Can playing games together help us move toward inclusive teaching? How can we use games to center those students that might otherwise be on the periphery of the classroom community?
When I taught elementary and middle school, I enjoyed playing critique games. Some favorites included a game Harn Museum Educator Bonne Bernau had shared with my undergraduate class called Token Response and a game I made up like “Read My Mind” (a variation on Blind Man’s Bluff). But over the years working in the college setting I admit that, while I feel my critiques are engaging conversations filled with analysis and constructive feedback, they may have been lacking the fun of those elementary school critiques.
“You can’t say ‘you can’t play’” is Dr. Edmiston’s rule when it comes to his students playing games. In our education class, we had recently discussed how playing games together can be powerful tools for community-building and engagement. He asked us to be especially attentive towards how we might meaningfully include those students that we feel may be at risk of being on the fringe of the group. This may be our quieter and more introverted students, those who may have had difficulty fitting in or those that might be more resistant, or students whose culture or background might differ from the majority, like international students. I had planned a critique day for our next class so that we could display and discuss the artwork we had created this semester. Why not livin up our class critique with some games?
I wanted to begin by sharing an experience with my students that I remember affecting the way I looked at art when I was an undergraduate with the added bonus of helping them see some of the most famous art in the world in a new way. We played a game I call “Living Statues.”
Me: Sometimes to understand a work of art we need to become that work of art. Tonight we’re going to play a game that I call Living Statues but you can call it whatever you want. In this game, we’ll be recreating famous works of art. We’ll have statues who will be the models that the sculptors physically pose to match an artwork as closely as possible. Only the sculptors know what the artwork looks like so the statue just has to do his/her best to hold the pose as long as possible. Let’s practice on me. I’ll be the statue and I want to see if you all can help pose me like an artwork I’m thinking of.
Embodying a figure in an artwork is probably one of the most powerful ways to try to understand its subject matter. I love this example because my undergraduate professor Craig Roland introduced it in our methods class many years ago and it has always stuck with me. A few years ago, I was extremely fortunate to be able to chaperone an undergraduate trip to France (occasionally, academia has its perks). While there, I finally had the opportunity to see The Thinker in person at Rodin’s museum in France. As I sat with the pensive statue sketching it in the gardens, I was grateful for the insight that this short activity had impressed upon me.
I’m a huge fan of modeling for students. It is probably one of our most powerful tools as not only teachers but as a species. ‘Monkey see, monkey do’ is how we got here. Imitation AND innovation. Our ability to watch and copy but also to empathize and connect with the experience of others is incredible. For this we can thank our “mirror neuron system” in the brain. For example, “about one-fifth of the neurons that fire in the premotor cortex when we perform an action (say, kicking a ball) also fire at the sight of somebody else performing that action.” If you’re interested, there is some fascinating research on how our brain and senses are built for empathy as seen in both sports as well as art.
BUT this activity also exposes how much of that empathic power we waste on a regular basis by making assumptions based on incorrect observations and assumptions. We look but do not see! I love playing dumb - probably because I take to it so naturally. By purposely doing something “wrong,” as in my pose, I give power to the students to correct me and essentially swap roles with me as the teacher. They get to learn by teaching me how to do the pose correctly. So we swapped authority back and forth and I feel that giving students the chance to correct you, as the authority figure, is great modeling for how they might correct each other without judgment or meanness.
After this modeling of the Thinker on my part (both artistic and academic), we played three rounds. I called for three volunteers to come up and act out our next famous artwork for the class - we needed two sculptors and one statue. I handed the sculptors a folder with an image of the artwork to recreate so only they could see it - the Mona Lisa. Then they tried to manually pose the statue as best they could. The class then got a chance to guess what artwork had been recreated and the class guessed the Mona Lisa successfully. The next group required two sculptors and two statues to recreate American Gothic. We chatted briefly about how posing like these figures might’ve helped them empathize with the subjects of the paintings, but in retrospect these poses are fairly static and I think more dynamic poses might be better candidates for creating empathy with the subjects. On the other hand, we could’ve discussed how the static poses might relate to those stiff family portraits and school photos we all have suffered through.
For the final artwork, I wanted more of a challenge so I chose an artwork without figures! The last artwork to reproduce was A Starry Night. Would they be able to recreate a landscape? By this point, I was calling on students to purposely include some of my quieter students. I felt a group of five would provide them sufficient safety in numbers so it would not feel quite as risky performing. I gave them a few minutes to scheme together discreetly in the back of the room which allowed me to share stories about the artworks we had recognized so far, the group took the stage.
AND THEY DID IT! One person formed the iconic cypress tree piercing the night sky. Another became the moon. And in between three joined hands to create a rolling wave motion that brought the wavy lines of the background to life. From the photo, you can see big smiles and I believe those smiles are all the assessment I need for evidence of a successful collaboration. I think everyone understood these artworks more as a result of our purposeful play. Students who might’ve gone overlooked in most other college classes had experienced being meaningful and memorable parts of our learning!
When students have to improvise, I feel there can be a leveling effect on their relationships that re-orients them all as equals. The structure of having an image chosen for them takes away the power involved in one person possibly getting to choose WHAT they all do together. Since this was already decided, the tension was HOW to do it. Having a clearly defined purpose seemed to help avoid confusion and apathy that might arise from having too many options or a power struggle. With a very limited time frame, there was urgency and so they had to jump right in without time to overthink. Regardless of whether they were introverts or extroverts, they could all contribute to the idea as each one was going to have to physically use their own body to express the different elements in the painting. The fact that it was a landscape but they were figures meant that there needed to be a transformation - turning people into objects and actions - that they all had to figure out together.
While there are times students need to listen and times they need to talk, it is critical that all our students also have the opportunity to DO and to MAKE and to ACT. The rest of the class critique proceeded smoothly although more rushed than I would’ve wanted but I also felt that everyone was a little more relaxed after playing together. If we had only spoken and written, the students I aimed to involve in our games would most likely have remained quiet once again. Ultimately, I was happy to sacrifice some of our discussion time for greater inclusivity.
Games can be egalitarian, as everyone agrees to play, to observe the same rules, and to play their part however they want within those shared constraints. While many games have winners or losers, we can choose to play games that include rather than exclude. We can play games in the classroom that focus on process rather than product so that everyone can win by gradually improving and working together rather than against each other in competition.
Do you use games in your teaching? Which ones work for you?
I'll mostly be blogging about my experience teaching pre-service teachers about creativity and artmaking. I teach a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers where future classroom teachers learn about visual art-integration. Among other things, I'm attempting to "Go Gradeless" while also experimenting with a hybrid in-person / online curriculum.