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  • Writer's pictureRachel Davies

The Floor Is Lava: Joyful Play and Building Community

On instinct, 20 pairs of distressed saddle shoes lift off the carpet and start balancing on chairs, backpacks, binders, desks. It suddenly doesn’t matter that they are very serious senior students who until moments before had been surreptitiously working on and worrying about serious supplemental essays to get into serious colleges.

Suddenly we are silly together, playing a silly game with a silly rule and a silly goal.

Senior Word Games Week

The first week of October, the entire senior class of nearly 250 students at the all-girls school where I teach had what we lovingly dubbed “Senior Word Games Week.”

We were not spending a week playing Wordle or Connections. (Students do that on their own already– in passing periods, at lunch, in advisory, during classes when they think they can get away with it, etc.) Rather, it was a silly activity I dreamed up in May, which over the course of August and September became less and less silly to me.

Essentially, I convinced my senior teaching team to give up a week of class time to a series of games that every senior would participate in, all examining the ways that we create meaning with words and in their absence.

We played with context in charades that were limited to our school traditions. (Fastest guesses coincided with the oddest motions from outsider’s perspective: “graduation curtsy,” “freshman dance,” and “spray tan before dances.”)

We played with how seemingly arbitrary rules about syntax push us into deeper topics with tournaments of “Questions.” (The champion in each of my classes was the person who realized that the bottomless wells of questions were those of definition, value, and ethics.)

We played by parsing and misunderstanding Shakespearean language through non-verbal cues in Taming of the Shrew. (They might not have known the wordplay of arms, coat of arms, and gentlemen, but were clear that Katharina and Petruchio were in the early stages of enemies-to-lovers. And Meryl Streep is a god.)

We also played “The Floor is Lava.”

Each one of our nearly 250 seniors had to climb, clamber, and collide their way around the classroom to play the aforementioned games avoiding touching foot to floor. At the end of class to reach the hallway, they created islands of sweatshirts, paraded over desks, and slingshot each other’s roly-chairs toward the door. We teachers did, too.

Students avoid the lava while leaving class

All of this orbited the shared midday viewing of Tom Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet, exclusively for our senior classes, acted out and crewed by their own classmates, to be parsed in close readings next class. (Because interpreting is a game, too.)

Dogg’s Hamlet

It was a discussion of Dogg’s Hamlet last May that prompted this. A colleague pointed me to Stoppard’s absurdist play in a conversation where I was lamenting the vexing cry from my students that “Shakespeare is too confusing” and the more vexing pattern of students avoiding risk. I wanted a text or activity that did not shy from the challenge and confusion, but without the intellectual baggage and fear of “important” or “serious” texts.

The basic premise of Stoppard’s work is that all but one of the characters speak a nonsense language called “Dogg.” “Dogg” is composed of English words used differently–challenging. But, the characters and plot of the play have more in common with the Three Stooges than anything else.

A Skidmore College Production of Dogg's Hamlet

It was perfect! I immediately wanted to share it with the entire senior class. One problem: the play is nigh impossible to understand just reading the script. It examines the language games that we use to form context and to create shared meanings. It is based on Stoppard’s well-documented love of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and layers of misunderstandings.

In typical Stoppardian fashion, his play’s content alone is challenging. He uses Wittgenstein’s scenario of characters building a wall using words like “Block,” “Cube,” “Plank,” and “Slab,” which actually mean “Next,” “Thanks,” “Ready,” and “Okay.” His first instance of intelligible English is when two characters badly act the first scene of Hamlet. There is a chaotic rendition of Frank Sinatra’s My Way (in “Dogg”... obviously) with no explanation.

In typical Stoppardian fashion, his play is silly. From the first word of the play, we are wrong footed. We hear and misunderstand immediately. On purpose. It’s no surprise the character we most sympathize with is the fool, Easy, who is consistently isolated, spending the whole play wrong about almost everything, and is punished for his failure by being literally thrown through a wall. Repeatedly.

Tom Stoppard courtesy of The Paris Review

Stoppard names the fear of students of Shakespeare everywhere – that the characters are saying words that pretend to be English but are in fact a foreign language destined to make us look and feel foolish. Stoppard says, “Yes! Precisely! Now what?”

I really needed my students to see this and talk about that fear!

So I set out a game for myself: Direct Dogg’s Hamlet for an audience of seniors who all have college apps due and plan games to help them understand and to make peace with not understanding perfectly.

My Rules: Use a set of talented senior theater artists, but only in the hour and a half on Friday afternoons when they were not already in rehearsals for at least one other show and the 30 minutes of Wednesday tutorial periods that were not taken up with other things.

My Goal: Set the play with sufficient visual and verbal context for the Ursuline senior class to share discussion of the same difficult text to help them in the project of authentic life-long learning.

I had Rules. I had a Goal. The Game was on!

The Dragons of Foolishness and Failure

Perhaps I should take a moment to state why this seemed like a worthwhile game.

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis’s defense of telling scary stories with dragons to children: we do not tell them to teach children that dragons exist. Children know that dragons exist. We do it to know that they can be defeated.

I do not ask my students to interpret difficult texts, attempt to find meaning in messy stories, slog through odd assignments, and watch absurdist plays because I want them to know that failure and foolishness exist.

They know that foolishness and failure exist.

I see that knowledge in the looks of terror when students first come in for grading conferences. I hear it in the tearful voice when a student who I know has been working so hard doesn’t quite tie together the last steps of her analysis. I feel it in the held breath before someone initiates discussion on a particularly weird passage. I read it in anxious message after anxious message begging me to find anything they can please fix, change, perfect, before they send in college essays, before it counts, before they look a fool.

They know that foolishness and failure exist.

I think we ask our students to interpret difficult texts, find meaning in messy stories, slog through odd assignments, push for riskier goals because they know that failure and foolishness exist. But we need to ask them to play games so they know that they are survivable.

Play Therapy

Games and literature and school are exposure therapy to the dragons of foolishness and failure. In them, we face that horrible truth that we will misunderstand, not only Stoppard and Shakespeare but in real life.

The easiest option in the face of these dragons is to stop. Stop trying. Don’t play the game. Exist entirely in the realm of certainties. Have smaller, more defensible goals. Cling to safely perfect interpretations. Ask for an AI generated or generatable paper. Drift from relationships where we have fallen short or have been misunderstood. Teach the books we already know. Try in the subjects we already understand. Make sure that every assignment is appropriately useful and serious. Say “The Floor isn’t really Lava.”

And it is that last one that should give us pause, because there is really only one way to ruin a game of “The Floor is Lava”: Be That Kid.

You know the one. The one who lets the fear of foolishness win, lets reality get in the way of the serious work of play, saying: “No, it’s not.” Suddenly, the game, the miraculous possibility of shared play, is over.

I think we need play as a playground for life. Perhaps instead of thinking of “games” and “rigor” as two sides of a spectrum, we should see them as two sides of the same coin, and that at its best school is a really good, really hard game. The sort where you push yourself to the edge of your abilities. The sort where you get out of breath and misunderstand the whole assignment and tumble headfirst into the lava and definitely need to revise. The sort where failure is possible and survivable.

Indeed, I think we fail to serve our students when we forget the ingredients to a good game: A Silly Rule. (It doesn’t work if there aren’t rules. If there isn’t lava, then I don’t get to climb.) A Silly Goal. (Jumping from desks is a good enough goal in a pinch. So is analyzing stories about people who never existed written by people who no longer do.) And Survival.

I think we need play as a playground for life. Perhaps instead of thinking of “games” and “rigor” as two sides of a spectrum, we should see them as two sides of the same coin, and that at its best school is a really good, really hard game. The sort where you push yourself to the edge of your abilities.

The rules and goal are the exposure. The silliness (and suspension of disbelief) is the therapy. Together they teach us the dragon can be killed – that failure, foolishness, and misunderstanding can be faced and survived.

It’s Harder to Play Alone

I thought I knew that enough when I started directing and asking my brave theater kids to put on a very difficult and very silly play in their scant free time in front of an audience of 250 teenagers who they would continue to see every day for the rest of the year. (Utterly terrifying). I thought I knew that when I worked around schedules and conversations that were far more complicated than I anticipated. I thought I knew that before the project wasn’t going great, and I felt foolish and misunderstood.

Then, for all my conviction, I was almost that kid. I didn’t want to play anymore. It was just a silly play. I could just teach a serious skill. There were more important things to do. The floor wasn’t really lava.

But then, I remembered the third secret ingredient that makes it way easier to endure the failure and foolishness of games: a team.

I needed the goodwill of my miraculous 17-year-old stage manager who juggled the show with AP Studio Art, set design for another show, National Honor Society, and I am sure 90 other things I didn’t know about. I needed the brilliant actors who stood, staring into and sweating in the Texas sun figuring out how many times they needed to say “Slab” before they threw boxes (after memorizing so many pages of nonsense lines). I needed the senior set-designer to have exactly the right amount of fun spelling transgressive phrases in the wall of boxes that was the focal piece of the show. I needed colleagues to order sandwiches based on the play so that the students could eat (literally in community – co-eating) while they watched. I needed a friend (not even a senior teacher) to sit through dicey rehearsals, stand-in for sick actors, bruise her hand stapling far too many copies of the specially annotated script we wanted the students to analyze. I needed people to move the wall of boxes 90 times for a character to be thrown through. I needed a team of people to care as much about the goal of this foolish play, because I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t survive if it failed. And only a community of people who were trying as hard as I was, looking as foolish as I felt, could help me remember I would.

It takes a community

The funny thing is that, of course, that is part of the thesis of Dogg’s Hamlet: it is ok and survivable to speak nonsense and fail and be a fool if you are part of a community. The happy ending of the play comes when the isolated clown, Easy, finally learns the language of “Dogg” and is able jointly curse the unfairness and absurdity of the world he lives in with the other characters, who up to this point have felt like his enemy. They laugh, speak, fool, and fail together, alchemizing community from shared foolishness. That is the lesson that I wanted my seniors to have when I started this silly project.

I am not sure it all landed. Honestly, I think that “The Floor is Lava” might have been the most effective part of the week. But I do think that is what school and teaching and learning ought to be: a really good game. One with challenging goals that make failure possible.

One with silly rules that make foolishness likely.

One with a community that makes it all survivable.

Rachel Davies is an English teacher, an opera singer, a young queen, a sunshine addict, and still loves to be silly.

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