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Joy and Opportunity

Several years ago, I had the privilege of attending the Independent Education Fair at OMSI with Mr. Warton. I spoke with many parents and met families of widely varied backgrounds. One woman caught my attention with a question. She said, “I heard you talking about the kindergarten room, and you said that students there engage in a lot of play. I want my student to enjoy their day, but I also want them to learn how to read, and write, and do simple math. Do you do that?”

“Play” is a dirty word when talking about education. Families want to hear about academic learning, they want to hear about developing skills, and building skills, and growing capacities. They don’t want to hear about “play” because they’re concerned about what “play” means for the opportunities their children will have in later life. “If they play now, what will they do when they’re older?” To an adult, play and work, are antonyms. You’d find them that way on a standardized exam. Malignant is to harmless, as work is to….

But you can’t get far into a definition of play, without coming around to “joy” or a synonym of it. If work is filled with joy, the line between work and play starts to get very fuzzy, very quickly. If I’m having to add 20 different combinations of numbers in my head, because it’s “number work” and I hate it, it’s almost certainly work. But if I’m playing “the big number game” in Mr. Peters’ room, and I think it’s a game, and I’m having a great time, am I playing or working?

You can’t blame parents for thinking of play as a dirty word, however. You see, we’ve been sold the idea that opportunity is the same as joy. Every one of us has bought it, at least a little. Please don’t get me wrong, opportunity is a great thing. But, you see, opportunity is always somewhere else. It’s always over there, just beyond your ken. If I sell you on the idea that joy and opportunity are the same, that choice tomorrow is the same as joy today, then I can ignore how miserable you are right now. Sure, you’re hating math, but just imagine your future.

Today, we have so bought the idea that opportunity obviates joy, that when we want to know how well a teacher is teaching we ask ourselves, “Well, how much have their students learned?” We devise tests of facts and figures, we build and calibrate for demographics and population, control for socioeconomic status, and compare them with their peers. Not once in that whole process do we ask the student, “Are you happy?” Because happiness is irrelevant when I believe it’s synonymous with opportunity. “100% of students who apply are accepted to college,” touts your local alternative school. Opportunity awaits. But do we demand statistics on student satisfaction? Are our colleges ranked by how satisfied graduates are with their lives?

No. As a society, we have been taken in by the seller’s pitch. We have traded our children’s joy in learning for the promise of a future “success” we can’t meaningfully define.

At Venn Academy we have students who excel in every academic area. We have students whose mathematics advance at 2 or more grades per year, whose writing goes from simplistic and repetitive to elegant and evocative in a single year. We have students who master their multiplication tables, who learn to add, subtract, divide, and to solve real world problems. But more importantly, we have students who want to come to school each day. Who experience the joy in learning that spawns an empowered learner.

When Sally’s mom stops you and asks you about Venn Academy; when she asks if your student learns to read and write and do basic math; when she asks if Venn is academically rigorous, whether it provides the opportunities that everyone needs; when she uses those buzz words: skill building, growing capacities…

I beg you, don’t join in that game. Ask her whether her child plays each day in class. Ask her, is her child excited for math? Ask Sally’s mom, “How happy are the kids in Sally’s class?” Don’t let anyone get away with the subtle implication that play and work, or worse, play and learning are antithetical.

We sell ourselves short with opportunity because we can get it for cheap. We can leave out art and music, and keep P.E. to half an hour a week. We can pin our hopes on measurement and data, and hide behind the guise of providing future benefits that won’t be realized for years. It takes a stronger belief in our children as natural learners, a greater willingness to accept the failures of our past, and a dedication to education as it should be, to say:

“Let us build, for the benefit of ourselves and our children, a system of education which succeeds in each child who is joyful to have learned.”

David Ley,

Executive Director/Educator at Venn Academy

John Warton