Creativity, experimentation and play are not traditionally a part of developmental education, at least at the college level.  There is a deeply held belief among many educators that having fun while learning will somehow diminish the importance of both the teaching effort and the content itself.  This attitude, unfortunately, has been particularly hard on developmental students.  They are students least likely to suddenly begin to succeed with the traditional, worksheet-based methodology that has failed them so far.

Often course assignments in developmental classes focus on routine and uninspiring tasks that have not engaged our already detached students, while the exciting learning is happening in honors and advanced courses.  Surely we can provide struggling students with similarly creative, exciting learning experiences.  Let us enhance and energize approaches to presenting developmental reading and writing courses so we create classes that encourage, excite and actually teach the up-til-now disengaged students.  One of our goals should be to interest that well-known student in the back of the classroom who is half asleep, leaning against the wall.

Brain research does not support a stern approach to education.  We learn by playing, by wanting to imitate others who are doing what we want to do (Smith 10).  Fun engages the emotions, and when the emotions are engaged, true learning, as opposed to learning for the test, is more likely to occur (Nunan 74). The most successful learning experiences will be “sociable, pattern based, sensory, emotionally non-threatening, energetic, choice based, relevant to the students’ own world, and meaning based” (Benjamin 65)  Whew.  I will be referring back to that list a lot as I develop my plans for teaching our lowest level readers this fall.

I gained insight into the impact of that list through the “reading autobiographies” I have had my speed reading students write for years.  Consistently, students write that they loved to read when they were young children, but somewhere between 6th and 9th grades they began to dislike reading, and many of them mourned the loss of the joy they had felt as young readers.  Apparently, our educational system has been remarkably good at destroying the joy of a child in discovery, and we must make a conscious effort to restore the act of finding joy (en-joy-ment??) in learning.

I agree that we need to get back to the basics.  As Philip Pullman says: “the most valuable attitude we can help children adopt – the one that, among other things, helps them to write and read with most fluency and effectiveness and enjoyment – I can best characterize by the word playful” (Pullman n.pag.)

If our goal is to help our students read and write with fluency and effectiveness and enjoyment, and we are more in our hearts than just the language police, then we must move beyond the comfort and simplicity of traditional methods of teaching.  We must learn to teach in the ways our students learn, remembering that our students are not us, and that if they are in remedial classes they most probably do not learn as we learned.  We must have faith in ourselves and our students, that if we work our own way through the complexities of our subject in order to be able to explain the material simply and clearly and if we teach them in the ways they can learn, they will learn.

Sorry about all the citations – I think it’s a defensive reaction because I’ve encountered so much opposition to this position.  “See, it’s not just me who thinks this way.  Lots of credible professionals do too!”

Works cited:

Benjamin, Amy and Tom Oliva.  Engaging Grammar: Practical Grammar for Real Classrooms.  Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 2007.

Nunan, Susan Losses.  “Forgiving Ourselves and Forging Ahead: Teaching Grammar in a New Millenium.”  English Journal March 2005: 70-75.

Pullman, Philip.  “It’s Time English Teachers Got Back to Basics – Less Grammar, More Play.”  The Guardian.  Web.  19 April 2009.

Smith, Frank.  The Book of Learning and Forgetting.  New York: Teachers College Press, 1998.

©HeyTeach101 and toreadtowrite.com 2011