The Serious Business of Classroom Fun

The text from my SmartBrief article on April 13, 2015

I’ll admit it: I enjoy being known as one of the “fun” teachers in school. I get a little lift when they walk in and the first thing they say is, “I heard English was fun today. I’m excited.” It gives me great satisfaction to know that my students enjoy coming to class and that they often share what we do with their parents when they get home. This doesn’t happen by accident. I consciously work to present material in ways that are not only effective, but also enjoyable. It gives me infinite pleasure to hear their giggles in the middle of an activity. It’s one of the reasons I continue to love my job even after all of these years.

Unfortunately, not every teacher shares my philosophy. Some are under the misconception that students enjoy a class because it is fun and no real learning is involved. They don’t believe that students can possibly be engaged in rigorous educational endeavors if they are laughing, moving and talking. This is absolutely not the case. Just because it’s fun doesn’t mean it’s easy.

To some teachers, rigor — by the way, I hate that word when applied to education — just means hard. It means worksheet packets or excessive problems assigned every night, including weekends and vacations. It means the teacher drones on and on while requiring students to take copious amounts of notes. It means rote learning and very little critical thinking. It means they are not allowed to “help” each other learn. It means the child’s interest in or connection to the material is irrelevant. It means assignments that might be beyond the reach of their students. It means that many students fail their tests. This is why so many education writers speak of “grit.” It would take real fortitude to tough it out in the classroom described above. Children wouldn’t need grit if the task weren’t such drudgery. The bottom line is this: If many students dislike a class, they are not learning as much as they could be.

I strongly believe in what two of my edu-heroes say about rigor. Both Kylene Beers and Harvey Daniels say that there can be rigor without rigor mortis. The first time I heard each of them say that, I wrote it down in my notebook with a huge exclamation point next to it, and I’ve never forgotten it. It truly speaks to the essence of my teaching.

How do I achieve a high level of rigor without killing the love of learning? Simple. I put myself in my students’ shoes. I figure that if I am bored while designing learning opportunities, they will surely tune out. Every time I sit through a mind-numbing professional development day, I vow to keep this at the forefront when outlining a unit. I think about how I would want to learn and what keeps me interested.

In my experience, there are several facets to “edutainment” and the best lessons incorporate as many as possible.

  • Humor: No one is asking teachers to become Jon Stewart, but he does present challenging material on a nightly basis in an entertaining way, albeit on an adult level. By finding the humor in what the students consider mundane, teachers will be able to engage as well as inform. While humor cannot be found in every topic we teach, the more often we can find the fun, the more effective our instruction.
  • Novelty: It is true that children thrive on structure. In my class, that translates to our sacred 10 minutes of silent reading at the beginning of every class. Beyond that, I rarely do the same thing two days in a row. Students get a little thrill in not knowing exactly what comes next. I’m not the only one who believes this. When I read Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess, I was invigorated by the various “hooks” he presented as methods to engage students and ignite passion in both the teacher and the kids. Similar to Howard Gardner’s Entry Points, Burgess provides techniques for incorporating art, drama, story, and movement to introduce new material and keep the students on the edge of their seats wondering what the teacher will do next.
  • Ownership: Earlier this year, I had tremendous success with student-designed Passion Projects. These self-directed research and design projects held their attention for several months. In the feedback I received from students, many said it was one of the most enjoyable things they had ever done in school. It took very little preparation on my part. All I had to do was give them the opportunity and time. They had a blast and learned valuable skills in the process. It was such a hit that we are beginning round two next week. It doesn’t only apply to something as a long-term endeavor. To the greatest extent possible, I incorporate choice into every lesson we do.
  • Relevance: Provide some sort of real-world connection to the material. This works especially well if the examples are bizarre, hilarious or shocking. When the students see how the concepts they are learning have application to their daily lives or are evident in the world around them, they get much more excited to complete the necessary work to be successful.
  • Collaboration: I teach adolescents. That means I would constantly be fighting a losing battle by forcing them to keep to themselves and remain quiet every day. Human beings are social by nature, and none more so than teens and tweens. By incorporating “legal” opportunities for them to chat, I find that, when they do talk in class, they are mostly on task. Between small group and whole class discussion, they talk much more than I do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
  • Activity: The school days when I am most miserable are the days when no students are present– professional development days. It is not that I don’t enjoy the learning; I do. It is the act of being forced to sit in a hard, unforgiving chair for 8 hours with very few breaks that makes me want to act out and be disruptive. Imagine how awful it is when we ask beings with the metabolism of rabbits to sit still, be silent and avoid playing with things at their desk. I’m not saying we need to incorporate a calisthenics program, but allowing them to move from station to station, cross the room to look at a display, use hand movements to reinforce concepts, or even just rotate seats, will go a long way toward releasing some of the pent-up need for movement. On the days when sitting still is required, at least provide some sort of fidget toy for them to expend some of that energy.
  • Critical thinking: Some of the most enjoyable times I have in class are the days when we do collaborative inquiry lessons. Students work together, using inductive and deductive reasoning, to determine solutions to the task at hand. An added bonus to this type of learning is that the material is more cemented in their minds because they were active participants in the learning.

A fun classroom does not mean that students aren’t learning. It means that they are learning in the ways that meet their needs. It also doesn’t mean that only natural comedians will be successful teachers. It merely means designing lessons with the kids in mind. The side effect is that kids have a great time and maybe even learn something in the process — no grit required. So the next time you hear laughter coming from the classroom of the teacher next door, please don’t assume the students are goofing around. Mine aren’t.

5 Ways to Make Kids Hate Your Class

The text of my article for Middleweb from March 24, 2105

We’ve all read the rhetoric from self-styled school reformers perpetuating the myth of schools full of bad teachers. This has not been my experience. Most teachers I know are consummate professionals constantly striving to improve their practice.

Nevertheless, there are some ways that even the most talented teachers can undermine their own effectiveness. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to slip into these bad habits that make kids hate coming into your class. The best defense is a good offense, so it pays to be mindful of these ineffective teaching behaviors and avoid them when you can.

teacher-giving-orders1. Kids hate it when you over-control them

Because teachers are the dominant force in sole charge of a classroom of children, it is easy to become controlling. Furthermore, when so much else in our day feels out of control, we tend to clamp down on the things we can manage. However, leading with a heavy hand causes resentment among students because they feel helpless.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • deny them access to the restroom or a drink of water
  • keep them after class causing them to be tardy for the next one
  • get into power struggles with them in front of their peers
  • yell at or punish the entire class when not all of them were causing a problem

2. Kids hate it when you neglect or ignore them

boy-left-outTeachers are human beings, so it is only natural that we are drawn to certain students more than others. That being said, it is never appropriate for this to be known by the students. Even if you think you are treating children equally, they are very sensitive to real or perceived slights.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • give preferential treatment to obvious “favorites”
  • don’t bother to learn a child’s name or how to pronounce it
  • call on the same children all the time without giving others a chance
  • spend class time on your phone or computer rather than teaching

3. Kids hate it when you teach them badly

boy-puzzledTeaching in an all-consuming, exhausting profession. At any given time, there are a million other things we could be doing rather than getting our teaching just right. However, there is no excuse for forgetting the reason you are there—to teach the children to the best of your ability. Every time.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • impose a strict deadline, yet take an inordinate amount of time to grade or return their work
  • be easily distracted and go off on an irrelevant tangent instead of covering the material for which they will be responsible
  • come to class unprepared and disorganized
  • don’t accept responsibility for poor teaching and blame them for not studying
  • give grades with little to no feedback or explanation
  • use the same materials for years on end, regardless of the needs of the current class

4. Kids hate it when you blindside them

boy-hard-at-workThere are already so many times in a child’s life when they feel powerless. School should not be one of them. There is no place in school for “gotcha” teaching and grading practices. Think about how you as a teacher would feel if an administrator did equivalent things to you.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • put trick questions on a test to “separate the As from the Bs”
  • include material on a test that you did not cover or mention in class
  • take points off of their work for minor infractions such as forgetting their name or a spelling error
  • call on them when they appear to be off-task
  • single them out in front of everyone

5. Kids hate it when you damage them

cartoon illustration of a boy talking with his mom isolated on whiteThis is the single most important thing to remember about teaching:You are trusted with the ultimate treasure – a child’s heart and soul. It is your solemn duty to protect this gift. Too many times, we forget that these are just children with fragile egos, and they can be severely damaged by something that seems insignificant to an adult.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • use sarcasm regularly
  • participate in any kind of shaming (e.g., stapling fast food restaurant applications to a low-scoring test)
  • compare them to other students, classes, or siblings
  • reveal confidential personal information in front of their peers
  • publicly berate them for small infractions such as not having a pencil
  • tease them over sensitive issues

I can’t imagine that teachers do any of these things to their students intentionally, but they do happen. We are not perfect, but we can be cognizant of our own behavior. None of us wants to be the teacher kids hate.

When we chose teaching as a profession, we did so with the implicit understanding that we would not only teach but protect and nurture the hearts and minds of our students. Keeping our classroom practices positive and supportive will go a long way in achieving that life-long goal.

Common Misconceptions about Mindset, Rigor, and Grit

The text of my article for Middleweb: April 5, 2015

I am a full-time teacher with a passion for (and degree in) educational psychology. This means that I am a rabid consumer of research on teaching. However, after spending a couple of successful decades working with students, I am that teacher who greets each “new” idea that is spawned with both curiosity and a healthy dose of skepticism.

Among the educational ideas that have gained momentum in recent years are the concepts of Mindset, Rigor, and Grit. While all of these ideas may have merit, as with all shiny new objects that attract our attention we need to proceed with caution and think about whether and why these concepts fit into our personal pedagogy.

Being willing to implement the hot new thing is admirable, but not if it is done feet first with our eyes closed.

MINDSET: It doesn’t thrive in a hostile environment

First, let me say that I believe in the Mindset theory. Several years ago, while teaching in San Jose, CA, I was lucky enough to see a presentation on Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success given by one of the graduate students who worked on the book with her.

The growth mindset framework is wonderful, inspiring, and perfectly logical to anyone who has ever worked with children. The problem is that many schools have jumped on the Mindset bandwagon without changing the school policies that work against the concept.

Many teachers and schools who say they believe in fostering a growth mindset in their students still have an environment that encourages a fixed mindset.


Growth mindset . . .

Is not summed up by a grade. We tell students that they should grow and learn from mistakes and if they practice they will improve. However, we grade using an “F” for failure when we should be using a “Not There Yet” and allowing them to keep trying.

In fact, we should encourage re-dos and re-takes because, by trying again, students are more likely to learn the material. (See the writings of Rick Wormeli for more on this concept.) What is more important to us as teachers: that they learn the material or that they learn the material the first time?

Is not a now-or-never experience. In too many classrooms, something is taught and assessed once and if a student doesn’t get it, the teacher moves on anyway.

Is not a race to the finish. When we encourage speed and competition rather than thoughtfulness and collaboration, we tend to reward some students for “perfect” products and fail to encourage effort and growth over time.

Is not about intimidation. Students do not develop growth mindsets in emotionally unsafe classrooms where they do not feel free to take risks – where there is one “right” answer and only the teacher and certain students know it.

Is not encouraged by lazy assessment practices. Grading or awarding points for every little thing a student does in class and then averaging them together at the end of the marking period does nothing to promote growth. If we truly want kids to learn, we need to be providing regular, constructive feedback throughout and letting them demonstrate their mastery toward the end.

Reverse all of these behaviors, and we are really onto something!

RIGOR: It’s not a throwback to the “good old days”

I have read Rigor is Not a Four-Letter Word by Barbara Blackburn and I like her definition:

Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at a high level, and each is supported so he or she can learn at a high level, and each student demonstrates learning at a high level.  (Blackburn, 2008)

rigor-4-letter-2ndI know that this kind of rigor is good practice, and some teachers are getting it right. Sadly, however, many in education are still longing for the good old days (which have never existed in the ways they think) when kids worked hard, weren’t babied through life, learned difficult material with ease, and knew their place in the scheme of things.

According to some, rigor from back in the day is defined as the hard work that they used to do when theywere in school. They will post on social media that ridiculous test from the 1890s that has made its way around the internet. If you look at that test closely, you will see that much of it is rote learning and also specific to time and place. Much of what is on the test is no longer relevant in today’s society.

We need to get over the idea that somehow there were these miraculous, genius students that existed when “we” went to school, but now all young people are lazy, coddled, and addle-brained. The idea of increasing rigor appeals to these stuck-in-time educators. Unfortunately, rigor is often misinterpreted as just meaning really, really hard.

Rigor does NOT mean:

  • a classroom that resembles a bootcamp
  • more and harder homework
  • a text or material several grade levels above the student’s current ability
  • high expectations, but no support to reach them

So if you’re doing that, stop it, okay? Thanks.

GRIT: Maybe we need to just drop this word

I have to say the current buzzword that most grinds on me is grit. Maybe it’s because so many of the grown-ups responsible for running the world have so eagerly embraced it. Human society, they are sure, will be much more likely to survive if we teach these “lazy, spoiled, whiny” children a thing or two.

pilgrims-first-winter-300They are remembering fondly our Puritan ancestors who worked hard and got ahead and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps while eating acorns and tree bark during those first freezing New England winters.

If these “kids today” would only put forth that kind of effort, they would be more successful adults. These are the people who say that children need to learn how to fail because it builds character. The trouble is that it often doesn’t.

Misinterpretations of grit:

► If perseverance were all it took to be successful, we would all have the capacity to be Olympic athletes if we just put our minds to it. Not true. Yes, it is always possible to improve, but it is a lot easier to hit a home run if you begin life on third base (through special talent or special circumstances). For the rest of us starting at home plate, we may need a little more support and encouragement to round those bases.

► Sometimes the students are working at their peak capacity; the task is just beyond their realm. Meeting the individual where he/she is and working within their zone of proximal development is more likely to yield positive results. It is destructive to tell children that if they only tried harder, they would be successful. Realistically, that may never happen for some.

► Generally, repeated failure does not motivate one to work harder. Usually, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the child believes himself/herself to be a failure. “That’ll teach ‘em to study harder next time” doesn’t work.

► Now, if what we mean by grit is the ability to stick with an assignment or pay attention in class, then we must be darn sure we are asking students to do work worth doing and making class engaging. Students who have creative, challenging work to do in a positive classroom environment do not need nearly as much “grit.”

mind-numbing► The need for grit is primarily useful when the task involves drudgery. Not every task is worth doing, and we need to be able to let go of the mind-numbing assignments of the past and move into the 21st century. Not that we still can’t teach the required material, we just need to do it in ways that we know engage their brains and work within a modern construct. The kids are already there and if you are not with them, you are against them.

► What teachers think is grit is often merely compliance. Creating an environment where students do what the teacher asks just to achieve a high grade or get the work finished is a sure recipe to crush souls.

Head-first and eyes wide open

There are often good ideas embedded in the educational jargon we serially embrace. Just be careful that when you decide to try something new, you understand the research and the actions required to make the ideas work. Be sure you’re ready to make the changes in your own practice necessary to support the concept.

Keep your eyes (and heart) wide open and your students’ best interests front and center. Then dive in!