Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Real Life For Which We Prepare Children

Not long ago, I posted links to my "greatest hits" based on readership statistics. Jeanne from Zella Said Purple then asked me if there were any posts that I wished had enjoyed a larger readership when they were originally published. This is one of those, originally published in December, 2010 under the title If It's Not Fun You're Not Doing It Right. The photos are from before we moved to our current space.

I'm not going to say I regret taking 9 credit hours of calculus during my freshman year in college, but after all the struggle to get that information stuffed into my 18-year-old head, the only thing that stuck through the next 30 years is the concept of a number that approaches zero, but never reaches it. It's a good thing to think about, all right, especially when I consider the line it makes on a chart, becoming increasingly steep, while describing a Kafaesque metaphor of never quite making it to the place it wants to go. Quite a useful thing in its way.

The tests I took during that first quarter of study judged my learning in calculus to be a "C," a grade to which I'd never heretofore descended. My friend Renae was taking these courses with me because it was required to earn the business degree toward which she was working, but I doggedly pushed on simply out of the ingrained idea that a well-rounded student studied math, although I did switch the grading to Pass/No Pass, protecting that precious GPA. But it wasn't just math. I told myself I needed to keep my finger in the sciences, history, English, and PE, balancing my schedule each term with a dab of each, playing the proper role of student, as I saw it, being an empty vessel to be filled only to pour it out on test days, then blithely going about my merry way to do some real learning in the life I lead outside of school.

I was good at the game, as I've written before, and some of it stuck. I'm still a voracious reader of novels written before 1950, for instance, a passion I picked up while pursuing a minor in English. Details of what I learned about the Byzantine Empire pop into my head from time to time, especially when I consider politics and the direction of the American Empire. I still try to provoke real physicists when I run into them at cocktail parties with my amateur theories about how the universe works, the fundaments of which were developed while taking a course with the intriguing title The Theory of Everything for Non-Science Majors. From where I sit today, I can hardly say I learned anywhere close to "everything" they were trying to teach me, but I did manage to retain just enough of it at just the right times to avoid another "C."

Thank god, no one is expecting me, as a preschool teacher, to adhere to this "empty vessel" model of education. I really want my kids to learn, not just retain. Yesterday, I wrote about one of my methods for assessing children, in this case involving spinning tops, but it really could have been about anything we do. I suspect I'm like most of my preschool teacher colleagues in that I am constantly taking stock of what we're doing and where the children are both as individuals and as a group, making adjustments and amendments, or even outright junking things that don't seem to be engaging the kids. In many ways, this entire blog is about what some people call "reflective practice," whereby I just kind of spew out my classroom assessments, edited, of course, for public consumption. It's never about judging the kids in the style of traditional grading and testing, but rather about improving my understanding of where they are so that I can help them take the mental, emotional, or physical leaps they need to take in order get to where they're going. I'm grateful that no one is asking me to grade or test or in some way rank these kids because there simply is no way to get there from here -- it's a concept that simply does not compute at Woodland Park with its cooperative model and play-based curriculum.

Earlier this week, my friend Juliet from I'm A Teacher, Get Me OUTSIDE Here! came across the word "fun" in a curriculum document she was reading. It popped out at her because she couldn't recall having ever before run across that particular word in that context. Now, I'll confess here and now that my job is nearly 100 percent fun, but Juliet's discovery made me realize how rarely I say that aloud, subconsciously worried, I suppose, that the more serious people in the world will then think it must therefore be easy and not worthwhile. I'm not the only one. I've noticed that dancers, musicians, and athletes rarely talk about their work as fun either, although, my god, it has to be. All they talk about is their "hard work" and "dedication." It's almost as if we feel that taking money for doing something we enjoy is somehow akin to stealing. It seems that teachers avoid that word because, after all, how can the children be learning anything if it isn't hard and boring, as if hard and boring have value, while fun doesn't.

Most often, when someone argues in favor of the empty vessel approach to education, they do so by insisting that it's "good for kids" to learn how to slog through dull, irrelevant coursework, even while admitting that little of the specific knowledge will be retained. This is somehow a preparation for life? I'm here to tell you that in the 30 odd years since I was last in school, I've never once had to slog through crap except when it was purely about money, infirmity, or death. Is that what these people are saying? Are they telling me that a teacher's job is to prepare children for a world in which they must sacrifice fun at the alter of their personal finances and poor health? Sometimes, sure, when that nightmare-provoking fear of not having enough is upon us, or when death and pain stalk us or our loved ones, we sometimes have to wade through to get beyond, but it's never dull or irrelevant.

I've worked very hard and learned many things during the past 3 decades since I've been out of school, none of it boring, most of it fun. If my 17+ years of schooling was supposed to prepare me for dealing with the dull and irrelevant life ahead, it was preparation for something that doesn't exist.

We all have to get out of bed in the morning and sometimes, for all of us, it's the fear that does it. But it only works for so long, because fear is that line approaching but never reaching zero, an incline that even the strongest and fittest are ultimately unable to climb. If this were the real world, we'd all just stay in bed all day.

Without fun, we learn nothing but harsh lessons. It's fun to satisfy our intellectual, emotional, and physical curiosities, in fact that's the only way we can do it. Fun is real. Fun is not frivolous, it's central. Fun is the most valuable thing there is. I'm here to tell you, if it's not fun, you're not doing it right.

My hope for the New Year is that it's the anticipation of fun that puts your feet on the floor each morning, because that's the real life for which we should be preparing our children.

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Meagan said...

See, I'm an athlete (or I have been) and an artist and a writer, but I wouldn't describe any of these things as fun. They ARE joyful, and that is why I do them. I can't quite put my finger on the difference, perhaps it is just one of definitions.

Michelle Walker said...

Albert Einstein said: "Creativity is intelligence having FUN!" I, too, am a teacher and although I am not currently in a classroom I view my job as creative, intellectual, fulfilling -exhausting at times- but, yes, it is fun! The joy of that "I got it!" moment, "playing" with numbers and words to find the best way for each student to learn. It is challenging, but it is fun! That is why I love to teach! And why I LOVE reading this blog each day! Thank you!

Katherine said...

Your "empty vessel" model is Paulo Freire's "banking" model, in which teachers deposit information into students' heads so that they can spit it out on exams like ATMs. What does it accomplish except the accumulation of "points" so that the student can get a certain grade? Excellent post. Thanks very much.