Archive for the ‘fun in learning’ Category


I’m A Grownup And It Makes Me Crazy To Be Treated Like A Child Who Doesn’t Know Who She Is Or What She Wants.*

April 12, 2011

I was the kind of kid that had some talents or ability, but it never came out in school. • Francis Ford Coppola

In my experience, school is mostly about teachers telling students they’re not smart, they can’t learn, or they didn’t do it right, and proving it through tests and dozens of other classroom interactions that show students who’s boss. • Pam Parshall, former community college instructor and student advocate, 2005

My mother loved learning, but she hated school. She read voraciously and kept current on what was happening in the world until her death at age 89. She philosophized and enjoyed talking about big ideas. She was a talented musician who began playing the piano by ear before she started kindergarten, her skill discovered after one of her older sister’s piano lessons when my mother sat at the piano and began to play the exercise her sister Mildred was supposed to be learning, but couldn’t master. My aunt hated piano lessons and quit shortly afterward. My mother became the teacher’s youngest pupil.

For more than two decades, I’ve been asking people when learning was fun for them, and here’s what my mother told me in 2001 when I asked her:

I just survived school. It had nothing whatsoever to do with who I wanted to be. My life in school was always about who and what I should be and keeping me pointed in that direction. You’re young and you don’t know better, so you buy into it, and even though you’re doing well, you know in your heart you’re not making the grade.

She went on to describe how little recognition her years in school provided for the things she had talents for or was interested in and how much of her time was focused instead on what she didn’t do well, but would need, teachers told her, in some ill-defined future that didn’t bear any resemblance to what she envisioned for her life. “I struggled with many traditional school subjects, always being told I would need those things to be successful in life, but I never did,” she said.

Throughout the Second World War she supported herself with her music. As a single mother after her first divorce, she supported the two of us with her music. Her music allowed her to remain in her dream house after she and my stepfather divorced. It was her music that kept her moving forward many months after doctors predicted she would be dead. It was her music that was her gift to the world, that brought her a lifetime of joy. “This is something I do well. I know my music touches people,” she told me as she shared stories of people she’d connected with because of her talent.

My mother could never understand how I could go back to school again and again as an adult. “I’d never survive,” she told me. Sometimes I’m surprised I survived it too. Sometimes I’m not sure that I did. It is hard to stay grounded in the possibility of what school can be when you are surrounded by messages of multiple kinds communicating what it is not.

I was recently in a meeting where one of the values I didn’t check on a “good work”-related list was honesty. In the subsequent conversation, I realized why. I do value honesty—although not the for-your-own-good-and-needlessly-cruel-kind—but when it comes to school, I am often not honest. I have more often been compliant, my smiling acquiescence masking an unruly brain trying to figure out how to bend the system to engage my interests. This is not always possible, and as a teacher I appreciate the difficulties inherent in truly addressing the idiosyncratic needs of individual students, so I do not fault my own teachers.

When you’re an adult and you go back to school, your expectations are colored by the years you’ve previously spent in classrooms. If those experiences were positive, or if you’re a person who doesn’t really mind being part of a system—“just tell me what to do and I’ll do it”—perhaps you don’t mind being an adult student in systems often designed primarily for those who transition seamlessly from high school to college. But if you’ve had some life experience, if you’ve discovered for yourself that some of what you were told by your teachers about “real life” is actually myth, if you previously resented being cooped up in a classroom where your interests were seldom considered, you may be disappointed, disheartened, resentful, and recalcitrant when you encounter more of the same.

You may want to know why you should put up with more of what you know will likely prove to be myth as well. You may believe that this time—when you’re paying—the experience should help you become what you want to be, not what a system thinks you should be. You may want to focus on what you’ve discovered interests you. You may actually believe that you know what is best for you.

I am a teacher. I love my work. I believe in the possibilities of school. I believe in the power of education to change people’s lives. I cherish every educator I know who longs for her or his classroom to offer opportunities for true intellectual engagement coupled with recognition of individual interests and talents. But sometimes I am reminded of how much there is to do to achieve this dream in every classroom and how inadequate I am, even in my own. I want to make a difference, but I am overwhelmed by how much I cannot do. If she were reading this, my mother would tell me that it doesn’t matter what I cannot do. What matters is that I keep doing what I can, no matter how imperfect.

What difference do you want to make? What keeps you motivated to keep trying?

School was the unhappiest time of my life and the worst trick it ever played on me was to pretend that it was the world in miniature. For it hindered me from discovering how lovely and delightful and kind the world can be, and how much of it is intelligible. • E.M. Forster, British author whose epigraph to his 1910 novel, Howard’s End, is “Only connect.”

In total, I can say that I learned nothing in any school that I attended and see no point in mentioning places where my body sat at a desk and my soul was elsewhere. I wrote some poems in high school but stopped when my mother suggested that I had plagiarized them. • Anne Sexton, from her “Resume 1965,” found among her papers by her daughter

School, I never truly got the knack of. I could never focus on things I didn’t want to learn. • Leonardo DiCaprio

* The title quotation is from an adult student who asked to remain anonymous, commenting on her experiences in college and being told by her advisor that he knew what was best for her, 2009.


If They Give You Lined Paper, Write The Other Way *

July 11, 2010

A box of new crayons!  Now they’re all pointy, lined up in order, bright and perfect.  Soon they’ll be a bunch of ground down, rounded, indistinguishable stumps, missing their wrappers and smudged with other colors.  Sometimes life seems unbearably tragic. • Bill Watterson

In my imagined memories I assert myself, tell my teachers no, refuse to do more of the same-old-thing, confess my ignorance, celebrate my strengths. In reality, I did none of these things. I was physically visible in my beautiful-to-me outfits, but I was intellectually invisible. What good were brains?

I hated school. Even to this day when I see a school bus it’s just depressing to me. The poor little kids. • Dolly Parton

Ranting digression: The start of school is on my mind because stores are getting ready for day one before I’ve even finished my final day. I’m still teaching. June is too early to start getting the shelves full of school supplies, but they were already appearing. July arrived and red-white-blue was quickly replaced by the colors of back-to-school. This happens every year, and while I can live with turkeys in August and Santa in September, there’s something about pencils and crayons and rulers and lined paper and bottles of glue and all the rest of it lining July shelves that irks me.

Certain peer pressures encourage little fingers to learn how to hold a football instead of a crayon.  Rumors circulate around the schoolyard:  kids who draw or wear white socks and bring violins to school on Wednesdays might have cooties.  I confess to having yielded to these pressures.  • Chris Van Allsburg

Thinking and asking questions only got me in trouble in school and at home. I learned my lessons well just like thousands of other children will learn or have confirmed this year when school starts again. They’ll comply, think convergently, take tests, raise their hands before talking, line up quietly, follow the rules, and learn to play all the games that adults believe good little girls and boys need to know in order to make it through life.

But I hope that they’ll also learn other things. How to think for themselves. How to have ideas. How to question accepted truth. How to ferret out lies. How to create, whether it’s with words or music or movement or with all the marvelous hands-on stuff the world is full of. How to appreciate themselves and how to appreciate others. How to find joy in little things. How to be optimistic and realistic at the same time. How to be themselves and revel in it.

Actually, all education is self-education.  A teacher is only a guide, to point out the way, and no school, no matter how excellent, can give you education.  What you receive is like the outlines in a child’s coloring book.  You must fill in the colors yourself. • Louis L’Amour

What do you hope children will learn in school this fall?

You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him [or her] to learn by creating curiosity, s/he will continue the learning process as long as s/he lives.• Clay P. Bedford

* This quotation is attributed to both Juan Ramon Ramirez and William Carlos Williams, so I provide both.


If I Were Queen Of Education, There Would Be Only Two Grades: Cares Or Doesn’t Care

July 1, 2010

There is, in the act of preparing, the moment when you start caring. • Winston Churchill

Whether you are a student or a teacher or an employee or a parent or a partner or any one of thousand other roles that each of us plays daily, you have to care about what you do if you want to produce good work. You have to love your work—not in the sense that every moment of your engagement with whatever it is that you have to do will bring you unbridled joy—but with an acceptance and a level of involvement that acknowledge its importance in your life.

I’m a teacher. I can tell when students hand in done-on-the-bus work, the kind of stuff that’s cobbled together at the last minute with little thought given to its creation. I’ve written about this before. It brings me no joy to receive this kind of work and even less joy to assess it. Sometimes this worth•less work even meets all the requirements and thus, my assessment can’t be too harsh. The work is likely to pass. But it still makes me sad.

I understand that there is meaning•less work distributed in classrooms all over the world. I understand that students don’t see the point of many things that they are asked to do. Sometimes there are assignments that don’t seem to have much of a point, although if you asked the teacher, there may well be a rationale. As a student, I’ve been asked to do some things that I consider hoopjumping, but I’ve also turned many of those hoops into opportunities to expand the possibilities of exploration in ways that please me and that make what might seem to be an empty exercise into something I cared about and was proud of when I finished.

You can do this too. School or work or parenting or whatever it is that you must do in life is always offering you the opportunity for authentic and enthusiastic engagement. Most teachers won’t tell you this explicitly, but they’re hoping you’ll get it. It’s the secret at the heart of lifelong learning. So your teachers create activities and assignments, design scoring guides, and try to provide helpful guidelines, but they’re also imagining that at least some of you will see beyond these things into the real purpose of education: making your life better, richer, more meaningful.

I’m teaching summer courses and in my on-campus courses everyone is completing a complex yet useful assignment as a major part of the requirements, a plan for their first five days of school. The class includes students who’ve had courses with me before and those who haven’t. Those who haven’t are nervous. What do I want? What will please me? One of the students who’s had other courses with me articulated my philosophy better than I could have. Here’s the essence of Jim Janousek’s comments to the class:

Read the assignment, get the gist of it (what’s the purpose of what you’re being asked to do?), and then produce something that you can use in your classroom (I am teaching teachers right now, but this applies to other student experiences as well—I’ve used much of my undergraduate work as the basis for my professional work). I stress: do something that you can use!

This takes away the anxiety of the assignment and makes it more fun when you’re thinking about implementing those ideas in your own classroom. (There are times when I have very specific goals for students and I am explicit about them, but often the guidelines I provide are simply meant to be helpful for those who don’t have ideas yet about how they want to proceed. I always welcome thoughtful alternatives and suggestions from students.)

What works for you, works for Zinn! (If your intentionality shines through, it’s likely that I will be delighted.)

As long as you put thought and time into your assignment, remember Zinn’s grading scale is cares or doesn’t care. (You got it, Jim!)

What do you need to care about?

We are all functioning at a small fraction of our capacity to live fully in its total meaning of loving, caring, creting, and adventuring. Consequently, the actualizing of our potential can become the most exciting adventure of our lifetime. • Herbert A. Otto


When I Was Having That Alphabet Soup, I Never Thought That It Would Pay Off.*

April 30, 2010

Why is the alphabet in that order? Is it because of that song? The guy who wrote that song wrote everything.
• Stephen Wright

I colllect alphabet books. It might seem as though they would be similar, but they are actually extremely varied. Playing with the twenty-six letters that form words in English provides countless brainplay opportunities:


Oh, fudge, these alphabetical things almost always fall apart at xyz, don’t they? But that’s the advantage of doing this sort of thing. I know now, although I cannot currently use it, that xanthous means having yellow or red hair and that a xebec is a small three-masted pirate ship. I am equally fascinated to learn that when I am gracious to my visitors, my hospitality is xenial.

But perhaps my favorite x word is xenodochelonology or the love of hotels. Not one I’d like to encounter in a spelling bee. I’ll be staying at a motel tonight. I wonder if that counts and if I can work this into the conversation when I leave: “Thanks for your graciousness and for the clean sheets and tiny bottles of shampoo and conditioner. They have increased my xendochelonology!”

And while I’m thanking people or things, thanks to for their exceedingly thorough lists. This site is a real boon for Scrabble® players too. A phrontistery is a place of learning; I work at one and didn’t even know it.

“lol this isent me cheating on my HomeWork or anything this is me challenging the minds of young Yahoo people” someone on Yahoo Answers claims about a query looking for synonyms to replace boring words. I say good for them and good for you if you use online tools to improve your writing. If I were being really diligent this morning, I’d hunt for replacements for those two goods.

I love dictionaries—it’s relaxing to page through them, but you probably have to be a logophile to want to do this. Hunting for specific words online is more likely to help most folks improve their vocabulary.

And so it goes. I have not nagged about vocabulary for weeks. Weeks! Have you been adding five new words to your vocabulary each week? Five new words a month? One new word since last I wrote about it? It’s never too late to turn over a new leaf—or turn to a new page in the dictionary—and begin.

Come on—make me happy. Learn five new words this week and use them in your everyday conversation. Just imagine the self-satisfaction that will accompany this feat! You’ll feel a humongous sense of pride and accomplishment! Small children will throw rose petals at your feet and a chorus of chanting cartwheelers will follow you about, praising your name! Perhaps.

We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.
• Booker T. Washington

* Vanna White is the abecedarian whom we can credit with the title quotation.


There Are No Rules Here—We’re Trying to Accomplish Something!*

April 25, 2010

Beaver: The rules are a lot easier on grownups than they are on little boys.
Wally: Sure they are, Beave. The grownups make the rules.
• Leave It to Beaver, Season One, 1957

You’re a grownup. What rules have you created for your life? What do you do and refuse to do? Why? What rules do you believe other people should observe? I’ve been going through 3×5 cards looking for quotations to include on my summer syllabi and found this list of rules:

Living Wisdom School Rules

1) Enjoy yourself.
2) Practice kindness.
3) Choose happiness.
4) Be a loving friend.
5) Laugh often.
6) Trust yourself.
7) Find the joy within.
8) Use your will to create good energy. (I have an 8 here as in the numeral eight, following the numeral 7, but I see on looking at this post that it turns into a smiley face, and thus I am reminded that computers are mindless hunks of junk good only when I direct their doings.)

I Googled® Living Wisdom School to find out more. These are rules I could live by. These are rules I already try to live by. According their website (see, the slogan of the Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California, is “Where Learning and Joy Come Together.” As a fun researcher, I was delighted to read further and discover this: “Our success is based on a tested principle: when children are happy, they approach learning with enthusiasm.” Indeed. Isn’t this true for pretty much everyone?

The LWS rules leave room for diversity, for creativity, for idiosyncracy, for individualizing, quite different from the kinds of rules often found in schools and other public spaces. As one of my students observed last year, “Is there anything more constrictive to learning and creativity than a room where the walls are plastered with what you cannot do?”

Yet as William Howard Taft, twenty-seventh President of the United States and our tenth Chief Justice—the only person to hold both offices—said, “No tendency is quite so strong in human nature as the desire to lay down rules of conduct for other people.” Sometimes we even create rules we can’t follow ourselves. Anyone who’s ever observed a group of teachers knitting, whispering, grading papers, passing notes, reading, and otherwise paying zero attention at a faculty meeting knows this.

What we would like to have happen is often far removed from what is realistically likely to happen, whether it’s in a classroom or at home or in line at the DMV. The Living Wisdom rules are appealing in part because they are positive, although they would take deliberate and ongoing attention to achieve. They’re all things that sound worthwhile—and easy—until you try to live them daily. I know because I try. The truth is, rules are no easier for grownups than they are for little boys.

Marilyn Monroe said that if she’d observed all the rules, she’d never have gotten anywhere. What rules have you questioned or broken? Why? What rules would you institute if you were designing a school to nurture the joys of creative learning (or whatever it is that your educational goals would be)? The Living Wisdom rules were stated in twenty-five words. Can you state yours in twenty-five words or less?

Freedom requires that you discover your own inner language—your own life rules—your own vision.
• Zephyr Bloch-Jorgensen

Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible—the kind of atmosphere that is found in an nurturing family.
• Virgina Satir

* Thanks to Thomas Alva Edison for the title quotation.


Sightseeing in the Meat Department, or Why I Won’t Go Grocery Shopping Alone

April 22, 2010

Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.
• Plato
, Ion

I am an introvert. I enjoy my colleagues, I love being with my family and friends, and I like teaching and the students with whom I work, but I also need lots of time alone to corral the herds of thoughts that are always trampling through my head. Despite this need for solitude, there are some things I just don’t like to do alone. Grocery shopping is one of them. My distaste for doing this chore by myself has its origins in a memory recently resurrected when I found this poem in a box of baby pictures:

• by W-OZ, written many years ago in the backseat of my in-laws’ car

The preacher waits in the car for Gladys
who’s never learned to drive
and is too old now to learn new tricks.
It doesn’t matter where they go or
what they need:
socks or underwear or trousers or
new cushions for the sofa or
a gooseneck lamp for his study
or maybe two fried fish specials
from the Shrimp Boat on Watson Boulevard.

He’ll stay in the car thank you very much,
settling into
toetapping kneejuggling knucklepopping
impatience before the wait begins.
Today, we’re in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot and
I’m just along for the ride.

“Take your time,” he tells her,
although she knows he doesn’t mean it,
“Get what you want. You cook it; I’ll eat it,”
rejecting her pleas for his companionship,
turning his gaze away from her lonely eyes,
as he grabs the
Macon Telegraph and News
May 2, three months old,
crumpled on the floorboard next to me,
discarded wrapping from the African violet
she delivered alone
to Miss Ludie’s hospital bed.

He smooths it out and starts to read,
leaving her to hurry in and
worry her way quickly up and down the aisles,
short legs moving swiftly as I trail along behind,
forehead creased with anxiety over their three-meals-a-day,
wondering if he’d like black-eyed peas or okra,
and finally buying both.

And in the backseat as we leave the parking lot,
I vow that I will never
no not ever
live together, yet alone.

My husband and I hunt together for our food, wandering up and down the aisles, asking each other whether we are running low on cinnamon or linguine or marinated artichoke hearts, sightseeing in the meat department, wondering who will pay fifty dollars for a pork loin and why those uncooked roasts are sold pre-sliced, but knowing someone must be buying them because there they are, every time.

When I was in school, this was a date night activity, time to be together doing something that had to be done. We had—and still have—fun doing it, turning the mundane into a companionable activity. I recommend this strategy whether or not you’re in school, whatever the task. Julie Andrews, in her Mary Poppins (1964) incarnation, said, “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and—SNAP—the job’s a game!”

When life is busy, you have to take your fun where you can find it.

How do you add fun to your life? Try writing about it and turning your words into a poem to help you remember.

Words form the thread on which we string our experiences.
• Aldous Huxley

Poetry is life distilled.
• Gwendolyn Brooks


The True Object of All Human Life Is Play.*

April 19, 2010

Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.
•Diane Ackerman

I laughed my way through several committee meetings on Friday. Back-to-back meetings for several hours. It could have been torturous, but because of the various groups of people I was with, it wasn’t. I could have left campus bogged down and tired, but I didn’t. I felt energized. There is a lesson to be learned here for students.

There are study group sessions that suck the success right out of you, so boring and humorless that you no longer even care if you learn anything from the experience. There are study group sessions that waste your time when they devolve into giggling goofiness without purpose. And then there are the sessions that blend fun and camaraderie with seriousness. It might seem that fun has no place in a gathering devoted to test prep or peer editing or presentation planning or whatever it is the group’s meeting for, but shared fun is a powerful way to create cohesiveness within a group.

The degree to which playfulness becomes part of the process will depend on the group’s task. Memorizing complex formulas is likely to call for more seriousness than planning an engaging presentation.

When I teach a creativity course, I ask my students to reframe their instructions to students, asking them to “play around with” something rather than “work on it.” This simple twist of words can alleviate stress. Certainly the teacher needs to make sure that what students are playing with are the requisite ideas, but permission to play often frees new pathways in the brain.

One of the books on my shelves of favorites is Anne Bruce and James S. Pepitone’s (1999) book, Motivating Employees. I find lots of wisdom applicable to education in things written for business and I especially like Bruce and Pepitone’s list of the “10 Characteristics of Fun” (p. 91):

1)    Humor alleviates stress and tension.
2)    Fun improves communication.
3)    Fun eases conflict
4)    Laughter can help us survive.
5)    Laughing at yourself is the highest form of humor.
6)    Laughter has a natural healing power.
7)    Humor helps lighten the load.
8)    Fun unites people.
9)    Fun breaks up boredom and fatigue.
10)    Fun creates energy.

I’ve experienced the truth of these things in my own personal and professional life, most recently on Friday during a stretch of potentially boring meetings made delightful by the presence of others willing to laugh and take lightly—yet seriously—the tasks we faced.

In my research into fun in learning, I’ve found that the coin of fun has two sides: one is playfulness and the other is deeply serious engagement in whatever it is that needs to be done. This seemingly paradoxical duality has to be experienced before you can fully understand it.

Have you ever had fun while accomplishing a serious or meaningful or difficult task?

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father.
• Roger von Oech

* Thanks to G.K. Chesterton for the title quotation.