Sucking the Joy

I don’t remember the twitter name of the Wisconsin principal who tweeted out that his elementary school had to “field test” some new state test today. On Halloween. But it was pretty clearly communicated in his 140 characters that he was pretty furious about.

I don’t blame him.

Who thought that was a good idea? Who thought that Halloween is a day to sit kids in silence to take a standardized test? I suppose when you believe in continuous testing (h/t Gary Stager for the term) then one day is like any other – a good day for testing. But for those of us who believe that school is not just about the tests kids take, this is a horrible idea.

It’s not that kids can’t learn on Halloween just because they are in (or thinking about) costumes – they can and they do. It’s that especially on a day like Halloween, schools should give time to learn with joy, celebrate the community, and make sure that every person in the community has a chance to smile. Personally, I think that’s a pretty good agenda for every day, but Halloween is even more special.

SLA spent today doing really interesting work in classes while also dressed as Dr. Who characters and Catwoman and Hunter S. Thompson and Waldo and a host of other costumes. I walked around the building, guitar in hand, dressed in black as Johnny Cash. Kids smiled and every classroom was able to take a moment and guess who I was, and I think I serenaded every class with the chorus of “Ring of Fire.” And at the end of the day, we had a costume fashion show that was fun and joyful and awesome.

But also, work was really done. It was a presentation day in 10th grade BioChemistry, I listened in on some amazing conservations in Mr. Kay’s English class, Mr. Block was helping kids dissect a complicated reading in a lovely housedress and Ms. Garvey’s class was working through equations even as Ms. Garvey was dressed up as a basketball ref. Kids smiled and laughed maybe a little more than a normal day and snapped a lot more photos than usual, but they also were fully engaged in the work of the day.

Some days lend themselves better than other to teaching the idea that we can teach and learn and laugh together in powerful ways. Some days are made to celebrate the idea that we can celebrate our individuality and our community. Halloween is one of those days. But somewhere in Wisconsin, some bureaucrat didn’t care about all that and told a principal that “field testing” some shiny new test was more important. So the kids in that school sat in silence, desks in rows, and took someone else’s test.

What a powerful mistake. What a way to suck the joy from what is supposed to be a joyful day. What a way to send a message to kids that joy and fun and laughter have little to no place in school.

What a powerful example of all the way our education policy in so many states and as a nation is just flat out getting it wrong.

10 thoughts on “Sucking the Joy

  1. It’s been a message that I’ve been sharing with particular emphasis this fall as the new school year tends to bring with it a bunch of new initiatives designed to improve achievement. Good teachers have always known that joyful learning and community go hand in hand but have been told in subtle and at times not so subtle ways that joy is a less than necessary ingredient. As Alfie Kohn says, “I fear that I’m appearing to accept an odious premise—namely, that joy must be justified as a means to the end of better academic performance. Not so: It’s an end in itself.”

    Thanks for this message particularly from a high school perspective where many have decided the serious business of learning need not include this trivial thing we call joy.

  2. Chris,

    BRAVO! Really well said – a powerful and important reflection on the state of public education today throughout this country. Halloween should be a fun day; a joyous day; a memorable day for kids! Not memorable because they had to sit through some terrible “field” test because the companies getting paid millions of dollars to create these tests can’t figure it out without using our kids as guinea pigs! NO! A memorable day because of the cool costumes, the fun activities and just because it is Halloween! Our kids will grow up and eventually have jobs, families and responsibilities where Halloween will take on a whole other meaning and although it will be “fun” it won’t be the same kind of fun as Halloween while they are children! Lets not rob our children of their childhood just for the sake of some silly tests that will tell us nothing about the trajectory of our children’s lives! Thank you for writing this great post!!

    Tony Sinanis
    Cantiague Elementary School in Jericho, NY

  3. Our school had “Harry Potter Day” ( We are Australian and Halloween is a newly adopted thing). The students paid a fee to be in costume and raised a large amount of money to send one of their peers for stem cell therapy to give him sight. It was the most amazing day of school ever. The students and staff made great connections practically the whole school dressed up, we played quiddich and had a band play at lunch time and during assembly one of the seniors ran into the hall crying out, ” There’s a troll in the dungeon!” Months later the kids are still talking about it, it is a day at school they will never forget and that day normal lessons occurred but the greatest lesson the students learned was not about fractions or verbs or how to pass a test but what it means to be part of a community.

  4. Excellent points. A couple years ago, joy was the topic of an EduCon conversation I led. The more I tried to focus on who was bringing joy into school and how they were doing it, the more it lead to the sharing of frustrations around schooling. Keep sharing your joys with us. They are documentation that schools are places that, to use your words, “can be life.” We need more life in our schools and the attitude that it could be the best seven hours of a child’s day.

  5. In the first nine weeks of school I have had to formally collect data on our students three times.

    We are a small school of 70 students. When we told our senior students that we could have a Halloween party like the younger grades, the HS kids almost wept. The testing makes no sense to our students, not really. The kids simply want to get back to investigating, creating and the joyful spaces our classrooms are without the ongoing sitting and ongoing narrow look at who they are and what they understand.

    Yesterday, our senior kids laughted alongside our younger kids. Yesterday, all 70 students (and many parents) went home smiling.

  6. Great post. When I was principal (K-5) 25% of my students didn’t “celebrate” Halloween. They were Pentecostal Christians from Eastern Europe, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and some poor kids whose parents wouldn’t help them dress up. I also had some staff that felt the same way. While the other kids dressed up, the non celebrants went to rooms with these adults where they had fun, multi-aged learning activities and healthy snacks. I always dressed up in a non scary outfit and had students try to figure out what I was. For example, The Lorax, Lance Armstrong (oops), a choir robe, my doctoral gown, and my tuxedo. Wish I could have been at SLA yesterday.

  7. Our 5th grade students took the ITBS yesterday (on Halloween) because our district needs it for the application process for our magnet schools. I could write a book on all of the things that were wrong with that. I just say that yes, they joy has been completely sucked out.

  8. A beautiful post contrasting mind numbing tedium without meaning (except to imprint anti-joy and learning) with the playfulness that all learning is innately programmed in the human brain to be! Those of us, who despite this system, are still trying to teach with joy, discovery and laughter should fight for this on every day, everywhere making explicit the educational damage done by our current model.

    This is not only how communities and children truly learn and solve problems, but live to learn and love to learn! Thank you Chris, a great piece with great pictures!

  9. This is a fantastic post that beautifully illustrates a way to mesh the fun of a holiday with the learning that must go on in school. I have heard of teachers that integrate their costume into their lessons for the day. Halloween can also be used as a gateway to talk about the history of the holiday or the Salem Witch Trials.

  10. We wear many hats as educators…First and foremost our responsibility is to create lifelong learners. Using every special occasion and holiday is one way that we can try and rope our students into falling in love with learning.