I'm Humbler than You Are! Na na-na na-naah!

I’m Humbler than You Are! Na na-na na-naah! (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

I’ve been thinking a lot about improvization in education, thanks in part to recent posts on Pedablogue, but also due to Mike Rubino’s occasional blog entries about The Cellar Dwellers.

Kids offer great material for improvisation.

I’m immune to the “Are we there yet?” question, because I will deadpan something like the following:

1) “I don’t know… do you see the Children’s Museum yet?” or “Are we parked in Aunt Julie and Uncle Glenn’s driveway yet?”

2) “Just six more days.”

3) “We’re there now.” [Continue driving without comment.]

4) “You were asleep when we got there, so we turned around and we’re headed home now.”

5) “All the good children are already there. Only the naughty children are still here in the car. Since I know you’re both good children, I know that you’re both there already.”

Okay, so perhaps it wasn’t my greatest Dad moment when I pointed to a bunch of decapitated child-sized mannequins and told them they were children who actually yelled their heads off. But when it comes to the family thing, sometimes, I think I’m pretty good at thinking on my feet.

I’ve blogged before about The Obedience Game, which is basically Simon Says without the rule about having to say Simon Says. Sometimes when we’re waiting in line, the kids will beg me to play the obedience game.

“Walk to the chair on the other end of the lobby, turn around, and walk back,” I’ll say. Or, “Jump up and down, while saying three nice things about your sister.” That’s usually good for about ten minutes. The combination of physical action, plus the fact that they’re getting my full attention the whole time, makes the game enjoyable.

It’s harder to find harmony on long car rides, when the kids are strapped in, and when I have to pay attention to my driving.

Last Christmas, my brother offered to give me his 2000 Pontiac Sunfire. Anybody who’s got a brother who’s a bachelor software engineer next year, call up when you know he’s not home, and have your kids sing him a Christmas Carol, then hang up real quick so you don’t use up too many of your Wal-Mart calling card minutes.

Yesterday, the kids were yapping and kicking so much in the back seat that I couldn’t hear a word my mother was saying as she was sitting right next to me. In a fit of desperation, I revoked the privilege of speaking whilst riding in Uncle John’s Racecar.

Once the kids settled down, I felt bad about insisting on total silence, so I asked Peter, “What was the most interesting thing you learned during today’s swim lesson?” After he answered, when Carolyn started yapping again, I silenced her by asserting my right to ask Peter a follow-up question that caught her interest: “If Carolyn were a dolphin, what would she be able to teach you about swimming?”

And in so doing, I invented The Press Conference Game.

After everyone took turns, the kids begged to play it again. I improvised a bit, and instead of asking simple questions, started first telling anecdotes about children who dropped lollipop sticks on the carpet or who kicked the driver’s back seat, causing horrible crashes, and then asking them their reaction.

When it was her turn, my mother, with shining eyes, told the following story:

One day a little boy saw a bright, fancy, shiny car drive up. When the driver got out, the boy said, “That’s a wonderful car!” The driver smiled and said, “Yes, I know. My brother gave it to me.” When the man walked away, the boy stood there, transfixed. “Wow!” he said. “When I grow up, I wish I can be a brother like that!”

When we got home, the kids were practically crawling over each other to set up chairs and wait in an empty room for more moral instruction.

I leaned over to my mother and said, “When I see how well The Press Conference Game went, I can’t help but think I’m pretty good… and after hearing that story you told, now I see where I got it.”

Today my kid-controlling capacity was put to the test. Our family went to a wake.

My wife’s Uncle Glenn was a retired truck driver and a fire and rescue volunteer in a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania. He’d had a bad heart for years. When we arrived, his open casket was in one room, where a big crowd of his friends my wife’s relatives were paying their respects.

In another room across the hall, his two grandchildren were sitting glumly – a boy a year or two older than my son and a girl a year or two older than my daughter. They immediately started playing just as they always do at family get-togethers.

Their father poked his head into the room from time to time, and I took my cue from him what noise and activity level he thought was appropriate. When he saw Rebecca turning somersaults on the rug to amuse my daughter, he just smiled at her and rubbed her head.

He didn’t see that the older couple sitting in the back of the room was scowling. They began enforcing their own opinion of what they thought was acceptable behavior. At one point, when five-year-old Becca danced too close to them, the man shook his finger at her and snapped, “Your grandfather is lying dead in the next room! How can you behave like that?”

Obviously this old couple wasn’t comfortable sitting in the room with the casket, and obviously they were trying to grieve in their own way. So I volunteered to take all the kids outside.

I got the kids to act the story of Rapunzel, with Becca in the lead role. That went pretty well, with my daughter Carolyn as the wicked witch and son Peter as the handsome knight. Becca’s brother Josh was feeling a bit left out, until he decided that the witch had a warlock husband, whose presence necessitated a violent confrontation that pretty much shot the plot to hell.

My wife had given me all the candy she’d brought with her – two small boxes of Nerds and two packages of Smarties. My daughter the sugar fiend could slurp all that candy down in seconds, so I knew I had to make it last.

“And then Rapunzel, her brave knight, the wicked witch, and the evil warlock all found a magic troll, who guarded a treasure chest filled with four items: The Nerds of Kindness, the Two Smarties of Bravery, and the Nerds of Smartness.”

“We are now competing to see who is the kindest. I will ask each of you a question. Whoever’s answer shows that he or she is the kindest will receive the Nerds of Kindness. Here is the question:

Q: If I gave you The Nerds of Kindness, what would you do with it?”

Carolyn: (Age 3) “Eat it!”

Becca: (Age 5) “Eat it!”

Peter: (Age 7) “[With a knowing smile.] Give it to you!”

Josh: (Age 9) “[Pause.] Do we really have to do what we say we would do? [Pause.] All right, I’d give it to Carolyn!”

Judgment: “Carolyn and Becca gave sensible answers, because Nerds are indeed tasty candy, and candy is wonderful to eat. Peter gave a kind answer, because he said he would give away the Box of Nerds. Josh also gave a kind answer, and he gave it even though he suspected I would actually make him give away the box. Josh wins!”

Josh dutifully handed over the box to Carolyn.

In the competition for the Two Smarties of Bravery, I gave a little mini-lecture on how being charitable means taking a risk, then managed to manipulate both Peter and Josh into saying that if they received the Two Smarties of Bravery, they would give them away. The, of course, I gave one to Peter and one to Josh. They traded, just as I hoped they would.

For the contest for the Nerds of Intelligence, I talked a bit about how important it is to have a good memory. I asked Becca to give me her shoes, and hid them. Then I promised t
o give the Nerds of Intelligence to whomever could tell me what color were the flowers on Becca’s shoes. Only Becca got that one right.

I’m not the sort of guy who leaves well enough alone, so even when the candy was gone, I announced the theme of the next contest: “Who is the most humble?”

All four kids, already itchy and irritable in their dress clothes and now wired on sugar, started jumping up and down. “I’m the humblest!” “I’m more humble than you are!” “No you’re not!”

After I explained what “humble” meant, soon the kids were pretending to put bandages on each other’s wounds, etc. Peter won a special commendation for his rendition of a sick person’s spasms producing projectile vomiting. The others won some kind of recognition, too.

And that stretched out what might otherwise have been a 30-second infusion of sugar into 45 minutes of socialization and moral instruction. Now each child felt like a winner.

Later on, we tried “Rapunzo,” the story of a prince who was imprisoned in a tower, and rescued by a heroic lady who cried, “Rapunzo, Rapunzo, let down your beard!”

I think the funeral home employees may have been trying to tell me something when they brought out colored pencils and drawing paper.

My wife, who saw part of this blog entry in progress, wishes that I append the following: “If, on the other hand, the problem were to be a child’s foot tapping the back of the seat while he drives, he has zero capacity to handle it.” (She’s exaggerating, but not too much.)