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Bananagrams and Bonding

April 6, 2015

Last week was testing week. All the “test prep” was done. Students were working hard on a stressful test during the first four hours of each day, and then they brought their fried brains to class ready to talk, move, generally relax. Teachers through the building are taking it “easy” in their rooms. Some rooms had movies. Some had puzzles. In my room we had Taboo and Bananagrams.

In past years I’ve shown a movie during this strange time, but this year I only saw students for “class” one or two times. It’s not enough time to actually finish a movie, which made me feel silly starting one. So, I brought the games I had at home that were vaguely “word” related. Taboo is always a hit, and that table is always quite excited. But the surprise hit, for me was Bananagrams.

You play Bananagrams by essentially taking tiles and making your own scrabble board in a race with other players who are doing the same. Every time you fill out your board you get more tiles that you must work into the words you have. It’s not the most verbal or community-oriented game. Most of the action happens individually as you try and sort the mess of letter you get into some semblance of order. And lord help the person who gets the “Q” and the “Z.”

On Wednesday I had my must challenging class in the afternoon after testing. This is the class that is often derailed by a student who won’t stop swearing, or the inability of the entire class to be quiet for more than 30 seconds. This the class where I have to shake some students awake, and sometimes can’t get through the mini-lesson because I am spending too much time either telling students to put phones away or calling for a student support person to come and take a student out for refusal to give me their phone.

Yeah. It’s that kind of class.

I was nervous about how “game day” would go for them. They are, in general, not the most well-suited to being left to their own devices. So, color me suprised when the period went well. One table played Uno (borught by a kid) one played Taboo and I sat with two students and played Bananagrams.

But not just any two students. One was “Jane*” who has done almost no work for me this year. Her term 1 grade as a zero. Not just a low F. An actual zero. As in, she literally produced nothing for me to put in a grade book. This is one of the students I have to shake awake quite often. But she knew her Bananagrams! She had played quite a bit at the Y where she works. She was putting together words like “mystical” and “quizzed” to get a nice setup.

Also playing was “John.” John is the one who can’t control his swearing in class. He has loads of issues that interfere with his ability to do school work. But on Wednesday he hunkered down with me and Jane. He pulled together an amazing board, with lots of two and three-letter word boxes. In between games, as we shuffled the tiles, I asked him about what books he likes, since I’ve rarely had a chance to actually conference with him about his reading. He told me about a favorite childhood book about a toy rabbit that comes to life and goes on adventures. We talked about childhood books for a while (I talked pretty nerdily about both The Boxcar Children and The Velveteen Rabbit). By then end of our short conversation I had a short list of books to give John next time he is stuck for one during independent reading time.

If you had asked me which two students I would bond with over Bananagrams, Jane and John would have been the last ones I would have thought of. So, I’m glad I didn’t guess. I’m glad I just put the games out there and let the students gravitate to where they wanted to go. We don’t have enough moments of play in my class, and I want to figure out ways to bring them in more, because this short time with Bananagrams was the most positive moment I’ve had all year with John and Jane. It was a reminder that they are people with wants, needs, and hopes, not some obstacle I have to overcome to “make” them work. It was a reminder that, just because someone is choosing not to do “school” well doesn’t make them low-skilled. And it was a moment to bond over words and books, a moment which can’t be overvalued.

It was a good couple games of Bananagrams, even though John and Jane each beat me. And yes, I was actually trying.

*Not real names, obviously. Firstly, because that would violate their privacy, and secondly, I’ve never taught anyone named Jane!

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