter man in violet robes.
“Lay off guys!” cried a young women wearing a dress with a white top and blue bottom. reaching out to put a hand on the leather-clad man’s shoulder.
He turned and pushed her roughly aside. “C’mon, let’s leave it to rot.”

Salith wasn’t stung at all by any of the insults, for all of them she had heard many a time before. Instead she turned her attention to the rising sun which turned the clouds pink and showered the surrounding forest with golden rays of light. Salith sighed, rubbing her broken arm gingerly. "What does Cerader want with me?" she wondered, shuddering at his name. It seemed as if it had been burned into her memory. Her mind whirled and her arm throbbed. "If I survive this, it’ll be a miracle," Salith thought miserably. She lay on her back and stared up at the roof of her prison and soon blackness consumed her.

*Pronunciation guide: Cerader (Seer-a-dar)

End of post.

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Indoor Games

It's been terrible outside, but the weather hasn't put a damper on the fun and games at Clearwater. Players had to improvise some rules to fit Football in the Active room, and then they were off and running.

 It was so much fun watching all of the kids (Matt included) having such an unrestrained good time.

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Clearwater Hand Rhyming

Jacy and Maddy, nine (almost 10) and eleven years old respectively, spend some of their time at Clearwater perfecting their skills with clapping games. They have a large repertoire which continues to grow as they add new rhymes, including some of their own compositions. They plan to perform a long routine at Whistlepig, and at the winter concert of the Clearwater Singers.

I love watching them practice. Some might classify their activity as play with little value beyond having fun, and you may rest assured that both girls are having a lot of it. Playing and having fun is dismissed far too often in our culture as charming, but ultimately frivolous and unimportant in the grand scheme. Upon closer observation, however, it becomes obvious that there's a lot going on in addition to having fun. To achieve their goal of perfecting these routines, the two girls must be focused, disciplined, persistent, creative and collaborative. In fact, fun cannot exist without these elements. Play is satisfying and mind-expanding only because it is complex, challenging and engages the whole person.

To create and work out all the details of each rhyme, the girls collaborate, try different things and practice over and over and over until they are happy with the result. When they make a mistake, they stop and instantly go back a line or two in the rhyme and do that part over a few times. They hold a dizzying array of patterns in their heads without confusing one with another.

The fun they have working and playing together is infectious. Here's a sample of what they're working on. Their concert version will have some original pieces, as well as being smoother, longer and probably faster.

End of post.

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Corrupting the Youth

[Note: Bryan volunteers at Clearwater one day a week, and he is the parent of a Clearwater student. I've interspersed photos of Clearwater students and scenes into his post. --Shawna]

(This is cross-posted from my blog Speculum Criticum Traditionis, where I address a lot of philosophical issues. This explains the name-dropping of philosophers here, and why I explain Sudbury education a little more in depth—my original audience did not necessarily have the familiarity.)

So in my day job, I'm a teacher. I work with students, grades k-5, at an after-school program. Sometimes this is more or less glorified daycare. Sometimes it is homework club, or basketball coaching, or any of a dozen or so improvised activities, mainly initiated by the kids I work with. I've worked in the schools, first as an AmeriCorps volunteer, then as a district employee, then at the after-school program, for ten years, and I have a fair idea, not especially nuanced but I think realistic and informed, of some of the realities in an elementary or middle school in my city. I've broken up fights between students as big as or bigger than me, administered tests, tried to help struggling kids catch up, and seen more than one go from non-reader to reader. I've seen things that would make you cringe, and "successes" by some standards that could bring a tear to your eye. Most of the time I find the work exciting, sometimes exhausting, always deeply rewarding. It is certainly the happiest I've ever been at a job.

I do have occasion to talk philosophy to the kids I work with. I stumped a number of them (and myself) with Heidegger's question "What is a Thing?" (the rule was, they couldn't use the word "thing" in the definition), and walked one or two through Cartesian doubt up to the cogito. One time I had four or five laughing a bit too loud at the back of the bus over the Euthyphro, which at least one thought was the funniest thing he'd ever heard. But for the most part, I don't really try out the canonical stuff on them; it's musty and smells of footnotes, and the last thing most kids want after school is more school.

We do, though, talk a fair amount about education itself, and its relationship with freedom, and power. Because I am constantly taking mental notes on how to be a better teacher, I pay a lot of attention to when I hear kids complain or enthuse about something they are doing in school. I listen to their accounts of what makes a teacher "nice" or "mean," fair or unfair; what makes something interesting or engaging for them, or bores them to tears. I get a lot of practical, hands-on tips from these conversations (I once had a ten-year-old boy confide to me, in real big-brother, lemme-tell-you-'bout-us-kids fashion, that "It's okay to be a little mean"); but what I want to focus on here is the more general impression I get of their impression of school. Not all kids are articulate or reflective enough to intentionally paint a picture of this, but every one of them knows very well that they aren't in school because they choose to be. They regard it the way most adults regard work: a necessary evil, the lesser-of-two perhaps, and often the devil they know. They each sense on some level that they are being made to do things, which they would never, ever decide to do themselves. What is heartbreaking to me is the way they internalize the notion that this is somehow a good thing.

Let me be clear; we aren't talking about the them's-the-breaks of life, or the tough-luck unfairness of circumstance, or rolling with the punches and playing the hand that's dealt you. No one likes to have to adjust their life to the realities imposed upon them by happenstance, but ten-year-old children know very well the difference between happenstance and a decision, and they know the difference between a considered decision and an arbitrary one.

Whenever a new activity is announced in my class, the first question I get is always "Is it mandatory?" This is quite striking considering that the answer is almost always "no." The things kids have to do in my class in the course of a year can probably be numbered on the fingers of one hand. Their reaction thus indicates to me that they are so beset by "things to do" [read: things adults want them to do] that at the first sign of another one, they brace themselves.

And yet. Though they know very well the feeling of being put upon, the kids I work with have all more or less accepted that this is for their own good; or at the very least, that it's Just The Way Things Are.

I also volunteer one day a week at The Clearwater School. Clearwater is a Sudbury school; it's run using an "alternative" model of education, based on (and named for) the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. It's a radically student-centered mode of education in which children never. ever. take. classes. unless. they. want. to. There are no grades, and no age divisions (the five-year-olds and the fifteen-year-olds aren't kept rigorously separated or together); above all there are no rules that haven't actually been agreed upon by those who live by them.

These absences (no classes, no grade levels, no transcripts) are the things that stand out in people's minds when Sudbury education is explained to them, but the actual content of the model tends to pass them by. Sudbury education is radically participatory, radically democratic, and radically organic. Far from being little lord-of-the-flies centers where mere anarchy is loosed, Sudbury schools are communities that are run by the students, for the students. There are plenty of rules, but they are neither arbitrarily imposed from on high, nor artificially "decided on," as I've seen far too often in a traditional classroom, by a sham one-time meeting at the beginning of the school year when kids are manipulated into automatically mouthing and "agreeing to" the same rules they've lived with last year and the year before and the year before that. Above all, every student and teacher can vote on every issue affecting the school. This includes buying a new computer, refurbishing the music room, changing the rules about who can go off campus when, or hiring and firing of staff (teachers are re-elected to their posts every year).

The first day I volunteered there, I played a game of four square. I was never a big sports player in my own school days, and now that I'm at least a little more coordinated (and a little less invested in looking cool), I can finally enjoy this staple of the American playground. On the day in question, it took me a while to register that there was something different about the game. I couldn't put my finger on it. I was getting out with about the same frequency; I was playing no better or worse than usual. What was it?

Finally it dawned on me. It had nothing to do with how I was playing; it was that playing was all I was doing. I wasn't the ref.

At the public school where I work, if a dispute breaks out between kids over who is out, the immediate next step is to call my name. Whether or not I'm playing the game, whether or not I even saw the play, whether or not I know the kids involved, it's my job to make the call, as if by virtue of how tall I am. Have an argument? Where's the grown-up? But at this Sudbury school, though there had been a dozen or so close calls and disputes, not one kid had looked at me to resolve anything. Not even when one kid stormed off in anger did anyone so much as look at me as anything but another player. I should add that I knew all these kids already; they weren't unsure about me as a newcomer; it simply had never occurred to them that the adult in the group was the default decision-maker.

No kid asks if they can go to the bathroom. No kid raises their hand before they get a drink of water. The notion that they ought to "wait till the bell" before eating the lunch they brought would be met with incomprehension. Bell? You mean, like Pavlov's dogs?

When adults hear about Sudbury schools, their initial question is likely to be "how do they learn anything?" In fact, it is not difficult to learn the rudiments of any educational competence. It takes approximately 100 hours for a motivated student to learn how to read, for instance; the real issue is waiting patiently for that motivation. (In fact, Sudbury Valley School maintains that in over 30 years no student there has failed to learn to read). What the question really reveals is a fear that the motivation will never arise; that left to themselves, children won't want to learn anything. It'll be too easy to just float. It doesn't matter that this is a surreally counterfactual fear. We've accustomed ourselves to not trust our kids. And they have met our expectations.

When kids first hear about Sudbury, their first reaction tends to be "Whoah." But it's not an unambiguously enthusiastic "whoah." Almost without exception, the public school kids I have talked to about Sudbury education have said, "that sounds really hard." And they're right.

At the school where I volunteer, there have been (among other things) music classes, French classes, cooking classes; kids pursuing Aikido, computer programming, film-making; writing and producing a play; caring for livestock. And yes, reading. Some learning to read; plenty of just plain reading. There are also lots of games. Computer games, board games, team sports, weird improvised invented mash-ups of basketball and softball and soccer, strung-together make-believe role-playing games that are really just long conversations.

What all these activities have in common is that they were all initiated by some student. At some point a child or a teenager approached a staff member and said, "I want to learn French" or "Will you teach me to play drums?" or "We should put on a play."

When the kids I work with say "That sounds really hard," this is what they are talking about. Every step of their education is up to them. It is hard. It is also, in my experience, indisputably more rewarding. Because everything a student formally learns is something they have decided to learn, what they internalize is far more than a degree of mastery over a "subject." They have learned that they can explore and that their exploration has real meaning and concrete results.

And the teachers? Aside from no-brainers like keeping kids safe (a task made markedly simpler by the Sudbury model's real high expectations of student responsibility), the teachers are there to pay attention to kids, to cultivate real relationships with them, a close real attention attuned to the actual interests of each one; to really be open to every request, and to make it happen when it's asked for. This might seem to multiply beyond control what a teacher needs to attend to--instead of teaching 5th grade math to 30 kids, I'm supposed to notice that he's interested in geology, she's into origami, they're asking about the civil rights movement, and that kid off at the other side of the playground is doing acrobatics? But in fact, working as a Sudbury teacher is far easier than teaching in a mainstream school. Aside from the absence of meaningless paperwork, every teaching encounter is fresh because it arises out of the actual relationship one has with the child. And, I ought also to mention, the lack of age distinctions means that children wind up teaching each other.

In contemporary mainstream American culture this model is so deeply counter to the widespread assumptions of our age, that it is not uncommon for people to refuse to consider a Sudbury school a school at all. I would submit that this critique might be better made of the enormous, and financially teetering, holding pens that our taxes fund primarily to free parents to work (so as to pay taxes), and to accustom children to surveillance and boredom.

Boredom. Ah, yes. Kids go through a lot of boredom at Sudbury schools-- particularly students who have come from a more structured school environment. It is constantly mentioned in the literature. The responsibility for one's own education is really just a subset of being responsible for one's life. There are big stretches of time when kids ask themselves what they feel like doing and come up blank. Of course this happens in a public school too, but there the boredom is rarely given much chance to last very long because the bell is always about to ring or the next subject is about to be taught. In fact, the very thing that cuts off boredom also cuts off interest--because you can't invest enough time to really get involved in anything when you've got to cover seven subjects in one day.

At an after-school program like mine, though, kids can get bored. The difference here is otherwise. I hear between two and ten complaints of boredom a week, I'd guess. I hear none at a Sudbury school. Kids get bored, to be sure--but not one of them assumes it is anyone's job but theirs to decide what to do about it.

I know that the picture I have painted could be disputed: too romantic, too Rousseauian, too naive. An excuse for lazy adults to do permissive teaching and spare-the-rod. Spare me. I'm a Platonist, but I'm an empiricist too, and I speak from experience. The kids I work with at the after-school program aren't miserable. They haven't had their love of life stamped out of them, or their creativity. This isn't because I've imported as many Sudbury-esque features into my class as I can adapt, but because the kids come from families who love them to go to a school run by teachers who care, and because, well, they're kids. But little by little I see them accommodating themselves to a world whose guiding axiom--despite the loving parents, despite the caring teachers--is that they do not matter. This axiom is not foisted upon parents or teachers by evil men in a smoke-filled room; it's a function of the model of education as mass-production we've come to accept.

This long post on education is not an interloper or guest on my mostly-philosophy blog. I acknowledged an interest in contentious issues, and I know of little more likely to rile people than strong opinions about how to raise kids. But I'm not really trying to bait anyone here. My interest is philosophical. Philosophy has been about pedagogy from the very beginning, ever since Socrates got his famous double charge of not honoring the gods of the city and of corrupting the youth. From Plato's doctrine of anamnesis to Heidegger's remark that real teaching is letting-learn, education is the very essence of what philosophers do. Dewey remarked that "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself." The examined life, I would add. And given the contrast between sitting in rows for six hours a day, and roaming around exploring the world however your fancy strikes you, I can't help but reflect further that, as Alphonso Lingis writes, the unlived life is not worth examining.
--Bryan Carr

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Paintball Excursion

Recently a group of students and two staff took our new bus to East Side Painball. They had a great time and several of them looked surprisingly unpainted on their return. In School Meeting last week one of the paintball participants suggested another trip, although the fee is probably too steep for enthusiasts to go very often.
Shane, one of the paintballers, took this picture before they all got started. Thanks, Shane!

End of post.

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Warrior Cats of Creek Clan

This week and and especially last, the siren call of unusually balmy weather pulled most students outside. Many played roleplaying games and built things with the bountiful supply of spent plant stalks and downed wood. Others enjoyed the freedom of wandering outside without coats. One day when temperatures approached 60 degrees, a young student complained that she was hot and asked to go swimming, but the creek water is still too cold for that.

Warrior Cats has been a particularly engaging and enduring roleplaying game among students from age 5 through 11. It is loosely based on a book series, although Clearwater students have gone far beyond the books by creating rich new worlds, characters and scenarios. Many of these students are working with a staff member to develop and rehearse an original play using their roleplaying characters as a starting point. (Look for future blog posts about the play.)

For many hours, students gathered materials to build shelters and dens.

One group of students helped some of the warrior cats to build a beautiful medicine cat den (photos below) and spent some time putting together a lean-to separate from the roleplaying activity.

The warrior cats themselves, who are known as "Creek Clan", are prodigious and industrious builders, as well as a close-knit and harmonious clan. They care for each other and have a complex culture and well-organized structure. They have a leader, warriors and warrior apprentices, a medicine cat (or healer) and apprentice, and kits (the young ones), which they take turns caring for and training.

Clan gathering

More text and photos after the jump.

Leader cat and kits

Medicine cat den opening

Medicine cat herself

Medicine cat and apprentice

Medicine cat at home

Apprentice gathering herbs

More herb gathering

The warriors have their own den and the warrior apprentices den up nearby.

Warriors' den at the base of last week's fallen snag

Woodflight enters the warrior's den

Thistlethorn above the warriors' den

Woodflight relaxes in the warrior apprentices' den

Just today three of the littlest kits went out to the clan lands without the elder cats and sought to imitate those same elders by setting up a nursery and starting to build their own den.

End of post.

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