(74) Free Range Students

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“It doesn’t have to be so directed all the time, ” Limb said. “We’ve taken a lot of the joy out of things that used to be joyful.” Even a lot of music lessons have become about the discipline of learning to play well, not the joy of creating music. Children should have part of every lesson reserved for improvisation and free form play…The same could be said for free play on the playground and experimentation with new ideas in the classroom. Unprogrammed time is necessary for students to practice using their creativity.”

–from “Creativity and the Brain: What We Can Learn from Jazz Musicians by Katrina Schwartz

This week I experimented with some improvisation in the classroom, motivated by my awesome workshop last weekend which I wrote about in the post “Opportunity Knocks.”  At the end of the week, I had promised my students that we would have “recess” if we got through everything.

It was during the recess for my 3/4 period I came to the idea of Free Range Students.  This class is comprised of 13 kids — most who have been together since the first day, and one that is fairly new. This class is considered intensive reading, but collectively they are a bit higher than my other classes.  This has enabled me to push them a little farther than I can my other classes, and they have consistently risen to the occasion.

For example, this past Friday I asked the students to create an “I Am” poem for the main character in the book we are reading; then they could sign up to read their poem to the class out loud. In my 3/4 class, I had 8 students read. In my 5/6 only 2 read. In my final class, no one read.

As a side note, I’d like to tell you about the new student in the class.  I’ll call him Carl. He first came to our school in January, but only for a few weeks. Then he moved back to Clay County.  A few weeks later, he was back.  Carl is very low — his reading level is ground level, lower than one of my monolingual students in fact. Carl is in this class so that I can actually work with him a little bit.  He gets frustrated easily, and has speech and motor skill issues.  Last week when the students wrote their own ” I Am” poems, he could barely get a couple of lines down.

This week we were putting together our portfolios for the big night coming up this week, and Carl expressed interest in finishing his “I Am” poem.  On Friday when everyone was writing about the main character, Carl finished his own poem.  He made this decision on his own, in his own time.  It was the time available in the classroom, and his own inner purpose, that drove him to finish the poem.  And may I add, probably one of the only things he has ever finished in my class.

Best of all, Carl got up and read his poem, which admittedly had some heart-wrenching confessions.  How he pretends to live in a big house. How he cries. How he worries about his future. He read this out loud to the class and they opened up their big fluffy hearts and let him in.

Then we went outside for recess, and it was magical. They immediately set up races, and raced each other repeatedly across the grassy field.  Then one curled up on the ground, and they all jumped over her. Then they added two. Then three. As the challenge got tougher, more kids dropped out, but the laughter and cheering increased. It was a moving display of teamwork, class building, and simple unstructured creative play.

As teachers, we are sent to expensive workshops that teach us how to incorporate class building and team building activities in the classroom. Sometimes these work.  Most often they do not — the kids see them for what they are: just one more structured activity.  What a difference a little recess can make.

I watched the boys chasing each other, running at speeds I could hardly fathom. Like wild horses, they need that untamed time.  I think about how long all day every day they sit, sit, sit.  I think of how when I was that age, we could count on two things:  recess from 10-10:15 and more recess after lunch.  These students have none of that — unless a teacher makes time.

Watching my students that day made me even more committed to keeping some unstructured time in our day together. I need to fall back on ways to pull out their creativity, their genius.  It doesn’t have to be all about me — even though the teacher evaluation would make a person think so.  As I contemplate the role of improvisation in teaching, I become more and more convinced of its validity and power.  I’m convinced this is the only way to bring true joy to what I do each day.

I am also convinced by students like Carl — the ones who have no stability in their lives. The ones that come in afraid of their lack of ability and carry a constant level of anger about not being like everybody else. In the right environment, these students can rise up and say “I Am” in front of their peers and not be afraid. They can run in the sun and smile.  They, too, can learn how to dare to be human.

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