Sit Down and Shut Up! Time to Learn!

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My Day as Jim Thorpe

I recall very little of my academic life that I would have categorized as fun, outside of P.E. and recess.  The events I do recall being fun were few and far between, but I’m now realizing that those lessons are burned into my memory. For example, I shudder to guess how many biographies I have read about prominent Americans over the years, but the one that stuck the best,  was on Jim Thorpe, possibly the greatest athlete to ever live.  It wasn’t Thorpe’s incredible accomplishments (he won Olympic gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon, was a professional baseball player, professional football running back/defensive back/kicker/punter, inter-collegiate ballroom dancing champion, and professional basketball player, all while enduring racism and discrimination everywhere he went), a high-quality text, or even a great teacher that made the details stick. Honestly, I think I still know about Jim Thorpe because the activity was fun.

The assignment was called a Chatauqua, and, rather than writing a paper or answering questions about Thorpe’s life, the final assessment was to actually become Jim Thorpe, complete with costume, regalia that represented him, a brief speech/presentation, and a Q & A session wherein classmates could fire questions for “Jim Thorpe” at me.  I remember actually looking forward to going to the library (it’s like the internet, but in paper form), preparing my speech, and even fielding questions from my peers. This activity was so much fun that many of us chose to stay “in character” for a little mingling session after the presentations–ever wonder what Steven Spielberg would ask Willa Cather? Or how Malcolm X and William Shakespeare would get along? We spent so much time and energy laughing about these myriad combinations that a passerby may have assumed we weren’t learning anything, and maybe that perception is exactly the problem.

The Science of Fun

It turns out that laughter and fun, if administered responsibly (i.e. humor must be appropriate for the classroom, and should connect to/support content, rather than merely providing laughs), can actually stimulate neurological function and make learning easier and more permanent.  Randy Garner PhD at Sam Houston State University “…found that students were more likely to recall a statistics lecture when it was interjected with jokes about relevant topics,” (“How laughing leads to learning”).  Laughter has been shown to reduce cortisol, a stress hormone, which should, in turn, make learning new information more likely. In fact, elevated levels of cortisol from long-term stress have been shown to connect to “shrinkage of the hippocampus,” resulting in memory impairment (“Why fun is important in learning”).  Hardly an ideal condition for digesting and retaining new information.

Considering the environmental challenges many of our students face, the odds that their cortisol levels are elevated seem very high to me, so shouldn’t we, as SAUSD educators, be proactively working to combat that reality? I remember learning about affective filters as an inhibitor to second language acquisition (see more of Stephen Krashen’s phenomenal work here), so it seems logical that laughter should be seen as a positive teaching strategy, especially for ELs, right? Yet, I don’t ever recall being encouraged to use humor in my credential training or any professional development in nearly ten years of being an educator.  Maybe I was told that, but I wasn’t having enough fun in the professional development to remember it?

This idea became very true to me as we were filming Science Kitchen at the 4th Street Market (check out Episode 1 on our SAUSD Open Campus page at 8 pm, 3/7!); it was clear that our brave Biology curriculum writers weren’t wholly comfortable with starring in a cooking show, and who would expect them to be? Rather than letting that fear sink in too deeply, part of Team 21c’s responsibility is to keep our people comfortable, relaxed, and happy, to keep things “light.” We took that priority so seriously that we dedicated a team member, the brilliant Jessica Salcedo, to focusing solely on that. After previewing the premier episode, I feel like I can honestly say that it is apparent that everyone involved was having fun–lots of laughter, big smiles, and team camaraderie really shine through! For the participants and the audience, I truly believe this “fun factor” will be what makes Science Kitchen exciting and memorable.

Have Fun or Else!

A veteran teacher once gave me this piece of advice: “No teeth till Christmas.” This was meant to communicate that your students shouldn’t see you smile until after half the year is over, otherwise you will struggle with classroom management and instruction. Thankfully, there were educators I trusted more who encouraged me to just be “me”:  a nearly-constantly-smiling, goofy, upbeat weirdo who relishes making others laugh.  Not to brag, but lots of kids over the years have told me I am their “Favorite Teacher Ever” or “The Best Teacher I’ve Had”, and my students’ grades and standardized test scores were consistently at or above average for my school.  My point is that fun does not have to come at the expense of hard work; rather, whether you’re teaching a class or producing a show, hard work pays off best when it is fun, too!

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Brad Swan

Brad Swan

Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA): 21st Century Learning Team at Santa Ana Unified School District
I am an English teacher turned 21st Century Learning Specialist. My personal interests/areas of expertise include the law/criminology, "hard" science (especially theoretical astrophysics and cosmology), athletics/fitness, and general silliness!
Brad Swan

Latest posts by Brad Swan (see all)

Brad Swan

Brad Swan

I am an English teacher turned 21st Century Learning Specialist. My personal interests/areas of expertise include the law/criminology, "hard" science (especially theoretical astrophysics and cosmology), athletics/fitness, and general silliness!

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