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In Other Words: Kids Must Taste Academic Fun!

by Alan Sitomer
November 3, 2011
Time for a Pop Quiz. Question: What do you called kindergarten without art or music?

Answer: High school.

(All right, all right, if you said middle school, it’s worth half-credit.)

Now to some of us, the little Q & A above delivers a small chuckle. To others, it represents a brutal reality. The fact is schools are bludgeoning today’s kids with flavorless, sanitized, exuberant-less content nowadays—more so than we ever have ever done before—and too many classrooms are plagued by a contagion of joylessness in the pursuit of standardized, homogenized ideals.

If I ever get a chance to dictate our nation’s educational policy, I am going to bring back that extra-cheesy, covered in orange grease, stored under the heat lamp, pepperoni pizza I used to be able to scarf down at lunchtime (you know, the slices that got thrown under the bus by the politically correct helicopter moms who wanted their little angels to eat tree bark and locally grown organic berries for mid-day nutrition). And I will mandate that the first and foremost rule of educational policy—particularly when it comes to advancing literacy skills—is that KIDS MUST TASTE ACADEMIC FUN! That’s right, I believe in the power of joy to bring out the best in student work and learning.

Now, stay with me here, because no, I am not about to kick rigor to the curb. And no, I do not think that “fun” represents the penultimate aspiration for teaching and learning. And bzzp, my proposal does not warrant a lowering of scholarly expectations, either. In fact, I think the contrary. Extensive experience has shown me that students who enjoy their studies will learn more than students who don’t give a poop. (Note: I can back that up with hard research for all the data wonks out there.)

Indeed, it’s time we collectively go to bat more officially for the power of joy as it relates to learning. Why? Well, to paraphrase a semi-famous theater hack, “Let me count the ways.”

1) The vice grip approach of turning the screws on low-performing students through a drill-n-kill line of attack on elevating skills is contributing to America’s egregious drop out rate and exacerbating the Achievement Gap it actually aims to alleviate. That’s right, our current methodology is creating more of the problems we are supposedly purporting to solve. Really, who does that? (Note: Feel free to fill in your own snarky government/big corporation/family relative’s name here __________________ ).

2) Making learning a pleasurable experience requires no more cost than making it a tedious one… except that it learns the little ones a whole lot better. See, joy, smiles, and delight in school are free. (Not to mention highly effective.) This is key these days because when you look at how the budget cuts have decimated our classroom supplies, eviscerated our nation’s librarians, and levied a full frontal assault on every corner of education in our country, creatively solving problems with a sober recognition of the fact that “there ain’t no money” requires all of us to use the tools we do have instead of complaining about all of the tools we do not.

3) Have you done your professional reading? READICIDE, THE BOOK WHISPERER, THE READING ZONE, MAKING THE MATCH, WHAT'S THE BIG IDEA?, TEACHING LITERACY FOR LOVE AND WISDOM… I could go on and on.

4) Have we forgotten that the ultimate goal of education is not to be able to bubble in a correct A, B, C, or D answer choice on a standardized test? Sure, the loons who make policy may have lost their goofy minds by over-emphasizing the information which can be gleaned from bubble test scores and then making political hay with cherry-picked information to advance their own personal ambitions, but that doesn’t mean that those on the front lines need to forget that we are dealing with real kids. REAL PEOPLE. The kind who live, eat, breathe, and come to our classrooms starving for a meaningful human connection to their school work. In fact, this is why I became a YA author in the first place—to write books that reach real kids. Through humor. Through drama. Through the ageless art of telling salient, “Whoa, did I dig that” stories. And what’s my great “here’s how you, too, can learn to reach real kids” secret? Well, understanding that today’s kids are reachable is a good start. (Plus, caffeine helps as well, he added as his left eyelid twitched.)

Fifthly—if that’s even a word—kids like to learn. That’s not a misprint; that’s a fact. And if you don’t know this about today’s young people I’d suggest that you do not know much about today’s students at all. It’s like a great fisherman once said, “You don’t bait the hook with what the fisherman likes; you bait the hook with what the fish likes.” Kids will read. Kids will write. In fact, it could be argued that today’s students are actually doing more reading and writing than any generation prior. (But since we devalue the digital literacy component in the world of academia… okay, okay, I’ll save this tangent for another blog post.)

Now it’s time for points 6 through 2,867 which can best be summarized by connecting a few dots. Fun leads to joy. But fun is like sugar, the high quickly wears off and the need for something more substantive arises. This is where meaningfulness, relevance, accessibility, and challenge come into play. This is also where depth, breath, scope, and purpose come in. This is also where a sense of self-direction, self-discipline, and hard work factor in as well. Kids will do the hard work for objectives they find meaningful (can anyone say, “Boys who game?”) but they will not do so simply because the task has been legislated. Without a doubt today’s students are eager to grow, learn, give a great effort, and demonstrate their aptitudes in mind-blowing ways if they are internally motivated to do so. But if they’re not, they won’t.

Reality is a cold beast. Like it or not, smiles, fun, joy, and personal fulfillment matter.

BTW, if you require more reading on the subject, check out DRIVE, SWITCH, or the thoughts of Sir Ken Robinson. Indeed, they may have killed the orange-oiled pepperoni pizza in our halls of academia, but if we let them kill the fun, they will have ripped out our entire soul. And none of us will be the better for it.

Alan Sitomer was named California's 2007 Teacher of the Year. In addition to being an inner-city high school English teacher and former professor in the Graduate School of Education at Loyola Marymount University, Alan is a nationally renowned speaker specializing in engaging reluctant readers who received the 2004 award for Classroom Excellence from the Southern California Teachers of English, the 2003 Teacher of the Year honor from California Literacy, the 2007 Educator of the Year award by Loyola Marymount University and the 2008 Innovative Educator of the Year from The Insight Education Group. He’s the author of six young adult novels, three children's picture books, two teacher methodology books, and a classroom curriculum series for secondary English Language Arts instruction called THE ALAN SITOMER BOOK JAM.

© 2011 Alan Sitomer. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.
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1 Comment

  1. 1 Barbara Blough 26 Feb
    As a retired teacher, I applaud you!  I purposely did not go into the classroom right out of college.  I knew that I had a lot more to learn.  I had fun in multiple careers and learned "what goes on behind the walls."  By that I mean that I found out why and how our physical infrastructure works; I found out why and how people work or don't work together.  Then, at age 40, I returned to school and earned an MA in BD/ED and Learning Disabilities.  At 42 I felt ready for the classroom.  I felt I had something to offer my students.  I very purposely stayed in touch with being a learner and with what it was like to be a kid, but I was not a kid.  I was an adult, qualified and ready to teach.  I had some wonderful years in the classroom - mostly between 1990 and 2005.  During the last 6 years I was less and less able to teach my students what they needed and in ways I knew they would be able to understand it - experientially!  I  also felt that the changes in testing requirements were especially abusive to my students who came from severely abusive backgrounds.  I would spend from September until March helping to build their self esteem.  Then in March, I would HAVE to give them the ISAT at their "official" grade level and watch my whole year shatter.  How is that even humane, let alone Best Practices?  I believe in the personal power bestowed by learning and education.  I believe in children and their resilience.  I may be retired, but I still tutor - and I can still have fun!

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