'I throw fun out of the window at the end of the school year – I set timed, silent writing lessons'

End-of-year 'fun' lessons are often a waste of students' precious time – we need to engage them in a way that means they are still learning, says one English teacher

Fiona Ritson

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“If you’re having fun, you’re not learning,” booms Miss Trunchbull in Matilda. And although she is very much the villain of the story, there is something in that quote we teachers need to remember – particularly at the end of the school year.  

Over the years I’ve created many resources with the sole purpose of making my lessons fun. But I’ve slowly realised that the only thing I really had an impact on was the photocopying budget.

It’s been easy for me to fall into the trap of thinking that because students are quiet and focused in fun tasks, they are learning. I had them making paper cube houses so they could crush them, to help them to understand fragility in Tissue. I had a habit of setting word searches and quick-fire Pictionary games. I recall "creative tasks" such as designing costumes for characters, or carousel tasks where students ran back and forth like ants gathering information in teams.

It all now makes me wince.

Fun doesn't equal engagement 

When I think back to that fun "hot-seat" lesson where all students participated, asking and answering quick-fire questions, I can understand why just a week later in an extended writing lesson they still found expressing their ideas difficult: I had done nothing to help them learn how to formulate and express developed answers independently.

Fun and engagement are not the same thing. Learning isn’t easy; it requires patience, hard work and perseverance – qualities that will also serve students well as adults. 

“But what are they learning?” my auntie, an amazing English teacher, head of department and PGCE trainer (now retired), would often ask teachers during observations. I now have that in my head at all times.

But at the tail-end of the year it’s easy to sweep the answer to that question under a pile of unmarked books. Students have sat their end-of-year tests. Teachers and students are tired, it’s hot, classrooms are stuffy, and teaching teens can feel harder work than it should be. 

Some teachers may be tempted to take their foot off the pedal and reward students – and themselves – with some fun.

Don’t do it. Time is precious in schools and we need to take every opportunity we have to ensure our pupils are learning.

Enjoyment comes from achievement

I ignore the heat and throw fun out of the window. I set regular timed, silent writing lessons. You know those boring, dull lessons that are frowned upon by so many? 

And yes, they file in moaning “not again”. But then they sit and write yet another essay – why?

Because even they can see they are improving.

And that’s why I don’t cave in and give students a pointless-but-fun lesson at the end of the year. Enjoyment for students should come from confidence in their own ability and achievement, from seeing themselves making progress. Not from a task that didn’t add value. Definitely not from watching a film for the duration of the lesson.

Teachers have a duty to ensure that everything has a purpose. Now, when I think about my aunt’s question, one thing I can always say is: “I haven’t wasted their time”.

Fiona Ritson is an English teacher for a school in Norfolk. She blogs and is on Twitter @FKRitson

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