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What happens when students are invited to think of PE games as one of the hundred languages?

On Friday, March 22, the students in Opal 4 were invited to reenact Bacon’s Rebellion.

We started the morning by breaking the students up into three groups, and each group had a page of text to read that gave them the lay of the land leading up to a conflict between two politically opposed groups of colonists in 1676 Jamestown (Nathaniel Bacon’s followers and Sir William Berkeley’s followers) and a nearby Indian Tribe, the Susquehannok.


The students spent some time collaborating to understand the text


and used tableau and improv/inner monologue to describe their understanding of the conflict among the three groups.

RS (as Berkeley):  This will never work!  How can we keep killing them?  They will never trust me again!

EJ (as Berkeley):  I am all powerful.  Everything will be solved without war.

AB (as Bacon):  I’m going to shoot you!  Everyone knows we can only settle this with war!

We didn’t tell the class how the conflict was resolved, but instead we invited each group to invent a solution for the conflict and then come up with a way for the rest of the class to play out the solution with a PE game.  So, if your solution was to negotiate a solution, you could play a cooperative game, and if you were successful, then the negotiation was successful.  If you wanted to have a battle, you could play that out with a game of tag or capture the flag.

We left the classroom at 9:30 and spent the next three hours in the Arboretum.  On the hike from school to Hawk Meadow, we had one adult work with each of the three groups to help them articulate their plan, their goals, and think of an appropriate PE game.  Once we got to Hawk Meadow, each group presented their game.

The Susquehannok Indians went first.  They had the idea that they could form an alliance with one of the colonist groups who were sympathetic to their cause and supported maintaining friendly relationships with them.  They chose to play “Car Car”, a game where you lead your partner around while they have their eyes closed.  They chose this game to decide whether they could trust the colonists.


They took turns leading each other around, and the third group decided to get in their way as they walked and cause obstacles for them.


After this game, the two groups decided they did trust each other, and they played their second game, a tag game, as an alliance.  ER was worried that it would be so unfair to play 10 against 5, so they made the rule that the group of 10 had to play linked to their car-car partner.  They chose a game that they called “One Base Bacon Chase” where the group of 5 has to run from base without being tagged and try to find the hidden flag.


In the end, of course, the bigger group won, but it was harder to do with their arms linked.

Next, the colonists who favored the peaceful solution with the Indians played the game, “I Sit in the Grass with my Friend.”  This was my first time playing this game, so it took me a while to catch on to what was happening, but I soon realized that you open a spot in the circle, then you invite someone from across the circle to fill it.  Then one of the people who are standing next to the newly open spot move into it creating a new spot for someone else to move into.


SBM explained that they chose it because “one of the reasons Bacon wanted to kill all of the natives was to get land, but we want to find a way for everyone to get land without killing natives.”  SD said, “We’re trying to invite you, we’re trying to make peace.”  NF said, “Bacon wants land.  We’re trying to let them have land without fighting.”  So I asked, “How is this game like history?”

SBM:  You gotta claim that land before anyone else does!

NF:  There are two ways to get a spot in this game.  You can be selfish when you want to sit, but you can be selfless when you invite someone else.

EJ:  No one did this, but we could choose to stand on two spots!

The third group to share their game was Bacon’s group.  Bacon was the leader who favored killing the Indians in order to take their land.  Originally they had planned a tag game that had no base where they could just tag anyone in their way quickly and win.  After playing all of the other games, a couple of them were no longer happy about being in this group.  EJ stormed off and then came back and announced, “I am leaving this group, I am going to join Berkeley (the colonist who had proposed a peaceful solution.)”  Then the remaining students felt pretty dejected.  I reminded them that this was their chance to reinvent history – what did they want to happen?


UJ:  I just want to go home and start Spring Break!  (starts to cry)

Levia:  That’s part of your problem.  You (Bacon) don’t have a home to go back to, you just want to get yourself some land.

Matt:  Or, do you want to go back to London?

UJ:  No!

TJP:  Yeah, let’s just go back to school, I’m hungry.

HH:  What if we could take the perspective of the Berkeley crew?  Then maybe we wouldn’t have to fight.

Levia:  What’s that PE game?

HH:  (without missing a beat!) Continuous Dodge Ball.  You get hit by their ideas and then you take the other perspective.  Everyone’s out to get us, we’re the bad guys, but we just want land.  We should take the perspective of Berkeley.  If they think we can do it (get land without fighting) they could convince us too.  There really are no sides because it’s continuous.

The whole group got together and HH explained the game:  It’s continuous dodge ball.  You start by defending your own idea, but then when you get hit with the ball, you’re getting hit with the other side’s perspective and you switch sides and take their perspective.

AB:  Good game!  It’s really cool that we’ll take different perspectives.

So we hiked back to school, got the dodge balls, and UJ (yes, the student who was upset and said she wanted to go home for Spring Break) set up the game.


As we played, some students yelled ideas from each side based on that’s side’s perspective.


As she switched back and forth between the two sides, AA shouted her side’s perspective while she was standing there.

AA (on Bacon’s side):  I just want some land of my own!

AA (on Berkeley’s side):  There has to be a way to solve this without fighting!


And reflecting on the game, some students said,

AB:  It was easy to change perspective, everyone smiled. I have a compliment for everyone for being flexible.

PG:  Some people wanted to take new perspectives and got hit on purpose.

BK:  I have a compliment for HH for making up this game and for me.  It was fun to change perspective.

SD:  Berkeley was bad because he made assumptions without knowing!

WK:  it doesn’t seem like what we did is culturally right.  The natives didn’t believe in owning land.

Levia:  Right, but they still wanted access to land that they were familiar with and where they could hunt and fish and farm.

WK:  Oh, like a public park or like Great Wolf Lodge where everyone would have access to the resources.

AA:  Throwing balls is throwing ideas!

Teacher Reflection

When we got back from the morning, I thought so much about how powerful all four of these PE games were, how they supported the children to think through the events of history and the possible solutions to this historic, complicated conflict and literally play them out to see how it felt and how it concluded, and I started to wonder whether the PE games supported the children’s thinking in the same way materials do in the art studio, or how process drama is supporting our thinking in the classroom.  Are PE games a language?  Is all of the time spent in PE in some ways an affordances study of PE games?  Is Amy, our PE teacher, an atelierista of PE games?  Could this change how we think of PE and of Amy’s role as a collaborator in classrooms?

Is this ability to think of and use PE games as a metaphor for other situations developmental?  Does it require a level of abstract thinking that is appropriate for our older students?  How could PE games work as a language in the younger classrooms, could the teachers scaffold these connections for the children and use the reflective process to make the connections visible?  How can we be more explicit with role play within PE games to make these connections more visible?

Beyond this idea, I am reflecting on the passion and emotion UJ expressed and then turned around to facilitate inviting the playful changing and trying on of perspective.  I am thinking about HH and how she so quickly came up with the idea of Continuous Dodge Ball as an invitation to see things “from the other side,” and the strong connection between “I Sit in the Grass with my Friends” and the invitation to share and occupy land.

I am thinking about the physicality of play, the connection to being in a natural space, the power of role play and the deep connection my students have now to the story of Jamestown.  Are experiences like this reminders of what makes co-constructed curriculum so unique and powerful?