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.

Just Because It’s Fun, Doesn’t Mean It’s Easy

I’ll admit it—I enjoy being known as one of the “fun” teachers in school. 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. I work tirelessly to present material in ways that are not only effective, but also enjoyable. It gives me 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, there are many colleagues who are not so enamored of my fun class. They are under the misperception that students enjoy my class because it is fun and therefore easy. Some have even said as much. They don’t believe the students could possibly be engaged in rigorous educational endeavors. This is absolutely not the case.

To these other teachers, rigor (by the way, I hate that word when applied to education) usually just means hard. It means more worksheets or problems assigned every night. 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. It means many students dislike their class.

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. This first time I heard each of them say that, I wrote it down in my notebook with a huge exclamation point next to it. It truly speaks to my philosophy of teaching.

Below, I will give an example of how I teach a fairly boring required skill (comma usage) in a way that challenges and engages my students. These are some of the activities my students do in class. I don’t use all of them every time and there are a few more not listed here. They are in no particular order.

  1. I show funny examples of comma misuse (such as this one) so they can see how commas avoid confusion.
  2. I show funny examples (such as this one) of how commas placed in different locations change the meaning of the sentence.
  3. We discuss the ongoing debate about the use of the Oxford comma.
  4. I give them a set of mentor text passages using all of the different types of comma usage. I have them work in partners or groups to see if they can determine the rule being exemplified in each passage. We share these together to make a master list. They are so excited when they get them right.
  5. They do scavenger hunts in their choice reading books for interesting sentences with commas to share and determine the rule being used. The more advanced version is to have them work together to find examples of every comma rule.
  6. They become human commas to punctuate sentences. I have a group of students write a sentence a couple of words at a time on individual white boards. I have them line up in order and the human commas must stand in the correct positions.
  7. I give them a passage using all of the different comma rules but with the commas missing. I tell them there are exactly X number of commas in the passage and challenge them to find every one. They generally work on this in pairs, but it could also be an informal assessment.
  8. I show them a video such as Flocabulary’s Comma Camp. There are other songs about commas online, but I have not yet used any of them.
  9. If they want to practice more at home, they can play online games. NOTE: these change often and I preview them every year, so I did not provide a link.

Over the years my students have enjoyed all of these activities. At no time was there a lecture with me requiring them to take notes and there was a lot of collaboration involved. Many of these activities require strong critical thinking skills as well. Most importantly, they remembered what they had learned because they were active participants. One of them even bought me this plaque because she saw it while on vacation and determined that I had to have it.

There’s no reason that the serious business of education needs to be serious. 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. My students aren’t.

 

Fun with Argumentative Writing

Yesterday, I finally had the opportunity to see Kelly Gallagher present in person. (*pausing for fangirl memory*) I’ve practically memorized his books and apply many of his ideas on a daily basis. After hearing him speak about teaching argumentative writing to adolescents, I was not only validated in my own beliefs and practices, but I was inspired to share some of the most engaging writing activities I use. (By the way, if you haven’t checked out his website, you must–http://kellygallagher.org) Even though it has been the expected result of writing instruction where I’ve taught, there’s much more to argumentative writing than the 5-paragraph essay. There are also more topics to argue about than whether a school should adopt school uniforms. (In fact, that topic has been so overdone that the students groan if the subject is even mentioned.) While the ultimate goal is to have students write a coherent, logical, organized argumentative essay, the steps in getting them to adequately defend an opinion do not have to be mind-numbingly boring for either the students or the teacher.

I like to build up to a full-blown essay with several smaller practice writing activities. Kelly Gallagher does this too. In his wonderful book, Write Like This, he shares many of the low-stakes writing assignments he uses to practice with his students. I’ve used several of them in my classroom. For example, I enjoy playing “Would You Rather” with the entire class as a verbal and kinesthetic activity in which they move to a side of the room based on their choice and share aloud. My students also respond well to arguing in favor of a specific consumer or entertainment product over another. He also uses mentor texts extensively (as do I) to allow students to “read like a writer.”

Here are some other writing activities I do in class:

1)   It’s fun to read the picture book I Wanna Iguana and analyze the techniques Alex used to persuade his parents to buy him an iguana.

2)   I teach the meaning of the rhetorical devices Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. Then, I teach them hand signals corresponding to each word (hand up as in an oath, hand on heart, and hand to head, respectively) and which Wizard of Oz corresponds to each term as well (Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow, respectively). We then analyze several ads for these techniques and do a word sort into these categories. They attempt to use all three techniques in their writing.

3)   As a class, we write a letter to the foundation of a fictional recently deceased billionaire asking for a donation to an organization the class has determined is worthy of the funds. We must use Ethos, Pathos, and Logos in our request.

4)   We do a group activity I call “Selling Ice To An Eskimo.” Each group draws one card from each of two piles. In the first pile is a useless junk item such as ½ roll of masking tape, a dead houseplant, or a pack of pink construction paper. In the second pile is a random fictional group such as The Elvis Impersonator Club of Omaha, The Retired Hamster Trainer Association of America, or The Motorcycle Doctors of the U.S. As a group, they determine why that group would want that object, then design and present an ad targeted to them. They love this and it cracks me up.

5)   “Dear Customer Service” is a writing activity I designed where each student draws one card from each of four piles. The four piles contain cards with the following:

  1. an everyday object (such as a hoodie, a binder, or a backpack),
  2. the problem with the object (such as it is lumpy, it is leaking green fluid, or it smells like it’s burning),
  3. what happened to them as a result (such as it gave them an electric shock, made their cat angry, or made their foot itch), and
  4. what they want in restitution from the company (such as rent out a movie theater for a private showing, buy them a plane ticket to Hawaii, or get them a part on a reality TV show).

Their task is to determine the backstory surrounding these cards and write a letter of complaint to company demanding restitution and satisfaction. These are hysterical!

6)   In Barry Lane and Gretchen Bernabei’s great book, Why We Must Run With Scissors, they infuse fun into argumentative writing. One of my favorite ideas from the book is an activity the authors call “The Devil’s Advocate.” The students argue in favor of a ridiculous rule, and the list of rules provided is hilarious. It includes everything from “Citizens must marry the first boy/girl they kiss,” to “All cosmetics will become illegal,” to “Walking will require a license.” The kids have a fun time trying to come up with rational reasons to defend these outlandish rules. (This is really a fun book–http://www.discover-writing.com)

I hope you enjoy these and I would love to hear your ideas as well.