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My Classroom - Interviews

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Michelle Yee

2nd/3rd grade teacher

Cathy Harkness

4th/5th grade teacher

Ohlone Elementary School, Palo Alto, CA

The board game design unit that Michell Yee and Cathy Harkness developed together was a huge success at their elementary school's summer session. We were happy to snag and interview with them for this month's My Classroom feature!

How did you come up with the idea to do a game board design/creation unit?

Cathy: I was initially inspired to do a board game design unit with my summer school students from an idea that came from my husband.  He had a job working with children in an after school program, where they were cleaning out their closets at work, and had a bunch of mismatched game pieces to some old board games.  They asked the students come up with new games using the old, random pieces, and the students’ creativity was amazing! I knew that I wanted to try something like this with my students. 


What were the goals of this unit?

Our primary goal of doing this unit was to have FUN with the students, and collaborate together as teachers.  We did this unit as part of a summer school session that we were teaching with 4th graders.  Summer school in general has the potential to be a bummer for students, so we knew that we wanted to design a summer experience where the students had fun coming to school each day, but also learned a lot about math, the Engineering Design Process, literacy, teamwork, public speaking, and more!  It seemed like a win-win!  


Did you have administrative support to try this project?

Our administration is great! Summer School is structured in a way to support this kind of teaching/learning! We are encouraged to incorporate the Design Process into our lessons, collaborate between classrooms, and make lessons and activities that are hands on and fun!  It’s so nice to have these opportunities to try out new project ideas that we either don’t “have time for” during the regular school year, or aren’t sure of how we will “fit them into” the academic curricula.  Co-teaching this unit during summer school, with the support and backing of our administration, made it a wonderful place to build our confidence as teachers, and realize that this unit is feasible, fun, AND academically rigorous enough to be part of our regular school year. 

Why is play important?

Cathy: There are so many reasons why play is important! First and foremost, I believe that kids (not to mention adults) don’t play enough anymore.  So many of the kids I know spend most of their free time either in structured activities, or on screens.  The research seems to show that unstructured play time enhances creativity, strengthens social-bonds and cognitive development, creates empathy, and the list goes on... Look up anything by Dr. Stuart Brown to become inspired to play more, and add it into your lesson planning!


Michelle: the students were so excited about their games and wanting to play them with others that some chose to work on them at home. Without the play element, kids don’t often assign themselves homework!


How does creativity and play factor into your teaching during the “regular” school year?

(Cathy):I try to add choice and agency in as many projects as I can with students.  Whenever possible I allow them to choose the math game to play, the writing topic of their choice, etc. When students come to me asking if an assignment they’ve done is “ok” or “good enough” I always put it back on them to tell me what they think of their work --what they are happy with and what they would change if they could.  I want them to know that their work is not about trying to please an adult, but rather to take pride in what they do, and in creating something meaningful.


I also have weekly unstructured playtime every Friday afternoon.  At this time each week students can do any play or creative activity that doesn’t involve the use of screens.  It’s always interesting to see what activity students choose that week, and how they work together.  Building blocks always seems to be a favorite!


(Michelle): Play motivates! Given the many addition strategies, and their varying efficiency depending on the numbers being added, the dice game Pig is a fun way to train the brain to automatically use the most efficient one for single, double, and even triple digit numbers. Unfamiliar or outdated algorithms, like Russian peasant multiplication, is especially satisfying to children who know the standard algorithm but aren’t too curious about why it works. They get curious when they see what seems like a magic trick give the correct answer. As a bonus, they check their answers with the standard algorithm, getting practice at that, too!


What was your favorite board game as a child?

Cathy: My favorite game was Monopoly as a child.  I don’t know why I liked it so much, because I’m not sure I’ve ever won a single game.  It’s just a game that has nostalgic and warm memories for me! We played it a lot in our family and among friends!


Michelle: My favorite game was Sorry! It was a roll and race game without strategy so I won as often as my older siblings or parents did. 


What do you hope the kids will learn and take away as a result of doing this project?

Kids should never underestimate their ability to impact their world, and be creative while doing it!  They made games that others liked to play.  They spread fun and happiness. They invested themselves, worked hard, and shared their good thinking with everyone they could find to play. This included a local game developer, their peers, and their parents at the end of summer showcase.


What has been a major influence on your teaching?

(Michelle): The biggest influences on my teaching were my two children. I was a good student in elementary school. I followed the rules and performed tasks as asked. When my kids were the same way, I was pleased and proud. But I also saw the lie of schooling, that you will be a success if you do everything right. I had a vision of their futures as successful humans, not just the academic kind. 


How has play allowed for a breakthrough with any of your students?

(Michelle): Play in education gives students a school-friendly reason to play in class. Students get a feeling akin to getting away with something, but learning is the secret goal. One summer school student in my room was already at grade level in math. He was satisfied with his skills and abilities and not interested in pushing himself. He believed he was already doing school well enough. When we launched the game unit, he found himself with an authentic reason to think deeply and critically about what kind of game to make, and the strategy involved in winning. He learned in real time that the size of the game pieces were constrained by the size of the board, and how to adjust the proportions. He also got to show his amazing artistic skills and sense of humor. I think he’ll use the skills he gained in summer school more successfully than if he’d been taught a more traditional way.


Thank you, Mrs. Yee and Mrs. Harkness!

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