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Shedding My Fear of Fun, Part 2

A beginning teacher cannot change his or her teaching personality at whim, at least not consistently. She cannot decide to “be more fun.” So, in order to make a classroom more fun, which is to say more engaging, more exciting and child-focused, a beginning teacher should change the classroom activities. The most straightforward change that I have seen is to make the classroom project-based.

This might sound like a “duh” idea, especially to more experienced teachers, but I mean to suggest that everything, everything be project-based. Take, for example, the curriculum outlined in Everyday Mathematics, used in most city elementary schools. The daily lesson plans have an attractive hands-on focus, but there is only one lesson per unit, entitled “explorations,” in which the students work together on larger projects. Now whether the project is group-based or individual, it seems intuitive to me that the entire math unit (be it shapes, number patterns or measurement) should be structured towards a larger goal. I have seen, and used, a unit-plan focusing on shapes that resulted in a class performance of “The Greedy Triangle” by Marilyn Burns. Some students worked on Hexagon and Octagon posters, drawing objects from life that conformed to those shapes, while others cut out and painted shape costumes. After a few lessons, my job became easy, walking between the tables, correcting students if they said “square” when they should have said “rectangle.”

During the independent reading block, we find that some students read while others pretend to read. This is because some students like to read and find it pleasurable, while others do not. Duh. And yet we still ask students to read silently for up to an hour, while we run from bored student to bored student using all of our imagination to keep their attention on their books. But I am done pleading with a student to enjoy reading, to have fun doing something he or she does not naturally enjoy. Instead I will plan a reading unit around a common theme, say Ancient Egypt or the Mongolian Empire, that will culminate in a presentation. And yes, I know that I do not have enough Mongolian books for a month, so I will institute Reader’s Cafe, and it will happen every day, in which a few students act out a scene from a book they read together, or present a comic book based on their book, or describe their book and sell it at auction. In other words, we will do something fun, and we will do it all the time. The walls of my classroom will look like the Mongolian steppe, with portraits of each student on horseback, and recipes for Bansh and Khuushuur will hang from the ceiling.

And if, at the end of the year, my students do not remember how to make Khuushuur, I will not be upset. Because they will have developed their sense of fun, and they will have had the experience, hopefully many times over, of having fun learning. But the administration of my school needs to support my classroom, and to adopt my philosophy of fun, which is a tall order.

When my students took the mClas second-grade math assessment, they performed poorly on many of the geometry questions. They recognized all of the shapes on the test, but they were confused about further qualities of shapes like the number of angles and sides. The administration was thus unsatisfied with my project-based geometry unit and asked that I stick to the script in the coming year.

But I wonder if I should. While I agree that my students should have scored higher on that assessment, I also know that I had higher attendance, greater excitement and focus, and decreased disruption during those math lessons than ever before. I wonder if it might not be worthwhile to focus more on giving students, especially students in so-called “high-needs” schools, the experience of enjoyable learning than to focus on scoring well on the assessments.

Many schools create mantras that centralize values such as honor, discipline, responsibility and perseverance. Sometimes friendship sneaks onto that list. I would like to see “fun” featured in a few more mantras, and the virtue of fun taken seriously.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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