Friday, January 12, 2018

Play On

     At the conclusion of her book Exploring Mathematics Through Play in the Early Childhood Classroom,  Amy Noelle Parks makes an extraordinary statement:

     There is a great deal of evidence supporting the incorporation of play into the classroom, and that evidence can be particularly useful in getting support from administrators and parents.  However research on what works alone cannot guide our actions in the classroom.  For example, we could imagine a research study that demonstrated that administering electric shocks to children led to higher test scores.  And yet, even in the face of this "evidence", no one would advocate such a practice.  We are responsible for asking not just whether a pedagogy works, but also whether it is ethical to use with children.  (pg. 130)

     Parks cites Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin and his work on a theory of ethical behavior called "answerability."  She interprets Bakhtin to mean:

     As a teacher I cannot simply turn to guidelines-even developmentally appropriate ones-to decide what it is okay to do in my classroom.  If my children are miserable, it is not enough to say that they have had the appropriate amount of play and so must return to seatwork.  "I myself-as the one who is actually thinking" must decide what it is ethical to do based on what I see happening with the children in front of me.  (pg 131)

     Reading Parks reminded me of questions I have often asked myself:  What if teachers were required to take some kind of educational Hippocratic Oath, an oath that bound us to act in a moral, ethical manner towards the children whose education and care we're entrusted with, an oath that, if broken, would result in the forfeiture our licenses?  In what ways does the institutionalized system in which we work rob us of autonomy and make us complicit in harming the very students we mean to help?  How do we advocate for change without losing our jobs and, with them, our livelihoods?  These are questions I don't like to ask, because when I answer them truthfully I know that, had I taken a Teacher's Hippocratic Oath, even one that said simply "First, do no harm," it would have been violated many times over.
     I'm no longer in the classroom.  No longer subject to the pressures, demands, and restrictions that come along with employment in a school system.  In my new role as a consultant and a coach, I have lots more freedom to do and say what I want.  Currently I'm working with some kindergarten teachers, trying to figure out how to make their math block more student-centered, engaging, and, well, fun.  Trying to figure out how to negotiate their district's expectation that 5 year-olds slog through relentless testing, and torturous lessons from an industrial, mass-produced curriculum, with its attendant rigor and relevance, its common core college and career-ready connections, its mind-numbing, one-size-fits-all mediocrity, while still leaving some time for their kids to explore and play around with math.  Which is what led me to Amy Noelle Parks.

      We cannot justify practices that we identify as harmful because they are required in standards, by the district, or in order for children to be successful in later grade levels.  In fact, Bakhtin refers to these outside requirements as "alibis", and argues that we cannot use them to justify behavior we know to be unethical. (pg. 132)

     I've used those alibis, every one of them, to rationalize and excuse behavior I've known to be unethical.  Reflecting now, I realize that much of the work I've done since I've left the classroom has been an attempt to find some expiation.  So what now?  Parks encourages us to look around our classrooms and ask ourselves the following questions:

  • When do children seem joyful?
  • When do they laugh?
  • When are they most engaged?
  • When do students cry?
  • When do they get angry?
  • When do I feel happiest and most relaxed? (pg. 132)
   These are the questions I want to ask myself, and want the teachers and administrators I work with to ask themselves,  when visiting classrooms; not just kindergarten classrooms, but all classrooms.  As Parks concludes:

     Attending to those questions pushes us toward the creation of a humane as well as educative classroom environment, and almost certainly toward a classroom that includes time for play.  Literacy scholar Deborah Hicks, in discussing Bakhtin's ethics, wrote that the commitment required by answerability was "more similar to faithfulness, even love, than to adherence to a set of norms."  As the adults who are responsible for small children for large parts of their lives, we need to bring that faithfulness to our work with them, just as much as our concern for standards or testing outcomes.  (pg 132)

And to that I can only add, Amen. 



  1. Thank you so much for this post-- I've been thinking about it ever since I read it weeks ago. Your question of what it means to "do no harm" is a powerful one. I work in schools where the priority is to "make every second count" since students are so far behind-- and this often results in teachers snapping at students, counting down after every direction is given, and requiring silence basically all the time. Don't get me wrong-- I certainly believe in making the most of instructional time, but not in a way that makes our classrooms feel like prisons.

    1. Thanks for you comments, Courtney. Prisons, factories...these analogies are so sad because they indicate just how dehumanizing school can be when we reduce children to data points on a spreadsheet. Parks has thrown down a challenge to us all.