A few years ago, I was hired to teach a graduate level research course. I told the assistant dean, “I will make it fun too.”
He responded, “No need to go that far?”
I asked, “Why can’t learning difficult subjects be fun?”
He looked at me quizzically but didn’t give an answer. No wonder so many students think learning is boring. It seems deeply embedded in our psyches that it is not supposed to be fun and our educational system is set up to reinforce those sentiments.
Send in the clowns!
My family had the honor of attending a one-day peacebuilding workshop in the small village of Tzuramútaro in Michoacán, México. The workshop was led by Nano Lara la La and German of La Bufon SOS.ial. Their mission is to “entertain and help improve the quality of life for children and their families in communities of México’s trauma, natural disaster, and conflict zones. Through artistic workshops and clown shows La Bufon use[s] fun and laughter to improve the emotional and physical state of the children in these communities.”
In the workshop children are taught how they can tap into their Creativity, Compassion, and Courage to better handle frustration and conflict. What makes the workshop so outstanding is that the children have FUN while learning how to handle difficult emotions. Nano explained that since they arrive as clowns the children don’t feel the hierarchy of the traditional teacher/student relationship. This creates a safe environment where children freely express themselves.
Finding the strengths of the class clown
Nano and German were adept at identifying the children who were more precocious and would often receive the label of having “behavioral challenges” in a traditional school setting. The rambunctious children were seen as an asset to the group. Nano and German understood that these children could be counted on to lead in the physical activities because they were not afraid to seem a little silly in front of their peers. They craved the attention of their peers!!
While this “class clown” behavior often gets children in trouble at school, it was appreciated here. Therefore, there was no need for the behavior to escalate before the children received the attention desired. Instead, the attention seeking behavior was channeled to benefit the individual child and the rest of the group. This is a beautiful example of how you can redirect potential negative attention seeking behavior. (More information about helping children get their needs for attention met in a positive way can be found by clicking here)
I was fascinated by how the clowns skillfully utilized a strengths-based approach to working with children they had just met. Teachers often struggle with this and instead of utilizing student differences to the benefit of creating a positive learning environment they get into power struggles with children who are “misbehaving.” This ends up taking away valuable teaching time, can have a negative effect on the student’s self-esteem, and the student may become even more resistant to the material the teacher is presenting. In addition, the extra time given by the teacher to deliver consequences may inadvertently reward the behavior.
For many children, negative attention is better than no attention at all.
Instead of going down that path, the “rowdy” children helped pave the way to silliness for the rest of us. And trust me, as a research scientist this was definitely a stretch out of my comfort zone. It is easy for me to understand how the children that were more reluctant to participate needed someone else to be set the stage for silliness. With children leading the way, I could not sit on the sidelines. I did NOT want to be the “bad” example.
Our day of Conflict Transformation
The day began with games that served as “ice-breakers” to help us all relax and become comfortable as a group. It also helped get the “wiggles” out before the children were expected to sit down and focus. I was impressed with how this fits so perfectly with what “we” (academics) know about how children learn best. I also noted how it is in stark contrast to how we actually teach in most schools.
The games incorporated:
Courage – Who is willing to stand up in front of everyone, be ridiculous or make mistakes?
Creativity – Can you play ping pong without a net or ball? Including sound effects?
Nano then led a discussion about Compassion. Allowing space for the children to provide their own definitions and time for them to work in teams to write about how they used compassion in their lives.
For some children, the tasks of sitting and writing were more challenging, but they received support from Nano, German, and volunteers. This enabled all children to feel successful.
After the structured learning period, where the children were more likely to experience strong emotions, we went back to fun and games. Nano explained that it was important for the children to leave the day feeling good. To this end, Nano and German invited us all to try our luck walking the tightrope. Then, they performed for us – putting smiles on our faces and filling the air with laughter.
Traveling clowns creating a Culture of Peace
Our one-day session was only a teaser of the weeklong workshop they generally provide. La Bufon S.O.S ial has been traveling around México and Columbia with the intention of creating a Culture of Peace.
I had the opportunity to drop in on another workshop they were giving in Pátzcuaro. This time the youth were older and therefore some of the projects were more complicated. I only got to spend about a half-hour with the youth but they were excited to show me what they were working on. I saw in them confidence, pride, and joy. I look forward to learning more from La Bufon SOS.ial about how we can build a more peaceful world and bring joy to children while we are teaching.