This week a student taught me a new term: the rule shark. In competitive game play (ie. YuGiOh and Magic: The Gathering), rule sharks will disrupt play by calling attention to every mistake or minor infraction and attempt to win by default. Rule sharks are often bullies who use the rules to gain an advantage through intimidation over nervous and/or inexperienced players. There is a vocal group of gamers, including tournament judges, who complain that rule sharks have ruined tournaments and gaming for both experienced and novice players alike. The gamers argue that sharks are quick to jump on mistakes or fumbles in game play and call for penalties and forfeits that are intended for actual cheating. Rule sharks disrupt the flow of the game and shift the focus to the rules rather than the game.
As I was reading my student’s description of rule sharks I was struck by how many rule sharks exist in education and how damaging rule sharks can be to learning. Don’t get me wrong. Rules matter. We need rules to function as a society (writ large in the world and small in our classroom) and we need rules for our writing to be accessible to more than an audience of one (the writer), but all too often (and I succumb to this as well) the rules overtake our teaching and especially our grading. Here are three reasons we need to put a stop to rule sharks:
Rule Sharks Kill Writers
Most of my students come to me with the belief that they are not and will never be a writer. Some of those students are ambivalent about writing. They enjoy the early stages of writing, but often struggle with the rules of writing both in general and academia in specific. However, the majority of my students either fear or loathe writing, because they have been taught (either explicitly or implicitly) that the rules, or conventions of writing, equate to writing. Rule sharks have taught these writers that writing is about spelling, punctuation, and grammar rather than ideas and word play and inspiration. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar matter. They are an important part of the contract between writer and reader and it is necessary to master these rules to reach a wider audience, but they should never be emphasized to such a point that they interfere between the writer and the writing. Rule sharks kill writers by stifling their creativity with rules.
Rule Sharks Kill Readers
I am an avid reader. There are books everywhere in my house and my office. Shelves and shelves of books. Books in baskets. Books in stacks. Books on tables and desks and chairs. One of my greatest fears is that I might be caught short of reading material. I believe this fear developed when I was a young reader who was restricted to certain sections of the public library as well as the number of books that I could check out. I cannot imagine how today’s young readers fare when their reading selections are restricted by some (seemingly) arbitrary color code. Actually, I can imagine as I’ve witnessed it. I was able to circumvent these restrictions for my own child by visits to the public library or supplementing his personal library, but as a school volunteer escorting small groups to the library I saw too many young readers thwarted by a system whose original intent was to support and encourage reading. Similarly, I have heard too many stories from students whose reading time was restricted in school and out. No reading during math time even if you’ve finished your work. No books at the dinner table even if mom is focused more on her phone than on you. Rule sharks kill readers by restricting their choice and opportunity to read.
Rule Sharks Kill Learners
One of the most damaging things our modern education system has done is to create learning silos. Math is restricted to math class (despite the fact it is crucial to both cooking and art). Writing is segregated to one part of English class even though every content area is linked to writing. This method separates learning into separate little buckets and then we wonder why students cannot apply these lessons outside the classroom or even in other classrooms.
We take attendance and give credit to those whose physical presence in the room may not add anything to the conversation. We note participation in an online discussion when all the student did was type in a quick superficial comment that does not demonstrate any engagement with the material or topic. We administer reading quizzes and other tolls. But how often do we stop to think about how these activities suck the life out of our teaching and the learning taking place in our classrooms? Rule sharks kill learners because they make school about the rules and not the learning.
I work hard not to kill writers and readers in my classroom, but despite all my efforts I suspect that some of my rules still kill learners. I am going to think long and hard about how I can do better next semester. Are you a rule shark? What tips do you have to avoid being a rule shark? Or do you think rule sharks get a bad rap?