I have a simple, inexpensive, highly effective means of improving learning for all students: Make things fun.

The makers of the dancing traffic light get it. It works because it is fun, and fun always increases attention, engagement, effort, and performance.

Fun. It’s a word that is tragically absent from teaching today.


Of all the strategies that teachers could do to be more effective,  making the school day more fun for their students would yield the greatest results, both in terms of effort and performance.

I am writing a book on the subject.

One example:

I give a spelling test every Friday to my students. I read the word, use it in a sentence, and repeat the word. It’s a process done in thousands of classrooms across the country on a daily basis.

It’s how I was tested when I was in fifth grade.

It’s also boring. Tedious. Mind numbing. If you’re an excellent speller, it can be excruciating.

When I give a spelling test, I challenge my students not to laugh during the test. I offer rewards for those who can refrain from giggling.

Then I proceed to use the spelling words in sentences designed to make even the most stoic of fifth graders want to laugh. I tell stories about students with underwear collections. Students whose lunch money was stolen by preschoolers. Boys with crushes on girls. Girls with crushes on boys. Students who are rabid fans of Justin Bieber, old pancakes, smelly shoes, wrinkle cream, and toe fungus. Students who spend their afternoons rolling in mud and befriending earthworms. Sometimes each sentence pertains to a different member of the class. Other times I connect all the sentences into one long, harrowing, hilarious story about a single member of the class.   

My students love spelling tests. They can’t wait for their spelling test.

I focus the lens of fun on every single thing thing I do in the classroom. It is the first issue I address when planning a lesson.

“How will I make this fun?”

Until I can answer this question, I go no further.

Sometimes fun is as simple as giving my students a choice. Allowing them to collaborate. Encouraging an unconventional approach. Permitting them to change locations. Affording them an unexpected freedom.

Sometimes it’s elaborate and unorthodox. Sometimes it requires props. Oftentimes it requires an enormous amount of creativity and planning.

Regardless, planning for fun is the best use of my time always.  

Fun is absent from education today. It is never taught or even spoken of in college classrooms, and it is never addressed in professional development. It is ignored, devalued, discarded, and routinely undermined by people with a multitude of credentials and a wealth of big ideas and very little memory of what it is like to be a kid and little understanding of what a kid needs.

Teachers are almost always the model students of their childhood classrooms. The homework completers. The high GPA achievers. The well behaved. The highly attentive. The college bound. These teachers tend to be trained by professors who were also the model students of their day. The kinds of students with enough determination, self regulation, and academic skill to ultimately earn advanced degrees in their chosen fields.  

This is a recipe for disaster. This creates an army of teachers who do no understand why students misbehave and ignore directions and care little about instruction or learning.

These are teachers who often fail to understand the value of fun in the classroom because they never needed fun in order to be successful.

Fun saves kids. Fun makes children happy. Fun is the most powerful learning strategy available to teachers today. Fun is the easiest and most effective way of helping a student to learn.

If only more teachers would use it.

Teaching terrifying books?

Flavorwire recently posted a list the 10 of the Most Terrifying Children’s Books From Around the World. Three of the books (shown below with must-read plot summaries courtesy of Flavowire) were written in English (including two by authors who my wife and I routinely read to our daughter).

So here’s a thought:

Perhaps I could design a series of lessons for my students centering on some the most terrifying children’s books ever written in English.

Maybe I could even write one or two of my own.

I know it sounds strange, but kids love novelty and subversion. I guarantee that if I stood in front of the class on a Monday and said:

“Friends, this week we are going to be reading and analyzing some of the most terrifying children’s books ever written, and perhaps you’ll have a

chance to write your own terrifying story as well. What do you think?”

…I would barely be able to contain their enthusiasm.

Even the most reluctant of readers would be thrilled about reading these books, and this should tell you a lot about the causes of reluctance in readers. Oftentimes it’s not the attitude or ability of the student that’s keeping him or her from reading as much as it is finding that student the right book.

Of course, I’m not sure what these lessons might do in terms of my reputation as an educator in the community, but I promise you that the kids would love them.


In Brave Mr. Buckingham by Dorothy Kunhardt (the author of child classic Pat the Bunny!), the brave Native American man Mr. Buckingham is slowly dismembered — losing one foot to a buzz saw and another to a fish before his arm is sliced off by a gardener and he gets hit by a truck — as he tries to prove to little Billy that it won’t hurt to pull on his loose front tooth. That’s him there, just a head left.

In Death and Burial of Poor Cock Robin, circa 1865, the sparrow kills Cock Robin and then all the other terrifying creatures of the forest talk about how they’ll bury him. An excerpt: “Who saw him die? I, said the Fly, with my little eye, I saw him die. Who caught his blood? I, said the Fish, with my little dish, I caught his blood.”

We had to include Outside Over There, by Maurice Sendak, of course. This scene depicts ghostly French horn-playing Ida’s baby sister being stolen by goblins, who leave a terrible ice replica in her place.