April 19, 2019

Exploring Playful Pedagogy in an Urban High School

Misty Ferguson, guest author

From time to time we invite guests to share on our blog. Today's post comes from Misty Ferguson, a doctoral candidate in the Culture, Literacy, and Language program at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Before matriculating to UTSA, Misty spent fifteen years teaching English, ESL, and Spanish in the United States and abroad.

As part of my research into secondary language teachers’ ideas and attitudes about play, I interviewed Ms. K, a teacher at an urban high school. Even after probing Ms. K’s ideas about play for an hour, her forceful, almost instinctive, answer to my final question surprised me:  

  • Me: Would you like your classes to be more playful?
  • Ms. K: Oh, yeah. I feel like that should be the point of school.

She quickly continued, explaining what playful teaching might look like and what blocks it in the classroom:

  • Ms. K: I mean, schools, even administration also see that—it’s just the weird balance—how to get students interacting, how to get them up, moving, playing, not just— rows, taking notes, doing worksheets. I think a lot of people in education see the importance of play and fun and interaction in the classroom. It’s the dilemma of how we accomplish [it].

Ms. K’s under-resourced and over-policed school district in the southwestern US serves mostly Mexican-American students facing the challenges of poverty. To address the perennial problem of students failing the state-mandated test, which keeps them from graduating, the district developed a series of “intervention” classes for students who fail or are presumed to be at risk of failing the exam(s). Ms. K taught these mandated classes—remediation on paper, but in reality test preparation. In intervention classes, students were expected to complete worksheets based on released-test questions, which involved reading a few pages of text, answering a handful of multiple-choice questions, correcting errors, and repeating the process. The resulting mix of high-stakes pressure for students and their performance-evaluated teachers; boring, repetitive assignments; and routinely apathetic responses from students often created an oppositional classroom environment in which teachers pleaded, prodded, and threatened while students complained, resisted, and refused. Fun was “off-task” in the intervention learning environment; joyful learning was just not the point.

As part of her pursuit of playful pedagogy, Ms. K asked students to reflect on what makes school boring or fun. They collected their ideas on chart paper as an initial brainstorm for problem/solution essays on the topic of school improvement which they composed, compiled, and sent to school officials.

The above interview launched Ms. K and me into a cooperative action research inquiry over the course of an academic year in which we explored the “weird balance”: how might adopting playful pedagogy invite joy and positivity into her intervention classes despite the narrow curriculum and serious stakes?

We discovered that the “weird balance” is not a new conundrum. John Dewey considered it in 1910 in How WeThink, explaining that too much is made of the play/work dichotomy and that schools look too much to work for learning outcomes, leaving play little leveraged. A few years later, in Democracy and Education (1916), Dewey explained that education ought to cultivate the ability to accomplish work with a playful mindset.

It was Dewey’s elevation of playfulness that Ms. K took to heart. She couldn’t change the ends her students had to work toward, but she could try to infuse the means with joy. Thus, she planned elements of play for her lessons. Instead of nagging students to do worksheets, she cut the worksheets into strips and hid them in plastic Easter eggs all over the classroom. She invited students to read and write whatever texts they enjoyed. She let them use their devices and technology whenever possible for learning purposes. She adopted a playful mindset in her interactions with students, reaching for playful responses rather than punitive ones. For example, a mischief-maker once shouted across the room, “Ms. K, I have to go take a sh*t,” knowing, of course, that such language was prohibited in the classroom. “Do what you need to in there,” Ms. K deadpanned, garnering boisterous laughs, “but clean up your language in here.” Playfully, she avoided a classic classroom conflict.

Reflecting on her year of playful pedagogy, Ms. K discovered that, while her students had not reached new heights of self-directed learning—a central hope of playful pedagogy—the “weird balance” was not such a barrier. The serious work of test-preparation could be infused with play after all. What most impressed Ms. K was the capacity of playful pedagogy to build human connection. Because of her playful approach, Ms. K and her students shared laughs, made memories, and, she says, got to know one another genuinely. She called her classroom a “refuge of joy” for them and for herself. She hopes that their positive experience, whatever their test results, functions as a deposit toward lifelong interest in reading and writing.