Dodgeball Discussions

Early this morning my 5th Graders and I had a conversation. After viewing and following their self-produced warm-up videos, I had planned on a short game of “Dodge Pop-Up” to celebrate and reward their hard work. One boy raised his hand and suggested that playing the game with a helping option was, in his words, “dumb” and made the game “boring” because it made it too easy for people to get back into the game. His back-up came from another boy who suggested that “all of us” felt that way and this offered me the cue that the conversation was just beginning.

Sometimes our teachable moments arrived gift wrapped and this seemed to be one of those occasions. As the dialogue unfolded, we discovered that in fact, not “all” students felt the same way about how the game was played. Some objections came from some of the girls who suggested that without the freedom to “free” each other by giving tagged players a ball, several students might spend the whole time sitting and waiting for that single player who tagged them to be hit and go down, thereby freeing the sitting player to get up and run again.

One boy suggested that instead of sitting out, tagged players could step out and do a series of exercises like sit-ups or jumping jacks before re-entering the game. Well, that idea just got shot down from all angles. This is where I halted the conversation and called their attention to what just happened. While the first boy’s suggestion to get rid of the helping option was listened to and backed by some, this boy’s idea was knocked off the table as soon as he put it out there. I told them that it revealed a lot about who holds power to voice an opinion in the group.

From there we moved on to who was supporting which version of the game. The strongest throwers and runners (who happened to be all male) were in favor of the ‘no-help’ version, while others in the class felt that the help option had a real purpose. I could not help but point out that the strongest members in the context of this game were speaking from a place of privilege, where the ‘no-help’ option would more likely favor their position as dominant in the game.

One girl who hadn’t spoken up yet raised her hand and began sharing an idea when she was cut off by one of the boys. I had to call that out. “Girl speaking, boy interrupting.” I encouraged her to continue and she shared the view that we were talking about a game, which shouldn’t be such a big deal. I paraphrased when another boy in the corner butted in. “Woman speaking, boy interrupting.” They were beginning to get my point.

While there was much more to the conversation – more voices, more opinions than the ones shared here – the point for me was developing their awareness. We’re talking about a game and we’re also talking about who we are in the game, and who has power in the game, and how the game makes us feel when we play it and according to whose rules. The conversation was not about dodgeball, yes or no, this conversation was about how we play and what are we creating in the way we choose to play it.

And there’s the key – how we – actually they, students, choose to play. What rules can we agree on and how do we negotiate rules which produce fair and satisfying game experiences not only for a few ‘skill privileged’ but for the entire group? These are the questions I want us to wrestle with from time to time. Because the notion that “it’s just a game” strikes me as a cop out, a way of denying how much more we invest in becoming and staying ‘players’.

The students finally played and introduced a compromise solution:  the ‘help’ option (giving tagged players a ball) was abandoned but tagged players would be able to pick up a stray ball and re-enter the game. I observed and I filmed them. I invited them to watch the playback. What did we see? They still helped each other and not only the “weaker” players, everyone used the opportunity to help out friends by rolling or tossing them a ball to get back in the game. I said “it’s almost as if you couldn’t help helping each other.” So after our lengthy discussion, it turned out that the familiar habit of helping won out and proved more beneficial to the feel of the game – for the whole group. Helping each other was the choice they actually made in practice.

That seems, indeed, like something to celebrate.