FUN An Enzyme For Learning

Article by Patrick Kastle

During my five years in China, I’ve worked in an international high school, a middle school, a couple training centers, and a kindergarten. Despite taking my work seriously, I often struggled to achieve the results I desired in the classroom. Most vividly, my first experience in a training center (in Shenzhen) began with me dreading work every day but ended in a difficult goodbye. I want to begin by sharing an anecdote about that experience and ultimately give some answers to the simple question that was incessantly burning my brain during that time: “How to make my teaching better?”.
My boss in Shenzhen was a rough-looking guy from Liverpool, who sort of growled when he talked. He and his sing-songy Canadian friend were left jobless when the investor for the center they initially worked at disappeared. They ended up creating their own center, which I visited upon being hired. After listening in on a few classes, I was blown away. The students were reading and speaking complex sentences with confidence. And they weren’t just speaking; they were expressing themselves. It was obvious that they were learning, and even more so that they were having fun. They wanted to be there.
With the constant support of these two mentors, I was eventually “successful” in my teaching. By that, I mean the ten or so kids who formed the core of my class went from knowing essentially nothing about English (what does “A” say?), to being able to read, write, and speak about a variety of topics as well as understand most of what I said in just over a year. One of the most important things that these two mentors repeatedly told me at the outset was that “the kids have to have fun.” Naturally, results count as well, and parents certainly won’t forget about them. In fact, results are the whole point, aren’t they? But just because you can see the top of the mountain, doesn’t mean you will get there.
Years later, I still agree that the kids should have fun while learning, but I realize fun is a double-edged sword. For some, (especially me before I had any experience), fun was harder than it sounded. I tried all those games beginner teachers try. Some worked, but many didn’t. What really got me twisted was trying to play the same game I saw working well in one of my mentor’s classes only to see it was a total failure when I tried to emulate it. Now, when I play games in class, I often have the opposite problem-it’s way too fun and the kids end up playing without paying any attention to the English part. The good news is, with enough practice, you can have your cake and eat it too.
I have noticed most of my colleagues control the class in one of two ways, which I find impossible. One is an almost military discipline in which, unless it is your turn to talk, you must remain silent. The second is to emphasize that mistakes cause shame. I used to have two class rules: “We listen to each other” and “You try.” I found these two rules covered most of the bases. If kids were talking on the side, they weren’t listening to me. Naturally, I was always listening to them. Now that I’m with really young kids, I’ve made a cruder version: When my finger touches my lips, it needs to be quiet! Of course, only a fool would believe making some rule would solve behavior problems. The leverage you need is the fun that they will have playing games. With enough fun in the class, even those nervous, quiet, shy kids usually end up wanting to try (without any persuasion or urging them on). This was true, though it took months, for all my “no way, I don’t play” kindergarten kids.
Next, I got my local co-teachers to translate and make sure the kids understand my simple approach to class: when it’s game time, we can be loud, have fun, and make noise. But as soon as the game is finished and everyone sits down, it needs to be silent. Explaining an ideal doesn’t solve many problems, but after enough classes where some kids didn’t get to play because time was too short, they eventually caught on.
Even great games won’t work for everyone and definitely won’t work all the time, especially if you only have one or two that you’re always repeating. That being said, I will mention a few games that I’ve had a lot of success with.
The first is Tug-of-War. I started playing this as you might imagine. I typically choose six kids for a three vs. three. The kids love to play, but the competitive types hate to lose and making fair teams can be tough. So, I turned it into a six vs one (kids vs. the teacher). When you let them win (but look like you gave it 100%), they basically feel like superheroes. I’ve even played this with 4-year-olds.
Next, though requiring more preparation than a rope, has also become a kid-favorite. Using the free English version of WPS (haters gonna hate), I made an alternative to Battleship. Make an ocean background, a dividing line down the middle, submarine and boat PNGs in the water, jet and helicopter PNGS in the sky. Set the pictures so that they disappear with a boom sound effect when clicked. Give the kids sticky balls and get wild.
Finally, my favorite: Mystery Deck. It requires the most preparation but is also the most versatile. Print a cool playing card pattern on one side of an A-4, then an action on the other. Actions depend on what you’re willing to do, and how old the kids are. Some crowd favorites are Rocket (pick the kid up under the arms and blast off towards the ceiling), Spin (pick the kid up and spin them around a few times. Can even ask “fast or slow” to suit rowdy or nervous kids’ taste). I Mist You (during summer, spray them with a spray bottle, during winter, let them spray you), Zombie (depending on your acting ability), and Balance Test (first one leg up, then hands up, then spin around, stop, shake your head). Basically, any of these actions could be played repeatedly as a game and still be enjoyable. But the fact that the kids don’t know what they’re getting and the “game” is always changing keeps things interesting.
In summary, according to my experience, fun is an integral part of learning. It takes the “work” out of it. When kids really want to participate, speaking a bit of English won’t stop them. And to me, building interest and fun into an English class seems like a much more sustainable way to learn. Though it may sound obvious, it’s easier said than done.