The shrill whistle pierced the humid August air, and the ten players, all African American high school students, gathered around the referee. The ref pointed to a young man who was wearing a t-shirt.
“Malik, here’s the word. ‘Ambiguous.’ Define it and use it in a sentence.”
The young man did so in a strong voice, and the ref called over to the scorer’s desk, “That’s a point for the shirts.” Then he turned to the other team (the skins), picked out a player, and gave him a word, “Optimism.”
When the player confused the noun with the adjective, the ref turned to a player on the shirts, who gave the correct answer. “Another point for the shirts,” the ref called. “Now let’s play ball.”
At least a dozen times during that game the ref, a 30-something English teacher named David Felsen, stopped play for vocabulary. As I recall, the ‘vocabulary points’ amassed by the shirts provided the margin of victory.
I say ‘as I recall’ because that game took place 25 years ago on a basketball court at a Friends School in Philadelphia. David Felsen, the man who created that program, went on to become Headmaster of the school. When he left to lead another school, the summer games continued—as they do even now. The rules for Felsen’s summer program were simple: do the reading and other homework if you want to play basketball. Skip the homework, and you sit out the game. Define the words correctly, and your team gets points. Over the years the intervention worked: dozens and dozens of young African American boys from inner city Philadelphia went on to college, perhaps with basketball scholarships, perhaps not.
That program’s genius was that it met kids where they were—in this case, they were mad for basketball. It recognized that kids love to play and compete. They’ll study in order to get on the court, and, once on the court, they’ll do their best to ‘score’ by knowing the words. Nobody wants to be embarrassed publicly or to let the team down. Moreover, the rewards were immediate: no waiting around for the results of machine-scored tests.
Children learn valuable lessons—not vocabulary or math–by playing games. A 7th grader who was playing on an organized team for the first time told me about her team’s success. “It’s like our team did really good so far this season and we’re just getting ready for the championship. Now, we want to win it, so we still know we have a lot of work to do and it’s not been easy getting here, but it feels really good, and I think it feels really good because we know we have actually worked together to do this.”
The best games teach teamwork and cooperation. Children like that 7th grader learn that their chances of winning improve when they work together. Play is natural, but children also seem to know intuitively that play is serious fun.
Sneaking education into summer games is one thing, but can games, and the spirit of games, be made essential to education in genuine system-changing ways? Can schools meet kids where they are and devise ways to take them to places that we, as adults, know they need to be?
Bringing games and competition into classes with spelling bees and math Olympiads works, but in my experience many teachers trivialize games and score-keeping by giving points for good behavior and taking away points for misdeeds. Texas pioneered “No Pass, No Play” rules, setting an academic bar for varsity sports, but that’s working from the negative. And a lot of what happens now in schools is basically a ‘gotcha’ game in which deficiencies and shortcomings are identified.
Should school be serious fun? If so, how? Need rules, a way to keep score, a referee, reasonably high stakes, genuine results, meaningful competition, teamwork—and fun. I don’t know the answers, but I hope you agree that the questions are worth pondering.