Student: But that's not fair - one student already had two turns.
Teacher: We have a lot of people to get through before class is over.
Student: You can't make new rules after we've started!
Teacher: Please turn in your craft projects.
Student: You told us yesterday that we could take them home today!
Teacher: I changed my mind - I want us to keep them for tomorrow.
Student: But you PROMISED!
Teacher: Please sit on the chair.
(Student sits on their head on the chair.)
Please put your butt in the chair.
(Student puts their butt in the chair, with their legs dangling over the back.)
Tyler, please put your butt in the seat, and your feet on the floor.
(Tyler finds a new way to obey the rules while clearly defying the actual expectations. The class thinks this is hilarious.)
Nine year old change the rules on you, all the time. They don't want to play your game - your game sounds boring. They want to play the let-me-figure-out-a-reason-why-me-being-out-isn't-fair game. They want to play the answer-all-my-questions-so-everyone-has-to-listen-to-me game. They want to play the pay-attention-to-every-way-I-can-screw-this-up-for-my-classmates game.
I'm on week 6 of my 8 weeks of teaching theater camp summer classes. The first four were for the ages between ten and fourteen. The culture shock of the last two weeks, moving into classes of 8-10 year olds, has been harder than I anticipated. Eight years old, I figured, was still an age where you can reason with your students - there's a lot less "because I said so" (which I am terrible at commanding) and a lot more "rise to my expectations because ___." ....Right? Well, this is mostly true, except for that last hour of the day when my patience is flickering like a gas stove pilot light, just before one kid blows it out entirely with another "what if?" question. (This is when my answer turns into "When the music stops, I promise you won't have to fall down. I'm sure you can figure it out. Now are we going to talk about the game, or are we going to PLAY the game?")
SO, it might be that my personal patience is in an overall wane for the summer, and it might be the particular age bracket... but I've discovered something peculiarly difficult with this current group of kids - all culturally affluent, well cared for, driven young minds.
It is nearly impossible to get them to let go of being Right.
The games and exercises I've stolen, chosen, researched, and crafted for my classroom are all about exploration and discovery - mostly discovery of the self. How does your body move in space? Why is your attention drifting away? What are we focused on, and HOW do we train our focus? What does being "neutral" look like, and why is it important? How can we listen to our bodies? What are the sounds we use to make words? How do body positions and particular sounds make us feel? ...Basically, I'm trying to get them to think about themselves in ways they've never noticed before, which is pretty esoteric for young minds. We get through it by playing games.
Example: Slow-motion race. The rules, I said, were that the winner is the last person across the finish line. (I realize now this was a terrible way to explain the game.) See, I thought this would make them all concentrate on running in slow motion. Instead, four kids wound up in the very back of the classroom, inching their way forward, cheating by moving backwards, barely even lifting their feet off the ground, wrapping their arms around their torsos, determined to be the last person across the finish line no matter how they accomplished this task. "Is that how you really run?" I asked them. "Use your whole body." I hadn't explained it well enough, and now these students, stuck on winning rather than playing, absolutely refused to change their tactics. Even when I complimented their classmates on their slow-mo running skills, which incorporated so many muscles in their body that their facial expressions were in slow motion. No. They had changed the game into something so competitive, that all exploration and discovery was lost. Even when our first racers had crossed the finish line, and I told them they could do a slow-mo victory dance, or cheer on the other racers - which was an honestly hilarious thing to witness... these four wound up not even halfway done with the "race" when I called it off. They couldn't believe the unfairness of my actions- the game is over when we're not even finished with it?? "You are going to take up the rest of our class time," I said, "and we have other things to do today." Two boys decided between themselves that it was a tie. They simply could not move on to the next activity without determining a winner.
I tried to explain to them that making art isn't a test. That the real winners were a few examples of students that were committed to the race, to paying attention to their bodies in space. I told them that if they were interested in being correct, they should go be scientists, which is a totally interesting and valid way to spend your time. Theater, however, has no right answers. It's a blessing and a curse - you'll never be right, but you also can't ever be wrong as long as you're trying.
This focus on Being The Best is evident in the way we reflect on our day - when we ask them to acknowledge their peers. Some schools call these "golden nuggets" or "pats on the back" or "shoutouts". We simply have a student stand up and say "I'd like to acknowledge ___ for ___." All of our young people raise their hands, get called upon individually, and stand up to make an announcement to the world that is entirely disingenuous, because they are not focused on honest reflection but rather on the attention they get when they speak. "I acknowledge everyone who had fun today." It is neither specific nor very constructive, and we hear it about five times a day because they also haven't been listening to the acknowledgements that came before them. It's a lazer-focus on getting attention, on seeking approval from their teachers, on being heard. This was the most transparent when one particular student, a child recently diagnosed with ADD who seriously struggled to play cooperatively and would often blatantly defy even the simplest tasks, would stand up and give us all puppy eyes while she stated, her voice dripping with sap, "I acknowledge everyone who listened to their teachers today." This behavior was repeated so often, I wondered if she actually just had an incredibly advanced grasp of irony.
I have a strong feeling that these issues are simply a product of the age bracket; that a nine year old will not ever create their own standards of achievement and adhere to those standards on their own - they will only continually seek approval of an adult. This is just the stage of brain development.
But since this isn't the first time I've ever encountered a classroom of nine year olds... I also have a feeling that there's some systematic issues in the way we educate young kids, which are only getting worse. Teachers are pressured into test after test, and acquisition of knowledge has become a faster and faster paced system of ever-increasing rewards rather than allowing our kids to learn simply for the sake of exploration, discovery, self-awareness, and the simple joy in just generally getting smarter. We've cut recess, and music, and art. We've taught them that play time isn't necessary. Figuring it out on your own isn't the way to win - repeating what the teacher says on a test is what counts. Even during their summertime break from school, we rush them from one extra curricular class to the next- they can't just play in a swimming pool, they must excel and achieve. Once they're done with their theater camp, they are whisked to a piano lesson, to a dance class, to gymnastics. When they're not competing for grades, they're competing for championships, and when they don't win those, they get participation ribbons.
Or maybe I'm just a raging liberal with a theater degree who doesn't want to fully admit that this summer has made me very, very tired.