Serious Fun?

The shrill whistle pierced the humid August air, and the ten players, all African American high school students, gathered around the referee. The ref pointed to a young man who was wearing a t-shirt.

“Malik, here’s the word. ‘Ambiguous.’ Define it and use it in a sentence.”  Serious Fun?

The young man did so in a strong voice, and the ref called over to the scorer’s desk, “That’s a point for the shirts.”  Then he turned to the other team (the skins), picked out a player, and gave him a word, “Optimism.”

When the player confused the noun with the adjective, the ref turned to a player on the shirts, who gave the correct answer.  “Another point for the shirts,” the ref called.  “Now let’s play ball.”

At least a dozen times during that game the ref, a 30-something English teacher named David Felsen, stopped play for vocabulary.  As I recall, the ‘vocabulary points’ amassed by the shirts provided the margin of victory.

I say ‘as I recall’ because that game took place 25 years ago on a basketball court at a Friends School in Philadelphia.  David Felsen, the man who created that program, went on to become Headmaster of the school.  When he left to lead another school, the summer games continued—as they do even now.  The rules for Felsen’s summer program were simple: do the reading and other homework if you want to play basketball.  Skip the homework, and you sit out the game. Define the words correctly, and your team gets points.  Over the years the intervention worked: dozens and dozens of young African American boys from inner city Philadelphia went on to college, perhaps with basketball scholarships, perhaps not.

That program’s genius was that it met kids where they were—in this case, they were mad for basketball.  It recognized that kids love to play and compete. They’ll study in order to get on the court, and, once on the court, they’ll do their best to ‘score’ by knowing the words.  Nobody wants to be embarrassed publicly or to let the team down.  Moreover, the rewards were immediate: no waiting around for the results of machine-scored tests.

Children learn valuable lessons—not vocabulary or math–by playing games. A 7th grader who was playing on an organized team for the first time told me about her team’s success.  “It’s like our team did really good so far this season and we’re just getting ready for the championship.  Now, we want to win it, so we still know we have a lot of work to do and it’s not been easy getting here, but it feels really good, and I think it feels really good because we know we have actually worked together to do this.”

The best games teach teamwork and cooperation.  Children like that 7th grader learn that their chances of winning improve when they work together.  Play is natural, but children also seem to know intuitively that play is serious fun.

Sneaking education into summer games is one thing, but can games, and the spirit of games, be made essential to education in genuine system-changing ways? Can schools meet kids where they are and devise ways to take them to places that we, as adults, know they need to be?

Bringing games and competition into classes with spelling bees and math Olympiads works, but in my experience many teachers trivialize games and score-keeping by giving points for good behavior and taking away points for misdeeds. Texas pioneered “No Pass, No Play” rules, setting an academic bar for varsity sports, but that’s working from the negative. And a lot of what happens now in schools is basically a ‘gotcha’ game in which deficiencies and shortcomings are identified.

Should school be serious fun? If so, how? Need rules, a way to keep score, a referee, reasonably high stakes, genuine results, meaningful competition, teamwork—and fun.  I don’t know the answers, but I hope you agree that the questions are worth pondering.

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One Response to “Serious Fun?”

  1. Steve Peha 30. Jun, 2009 at 1:09 pm #

    Can school be fun? School has to be fun. But the fun cannot be added on – like a party or a field trip or an occasional game. The fun can’t be icing on the cake; it has to be baked in.

    For example, when we teach reading and writing using the Reader’s and Writer’s workshop model, the fun just oozes out. It’s fun to share your writing with an audience and to hear what others are writing. It’s fun to read books you like and to talk about them with other readers. And it’s a lot of fun watching your teacher model all the things he wants you to do – and sometimes make mistakes in the process.

    What’s not fun? Using a textbook. Doing test prep activities. Having no choices over what you study. Being told again and again that you’re a bad student because you keep getting Ds and Fs because the material you’re studying is way above your grade level and there’s no differentiated instruction going on.

    Learning, as a natural human experience, is inherently fun. It’s the traditions of school that take the fun out. It’s the mindless focus on product over process and participation that takes the fun out. It’s discovering that school is not about you that takes the fun out. It’s teachers, who have been robbed of the fun of teaching, that takes the fun out.

    Fun is not just a luxury; it’s an essential. Long-term learning requires long-term memory. And long-term memory requires the involvement of strong human emotions. All we have to do to understand this is to look back at our own school days. Some classes were fun; some weren’t. Which do we remember and rely on today? (Hint: we tend only to remember those experiences that were emotional.)

    Mostly what kids enjoy is just what we all enjoy: the thrill of independence and running their own show; the ability to watch their own learning improve through meaningful self-assessment; the attainment of worthy goals; purposeful work at the right level of challenge; healthy social interaction with peers.

    That today’s schools provide so little of this – and even less with each passing year – should tell us that we’re moving in the wrong direction. Even if test scores rise, learning may not. Why? Because with all the emphasis on test preparation, teachers focus on cramming kids for short-term memory exercises. The idea of raising lifelong learners has been replaced by the notion of prepping for tests.

    We know how to make school fun. There are many wonderful professional books that provide explicit instruction for teachers about this very topic. But we are choosing to create a school experience that is dreary and meaningless by the instructional choices we make every day.

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