I was asked be be the guest blogger for the International Reading Association (IRA) last week. This is a reprint of my esteemed literary contribution.
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. However, 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.
Me, 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 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 learning 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 reached 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 work hard 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 academic 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.