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All in the Name of "Fun"

"It's really thinkable." ~ Cal, 1st grade ~

My gifted students have fun in my classroom and I'm not ashamed to admit it... because I know what they really mean.

The concept of "having fun in school" is an interesting one to debate. On the surface, it's easy to be cynical about kids having fun in school when school should be about learning important academic skills and concepts, not fun & games or entertainment. Some teachers even worry that kids have become so accustomed to being entertained in their daily lives that they expect (and only respond to) the same level of whiz-bang theatrics in school. Some people think if kids are having fun in school, then they aren't really learning, they're just being entertained.

Whether or not what I'm about to talk about here applies to all students, I can't say. But I can say with confidence that it does apply to the gifted students I work with.

I am not an entertainer. Frankly, I'm a rather low-key teacher. I don't do theatrics or whiz-bang lessons. I rarely take kids on field trips. And I'm too genuine of a person to put on an act, not even for the sake of my students' enjoyment. I take my job seriously and the kids know that. (When they tell me something is hard, I tell them, "Good, that means I'm doing my job right and it means you are about to learn something.") And yet the kids consistently tell me, year after year, whatever their grade level, that they have fun in my class.

I have always instinctively known that what they really mean is they enjoy being challenged in my class. "Fun" to them is eight pages of analogies and getting to use the unabridged dictionary to solve them. "Fun" is spending half an hour on the same problem and still not having it solved yet. "Fun" is spending ten hours on Saturday writing the next four chapters in the book they're writing... writing for "fun," not for some assignment. "Fun" to these kids is reading Tolstoy and then debating his ideas during lunch. "Fun" is volunteering to organize the teacher's desk. "Fun" to gifted kids is THINKING and CREATING and WORKING HARD on something challenging.

But I had a moment of doubt: Maybe I am just unintentionally entertaining these kids? We do, after all, occasionally play (gasp!) games. And some people (some of my colleagues, some of the other students in school, some parents) only perceive the "fun" we have in my classroom, not the grander purpose at play (despite countless efforts on my part to dispel these misconceptions).

Something at NAGC triggered my ponderings on this topic. I don't remember just what. It was perhaps a random comment someone made or perhaps a random observation I made while listening to a presentation. But it's been on mind since that time. In part, I think it's been persistently rattling around because such a big piece of what I tackle every day (in my job, plus here at "Teacher Magazine," plus as President of Montana AGATE) is the pile of misunderstandings that our broader society has about gifted kids and gifted education programs. People notice that these kids have fun in their gifted classes (it's hard to miss... they're so intensely enthusiastic!) - but they rarely dig deep enough to uncover what's actually at the root of that fun. And of course, if these people only think it's about "fun," then they're more likely to continue to see the GT class as a "privilege" or "reward" for "the good students." It means they're also more likely to see it as something that isn't truly necessary. "Fun fluff" isn't serious learning, after all, and therefore can be cut in lean times.

But when gifted kids have fun in their GT and advanced classes, it isn't about any of that! I decided to survey my students with an open-ended question to help illustrate the point. I didn't tell them what I was up to (other than that their responses might be used here), but just gave them this simple open-ended statement to complete:

"When I say that something in school or in GT is 'fun,' what I mean by 'fun' is..."

And here are their responses. (As before, all names are student-selected pseudonyms.)

"It's really thinkable." ~Cal, 1st grade~

"It's fun when you're solving. It's fun because it's a hard job." ~Tallen, 1st grade~

"If everything you did was easy all the time, you wouldn't learn anything. But learning is fun, so being challenged is fun." ~Dorothy, 1st grade~

"Fun means you get to learn something that is outside of the school box." ~Bubba, 5th grade~

"What I mean by 'fun' is it's challenging." ~Sally, 5th grade~

"If something is fun, it's mind-boggling, awesome, and hard. You get to use strategic thinking to solve things." ~Margaret, 5th grade~

"GT is fun because it's challenging and you have to keep a steady working pace. You have to keep working and not give up." ~Carol, 5th grade~

"Fun to me really means that I like the challenge of something. I like knowing I'm not as smart as I seem and that I can get things wrong. That's the best part! Yes, finding my limits is fun!" ~Laine, 5th grade~

"Fun means I am actually challenged. In other classes I'm basically automatic, which is very boring." ~Lillian, 5th grade~

"To me, if something is fun it means it is a challenge that I can enjoy, not like the challenge of doing loads of easy work or the challenge of staying awake in boring parts of school." ~Jelly, 5th grade~

"Fun means it's challenging and you're going to have to think." ~Goldilocks, 5th grade~

"When I say that GT is fun, I mean that it stretches my mind and lets me be myself. It also teaches me that it is okay to make mistakes so I don't get frustrated and can relax and learn at the same time." ~Onyx, 5th grade~

"Fun means it's challenging but not too challenging. It means something is in my 'just right' zone." ~Annie, 5th grade~

"If something is fun, it means it challenged me in a fun way or proved my ability or showed me a different way to think about something that I hadn't realized before." ~Michelle, 7th grade~

"It means it is challenging, enjoyable, and worth the time I put into it." ~Ailie, 7th grade~

"Fun means you always have something interesting to do." ~Charlotte, 8th grade~

"What I actually mean by 'fun' is that it was challenging. When I get it, I have a sense of victory and growth." ~Keegyn, 8th grade~

"What I mean by 'fun' is that the projects are intriguing and they challenge my thinking. I feel this class allows me to move at my own pace and be in control of my own destiny. We are able to solve real-world problems and conjure up new ways of thinking." ~Lorelai, 8th grade~

"It means I have experienced something that made my brain work and challenged me. When I say school or GT is fun, it means I have completed an ongoing task or I was challenged or I had to use my brain in some way to communicate. For example, writing poems is 'fun' to me." ~Olive, 9th grade~

"I am happy that I can achieve what is set in front of me and this in turn is fun to me. Normally this involves a challenge, which makes me strive to beat the challenge. In essence, it's just proving to yourself you can do it." ~Andrew, 10th grade~

"Fun means that it is something that makes me think. It's a puzzle, situation, or debate, etc., that challenges me to look at something in a new way. It also encompasses looking at something through another person's perspective." ~Stewie, 11th grade~

"This class is fun because I am allowed to pursue my unpopular interests." ~Scribblenaut, 12th grade~

"It means I can be myself in this class. I have more freedom here to use my brain to its full power. I get to think for myself here." ~Larson, 12th grade~

"Fun is a rating of accomplishment. When an activity is fun for me, it is usually a challenge that I had to think through and defeat. Doing 40 math problems with little change between them, though accomplishing something, is drab and not fun because I didn't have to think and therefore did not feel challenged." ~Garrett, 12th grade~

Letting others continue to see gifted education classes for these students as "a fun reward for the good students" means we aren't helping them understand why the kids are actually having fun there. My challenge to you this week: Help someone understand what's really at the root of all that fun going on in the GT room!

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