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Learning is Fun! (Or, Not)

April 27, 2012
slow

Learning is often a slow process. (photo by David B. Cohen)

Yesterday I choked at my violin recital.  My teacher introduced me to the tiny audience, counted off, a-one and a-two, we started to play “The Road to Boston” and it was all going fine until! we got onto the second line of the music and I lost it.  Didn’t know where we were or how to get back or anything.  It was as though I had never even seen that music before.  My teacher played through her part and then walked me off the stage.  She didn’t say a lot about it but I knew I had embarrassed her, if not myself.  She’s my teacher and my choking made her look bad.

I’d like to say it wasn’t my fault! Something went wrong! It was out of my control!  But the truth is, I didn’t practice.

I just didn’t practice.

I didn’t practice because it’s hard work.  I don’t play very well and I hate hearing all those sour notes, having to start over and over and over, and I really hate it when I can’t even recognize the song I’m supposed to be playing because my timing is off.  When I DO practice, even for just a half hour a day, it’s amazing how sweet the little songs sound and I love it.  I go up to my mom’s house and play for her and I call people up to play over the phone and really make a fool of myself but it feels good.  It takes lots of irritating, annoying, hard practice.  I hate it, but I love the results.  And then I don’t choke in front of people.  Practicing is not fun.  But it’s worth it.

I teach English to high school juniors.  I was teaching grammar the other day, a subject with rules that you just have to practice, there’s no other way.  The rules are convoluted and there is always an exception but they’re necessary. I want my students to write properly, not to embarrass themselves when they go to college or work and have to write something.  It’s dry and it’s boring but mostly, the kids will at least go along with it.  But not Jeremy.  You know him.  The one that powers through everything in the blink of an eye, will not revisit it, and insists the iPhone is a natural human appendage.  Jeremy would not place a comma in a list even when I pointed out he had just copied down the rule because, he said, he never learned it.  Well, there it is, Jeremy! We’re learning it now!

“You’re not making learning fun,” he said.  Fun.  If practicing were fun, I’d play the violin like Mozart by now.  Some things are just not fun, but it doesn’t make them any less valuable or necessary.  I mean, how many times did you have fun learning to balance your checkbook?  Or analyzing your phone bill? Or solving for x? Or determining the causes of World War I?  Learning to walk is more painful than fun, but everyone needs to do it.

Most days, I believe I offer lessons and activities that are linked to my children’s social studies class, their own lives, and the issues in the community at large.  Gender roles.  Marriage.  Work.  Gun ownership.  Today the lesson plan included watching a YouTube video of kids around the world doing the “accent tag” in preparation for reading Their Eyes Were Watching God.  We had a professional actress here that talked with us about dialect, and gave a dramatic reading while Halle Berry moved, muted, across the TV screen.  No fun at all, I guess.  Teachers do the best they can, but I don’t think it’s possible to make all learning fun.  Are students entitled to have fun in every class every day?  How did they get that idea?  Are we nuts to expect that students should learn even the boring things?  What are some of the “fun” ways that you teach stuff that would usually be boring?  All of us un-fun teachers are dying to know!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 28, 2012 7:02 am

    I teach 9th and 12th grade English. To me, “fun” is the ultimate f-word. I invest ZERO effort into making lessons “fun.” Earlier in my career I put in endless hours to craft fun activities, clip and crop daily video segments for anticipatory sets, offer “fun” activities as assignments instead of tasks that would demand effort, on and on and on. I was the “cool” teacher. But they came to my class to be entertained, not to learn. They’d watch my show, passively, but when I asked them to work, the wrestling match began. To them, the “show” and the “learning” were totally separate. So, I’ve given up on their definition of “fun.”

    I tell my students that they must re-frame their definition of “fun” if they are going to be in my class. Intellectual conversation can be “fun.” Tackling a challenge can be “fun.” If “fun” is passively letting the teacher dance and sing and make pretty presentations, then it is the wrong kind of fun. When I choose what to do, I choose only what I think will make them learn, whether they have fun or not. This can include video clips. This can include experiential activities. But sometimes–and more often than I used to admit–they simply need to read, write, and speak, whether they like it or not…and I’ve begun to realize that kids actually can and do see these as fun. We don’t do the same “fun” activities that other teachers do–and sometimes I watch those activities and want to challenge those kids to tell me what that “fun” actually helped them learn. I may not pursue “fun,” but when the bell rings, my kids don’t move: they are deep in conversation about Romeo and Juliet’s character flaws that led to their tragedy, or they are arguing over whether Gladwell’s rhetorical approach was effective, or they just want to finish that one last page we are reading aloud. And, since I’m already sounding pompous, I’ll point it out: it turns out that even though I don’t put on a fun dog and pony show, I’m the “cool” teacher again… this time because kids walk out feeling like they’ve learned, not because they’ve been entertained. I feel like kids connect with me because I strive for intellectual fun, not entertainment.

    There’s that line also: if you’re bored, then you’re boring. (The antecedent of that “you” is the same, btw.)

  2. Lisa Alva Wood permalink
    April 29, 2012 1:49 pm

    Wow, Mark, THANK YOU. We’ve had the same evolution. The occasional student who comes back and says, “You were hard on me, but I learned more in your class than I ever had before,” is worth a hundred Jeremies. The level of emotional investment is what makes it so painful to bear those comments; I put a lot into planning and scaffolding and then I expect a synthesized product at the end of the lesson/day/unit. Thanks for giving me back that right.

  3. Mary Golden permalink
    April 30, 2012 11:21 pm

    Without going too far out on a limb, I’m pretty sure we all experience the frustration you both masterfully articulated. I know I do. I teach 5th grade which means five to six subjects every day, and as much as I try to integrate lessons across the curriculum and make them interesting and engaging for my students, I don’t have an endless reservoir of energy and creativity. I hate to admit it, but there are inevitably days when I’m just plain tired and don’t have the strength to cajole and coax my reluctant learners into the hard practice work they need to build their skills. The beauty of teaching, though, is that tomorrow is always another day and we’ll all try again – even if we can’t always make it fun. Thanks for your posts.

  4. katka tam permalink
    May 13, 2012 6:27 am

    for me learning is fun.. its really difficult o be a clown in front of your students.. you have to make sure all learning and fun activities are disseminate.. i miss my teacher…

  5. Lisa Alva Wood permalink
    May 13, 2012 7:36 pm

    A follow-up to the FUN question: My juniors are researching, thinking and writing about gender roles, responsibility and other issues as part of reading THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD. Thursday, after 85 minutes of grammar, vocabulary, pre-reading via levels of questions, reading and writing, the bell rang. I said wow! the time went fast today! Carlos, what did you learn? “That it’s fun when I pay attention.” Ta-da!

    • May 20, 2012 8:25 am

      There is THE answer. We can only do so much without them.

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