397. Drudgery, Anticipation, and Flexibility

I believe, despite what could be considered some evidence to the contrary, that everything we really need to teach and learn can be presented and received effectively in a way that’s enjoyable. I believe that there are ways to avoid the drudgery that’s often involved in school, and that avoiding it doesn’t have to involve lowering standards or spending twenty-five hours a day planning.
I know that to some people, that statement sounds similar to “All people are basically good.” The evidence to the contrary is too overwhelming. My own teaching and learning has not consistently reflected my belief that drudgery is unnecessary. Nor has the teaching and learning of anyone I know – not even some great teachers and learners I know. There’s always been what’s called “seatwork” or “busywork,” and it hasn’t always been exciting, enjoyable, or even okay.
But I’ve been privileged to work with Pam Szczesny, a third grade teacher who has managed to plan her lessons and days so that children are always either doing something they like doing or joyfully anticipating something. Yesterday I observed her lesson about the building of a castle in the Middle Ages. What I observed was not a hands-on experience, although there had been some of that earlier, and would be later.
I don’t mean to imply that what I observed was a good example of drudgery, but it did require that all children sit and face in one direction for about twenty minutes – even some children for whom that requirement alone qualifies an experience as drudgery. Having worked with these children for two years now, I know how hard it is for some of them to put aside their own plans and whims long enough to do what the teacher has planned.
But I looked at the faces of these children, and I did not see what I’ve sometimes seen in them. These children had just done science experiments involving magnets, and they had enjoyed doing them. They hadn’t all stayed precisely on task; they were supposed to use magnets, pennies, coffee stirrers, and cups to invent an effective vehicle, and two children had gotten distracted, discovering that magnets could be used to make earrings. But the teacher had not scolded them, saying, “This lesson is about vehicles, not earrings!” Instead, she’d told them about earrings she’d seen that had used magnets.
Knowing that there’s room in school for their own ideas, the children in that class seem more willing to go along with the teacher’s plans than some of them were in first and second grade. They seem to appreciate their teacher’s flexibility, and that makes them more willing to be flexible. They are willing to do some things they wouldn’t have chosen on their own, because they’re getting to know that there’s probably something they’re really going to like coming a little later.

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