Itâ€™s nearly the end of the first day of third grade, and the children are antsy. All day long, theyâ€™ve been pointing to a place on the schedule where weâ€™ve written 1:30â€“2:30: The GAME, and all day long theyâ€™ve been asking â€śWhatâ€™s that? What does that mean?â€ť All day long, weâ€™ve been cagey with our responses. â€ťYouâ€™ll just have to wait and seeâ€¦â€ť weâ€™ve answered, watching as the frustration and excitement builds all at once.
Andrea has put a lot of thought into the coming hour. Partly inspired by John Hunterâ€™s World Peace Game, she has landed on a similar way to challenge our third graders. After splitting them into four-person teams, weâ€™ll ask the students to play a complicated game that will test their social capabilities. The name of the game? Settlers of Catan.
â€śItâ€™s almost too much,â€ť Andrea has told me about the rules, strategies, and nuances of Settlers of Catan. The game â€“especially when played in teamsâ€“ is simultaneously so challenging and so exciting that whatever impulse children have to give up because of the challenge is superseded by the desire to keep playing. This is essential. Without a reason to need to work together and keep their team afloat, the children could find ways to skip over the very thing we want them to work on: collaboration.
â€śThe point of this game is to learn how to work together,â€ť Andrea says to the third graders, before she even explains the how to play. â€śYour team might not include people who you might normally choose to be with. You might be on a team with your best friend, you might not. But weâ€™re all going to be cheerful about who we work with, because youâ€™ll need to work together if you want to do well.â€ť
Andrea played Settlers of Catan with her third graders last year, but even as a new member of the third grade teaching team, I had no trouble being convinced of its value.
This summer I was fortunate enough to attend the Opal School Summer Symposium at the Opal School in Portland Oregon. There, the Opal 3 teacher, Hannah Chandler, spoke about the work with her students that led her to a different understanding of conflict than what she had previously held. She said that as an elementary school teacher, she had often tried to avoid and derail any and all conflicts between her students. She avoided situations where conflict might arise, believing that it took time away from other, more important pursuits. But in her first year with the Opal 3 students, she learned that taking time to tease out and work through conflict was an invaluable use of instructional hours.
â€śConflict,â€ť Hannah said, â€śmeans that children are invested. Conflict happens in communities, and thatâ€™s okay. What matters is how we bring the community back into balance.â€ť
She even went so far as to quote Parker J. Palmer who writes: â€śCommunity is that place where the person you least want to live with always lives. When that person moves away, someone else immediately arises to take his or her place.â€ť
Her presentation inspired Andrea and me to think, â€śHow could we foster a sense of real communityâ€¦where not everything is always hunky dory? A place where conflict is real and presentâ€¦where you canâ€™t simply ignore the people you disagree with?â€ť
So, taking a leaf from Hannahâ€™s book â€“ rather than shying away from any experience that might possibly create conflict â€“ we decided to go searching for conflict. We created teams that we fully expect will disagree, and we chose to play Settlers of Catan â€“ a contentious game by nature.
When, five minutes into the game, Andrea says to the class, â€śIâ€™m already hearing teams fight,â€ť neither of us bat an eye. We have expected this, even hoped for this. The children are arguing because they have strong opinions on what moves their team should make â€“ they feel that their team needs their opinions and their actions. Their argumentation is the opposite of apathy.
â€śWhy? Explain why you want to make that move.â€ť Andrea says, guiding the orange team through its first turn. With Andreaâ€™s constant reminders, the orange team switches from talking loudly over each other (â€śWe should trade for wheat!â€ť â€śNo, we should save up for a settlement!â€ť) to communicating their plans. When the orange team is finally happy with a cohesive decision, Andrea recognizes the strategies that made it possible. â€śMay,â€ť she says, â€śyou did enough explaining for your teammates to understand what you were talking about and agree with you.â€ť
Over the next thirty minutes, Andrea makes other carefully-timed remarks.
â€śWhat are you going to do if your team disagrees?â€ť
â€śThink about who on your team is not as involved.â€ť
â€śWould it be helpful to create specific jobs on your team?â€ť
Each day that we play, more and more of Andreaâ€™s words begin to take root. Without coaching, the children begin to echo Andreaâ€™s sentiments.
Reese (when his teammates all begin talking at once): â€śOne at a time!â€ť
Tom: â€śCan I be the house-builder and you can be the road-builder?â€ť
Nolan: â€śMarissa should move the robber because she doesnâ€™t have a job yet.â€ť
Kaiya: â€śA [team] vote isnâ€™t fair because then the person who doesnâ€™t agree doesnâ€™t get what they want.â€ť
Teacher: "So you want your team to discuss each move until you have a unanimous decision?"
Sydney: â€śSorry Nolan, we voted and the majority wants to make this trade.â€ť
Emerson: â€śSorry Tom, we canâ€™t trade you. Our team doesnâ€™t agree on it.â€ť
We give over time during the day to this game because we believe that children need space and time to practice resolving conflicts responsibly. If they can practice communication and flexible thinking now, in our classroomâ€™s low-risk environment, how better prepared will they be for the playground, for high school, for their first real job, when an adult is not present to lead them to a solution?
We ask them to participate in this difficult experience because we know that it is hard, and we know that they can do it.