Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Fri, 16 Jul 1999 10:43:13 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: My Dictionary of Good Teaching: My Reply

Over the past month, I have been taken to task electronically by more than a few academics responding to my assignment given me by Kenny. My word PLAY especially got under their ski. In their words, I am "obviously" being "unprofessional," "outlandish," "frivolous," "goofy," "childish." One professor from a midwestern flagship research institution accused me of being a "total disgrace to the profession!"

Their comments brought to mind two images. The first was of the time a department head came into the classroom before class began and accused me in front of students of "playing around too much." When I asked him what he meant, he angrily answered with a demonstrative sweep of his arm, "This is a serious place. Look at all this." I guess he meant my boom box on the desk from which coincidently was quietyly drifting "Who Am I" from Les Miserable, the "Clancy The Clown Loves Me" T-shirt I was wearing, and my "words for-the- day" that I had just scribbled (you can't call my illegible script handwriting) on the blackboard that read: "Do not Try! Do!!--Yoda." The second image is of the six week Governor's Honors Program currently on campus. For six weeks each summer, the creme-de-la-creme of Georgia's high school students and teachers learn and teach in their specific areas. But, are they boxed in classrooms? Are they chained to desks? Are pens and pencils glued to their fingers so they can silently take lecture notes? Are the teachers lecturing from distant lecturns? Are the teachers doing all the talking? The answer to all these questions is a resounding "no!" Chairs are moved about in clusters and large cirles; stuff is scattered helter skelter about; more stuff of all sizes, colors, shapes and texture plastered walls inside and outside the classroom. The place is a delightful bedlam. Students are painting, drawing, fashioning costuming, role playing, singing, dancing, pasting, cutting, measuring, performing, building, hollering, jumping, laughing, arguing, smiling, debating as they experience and learn the material, mostly in groups. They sit and kneel and ly sprawled all over the floors in the classrooms, halls, sidewalks. They are throwing paper planes in the air, dropping things down stairwells--just like some engineering students at flagship research universities. All the while, they are learning. The program directors talk of self-learning and self- discovery, creativity, imagination, and enjoyment. Why, even the teachers smile, laugh, and rub shoulders with the students.

The teachers essentially do what I do. And, the students in my classes do what the GHPers do. So, why am I a disgrace to the profession? Because I believe that every student can be a GHPer if given a true chance? They can be. I can attest that every student is like a box of crackerjacks: inside is a prize; you just don't know what the prize is inside until you eat your way down to it. Because I pride myself on being a nurturer and refuse to be a weeder? I have proven faith and hope that every student, without exception, is capable of self-learning and self-discovery, that every student is creative and imaginative, that every student has untapped potential? Because I believe every day is a special day, that every day should be a happening when special things occur? Because I have faith that there is hope for every student?

Must I go smileless and be staid? Can't I be a happy professor and display my joy, my love, with who I am, with whom I am, where I am, and what I do? Can't I be a passionate and dedicated and serious teacher while being, excited, maybe even a touch at times giddy and outrageous? Can't I voice and demonstrate my belief, faith, and hope?

At times, I suppose I am dressed oddly or "unprofessionally" as some of my colleagues would say, and appear to be carefree. I certainly wouldn't pass the recently enacted dress code in our local county school system. I hand out Tootsie Pops; I carry a boom box through the halls and across campus going to and from class, playing an eclectic selection of music at the beginning and end of each class. In the many sweltering south Georgia days, I wear shorts and tee shirt and sandals. I can't remember when was the last time I wore a noose of a tie and a straightjacket of a suit although I have a closet full-- left overs from another life. I don't give quizzes or tests or exams. Carefree? Guilty as charged. I am always free to care, free to show each and every student what love looks like, free to be care enought to be very serious in my teaching and relationships with each student, free to have high standards of effort and achievement. But, do I have to be somber about it? Does the landscape of the classroom have to be bleak instead of colorful? Do I have to be puritanical on campus. I am certainly not that way in my person life. Do I have to wear a mask and unifrom? Why can't I be real in both my teaching and living? How can I not be since my teaching is part of my living? Can't I create a happy system of cheerful, colorful learning. Is it wrong to elicit a smile, a giggle, a laugh, a spiritual connection, or simple moment of pleasure from a student during and as part of the learning process, to make those feelings inseparable from learning? If so, why? What, then, do we mean by the "enjoyment and love of learning?" We say education should be fun. So, why don't we make it invitingly fun. We say learning should be exciting. So, why do the overwhelming majority of students say they're bored to tears in the classroom and have to fight their inclination to attend class? Education can't be enjoyable if we don't let the students enjoy it. Heck, learning should be a celebrating, rejoicing party, not a mournful funeral!!

Maybe it's that proverbial Puritanical thing. If so, I just happen to think that the Puritan forebearers were wrong to distrust enjoyment and leave such misgivings as a legacy to the American psyche. I don't think enjoyment changes the locks so that both the keys to success and the keys to the kingdom won't work. If I were a heretical Puritan, I'd say that we have the wrong antonyms. The opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is boredom, sadness, or even depression. If I were a heretical Puritan, I would have left a heritage of enjoyment knowing that it is very human, cultivates the work ethic, achieves success, glorifies God, and promotes salvation. No, play is not a frivolous indulgence or a trivial pursuit.

And let me tell you why I would be the Roger Williams of education. It is my personal and professional experience that play, fun, enjoyment lift the weights of stress and smashes through the thick walls of fear. They refresh, break dull-minding routine, excite, recharge, stimulate creativity and imagination, force spontaneity, renew ability to accomplish, offer new avenues of activity, provide peeks at unseen potentials, convert stagnant "can'ts" into hesitant "let's sees" into excited "cans," all the while doing the required work. No a bad bunch of combinations.

I find that play permits me and the students to discharge emotions and engage the intellect in a way with what appears to be little risk but secretly accomplishes a great deal. Yet, it secretly allows, seduces, students to dare to be daring. It almost allows me to trick the students into learning.

You see, I don't think having fun is just an activity. It's a state of mind, an attitude, a spirit. As Mary Poppins might say, "It's the sugar that makes the medicene go down." I like being playful around people, especially students, because I, the professor, am not a threat and do not want to pose as a threat. Being playful, I am far less the threatening professor and incresingly the conforting, but demanding friend. Enjoyment, I find, is something like an exalted state of spirit: It allows me and the students to be both in the classroom and someplace else; it allows me and the students to be attuned to the moment of learning and not worry about the future ramifications on a particular grade or final semester grades. When the class rocks with fun, when enjoyment bounce from wall to wall, the work doesn't attack like a dangerous frontal assault by an enemy. It sort of gently and unnoticed sachets up and quietly slips its cuddly arm under yours and hugs you like a friend.. And our classroom play generates applause and enjoyment,and smiles, not grimmaces and sneers and yawns. It also embraces development, achievement, success. And, by any reckoning, those are remarkably worthy accomplsihments. Now understand that for me enjoyment in the classroom is an alternative cultural form of the work of the learning process. It is not pure unadulterated, unalloyed, indulgent, anarchistic enjoyment. Enjoyment, fun, play have a verbal and body language; they have regulated ways of behaving; they have rules; they have meaning and purpose. There are project and discussion rules, there is a movie of laughter and gyrations and fantasy, but every frame is real and substantiative Everything a student does is real, every movement is real, every action is real, every word is real. There are real beliefs, real faiths, real hopes, real realizations, real accomplishments, real learning.

And when the day is over, according to my conversations with students and according to journal entries and final evaluations, most of them are eager to come to class the next day to see what surprise unfolds and --to use the jargon--turn out to be cognitively and affectively more capable and more comfortable. As a student in a final evaluation said, "every project was fun at the time, but as I look back on the semester now I realize every project is like reaching a greater and greater milestone when most us thought at the beginning we couldn't walk that far. Sure there are no tests or exams, but we were examined every day and we had to examine ourselves each day. I think we will remember this stuff a lot longer than if we just crammed it for a test. I now know that I learned a lot more history than I thought I would and certainly more than in the traditional lecture, busy work class. I know I am happier with my achievements and myself. And, I know that I am not the only one that feels this way in the class." Not bad.

You know what gets to me. So many people think nothing of acting angry and grumpy and dour and distant, of being like a threatening thunderstorm. They are self-conscious about being a rainbow, about smiling and laughing and demonstrating positive feelings and being close. They don't show students what love looks like. They are aloof, shunning intimacy, being the perteptual observer and the real absent person in the classroom. That is strange and sad and unfortunate.

One last word. From personal experience--from classrooms and workshops--in the spirit of Hamlet, I have found that to enjoy or not to enjoy, to play or not to play, to have fun or not to have fun, ah, that is the question. The answer reveals our core sense of self. To play or not to play is an exercise of self-definition; it's a dramatization of self-expression. It's a play about choice: what we choose to do and who we choose to be, not what we have to do and who we must be. To play or not to play, to enjoy or not to enjoy, to have fun or not to have fun or to dare or not to dare is a script detailing the ways we are and the ways we can be; it is a demonstration of pure actuality and pure potential.

Make it a good day. 


Louis Schmier           
Department of History    
Valdosta State University
Valdosta, GA  31698                        /~\    /\ /\
912-333-5947                       /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
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                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
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