Saturday, April 30, 2011

Make It Fun And Give Them What They Can Do

(The soap dispenser in the trailer I covered a class in.  Most conditions are not as bad as they used to be, but other things  never change.)

The kids in the English class don't like school much and some can't read or write very well, but the teacher is great and is managing to make progress with them.  He read some def jam poetry with them, which the kids loved, and then had them write their own, focusing on the neighborhoods they live in.  He helped them clean up their spelling and their grammar (without losing integrity of their poem) and hung the poems in the classroom.  He found a fun way to get them to learn.

I covered an ESL class for a friend last week.  He told the kids to find a partner and pair up.  (The math teacher in me had to go through odd and even numbers and divisibility, giving them English terms for concepts they already knew.)  Their assignment was to create a dialog between a student and a teacher, where the student would be asking for a higher report card grade.  The kids seemed interested, but as soon as he left the room, they became kids again and tried to avoid the assignment.  I quickly picked up my camera and pointed it at the boy who thought he would be getting away with a card game.  I said, "I don't know your name, but the camera doesn't lie."  The cards went away and the work began.  I was in awe as I watched this group of ninth and tenth graders working together, looking up words and putting them down on paper.  I wondered why they never did the same during math.  And then it occurred to me, they were having fun!  

A writing assignment in an English class is something everyone can do.  There are no wrong answers.  While previous knowledge is required, it is knowledge they have.  You can't do this in math.  I'm not saying writing is easy, or that the work will be masterful, but it is approachable.

I heard the Principal say he needed to find out why some kids behave better in some classes than others.  I think I've stumbled upon an answer and that is the ability to have fun and succeed, to do both at the same time.  I've seen art projects kids do for English and I've heard about the movies they watch.  We can't do those things.  While math is fun for the teacher, and we try to make it fun for the kids, the bottom line is that it is work, work that cannot be disguised.  Math has no gray areas of right or wrong.  The misspelled word in an essay is not the same as a misplaced decimal point.

I should have been an English teacher.

1 comment:

NYC English Teacher said...

It's funny--as an English teacher, I often have the opposite thought. My students have a tendency to write off activities for my class because it's sometimes fun. I hear things like, "Miss, I'm just not feeling this book." "Miss, I don't like reading." They think that if they aren't enjoying a fun activity, they should be excused from it, and can't see why that's a problem. I have to remind them that, while I would obviously love it if they enjoyed my class, the assigned reading/art project/video/whatever is still classwork. (I'm sure those same kids try to blow off their math work, but they at least understand that that might be a problem for them.)

Couching skills in creative projects sometimes disguises what they students are learning to the extent that they really struggle to talk about what they can do or have learned. And then there's the issue of nuts and bolts versus big ideas--do we focus on delving into literature, or on drilling vocab, grammar, and essay writing? It's easy to wind up doing an insufficient amount of both. This year I have planned six completely different classes from scratch, with projects ranging from novel writing, online cultural exchange, film analysis, acting projects, character trading cards, and more...and frequently, I've had students roll their eyes at me and say, "Why can't you just give us questions to answer?" or "This is English class, we shouldn't be drawing/acting/whatever?"

So, I totally get the "grass is always greener" thing. It would be a lot easier to assess my students against standards if things in my subject were as black and white as in math. A lot of things would be a lot easier if I were a math teacher; but of course, a lot of other things would be a lot harder. I would love to do a week of flipped teaching, where I covered a math class and a colleague from the math department covered mine (obviously with some mutual assistance in the content department). It would be interesting to see how the two different styles of teaching translated into different disciplines.