#38 – Card Sharks

Lots of effort and multiple attempts went into this perfect pyramid.

It’s pretty safe to say that no one in education is unhappy about the cancellation of state testing due to the pandemic. However, for many years, there was something that my homeroom students looked forward to once the tests were safely back in the administrators’ hands and we waited for the all clear and move to lunch: playing cards.

Of course, in an ideal world, I would have loved my students to beg me to keep reading the independent reading books they were allowed to use once their tests were safely submitted for the day. (There were always one or two who worked until the end, but this was very definitely not the norm.) But the truth was, this was testing, and long, and boring, and they were kids, and they had already spent the last 10 minutes to an hour, after completing their sections reading, or – often – fake reading, or sleeping on their desks. They were not just figuratively but literally itchy to do something, anything, that wasn’t academic – and I didn’t blame them. I want to say that these card games kept them in their seats, but it didn’t always work out that way.

It started slowly one year, with a deck of cards I offered up along with whatever games the kids themselves had brought in – which wasn’t usually much. Eventually, I bought five or six additional sets at the local Dollar Store, which happened to coincide with a new unit centering around competition earlier in the year; students both played and observed each other playing cards as they cheated, got emotional, got angry, fist-pumped in victory. Meanwhile, I was filming them in action, after which we would view the results, with some serious embarrassment. And, of course, students would write about their feelings about winning, and losing, both before and after.

When it came to card-playing after testing, there were a few rules – my rules: have fun; play fair (yeah, right!); return all the cards to me in whatever form they were given; no gambling; include everyone.

Yep – that last one was the kicker.

I allowed students to form their own groups, which I otherwise never did, so that was tricky; I would move among them with my eyes laser focused as the room divvied up. Each year, I knew who might be left out, so I would nonchalantly move directly to that student or students, encouraging participation, and I would rely on those students I knew were kind to do the including. There were some kids who truly didn’t want to join, and that was okay, but in some cases, their inclusion in these new groups was a joy to behold. In every group, there were some who had never played cards before, and some who didn’t know a particular game the group wanted to try. I loved watching my students teach these games, forgetting parts and making up some rules as they went along.

Once we knew that all the classrooms around us were done with testing, even if we hadn’t gotten the all-clear for the entire school, things got more involved.

There was warfare, there was shouting, there was standing and jumping up as students threw out cards; there was partnership whispering in a corner in preparation for some game of attack. There were old standbys, like War and Crazy Eights, and many games I had never heard of. There was, occasionally, too much standing, and shouting, and once or twice, in a particularly rowdy class, I just had to put a stop to it temporarily. But mostly, they were able to calm down and get back into their seats when things were just getting out of hand.

It was all good.

But I would watch them, these kids who had lived in an age of testing and testing and testing from the very youngest grades, who grew up with cell phones and iPads and Chromebooks, as they experienced pure delight at a game that was invented sometime in the Middle Ages or even earlier, when there was no formal schooling or even basic literacy for most of the population.

Although students were allowed to use their Chromebooks after testing in the last year or two before I retired, I stood my ground and didn’t let it happen, despite some begging. Instead, I suggested cards. After that first day, no one asked again.

So here we are, in the midst of a pandemic, with home learning limping along and without so many of the things we are all used to. And yes, thank heavens, testing has been cancelled. We can’t move very far, and there aren’t yet many places we can go – and who knows when we will feel comfortable enough to go anywhere again?

I know there is a lot of sadness out in the world. I know, in terms of so many of my former students, that they are missing the simple joys of going to school to see friends and teachers, to be part of a routine, and maybe, sometimes, to learn a few things. I know that the unbridled happiness that starts to push out at the end of state testing and the start of the best of spring weather, the glimmer of summer on the horizon, will not be the same at home. I know that school dances, and end-of-year trips, and graduations, will be cancelled.

We may not have been dealt a good hand of late, but if we are still healthy, if our family is okay, maybe we just need to shuffle the deck and play the game.

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