Thank You, Captain Obvious

I just saw yet another article on my social media feed by yet another expert proposing that a decline in free, unstructured play can lead to depression and anxiety. I have also seen many articles purporting that a lack of play can lead to hyperactivity and loss of attention. Do we really need professors to spend time and money to “prove” what seems to me to be self-evident? How could we adults think that scheduling every minute of a young child’s day and never allowing them to play without an adult hovering over them would NOT have consequences?

I am not a parent, so I have no qualification to give parenting advice. But I have taught thousands of children in my career, so I do feel qualified to speak to what I see in the classroom. In the last several years, I have seen a dramatic increase in students with severe anxiety and depression as well as increasingly short attention spans. What’s equally as worrisome is that they seem to have lost some of their ability to persevere at problem solving, negotiate social situations, and entertain themselves. Schools have even gone so far as to have to “teach” grit and resiliency because they have seen it so sorely lacking.

I don’t understand how well meaning adults cannot see the obvious benefits of free play that I see.

I grew up in the 70s and 80s playing outside with all of the neighborhood kids participating in invented games and loosely organized sports. Yes, we argued sometimes over who was safe in kickball or tag, but we worked it out—generally without any violence or tears. It taught us how to get along with other human beings and negotiate our place in the world. We saw natural leaders rise to the top and creative geniuses invent the most fun games. Personally, I learned that I could be bossy (still can be) and that I needed to temper that instinct if I wanted to have friends. Unstructured group play also taught me that I was not good at everything and I would not always win—and that it was okay. None of these are things I could have learned in a book or class.

As Dr. Peter Gray states in his TED talk on the subject, “It is hard to find groups of children outdoors at all, and, if you do find them, they are likely to be wearing uniforms and following the directions of coaches while their parents dutifully watch and cheer.” While organized sports are valuable, in my mind, this is an incredibly sad turn of events. By having all of their physical activity monitored, protected, and governed by rules, children are loath to take risks and learn valuable life lessons. Adults bemoan the lack of children to go outside their comfort zone, but when do they allow them to do so? In fact, adults seem to take great pains to make sure everything in a child’s life is within their comfort zone. While I understand the desire to remove all strife from their child’s life, never allowing a child to struggle does them a great disservice.

I also spent childhood time alone, away from a screen, occupying my time with my favorite activities such as reading, drawing, cooking, or singing. I learned how to determine what I liked to do away from my peers and where my talents and interests lie. I was rarely bored because I learned to rely on myself for entertainment. Children gain confidence by doing that at which they are successful. The odds of this increase dramatically if they choose the activities which to pursue. Schools have realized this, but instead of increasing the amount of play, we have added “revolutionary” learning opportunities such as inquiry learning, gamification, makerspace, and educational video games to replace what kids will do naturally if left to their own devices.

Most importantly, play made me HAPPY. I enjoyed getting to do what I wanted and gained a great deal of satisfaction interacting with my peers and negotiating my way without adult intervention. Hovering over children every waking moment deprives them of any delight they could get from just being. Live should be joyous and fully experienced.

For the love of childhood—let the kids play!

Most importantly, play made me HAPPY. I enjoyed getting to do what I wanted and gained a great deal of satisfaction interacting with my peers and negotiating my way without adult intervention. Hovering over children every waking moment deprives them of any delight they could get from just being. Live should be joyous and fully experienced.

For the love of childhood—let the kids play!

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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.