Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Come on teachers, we've got to make it fun!

This morning when I got to school, I found that copies of a "motivational" article had been placed in all of the teachers' mailboxes. The name of the article was Engage Me or Enrage Me, and when I read it, I didn't know whether to laugh, cry, or vomit. I hope you'll excuse me for putting it so crudely, but the article really was sickening. I talked to another teacher who said he went and banged his head against a locker a few times after he read it. The point of the article is that we need to make school more fun for the students. The implied message was that if kids aren't performing, it's the schools' and teachers' fault because we haven't engaged them.

The big difference from today is this: the kids back then didn’t expect to be engaged by everything they did. There were no video games, no CDs, no MP3s—none of today’s special effects. Those kids’ lives were a lot less rich—and not just in money: less rich in media, less rich in communication, much less rich in creative opportunities for students outside of school. Many if not most of them never even knew what real engagement feels like.

But today, all kids do. All the students we teach have something in their lives that’s really engaging—something that they do and that they are good at, something that has an engaging, creative component to it. Some may download songs; some may rap, lipsync, or sing karaoke; some may play video games; some may mix songs; some may make movies; and some may do the extreme sports that are possible with twenty-first-century equipment and materials. But they all do something engaging.

A kid interviewed for Yahoo’s 2003 “Born to Be Wired” conference said: “I could have nothing to do, and I’ll find something on the Internet.” Another commented: “Every day after school, I go home and download music—it’s all I do.” Yet another added: “On the Internet, you can play games, you can check your mail, you can talk to your friends, you can buy things, and you can look up things you really like.” Many of today’s third-graders have multiple e-mail addresses. Today’s kids with computers in their homes sit there with scores of windows open, IMing all their friends. Today’s kids without computers typically have a video game console or a GameBoy. Life for today’s kids may be a lot of things—including stressful—but it’s certainly not unengaging.

Except in school.

And there it is so boring that the kids, used to this other life, just can’t stand it.

The article closes on this rather ominous note:

And if we educators don’t start coming up with some damned good curricular gameplay for our students—and soon—they’ll all come to school wearing (at least virtually in their minds) the T-shirt I recently saw a kid wearing in New York City: “It’s Not ADD—I’m Just Not Listening!”

So hi there, I’m the tuned-out kid in the back row with the headphones. Are you going to engage me today or enrage me? The choice is yours.

It would be bad enough if an article like this was simply misguided, but it actually goes beyond that--it's harmful. When people with common sense hear this type of thinking coming from our schools, it makes us all look like a bunch of crackpots. What's worse is that it reinforces a counter-productive message that has been prevalent in our society for too long: non-performers are victims. It isn't their jobs to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and start working; it is the job of the school to try harder to reach them.

This article had me shaking my head and grinding my teeth every time I thought of it during the morning, but then in the afternoon, I got this email from a colleague that had me laughing so hard I had tears running down my face. Here it is:

Dennis, thanks for putting the article in my box this morning. You are right, that article nailed it; we do need to really try and make learning fun. I was delusional to expect my students to pay attention to me and the material I am presenting when they have so many other entertainment options like I-pods and Game Boys. Just because time-management, politeness and responsibility are important to me and employers doesn't mean we should sacrifice fun. I'm sure that even though it sounds a little humiliating to have to dance like a trained monkey in order to keep an impolite kid who has been ignoring me "tuned in" rather than in a rage (threatening sounding) it probably is better to sacrifice quality and quantity. Let's face it, thinking and learning is awfully difficult, and how on earth do we plan do keep all of these kids happy and alive with the delusion that the real world works like this if they have to read, think and be responsible for part of the day?
Maybe we could talk this over at a staff meeting, where we could discuss some ways to incorporate video games into our classes. I put in your name for the "Let's Put the F in Fun in the Classroom Committee". Other ideas that may be entertaining for the kids.

* Teaching through puppets day
* Stuffed animals for hugging if a student is having a bad day
*Pink Floyd and pot day ( if we're letting them have I-pods on, we might as well let them do other things they aren't supposed to do)
* Teaching through "Ole and Lena joke" day

I'm not sure what the educational value is of any of these days, but dog gone it, they might keep the kids "tuned in".


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's put the F in Fun! Lol.. um that means laugh out loud. Just... in case you didn't know. That's probably the funniest thing I've seen all day. I wouldn't worry about this too much though Mr. Ferm, it's probably some kid who got his/her ipod taken away one too many times and is in the bottom of the tank for grades in school.

There are plenty of things teachers try to do to get kids more interested in learning, but you can't forget the reason they're doing that and that is so kids actually learn. I appreciate your friend's sarcasm too... a little over the top, but to the point. Anyways, haha... ahaha, I'm sorry I can't stop laughing. You might get angry over this sorta thing, but I just find it really really funny.

I think that only idiotic kids think that teachers should be doing more than what they're already doing for us in order for us to learn. I hate when kids ask for extensions and stuff, or ask for easier assignments than what's given because they're too lazy or whatnot and want to get good grades to impress their parents at the same time. It's just ridiculous. The worst part is that I've seen some teachers give into their pleas, when I am prepared for the assignments, or prepared to deal with the consequences if not. I don't think kids like these are even worth investing time in with the entire education system, but I can see where teachers want all their kids to learn... it's a little idealistic though to think that you can get every student to want to learn, or even most of them or even a small minority. There are some kids with the potential to do something more with their lives and others not, then there are some kids with potential who choose not to work on that. That's their bad(mistake, slang y'kno?). It makes kids like me angry, teachers frustrated and puts the entirety of the American education system at a lower standard.

But I think this goes back to some argument about how the school system isn't working. I don't think it's the teachers or the schools, I think it's society. It gives us too many liberties and kids think they can do whatever it is they want. They don't appreciate what's being given to them. While I know myself well enough to know that I'm not the ideal student, or anywhere close, I know at the least how to be a somewhat decent student and what a bad student, or bad person in general is like. I kind of feel like slapping whoever wrote that article in the first place upside the head for being so ludicrous. How can these students ask for even more freedom than given? More entertainment within the school? That's just... grrr. But then again, they gave me a good laugh. I suppose I should be grateful for that much at the least.

Well, right. That's that. I hope that this wasn't in the school paper, because then I really might track this kid down or whoever and give them a piece of my mind; I guarantee it wouldn't be pretty. Engage Me or Enrage Me eh? Right, some kid with twenty piercings and all black clothes sitting with a grimace on their face is really threatening to me. Yeah. I won't be threatened by anyone who has a lower IQ than me and their only skill is complaining about a situation they've created for themself, even if I was at gunpoint, being pushed off a cliff or knifepoint... because I would feel stupid bargaining for my life, over video games in school. Idiots >_<

Haha... uh, ranting a bit. But yeah, I totally agree with you Mr. Ferm. Although you shouldn't get angry about it, just laugh it off. Then they'll realize that no one takes it seriously, and if they're too dense to understand that much... well, you can get another good laugh out of it.

Mani T.

1/10/2007 6:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Ole and Lena joke" day - can you get away with excluding the Swedes like that?

(and thanks for your more serious perspective, Mani)

1/11/2007 6:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

::sigh:: such short-sighted thinking. you fellas have to think of the side benefits of "engagement".

me and my 8th grade buddies were mainly interested in one thing. stolen magazines helped engaged us in it. can you imagine the possibilities if our school tried to exploit those interests? the teacher hiring standards certainly would have changed anyhow.

and yes of course i'm being facetious (I think...).

1/11/2007 10:00 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

"that means laugh out loud. Just... in case you didn't know. "

ROFL. Very sweet of you to define your acronyms/slang.

Yes, teachers should try to engage the students, but it should be through engaging them in the material, not some silly game somehow peripherally related to the material. I imagine a lot of students may just be irritated by that.

Maybe I'm deluded, but I would think teachers should have a love for their material (at least at jr/sr high level -- elementary teachers, of course, teach all subjects). Something got them interested in it, and that love should be shared with the students. Even if it's ludicrous.

Maybe some students will ignore it. My real point is, the material's not inherently unengaging, and that's what should be engaging the students, rather than some contrived show.

1/12/2007 7:58 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, wonders never cease! We agree!!!

1/12/2007 11:53 AM  
Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

I think I need to focus on a hip-hop version of the Gettysburg Address or, even better, Alfred Thayer Mahan's opus on the importance of sea power in history.

Yeah, I'll get right on it.

And meanwhile, if kids lives are so much richer in communications, why is it they can find a video snippet on youTube of some kid in Bern, Germany "popping" and dancing to some weird Czech pop star's song but they can't find out what the Pythagorean theorem is?

Answer: Because they don't want to.

1/13/2007 7:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Dennis,

A few days have gone by since you first posted this, and I think it has given me a little time to cool down. As you know, I am a fan and a promoter of your book, your blog and your ideas. You often say things in defense of public education that need saying - about societal and parental responsibility and about the challenges that teachers face.

But Dennis, this one you blew - big time. All the things that bug me most about teachers are on display in this post - a refusal to accept that kids and their external environments are changing; the deep seated belief that teachers do not need to improve their own instructional practices; and that communication technologies if not evil, are at least inconsequential.

I would urge you to read more about and reconsider:

1. The changing natures of today's kids. EDUCAUSE's Educating the Net Generation's first two chapters are a good starting point. Like it or not, technology and the media have given this bunch of kids a very different set of values, likes and dislikes. We will not change them; we need to change how we do school to accommodate them or school will grow increasingly irrelevant to them.

2. Take a look at what researchers are finding out about online gaming and its educational value. (U of Wisconsin's Constance Stienkuhler's research is a good starting point.) The U.S. Miltary takes the educational effectiveness of "gaming" pretty seriously and I am surprised that as a coach, you don't find the value in "games." Or is it just the technology you object to?

3. For whatever reason kids tune out, I do believe we have a professional responsibility to motivate and "engage" them if you will. I am not sure classes have to be fun, but they DO need to be meaningful, to have relevance, and to teach skills with real world application. My son was one that tuned out of lecturers and textbooks. (You can blame me, the parent, all you'd like.) It wasn't until he hit technical college where the coursework and methodology "engaged" him. I count his high school experience as four lost years - in large part because many teachers decided that the three Rs - rote, restraint and regurgitation - were the only way to teach and if kids didn't learn that way, it was somebody else's problem.

A refusal to accept pedagogical change by public school teachers is one big reason why Minnesota has charter schools, open enrollment, home schoolers, and online schools. A lot of parents want to see some changes. I enjoy hearing how you think not society, but SCHOOLS might change in a positive fashion.

As professionals, you and I have every right, even an obligation to disagree with folks like Mr. Prentsky (I have some problems with his article as well.) But what I don't think we have the right to do dismiss new ideas with sarcasm and just shift the blame for failing to educate some kids to others. Those kind of conversations ought to be saved for the teachers' lounge.



1/13/2007 10:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So many things wrong with that article!

Let's see . . . the electronic wiring that so many kids sprout today does not make them more creative -- it makes them spectators. "Many if not most of them never even knew what real engagement feels like." Puh-leeze! The guy lists lip-syncing as a creative activity! Kids were more creative 'back in the day' because more of their environment was available to them for manipulation and real (not electronic) interaction.

The kid in the rude T-shirt and the kid in back with the ipod? What are their parents thinking? The T-shirt shold never have been bought, and the ipod should be confiscated.

I wish I could remember who said this quote, because it's one of my favorites: "Boredom is self-inflicted." And no one ever taught these kids how to control their own minds -- just sat'em down in front of a video and went away.

Maybe I've spent too much time around teenagers, but I'm thinking of a different 'F' than the one in 'Fun.'

1/13/2007 12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doug, you blew it, big time. Gaming is great, and can engage the imagination, but there is no substitution for working hard, learning to read (and I don't mean "decode"), reading good and important things (and if you think graphic novels are good, you're and idiot), learning to think, and learning to write. Now, we'd likely agree that most textbooks are crap, but gaming is no substitute.

And yes, if a kid is going home and doing nothing but IMing and downloading music, I blame the parents and I blame him.

1/14/2007 6:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would be interested, Dennis, if you would write something about how anti-bigotry is taught (or not taught) in public schools.

1/16/2007 7:18 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

I wasn't going to make this comment, but:

"Marc Prensky is the author of Digital Game-Based Learning and the founder and CEO of Games2train, a game-based learning company whose clients include IBM, Bank of America, Nokia, and the Department of Defense. He is also the founder of The Digital Multiplier, an organization dedicated to eliminating the digital divide in learning worldwide."

Marc Pretzky is a salesman, selling educational games. He gets his livelihood from it. This in itself isn't a reason to disregard his arguments, but it IS a reason to regard his qualitative statements with some suspicion. And his statements are non-specific and ambiguous, and end with the recommended course of action being "fund, experiment, and iterate" -- the fundee, of course, being himself.

"Where is the programming, the genomics, the bioethics, the nanotech—the stuff of their time"

This is Prentzky's suggestion for what's missing? All of these require considerable background in some base learning, particularly statistics and mathematics (yes, bioethics also requires this).

I absolutely believe teachers should improve their pedagogical practices. Moreover, I believe the public education system needs to be changed administratively.

If an educational game engages the students, it doesn't need to be introduced into the classroom. Parents will buy it in droves, thrilled that their kids are asking for something educational. Even parents who don't care about their kid's education will be buying it, because their kids will ask for it. Government doesn't need to fund it, because if someone can make money off it commerce will fund it.

1/16/2007 9:32 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

I have a great deal of respect for Doug Johnson, so anytime he comments--whether he agrees or disagrees with a post--I sit up and take notice.

I want Doug to know that if he suggested something to me involving technology, because he believed it would help me reach more kids, I would listen. Although I sometimes have to be dragged kicking and screaming into change, I will make those changes when I think they can help me be a better teacher. I've done that in the past, and I'll continue to do that until I retire. My objection to the Prentsky article wasn't so much with what he was encouraging us to try, it was in a number of messages that were at least implied in the article. I found them offensive, but I think it's clear from what Doug said that he believes some of them have validity.

As I said in my post, what bothered me most about the article was the message that non-performers are victims. I don't know anything about the situation with Doug's son's "wasted years", but from what he said about it, I can see why he feels so strongly. I don't know if Doug would classify his son's performance in high school as that of a non-performer, but if he was, my guess is that he is the exception and not the rule. I simply do not believe that most non-performers would turn around if we were just more creative in trying to reach them.

The Prentsky article implied that teachers don't try to reach a wide range of students. I found that offensive, but I think it's fair to say that Doug believes it's a valid point. I know those teachers exist, but I also see a lot of teachers who bend over backwards in an effort to engage their kids. I know I do, so when I read an article that seems to say that "teachers" don't, I get angry.

Finally, although Doug will probably disagree with this, I read Prentsky as saying that if we didn't buy into his ideas lock, stock, and barrel, that we are doing a bad job, and that it's our fault when kids don't try. If I had a discussion with Doug about how I can use technology to become a better teacher, I doubt very much that he would ever come off that way. And as a result, he would be able to influence me a lot more than Prentsky did.

1/16/2007 3:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Dennis, for engaging in this dialog. You DID make me go back and re-read Prentsky (and my own comments.) What I like about this discussion is that I get the feeling we BOTH want what is best for kids, for schools and for society. And it is probably more an issue of emphasis or perspective than of genuine disagreement.

I guess we both read into Prentsky different things. You saw his comments as insulting; I saw them as challenging. I still believe this generation of student, from everything I have observed, read and lived with is genuinely a different breed of cat, largely due to technology's pervasive influence in their lives. Basically, I want all teachers learn to use the kids' own preferred communication styles and devices to help educate them. This includes iPods, social networking sites, text messages, and, yes, games - but retain their core values to transmit to their students. I am so afraid we adults will lose our influence on our kids when they have so many other sources from which to derive their values.

Improving education is a task that has roles for parents, for the community and for schools as well - that all of us accept responsibility for improving our performance to make sure more kids are served.

Thanks again, Dennis, for taking the time for your honest and thoughtful response. I look forward to more postings here!


1/17/2007 4:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am so afraid we adults will lose our influence on our kids when they have so many other sources from which to derive their values.

An echo chamber for student values? Perish the thought...

Seriously, though - when have adults ever held more influence in teens' lives than their peer group. I don't see that technology has changed this, just given them a wider forum in which to find like-minded friends.

1/18/2007 5:33 AM  
Blogger danw said...

I think some false dichotomies are at play here. Students who are not engaged in high school are legion - even among high achieving driven kids. The solution to this dilemma involves everyone taking a good look at themselves and making some changes. I think teachers do need to create an environment where the material is engaging to teenagers, students need to give their wholehearted effort at all times, and parents need to support learning by setting limits at home and encouraging academic pursuits.

I think of teachers I have met who engaged students and they didn't do it by just being cool and playing around. They held students to high expectations, but they utilized technology and interactive processes that were appealing to their clients. The result: students were engaged and learning at a high level.

Fingerpointing won't improve our classrooms, but respectful dialogue and discussion can help us all. I'll be back in a little bit after I convert this post to a chant for all you musically inclined learners.


1/20/2007 10:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A great post, Dennis. I added some thoughts I have on this to my own blog:

Thanks for sparking an interesting conversation!

1/20/2007 12:41 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

As I said over at Scott's blog, this post generated a much better discussion than I ever would have imagined, so I'm glad I did it. I still don't like the article, but the commentators who disagree with me on that have definitely raised some good points. After reading them, and thinking about it, there is one thing I said in the post that I wish I hadn't:

"When people with common sense hear this type of thinking coming from our schools, it makes us all look like a bunch of crackpots."

That comment is probably insulting to those who see the article differently than I do, so I'd like to apologize for that. I know I'm eating some of my words, but don't feel too badly for me. I've had to do that so often that I'm starting to acquire a taste for it.

1/20/2007 2:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dennis, I've enjoyed the discussion that is going on here. I don't like the Prensky article for a number of reasons but the one that strikes me the hardest is that I have that I have so much control over others. The last time I checked, the only person I had direct control was myself. Period. As an administrator, I've come to realize that I cannot make anyone do anything if they don't want to do it. Actually I learned that from one of my children when they wouldn't eat their veggies and they fell asleep at the table. Teachers do need to use different teaching strategies, differentiate their curricula, engage in various teaching methods and seek to improve the presentation of their content. Marc Prensky tries to come off sounding like an educator who is in the classroom with how he words things yet, from what I've gathered, he doesn't teach and sells games for a living. Last time I checked, that would make a source unreliable which is how I approach this. Controversey sells and, if you can suggest you are in the know because you have been there, then you have more leverage. As a teacher, would you allow a student to use this as a reliable source? I wouldn't and I'll leave it at that. Again, great conversation and disussion. It's this type of interaction that helps to build education, so maybe we can be positive that the article started this.


1/21/2007 3:39 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

"The last time I checked, the only person I had direct control was myself."

A big "Amen!" to that! Thanks, Kelly.

1/21/2007 5:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

With the new technology that's out, i do believe that their are ways to use that teechnology to interact with your students. It's true that gaming systems are luxarys, but if their is a productive way to use them for education purposes, then theirs nothing wrong with that.

2/15/2007 10:03 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Dennis,
I am studying in Education department of Concordia university. The article which you mentioned and any other article like that do not make me angry. I want to give you a name of a book that is related to one of my courses, and I guess it can help you to deal with what exactly a new educational system needs. The name of this book is E-learning Concepts and practice. This book generally discusses that e-learning gives more opportunity to students to get involve in learning activities. E-learning gives students an opportunity to explore, test, select, create, and apply their knowledge in different areas. For example, I believe that students can learn much more about geography, math, and many other issues during playing video game. As an example, I can mention Runescape game which is very popular among teenagers.

Holmes, B. & Gardner, J. (2006). e-learning: Concepts and Practice. London: Sage Publications.
And a link to and to

3/12/2007 8:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can't believe I didn't catch this article sooner...

I definately agree that its best if teachers can engage students - but there will be students, and there will be topics, where creating engagement is just plain hard. And wrapping the topic in a game to make it 'fun' may well in some cases just prove insulting rather than engaging.

I teach at the university level - and here its still nice to be able to really engage with a class and get them to engage with a topic. However, it isnt always possible - and students by the time they get to me should have developed some ability, some intrinsic motivation to succeed, to get them through the less 'fun' parts. Sometimes there are simply things they need to know, skills they need to have, no matter how dull the topic.

I can empathise with your head shaking and teeth grinding. Attempting to read "Don't Bother me Mom - I'm Learning" nearly gave me an embolism.

3/15/2007 3:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw Pensky yesterday at a conference at Western Carolina University and he was a total condescending jerk. His presentation wasn’t very good and his answers to forum questions were pat and useless. He was more of a politician than anything else. Also, he didn’t offer one new thing to an audience of over 2000 teachers taken from classrooms. He berated all of us for not using technology without acknowledging we were a rural area that had little access to technology.

As if we didn’t already know kids learn better with technology, and that kids love to work in groups, as if we aren’t already working with what we had….

Basically this guy had no idea what he was talking about. He whisked into town, got his big fat check, said lots of impractical and dumb things, and then left.

10/13/2007 12:08 PM  
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