Smyrna Middle School teacher makes learning fun

Theresa Gray, an English teacher at Smyrna Middle school, and her children, Quade, 10, and Aurora, 7, show off their collection of tabletop games. (Delaware State News/Broke Schultz)

SMYRNA — Theresa Gray is a gamer. From inventive versions of Tic-tac-toe, to classics like checkers, to a robotic dragon swiping gems from players on the board — the Gray family’s collection of games runs the gamut.

As she taught her Smyrna Middle School students in their English classes, she’d reference games she and her children would play and the students wouldn’t necessarily understand.

“I was like ‘You guys don’t do game night?’” she said. “It surprised me, so the more I realized that, I was like ‘Oh, you guys need to learn about these things — all these games that are out there.’”

This led to Brain Games, a course dedicated to tabletop games. The class was funded through DonorsChoose, a platform for crowdfunding classroom projects.

The class will be for eighth-grade students and will take them through a slew of different games: from Sushi Go, a strategy card game, to Melissa & Doug Suspend Family Game, a hand-eye coordination balancing game.

To recognize the entrepreneurial spirit driving teachers to meet their students’ distance-learning needs during this difficult time, Sonic Drive-In matched all donations to DonorsChoose on Teacher Appreciation Day recently, giving Ms. Gray $100.

“I think so often kids find each other in sports, but if they’re not the sports kid, what else might grab their interest and be a thing that socially they can do with other kids besides video games?” she said.

While children can easily find video games, she said, she wants to introduce them to the world of tabletop games that require the same strategy. Sitting around a table with peers gives more social engagement, too, she added.

Of course, the class isn’t all fun and games.

As an English teacher, one of the biggest lessons she instructs throughout the year is finding textual evidence.

“Basically it’s arguing your point and proving it with what is said in the text. There’s nothing better than a game to do that,” she said, adding that students relying on the rules to make certain moves in a game forces them to demonstrate why they’re able to play in certain ways.

There’s also probability, which is rooted in math, and an emphasis on public speaking, by having students work together and explain the rules.

Ms. Gray demonstrates a new take on Tic-tac-toe with her children, Quade and Aurora.

It will also give students educational confidence, she said. She pointed to young children, who read road signs but freeze when a book is placed in front of them.

“As a teacher, I’ll have the opportunity to say those same skills are here in these other classes; the fact that you’re good at that in this room doesn’t mean you’re not good at it all the time. These are things that you have inside of you,” she said.

Creating games is an arduous process: they involve writing rules that make sense, play-testing and making revisions, she said.

“The kids won’t really think about the fact that they’re doing work, but they will be really thinking. It’ll be a creative process that they’re going through, and they’ll be writing out the rules of these games without ever really thinking about like, ‘I’m doing this big project,’” she said.

One of the lessons she has in mind is having students play through a game and, if it isn’t particularly good, to rewrite the rules.

In her household, cooperative games — where the players work together for an end goal — are the favorite. She and her children, Quade, 10, and Aurora, 7, have worked together to rewrite the rules of one game to make it into a cooperative game they liked better.

“So we’re taking that game that we didn’t love and how can we adapt it and make it work for us?” she said.

In a typical year, once the course was funded and games were purchased, Ms. Gray would be planning the curriculum. This year, she has to problem solve for what a course like this would look like amid COVID-19, when sharing and close distance won’t be the norm.

She has thought through a few ideas. Included in the class, there are puzzles and brainteasers, which are independent work for the students to keep children separated and also would be useful in a virtual environment. Recording videos will allow her to explain how certain games work, and for non-copyrighted games, like Tic-tac-toe, kids can play at home with their families.

Some games have come out with PDF and printable versions — like a child-friendly version of Cards Against Humanity — that could also be utilized as well, she said.

“It’s going to take creativity, if that’s where we end up but that’s kind of the name of the game as well,” she said. “This class is all about creativity and working within the parameters of whatever challenge you’re faced with whether it be on the board game or in real life.”

As she goes into her 16th year of teaching, regardless of how the class occurs, Ms. Gray hopes to instill the lessons she’s taught in English in a less obvious way through board games.

Theresa Gray and her children, Quade, 10, and Aurora, 7, play Dragon Strike. The three are rewriting the rules to make it into a cooperative game for her classes.

“One of my primary goals is always to talk to my students about how what we’re doing in class is going to benefit them in life,” she said, emphasizing the importance of reading comprehension.

“Kids in middle school are sometimes rougher on themselves. [They] beat themselves up more that they’re not good at things or they decide they’re not good at school, and I think sometimes things just come naturally to kids when they’re gaming,” she said.

“And you have the opportunity to boost them and help them understand like, ‘You’re very good at this. … Your brain is very good at this kind of reasoning and deducing, that you can come up with this.’”