What Teachers Can Learn from Caine’s Arcade

Leigh Pourciau is a middle school creative writing and English language arts teacher from Jackson, Mississippi and member of the 2013 LearnZillion Dream Team.  This post was first published on May 28, 2013.
I recently participated in a well-earned standing ovation given by 200 teachers. The recipient of this applause was not a CEO, a principal, or a six-figure-earning educational consultant, but a ten-year-old boy – the son of an auto mechanic from east LA. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? Caine Monroy? If not, stop everything and watch Nirvan Mullick’s short film about his cardboard arcade before proceeding.

Caine's Arcade - educators cheer

Educators cheer for Caine and Nirvan

Back to that standing O. I was sitting among 200 other educators at LearnZillion‘s TeachFest. When the company’s co-founder Eric Westendorf opened the morning session by showing this film, laughter and sniffles spread throughout the room. We teachers were struck by the seemingly simple truths Caine’s story revealed about how we learn. We learn when we are self-motivated. We learn when we are doing something we love. In awe of Caine, we sat quietly as the lights in the hotel ballroom flickered back on.

Eric took the stage and announced that we had two guest speakers – Caine and Nirvan, in the flesh! Inspired by their shared creativity and what they had accomplished by pursuing their passions, all 200 of us rocketed out of our seats and began clapping. In that moment, I realized how strange it was that this was the first education conference I’d attended whose featured guest was a child, not an adult. Who better to teach teachers?
In the following Q&A session, Caine answered our questions much like any other adolescent boy might.

“How have you changed since this experience?’

– “I’m taller.”

“What’s next for you?”

– “Sixth grade.”

“Will you hire me?”

– “Yep.”

Until one teacher asked, “What is the best thing your father ever did for you to encourage your success?”

Caine paused, staring at the microphone and all four hundred eyes, and then simply said, “He gave me space.”

That’s it. He gave him space.

And that’s when I felt very conflicted. Am I consistently giving my students the space to explore their own interests? Am I engaging their natural ability to ask questions and seek answers? Am I making my job harder by giving them too much structure? Too many limits? What am I sacrificing by letting my learning style and interests take center stage in the classroom instead of theirs?

This was a very untimely epiphany as my plane back home landed right in time for standardized test prep. I had planned for students to do the same old prep packets – even though I’ve been long convinced that a demon gets its horns every time we bubble in a multiple-choice answer.

Instead, in a fog of jetlag, I dumped a bunch of supplies in the middle of the classroom and asked them two questions: “What type of question from the test scares you the most?” and “How can you create a board game that takes the sting out of that standard?”

Then I stepped back and gave them space. And they delivered. Homemade spinners were built, verbal Twister was born, and a satirical game of Life was hatched where bad grammar landed you in dead-end jobs. We laughed and sustained paper cuts and didn’t bubble in any little circles, but they still learned all there is to learn about tools of persuasion, complex sentences, and much more.

And I learned to listen to Caine and give them space.

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