Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Power of Whimsy in the Classroom


About 10 years ago, I was principal at a small rural school in Southwest Missouri, and somehow found myself as both principal and head girls basketball coach...at the same time. I would tell you I drove a bus route and mowed the grass, too. But that wouldn't be true. But I did coach girls basketball and was the principal for grades 7-12!

I had coached for several years prior to becoming a principal, so this whole coaching thing was not new to me. And we were pretty good, too. It didn't hurt that one of our players averaged about 40 points a game and would go on to be the all-time leading scorer in Missouri history.

We were in a very important tournament and facing one of the best teams in the state from a class larger than us. I knew they were going to be tough to beat. So for my pregame speech I decided to take a big risk. I was going to do something so crazy and unexpected that it would, hopefully, motivate the team and take away some of their nerves.

I went into my speech about our opponent and how they were pretty good, and we were going to have to play our best game to beat them. And that there would probably be times we would want to give up, but we had to be the ones who didn't flinch. We couldn't let them get the best of us.

I had brought along a large bucket that I prepared upon arrival at the gym by filling it with water. It was sitting on a small table in front of me as I delivered the opening to my speech. I'm sure the players wondered why it was there.

And then I explained, "I'm going to show you what it means to push through even when things get tough. I'm going to stick my head in this bucket of water and hold my breath for as long as I possibly can. And the whole time, I'm going to think about why I started. I'm going to focus on how bad I want to do my best, to stretch myself, to test my limits."

Now I realize there is a distinct difference between weird and whimsy. And right now, you may be thinking I'm weird. But that's okay. Stay with me.

The girls on the team stared in utter disbelief at what they were seeing. But they definitely weren't bored. Engagement was high at this point in the lesson!

And then my head went under. And I stayed under. And I stayed under some more. Until I couldn't take it any more. 

I came up gasping for air, paused to regain my senses, and then, with my arms flailing wildly, exclaimed, "Now go out there and play your best game yet." We all put our hands together in the huddle. You could see the electricity in their eyes. Some were grinning, maybe even giggling a little, but they were ready to play, and I knew it had worked.

We went on to win by the narrowest of margins. It was probably our best win of the entire season, and we won 25 games that year.

Too often in our classrooms we have lost a sense of whimsy about learning. It should be fun and exciting. It should challenge us to reach higher and do more. It helps our fears melt away. It helps us believe in our possibilities. It should never be mundane or boring or predictable.

Now you may be thinking that life doesn't always work that way. Sometimes we have to just do boring stuff, and kids need to learn to do stuff that isn't always exciting. You may be thinking that you're not an entertainer, you're a teacher, right? I've heard this before, "Kids nowadays want to be entertained all the time. They want instant gratification."

But I don't think life has to be mundane and boring. My wife and I are traveling and staying in a hotel as I write this. This morning at breakfast one of the guys working there was joking around with us and having a good time. You could tell he was really enjoying his job. He was making it fun. He could just as easily be putting in his time and hating life. But instead he was busy putting a smile on our faces. 

The people who really make life better for all of us know how to take even the mundane and boring parts of life and make them wonderful. It's not about being an entertainer. Some of us aren't entertainers. But we can all look for the whimsy in what we do. We can ask our students to partner with us in making learning fun. Ask them to help you.

We ultimately want exactly the same things our students want. It's two things. We want community (fun, whimsy) in the classroom. And, we want learning (curiosity, creativity) in the classroom. Yes, your students may not always act like they want either, but they do. You just have to help them get past all the defenses they've built to self-protect. School (and life) hasn't always felt safe to all of them.

Here are some questions to consider related to bringing whimsy to your classroom:

1. Would you want to be a student in your own classroom?
2. If your students didn't have to be there, would you be teaching to an empty room?
3. Do you ask your students about how things are going in your classroom, from their perspective? Not to find out if you're a good teacher or not. But out of curiosity of how they feel and how that information might help you make better decisions for them.
4. What are ways you can bring more whimsy into your classroom? In my example, I was doing something completely crazy that might be totally out of character for you. I would still challenge you to do it anyway. But there are also things related to how you design your lessons that can be whimsical and awe-inspiring. 

I challenge you to bring more whimsy to your classroom. If you are in your off-season (summer break) right now, what a great time to plan some new possibilities for this next school year. Set a tone from the start that your classroom is going to be filled with whimsy and excitement. 

If you need some more inspiration, I would highly suggest you read, Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess. It's an outstanding book that will undoubtedly inspire you!

Question: How are you bringing whimsy and surprise to your classroom? Is that important to you? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Twitter or Facebook.

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