On playing the telephone game with elementary kids

On playing the telephone game with elementary kids

When you work with elementary students, you quickly learn the best way to motivate them is with some kind of reward. Most of the time, when I’m feeling generous, I turn to Jolly Ranchers for this effect. Kids generally love these, and when they don’t, I apologize, then sternly suggest they change their goddamn opinion.

What I found a few weeks ago, though, is that there’s another option: games. I was teaching at an elementary school in the west side of town when one of my girls asked me if we could play “The Telephone Game.”

“As in, when you whisper something into someone’s ear, then pass it along to the next person until it becomes something completely different?” I responded.

“No,” she said, “you write down a sentence on a piece of paper, then you pass it to the person to your right and they draw a picture of what happens next in the story. Then they fold down the sentence so the next person can’t see it, and pass it on. The next person writes a sentence about what happens next in the story, then folds down the picture, and passes it on. You do this until it gets back to the original person, then look at the story.”

It sounded like a lot of fun to me, so I told her that, yes, we could play The Telephone Game if the class behaved and everyone did their writing. Much to my surprise, they did, but when we played the game, it failed miserably. I don’t know if it was due to a lack of communication or whatnot, but the other two boys didn’t seem to get it. “Oh well,” I said, “maybe next time.”

“Next time” didn’t come for another two weeks, thanks in large part to the professional day that Metro Nashville Public Schools took last Monday. But children being what they are, the first question my two second grade boys asked yesterday was, “ARE WE PLAYING THE TELEPHONE GAME TODAY? CAN WE PLAY THE TELEPHONE GAME?! PLEASE?!”

I told them the same thing I did the first time: behave yourselves and do your writing, and we’ll see.

Whatever it is about this damn game, the kids desperately want to play it. These two boys, who I’ll call Ernie and Ralph, are usually a handful. They don’t like to sit; they don’t like to be quiet; and they sure as hell don’t like writing vignettes. But yesterday, with the promise of The Telephone Game, they were all about the lesson–which was blackout poetry, or basically artistic censorship. Take a black marker, take some kind of publication, and black out the letters/words/sentences you want excised. Add in letters if you want, and whatever’s remaining is your poem.

It was, to say, a hit, and with 15 minutes remaining in class, I handed out paper and pens and told them we could play The Telephone Game.

As I sat down and looked at my black piece of paper, I got nervous. After the whole Taylor Swift debacle a few weeks ago (see here, here, and here for full story), lord knows I had to keep whatever sentence I went with G-rated. Sure, it would be fun to write about a talking butt, which Ernie does almost every week, but I had to be the adult this time. So I wrote, “The elf had a big thumb,” and passed it to Ralph.

When he looked at it, he grimaced. “What the heck does this mean?!” he said. “How do I draw an elf with a big thumb?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Short man. Beard. Pointy hat. Large thumb?”

He sighed. “This one sucks.”

What he eventually drew was this.



“What is that?” I said. “A bear with a big thumb?”

“NO!” he exclaimed. “It’s a bear having his thumb cut off!”


And then he folded down the sentence, and passed it on to Ernie.

Whatever Ernie thought was going on in this picture, he forgot that he was supposed to write a sentence pertaining to what happens next, and instead drew this. I still have no fucking clue what he was going for.


“So basically the story goes like this,” I said. “The elf had a big thumb. Then he somehow transformed into a bear with a big thumb, then had his thumb cut off. Finally, in pain and looking for some Advil, he decided to play a round of golf.”

They both agreed this was how the story went.


Next up was Ernie, who stared intensely at his paper, before jotting something down and passing to it me. Along the top, in big, black letters, he’d written, “ONCE A DUCKS BUTT GREW FAT.”

The first image that came to my mind was a duck with a large, human ass. Maybe it’d be floating in a pond, but most likely I’d draw it into a hip hop video–however one might go about doing this. But as I was about to put pen to paper, I remembered I had to remain G-rated, so I drew a duck on a treadmill instead.


I drew the arrows because the picture was supposed to tell the next step in the story, and I wanted to indicate that through exercise, the ducks butt began to shrink. When I folded the sentence down and passed it on to Ralph, he grimaced again.

“What is that?!” he said.

“It’s a duck on a treadmill.”

“Why is he on a treadmill?”

“Because he’s self-conscious about the size of his butt. He wants to lose weight.”


With this, he seemed to understand where the story was headed, and subsequently wrote the climax and the denouement in six words:

“The duck has a small butt.”

“Hey! There we go!” I exclaimed. “So the story basically goes like this: Once, a duck’s butt grew fat. So, after years of indulging in fast food and discovering he had a gluten allergy, he decided to make a change in his diet and begin exercising daily. The duck, now, has a small butt.”

They agreed this was how it went.


The final player was Ralph, who looked at his paper, scratched his head, then slowly wrote something down. When he passed it to his right, Ernie erupted with laughter. “Oh my god! This is going to so be good!” he said. “Hold on, I don’t know what to draw yet.”

He deliberated for a minute, before scribbling a few things, folding down the sentence, then passing it to me.


Like before, I was confused-as-shit as to what Ernie was drawing. Before me was either one of two things: a sausage McBiscuit laying its side or, as following with the theme of the day, a human ass that was, “way, way, way, way, way too big.” The only thing keeping the latter from being my immediate guess was the disconcerting bar running through the middle of it. Yes, Ernie was a worldly guy, but I was pretty positive he’d yet to see a stripper, meaning that I was either mistaken, or he’d seen a butt do something I hadn’t. That son of a bitch, I thought.

But not wanting to stir the turd, I decided to give Ernie the benefit of the doubt and play it safe. “I ordered a hamburger, and it was way too big to eat,” I wrote, then I folded the picture down and passed it back to Ralph. He opened it all up, and read:



“That wasn’t a hamburger!” yelled Ernie. “That was a butt! I drew a butt!”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It kind of looks like a hamburger to me.”

“What?! What kind of hamburgers are you eating!”

“Well,” I said, “what kind of butts are you looking at?”

“Not ones that look like hamburgers!” he said. “Butts don’t look like hamburgers! They look like butts!”

We carried on this way for another minute, and in the meantime, Ralph drew a giant hamburger and a small stick figure. Apparently they lived happily ever after–I think. At least that’s what it looks like to me. I’m still not sure.


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