Creating a Joyful Classroom

Yet another result of my recent reading of Letters to a Young Teacher has been utter disenchantment with test sophistication. I've always despised it, but also held on to a bit of belief in it as a necessary evil. It helps that the tests are behind me now, but I'm also just frustrated at how learning gets transformed into "drill and kill."

The obvious consequence is that classrooms and schools become joyless places, where learning becomes synonymous with direct instruction and rote bookwork. As much as I've worked to avoid that fate, even when doing test prep (i.e. creating an "operations race" we played in the gym), I do think the tone of my classroom has suffered from the pressures of the tests.

Another factor in the joylessness of the classroom could be behavioral issues. The kids in my school bring a lot of baggage into the classroom. So often the planning of seemingly simple activities must account for a dozen possible scenarios. Teachers, myself included, get to thinking that fun equals problems, so why risk that? I know I have planned plenty of fun lessons that involved some combination of the arts, physical play or group work, only to have them fall apart into arguments or tears. This has turned me into a pretty humorless guy at times. And I don't like it.

Of course, the end result is counterproductive. The ultimate outcome of all this is that kids don't like school, and when they're unhappy to be at school that just feeds into the behavioral problems. And the whole experience is even less enjoyable for the teacher.

What worries me the most though is that kids get turned off the whole idea of school at such a young age. And in all the talk of the achievement gap that focuses on test scores, people rarely discuss the environments themselves beyond materials and infrastructure. The fact is, most of our country's poorest kids spend their days immersed in tedious and rigid environments that middle and upper class parents would never allow their kids to experience. The result is a deficit in social experiences and emotional developments equally profound as the academic achievement gap.

But let's end this all on a high note. Today I had a chance to try out the alternative. The kids were asked to turn what they'd learned about the water cycle into a poster, a play, a song, a dance or a story. The results were great. The kids were creative and they got the information right. Most importantly, they had fun. I'm looking forward to having more of it over the next two months.


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