Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What's Special About Today?

I have been involved in teaching for quite a few years, in various capacities. I’ve been a tutor to disadvantaged teen girls in a group home setting. As a manager at different jobs I was involved in training new and current employees. At my old church I held positions teaching children and adult women. In my current church I am the president of the Junior Sunday School, ages five through sixth grade. I even became a better cell phone sales person once I realized that selling was nothing more than teaching people about your product. Being a teacher has been my dream since childhood.

Even though I have been teaching most of my adult life in one way or another, I experienced my greatest teaching insight at the end of school last year.

Children learn best when they don’t know they’re learning.

That’s it. My great aha! moment. If I ever write a book about my experiences teaching children, it will be exactly once sentence long.

The process of discovering that profound truth began in August, 2007, shortly before my first day at the home school co-op. I received an email that I almost deleted---an educator’s calendar that listed some fact regarding each day. I looked at that calendar and thought how fun. As I skimmed over the trivia listed for each day of the year, I experienced a sense of joy. (Seriously—joy. I’ll admit my nerdish tendencies here without shame. Trivia gives me the rush that some people get when skateboarding out of airplanes.)

What if…each day at school, we took a small break to discuss the event-celebration-trivia item of the day? And since learning cool new facts gave me such joy, what if we named that break a break for joy? Thus began what eventually became known throughout the school as the fourth grade Joy Break.

Each day, at 10:00 a.m., my students began asking, “What is special about today?”

Today for example, was Bald Eagle Day. I hung a poster of a handsome bald eagle specimen. We learned that eagles prefer fish and are not bashful about snatching a fish from someone else’s talons. We passed out yardsticks and measured the average 6-8’ wingspan. And of course the camera-happy teacher took a picture.

I passed out Hershey’s Nuggets with almonds on National Chocolate Almond Day. We read the Emily Dickinson story and learned a poem on her birthday. The scallywags in my class wore black hats and eye patches for Talk Like a Pirate Day (and learned some—ahem—interesting new words.) Glasses of apple juice were raised in cheer on Johnny Appleseed Day. They cried on the anniversary of Kristallknacht. I took advantage of them this week on Clean Out Your Desk Day. Sparks flew on National Static Electricity Day.

Joy Break. Free learning. No tests. Ever. And guess what? They remember everything.

I can ask them ten questions about what they learned in history last year and I will be greeted with blank faces at each of the questions. But they can tell me in detail all about Mae Jemison, Rosa Parks, Jim Henson, Hank Aaron, Mother Teresa, Anwar Sadat and Walt Disney. They learned about them during Joy Break.

If I ask them what they learned in language last year they still probably can’t pick out a noun over a verb. But they can tell me that Roald Dahl wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach and BFG. They can tell me that R.L Stine writes the Goosebump series and that Emily Dickinson could usually only be coerced out of her home by her brother’s children. You guessed it—Joy Break.

I doubt they could tell me what their favorite science lesson was last year. Why? Because instead they will tell me all about Galileo’s theories, facts about Neptune, why situating New Orleans below sea level is a bad idea, the prizes that Alfred Nobel started and why leaves turn red. Um, Joy Break again.

Being of a curious nature, and desiring to become a better teacher I of course have spent a lot of time trying to figure out this phenomenon. Why can they remember the most obscure factoids from Joy Break, but it’s like pulling teeth with mittens on to get them to study for a test?

The only thing I could figure out is exactly what I said before.

Children learn best when they don’t know they’re learning.

That’s it. The big secret. Don’t let them know they’re learning and they’ll remember it forever. Tell them they will be tested on it tomorrow and they will forget about it in a week.

Oh, and remember to celebrate National Strawberry Ice Cream Day tomorrow.


  1. Randi: I like your teaching style. Kids also learn through singing. We all learned the alphabet while singing the ABC song, our numbers through One Two, Button My Shoe, and to memorize lists through Old McDonald Had A Farm. I recall songs from childhood, word for word, but none of the poetry I was forced to memorize.
    Sing, sing a song, sing out loud, sing out strong..... La La La

  2. That is so true! I got talking to a telemarketer one day and she produces CDs that help kids learn math and English with music. Her website is I've been using them on occasion in the classroom, but I really should use them more than I do because they are good.

    I still remember Schoolhouse Rock from thirty years ago! "Interjections show excitement and emotion. They're generally set apart from a sentence by an exclamation point. Or by a comma when the feeling's not as strong. So when you're happy--Hooray! Or sad--Aw!..."

    Or how about jingles from long ago? "My bologna..."

    Or theme songs? "Here's the story, of a lovely lady..."

    Thanks for the comment. You've just inspired me to recommit to having more music in the classroom.

  3. Oh, yeah, TV jingles and themes, for sure. Did I tell you that Grace's Kindergarten class has Writer's Workshop? They each produced their own book (about two pages, and had a publishing party). She's learning about punctuation. She sent us an
    e-mail (via Mom) and when she finished dictating the message, she said to Mom, "Put an exclamation point in there."

  4. Proof that your writer's genes live on. Go Grace!

  5. You are so cool. And I'm not saying that because you're family.
    Grace's class is now working on 3 and 4 page books.
    And she can remember a million weird facts or obscure things we did, but if I ask what her favorite thing about school (which she LOVES) was that day..."um, I don't remember what we did".

  6. Hey, but obscure facts are what win you a million dollars on Jeopardy!

    I think that is so amazing that they are working on that level in kindergarten. I am feeling motivated to start a Writer's Workshop for my fifth graders after hearing about Grace and about the workshop that Cindy from Namas Daisy is working on. My kids are full of good stories but when I ask them to write it down they say, "Aw, do we HAVE to do it in cursive? Never mind then..."
    I'm trying to decide whether to be a stickler on the cursive thing, or to let them print or type as long as they are writing SOMETHING. are cool, too.

  7. Randi: Be a stickler for cursive writing.
    E-mail and text messaging have already contributed to the downfall of language skills. Your students will continue to use these shortcuts, but you will have done your duty in teaching them to actually sign their names.

  8. Funny you should agree about being a stickler for cursive. Just today in class I had another student ask me regarding a history paper, "Does it have to be done in cursive?"

    Ever since the beginning of the year, they have asked the same question. Finally today I wrote on the board. "Just so every knows, everything you write in this class will be done in cursive." I told them to copy that three times and that every time someone asks me if it has to be done in cursive, I will add one more time onto the assignment.

    Tomorrow, if someone asks, it will be written four times, and so on. I think that very quickly they will stop asking and just do.

    I agree that email and texting (especially texting) have perverted our language. I get texts from my adult friends that say things like, "wat ru doing? R U done w ur lesson plans? thx 4 pu my son 4 school."


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