Ts just wanna have fun

In a recent post we talked about using video in the classroom (and if it is inherently motivating or not) and I got some great responses. One of the key issues seemed to be about having fun in class (in addition to focus and motivation.) I am enjoying my new persona as a crusty curmudgeon who is against fun in the classroom so I thought I’d devote one more post to it. I was recently reminded of a conversation about fun and objectives that appears in The Skillful Teacher: Building Your Teaching SkillsIn the conversation the director of a lab elementary school talks about a just completed lesson with a teacher who is found head in hands in a room with photocopied paper turkeys (assuming that I am right in thinking “mimeographed” is the same as photocopied) strewn about. The students have been pasting squares of colored tissue paper to make Thanksgiving collages. The director asks the teacher what’s been going on and get’s the response, “It was an experience for the kids.” The conversation carries on from there…

Director: Why did you go to the trouble of mimeographing the turkeys? Why not just give them a piece of paper and let them be creative, express themselvess?

Teacher: It wasn’t that. It was really a lesson in eye-hand coordination.

Director: Well, then why didn’t you have them outline the turkey? You can’t tell whether they stayed within the line or not when they’ve got them pasted all over the turkey.

Teacher: Well, it really wasn’t that. It was a lesson in conservation.

Director: Conservation!

Teacher: Yes. The kids have been really very wastefull of past. So I was trying to teach them to put just a tiny piece of paste on.

Director: Then why didn’t you give them a piece of past, or a paper of paste, and see how much of their turkey they could finish before they ran out of paste? You can’t tell if there’s a cup of past under some of these turkeys.

Teacher: Oh, for cryin’ out loud, can’t kids just have fun?

Director: Sure they can have fun. What do your kids like to do?

Teacher: The thing they like to do best is just chase out on the school grounds.

Director: Why didn’t you take the last half hour and go around, supervise them while they chased, and you wouldn’t have this mess to clean up?
(page 398)

What strikes me most here (aside from how harsh directive the director is and how she says lots of things I personally don’t want to hear in feedback) is that the teacher is a bit fuzzy about her objectives and continually changes her mind about what is important before finally arriving at having “fun.”

Now, I don’t want to discount fun and I think that there are surely many benefits to having fun in class. Really. I guess my question is that if fun is the most important thing then why don’t we choose the most fun thing to do?

I realize that hangman is an easy target but it’s a pet peeve of mine so I will consider it here. Is it fun? I guess so, kind of. I guess it could be. I guess it could be more fun than a lot of things.  It could be more fun than  a lot of things that might go on in class.  Is there much learning going on? I don’t really think so. My thought at this very moment is that if we give up on learning and decide to simply have fun* that is fine and that is a choice that we might make as a teacher for a variety of reasons. That said, it might be better and more fun for students to chase each other around rather than paste turkeys to paper. Also, I suspect there might also be more fun things than watching a video clip selected by the teacher.

Anything I am missing?
Any thoughts?
Any hangman defenders out there?

*I do realize that it is very possible to mix the two and that fun and learning are not mutually exclusive.

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17 comments

  1. In Defence of Hangman

    Okay, I’ll bite. I’m going to try to defend Hangman.
    First of all, it depends a lot on the situation. Here’s a bad example: I’m teaching a group of middle school students who have been studying English for the last 10 years of their lives and I just want to kill 10 minutes. In this case, I would agree that Hangman has very little benefit for the students. It’s not even a spelling game (and I am all in favour of drilling spelling). A better activity might be a sentence or paragraph jumble race or a finish-the-story activity (or both combined).
    However, supposed I’m teaching a group of first graders who are just coming to grips with the alphabet or learning to read. Hangman is useful for alphabet review (ability to say the names of the letters), word recognition, and other skills like letter frequency/ likelihood of occurrence – all the ways to be successful at Hangman without actually learning English.
    Here’s another way I’ve used Hangman: in the middle of a lesson, students are trying to construct a grammatical sentence and are missing just one word (usually an auxiliary). Rather than give them the answer, I take 30 seconds out, draw the hangman on the board, and let them guess. It never takes more than 30 seconds, it’s easy to go back to the sentence with the word in place, and I haven’t just given them the answer. They might even remember it.
    Of course, I welcome disagreement and debate of this… and hope to be set right if there are aspects I have missed.

    • mikecorea

      Hello (not really) Anonymous Defender of Hangman,

      I think you (and Kevin after you) raise some really good points. I have seen the light and I can see that Hangman can be useful. As you know, I like to think about (and poke holes in) all the supposed rules of teaching and what people say teachers *should be doing. I guess the other side of it is thinking about the possible utility in things that dismissed long ago as “not my style” or “a waste of time.” As you say, “it depends on the situation.” Right. I think someone my distaste for Hangman clouded my judgment on this! 🙂

      I love how you explained your way of using Hangman in class (along with the assurance that it doesn’t’ take longer than 30 seconds!) and my take is that getting students to think about it rather than just telling them might make things a bit more “sticky” and I can surely see where you are coming from (if that matters).

      I guess my dislike of hangman comes from the fact that it is sooo popular and is such a thing to be done in language classes. I mean there has to be a reason it was noticeable enough to be banned in certain language schools! I guess that my main point is (or should be!) more about thinking about what is really fun and examining why we make the choices we do. Thanks so much for the thoughts! Much appreciated!

      • barryjameson

        Agree with you that both Anne and Kevin raise really good points. Always love how talented teachers can take something I hate (like hangman) and present it in a new light and approach it from a different angle. Might even make me reconsider using hangman at some point.. with the Anne and Kevin alterations, of course.

  2. Mayya Golitsyna

    Dear Mike,
    thank you very much for bringing u the question.
    Here is my opinion about fun in the classroom. I’ll give you two points of view, one of a learner and one of a teacher.
    As a learner.
    I don’t like having fun (playing games, watching cartoons without focus on difficult vocabulary, etc) in the class. For me fun is challenge. The class should be really difficult and should make me strive. Otherwise I don’t feel that I’m learning and I get bored as a result. But, surely, this is just my opinion and there are other students out there with different attitude to the issue.
    As a teacher.
    I think that teacher should think in terms of goals. As far as I can see, there are long-term goals:
    1) teach students to express in a language anything they want to express;
    2) help them reach goal 1) as effectively as possible.
    Now, if we assume that motivation boosts effectiveness, fun is often a means to reach goal 2). In particular students are motivated to attend lessons as they enjoy the class. And by attending the lessons they are more exposed to the language, so they learn more.
    But I believe that the real mastery of a teacher is to teach children enjoy the process of learning itself. I think that thrill which comes with success and amusement brought by discovery are much stronger stimulus than the prospect of getting hands dirty with clay and colors or singing a song.
    So fun can be different, and behind fun motivation stands.

    Hope that my answer would be interesting for you.

    Mayya

    P.S. Thank you very much for your blog. And please take into account that I’m just a beginner teacher. And I’ll also be extremely grateful for your feedback and any comments you can make about my language.

    • mikecorea

      Hello Mayya,

      Thanks so much for reading and for the comments here. I thought your comments were very interesting and helpful for me! It is great to “meet” you and I enjoyed checking out your blog as well. In the comments here I liked how you clearly articulated your beliefs about teaching/learning. I also really liked how you used your experience as a teacher and as a learner to help answer the questions about “fun.” You wrote, “For me fun is challenge. The class should be really difficult and should make me strive” and I think this is a very eloquent way of saying what I was thinking! You also made sure to mention that this is just your opinion and that other students might have different thoughts.

      Thanks again for stopping by and I am looking forward to more exchanges. 🙂

      Cheers,
      Mike

  3. barryjameson

    Fun? Hmmm, a topic close to my heart. I teach young learners, so I guess ‘fun’ is important to keep their attention. When I first started teaching I became an entertainer (to make up for lack of teacher training). This made me popular with kids, which in turn meant that my school were happy. Happy kids equals money. However, I don’t know how useful it was for the students. They may well have left with smiles on their faces, but having learned very little.

    I connected with the part you wrote about the teachers objectives being fuzzy. I think in my early days, I sometimes decided on the objective of the class after I taught it (to justify to myself what I did was good). Having fun is fine, but it needs to be used with lesson objectives always in mind. Plus, should learning always be fun? Challenging, enjoyable… yes. Fun, at appropriate times.

    As you say, if fun is the most important thing then why don’t we choose the most fun thing to do? We used to have snack parties in my school. Fun, yes. Learning objectives, zero.

    I guess when having fun it is also easy to go over the top (which I have been guilty of in the past). There is a fine line between fun and buffoonery.

    • mikecorea

      Hey Barry,

      Thanks so much for the comments.
      (For the non-Barry people that are reading this… Barry mentioned on Twitter than Hangman is banned at his school.)

      It seems like it is very easily to fall into edutainment with more of focus on the “tainment” and les son the “edu.” sometimes. I think your point about happy students (customers) meaning more money is a good one and something that we can’t easily ignore.

      I am amazed at all the great comments that I got on this post!
      (actually it’s a post I wasn’t super happy with but that is another story)
      One big takeaway is that “fun” and “motivation” are not so simple.

      I am a bit mixed up about all this at the moment but feeling like it is productive confusion!
      One thing that I keep coming back to is that “fun” can sometimes be the default or fallback reason for doing something.

      You wrote, “Having fun is fine, but it needs to be used with lesson objectives always in mind. Plus, should learning always be fun? Challenging, enjoyable… yes. Fun, at appropriate times.” This is very much in line with what I am thinking at the moment.

      Thanks for helping me see things more clearly.

      Cheers,
      Mike

      ps I can see a snack party being a super useful thing to do at times.

  4. haeundaelife

    Fun is critical. There I said it. Now, that being said, I don’t necessarily equate laughing and playing with fun. I have quite a fun time reading foreign policy journals. An activity that would bore many of my friends and family to tears.

    I say this all because I think the most important job for a language teacher is to create an inviting, fun atmosphere where students feel comfortable and confident to step outside their comfort zone. I rarely play games in my class, at least the typical games that come to mind when the word “game” is uttered. I rarely use videos (although I do like to use video and music – think its an important media from which to learn – and would use it more frequently if the reliability of the technology I have to work with didn’t vary from room to room and week to week). 90% of the time its me, the kids, and my chalkboard.

    I know what you’re thinking, “that John must be one dour stick in the mud. I’d hate to be one of his students,” but I can promise you this is not so. I have gotten to know my students as well as I can (considering I have nearly 1000). They know me. They know I am approachable. They know I expect them to try and if they do they will probably laugh at one point or another during our time.

    I have middle schoolers and for Korea that means a regimented schedule of work and demands. I see my kids for 45 minutes once a week. 35-40 per class. Teachers tell me they look consistently look forward to my class because I 1) believe in them 2) have them do things other teachers don’t 3) my class is more fun than others. (Now, of course they could be blowing smoke up my ass, but honestly, most of the time most of the kids generally seem to enjoy our time).

    A personal anecdote. Remembering my time in school. It wasn’t the funnest teacher, or my favorite classes that I most often enjoyed. It was the teacher who could stir my brain muscles. I hated math my whole life until senior year of high school. My teacher at the time had us working on things that were different from the usual math class, and interesting!, and then we had fun studying and BAM!!! I learned more than I ever though I could in math and truly enjoyed myself whilst doing it.

    PS. I have taught for a year and a half and have never once played hangman. I have thought it a point of personal pride. That being said, I love Anne’s defense of it. For in the right situation it could be well utilized in an effective and productive manner.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the thoughts and clear articulations of your beliefs John.

      I also liked how you shared your experiences as both a teacher and as a learner as a basis for the above beliefs.

      You know what? I often say that the “native teacher experiment” in Korea is not super successful but your comments here give me some hope. Thanks. Your students’ reactions to your class give me reason for such hope.

      Your comments also reminded me of something that might be connected. If the default mode is a teacher fronted lecture (which there is also a time and place for I suppose) then hangman is probably pretty darn fun.
      Of course I don’t mean to suggest that your classes are not really fun but are just fun as compared to the normal classes! 🙂

      Thanks again for the comments. It sounds like there is a lot to think and talk about on this topic.
      (maybe even a Keltchat or a blog post)

      Ps- I have just sent a private investigator to Busan to verify your claims that you have never played Hangman in your 18 months on the job.
      pps- I wasn’t thinking for a moment that you are a dour stick in the mud.

  5. @kevchanwow

    The comments are fantastic and I found myself nodding along (Mayya’s point about goals, Barry on lesson objectives and fun at appropriate times; haeundaelife on creating an atmosphere which lets students take risks). One thing sticks with me in this conversation, we have goals as teachers and if the class is taught well (whatever ‘well’ means, but that’s probably a separate issue), our students have fun. Having fun is an internal result of an external stimulus. And it’s not something I feel I have very much control over as a teacher. Now I sometimes will play a quick game of Zombie Tag (you know, tag, but everyone has to walk as slowly and zombie-like as a zombie), which is often times great fun as judged by student laughter levels. But Zombie Tag is a warm-up for drama class, in which I am asking students to step way outside of their own safety zones and act roles which require strong and believable emotional expressions…in front of an audience. Not exactly easy for 16 year olds in Japan to do on a regular basis. So, I don’t play Zombie Tag because it’s fun. But I want to say that even thought I don’t make ‘fun’ a goal for my classes, I don’t want to knock down teachers who do set aside 10 minutes or 15 minutes or even a full class period for fun. Because I’m not in that class. Those are not my students. And as long as they are not my students, it would be pretty presumptuous of me to think I know what they need better than their actual teacher.

    I absolutely hate hangman. I hate it just enough to try and think of a way in which it might actually be challenging in a way my upper and upper-intermediate students might enjoy. How about a language awareness raising hangman? Start with a sentence with one of the words deleted but marked for number of letters. Something like:

    “The _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ was floating high over the football stadium.”

    Along with letters, you could also solicit other pieces of information to help students develop techniques for how to infer meaning or use their dictionaries more effectively. For example, instead of just asking for a letter, you could also ask the students if they thought the word was a noun, verb, or adjective. You could ask the students what category of noun they thought it might be and why (form of transportation). You could even give hints such as providing one or two of the more difficult symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet which are found in the word (in this case: /ʒ/). I could see all kinds of questions that could be asked as students are guessing letters and these questions would probably lead to some pretty deep processing which would increase the chances of it sticking around in long term memory. So yeah, I guess you could do a modified hangman game which could help students learn some word inference strategies, raise students grammar awareness, or help students get familiar with the IPA. Maybe I’ll even try it out in class next week.

    Kevin

    • mikecorea

      The KCW,

      Thanks for the comments here.
      I am in complete agreement with you about the quality of the comments here. I was thrilled!

      I remember reading/hearing about some teacher trainers that played around with ideas on “can’t miss” activities and thought about how one might make them miss. I think what you and Anne have done here is the more productive cousin to this. Thinking about activities that are known as not being useful and finding a use for them. I love it. Often in training courses trainers are faced with participants saying “that wouldn’t ever work for me” or such things. I think trying to find a use for something is a much more valuable skill and I think you nailed it!
      I’d love to hear about any experiments you do with Hangman. This could be the new game… try an find a use for a vilified activity. #TESOLgeek fun for sure.

      You wrote, ” I don’t want to knock down teachers who do set aside 10 minutes or 15 minutes or even a full class period for fun. Because I’m not in that class. Those are not my students. And as long as they are not my students, it would be pretty presumptuous of me to think I know what they need better than their actual teacher” and this is something I feel strongly about. I was worried that my post might seem like me excoriating Hangman users. I hope it didn’t come off like that, because as you say I have no idea about the class or students.

      Thanks as always for the insight and support.

      Cheers,
      MEG

  6. Rachael Roberts

    Only just spotted this post..but want to join in 🙂
    I think fun might be hard to quantify because surely everyone’s idea of fun is different? Personally, I’m not a big hangman fan, because it seems to be so often just about the same students calling out every letter they can think of..but I can see that it could have pedagogic benefits as Anne mentioned, or even be fun for some people 😉
    I agree with several commentators that challenge is an important part of fun in a language class- but recognise that could be down to my (equally curmudgeonly) personality.
    Ultimately I guess, as with everything, it’s down to providing plenty of variety so that if you can’t please all the people all the time you can at least please some of them some of the time.

    • mikecorea

      Hi Rachael!

      Thanks for joining in the (ahem) fun. Just on time.
      I think you get right to the heart of the issue with your thoughts on variety. I am also thinking that John’s points about knowing the students is also of course important.

      I am not really sold on Hangman but Kevin and Anne have surely helped me see that it could be helpful!

      Thanks again!

  7. Pingback: in response to fun « livinglearning
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