My wife, Jenny, has decided that she doesn’t want to know the rules of football.  Growing up in Nebraska, surrounded by football fans, it took some fortitude to not learn how the game is played, but she stuck to it, and she is blissfully unaware of the magic and mystery of touchdowns, field goals, and quarterbacks.

Nonetheless, Jenny is gracious enough to go to the games with me here in Lawrence.  Once at the stadium, she and I have totally different experiences.  My attention is totally focused on the game; I’m always optimistic that our team will win, and I watch each play unfold with close to rapt attention.

Jenny has a completely different experience.  She notices everything except the plays on the field.  She sees the little redheaded three-year-old sitting three rows ahead of us, the cute hair cut on the woman beside us. She wonders about how hot it must be in the mascot’s outfit.  At the end of one season where Jenny and I had gone to all six home games, I asked her what her favorite part was.  “Oh easy,” she said, “that was the fly over by the stealth bombers before the Nebraska game.”

If she wanted to, Jenny could pick up the rules during one game, but she likes her blissful ignorance.  She would rather enjoy the context than worry about the score and who wins and loses.  I believe there are students in everyone’s classes, too, who are quite a bit like Jenny. They don’t know the rules and they don’t follow the game at all. In the children’s case, however, they would love to learn the game, but they don’t even know where to start to find out how to play.

Kids who don’t know the rules might not know how to find the most important information in a text, or how to relate learning to their own personal experience. They might not know how to break down big tasks into manageable goals, or how to simply negotiate day-to-day relationships with their peers. They might not know how to ask for help, or even how to interact during a discussion in class.

Not knowing the rules, they stop playing.  Sometimes, they make up their own game, sabotaging their teacher’s efforts to teach, or disrupting their peer’s attempts to learn.  Other times, they show up in class, but they don’t participate. They spend the class with their head down: in the room, but not connecting. They hide behind a mask of sullenness–hard people for anyone to reach.

And when they choose not to play, the temptation is blaming them, of course. They are rude, angry, negative. But what if they want to play, but they don’t know how?  What can we do to make sure that more and more students do know the rules?  Maybe the next time we see a student who is totally disengaged, we should start by asking whether she knows how to play?