sorry kiddos, but pencils aren't always fun

I read a kid's plog today.  It was a free write where he described how horribly bored he was while writing. For a piece about boredom, it was honestly pretty fascinating; vascilating between clever wordplay and edgy sarcasm.  I should have enjoyed it more. However, "that's boring," is a phrase guaranteed to hurt me.  On a very rational level, I get the need for play and the aversion toward work.  What I don't understand is the aversion to learning.  Perhaps I've played a role in blurring the two.

On a more emotional level, I take it personally.  I try hard to make lessons relevant and meaningful, challenging but not too challenging.  I throw myself into what I teach and sometimes the wall of apathy can feel like a wall of spikes. If I'm not careful, tiny disruptions can feel like a slap in the face.  I know, I know, they're kids.  It's not a social contract.

I pull out a paper and write a letter.  It's not meant to be sarcastic and it's not even meant to be sent.  It's a letter to all students:

Dear Student,

I know that learning might feel boring to you.  I know that you want fun.  Clowns and puppets and a Great Dane that juggles fire.  I can't offer you fun.  Don't get me wrong, there will be moments of fun.  There will be moments of humor.  But these are moments.

What I offer is meaning.  I offer you a chance to learn.  I provide you with challenging tasks, a ton of autonomy and a chance to explore the questions in your mind.  If you find that boring, I can't help you.  The truth is that you've been fed a lie.  Through bribes and extortion, you learned that learning is a chore that demands a commodity in return.  I can't give you confectionary delights.

I know that there has been some confusion. You are used to using pencils for the pen pal networks (and admittedly we will use Pen Pal networks in our class) or for creating pictures (we'll do that here, too, sometimes).  Still, our class uses pencils for learning.  If it's fun, that's great.  But fun isn't the bottom line.

You learned that the opposite of boring is fun.  Someday, hopefully, you'll find that fun is not the antithesis of boredom.  It's simply a numbing agent.  It's what you rub on the wound when your sense of meaning has been amputated.  What you need is something that has been missing.  And the true miracle is that it is possible to regain that sense of meaning that you lost somewhere in grade school.

Don't get me wrong, there will moments of boredom and frustration.  I had days when I struggled to learn my multiplication tables and I hated Shakespeare the first go-round.  However, if you can see these moments of dull tasks as an integral part of the meaningful learning experience, you might just find that they become at least a little more tolerable.


Mr. Johnson

*     *     *

I once viewed pencils as a magical talisman that would transform every student into a self-motivated learner.  I believed that the Pencil Natives would grab hold of a pencil and start creating amazing works of poetry and narrative.  I thought that the simple existence of paper would mean clarity of thought, critical thinking and logic in persuasive writing.

It worked for a day or two, but eventually the pencil novelty wore off and students realized that they were working with tools.  Looking back on it, I was no different than the students. I confused novelty and fun with meaning and depth.  I'd like to think I know better now, but a "that's boring" comment can apparently still throw me over the edge.

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